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NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Round 1

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It came down to the final day of the regular season once again for the entire playoff picture to unfold as the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks had to rely on a Dallas Stars loss to get a chance at defending their title.

A few intriguing matchups will grab interest early on. The Canucks will have to face the Hawks in the opening round. Chicago has eliminated Vancouver for two consecutive post-seasons, but after last summer's trade-off, can this year's Hawks do the same? Phoenix gets another crack at Detroit in what was one of the best opening round series from a year ago.

Meanwhile, the Sharks and Capitals aim to exorcise some playoff demons of their own, while the Kings and Lightning hope to take a step forward in their development. Who will win this year's Stanley Cup? The road begins here at THN.com

CAPITALS-RANGERS| FLYERS-SABRES | BRUINS-CANADIENS | PENGUINS-LIGHTNING | CANUCKS-BLACKHAWKS | SHARKS-KINGS | RED WINGS-COYOTES | DUCKS-PREDATORS

EASTERN CONFERENCE 

Washington Capitals #1 CAPITALS vs. New York Rangers #8 RANGERS


Season series:
Washington - 1-2-1; Rangers - 3-1-0.

How the Capitals win:
By not panicking and sticking to their game plan; the Caps led the league in comebacks when trailing after the first period. They morphed into a lock-down team later in the season and during one nine-game winning streak they won by more than one goal just twice and allowed three or more goals once, out-scoring opponents 13-2 in third periods.

How the Rangers win: The Rangers depend on an aggressive forecheck and world-class goalie Henrik Lundqvist to push them past opponents. They’ve also played far better away from home this season than they have at Madison Square Garden.

How the Capitals lose: Washington won 11 games all season when allowing three or more goals. Of the 34 times they landed on the losing side of the ledger, 22 happened when they gave up three or more goals.

How the Rangers lose: Injuries and underachieving veterans - most notably, star right winger Marian Gaborik, who missed time thanks to a concussion and separated shoulder and had his worst offensive season since 2003-04 - haven’t allowed the Rangers to run-and-gun with the NHL’s top offensive teams. When the Blueshirts surrendered more than two goals, they were a brutal 10-26-3.

Capitals question mark: The once-vaunted power play has been an area of concern all season. The Caps led the NHL by a wide margin with a success rate better than 25 percent in 2009-10. This season it has wallowed in the league’s bottom half.

Rangers question mark: Can this team stay healthy for an extended playoff run? That much is in doubt, especially considering key forwards Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Gaborik all have missed significant time with injuries - and solid backup goalie Martin Biron is out for the year.

Capitals key stat: No matter who’s in net, the Caps don’t give up as many goals as in the past. The same team that finished 16th in goals-against in 2009-10 was fourth in the category this year, allowing nearly half a score less per contest.

Rangers key stat:
1.000: The Rangers’ win percentage when leading after the second period (29-0-0).

Capitals top three fantasy players: Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom.

Rangers top three fantasy players: Marian Gaborik, Henrik Lundqvist, Brandon Dubinsky.

Odds to win the Cup:
Capitals 13-2, Rangers 30-1.

THE EDGE GOES TO...
TEAM
FORWARDS
DEFENSE
GOALTENDING
SPECIAL TEAMS
COACHING
Washington Capitals
X
 Even
 
 Even
 Even
New York Rangers
 
 Even
 X
 Even
 Even

Winner and why: Aside from the disparity in the standings, this series looks much closer on paper than it should. The edge Washington has on the offensive side of the puck is overwhelming and will be the biggest difference maker in this series. The Rangers are playing with house money, but you can’t help but think their luck has run out. Capitals in six.

Who do you think will win this series?

Philadelphia Flyers #2 FLYERS vs. Buffalo Sabres #7 SABRES


Season series:
Philadelphia - 2-1-1; Buffalo - 2-2-0.

