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(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens
The Habs fan in me is hopeful that the Canadiens 2-1-1 record against Washington this year is a sign that an upset could be in the cards for this season’s President’s Trophy winners. The realist in me doesn’t see any way the Habs can make this a real series unless Jaroslav Halak puts up a brick wall and the Caps’ goaltending falters.
While there is a slight chance of that happening, it’s worth nothing that not only has Halak not looked particularly strong of late, but he has not faced the Caps at all this season! Carey Price was in net for all four contests between the two teams, so Halak might be in for a rude awakening.
Prediction: Caps in 5
Players to Watch:
Scott Gomez, C, MTL—Gomez is a veteran of three trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, and has two rings to show for it. He has 30 points and a +7 rating through his last 28 playoff games. Plekanec’s line will draw a significant amount of the Caps’ attention, and Gomez is going to need to take some of the pressure off him if the Habs are going to go anywhere.
Mike Green, D, WAS—Green was abysmal in the playoffs last year, but he posted seven points during the Caps first round exit the year before. It will be interesting to see which Green we get to watch this year.
(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers
Most pundits have written off the Flyers, but I don’t expect them to go quietly. The Flyers actually took 5 of 6 meetings from the Devils this year. Most recently, Brian Boucher was in net for a 5-1 win on March 28th. Chris Pronger has led an 8th seeded team on a deep playoff run before, and even Brian Boucher has been to an Eastern Conference Final.
The Devils’ roster boasts an impressive 14 cup rings though, compared to just one for the Flyers. Special teams also tend to play a key role in the post-season, and while the Devils are the third-most disciplined team in the league, the Flyers are the second-most penalized. The Devils defense, discipline, and experience should get them past the Flyers in what promises to be a hard-fought series.
Prediction: Devils in 6
Players to Watch:
Claude Giroux, RW, PHI—Pronger, Richards, Gagne and Carter will all need to produce for the Flyers to have success, but Giroux may very well be the X-factor. He was arguably the Flyers’ best forward during last year’s playoffs, but he had underwhelmed most of this year.
Ilya Kovalchuk, LW, NJ—Kovalchuk’s goal-scoring has slowed since he joined the Devils, and he has disappointed in his brief playoff career so far. That being said, he should see plenty of power play ice time and as a result could post some big numbers in the first round.
(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins
To me, this is a pretty simple one: the league’s second-worst offense (Boston) heads to the playoffs without their best offensive player (Marc Savard), and is forced to face the league’s best goalie (Ryan Miller) in the first round. I simply don’t think the Bruins have enough firepower to get by the Sabres.
That being said, the Sabres don’t exactly boast a high-powered offense, and Tuukka Rask has been pretty spectacular so far this season. Rask is an unproven commodity come playoff time, but he certainly has the potential to make things interesting.
Prediction: Sabres in 5
Players to Watch:
Tomas Vanek, LW, BUF—Vanek has been a huge disappointment this year, scoring just 27 goals. The uber-talented Austrian has five in his last two games though, so he could be poised to explode in the playoffs.
Tuuka Rask, G, BOS—Any hope Boston has rests squarely on the shoulders of Rask. The Finn has never played in an NHL playoff game though, so it will be interesting to see how he responds.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators
This strikes me as the most interesting of the first round matchups in the East. The two teams split the season series with two wins apiece. Ottawa heads into the playoffs playing inspired hockey, going 7-2-1 in their last ten.
The Pens, on the other hand, have gone 5-4-1 in their last ten, and it’s worth pointing out that they needed a five point night from Sidney Crosby just to beat the Islanders 6-5 in a shootout for that last win.
Pittsburgh still has that same young core that has been to two consecutive Stanley Cup Finals, so it’s tough not to like them to get by the Senators. The Pens get my vote, but this series also gets my vote for “most likely to end with an upset”.
Prediction: Penguins in 6
Players to Watch:
Alex Goligoski, D, PIT—Goligoski’s ice time has almost matched that of Sergei Gonchar’s of late, and he has 34 points in 32 career AHL playoff games. He could really make a name for himself this spring.
Brian Elliott, G, OTT—This is a bit of an obvious one. Elliott has provided the stability that many hoped Pascal Leclaire would provide between the pipes, but he still remains untested in the playoffs. J.S. Giguere made himself a household name during the Ducks’ 2003 playoff run, and who knows, Brian Elliott may just do the same.