NHL playoff preview and predictions: round one

Matthew Bacon

Journal Staff

The NHL regular season came to an end on Saturday, setting the stage for the playoffs to begin this week. The NHL playoffs are often called the most intense and exciting tournament in sports, and this year is looking to be no exception.
So what can hockey fans expect in the first round of the NHL playoffs? Let’s break down the Eastern Conference playoff picture series by series.
#1 New York Rangers (51-24-7) vs. #8 Ottawa Senators (41-31-10): This will be a tricky series to predict. Surprisingly, Ottawa took the season series 3-1 while outscoring New York 14-8. The Senators also boast probable Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza, one of the most underrated centers in the game, and Daniel Alfredsson, a veteran who has seen it all.
This series will be a tale of offense vs. defense, as Ottawa has the fourth best offense in the Eastern Conference, and the Rangers have the best defense. The Rangers have the best chance to win if they take Ottawa out of the series early with their highly physical forecheck and grinding style of play.
If the Rangers stick to the game that won them the first seed in the East, they can dispatch Ottawa in six games.
#2 Boston Bruins (49-29-4) vs. #7 Washington Capitals (42-32-8): This series will be all about silencing Washington’s big stars for the defending champion Bruins. Washington captain Alex Ovechkin has been red hot lately, as well as his trusty centerman Nicklas Backstrom. Ovechkin has been known to carry the Capitals in the playoffs at times, and making sure he stays off the board is key for the Bruins defense.
The Bruins also need to take advantage of Washington’s goaltending situation, as both Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth are injured.
While they may return in time for the playoffs, Boston may end up facing minor league goaltender Braden Holtby. If the Bruins can concentrate on Ovechkin and Holtby, there is no reason they cannot take this series in five or six games.
#3 Florida Panthers (38-26-18) vs. #6 New Jersey Devils (48-28-6): The Devils lucked out on drawing the Panthers for the first round.
Not to take any credit away from the Panthers, who are making their first trip to the playoffs in a decade, but honestly, Florida is a team that squeaked its way into the playoffs using “Bettman points” (the nickname given by fans to the point gained from an overtime loss) and only secured the #3 seed by winning the very weak Southeast Division.
All the Devils need is for star winger Ilya Kovalchuck and veteran goalie Martin Brodeur to show up for this series and they can easily take it in a sweep. But I’ll give Florida some credit and give my official prediction as New Jersey in five games.
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins (51-25-6) vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers (47-26-9): With the exception of the Stanley Cup Final itself, this might be the most intense series of the 2012 NHL playoffs. The already bitter rivalry heated up in the last week of the regular season, when Philly rallied from an early 2-0 deficit to beat the Penguins 6-4.
A brawl ensued in the final minute of the game, which included Philly coach Peter Laviolette getting involved in a shouting match with Pittsburgh’s assistant coach. The fight was followed up with fines for both coaches and public remarks by Philly’s assistant coach slamming the Pittsburgh organization.
This series will be a bloodbath between two teams that truly hate each other. While Philly took the season 4-2, it is no indication of what the post season will bring. Run and gun offense and chippy play will define this series, in which the only certainty seems to be that it will go seven games.
Pittsburgh will probably pull it out, but may be too worn out from the emotional series to make a serious push afterwards.
The Western Conference exhibits some interesting and even matchups. The first round out West will probably be much more entertaining to watch (with the exception of the Pitt-Philly series), with almost every team facing an equal opponent. The Western Conference has the potential to show us some pretty exciting upsets.
#1 Vancouver Canucks (51-22-9) vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings (40-27-15): This matchup should be fairly easy for the Canucks, who boast the NHL’s best record through the regular season. The Kings have one of the worst offenses in the league, and the goaltending of Vezina Trophy candidate Jonathan Quick is what propelled them into the playoffs.
While Quick is capable of stealing a series, I just don’t see LA’s offense stepping up to finish the job. Quick has also allowed five goals in each of his last two starts, so it may not be too hard for Vancouver to get to him early.
Barring an inhuman performance by Quick, Vancouver should take this series in six at the most.
#2 St. Louis Blues (49-22-11) vs. #7 San Jose Sharks (43-29-10): This matchup is not as lopsided as it seems. While the Blues have had a tremendous season and are shaping up to be a force to be reckoned with in the future, this year is not their year.
They have won four out of 10 games coming into the playoffs, while San Jose has won four straight in a desperate race for the final two spots in the conference. With Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi at the helm, San Jose will ride their momentum to a seven game upset of St. Louis.
#3 Phoenix Coyotes (42-27-13) vs. #6 Chicago Blackhawks (45-26-11): Another upset should come in this round, with Phoenix taking out Chicago in an intense seven game series (Phoenix has the higher seeding due to winning the Pacific Division; Chicago has more wins and points.)
Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith enters the postseason as the hottest goaltender in the NHL, riding a recent streak of three straight shutouts. On top of that, the Coyotes will be fired up after winning their first ever Pacific Division title.
Chicago’s elite offense will hit a roadblock in Smith and the defensive mindset of Phoenix, and goaltender Corey Crawford will not be able to keep up with Smith’s stellar play.
#4 Nashville Predators (48-26-8) vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings (48-28-6): This will be the most even matchup in the West. These two Central Division teams boast incredible amounts of talent and both have credible claims to the Stanley Cup this year.
However, only one will make it out of the first round. Detroit has been in somewhat of a funk lately, and the Predators seem hungrier this year than ever before. This is the first season in the history of the franchise the Stanley Cup seems to be a possibility.
All Star goalie Pekka Rinne will backstop Nashville’s  offense to a seven game victory over Detroit.