As parity becomes the rule more and more in the NHL, it becomes more difficult to make playoff picks.
This year, I have a lot of the favourites, yet if you've been following my Power Rankings at all, you would know that I won't be surprised if several lower seeds jump up and bite the higher seeds.
For example, I have the Washington Capitals at nine and the New York Rangers at ten. I'm picking the Caps to win, but will hardly be shocked if they're pushed to the limit by the Blueshirts.
Even the Vancouver Canucks, the top seed in the entire postseason, have a tough draw in the first round, so it's not going to be a real shock if low seeds again make noise in the playoffs.
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.
NHL Power Rankings - You'll have some idea how good I think a team is based on their finish here.
NHL Player Rankings - Not geared to the NHL playoffs, but a position-by-position breakdown of the league's best.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS vs. NEW YORK RANGERS
Provided Mike Green is able to play for the Capitals, they deserve to be favoured in the series, but not in any way the lopsided match-up that would be typical of a top seed against an eighth seed. Green doesn't have a strong playoff track record and his production was down even before his concussion woes, but with Dennis Wideman sidelined, the Capitals surely need their power play quarterback to make a difference.
Even though they weren't the scoring juggernaut that they were in 2009-2010, the Capitals have the requisite skill to handle the Rangers, unless Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist comes up huge, which isn't an impossibility, since he has been the backbone of the Rangers' push to the postseason.
The Rangers' late-season scoring troubles (17 goals in the last nine games) could only be magnified by the absence of Ryan Callahan, their second-leading goal scorer, who suffered a broken ankle blocking a Zdeno Chara shot last week, so the Rangers desperately need sniper Marian Gaborik to be more productive than he was during the regular season, when he scored a modest 22 goals.
Perhaps the swing position for the Capitals will be goaltending. They won't have Jose Theodore around to start the first game of the playoffs, only to be banished to the bench thereafter, so Michal Neuvirth figures to get the first shot between the pipes, with Semyon Varlamov ready to step in, if need be.
The Pick: Capitals in seven.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS vs. BUFFALO SABRES
As long as defenceman Chris Pronger is out of the Flyers lineup, and the Flyers remain ever-secretive on that front, they are vulnerable. The goaltending hasn't been strong enough to overcome the absence of the veteran shutdown defender, but just because there are questions on the back end doesn't mean the Flyers aren't a dangerous bunch.
Few teams can match the forward depth that the Flyers can roll out, so Philadelphia has the ability to advance, as long as the goaltending, led by rookie Sergei Bobrovsky, holds up.
A strong finish to the season, going 16-4-4 in the last 24 regular season games (including a pair of wins over the Flyers) lifted the Sabres into the playoffs and while the Sabres don't have six players with at least 49 points, like the Flyers, they did get significant contributions late in the year from players like defenceman Andrej Sekera and winger Nathan Gerbe, players that will play a more prominent role than their overall point totals might suggest.
With a collective effort, the Sabres have an opportunity to upset a Flyers team that finished the regular season with five regulation wins in 14 games after Pronger suffered a broken hand.
The Pick: Sabres in seven.
BOSTON BRUINS vs. MONTREAL CANADIENS
Perhaps the perfect contrast in styles, with the Bruins employing muscle and intimidation against a speedy and shifty Canadiens group that has no hope of matching the Bruins if the game turns into trench warfare.
Montreal might need goaltender Carey Price to stand on his head to steal the series, but it's tough to forecast an advantage in goal when the Bruins answer with Tim Thomas, who just happened to record the highest save percentage in history this season.
The Canadiens aren't especially deep, so they'll need the guys at the top end to produce, which means another big playoff from LW Mike Cammalleri, continued production from RW Brian Gionta and C Tomas Plekanec and something, anything, from C Scott Gomez, who is coming off a miserable 38-point season. Defencemen P.K. Subban and James Wisniewski will also need to contribute on the power play.
