The Panthers are out of the Stanley Cup playoffs once again, but like Stephen Weiss and David Booth, we'll be following former Cats who have finally made the dance.
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 once again and pronounce our individual picks for the second round of this year's NHL playoffs. It was a crazy first round and we can only hope for more of the same as we move on.
Although it seemed for a while like more bottom seeds would make it through, this year the top three seeds won in both conferences, while the five seed beat the four. So, for both conferences the one plays the five and the two plays the three. Our picks after the jump.
Washington Capitals (1) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (5)
John: Capitals in 6
This is the first Southeast Division playoff matchup since these two teams met in the first round of the 2003 playoffs. The Lightning won that one in six games the year before taking the Stanley Cup. The teams are in different positions this year. This is the first time the Lightning have been in the second round since that Cup win, and their first playoff appearance since 2007, while this is the Capitals' fourth straight playoff appearance. The Capitals have struggled in the playoffs, including in the last series against the Rangers. But they showed a resiliency and an ability to tweak their new defensive system and go run and gun long enough to tie a game if they fall behind. The Lightning were also resilient against the Penguins and turned around after a 3-0 game one loss to win on the road and after losing two games at home to beat the Pens 8-2 in Pittsburgh on their way to three straight wins and a series victory. But the Capitals' Michal Neuvirth has the ability to outplay Dwayne Roloson and the Capitals' defense is better than the Lightning's. The Lightning aren't going to be able to allow the Capitals to play in their zone and hold them scoreless like they did the Penguins in game 7. Roloson will steal a game and the Lightning offense will light it up for a game, but ultimately they'll be outlasted by the Caps.
Donny: Capitals in 5
I so want to see the Bolts pull this off, but it's going to have to be an epic effort - combined with an equally epic collapse on the part of Washington. The Pens may have lacked their one-two punch of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin yet still took Tampa Bay to seven games; going to be something else entirely when matched against Alex Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson, Alexander Semin, and the rest of a roster living every moment to prove last year's playoff disaster was a horrible fluke. On the other hand, Martin St. Louis was spectacular with 8 points (4 goals) in Round One, and who could have expected Steve Downie's better than point-a-game pace? They'll have to keep it up, and another 4-point performance by Steven Stamkos won't be nearly enough.
Ryan: Capitals in 6
This is a completely different Washington team than we have seen in the past several postseasons. The Caps are working as a team, and other than a couple defensive lapses and untimely injuries, they are rolling into the second round with plenty of rest. Michal Neuvirth is playing out of his mind right now and coach Bruce Boudreau has this squad playing smarter this year. Tampa still has a lot of weapons and is getting what every true contender needs in the playoffs: scoring depth. I have to agree with John in that the Caps have a much more solid defensive group than the Lightning, and with Washington's scoring punch, they will be much more heavily tested than against the Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins.
Philadelphia Flyers (2) vs. Boston Bruins (3)
John: Flyers in 7
I am predicting that this rematch of last year's Eastern Conference Final will produce the same result: a long series and a Flyers win. The B's managed a win against the Canadiens, but only after almost letting them do what they did to two opponents last year. Which is also what the Flyers did to the Bruins last year. This year the Bruins will be more prepared, but the Flyers have already shown they can beat an opponent with superior goaltending when they aren't even firing on all cylinders. Chris Pronger is back though still injured, but his ice time is increasing and the Flyers should come out in the form it took them seven games to find against the Sabres. Tim Thomas will steal a game or two for the Bruins, but ultimately the Flyers scored on Ryan Miller and they can score on Thomas.
Donny: Bruins in 7
Philadelphia showed some terrific glimpses of perfection at times over Buffalo, and some of that is certainly due to Miller's 20 goals-against over the five non-shutouts. Thomas did more with less, and should continue the pattern now that all eyes will be on the Flyers' three-headed goaltending monster. For Boston to succeed, two elements are mandatory: Nathan Horton must decide he likes this playoff thing and quickly improve upon his miserly-yet-huge 3 goals (two game winners), while Claude Julien will have to utilize every coaching tool in his arsenal while fending off the Sword of Damocles hanging mere inches above his dome. Expect both, and a Thomas showcase, to lead the Broons in a long series.
