NHL playoff previews & picks

NHL playoff previews & picks

NHL playoffs: Eastern Conference series previews & picks

Boston (8) vs. Montreal (1)


Regular season series: 8-0 Montreal

Series odds: -315 Montreal, Boston +285

This season's been full of surprises for both of these teams. Nobody expected Guy Carbonneau's Canadiens to be heading into the postseason and it's hard to know what you'll get from the Bruins from one game to the next , sometimes dominant, others deplorable.

Montreal has absolutely owned Boston this year, taking all eight meetings between the clubs and it's hard to argue there's any reason for that to change now. Montreal has an excellent coaching staff that knows the ins and outs of playoff hockey, which has this team doing the little things that make all the difference this year.

The Canadiens block shots and kill penalties as well as any team in the league and keep things simple at even strength. And you know the coaching staff is doing something right when it can get Alexei Kovalev back at the top of his game. If captain Saku Koivu is able to return from his broken foot, it'll be a big boost for Montreal, but don't hold your breath.

Meanwhile, Boston can frustrate teams with Claude Julien's tactical, trapping game plan when everything falls in place. The problem is they haven't been able to keep that composure consistently.

The Bruins reeled off six straight wins in one of their better stretches of the season back in February, but then dropped nine of their next dozen. They also have major injury issues. The team hopes to have Marc Savard and Patrice Bergeron back sooner rather than later, but that might be wishful thinking even though Bergeron was medically cleared on Monday.

Key handicapping note: Six of the eight meetings between these two teams played over the total, all of which were set at 5 1/2 goals.

Pick: Montreal in six games.


N.Y. Rangers (5) at New Jersey (4)

Regular season series: 7-1 New York

Series odds: New York -115, New Jersey +105

If you're strictly a numbers guy, you'd see New York's 7-1 record against New Jersey and promptly drop a mortgage payment on the Devils. That's where you could be very, very wrong.

Numbers only tell part of the story when it comes to these rival teams and this could end up being the best series we see in the first round.

It took him a while, but Tom Renney was finally able to instill some defensive responsibility with his New York Rangers, who allowed the fourth fewest goals per game in the league this year. The club also has balance in its forward lines with Brandon Dubinsky, Sean Avery and Ryan Callahan providing support for the superstars and decent defensive pairings at the back.

New York's major problem is its power play which converted just 16.3 percent of its opportunities. Basically, it's a case of having too many ballerinas and not enough bouncers when they're up a man. Unless the Rangers can get shots from the point and traffic in front of Martin Brodeur, they're going to be in a world of trouble.

This edition of the Devils is a lot more exciting than the trap-crazy teams we saw years ago. It's not that no-nonsense head coach Brent Sutter doesn't preach defense first, he's just smart enough to know that he'd be stupid not to let a speedy, skilled lineup like this open it up when the opportunity presents itself. Plus, with Brodeur back there, they can afford to gamble every now and then.

The series shakes down to be an absolute seven-game war that could go either way depending on the bounces, with the winning team going a long way in the playoffs.

Key handicapping note: The under is 20-6-6 over the last 32 meetings between these teams.

Pick: Rangers in seven games.   


Philadelphia (6) at Washington (3)

Regular season series: 2-2 tie

Series odds: -145 Washington, Philadelphia +135

You can't fault the Washington Capitals for ending up as the Eastern Conference's No. 3 seed after a great run down the stretch, but there's no need to handicap them like they're one of the league's elite teams either.

What they do have is a couple of the league's most exciting young players in Alexander Semin, Mike Green, and of course, Alexander Ovechkin. After such a fantastic finish to the regular season, there's a whole lot to be excited about for Capitals bettors.

But are they ready' Did they peak too early just to get into the postseason? Do they have the playoff experience? Will the goaltending hold up? Are they a team that can play hard-nosed, tight-checking playoff hockey? I'm not so sure about any of these questions.

Granted, the Flyers may have to answer some of the same questions themselves, but don't overlook the fact that they did win seven of their last nine to get into the dance, so they're pretty hot too.

What really sets John Stevens' Flyers apart from the Capitals is their grit, depth and special teams play. Philly had six 20-goal scorers in the regular season, the second-best power play in the league, and still managed to scare the bejeesus out of everybody they played.

Key handicapping note: The freewheeling Capitals have allowed just three goals over their last four games, while the Flyers shut out the Penguins and Devils in their final two games of the regular season.

Pick: Flyers in six games.


Ottawa (7) at Pittsburgh (2)

Regular season series: 3-1 Ottawa

Series odds: -255 Pittsburgh, Ottawa +235

Where did it all go wrong for the Ottawa Senators? That's probably one of the first questions Sens coach Bryan Murray will have to answer six games from now.

