It's playoff time! Let's dive in to those predictions from Staff Writers Andy Green and Harry Hawkings:
Harry says: Pittsburgh over NY Islanders in 6
The Islanders are a great story and have earned their playoff spot with excellent play from John Tavares and the rest of their young roster. They have a good goalie, too. But their defense isn’t that great and the roster as a whole is relatively young. On the other hand are the Penguins, who have struggled mightily in terms of puck possession without Sidney Crosby but are still one of the most talented teams in the NHL from top to bottom. Their only weakness is goalie (yes, it’s a weakness), especially after Marc-Andre Fleury’s disastrous performance last spring. Tomas Vokoun is a capable backup, though. With Crosby likely to return at some point in the series, Pittsburgh seems like the easy choice here. But the Isles will make it interesting.
Andy says: Pittsburgh wins over New York in 5
The New York Islanders have made their loyal fans very happy by returning to the playoffs in a season with no expectations. They have ridden a speedy offense and strong netminding from Evgeni Nabokov to a matchup against the juggernaut Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins lost the first game of the season series against the Isles in late January and haven't lost to them since. While the Islanders hold an advantage in goaltending and perhaps speed, the Penguins have tremendous depth at every position even without Sidney Crosby and should have little trouble dispatching the feisty Islanders.
Harry says: Boston over Toronto in 5
The Maple Leafs have ridden spectacular seasons from James Reimer and Phil Kessel to the playoffs despite being a poor possession team with a coach that misuses and under-uses some of his best players (Mikhail Grabovski and Nazem Kadri) while overusing his two worst (Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren). The Bruins, meanwhile, have struggled a tad lately, but have one of the best goalies in the NHL, a great coach, and a deep, defensively responsible forward corps. I think this series will be pretty easy for the Bruins, who surely have a message to send after bowing out in the first round last year. Reimer will likely steal a game, though.
Andy says: Boston over Toronto in 7
The Boston Bruins have been a solid team all season, but this is not the same team that won the Cup in 2011. They still have a very solid team at every position, they're just older. The big exception is in goal, with Tuukka Rask expected to man the pipes for the Bs. Rask is a very solid goalie, and the Bruins usually play tough, if not entirely disciplined, defense in front of him. The Bruins are certainly vulnerable to an upset, but the Maple Leafs are not the team to do it. They don't have the depth at center or on defense to match the Bruins, nor is their goaltending as good. The Leafs are good enough to take a game or two from the Bruins, and the Bruins are undisciplined enough to give a game or two away, but the talent on the Bruins is more than the Leafs will be able to handle. The Bruins will back into the second round this year.
Harry says: Montreal over Ottawa in 7
The Canadiens managed to win the Northeast Division despite a disastrous finish that saw their goaltending and penalty kill fall off a cliff – never a good sign for a team entering the playoffs. The Senators, on the other hand, just got Erik Karlsson back and may get Jason Spezza back, too. The Senators have a great goalie in Craig Anderson, but I still give the edge here to Carey Price, who is supremely talented despite his recent struggled. The Canadiens are not as well coached as the Senators, but have a habit of winning playoff series in seven games (or at least taking them to seven). This series could be the closest and I would be shocked if it’s decided in fewer than six games (I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the other two ended in sweeps). Still, I pick the Habs because of their talent and health.
Andy says: Otttawa wins over Montreal in 6
The Montreal Canadiens seemed to have a mantra of "make the playoffs this year." They actually qualified for the playoffs pretty early and then stopped playing. They managed to claim their division with some late season wins by their backup Peter Budaj, but Budaj doesn't have the make-up of a playoff starter, and frankly neither does Carey Price. After a thrilling first-round victory as a rookie, Price has been a complete playoff disappointment for the Canadiens and is no match for his opposite number in Ottawa, Craig Anderson. The Senators are about as healthy as they are going to get with the return of Anderson, scoring winger Milan Michalek, and Norris-trophy defenseman Erik Karlsson. That the Senators made the playoffs without these key players (and without #1 center Jason Spezza) for long stretches of the season is indicative of a team with lots of intestinal fortitude and belief in themselves. Against a counter-punching coach like Michel Therrien, the highly disciplined Senators and their Coach Paul MacLean will give them little opportunity to get those chances. The Senators have been playing at a playoff intensity for weeks, or even months, meaning they will get the drop on the Canadiens in the first couple of games, and by the time the Canadiens respond, it will be too late.
Harry says: Chicago over Minnesota in 5
The Wild have really struggled over the last month of the season since losing winger Dany Heatley earlier in the spring and despite their star power, have not looked that great or like a Cup contender at all this year. Though their owner may think that they are the Kings, they are not, and goalie Niklas Backstrom has been overworked and started 42 of 48 games this year. Corey Crawford isn’t a stud, but Chicago’s advantages in other places are just too great. This should be easy; Minnesota’s just not playing that well right now.
