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By Mike Ivcic
The NHL Playoffs are back, starting Wednesday night. This season has seen the emergence of promising young teams in Washington, Chicago, and St. Louis, the rise to the top for San Jose and Boston, the first appearance for Columbus, and intriguing storylines in nearly every city. Time to delve into some of them and find out who will advance onto the second round.
1) Boston vs 8) Montreal
Montreal has won 24 out of 31 postseason series between these Original Six teams. Not this year. The Bruins are too good and the Canadiens are a mess. They dropped big-time at mid-season, fired their coach, watched the team get put up for sale… it hasn’t been a whole lot of fun in Le Province de Quebec. If Montreal’s best defenseman Andrei Markov can’t play, and it’s still a 50-50 chance at best that he will, the Bruins become an even bigger favorite. Provided that Boston goaltender Tim Thomas can continue to play at the high level he’s performed at all season – he led the league in goals against average at 2.10 and save percentage at .933% – this should be a short series.
Pick: Boston 4-1
2) Washington vs 7) NY Rangers
This series will rival the Battle of PA as the best first round series at any level. The Caps can score, the Rangers can’t. The Rangers can play D, the Caps can’t. The contrast of styles will be won by whichever team dictates the pace of play, and there hasn’t been a better team at that this season than Washington. One key matchup – the Capitals #2 ranked power play against the Rangers #1 penalty kill. For NY to pull the upset, goalie Henrik Lundqvist and renowned pest Sean Avery will have to be difference makers, but overall, the Caps offense will simply be too much in the end.
Pick: Washington 4-2
3) New Jersey vs 6) Carolina
The matchup should probably read 3) Martin Brodeur vs 6) Hottest team in the East. That’s what this will ultimately become. For the Devils, many predicted a drop off this season, but Scott Clemmensen held down the fort with a 2.39 GAA and 25 wins until Brodeur recovered from injury. Now it’s Marty’s job to shut down a team that has outscored opponents 88-45 in 22 games of the season prior to their final games, both losses. Carolina’s Eric Staal led the way with 40 goals, but it’s a clash of systems more than players. Despite the hot play of the ‘Canes, look for the Devils to advance in this one thanks to home ice advantage.
Pick: New Jersey 4-3
4) Pittsburgh vs 5) Philadelphia
If the Flyers lose this series, they can probably point to the final game of the regular season, when they lost 4-3 to a Rangers team that had nothing to play for and subsequently lost home-ice in the Battle of PA. This rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference final returns many of the same players, including both goaltenders. Pitt’s Marc-Andre Fleury outplayed Philly’s Martin Biron in last year’s series, and once again is the stronger of the two netminders. The Flyers did set a team record with six 25-goal scorers this season, but while they have an advantage depth-wise, they simply can’t match the Penguins’ top two of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Look for them to be the difference makers in a surprisingly short series.
Pick: Pittsburgh 4-1
1) San Jose vs 8) Anaheim
The battle of California is an interesting one, with the high-power, playoff-underachieving Sharks taking on a regular season conundrum with a recent Cup run in the Ducks. Anaheim has a bit of a goaltender controversy, as Jean-Sebastian Giguere, who has backstopped the Ducks to one Stanley Cup and another Cup finals, has not played as well down the stretch and will not start game one. Instead, Jonas Hiller will get the nod. He’ll have to rely on a veteran defensive corp led by Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. Meanwhile San Jose has all of the pressure. They’ve been so close for so long, and this year won the President’s Trophy as the overall points leader. Joe Thornton and Co. need to prove – to themselves as well as everyone else – that they can win in the postseason. It’s a favorable matchup, but the experience could be a big factor the other way.
Pick: San Jose 4-3
2) Detroit vs 7) Columbus
The Jackets celebrated finally making the playoffs by losing their final two games and dropping from 6 to 7, getting a much more difficult matchup as a result. While Ohio hockey fans will finally get to experience the greatest postseason in sports, it will likely be short-lived. The Wings are fast and explosive on offense, hard-hitting and suffocating on defense. The biggest question facing Detroit is goaltending, as Chris Osgood has not played nearly as well as he did last year in winning the Cup. Columbus could take advantage of that one flaw. The key for them will be rallying around playoff veterans like R.J. Umberger, Mike Commodore, and Fredrik Modin, along with hoping rookie goaltender Steve Mason continues his tremendous play. In all, they might get a game or two.
Pick: Detroit 4-1
3) Vancouver vs 6) St. Louis
Anyone outside the Blues organization who expected to see the playoffs back in October is lying. Yet, here they stand, one of the youngest teams in the league that doesn’t know – or care – that they’re not supposed to be here. Meanwhile Roberto Luongo has led a rejuvenated Canucks team to a division title and a matchup of the two hottest teams in the Western Conference. The Blues have suffered more injuries than any team this season, and it could leave them without key veteran leader Paul Kariya for the first round. Vancouver counters with a veteran leader who joined the team late in Mats Sundin. He makes Vancouver top-heavy with two good lines, which combined with Luongo should be enough to outlast the youthful Blues return to the postseason.
Pick: Vancouver 4-2
4) Chicago vs 5) Calgary
This should be the best and closest series of the first round. Mike Keenan leads a Calgary team into the playoffs on the wrong note, while Chicago is just happy to be in the playoffs in any form. The 13-year absence for the Hawks was ended by finally drafting well (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews) and making good free agent signings (Nikolai Khabibulin, Sammy Pahlsson), then watching as coach Joel Quennville pieced it all together. The Flames underachieved and lost the division to the Canucks, meaning the pressure is squarely on their shoulders. The window of opportunity is closing for the Flames, and with a star at each position – Mikka Kiprusoff in net, Jerome Iginla up front, and Dion Phaneuff on the backline – they’re supposed to win at least one round. Conversely, anything beyond this round for Chicago is icing on the cake. Also, the Hawks are 6-0-1 in April and have home ice.. None of this points to success for Calgary.
Pick: Chicago 4-3
If it seems like I didn’t pick any upsets, that’s because I didn’t. In a similar fashion to the NCAA Tournament, when nearly all of the teams are even, as they are here, it leads to reasoning that the better teams are higher seeds and have home ice for a reason. If pushed, the best chance for an upset in the East is Carolina and the West, believe it or not, is Columbus, because as good as Detroit is, when they lose they lose badly. Just don’t expect to see any real upsets, just good, hard-hitting action that always signals the greatest two months in sports – postseason hockey.
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