Ottawa looked poised for another run at the Cup by starting the year 15-2-0, but the success was short lived. From there the Sens ran into a couple key injuries, suffered through a starting goaltender soap opera, fired a head coach, may have contaminated the team's locker room, and eventually slipped into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth.

Things don't look good. You won't see Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson or sparkplug Mike Fisher in the first round after both went down with injuries late last week against the Maple Leafs. That completely bungles any chemistry the forward lines were clinging to.

Can't say the same thing about the Pens. They have two deadly forward lines with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marian Hossa and Petr Sykora flying around and a power play that's good enough to steal a series with Sergei Gonchar manning the point. That's the stuff everybody mentions when you're talking about the Pens.

What you don't hear very often is how tough this team is and how much it has improved defensively. Pittsburgh has enough veterans to make sure the kids know what they're getting into as the team starts the second season.

Key handicapping note: Pittsburgh has held nine of its last 11 opponents to two or fewer goals.   

Pick: Pittsburgh in six games.


NHL playoffs: Western Conference series previews & picks

Nashville Predators (8) vs. Detroit Red Wings (1)


Series price:  Nashville +440, Detroit -480

Season series: Red Wings 5-3 (two wins came in OT or shootout)

When you look on paper, Wings fans are saying "see you in the second round."  Unfortunately, Wings fans should know better than anyone that games aren't played on paper.

The Wings won the President's Trophy as the NHL's best team this season and everywhere you look in the stats, they rank in the top five. That includes scoring (3), goals against (1), power play (3), and ATS (against the spread) winnings (3).

The Wings have 10 players with at least 30 points this year led by Pavel Datsyuk (98 points) and they roll four strong lines at you all night. The blueline is anchored by possibly the best in the game, Niklas Lidstrom, and the recent pickup of Brad Stuart at the trade deadline won't hurt matters once he returns from a hand injury.

But this Nashville team is dangerous. They have strong goaltending for one. Dan Ellis and Chris Mason may have limited playoff experience, but Ellis led the league in save percentage this season (.924) and he finished third in shutouts with six.

Another reason to worry about the Preds is their physical play. These guys love to hit. They don't complicate matters on offense and they just throw the puck into the corner and pound you until it squirts out.

The third reason they're dangerous is they are the No. 2 penalty killing team in the league. If they can limit Detroit's production on the power play ' and Detroit will get its power plays , they have a chance.

The X-factor in this series is Detroit's injuries. Stuart, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby are all banged up and the team recently lost a hugely improved Thomas Kopecky for the season.

Key handicapping factor: Detroit is 1-7 on the puckline this season on three or more days of rest. The first game goes in Detroit on Thursday, four days after their last game of the season.   

Pick: Red Wings in six games


Calgary Flames (7) vs. San Jose Sharks (2)


Series price: Calgary +275, San Jose -300

Season series: 4-4 (two Calgary wins came in overtime)

For those who believe the Flames will advance to the second round, the theory goes: hit the Sharks, beat the Sharks.

It seems that some feel just because San Jose has speed, it doesn't have grit. Not so, and if Calgary thinks it can beat the Sharks into submission, this series won't last long.

San Jose can flat-out skate and the acquisition of Brian Campbell at the trade deadline added a two-way defenseman who can kickstart the breakout, something the Sharks needed.

Joe Thornton leads the 10th-best power play in the league and the Sharks own the best penalty killing unit that can also score on you in a hurry with one misguided pass. Perhaps no team scores better in transition than the Sharks also, who use their speed and long passes through the neutral zone to catch teams on their heels.

The Flames bring some confidence into this series knowing they won the last three meetings with San Jose. You'd think they would beat the Flames by keeping the score low but the two most recent meetings saw 16 combined goals.

Calgary has some firepower with guys like Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay, so you don't want to get careless in your own end. The Flames actually average more goals per game this year with 2.8 compared to the Sharks' 2.6.

This series could come down to goaltending with Mikka Kiprusoff for Calgary and Evgeni Nabokov for San Jose. Both played 77 games this season and had eerily similar numbers, with the slight nod going to Nabokov due shutouts (six) and save percentage (.910).

Key handicapping factor: Don't get too excited if San Jose jumps out to a fast start and you bet the Sharks. No team has more losses (8) when leading after one period. The good news? No team has more wins when leading after two (35).

Pick: Sharks seven games


Colorado Avalanche (6) vs. Minnesota Wild (3)


Series price: Colorado +100, Minnesota -110

Season series: 5-3 Minnesota (one shootout win for Colorado, one for Minny)

In mid-March I traveled to Minnesota to see the Wild take on the Avs, which I discussed in this blog. Based on what I saw, we can expect more of two things in the playoffs in this series: unders and home victories.

