As parity becomes the rule more and more in the NHL -- remember that last year's Cup finalists needed overtime in Game Sevens just to escape the first round -- it becomes more and more daunting to forecast the playoff picture.
I'm backing favourites, yet fully aware of the impact that goaltending could have for teams bucking for upsets. Thus, teams like Los Angeles and Phoenix (higher seed, but still an upset), while not picked to win, could ride goaltenders having two of the best performances of the season.
There are always going to be issues that crop up throughout the postseason -- most notably injuries (remember Dan Hamhuis in the Stanley Cup final?) -- that can affect the final results, but that's why they play the games.
For more information, please check out the following:
The Playoff Payoff - A more detailed stats breakdown, with strategy, likely line combinations and deep sleepers for each team.
Fantasy Hockey Update - My preferred sleepers.
Fantasy Hockey Update - Value plays in the TSN Fantasy Hockey Challenge.
NEW YORK RANGERS vs. OTTAWA SENATORS
The Rangers are a deserving number one seed, but they will need continued strong play from goaltender Henrik Lundqvist if they are going to finish off the Senators, the biggest surprise in the league this season.
Both teams have capable scoring on their top two lines, with solid contributions from their depth players, so there isn't a decisive difference between them. On defence, the Rangers have a better lockdown game, limiting opoponents chances and having more shutdown options on the blueline. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi get the lion's share of the work, but Marc Staal is a nice option to have available otherwise.
Ottawa doesn't have that kind of shutdown D, but does have the game's foremost offensive defenceman, Erik Karlsson, who will have to be a factor if the Senators are going to pull off the upset.
The Pick: Rangers in six.
BOSTON BRUINS vs. WASHINGTON CAPITALS
The Bruins have the experience of last year's championship run which, in addition to a strong regular season, gives them the edge over the Capitals..
While the Capitals have marquee talents like Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, it's reasonable to consider the Bruins as the more dangerous team, with better scoring depth. None of the Bruins' forwards can be the force of nature like Ovechkin at his best, but the Bruins counter with their own force of nature, 6-foot-9 defenceman Zdeno Chara and if Chara can lock down Ovechkin, forcing the Capitals to rely on their supporting cast, that seems like an advantage for Boston..
Washington doesn't have the same calibre of defencemen, which means the Capitals need even more from goaltender Braden Holtby, who is the likely starter with Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth dealing with injuries. Holtby played only seven NHL games this season, so it's difficult to give him the edge over reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas, even if Thomas has struggled in the second half of the season.
The Capitals will need strong peformances from Holtby, C Nicklas Backstrom (just back from a concussion) and RW Alexander Semin if they are going to knock off the Bruins and that's asking a lot from an inconsistent team just getting back to full strength.
The Pick: Bruins in six.
FLORIDA PANTHERS vs. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Devils coach Peter DeBoer gets to face his former team in the playoffs, but both franchises have to be satisfied making a return to the postseason.
Florida is viewed as a number three seed that is ripe for the picking, coming off a season in which they won 32 games in regulation, the lowest among all playoff teams. Florida could be satisfied with their playoff berth, but they have enough players that have been on deep playoff runs (Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, Mikael Samuelsson, Sean Bergenheim and others) with playoff experience that they shouldn't be so easily bounced.
New Jersey has more firepower, with Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias operating at a higher level than the Panthers' top scorers, but Florida counters with a more accomplished defence. Brian Campbell, Jason Garrison and Dmitry Kulikov can contribute offensively whereas the Devils' defence is a patchwork group. Trade acquisition Marek Zidlicky could be a major factor on the power play and his 22 points would lead all Devils defencemen this year. Rookie Adam Larsson would rank next among Devils blueliners, with 18 points, but Larsson has been a healthy scratch down the stretch and may not even be in the lineup.
What the Devils have to hope is that they get the goaltending that they've received from Martin Brodeur in the second half of the season (.921 SV% after the All-Star break, compared to .894 before) because the Panthers could grind this series out to a bunch of one-goal and overtime games (Florida took 25 games to overtime or shootout this season) and if Jose Theodore somehow gets the better of Brodeur, the Devils could be hard-pressed to capitalize on what appears to be fortuitous seeding..
The Pick: Devils in five.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS vs. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
A series that is good enough to be waged for the Eastern Conference Final and it's being offered up in the first round..
Now that Sidney Crosby is healthy and productive (37 points in 22 games), the Penguins are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, with an embarrassment of riches thanks to Crosby's return, Evgeni Malkin's scoring title, James Neal's 40 goals, Pascal Dupuis' 17-game point streak heading into the postseason, Matt Cooke's transformation and more.
All that firepower won't matter much, however, if the Penguins don't get strong goaltending because Marc-Andre Fleury went through some up-and-down spots throughout the season. His counterpart, Ilya Bryzgalov started slowly for the Flyers, but has been much better (1.84 GAA, .929 SV% in 26 GP) since the All-Star break and if the Flyers are going to move on, winning the goaltending battle would go a long way towards the effort.