How the Flyers win:
Philadelphia has succeeded this season thanks to spectacular depth at every skating position. They’ve got seven forwards at the 20-plus-goal plateau and Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen anchor arguably the best six-man defense corps in the post-season.

How the Sabres win: Buffalo activates its defensemen - specifically Jordan Leopold and Tyler Myers - to push the attack, which is part of the reason why the Sabres were among the top third of the league when it comes to goals-per-game. Top center Derek Roy was lost long term in December with a torn quadriceps tendon, so Drew Stafford’s breakout and the acquisition of Brad Boyes were crucial developments.

How the Flyers lose: Philly has an especially hard time winning when their opponent completely shuts them down during power play opportunities. The Flyers didn’t register a power play goal in 22 of their first 27 losses despite averaging 3.4 power plays in those 22 games. They’re getting good production from forwards, but their top four offense-minded blueliners had just seven power play goals.

How the Sabres lose: One thing is for sure, they do it too often when leading after two periods. Last season, Buffalo didn’t drop a single regular season game when it held the advantage after two frames; this year, the Sabres’ winning percentage when leading after 40 minutes was just .833.

Flyers question mark: Surprise! Once again, the Flyers goaltending is the area that inspires the least amount of confidence. Last year’s hero Michael Leighton played most of this season in the AHL; and while this season’s duo of Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher has been good enough to keep them near the top of the Eastern Conference, it’s hard to remember the last time a Stanley Cup winner did so on the strength of a rookie/journeyman platoon.

Sabres question mark: The Sabres have a lot of waterbugs up front and they’ll have to prove they can break through in tight-checking playoff games. Maybe Roy can return to help? There was some speculation that if Buffalo is still playing in mid-May, he could get back in the lineup.

Flyers key stat: The Flyers’ goalies didn't post a shutout all season. Philly had been blanked seven times.

Sabres key stat:
Buffalo finished the 2010 portion of the season with a .459 points percentage, but became a different team in 2011.

Flyers top three fantasy players: Daniel Briere, Mike Richards, Claude Giroux.

Sabres top three fantasy players: Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, Ryan Miller.

Odds to win the Cup:
Flyers 6-1, Sabres 45-1.

THE EDGE GOES TO...
TEAM
FORWARDS
DEFENSE
GOALTENDING
SPECIAL TEAMS
COACHING
Philadelphia Flyers
X
 X
 
 
 Even
Buffalo Sabres
 
 
 X
 X
 Even

Winner and why: The Flyers showed last season they have the ability to turn it on when it matters most in the playoffs and the core is back for another run. Ryan Miller will make it hard on Philly's scorers, but the Flyers have plenty of weapons at their disposal. Flyers in 7.

Who do you think will win this series?

Boston Bruins #3 BRUINS vs. Montreal Canadiens #6 CANADIENS

Season series: Boston - 2-3-1; Montreal - 4-2-0.

How the Bruins win:
By dominating teams at 5-on-5, an area in which the Bruins excelled this season. That’s reflective of a balanced attack featuring no superstars, but a cast of capable two-way players. Zdeno Chara is a Slovakian security blanket on the blueline, while Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask give Boston the best goaltending duo of anybody in the big dance.

How the Canadiens win: The Canadiens are counter-punchers. Rarely do they dictate the terms of a game, preferring to sit back and negate scoring chances, with the intention of capitalizing on their own. The Habs have the speed to make teams pay for turnovers and their goalie tends to be better than yours, though that's a wash this series. Their ability to overcome a ton of injuries also speaks to the club’s fortitude.

How the Bruins lose: It’s a good thing Boston excels at 5-on-5, because its special teams stink. That might be a bit harsh, but the Bruins’ power play ranked 20th in the league and their penalty killing was 16th. Boston’s goalies always have to be sharp because the team gives up a ton of shots, second most in the league.

How the Canadiens lose: Physical teams that limit mistakes do well against Montreal. The Habs struggle to score goals, so when their power play is cold, offense is hard to come by. The defense has hung tough without Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, but it’s hard to see it holding up against wave after wave of intense playoff forechecking.

