If you’re a hockey fan, you love the NHL playoffs. Hell, even if you’re not a hockey fan, you might love them…or at least acknowledge that they comprise the greatest tournament in sports. And yeah, the playoffs kicked off last night with three games, but it’s not too late to make my first-round picks. So here we go…
Washington (1) vs. Philadelphia (WC2)
It was a monster regular season for the Caps: An NHL-best 120 points, Alex Ovechkin with 50 goals and Braden Holtby with an NHL record-tying 48 wins. But all that goes out the window now. After years of disappointing playoff flameouts, the pressure’s on Washington to win the whole thing. And really, they have no excuses. And in this round, they won’t need any, because they will handle the Flyers, who played well down the stretch to squeak in the postseason. Caps in 5.
Pittsburgh (2) vs. NY Rangers (3)
The Pens and Rangers both had disappointing starts and strong finishes. Pittsburgh’s offense finally kicked in after Mike Sullivan was brought in as coach, replacing the fired Mike Johnston. With the likes of Sid Crosby, Kris Letang, Phil Kessel leading the way, the Pens can score (although they’re missing injured Evgeni Malkin). But with longtime starter Marc-Andre Fleury injured, they’re relying on backup goalies Jeff Zatkoff and Matt Murray to step up against the King, Henrik Lundqvist. Tough assignment. Rangers in 7.*
* Given the fact that Lundqvist took a stick to the eye last night and had to leave after the 1st, I may have to revise this pick. If he doesn’t come back, Penguins in 7.
Florida (1) vs. NY Islanders (WC1)
The excellent season Florida had has been well documented and fun to watch. Led by veterans Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo and Brian Campbell, the Panthers also boast a strong group of young talent including Jonathan Huberdeau, Alexander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith and Aaron Ekblad. They’re up against a dangerous Isles team led by captain John Tavares and the goalie tandem of Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak. Still, the Cinderella season will continue for Florida. Panthers in 6.
Detroit (3) vs. Tampa Bay (2)
Both the Wings and Lightning limped into the postseason, with Tampa especially feeling the pain after losing captain and elite player Steven Stamkos and reliable d-man Anton Stralman to injuries in the last few weeks. Detroit has struggled to maintain consistency all season, and top goalie Jimmy Howard has been ordinary for much of it. Despite the injuries, a healthy Ben Bishop and the offense of Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will help the Lightning prevail. Lightning in 6.
Dallas (1) vs. Minnesota (WC2)
The Stars have a high-octane offense, which doesn’t usually translate into playoff success. Still, the likes of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza should be enough to take out the Wild, who are just happy to be here. Dallas will likely get bumped by one of the more complete teams in the West, but for now, they’re looking good. Stars in 5.
St. Louis (2) vs. Chicago (3)
This is gonna be a good one. Unfortunately for the Blues, they consistently have fine teams that run into the powerhouses of the West in the playoffs. This year, they get defending Cup champs Chicago and it’s not going to be easy. Even though the Hawks limped into the playoffs, they’ve still got Kane, Toews, Panarin et al. ’Nuff said. Hawks in 6.
Anaheim (1) vs. Nashville (WC1)
The Ducks got off to an absolutely horrendous start, but wow, what a turnaround. Coach Bruce Boudreau managed to get off the firing block and lead his team to first in the Pacific. But Boudreau is now feeling the heat to succeed in the playoffs, as are the Predators, who have had many disappointments over the years. Unfortunately for Nashville, this too will be a disappointment. Anaheim’s got too much to deal with. Ducks in 6.
Los Angeles (2) vs. San Jose (3)
The Kings and Sharks both had good bounce-back years after missing the postseason last spring. But when it comes to the playoffs, only one of these teams has a proven track record of success. That being LA, which won the Cup in 2011-12 and 2013-14, while the Sharks have failed to live up to expectations time and again. As much as I’d love to see Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski make a historic run, it doesn’t seem possible against this stacked Kings squad. Kings in 6.