2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs Predictions: First Round Eastern Conference

Its time for my annual Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Predictions. Now that the pretenders have packed their bags for the off season and are preparing for their tee times, the real contenders get to face off in the toughest tournament in professional sports. The NHL playoffs are a long grind, where the winner is usually the team with the least amount of injuries and the most stars left standing after the first couple of rounds. Without further ado, here are my picks for round one.

The Eastern Conference
I truly believe that the Eastern Conference is the weaker of the two, and yet I honestly think that the eventual Stanley Cup champ will emerge from the East. There are some fantastic first round match ups here that could easily be Eastern Conference finals. Lets begin.

(1) New York Rangers vs. (8) Ottawa Senators
The Sens have no business being in the playoffs. Heading into the season, the “experts” had the Sens finishing dead last in the NHL, not contending for the Atlantic division crown going into the final week of the season. Coach McClean has coaxed the best out of this group, and truly deserves the Jack Adams award. The Sens were buoyed by the stellar play of Craig Anderson, Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson. They have plenty of secondary scoring from the likes of Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek and Sergei Gonchar. What they don’t have are top notch shut down defencemen.

That will be their downfall, as Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, and Ryan Callahan will prove to be too much for them. The free wheeling scoring will be shut down by Henrik Lundqvist, who should notch his first Vezina. I don’t have the Rangers winning the East, but they’ll beat the Sens in a 6 game series.

(2) Boston Bruins vs. (7) Washington Capitals
What happened to the Caps? They are usually a top seed who falters early in the playoffs. Not a low seed going up against the returning Cup Champs in the first round. This may be a recipe for Capital success. The Caps have gotten hot at the right time. It isn’t a coincidence that their resurgence comes right around the time that Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green have returned from injuries. Green and Backstrom are two of the best players in the game at their respective positions and can make the difference between a win or a loss in the first round series.

The Bruins are the Bruins. They are going to pulverize the Caps every chance they get. Patrice Bergeron is one of the best two ways centers in the world right now. Zdeno Chara is arguably the biggest difference maker on the ice not wearing goalie pads. If Bergeron and Chara can shut down Backstrom and Ovechkin, this series will be short. If the Cup hangover starts to rear it’s ugly head, and Vokoun or Neuvirth can steal the show, this could be a big first round upset. I will go out on a limb here and say that Ovechkin has a career defining series and the Caps win in seven. They will likely be so badly injured after the series that they lose in the second round.

(3) Florida Panthers vs. (6) New Jersey Devils
Everyone and their mother has this series ending in an “upset”. Upset meaning that the lower seed beats the higher seed. In this case, are the Panthers really the higher seed? They had LESS points than the Devils overall on the season. If not for the way that the NHL seeds it’s teams, the Devils would be the 3 seed and the Panthers would be the 6 seed. I really think that the Panthers deserve more credit than they have gotten from the critics. Dale Tallon has done a great job of filling the roster with competency from top to bottom. He turned David Booth into two solid players, Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson. He made many shrewd signings, like Tomas Fleischman, Jose Theodore and Ed Jovanovski, and practically stole guys like Kris Versteeg and Brian Campbell. Top to bottom, I feel like the Panthers are the better team.

However, this series will be decided by the goalies. If Theodore is amazing, the Panthers win. If Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk can score all day, and Brodeur shuts the Panthers down, this will be a short series. I truly think the Panthers are the better overall team, but experience will win the day. Watch out for Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora. They will be the difference makers as the Devils win in 5.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers
Can you say story lines galore? How about Bylsma vs. Laviolette? How about the return of Jaromir Jagr to Pittsburgh for playoff hockey, this time as an arch nemesis? How about the health of Sidney Crosby? What about Hart contenders squaring off, in Claude Giroux vs. Evgeni Malkin? This will be arguably the best first round matchup. It is fit to be an Eastern Conference final. The biggest questions marks in this series will be based on the health and contributions of two individuals. The first obviously is Sid the kid. If he’s healthy and on his game, he’s unstoppable. The other is Ilya Bryzgalov. If Bryz is back, and can regain the form he displayed in March, the Flyers can steal the series.

This is going to be a nasty series. I expect injuries. I expect fights. I expect guys like Scott Hartnell and Matt Cooke to score ugly goals that decide lengthy overtime games. I expect Giroux and Malkin to make dazzling plays and turn defencemen inside out. I also expect the Flyers youth to be their downfall. If this was the match up before the Flyers traded away and lost their heart and soul, I’d say Flyers take it. Chris Pronger would be the nastiest player on the ice and really intimidate the Pens’ stars. Mike Richards would be huge in shutting down Malkin. Sadly now they have to rely upon kids like Couturier and Schenn who don’t have the big game experience needed to step up big time – YET. Crosby will have his minutes watched, and Fleury will be the difference as the Penguins win in 7.

Stay tuned for my Western Conference predictions!