Bruins question mark: Will blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 2 last spring be a motivator or a haunting memory? Boston was also bumped in the second round in 2009 after entering as the East’s No. 1 seed, so the team has a lot to prove in the post-season.

Canadiens question mark: Can the Canadiens improve on their model for playoff success from last season? The rope-a-dope routine only works when you’re constantly receiving superhuman puckstopping, which Carey Price has provided this season.

Bruins key stat: Teams coached by Claude Julien tend to be pretty stingy, but that wasn’t so this year as Boston surrendered an average of 32.7 shots against per game. Only Carolina allowed more incoming rubber.

Canadiens key stat:
Only Pittsburgh was whistled for more minor penalties than Montreal, which took about 4.5 minors per game.

Bruins top three fantasy players: Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, Tim Thomas.

Canadiens top three fantasy players: Mike Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec, Carey Price.

Odds to win the Cup:
Bruins 9-1, Canadiens 29-1.

THE EDGE GOES TO...
TEAM
FORWARDS
DEFENSE
GOALTENDING
SPECIAL TEAMS
COACHING
Boston Bruins
X
X
X
 
 Even
Montreal Canadiens
 
 
 
 X
 Even

Winner and why: Boston has to impose its physical advantage without crossing the line and providing Montreal’s power play a chance to even the playing field. The undermanned Canadiens defense will have a very tough time holding on against the deep, aggressive Bruins forwards. Carey Price needs to be spectacular. Bruins in six.

Who do you think will win this series?

Pittsburgh Penguins #4 PENGUINS vs. Tampa Bay Lightning #5 LIGHTNING

Season series: Pittsburgh - 2-2-0; Tampa Bay - 2-2-0.

How the Penguins win:
When Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were healthy, the Pens bulldozed their opponents with skill and speed. But with Malkin out for the season and Crosby in limbo dealing with post-concussion symptoms, coach Dan Bylsma & Co. have had to take a slower, more defensive approach to winning games.

How the Lightning win: Tampa needs offensive contributions from players further down the depth chart to win games. Coach Guy Boucher has made it clear that waiting for Steven Stamkos or Marty St-Louis to carry the scoring load is not a recipe for success. He expects controlled offensive aggression from all Lightning players.

How the Penguins lose: If you’ve got a lead on the Pens entering the third period, you’re a virtual cinch to beat them. Pittsburgh was the NHL’s worst team when trailing after two periods, with a 0-19-1 record. That’s worse than 29th-ranked Minnesota (1-31-1).

How the Lightning lose: The Lightning allow too many goals. They were 22nd in the league in goals-against average, second-worst of any team in the playoffs. Much of that had to do with woeful goaltending to begin the season.

Penguins question mark: Even if Crosby overcomes his head injury issues and returns to Pittsburgh’s lineup, will he be the dynamo who amassed 66 points in 41 games this season? Or will he appear out of sorts as he tries to re-acclimate to the speed and intensity of playoff hockey after a multi-month absence?

Lightning question mark: Bucking the usual trend for playoff-bound teams, the Lightning were one of the worst in the league when it came to holding leads: 24th overall in winning percentage when scoring first and 15th when leading after two periods. Naturally, that needs to change.

Penguins key stat: The Penguins team faceoff winning percentage was 49.2. Crosby’s individual average before he was injured: 55.7 percent.

Lightning key stat:
The Lightning gave up the fifth-most goals in the third period and scored the fourth least, a difference of 24 tallies.

Penguins top three fantasy players: Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury.

Lightning top three fantasy players: Steven Stamkos, Martin St-Louis, Vincent Lecavalier.

Odds to win the Cup:
Penguins 17-1, Lightning 18-1.