While Boston isn't overpowering offensively, they boast more weapons than the Canadiens, with a nice mix of playmaking centres David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron as well as power forwards Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton. If the Bruins are to avoid the upset, they're going to need their power play to be much better. Since acquiring Tomas Kaberle from Toronto, the Bruins' power play is just 7-for-67 (10.4%) in 23 games.
The Pick: Bruins in six.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS vs. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
It's asking a lot to put the weight of the entire series on the health of one player, but when that player is Sidney Crosby, it's understandable if his presence can make the difference between the fourth and fifth seeds in the East.
Crosby has been practicing with the Penguins and it wouldn't make a lot of sense for him to practice without the objective of having him play in the postseason, but as long as the Penguins are casting doubt on 87's availability for Game One, the Penguins are in a tough spot.
In 41 games since Crosby was sidelined, the Penguins have 13 regulation wins. With no shootouts at their disposal in the playoffs, Pittsburgh will have to generate more offence, which means getting more from trade acquisitions James Neal and Alex Kovalev, who have combined for three goals in 39 games since arriving in the Steel City.
After some struggles in recent years, the Lightning may be happy just to be in the playoffs, but have enough veterans -- Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Simon Gagne and Ryan Malone, most notably -- that have tasted playoff success that they won't be overwhelmed by a Penguins roster that has racked up a lot of playoff games in the last three seasons.
At the same time, Tampa Bay's defence is suspect and they're counting on 41-year-old G Dwayne Roloson to backstop the whole effort.
The Pick: Penguins in six.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS vs. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
While the Canucks can say they want another matchup with the Blackhawks, there would have been more favourable first-round opponents for the league's top seed. The Canucks finally have a healthy defence corps, which gives them a depth advantage on most any team, their goaltending is as good as any and they boast a strong group of scoring forwards. They didn't finish ten points ahead of all others for no reason.
At the same time, the depth forwards of the Canucks will be challenged. C Manny Malhotra is out with an eye injury and LW Raffi Torres is suspended for the first two games, so the bottom six is a little suspect; perhaps Cody Hodgson will be a factor in a third-line role.
After sneaking into the playoffs, the Blackhawks can't mind facing off with a team that they've bounced from the playoffs in back-to-back years. If C David Bolland is able to return from a concussion, he'll give the Blackhawks a much-needed checking presence to throw at the Sedins, which could help free up Jonathan Toews for more offensive endeavours.
Naturally, the Blackhawks will need rookie G Corey Crawford to play well if they're going to knock off the top-seeded Canucks and last year's Norris Trophy winner, Duncan Keith, has to be a difference-maker for Chicago (he hasn't been nearly as consistent this year, so it can't just be assumed that Keith will provide 27 minutes of sterling all-around play, night-in and night-out).
The Pick: Canucks in seven.
SAN JOSE SHARKS vs. LOS ANGELES KINGS
It's not as if the San Jose Sharks, with six regulation losses in the last 37 games, need a lot of help, but getting the Kings in the first round is a better fate than what awaits the top-seeded Canucks.
The Kings may get RW Justin Williams back at some point in the series, though he's recovering from a dislocated shoulder, so it's hard to know how effective he will be. More importantly, franchise centre Anze Kopitar is out and the Kings (like most teams) don't have a ready-made replacement for their No. 1 pivot.
If the Kings can get outstanding goaltending and defencemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson can control play, maybe they'll have a shot against the Sharks, but San Jose has so much more depth and G Antti Niemi has been every bit as good for San Jose as G Jonathan Quick has been for Los Angeles.
Gritty winger Ryane Clowe is questionable for the Sharks, due to a lower body injury, and his absence certainly taxes the Sharks' depth, but San Jose has too many weapons.
The Pick: Sharks in five.
DETROIT RED WINGS vs. PHOENIX COYOTES
It's expected that Henrik Zetterberg won't be ready to start the series for the Red Wings and that's a major loss, but Detroit is nothing if not deep, so they may be able to escape the series without him.
