Half the fun of the postseason, like any tournament, is watching for upsets. While it's generally true that the top seed is the favorite in a tournament, media hype drives the favorites and we here at Litter Box Cats are ready to put ourselves out there and pronounce our individual picks for the first round of this year's NHL playoffs.
Washington Capitals (1) vs. New York Rangers (8)
John: Capitals in 6
I think this is the Capitals' do or die year. While Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are locked up long-term, a lot of the Caps' role players are in the last year of their deal. They had an $8 million cushion this year and that's not enough to get everyone on the current team under contract. To understand the importance of a team's role players, look no further than the Blackhawks, who lost a lot of theirs and almost missed this year's playoffs or to the Penguins, who are missing two of their three superstars and are still winning.
Donny: Capitals in 5
The loss of do-everything Ryan Callahan will be a tough hurdle for the Rangers, though Chris Drury's return should alleviate some of the pressure. I really like Tortorella's defensive structure - featuring a hungry Bryan McCabe - but who knows how long Marian Gaborik can maintain his health in a rough-and-tumble series. As John stated above, this is it for the current Caps crew; hard to imagine another early flameout no matter the opposition.
Ryan: Rangers in 7
What's the best way to frustrate the superstars that comprise the top half of Washington's forward corps? Don't let them score. The Rangers were one of the better defensive teams during the regular season, and they have one of the hottest goalies right now in Henrik Lundqvist. Their physical style may start to wear on the Washington defense, especially with all-star puck mover Mike Green coming back from a concussion. The loss of Ryan Callahan is going to be a difficulty for coach John Tortorella to overcome, but the Rangers dealt with injuries to key players during the season and came out on top. I'm going against the grain here and taking the Rags in 7, with some dramatic overtime games throughout the series.
Philadelphia Flyers (2) vs. Buffalo Sabres (7)
John: Flyers in 7
The Flyers, though second in the east, backed into the playoffs, giving up a substantial lead in the standings to eventual conference leaders Washington. I think the Flyers will ultimately win the series, but the Sabres won't go down without a fight. But if the Flyers don't get it together this round, they'll likely be looking at a second-round exit. The impending return of Chris Pronger should help, as they are almost a different team when he's healthy.
Donny: Sabres in 6
The Sabres are 9-1-2 in their final twelve games; conversely the Flyers are 1-3-2 over their past six (the lone victory coming in a season-ending 7-4 trouncing of the Islanders), with losses against such powerhouses as Atlanta and Ottawa. Granted this is a "new" season, but unless Philadelphia ramps up to expected form - and quickly - Lindy's boys are tuned for an upset.
Ryan: Flyers in 6
Buffalo comes into the playoffs on an 8-1-1 tear to finish the season, which was the best amongst all NHL teams, and their offense is just clicking. Buffalo has reigning Vezina trophy winner Ryan Miller in net, who usually rises to the occasion. Philly has a rookie goaltender and may end up playing some games in this series without top d-man Chris Pronger. Sounds like a Buffalo win, right? Nope. The Flyers simply have too much depth in their lineup for the Sabres to compete in the long run, and don't underestimate "Bob", folks.
Boston Bruins (3) vs. Montreal Canadiens (6)
John: Bruins in 5
I'm being generous here and giving the Canadiens a game because they're a quick, talented squad, but they're missing two of their best defensemen and the Bruins have shown that they can outwork and outfight Montreal. Carey Price will probably steal a game, but unless something happens to Tim Thomas, the B's will take this one.
Donny: Bruins in 6
Agreed on all fronts with John, though the Habs will likely be motivated enough to win two at home before their city is once again engulfed in fan-generated flames and overturned Crown Vics. This should be a classic matchup between two franchises who essentially despise each other. Of dire interest to SoFla locals: how will Nathan Horton fare in his playoff premiere? Place your bets.
Ryan: Bruins in 6
Carey Price has been lights out all season, but at this point I think we all agree Tim Thomas could stop a Tiger Woods tee shot with his thumb and index fingers. This series is going to come down to goaltending, as both teams are going to generate a lot of scoring opportunities. Special teams are going to play a big role in some of these games, as Montreal topped the Bruins in both power play and penalty kill percentage during the regular season.
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (5)
John: Lightning in 7
I think this one is going to go the distance and really, I think it's a toss-up as to who will win. The Penguins will be missing Sidney Crosby for probably the whole series, but that hasn't stopped them winning games. It probably cost them the top seed in their division and maybe the conference, but this is a team that wins hockey games. This is probably Dwayne Roloson's last shot at a Cup as a starter and he'll do his best to outduel Marc-Andre Fleury, but the defense in front of him isn't as good as what Fleury has. But I think the Lightning offense, which seems to be waking up now that the team's healthy, will be able to run the scores up enough to win some games.
Donny: Penguins in 5
My prediction is based almost solely on Steven Stamkos' desire to re-engage with the living. Vincent Lacavalier and Martin St. Louis remain their superstar selves, but without Stammer bringing his A-game - and then some - a far more battle-tested and patient Penguins squad will prevail early, even minus the Crosby and Evgeni Malkin juggernauts. Jordan Staal takes his talent to a whole new level.
