(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) New York Rangers
Regular Season Series: New York won 3-1
Why Washington Will Win: Washington boasts a formidable offense. Despite the off year had by Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Alex Semin, and the majority of the supporting cast, the Capitals still managed to win 48 games and take 1st place in the East. It took a bold surge in the back half of the season, but Washington has three legitimate goalies in Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov, and Braden Holtby. Does it matter who is in goal? Not in the first round. This team has too much firepower not to overwhelm the Rangers.
Why New York Will Win: A scrappy team that has a spread out offense (and score more than Washington in the regular season) and a remarkable goaltender. Sounds like the formula for every single #8 seed that has stymied playoff predictors since the 2003 Anaheim Ducks. New York has a chance of goalkeeper Henrik Lundqvist can play with the same poise he showed all season. 11 shutouts is intimidating.
Who Will Win: Despite New York having the edge in the regular season, having a more stable goaltending situation, and riding the adrenaline of getting into the post-season on the last game, they don't have the mustard to compete with a Washington team that has a lot to prove. Getting bounced by Montreal last season put the integrity of the team's core in question. Coach Bruce Boudreau must be getting hot under the collar as well. I would be too if I was staring at a first round match-up against a team with a better goalie and a better coach. Still, despite New York's edge in certain categories, Washington gets it done in six games.
(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (7) Buffalo Sabres
Regular Season Series: Tied 2-2
Why Philadelphia Will Win: This team dominated for the majority of the season...until they went 7-7-6 in their last 20 games. Despite this slump there's lots to be thankful for in Philly, namely a strong offense spread out over their top six forwards. As long as their top two lines are clicking, and Chris Pronger finds a way to get into form coming back from a wrist injury, Philly is as dangerous as any team in the East.
Why Buffalo Will Win: I can't tag a team for starting a rookie goaltender while praising another, so for now I will suggest the juvenile approach that Philly's Sergei Bobrovsky and Buffalo's Jonas Enroth cancel each other out. The big question mark in the series might be who starts in goal for these teams. If Ryan Miller is in form, Philly and their backup Brian Boucher don't stand a chance. Plain and simple, Miller can steal games. He might even be able to steal a series if Buffalo sniper Thomas Vanek decides to show up.
Who Will Win: I don't like Philly's goaltending match-up at all, but their team has a lot more depth at forward and Chris Pronger has proven himself to be a difference maker when he's in top form. Assuming Miller is good to go, they will squeeze six games out of the series but Philly will move on.
(3) Boston Bruins vs. (6) Montreal Canadiens
Regular Season Series: Montreal won 4-2
Why Boston Will Win: Ah, the blood feud continues. These teams hate each other. Between the 8-6 donnybrook, the Max Pacioretty Incident, the 7-0 skunking by the Bruins, it's very difficult to tell what team is more motivated to win. Boston has a strong corps of forwards in Nathan Horton, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, and so on. Their defense is solid with the mutant Zdeno Chara. They are lead in goal with the obvious Vezina Trophy candidate Tim Thomas. This team is built to push other teams around and dominate. And they should. But...
Why Montreal Will Win: There's a lot to be said about heart in the playoffs. Montreal was the little team that could last season. On the strength of outstanding goaltending, they made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. They could repeat this task again if Carey Price plays at the same level he did all season (minus the 7-0 ass whooping Montreal took at the end of the season). They have a bunch of smaller but speedier forwards who undoubtedly proved they could ignore Boston's physical superiority. There's also something to be said about Montreal's depth on defense.
Who Will Win: This series will not only go the distance, but I get the sense that one or more games will be determined in overtime. The seven game slugfest will end with les habitants emerging from the wreckage. My faith in Boston as a team was badly rattled last year when they blew a 3-0 lead to Philadelphia. Tim Thomas hasn't really shown anyone that he's a playoff goaltender and despite Carey Prices 0-8 record in his last 8 playoff games, I trust him over Thomas at the moment. Don't get me wrong, though. This series is going to be the best of the eight quarter finals.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning
Regular Season Series: Tied 2-2
Why Pittsburgh Will Win: The Penguins have been getting it done without two of the world's five best players. No Crosby and no Malkin was no problem for Pittsburgh, who rode Marc-Andre Fleury's phenomenal goaltending into a 4th place finish just barely missing the division title. The playoffs are a different animal but if Fleury can maintain his poise and Crosby can get back in time, the Penguins could be a dark horse to win it all.
Why Tampa Bay Will Win: Never count out Dwayne Roloson. He's a 40 year old goaltender, but he's among the best in the league at performing in clutch playoff games. In addition to Rolly, Tampa boasts a bevy of offense including Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, and of course, Martin St. Louis, who just finished the season with 99 points. Throw in Ryan Malone and you have some good depth at forward.
Who Will Win: I believe this series hinges entirely on a player who may not see a single shift. If Crosby does not return to the Pittsburgh lineup, they will not get out of the first round. All due respect to Coach Bylsma and Fleury, they can't and won't win 2-1 games over Tampa Bay all series long and they will not be able to rely on the shootout or 4 on 4 overtime to save their season. Assuming Crosby is out, Tampa should be able to win in six games with a solid effort from their scorers.