Rest assured, it won't come easily. The Coyotes don't have big-time scorers, but defenceman Keith Yandle is a Norris Trophy candidate and the Coyotes took the Wings to Game Seven in Round One last year.
Siding with depth and experience, the Wings will find a way to get it done, giving Zetterberg time to get healthy and have an impact.
The Pick: Red Wings in seven.
ANAHEIM DUCKS vs. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
I so wanted this year to be the year that I would pick the Predators to advance beyond the first round, but matching up against a Ducks team that has been rolling late in the year isn't an easy way to go.
Anaheim's biggest question may be in goal, where Jonas Hiller is recovering from vertigo and Ray Emery, who filled in admirably while Hiller has been out, has been nursing a lower body injury. Emery is supposed to be ready for the playoffs and if either he or Dan Ellis can provide stability between the pipes, the Ducks have the firepower up front to match any team.
The line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan may be the league's best and it could be an epic matchup against Predators defenders Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but even if the Predators can somehow neutralize the Ducks' top line, there is still a matter of handling Teemu Selanne, who simply notched 80 points in 73 games as a 40-year-old this season.
Nashville's buttoned-down style will be in contrast to a more free-flowing Anaheim attack, which should make for a competitive series, but one in which MVP candidate Corey Perry could make the difference.
The Pick: Ducks in six.
Teams best equipped to pull off upsets (aside from those already picked): Chicago, Nashville, N.Y. Rangers
Future Series Picks
Vancouver over Anaheim
Detroit over San Jose
Vancouver over Detroit
Washington over Buffalo
Boston over Pittsburgh
Boston over Washington
Vancouver over Boston
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.
|32.||Patrick Marleau||San Jose||LW||11|
|33.||Joe Pavelski||San Jose||RW||11|
|38.||Joe Thornton||San Jose||C||10|
|48.||Ryane Clowe||San Jose||LW||9|
|49.||Dany Heatley||San Jose||RW||9|
|54.||Logan Couture||San Jose||C||8|
|57.||Dan Boyle||San Jose||D||8|
|65.||Martin St. Louis||Tampa Bay||LW||7|
|67.||Devin Setoguchi||San Jose||RW||7|
|73.||Steven Stamkos||Tampa Bay||C||6|
|76.||Torrey Mitchell||San Jose||C||6|
|79.||Marian Gaborik||N.Y. Rangers||RW||5|
|81.||Vincent Lecavalier||Tampa Bay||C||5|
|88.||Teddy Purcell||Tampa Bay||RW||4|
|90.||Drew Doughty||Los Angeles||D||4|
|93.||Brandon Dubinsky||N.Y. Rangers||LW||4|
|94.||Simon Gagne||Tampa Bay||LW||4|
|97.||Dustin Brown||Los Angeles||RW||4|
|101.||Ian White||San Jose||D||4|
|102.||Vaclav Prospal||N.Y. Rangers||LW||4|
|105.||Kyle Wellwood||San Jose||C||4|
|114.||Derek Stepan||N.Y. Rangers||C||3|
|120.||Bryan McCabe||N.Y. Rangers||D||3|
|122.||Steve Downie||Tampa Bay||RW||3|
|126.||Jarret Stoll||Los Angeles||C||3|
|128.||Wojtek Wolski||N.Y. Rangers||LW||3|
|130.||James van Riemsdyk||Philadelphia||LW||3|
|135.||Artem Anisimov||N.Y. Rangers||C||3|
|141.||Ryan Smyth||Los Angeles||LW||3|
|144.||Jack Johnson||Los Angeles||D||3|
|147.||Ryan Malone||Tampa Bay||LW||3|
|149.||Justin Williams||Los Angeles||RW||2|
|4.||Antti Niemi||San Jose|
|11.||Henrik Lundqvist||N.Y. Rangers|
|14.||Dwayne Roloson||Tampa Bay|
|16.||Jonathan Quick||Los Angeles|