(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) New York Rangers
It's time for the Capitals to put up or shut up. Nice as that Winter Classic Champions 2011 is gonna look hanging from the Verizon Center rafters, if it's not joined by a Stanley Cup Champs banner, and soon, heads are gonna roll. As it is, anything less than the Prince of Wales Trophy may see Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau on a street corner somewhere holding a hand-scrawled sign that say "Will coach for Haagen-Dazs."
They'll look to take the first step against the Rangers, who had to depend on Carolina to lose their last game to even get into the playoffs. But if New York was going to face anyone as an eighth seed, Washington is they team they'd pick, having won the season series 3-1 and having blanked the high-octane Caps offense twice by scores of 7-0 and 6-0. I came very close to picking the Rangers to get the upset in this series...I even did a drawing for them...but in the end, I think the loss of Ryan Callahan will prove too much for New York to overcome, and Washington will prevail in a series that goes the distance. Capitals in seven.
(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (7) Buffalo Sabres
Philly started the season where they left off the last one, hot and on a roll. They led the East much of the way all year, but lately, that mojo has been waning. The goaltending is questionable, and they went 3-7 in their last ten games, coming very close to losing the Atlantic division title.
The Sabres, on the other hand, are one of the best teams in the league since their sale to Sabres-superfan Terry Pegula in February solidified their place in Buffalo and put to rest their long-standing ownership issues. They've basically been playing playoff hockey with little margin for error since the All-Star break. Provided they aren't completely exhausted from the journey, they should be able to continue their winning ways and upset the Flyers. Sabres in six.
(3) Boston Bruins vs. (6) Montreal Canadiens
These two teams have had numerous memorable matchups over their decades-long rivalry, and this season has been no exception. Will we see the spirited Habs team that put 1000 penalty minutes on the board in February, or the team that rolled over and got destroyed by the Bruins in March? As last year proved, you can never, ever count out the Canadiens, but I think it'll be the Bruins in five.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning
It's impossible to be objective about a Penguins playoff series, but I'll give it a try.
Steve Downie aside, the Lightning are a pretty likable team...young stars alongside some grizzled veterans. Major upgrade in management this past offseason, with the hiring of Steve Yzerman. You knew he was gonna turn it around, it was just a question of how long it'd take. Well, the turnaround has arrived, and you'd better get used to seeing Tampa in the playoffs, because it's gonna be an annual thing for the next decade.
The Penguins have been plugging along at an unthinkable clip, considering they've been without their two biggest superstars for most of the year. Strange as it may seem, this season has been incredibly fun for me...with player after player being knocked out of the lineup for one reason or another, only to see the players who are in the lineup somehow scrape together win after win in games they had no business even being competitive in. As a Penguins fan, I'm just really friggin' proud of how the team has responded in the face of almost comical adversity.
Strong as Tampa's offensive weapons are, I think this is a good matchup for the offense-depleted Pens. Their penalty kill has been good...historically good...all season long, and if they can simply limit the Lightning's chances on the man advantage, they should be able to score enough goals to win four 3-2 games. Penguins in six.
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