Let’s play ‘playoff prediction!’

By Ryan Pike

This week, resident Gauntlet hockey buffs Derek Neumeier and Ryan Pike take a turn looking at the match-ups for the first round of the NHL playoffs by western and eastern conference, respectively, as well as their prediction for which team will go home with the Cup. Please note that accuracy is not guaranteed.

[1] Detroit Red Wings vs. [8] Nashville Predators

The Wings were practically untouchable during the regular season, winning their fourth President’s trophy in the last six years with ease, albeit for a late San Jose winning streak. The team is led by superstars Niklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and backed by a well-rounded and ruthlessly efficient supporting cast. Nashville battled hard to make the post-season but lacks the sheer power of Detroit. Rookie starting netminder Dan Ellis and an inexperienced defensive corps will be the main downfalls for the Preds in what will be a quick and painless series.

[2] San Jose Sharks vs. [7] Calgary Flames

The Sharks are the hottest team in the league heading into the opening round. They’ve only lost twice in regulation in their last 22 games, including an unheard of 20-game streak, where they registered at least one point per game. They’ve done well in the post-season the past three years, but have failed to make the finals–a trend that is due to change sometime soon. The Flames, however, will be sure to put up a fight with proven playoff performers like Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff taking charge. Calgary will provide the surging Sharks with a tougher challenge than they would like in the first round, but will ultimately be ousted in a long, physical series.

[3] Minnesota Wild vs. [6] Colorado Avalanche

After the dust settled from the whirlwind of the toughest division in the league, the northwest, the Minnesota Wild stood alone at the top, but only a slim three points ahead of Colorado. The Wild roster is an intriguing mixture of youngsters ready to break out and veterans to guide them, but is hampered by a drought of individual talent aside from a couple of players. Peter Forsberg, with 14 points in nine games since returning to the NHL, is back to his old form, which spells bad news for whoever has to try and contain him. The Avs will get strong performances from Forsberg and other elite players such as Joe Sakic, Paul Stastny and Ryan Smyth, which will carry them into the next round.

[4] Anaheim Ducks vs. [5] Dallas Stars

The defending champion Ducks only managed to finish fourth in the West, but have been on a tear since the return of Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selänne from potential retirement. The core of the team is similar to last year’s, but with Mathieu Schneider and Todd Bertuzzi now in the mix, the Ducks are more of a threat than ever before. Dallas was second overall in the NHL for part of the regular season, but has gone ice-cold since acquiring Brad Richards at the trade deadline. Adding to Dallas’ woes, top defender Sergei Zubov may miss the entire opening round due to injury. The Stars need to regain their chemistry fast, or it will be an easy series for the Ducks.

Derek’s picks:

Detroit in five games

San Jose in seven games

Colorado in six games

Anaheim in five games

Stanley Cup championship prediction:

Anaheim Ducks over New Jersey Devils in six games

[1] Montreal Canadiens vs. [8] Boston Bruins

The Montreal Canadiens are the NHL’s most surprising success story this season. After being a playoffs also-ran for several years, the addition of rookie goaltender Carey Price catapulted the Habs into the upper echelon of the league. Meanwhile, Boston returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and hopes to escape the first round for the first time in nearly a decade. Montreal dominated the season series, with Boston only getting a single point. The emergence of Price has Habs fans flashing back to Patrick Roy’s Cup-winning 1986 rookie campaign and that, combined with Montreal’s league-leading powerplay, should be enough to get Montreal into the second round.

[2] Pittsburgh Penguins vs. [7] Ottawa Senators

This seems familiar, doesn’t it? The Penguins and the Senators tangled in the first round last season, with the Senators winning in five games. This time around, the teams are more evenly matched, even though Ottawa won three of four meetings in the regular season. Ottawa has great goaltending, tons of scoring and a great powerplay. Pittsburgh has better goaltending, tons of scoring and is better defensively. The Penguins are anchored by the excellent Evgeni Malkin and suddenly-fragile Sidney Crosby. The Senators are arguably weaker than they were last season and made a marked turn for the worse after the new year. In a long series, look for the Senators to use their special teams edge to eke out a victory, despite being injury-ravaged.

[3] Washington Capitals vs. [6] Philadelphia Flyers

Without a doubt, nobody in the NHL was as awesome as Alexander Ovechkin in the 2007-08 season and because of this, the Washington Capitals are automatically a threat in the playoffs. The question remains: do the Philadelphia Flyers have what it takes to stop him? Among the east’s playoff teams, the Flyers are by far the worst defensively, but have one of the best powerplays. On the other hand, the addition of Cristobal Huet has solidified the Capitals’ sometimes-shaky netminding and the team has been playing playoff hockey out of necessity since firing head coach Glen Hanlon. Given the momentum Washington has heading into crunch time and the sheer brilliance of Alexander Ovechkin this season, expect the Capitals to soar into the second round.

[4] New Jersey Devils vs. [5] New York Rangers

For the past 14 seasons, goaltender Martin Brodeur has been synonymous with the New Jersey Devils. The team has committed itself to a defensive style and goes as far in the playoffs as Brodeur can carry them. The strategy has worked before, gaining the Devils three Stanley Cups. However, the “new NHL” hasn’t been quite as kind to New Jersey. One of the teams best exemplifying the “run-and-gun” mentality of the revitalized NHL has been the New York Rangers. The Rangers have a ton of flashy scorers like Jaromir Jagr and Scott Gomez and brilliant netminding from Henrik Lundqvist, but are also surprisingly better defensively this season than the staunchy Devils. Keeping in mind the Rangers’ scoring edge along with their domination of the eight-game season series with New Jersey, it’s hard to imagine the boys from Broadway not making it to the other side.

Ryan’s picks:

Montreal in five games

Ottawa in seven games

Washington in six games

New York in six games

Stanley Cup championship prediction:

Calgary Flames over Montreal Canadiens in six games

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