Playoff Hockey is the favorite time of year for many sports fanatics, especially if their team is present in the battle for Lord Stanleys Cup. The intensity and the speed of the game are at a much higher level than in the regular season, and even fans of teams that aren’t present enjoy watching clubs grind it out with their season on the line. At this point, seven of the eight series are approaching game four, with Tampa Bay visiting Detroit tonight in game three of that series tonight, currently tied at one game a piece. Let’s take a look at where the current matchups stand, compared to my bracket picks.
#2 Tampa Bay Lightning (50-24-8) vs. #3 Detroit Red Wings (43-25-14)
This series was mentioned by several analysts as the one to watch in Round One of the Eastern Conference. Detroit Coach Mike Babcock decided to go with goaltender Petr Mrazek over Jimmy Howard when the series began, and in game one it looked like a good decision. Mrazek made 44 saves in a 3-2 win in Tampa, but looked pretty average in game two, a 5-1 loss where he only lasted the first two periods after giving up four goals on 18 shots. Babcock insists that Mrazek will be back in net tonight for game three, but don’t be surprised if he’s on a short leash. The Wings are stacked with talent up front, but in the playoffs your goaltender has to be your best player, and I will give that reign to Lightning netminder Ben Bishop in this series. Game three will determine who will control home ice advantage for the rest of the series, currently tied at one game a piece. Combine that with one of the best players in hockey in Steven Stamkos and a solid defense, I have the Lightning winning this series in six games, but could potentially see it going to a game seven.
#2 Washington Capitals (45-26-11) vs. #3 New York Islanders (47-28-7)
Both of these teams were consistent for the majority of the season, and Alex Ovechkin is receiving Hart Trophy recommendations for his 53-goal effort. On the other side, John Taveres is blooming into one of the best players in hockey for the Isles, and was in the scoring race up until the last game of the season. The difference maker for me here is the same as the previous series: goaltending. Braden Holtby has posted pretty solid numbers, despite missing game two with an illness, but that was the only game the Caps have won in this series, and I would take Jaroslav Halak over him any day of the week. I have the Islanders winning in seven games, but if Washington falls into a 3-1 hole after tonight, it will be sooner than that.
#1 Montreal Canadiens (50-22-10) vs. WC #1 Ottawa Senators (43-26-13)
The Ottawa Senators played as good as any team in hockey over the last six weeks of the season, which allowed them to steal a Wild Card seed from Boston, who crumbled into pieces down the stretch. The bad news about that? Having to play a Montreal Canadiens team with arguably the best goalie in hockey. Carey Price should win the Vezina this year, and even though the Senators earned a lot of respect on their run down the stretch, Montreal just has too much on the plate for them. I picked the Habs to win in six games, but after an OT win in Ottawa on Sunday night, it looks like it might be time to get the brooms out in this potential sweep.
#1 New York Rangers (53-22-7) vs. WC #2 Pittsburgh Penguins (43-27-12)
The Penguins were at the top of the Eastern Conference for the majority of the season. Then March got here, a key injury to their best defenseman in Kris Letang, and all of a sudden they found themselves fighting for their playoff lives. The squeaked in with a win in the final regular season game to clinch a Wild Card, and still have Sydney Crosby and Evgani Malkin who are always a threat to light the lamp. But as far as everything else? Not appealing to me, especially against one of the best defensive-minded teams in hockey that also have a premier goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist. The Pens did manage to pull a win out in MSG, but the Rangers responded with a victory in game three in Pittsburgh to take a 2-1 lead, making my Rangers pick in six games look pretty good for the time being.
#2 Nashville Predators (47-25-10) vs. #3 Chicago Blackhawks (48-28-6)
I saw this series as possibly the most grueling matchup of the first round. Nashville has great defense and goaltending to matchup against a Blackhawks scoring-machine on the front end. Even though the Predators had an impressive year and earned respect from me after holding on for a win in game two after losing their Captain to injury, Chicago is one team that I would not want to play in the playoffs. Despite their troubles in net, the Hawks just have too much firepower on the front end, and the injury suffered by Shea Weber was a devastating loss for the Predators. I have the Hawks winning this series in six games, currently leading 2-1 and have taken home ice advantage in the series.
#2 Vancouver Canucks (48-29-5) vs. #3 Calgary Flames (45-30-7)
Ok, so this is the one series that was hard for me to decide on. Do I go with the Sedin twins, who are aging but still play very solid when on the same line? Or does Calgary have the defensive power to help control their top forwards and put the pressure on Canucks goalie Eddie Lack, who doesn’t have near the postseason experience that Flames goalie Jonas Hiller does? I went with my gut instinct which was Vancouver to win in six games, which is now one of the two series that I need some help in. The Flames lead the series 2-1, and at times have seemed to be out-skating the Canucks by light years. Tonights game four in Calgary could be the tale of the tape in Vancouver’s season.
#1 Saint Louis Blues (51-24-7) vs. WC#1 Minnesota Wild (46-28-8)
This is the other series that I’m struggling in, and I can bet that I’m not the only one. The Blues looked to be one of the best all-around teams throughout the season, and despite the Minnesota talent up front, I figured home ice, along with the emergence of goaltender Jake Allen at the end of the year, would just be too much all-around for the Wild to contain. I think Minnesota knew my pick and took it personal, because they have really took control of this series with a 3-0 shutout of the Blues last night. I had the Blues taking this series rather easily in five games, but we all know that’s not happening. If they can’t get their act together in game four, we could be looking at the biggest first round upset in a while.
#1 Anaheim Ducks (51-24-7) vs. WC#2 Winnepeg Jets (43-26-13)
Ahhhhh. Ok. I can breathe again after mentioning the two series that I am currently struggling in, this series was honestly the easiest of the first round choices in my opinion. Winnepeg has some promising talent, but what always comes to mind when I think of them is “what dumb penalty is Dustin Byfuglien going to take tonight?” Don’t get me wrong, he’s a huge, skilled defenseman that makes you pay when you chase the puck into the Winnepeg zone, but he also loses control more than just about anyone in hockey, and he shows that time and time again. The Ducks are a solid team all-around. They have goal scorers who get back on defense, they have defensemen who chip in on the offensive side when time allows, and Frederik Andersen has put up some pretty solid numbers in net this year, which is why it was a no-brainer for me to take the Ducks in five games. It looked like Winnepeg was on their way to their first win of the series last night, but Ryan Kesler scored with just over two minutes left in the third to send the game into OT, where the Ducks won it take a commanding 3-0 series lead.