1. Washington Capitals vs. 8. New York Rangers
How The Caps Win: After last year’s disappointing loss to the Canadiens, the Capitals will have to prove that their new focus on defensive responsibility can translate into post season success. It’s worth mentioning that once the intensity level of their series with the Habs escalated, the Capitals were only able to muster a single goal in each of the last 3 games. Their offensive players need to show they can produce when counted on.
How The Rangers Win: Meanwhile the Rangers, who are without key players (such as Ryan Callahan) due to injury, will need to rely on their gutsy defensive work ethic to have any chance at an upset. A hard-working, shot-blocking team who can capitalize on their scoring chances is exactly what gave the Capitals fits last year. If Lundqvist can get inside the heads of the Washington players, we could see another 8 over 1 upset.
Prediction: Rangers in 7.
2. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 7. Buffalo Sabres
How The Flyers Win: To everyone’s great surprise the Flyers are once again big, deep and extremely talented but have enormous question marks in-goal. Last year they rose beyond this challenge and found themselves in the Stanley Cup Final. The Flyers will need to find a way to continue to produce offense against a stingy Sabres team, as it’s difficult to make a case for Bobrovsky (or Boucher, or Leighton) over Miller in 2-1 or 1-0 games. Chris Pronger’s return and when that will be is also a huge factor in compensating for their lack of a star in-goal.
How The Sabres Win: Since securing new ownership no one in the league has been hotter than the Buffalo Sabres who went 16-4-4 down the stretch. The Flyers meanwhile sleepwalked through March and April and will be hoping their alarm clocks go off in time. The Sabres will need to keep executing the way they have been and get leads early on in games. If they are forced to open up their offense in search of tying goals they run the risk of exposing Ryan Miller and nullifying their biggest advantage.
Prediction: Flyers in 6.
3. Boston Bruins vs. 6. Montreal Canadiens
How The Bruins Win: Arguably the most anticipated series of the first round, Boston vs Montreal promises to be hard-hitting, hate-filled, in-the-trenches hockey. If the Bruins can keep the series physical and goad the Canadiens off their game and into playing Bruins hockey they should have no trouble disposing of the diminutive Candiens. The Bruins are offensively deep, rock solid defensively and Tim Thomas set a record for save percentage this year. If they fall into the trap of playing a speed game against the Canadiens, or end up constantly in the penalty box for being overly physical, they will find themselves the victim of a 25th post season defeat at the hands of their arch-rivals.
How The Canadiens Win: Speed, special teams, Carey Price. These 3 factors above any other will determine if this is a short stroll in the park for the Bruins or if the Canadiens can find themselves in the second round for a second consecutive year. They know the Bruins will be physical and they know they can’t compete on that level. They need to frustrate the Bruins by limiting scoring chances and powerplays against. The Bruins style, meanwhile, dictates that the Canadiens will get their own powerplay chances and must continue their special teams success (going 9 for 28 on the man-advantage in the season series) against the Bruins this year. More importantly than all of the above, Carey Price has had a sensational season, but he’s also 0-8 in his last 8 playoff starts. He has to prove that his turnaround is for real or this series will be over very shortly.
Prediction: Bruins in 7
4. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 5. Tampa Bay Lighting
How The Penguins Win: If at the outset of the season someone had said the Pens would lose both Crosby and Malkin for extended periods of time and still finish with 106 points it’s hard to imagine anyone would have believed them. Yet the Pens find themselves with home-ice advantage in the first round despite not having their top two players in the line-up. Their keys are simple, they have to continue to outwork the opposition and capitalize on chances with an under-manned forward group. James Neal and Alex Kovalev will need to be bigger factors (then they have been since being acquired) in this series while Fleury has the hardest job of all: keeping the goals against low enough to give the Pens a chance to win. Crosby continues to practice with the team with no word on whether or not he’ll return in time for this series. If he does return and is fit enough to be effective, then obviously the entire complexion of this series changes.
How The Lightning Win: The Lightning find themselves in the playoffs for the first time in years and have a great opportunity to win a series against a depleted Penguins team. If they can focus on their fast-transition game plan and not let the pressure of post-season play get to them they should be able to overpower their opposition. Leaders like St. Louis, Lecavalier and even Simon Gagne will need to play large roles in case Stamkos’ scoring drought continues. Dwayne Roloson has shown in the past that he can win a goaltending match-up over the course of a series, it’s just a matter of if at this age fatigue becomes a factor.
Prediction: Lighting in 6
Written by Matthew Cutler for Athletes Angle.