Monday, April 11, 2011

Spencer's First Round Playoff Picks--Eastern Conference

Now that the playoff pairings are set, and before the actual games begin, there's only one thing to do. Predict. Here are my best guesses at who will move on to the second round.
(1) Capitals/(8)Rangers
The Capitals have found fairly early exits in their last few playoff experiences. The Penguins pushed past the Caps in 08-09 in route to a Stanley Cup Championship. Last year, the Caps were upset as the #1 seed in the East in the first round by the #8 seed Canadiens. With all their scoring, the Caps had little to speak of in the defense and goaltending departments. However, the Caps learned their lesson and traded for Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman. Their focus on improving their defense has not gone unnoticed as they've been able to shut down more teams rather than simply out-score them this year. In my opinion, this puts the Capitals past the Rangers in the first round.

The Rangers will not be a total pushover. A team so full of grit is hard to ignore come playoff time. However, the loss of Ryan Callahan will be about as devastating a loss to the Rangers as a guard dog losing its teeth. Callahan is the heart and energy of this team and let's not kid ourselves and pretend that Marian Gaborik is a player with any real heart.

Capitals in 6.

(2) Flyers/(7) Sabres
What can I say? The Flyers made the Finals last year as a #7 seed. Grit? Check. Talent? Check. Experience? Check. The Flyers have all the pieces to be taking home some hardware this season. The only area that some people might possibly be worried is in the goaltending. However, Antti Niemi proved last year that goalies need not have NHL playoff experience to win it all and Sergei Bobrovsky has shown himself to be as good a rookie talent as Niemi. What's stopping the Flyers?

The Sabres are possibly the least impressive team in the playoffs, in my opinion. Although Drew Stafford had 4 hat tricks this season, their top scorers are rather forgettable players. The most impressive player on the team is last year's Vezina Trophy-winner, Ryan Miller. However, Miller is not nearly as impressive as he was last year, sporting only a 2. 59 GAA. The Sabres shouldn't be too tough a task for the Flyers.

Flyers in 5.

(3) Bruins/(6) Canadiens
If the two teams are able to make it through the series without the Montreal Police somehow getting involved, I'll be impressed. As anyone who watches hockey knows, the regular season meetings between these two teams were less than sportsmanlike. However, this series will be a TV goldmine. Two teams who don't like each other with a lot of tools to do something about it.

The Bruins are a sexy pick this year as Tim Thomas has revived his Vezina-caliber play (he credits it to his new mask pattern) and the rest of the team has certainly played well enough to earn their #3 seed in the East, despite the lack of Marc Savard. The Bruins have also posted the East's best goal differential. The Bruins are a true contender this year and are likely to want to avenge their 2nd round collapse last season (In case you missed it, the Bruins were up on the Flyers 3-0 in the series before losing 3 consecutive games, then lost Game 7 after going up 3-0 in that game).

The Habs are as gritty a team as any in the playoffs. Their solid defensive play is backed by an equally stingy goaltender. Carey Price has had a nearly as impressive comeback as Thomas. After a great rookie season, Price lost the starting job to playoff hero Jaroslav Halak. With two starting goalies on their hands, the Canadiens decided to part with Halak and give Price another shot. It proved to be a good decision. However, I don't think Price will be able to do much about the Canadiens scoring. As good as the defense is for Montreal, I think they give up too much in the offensive department.

Boston in 7.

(4)Penguins/(5) Lightning
Since the loss of the loss of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins seemed a long-shot to make the playoffs. However, the Pens tied their division leader in points, and only missed the division lead themselves by a tiebreaker. Players like Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy have stepped up to attempt to fill some of the void. No doubt, the Penguins would not be anywhere near this mark had they lacked Crosby and Malkin all season long, but you have to admire the fact that they only dropped 3 standings spots since losing them.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are making their first playoff appearance since 2006-07. After a few years old slumber, the Lightning have finally put together a team to watch. Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and Steven Stamkos are a good place to start. The trio have combined for 101 goals and 143 assists. Pair that solid offensive front with a strong trap defense and a veteran netminder in Dwayne Roloson, and you have a solid playoff contender.

Ultimately, the Penguins' injuries are going to catch up to them. We know that Malkin has no chance of coming back this season and Crosby's prospects for return are only slightly better. The Penguins have had a good run, but they will make a first round exit this year.

Lightning in 6.

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