Andy Says: Chicago wins over Minnesota in 6
Normally I'd pick Chicago to steamroll over an 8 seed, but Minnesota hasn't been an easy out for Chicago this season. Minnesota took the first meeting 3-2 in a shootout, then lost the next two 5-3 and 1-0. Minnesota's offensive depth is hurt a bit by Jason Pominville's concussion and Dany Heatley's shoulder surgery, but they have new life in general with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter playing huge roles for them. Chicago's system is excellent, their offense and defense are top-notch, but their goaltending is just adequate, especially with Ray Emery on the shelf. The Hawks will take the series, but Minnesota's goaltending advantage means it won't be as easy as they'd like.
Harry Says: Anaheim over Detroit in 7
This is an unpopular pick because many people think that the Ducks are this high in the standings because of luck. That may be true, and they are not a great puck possession team, but they have stars on offense that have played very well this year despite average seasons by their standards in 2011-12 (Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry come to mind). The Detroit defense is easily their weakest point and they are relatively inexperienced, which gives an advantage to the Bruce Boudreau-coached Ducks. Simply put, I feel that the Ducks are better than some give them credit for and will be able to win this series despite the strong play of Jimmy Howard and the coaching of Mike Babcock.
Andy Says: Detroit wins over Anaheim in 7
The Anaheim Ducks are being coached by Bruce Boudreau, which means they clinched the playoffs early and coasted to the finish and will start the series slowly. After winning an early-season meeting with the Red Wings, they lost two in late March and lacked intensity. The Ducks managed to win just 3 of their last 8 games, and two were against the hapless Oilers. The Ducks have offensive weapons, solid defense and goaltending, but they have holes in the lineup. These aren't your daddy's Red Wings, they really missed Nick Lidstrom this season as they struggled to make the playoffs on the last day of the season. The good news for the Red Wings is they are a battle-tested team that knows how to dispatch good hockey teams in May and they have a solid lineup and top-notch coaching.
Harry says: Vancouver over San Jose in 7
This season has been a strange one for the Sharks, who sold off some assets at the trade deadline but are still a playoff team (and a strong one at that). The Sharks are certainly looking for revenge after being denied a trip to the Stanley Cup in 2011 by Vancouver, the final goal coming on one of the flukiest plays imaginable. But the Canucks have added good players this year like Derek Roy and have some scoring depth behind the Sedin brothers, especially if Ryan Kesler is back and producing. People will make a big deal about Cory Schneider’s injury for some reason, despite the fact that he’s never won a playoff series and Roberto Luongo is good. San Jose’s stars are on their last leg, and for that reason I think that Vancouver brings it home in seven.
Andy Says: Vancouver wins over San Jose in 7
The Canucks will have home-ice advantage for a west-coast matchup in round 1, and that ought to be enough to tip the balance. The Sharks have been world-beaters at the Shark Tank, including 2 wins over Vancouver, but managed just 8 road wins this season in 24 tries. The Sharks' lineup is solid and they have really no glaring strengths or weaknesses. The Canucks, on the other hand, now have an embarrassment of depth at center and can deploy former MVP Henrik Sedin, former Selke winner Ryan Kesler, and that other guy Derek Roy 1-2-3. They have the best goaltending duo in the league, lots of good defensemen, and good scoring depth on the wings. The Canucks lost all 3 to the Sharks this season, but took San Jose to a shootout in their only home game. All 3 games were played without #2 center Ryan Kesler, meaning the Sharks will be facing a different team in British Columbia this week.
Harry says: St. Louis over Los Angeles in 7
The Kings are as good a puck possession team in the NHL, and managed to get over their Stanley Cup hangover quickly to secure a five seed in this year’s playoffs. St. Louis also managed to get healthy late and added Jay Bouwmeester, a great defenseman, at the deadline. St. Louis also has a group of young, dynamic forwards and depth across the top of their attackers. Meanwhile, last year’s Conn Smythe winner, Jonathan Quick, had a very pedestrian .902 save percentage this year and has not looked very good at all of late. In short, repeating in the NHL is almost impossible and the last two defending Cup champions have gone out in the first round. Without Quick at the top of his game, I give the Blues a slight advantage in this series and pick them to win in seven – but this will be the best series of them all, in my opinion.
Andy Says: Los Angeles wins over St. Louis in 5
The St. Louis Blues are an excellent defensive team and managed to secure home ice for themselves in the playoffs this year. Fortunately, the Los Angeles Kings are used to starting on the road, and starting quickly. The Kings swept the Blues last season in the second round and swept the season series this year, and there is no reason to think the Blues will suddenly be able to figure out the Kings now. The Kings are superior in every aspect of their game, except perhaps in their consistency, meaning the Blues ought to be able to eke out one win before bowing out.
Andy also says Capitals over Rangers in 6.