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Stanley Cup Playoff Primer: Opening Round

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor


Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With another regular season in the books, it's time to bone up on the teams that will battle for Lord Stanley's Cup this spring.

The most decorated team during the regular season was the Vancouver Canucks, who won the Presidents' Trophy with a franchise-record 117 points. However, leading the NHL in points has been a kiss of death for teams in the last two postseasons. San Jose won the award in 2009 and lost in the opening round to Anaheim, and Washington suffered the same fate when it was upset by Montreal in the first round last spring.

Of course, the Canucks, who will face playoff nemesis and last year's Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, would rather focus on three years ago, when Detroit won both the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup.

The Philadelphia Flyers -- last year's Eastern Conference champions -- seemed to be the team to beat in the East for most of the 2010-11 campaign, but Peter Laviolette's club faltered down the stretch and allowed Washington to take the East's top seed.

The Presidents' Trophy has been a kiss of death for teams in the last two postseasons.
Also in the East, there is the ongoing injury saga involving Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby. Crosby appeared to be on his way to a second Hart Trophy this season before suffering a concussion in early January. The head injury caused Crosby to miss the final 41 games of the regular season, and although Pittsburgh's captain has been skating with the team for several weeks, he has still not been cleared for contact.

The Penguins' brass has a difficult decision to make regarding Crosby, as the club obviously wants to make the Stanley Cup finals for the third time in four seasons, but Pittsburgh must be careful not to risk the future of its franchise player on the hopes of another deep postseason run.

The prospect of a postseason without Crosby is a daunting one not just for Pittsburgh, but also for the sport of hockey. Love him or hate him, Crosby is one of the NHL's two most recognizable faces, along with Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin, and his absence will be felt if he's unable to make it back for the playoffs.

Let's take a closer look to see what the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs have in store.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(1) Washington vs. (8) NY Rangers

The Capitals haven't made it past the second round of the postseason since their run to the Cup Finals in 1998, but although Bruce Boudreau's team is eager to prove its playoff worth, Washington needs to be careful not to look past the Rangers in Round 1. The Caps' seven-game series loss to Montreal in last year's conference quarterfinals marked Washington's second first-round ousting in three seasons, but Boudreau has gotten his team to play a more responsible brand of hockey this year. That newfound dedication to team defense has cost Ovechkin and some of his fellow forwards in the scoring department, but the hope is that statistical loss will benefit the team as a whole. The Rangers are back in the postseason for the fifth time in six seasons after sitting out last year's tournament. New York's best asset is goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, but the Swedish backstop will likely need to turn in the postseason performance of his career to help the Blueshirts pull of this upset.

Capitals in 6

(2) Philadelphia vs. (7) Buffalo

If not for a late-season swoon, the Flyers would likely have been heavy favorites no matter who they faced in Round 1. Instead, the club seemed tired down the stretch and posted a 7-8-6 record over its last 21 games of the regular season. Perhaps Philadelphia is fatigued after feeling the delayed effects of a surprising run to last year's Cup Finals, or maybe the fact that defenseman Chris Pronger missed the last 16 games due to a hand injury contributed to the team's uneven play. Pronger could be back for the start of this series, however, and his return would be a huge boost for this struggling Flyers' club. Philadelphia has a clear advantage in depth on offense and defense, but with Ryan Miller, the Sabres have a big edge between the pipes. Miller won the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender last season and has played in 40 career playoff games, while Sergei Bobrovsky -- Philadelphia's starter for Game 1 -- will make his NHL postseason debut this spring. Still, with the likes of Mike Richards, Claude Giroux, Jeff Carter and Danny Briere up front, the Flyers should have a considerable depth advantage over Buffalo, and that should be enough to move Philly into the second round.

Flyers in 7

(3) Boston vs. (6) Montreal

It's always fun when Original Six teams face each other in the postseason, and this series between two of hockey's fiercest rivals will have bad blood to spare. After all, this will be the 33rd all-time playoff series between these clubs, and although Montreal has won 24 of those matchups, the Bruins have taken the series in five of the last eight playoff encounters. Boston also swept the Habs when the clubs met last in the spring of 2009. The Bruins have one of the league's best defenseman in Zdeno Chara and also boast possibly the NHL's best puck-stopper in goaltender Tim Thomas. As if being a Bruin wasn't enough, Chara made himself even more unpopular in Montreal after he drilled Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty into a stanchion near the benches on March 8, and that infamous hit will add some juice to an already heated rivalry. Montreal's best hope in this series is to ride goaltender Carey Price, but although he is coming off the best regular season of his young career, the 23- year-old backstop has been a big disappointment with a 5-11 record and a 3.17 GAA in 19 NHL postseason appearances.