The home team went 7-1 in this series this season and the under went 6-2 and it's with good reason.

Minnesota has some of the most passionate fans of any sport I have ever seen. There were more jerseys per fan in the building than you'll likely find in the league and this is an arena built for hockey that can blow your eardrums out after goals. From what I've heard, Denver's Pepsi Center isn't far behind when it comes to cheering on the home team.

Minnesota rides the crowd to play its defensive style to perfection and it's no surprise the under is 12-18 in Wild home games compared to 18-17 in away games. It's tough to get a sniff around the net and Niklas Backstrom makes more saves than not when you get a chance.

The best player on the ice for Colorado, besides Joe Sakic, was Ryan Smyth. It seemed every time he was on the ice, he made something happen and the Avs need more of that. He's one of those guys who drives you crazy because he loses the puck five times in a rush, but it somehow always ends up back on his stick.

Teams have been all over Peter Forsberg , who returned around the trade deadline , and he hasn't looked like the old Forsberg since his return. That means the Avs need offense to come from other places and youngster Paul Stastny will have to come into this series playoff-ready.

Colorado has the third-worst power play in the league and Minnesota has the seventh-best, so the Avs can't afford to get into penalty trouble. Jose Theodore needs a huge series to help his club out because the blueline is not the strength for this club.

Minnesota also got some bad news when it lost Nick Schultz to an appendectomy recently. That means the Wild are without two of their top defenseman, the other being Kurtis Foster.

Stick to home teams and unders in this series and you should come out OK.

Key handicapping factor: The last eight meetings in this series in Minnesota have gone under the total.

Pick: Minnesota seven games


Dallas Stars (5) vs. Anaheim Ducks (4)

Series price:  Dallas +190, Anaheim -210

Season series: 5-3 (one shootout win by Anaheim)

It's not often you see a team favored this heavily to win a 4-5 series. It's also not often a team as good as the Ducks finish fourth in the conference.

The Ducks started slowly to the year after traveling to London for a season opening series with the Kings. The miles from that and a long Stanley Cup run seemed to catch up to them. Then Scott Neidermayer came out of retirement in the second half and Teemu Selanne returned too.

Once again, everyone in hockey circles seem to be labeling Anaheim as the scariest team in hockey and it finished the season on an 8-2 run. It's almost not fair.

The Ducks have two of the best defensemen in the league in Chris Pronger and Neidermayer. They have scorers for days and Jean-Sebastien Giguere is a former Conn Smythe winner. Oh yeah , and the Ducks are huge and nasty as heck to boot.

But playoffs are exciting because of the unexpected upsets and this is one I have a hunch about. The Stars didn't beat the Ducks in the season series for no reason and this is one opponent I'd be nervous of in the first round.

Dallas  is a sound defensive club with a tough goaltender in Marty Turco. The Stars also added some offensive spunk when they picked up a former Conn Smythe winner of their own, Brad Richards, in one of the biggest trade deadline deals.

Richards is questionable for Game 1 with an upper body injury, along with Mike Ribeiro, who should be back after suffering from the flu. They'll need both players to be at their best to play into May.

Dallas has a better power play and a better penalty killing unit than Anaheim this season. The Stars have also made far more money for bettors at 42-40 ATS. But this one will come down to who wants it more.

Anaheim comes in as the hotter club with an 8-2 record, but Dallas comes in a little angry. The Stars finished the season with a fiery 4-2 win over San Jose and they should carry that edge into Game 1.

Key handicapping factor: Anaheim has allowed 1.8 goals over its last 10. Dallas has allowed 3.1 over the same span.

Pick:  Dallas in six games

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Re: NHL playoff previews & picks

NHL Playoff Preview Capsules
Associated Press

Boston (8) vs. Montreal (1)

MONTREAL:
Canadiens have won 11 straight over Boston, dating to March 20, 2007. ... Led Bruins for 345 minutes, 41 seconds of 485 minutes of season series. ... Second time in playoff history teams meet after one club won at least eight times during season. ... Canadiens one of seven No. 8 seeds since 1994 to defeat top seed, knocking off Bruins in 2002. ... Since being recalled from minors on Feb. 4, Carey Price (24-12-3) has become first goaltender under the age of 20 to win 20 games in a season since Tom Barrasso and Patrick Roy did it in 1985-86.