THE EDGE GOES TO...
TEAM
FORWARDS
DEFENSE
GOALTENDING
SPECIAL TEAMS
COACHING
Pittsburgh Penguins
 
X
X
 
 X
Tampa Bay Lightning
 X
 
 
 X
 

Winner and why: A fascinating and tightly fought series will ultimately be decided by a) the special teams battle, where Tampa has a razor-thin edge due to the Pens rudderless man advantage and b) Pittsburgh's ability to sufficiently limit the damage of Tampa's Big 3. Betting here is they can't. (Of course, if Sidney Crosby returns, all bets are off). Tampa Bay in 7.

Who do you think will win this series?

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Vancouver Canucks #1 CANUCKS vs. Chicago Blackhawks #8 BLACKHAWKS

Season series: Vancouver - 2-1-1; Chicago - 2-2-0.

How the Canucks win:
With premiere marksmen Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler on separate lines, it’s impossible to completely shut down the Vancouver attack. The Canucks lead the league in offense. A variety of contributors makes it pointless to just focus on the Sedin line.

How the Blackhawks win: When the top two lines are healthy and going, the Hawks’ speed, puck movement and high-end skill is lethal. The power play (fourth-best in the NHL) features two stellar units, putting it in the same stratosphere as the league-leading Canucks. Norris winner Duncan Keith and sometimes partner Brent Seabrook remain one of the top tandems in the business.

How the Canucks lose: Come out quickly and open the scoring against the Canucks and they become an average team. Their winning percentage after trailing first is middle of the pack in the NHL. Key injuries on the blueline at various points have slowed the team’s gallop to a jaunt.

How the Blackhawks lose: Mental lapses and late-game collapses cost Chicago several points in the standings. The defending champs have been outscored in the third period of games this season despite having the league’s fourth most potent offense. Depth is a sore spot, both on the third and fourth lines and the third defense pairing.

Canucks question mark: Manny Malhotra’s eye injury and playoff absence is a key blow on a variety of fronts. He centered the important shutdown line and was the main reason why the Canucks led the league in faceoff percentage. He was the NHL’s No. 1 drawmaster at 61.7 percent. How can that be replaced?

Blackhawks question mark: Having played an extraordinary number of games the past few seasons, are the Hawks running out of gas? They’ve struggled for consistency and stringing together a playoff run will be made that much more difficult if pesky No. 2 center David Bolland (concussion) isn’t available. 

Canucks key stat: The No. 1. The Canucks finished at or close to No. 1 in many statistical categories this season. The list includes goals per game, fewest goals against, power play and penalty killing percentage, regular season standings, home record, road record. Need we say more?

Blackhawks key stat:
Chicago’s weak penalty killing is particularly porous at home, giving up goals 25 percent of the time. Only Colorado was worse.

Canucks top three fantasy players: Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler.

Blackhawks top three fantasy players: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa.

Odds to win the Cup:
Canucks 3-1, Blackhawks 13-1.

 

THE EDGE GOES TO...
TEAM
FORWARDS
DEFENSE
GOALTENDING
SPECIAL TEAMS
COACHING
Vancouver Canucks
X
 
X
 X
 
Chicago Blackhawks
 
 X
 
 
 X

Winner and why: The only way Vancouver can improve on a near-ideal regular season is a deep playoff run and exorcising the ghosts of past losses can begin with a win over the Hawks, who backed into the playoffs and have been stripped of their depth. No reason the Canucks should lose this series. Canucks in six.

Who do you think will win this series?

San Jose Sharks #2 SHARKS vs. Los Angeles Kings #7 KINGS

Season series: San Jose - 3-1-2; Los Angeles - 3-3-0.

How the Sharks win:
The Sharks have been dynamite on special teams, boasting the second-best power play in the NHL. The old strategy of ‘Death by Joe Thornton’s Line’ has been replaced with a more balanced attack, largely thanks to the superb play of rookie Logan Couture, who has been a two-way demon down the middle.

How the Kings win: The Kings have been one of the best defensive teams in the NHL this year, posting a top-10 goals-against and a penalty kill that finished fourth overall. When they buckle down, the Kings are a tough squad to beat and have been virtually flawless when leading after two periods.