Ryan: Flyers in 6
The Bruins just aren't playing well enough right now to stop the very, very deep roster of the Flyers. Squeaking out a game seven win over the Habs just goes to show you that the Bruins might not be completely over the mental effects of last year's postseason collapse. Of course, Philly could play another series worth of Musical Goaltenders, but it looks like coach Peter Laviolette is wisening up and choosing to stick with the most proven commodity in Brian Boucher. Pronger's slow return to health will make a huge difference on the blue line for the Flyers, and Danny Briere and Mike Richards are starting to heat up. Can Tim Thomas save the day? Maybe a few times, but not enough to get the B's to the conference finals.
Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Nashville Predators (5)
John: Canucks in 6
I was a bit off on the first round, predicting a Vancouver sweep. The Canucks nearly blew another round against the Chicago Blackhawks juggernaut, but pulled it out in a game 7 overtime. The Canucks' best players never really showed what they're capable of in the first round and I expect that to change. But I also expect the pesky Predators to throw everything they have at the Canucks. Pekka Rinne should steal a game or two, but the Canucks are the better team here and the Preds will likely come up short in this, their first ever second-round series.
Donny: Predators in 5
This is my out-there pick, the one which completely flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but I'm thinking the 'Nucks are rattled after their near-disaster versus Chicago. Though Vancouver is - on paper - superior to Anaheim in every facet, very balanced scoring from the Preds' (witness eight players with 4 points or better in six games) will fluster a somewhat fragile Canucks defensive corps. In any case, these won't be low-scoring affairs. And you can't debate the wisdom and creativity of Trotz and a club built around his coaching strengths. Vancouver looked awfully average last week.
Ryan: Nashville in 7
Roberto Luongo is the pariah of the Canucks' first-round woes against rival Chicago, but did anyone see the Canucks defense during those losses? Atrocious. Louie will need a much better effort from his teammates, and himself, if they want to stop the opportunistic Predators. Barry Trotz again has his team playing well beyond what their publicly perceived roster depth would imply, and Shea Weber is an absolute stud on the blue line for Nashville. Vancouver will have trouble scoring consistently on the Preds, which looks to be something of a problem, as they seem to get frustrated and stop playing a complete game. This is going to be a very interesting series to watch.
San Jose Sharks (2) vs. Detroit Red Wings (3)
John: Red Wings in 6
Like I said last round: Don't ever count out the Wings in the playoffs. The Sharks' best players finally came up clutch when the series was on the line, but the Red Wings are the Red Wings. They swept the Coyotes without Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen for part of the series. They'll both be back for this one. The Sharks are a better team than the Coyotes and they'll have home ice advantage, but the Red Wings don't need home ice to succeed. Nor will they need stellar goaltending in this round, because the Sharks don't have it either. Antti Niemi hasn't been for San Jose what he was for Chicago and I'm not expecting either tender to steal a win in this one. The team that can outgun the other will take it.
Donny: Red Wings in 4
Yep, four. A week of R&R, combined with a fully healed-up roster, will be the difference in this year's version of the annual Wings-Sharks postseason yawnfest. Todd Bertuzzi is looking ten years younger, while defensive stalwarts Nick Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski are, well, Lidstrom and Rafalski, still the best one-two punch on anyone's blueline. Throw in Niemi's 3.99 / .860 stats against, ahem, Los Angeles and this one's done.
Ryan: Red Wings in 6
I'm with John on this one: it's likely to be a shootout. With the Wings getting back a healthier Zetterberg and Franzen, they become significantly deeper, and I think Jimmy Howard will out play Niemi as well. The Sharks finally look like postseason stars for the first time in a long time, so they should at least make this an interesting series. I really think this one could go either way and will come down to the deeper lines working hard to make plays, as the stars for each team will see plenty of time. This one will be decided in the trenches and in the crease.