BOSTON:
The 11-game skid is the Bruins' longest in the franchise's 84-year history against the Canadiens. ... Teams separated by 10 points in standings, the smallest margin for a 1 vs. 8 matchup since format went into effect in 1994. Boston and Montreal finished 14 points apart in 2002 when the Bruins were the top seed and Canadiens were eighth, the previous smallest margin. ... Bruins squandered 3-1 series lead when teams met in 2004 playoffs. ... C Marc Savard was cleared for full contact in practice after missing the final seven games of the regular season with broken bone in his back. C Patrice Bergeron also was cleared for practice contact for first time since serious concussion in October.

OUTLOOK: Montreal loses one but stays dominant over old rival. Canadiens in 5.

Ottawa (7) at Pittsburgh (2)

PITTSBURGH:
Penguins won division crown for first time since 1997-98 season. ... C Evgeni Malkin led NHL with 65 points after Jan. 1, including 32 goals. Had 20 goals and 26 assists in 28 games captain Sidney Crosby missed with ankle injury. ... Crosby was tied for NHL lead with 63 points at time of Jan. 18 injury. He rested for regular-season finale at Philadelphia, a game in which Senators coach Bryan Murray suggested was tanked so Penguins could get favorable matchup with banged-up Ottawa. ... Crosby was second on Penguins with 72 points in only 53 games.

OTTAWA: Led Eastern Conference as recently as Feb. 23. ... Will be without injured captain Daniel Alfredsson and fellow forward Mike Fisher for part of series if not all. ... A No. 7 seed won a first-round series every season from 1997-2006. East No. 7 has won six times in 10 years. ... Team that scored first in four regular-season matchups lost. ... Senators in playoffs for 11th straight season. Reached Stanley Cup finals last year, falling in five games to Anaheim. ... Outscored Penguins 18-10 in 2007 first-round win. ... Line of Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza has been NHL's top scoring trio three straight seasons.

OUTLOOK: Pittsburgh gets revenge for last year's ouster. Penguins in 5.

Philadelphia (6) at Washington (3)

WASHINGTON:
Alex Ovechkin led NHL with 65 goals and 112 points. Became sixth in 37 years and the first Russian-born player, to top league in goals and points in same season. ... Capitals owned worst record in NHL (6-14-1) when they played at Philadelphia on Nov. 23. Closed season with seven-game winning streak and 11-1 run to overtake Carolina for Southeast Division title. ... Bruce Boudreau went 37-17-7 after taking over for fired coach Glen Hanlon and Capitals became first NHL team to qualify for playoffs after being in 14th of 15th place at midpoint of season. Capitals were last in 15-team East on Dec. 30. ... Ovechkin scored 51 goals after Boudreau was hired. ... Washington, in playoffs for first time since 2003, has 15 first-time playoff performers on roster.

PHILADELPHIA: Three of four meetings decided by one goal, and the other by two when Philadelphia scored an empty-netter in 6-4 win on Jan. 13. ... Flyers, who had worst record in NHL last season, had league's best turnaround with 39-point increase. Washington was second at plus-24. ... Martin Biron wrested the No. 1 goalie spot away from Antero Niittymaki and played in 18 of final 20 games, going 10-4-4. Will be making postseason debut. ... Flyers were most-penalized team in East with 17.9 minutes per game. Washington was second-least penalized at 11.9 minutes. ... Philadelphia had NHL's second-best power-play unit, clicking at 21.8 percent. ... Philadelphia went 7-1-1 in last nine. ... Forward Danny Briere battling sore knee.

OUTLOOK: Washington proves worthy, then runs out of gas. Flyers in 6.

N.Y. Rangers (5) at New Jersey (4)

NEW JERSEY:
New Jersey is in playoffs for 11th straight season, tied with Ottawa for second-longest current run. ... Devils didn't earn win in series with New York until winning shootout in season finale. Clinched home-ice advantage once game went to overtime. ... Outscored Rangers 17-4 in 2006 playoff sweep but scored only nine goals in this season's series with New York. Devils were shut out twice by the Rangers and lost three times in OT. Martin Brodeur had a 1.95 goals-against average in the eight games. ... Zach Parise scored two of his team-high 32 goals against Rangers. Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner also had two.

NEW YORK: Rangers forwards Scott Gomez (1998) and Brendan Shanahan (1987) were first-round draft choices of New Jersey. In his first season with New York since leaving Devils as free agent, Gomez had one goal and six assists versus New Jersey. ... Captain Jaromir Jagr had lowest NHL total with 25 goals, and ended up with disappointing 71 points, but surged in final week with five goals and two assists in last four games. ... Behind Henrik Lundqvist's 2.23 goals-against average, the Rangers posted 12 shutouts. The Devils were blanked 11 times. ... Rangers carried 17-6-5 finish into first-round sweep of Atlanta last season. Closed this season with 18-5-7 spurt.

OUTLOOK: No Stephane Matteau this time, but New York settles it in Game 7 overtime. Rangers in 7.

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