How the Sharks lose: For a team with so much firepower, 5-on-5 has been a struggle. When all’s even, the Sharks’ offense ranks in the middle of the league; incredible for a team at the top of its division. It’s the same story shorthanded, where the Sharks have not been able to execute consistently.

How the Kings lose: When defense abandons them, the Kings haven’t been able to muster the offense they are seemingly built for. The same power play that lacerated the Canucks in last year’s opening round loss has fallen fast. The fact blueline dynamo Drew Doughty’s numbers are down factor into that.

Sharks question mark: Perennial underachievers in the post-season, the Sharks finally slayed Detroit last year, only to fall flat in the Western Conference final to Chicago. Now that the spotlight has shifted to other powerhouses (i.e. Vancouver), can the Sharks finally make a run to the final?

Kings question mark: The Kings have plenty of jam, but without the injured Anze Kopitar, do they have an elite offensive player in the forward corps to pick up the slack? More importantly, however, is the question surrounding the netminding.

Sharks key stat: The ‘Big Three’ of Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau combined for 254 points last season. This year, they finished with 207.

Kings key stat:
In the six-game loss to Vancouver last season, the Kings’ power play executed at an astonishing rate of 38.5 percent, tops in the league by a wide margin. Yet their 4.17 goals-against average in the same series was worst in the 2010 playoffs.

Sharks top three fantasy players: Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau.

Kings top three fantasy players: Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Ryan Smyth.

Odds to win the Cup:
Sharks 19-2, Kings 15-1.

THE EDGE GOES TO...
TEAM
FORWARDS
DEFENSE
GOALTENDING
SPECIAL TEAMS
COACHING
San Jose Sharks
X
X
 
 Even
 X
Los Angeles Kings
 
 
X
 Even
 

Winner and why: San Jose made the 2010 Western Conference final with essentially the same core of players and were one of the hottest teams in this season’s second half. The Kings have played through adversity, but losing two of their leading scorers - Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams - makes their chances of beating a hungry, veteran Sharks team exponentially more remote. Sharks in six.

Who do you think will win this series?

Detroit Red Wings #3 RED WINGS vs. Phoenix Coyotes #6 COYOTES

Season series: Detroit - 2-1-1; Phoenix - 2-0-2.

How the Red Wings win:
A potent, deep and balanced attack - 10 of their forwards have double-digit goal totals - makes the Wings difficult to defend. Supreme point men Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski drive the league’s fifth-best power play, while Pavel Datsyuk may be the league’s best all-around player. Detroit is well-coached, savvy and disciplined and play just as well or better on the road than at home.

How the Coyotes win: Surprisingly, the Dogs are doing it with offense this year even though they don’t have a top-30 scorer. Phoenix’s points leader through most of the season was defenseman Keith Yandle, though Shane Doan finished one point ahead. The Coyotes are one of the best at making third-period comebacks and get a substantial portion of their offense in that final frame, so there’s no let-up for opponents.

How the Red Wings lose: Trouble arises when the Wings lose focus defensively and don’t provide enough support for their goaltenders, allowing too many shots and, consequently, too many goals.

How the Coyotes lose: The Coyotes allowed the second-most shots of all playoff teams and if goalie Ilya Bryzgalov isn’t on his game, the Dogs are done. Phoenix was a defensive juggernaut last season, but that discipline has gone away on some nights, leading to unpredictable river hockey.

Red Wings question mark: The geezer Wings answered questions about their advanced age during the regular season, but the playoffs are a whole new test. With eight players 36 and older, including top minute-muncher Lidstrom (40), can the veteran legs withstand the gruelling spring pace?

Coyotes question mark: Even the veterans are still largely bereft of playoff experience. Adrian Aucoin has never been past the opening round, Radim Vrbata has made the dance just twice and Derek Morris has three first-round exits to his name.

