There won’t be much home team playoff excitement in Canada for fans outside Vancouver and Ottawa this springtime, but there are still some must-see matchups.
It starts Wednesday night with the all-Pennsylvania battle between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, who exchanged blows on the ice and insults off it in their late-season meetings.
The surprising St. Louis Blues against a San Jose Sharks squad that has suddenly become an underdog is another series of note.
The best news is that scoring stars Sidney Crosby, Niklas Backstrom and most likely Daniel Sedin and Jonathan Toews will be back from concussions for the playoffs.
Here’s a look at the best-of-seven first-round match-ups and how we think they’ll finish (seedings in parentheses):
New York Rangers (1) vs Ottawa Senators (8): With Henrik Lundqvist’s goaltending and an edge in all-around depth, the Rangers should win this easily. But the Senators took three of their four meetings this season, outscoring New York 14-8, which suggests they match up well. The key for Ottawa will be scoring goals against the east’s stingiest defence with 187 goals allowed. Beyond Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek, Ottawa may not have enough proven weapons to do that.
Pick: Rangers in six.
Boston Bruins (2) vs Washington Capitals (7): The Stanley Cup champion Bruins are back with much the same team, minus injured winger Nathan Horton. Without a truly dominant line, the Bruins send out three balanced units that include six 20-goal scorers. That plus Zdeno Chara on defence should be enough whether or not unpredictable goalie Tim Thomas repeats last year’s heroics. The Caps welcome Backstrom back, especially since Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin finished strong after weak seasons. But their top two goalies are injured and third-stringer Braden Holtby should start.
Pick: Bruins in six.
Florida Panthers (3) vs New Jersey Devils (6): Martin Brodeur versus Jose Theodore would have been a marquee goalie matchup 10 years ago. Now both are considered suspect, although they bring a ton of post-season experience. The Panthers won a weak division on defence and a power play anchored by Brian Campbell, but the Devils have a huge edge in numbers and quality up front. Also, the Panthers got the third seed because they won their division, but actually finished eight points behind New Jersey.
Pick: Devils in five.
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs Philadelphia Flyers (5): The animosity between these teams and the skill on both sides could make this the toughest and best series of the first round. Much depends on whether Crosby can avoid more concussion problems, although the Penguins showed they can still be a dominant team with Evgeni Malkin as leader. The Flyers answer back with slick centre Claude Giroux. Ex-Penguins and current Flyers Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot add more zest to the match-up. Pens have the edge in goal with Marc-Andre Fleury. Flyers took the season series 4-2.
Pick: Penguins in seven.
Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8) _ If Daniel Sedin returns to complete the top unit with brother Henrik and Alex Burrows, the first-overall Canucks will get a big boost even if they won eight of nine without him down the stretch. They’ll need it with the stellar year turned in by Kings goalie Jonathan Quick. A concern is Vancouver’s struggling second line. The Kings went 25-13-4 after Darryl Sutter took over as coach and have two skilled scoring lines themselves. A key may be the strong play of backup goalie Corey Schneider if Roberto Luongo falters. Depth heavily favours the Canucks as they vie for a second straight conference title.
Pick: Canucks in seven.
St. Louis Blues (2) vs San Jose Sharks (7): There are no big names in the Blues’ attack, but smothering defensive play under Ken Hitchcock made them a force this season. That will be a problem for a San Jose side that lost scoring punch when Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi were traded last summer. This season, the Blues won all four of their meetings, outscoring the Sharks 11-3. And Blues’ goalie Jaroslav Halak showed his playoff chops when he took Montreal to a conference final two years ago.
Pick: St. Louis in five.
Phoenix (3) vs. Chicago (6): Phoenix won a weak division on one scoring line, an OK defence led by Keith Yandle and surprising goaltending from Mike Smith. They shouldn’t be enough against a team with Chicago’s depth up front and on defence. The goaltending hasn’t been brilliant down the stretch, but Corey Crawford was solid in a first round loss to Vancouver last spring. With 2010 Stanley Cup hero Toews back, the Blackhawks are stronger on both sides of the puck.
Pick: Blackhawks in five.
Nashville Predators (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5) _ The Preds showed at the trade deadline they meant business this year when they picked up Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad and coaxed centre Alexander Radulov back from Russia. Already blessed with a super defence pair in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and a top goalie in Pekka Rinne, their team has the tools to go far. The Red Wings are a formidable opponent, of course, although the sore ankle that has slowed defence ace Nik Lidstrom and an injury to third-line centre Darren Helm won’t help. The Wings’ winning culture and experience count for a lot, but the Preds look ready.
Pick: Predators in seven.