Ryan: Penguins in 6
As goes Fleury, so go the Pens. If he continues his solid form from the regular season, Tampa will have issues putting pucks in the net, especially if Stamkos doesn't snap out of his current funk. Pittsburgh's relentless forecheck and depth at forward will make it tough for the less-than-stellar Tampa Bay defensive corps to weather a full series against the veteran Penguins. Oh, and there's that Crosby guy, if he makes it back. Either way, look for the Pens defense to shut down the Tampa attack.
Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (8)
John: Vancouver in 4
I'll say it now, this is the year the Canucks put their playoff demons behind them and they'll start by finally beating the Blackhawks in a series. The Hawks made the playoffs because the Stars choked and that doesn't bode well for their chances. They couldn't get the wins when they needed them and all the Canucks have done all season is win, including for long stretches when half of their top 6 defensemen were hurt. Alain Vigneault has his club playing very well and they're going to be the team to beat in the west.
Donny: Vancouver in 5
The Blackhawks will put up a fight but it won't be enough against a healthy 'Nucks roster, who will stumble only once on their way to round two...and that will be all she wrote for the rest of the West. Just too much talent at too many positions to fall short of an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. Evidence? Backup (in title only) netminder Cory Schneider went 16-4-3 with a .930 save percentage. That's frightening.
Ryan: Vancouver in 6
As powerful as the Vancouver lineup and goaltending are, you have to give Chicago a couple games based on experience, effort and the one-man show of hockey awesomeness known as Jonathan Toews. Also, I can't neglect the Q-stache either. That being said, I'm with John and Donny on this one. The human walls that comprise the Canuck goaltending tandem... just awesome. Also, this might not be common knowledge, but there are these twins, named Henrik and Daniel, and I heard they're pretty good too.
San Jose Sharks (2) vs. Los Angeles Kings (7)
John: San Jose in 6
The Sharks have historically not been a great playoff team, but they're a good regular season team and it's still early going. The Kings, for their part, are without Anze Kopitar and have found the scoring difficult without him. Goaltender Jonathan Quick has also not been at his best through the end of the season.
Donny: San Jose in 4
Though the games were a bit closer than San Jose's 3-1-2 record vs. the Kings, steamrolling through the first two rounds are what the Sharks are built for. And Antti Niemi needs no introduction to the postseason.
Ryan: Los Angeles in 6
I just can't ignore season after season of letdowns by the Sharks. Despite the roll they've been on, and the stellar play of Niemi, history tends to repeat itself and LA is going to be pumped to be in the first round against their long-successful interstate rivals. Look for Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty to all step up their game and make life difficult for Todd McLellan's squad.
Detroit Red Wings (3) vs. Phoenix Coyotes (6)
John: Detroit in 5
I hate to have to take perennial contenders Detroit here, but they showed they can still dominate in Sunday's game against Chicago. The points were meaningless to them, but they came close to putting the Blackhawks out of the playoffs on the final day of the season. The question, as always, is goaltending, but that shouldn't hurt them too much early on.
Donny: Detroit in 6
Got to hand it to the Coyotes and their Adams Trophy-winning coach from a year ago; they never withered, despite having only a single player with 60 points (Shane Doan). Ilya Bryzgalov (7 shutouts!) will again be called to upon carry his club beyond reasonable expectations and perhaps steal a couple, but in a seven-game series against the Wings? Would truly love to see it...
Ryan: Detroit in 7
Detroit workhorse Pavel Datsyuk will be without fellow superstar Henrik Zetterberg to start this series, which is a huge blow to the Red Wings. Netminder Jimmy Howard will likely have to be The Man for Detroit in this series, because at the other end of the rink will be one of the best goalies this season in Ilya Bryzgalov. Phoenix is more dangerous than last season's showing, but Detroit should still win it. I think this will be one of the most exciting series to watch in the entire first round of the playoffs.
Anaheim Ducks (4) vs. Nashville Predators (5)
John: Nashville in 7
I think this is going to be a great series. This is my pick for the great stealth series in the playoffs, like the Carolina-New Jersey series a few years ago. I'm taking the Preds on the strength of their appearance against the eventual Cup champion Blackhawks last year. They couldn't finish the job, but I expect they've taken that lesson to heart. The Ducks, however, will not be going down quietly. Ray Emery has been spectacular for them since his return to the NHL and they have both the league's goals leader Corey Perry and the seemingly ageless Teemu Selanne up front. Even Dan Ellis looked very good in goal for them this weekend.
Donny: Nashville in 7
Going to mirror John here as well. Think scoring was tight in Phoenix? Meet a club defined entirely by its goaltender. With no skaters surpassing the 50-point plateau, Pekka Rinne (and the defensive wizards before him) must continue to amaze in order to slow an Anaheim offense boasting five players with more than 68 points. Preds' coach Barry Trotz - still the most under-celebrated bench boss in the league - ultimately wins this one by attrition.
Ryan: Ducks in 6
Corey Perry. COREY PERRY. Remember that name; you're going to hear it a lot throughout these playoffs. The Ducks have some goaltending concerns with Jonas Hiller still out, but Ray Emery has played well enough to keep the Ducks not only in the playoffs but to help push them to the fourth seed. Nashville has scoring issues and the Anaheim defense has been better than advertised, especially the top pairing. Still, this should be a competitive series, but the scoring power of Bobby Ryan, Perry and Ryan Getzlaf can't be matched by the Preds.
So, are we dead on, close, dead wrong? Let us know your picks in the comments. Make sure you get them in before any of the games are played if you want full bragging rights when you're proven right.