Red Wings key stat: The Wings had the fourth-fewest penalty minutes taken per game (9.2). With a middling PK, it’ll be crucial for them to continue to stay out of the penalty box.

Coyotes key stat:
Phoenix had one player hit 20 goals this year, but balance was the order of the day as 10 Coyotes tallied in double-digits.

Red Wings top three fantasy players: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen.

Coyotes top three fantasy players: Keith Yandle, Shane Doan, Ilya Bryzgalov.

Odds to win the Cup:
Red Wings 11-2, Coyotes 24-1.

THE EDGE GOES TO...
TEAM
FORWARDS
DEFENSE
GOALTENDING
SPECIAL TEAMS
COACHING
Detroit Red Wings
X
X
 
 X
 
Phoenix Coyotes
 
 
X
 
 X

Winner and why: Though the Coyotes stretched the Wings to seven before succumbing in the first round last season, don't expect a similar spread this time around. Detroit won't sleep on the Phoenix, knowing all too well the perils of looking past an inferior opponent (see 2006, 2004, 2003, 2001, etc...). Red Wings in five.

Who do you think will win this series?

Anaheim Ducks #4 DUCKS vs. Nashville Predators #5 PREDATORS

Season series: Anaheim - 1-3-0; Nashville - 3-1-0.

How the Ducks win:
Anaheim has survived injuries to its two best players – Ryan Getzlaf and Jonas Hiller – and looked impressive as a unit. The Ducks have two excellent scoring lines and a surprisingly good defense led by Lubomir Visnovsky and Toni Lydman. They’re tough and have a lot of post-season experience to boot.

How the Predators win: Another typical Barry Trotz team, this season’s Preds rely on outworking opponents, making defense their priority and riding the sensational play of netminder Pekka Rinne. Nashville allowed the third fewest goals-against this season next to Vancouver and Boston.

How the Ducks lose: Without Hiller, the Ducks lost a lot of confidence and sputtered before righting the ship with Dan Ellis and Ray Emery in net. Without healthy netminders, they won't go far. Killing penalties has also been a soft spot.

How the Predators lose: Nashville might be happy to win every game 1-0, but first they have to score their goal. Getting the offense going has been problematic most of the season. The Preds had two 20-goal scorers.

Ducks question mark: Can Teemu Selanne keep up his torrid pace? The 40-year-old ‘Finnish Flash’ has shown no signs of his age this season, racking up goals when the Ducks needed them most down the stretch and flying down the wing as always. In the post-season, he’s always been reliable.

Predators question mark: Can Mike Fisher continue his elevated output? In his first 18 games after arriving amid fanfare from Ottawa, Fisher had one goal, four points, was minus-5 and won fewer than 50 percent of his faceoffs. However, in the final nine games of the regular season, Fisher notched four goals and eight points with a plus-7.

Ducks key stat: Nobody typifies the Ducks’ mix of skill and toughness more than Corey Perry, who won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's only 50-goal scorer this season while still racking up 104 penalty minutes.

Predators key stat:
Surprisingly for such a defense-minded club, Nashville ranks 28th in blocked shots with an average of 12 per game. They’ll need to sacrifice more in the playoffs.

Ducks top three fantasy players: Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Teemu Selanne.

Predators top three fantasy players: Shea Weber, Pekka Rinne, Martin Erat.

Odds to win the Cup:
Ducks 39-1, Predators 37-1.

THE EDGE GOES TO...
TEAM
FORWARDS
DEFENSE
GOALTENDING
SPECIAL TEAMS
COACHING
Anaheim Ducks
X
   
X
 X
Nashville Predators
 
 X
 X
 
 

Winner and why: Though Nashville won the season series, the Ducks have much more playoff experience and a big advantage on both the power play and penalty-kill. The only X-factor for Anaheim is in net, where health issues have affected both Jonas Hiller and Ray Emery, but offense has never been a strength for the Preds anyway. Ducks in 7.

Who do you think will win this series?

 

 

 

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