It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year…..

Playoff time!

Yeah, I know. I’ve been remiss about updating here. Life tends to get in the way. Anyway, for sixteen teams, there are only sixteen victories remaining until they can claim hockey’s Ultimate Prize. Unfortunately for fifteen of them, just as was the case in Highlander, There Can Be Only One. Lose four out of every seven and it’s a long summer. With that said, here are my takes on the first round:

Western Conference
#1 Vancouver Canucks v. #8 Chicago Blackhawks.
These teams have met the last few years in the playoffs, with the Hawks sending Vancouver packing. This time, though, the Canucks are coming in as the President’s Trophy winners and with something to prove. Look for Vancouver to take this one, but don’t be surprised if it takes all seven games to do so. Besides, there’s something of a tradition about Canadian teams and the Cup the year after their city hosted the Olympics: in 1976, the Summer Games were in Montréal, and Les Glorieux hoisted the Cup after the ’76-’77 campaign; in 1988, Calgary played host to the Winter Games and the Flames captured their only championship in the ’88-’89 season. With the Vancouver Games having interrupted the 2009-2010 season, is it Vancouver’s turn to continue the tradition this year?

#2 San Jose Sharks v. #7 Los Angeles Kings
The Sharks have borne the burden of having a roster which failed to achieve post-season acclaim for quite some time now. The Kings come in without their two leading scorers in Anze Kopitar and Jason Williams. Jonathan Quick has the capability of stealing a game or two for LA, but he’ll need the secondary scorers to shoulder the mantle of primary point providers for the Kings to move on.

#3 Detroit Red Wings v. #6 Phoenix Coyotes.
The Wings rode a rocky and inconsistent season to their twentieth consecutive post-season appearance and eleventh consecutive 100+ point regular season total. In spite of their talent, the Wings are going to need to prove themselves capable of doing something they didn’t display during the campaign- the ability to gain and maintain the advantage over lesser skilled teams. Phoenix isn’t a stellar side, but one capable of ending the Wings’ hopes early if Detroit fails to turn up their intensity.

#4 Anaheim Ducks v. #5 Nashville Predators
This should be the most physical of the Western Conference first-round series. Anaheim comes in having finished the regular season on a hot streak, but now they’re going to have to battle against a team which plays much the same style which they do. Look for both teams to hit and slash each other to pieces. I’d pick the Predators to prevail solely on the basis of their stronger goaltending.

Eastern Conference
#1 Washington Capitals v. #8 New York Rangers
The Broadway Blueshirts had the upper hand in the regular season, but are banged up coming into the playoffs. If Washington can manage to play their game and not burden their defence corps with trying to kill off stupid penalties, that should be enough to prolong the Caps march into the semi-finals.

#2 Philadelphia Flyers v. #7 Buffalo Sabres
At the three-quarters mark of the regular season, predicting a winner of a series like this would have been considerably easier than it is now- the Flyers finished ten points ahead of the Sabres, score more goals per game and yield fewer. However, the Sabres come into the post-season on a 16-4-4 run while the Flyers struggled down the stretch. If the Sabres can find a way to put a few pucks in the net, they could steal this series.

#3 Boston Bruins v. #6 Montréal Canadiens
An Original Six matchup, and one which has developed some enmity this season, the Bruins and Canadiens series will come down to Boston’s size against Montréal’s speed. Tim Thomas has had a Vezina-calibre season in the Boston net, but Carey Price could find himself in consideration for the award as well, having tied for the league lead in wins. Don’t expect the Habs to reprise last year’s run to the Conference Finals, though.

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins v. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning
The television commentators will be sure to mention one name significantly out of proportion to that player’s ice time. Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby has been sidelined with post-concussion symptoms since skating into Washington’s David Steckel with his head down during the Winter Classic. The Pens’ other primary threat, Evgeny Malkin, has also been on the shelf for some time and is not expected to play until next season, but somehow the team has persevered and performed admirably without their two marquee stars. They’ll face a Tampa squad with stars of their own- sophomore Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis and goaltending from New York Islanders cast-away Dwayne Roloson backstopping the Bolts. This series could well be the reciprocal of its Western counterpart, as these two teams play similar games as well- but rather than the physical focus, Tampa and Pittsburgh emphasize a skill game.

Predictions: Vancouver over Chicago in six, San Jose over LA in five, Detroit over Phoenix in six, Nashville over Anaheim in seven; Washington over New York in five, Buffalo over Philadelphia in six, Boston over Montréal in six, Tampa over Pittsburgh in six.

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