The Flyers have a mix of playoff-tested veterans and promising young players, so they don't figure to go quietly and the animosity between the teams could make this an extremely entertaining series, but even with Danny Briere and Nicklas Grossmann returning to action, the Flyers are still missing a few valuable players (LW James van Riemsdyk, D Andrej Meszaros) that would be valuable parts of the playoff effort.
The Pick: Penguins in seven.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS vs. LOS ANGELES KINGS
Considering the Canucks went to Game Seven OT in the first round last year, there is no reason to look past any opponents, including the Kings. While Los Angeles was entirely inept offensively for much of the season, they started to turn around offensively after acquiring Jeff Carter from Columbus. Carter comes into the playoffs on a bad ankle, but if he's ready to go, he gives the Kings two decent scoring lines.
The Canucks, who anticipate getting Daniel Sedin back in the lineup, have solid scoring, but if Daniel isn't in prime form and Ryan Kesler continues on his 12-game goalless drought, Vancouver will have their hands full going up against a Vezina-calibre goaltender, Jonathan Quick.
It seems outrageous that the Kings could hold an advantage in goal with Quick compared to Roberto Luongo for Vancouver, but Quick has been better this season without the same offensive support. If Quick does give the Kings a goaltending advantage, then how long will the Canucks wait before Cory Schneider gets his turn between the pipes for Vancouver?
The Pick: Canucks in seven.
ST. LOUIS BLUES vs. SAN JOSE SHARKS
Winning just four of their last dozen games doesn't have the Blues entering the playoffs on a high note, especially when they face a Sharks club that went 7-2 in their last nine to get into the postseason. But, let's not ignore the four shootout losses that the Blues suffered in that time, meaning that they lost four times in regulation in the last dozen games -- many teams wish they could slump in such a manner -- and St. Louis has been so stifling defensively that it could be challenging for the Sharks' big guns to start firing.
The Blues hold an advantage in goal, with either Jaroslav Halak or Brian Elliott ranking ahead of the Sharks' Antti Niemi, but that shouldn't be the only edge for St .Louis..
St. Louis doesn't have players that boast the scoring credentials of Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau, but there is depth to the attack, particularly now that the Blues are healthy --with David Perron, Andy McDonald and Alex Steen all in the lineup -- they have a lot of depth to their attack.
Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle has been an elite performer for a long time, but he may be the second-best defenceman in the series, as 22-year-old Blues blueliner Alex Pietrangelo is garnering Norris Trophy consideration after his tremendous all-around season. If Pietrangelo is the best defenceman in the series, that should swing the pendulum towards the Blues.
The Pick: Blues in six.
PHOENIX COYOTES vs. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
The Coyotes have a roster full of unheralded players, so it's not altogether surprising that their hopes are pinned on the play of goaltender Mike Smith, who was basically a journeyman before turning in a fantastic season in Phoenix.
There are players to watch, including Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata, who pace the offence, but they don't boast the star power of the Blackhawks, who appear to be getting Jonathan Toews back from a concussion just in time for the playoffs.
It requires a certain leap of faith to expect Toews to play at his customary high level when he hasn't played an NHL game in seven weeks, but his presence in the series should move the meter towards Chicago; that is, unless Smith outduels Corey Crawford, the Chicago goaltender who has been inconsistent in his sophomore season, but finished the season on a high note..
With Stanley Cup experience and more names on the marquee, the Blackhawks get the nod.
The Pick: Blackhawks in seven.
DETROIT RED WINGS vs. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Two teams that finished two points apart in the standings with the one finishing lower faring bettering possession metrics and goal differential, despite injuries that kept several stars out of the lineup for long stretches..
While the Predators have upgraded their attack, adding Alexander Radulov and monopolizing the league's Kostitsyns, they're still going to be hard-pressed to match the Red Wings' established playoff performers.
Even if the Predators can get Shea Weber and Ryan Suter locked on to Pavel Datsyuk's line, for example, that will still leave an opportunity for Henrik Zetterberg, Valtteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler on Detroit's second line to produce against lesser defence pairings (to be fair, all defence pairings are "lesser" compared to Weber and Suter).
It won't be a surprise if fourth-seeded Nashville reaches the second round once again, after doing so last year, but urgency could be on the side of the Wings' who have to see their window, with this current core, closing soon.
The Pick: Red Wings in six.
Teams best equipped to pull off upsets (aside from those already picked): Washington, San Jose, Philadelphia
Future Series Picks
Vancouver over Chicago
St. Louis over Detroit
Vancouver over St. Louis
N.Y. Rangers over New Jersey
Pittsburgh over Boston
Pittsburgh over N.Y. Rangers
Pittsburgh over Vancouver
And, my list of playoff projections, obviously influenced by my team picks. If you have different picks -- and I'm sure many of you do -- do not follow my player picks to the letter; perhaps use the Playoff Payoff to find value on the teams you like best this spring.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.