Bruins in 5

(4) Pittsburgh vs. (5) Tampa Bay

Crosby's uncertain status was mentioned above, but don't forget that Pittsburgh's second-best offensive weapon, Evgeni Malkin, is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. Malkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy for Pittsburgh when it claimed the Stanley Cup title two years ago, and his absence will certainly hurt the Pens' chances at a deep playoff run. Even with the potential return of Crosby, the Lightning have an advantage in scoring with the likes of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos on their side. However, Pens head coach Dan Bylsma has done a masterful job of adjusting his club on the fly following the injuries to Crosby and Malkin, and that has led Pittsburgh to be much better than the sum of its parts. Marc- Andre Fleury's play in net when the injuries took their toll was also big for the Pens, and he gives Pittsburgh the edge in goal over Tampa netminder Dwayne Roloson. The 41-year-old Roloson came over in a midseason trade with the New York Islanders and has helped mask the Lightning's defensive deficiencies to an extent, but expect Tampa's sloppy play in its own zone to continue in this series. The Pens won loads of close games without Crosby and Malkin late in the season and will keep that trend going in the first round.

Penguins in 7

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(1) Vancouver vs. (8) Chicago

It is very tempting to pick the Blackhawks to win this series, and not just because the last two Presidents' Trophy winners have bowed out in the first round. Chicago is also the defending champions and has knocked Vancouver out in the Western Conference semifinals in each of the last two springs. However, this is not the same Blackhawks team that won it all last year, nor is it the one that has beaten Vancouver four games-to-two in consecutive postseasons. That club was ripped apart this offseason in an attempt to achieve a healthier salary cap situation, and the losses obviously hurt the Blackhawks, who went from 112 points in 2009-10 to 97 this season. Sure, Chicago still has stars in players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith, but the club's depth has taken a big hit. The Canucks are now the ones boasting superior depth on offense and defense, and the club is hoping to ride the wave it's been on all season long to the franchise's first Stanley Cup title. Barring a meltdown by goaltender Roberto Luongo, the Canucks should be able to avoid the first-round upset against a dangerous eighth seed.

Canucks in 6

(2) San Jose vs. (7) Los Angeles

Although the Sharks and Kings are Pacific Division rivals, the clubs will be meeting for the first time ever in the postseason this spring. After a run to the conference finals in 2010, San Jose hopes this is the year it can finally punch a ticket to the Stanley Cup finals. The Sharks have recorded 100-plus points in five straight seasons, but they bowed out in the second round or earlier from 2007-09 before making it to the West finals last season. But, even though San Jose made it that far for just the second time in club history, it was not a memorable ending, as the Sharks were swept by Chicago. The Sharks have a stable of talented forwards, including superstars Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau as well as standout rookie Logan Couture. San Jose also has a new goaltender in Antti Niemi, who was signed this offseason to replace perennial playoff disappointment Evgeni Nabokov. Niemi, of course, backstopped Chicago to a Stanley Cup title as a rookie last season. The Kings are an up-and-coming club, but they will likely be one-and- done in the playoffs for a second straight year after missing the postseason from 2003-09. Los Angeles would have problems beating San Jose at full strength, and the loss of top centerman Anze Kopitar for the remainder of the season will hasten the Kings' exit.

Sharks in 6

(3) Detroit vs. (6) Phoenix

In the only duplicate series from last year's first round, the Red Wings will try to oust Phoenix in the conference quarterfinals for the second straight season. Last year the Coyotes held home-ice advantage in the battle between the fourth and fifth seeds, but third-seeded Detroit had the upper hand in the standings this year. The 2010 series went seven games, but the Red Wings pounded the Coyotes by a 6-1 score on the road in Game 7. Of course, Detroit is always dangerous come playoff time, but the Coyotes have an excellent shot to knock off Mike Babcock's club this year, especially with Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg expected to miss at least Game 1. Phoenix cannot match Detroit in terms of star power, but the Coyotes play a relentless team game under head coach Dave Tippett and have an advantage in net with Ilya Bryzgalov over Jimmy Howard. Last year Phoenix was happy to be in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, but this spring the Coyotes will take the next step. The franchise has lost all six of its playoff series since moving from Winnipeg to the desert, but the Coyotes are poised to end that trend this season.

Coyotes in 7

(4) Anaheim vs. (5) Nashville

The Ducks played extremely well down the stretch to claim the West's fourth seed, posting a 15-5-0 record over the last 20 games of the regular season, but uncertainty in goal could cost Anaheim in the playoffs. When No. 1 netminder Jonas Hiller missed a big chunk of the season due to vertigo, it was Ray Emery who stepped up and went 7-2-0 with a 2.28 GAA after being signed in early February. But now Hiller is still hampered by his illness and it appears that Emery will miss at least Game 1 of this series with a lower-body injury. Emery's injury means Dan Ellis will likely start the opener, and that's not such a bad thing considering Ellis went 8-3-1 with a 2.39 GAA after coming to Anaheim in a trade from Tampa in February. Meanwhile, Nashville has its workhorse goaltender Pekka Rinne ready to go after he went 33-22-9 with a stellar .930 save percentage and 2.12 GAA this year. With star forwards such as Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan at their disposal, the Ducks are an offensive-minded team going against the third-stingiest defensive team in the NHL this year. The Predators are a gritty club that has lost all five playoff series in team history. This year, Barry Trotz -- the only head coach the Nashville franchise has ever known -- will finally get captain Shea Weber and his troops into the second round.

Predators in 6

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.

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