1. NY Rangers vs. 8. Ottawa
Wait, weren’t the Bruins destined to play the Senators and weren’t the Rangers, the top dogs in the East, just killing time the last few weeks to feed the Capitals or Sabres to the underbelly of the Zamboni? Instead, it’s the quick and slick Senators (one of only two Canadian entries in the playoffs) doing battle with the shot-blocking, puck-eating, coach-a-snortin’ Blueshirts. The heavy, grinding game of the Rangers should prevail here. They allowed the fewest goals in the league (187), a credit not only to a Vezina-worthy performance by goalie Henrik Lundqvist but also a teamwide buy-in to coach John Tortorella’s demanding defensive ways. The Senators, who slipped to the eighth seed with a trio of season-ending losses, have won only three playoff games since reaching the Cup Final vs. Anaheim in 2007. They have the NHL’s most exciting offensive defenseman in Erik Karlsson (19 goals, 78 points) and one of its great elder stars in Daniel Alfredsson (age 39 and still without a Cup). Over/under for Torts’s first bench nutty: 6:00 mark, second period, Game 1.
Prediction: Rangers in five.
2. Boston vs. 7. Washington
When last these two met in the playoffs, it was 1998, the wrap to Joe Thornton’s rookie season, and first-year Boston coach Pat Burns couldn’t wring more than two goals each from forwards Jason Allison, Sergei Samsonov, and Dmitri Khristich. Most everyone has the Bruins as the favorites, in large part because of Washington’s switch to a new coach during the season (Dale Hunter in for Bruce Boudreau) and four straight years of playoff flops. The Bruins, attempting to be the league’s first repeat Cup champs since Detroit in 1997-98, spruced up their game over the final three weeks (9-2-1). Unlike the Capitals, whose attack relies heavily on dynamic forwards Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom, the Bruins operate with more balance - which delivered the NHL’s best goal differential (plus-67). Look for Boston captain Zdeno Chara to be out every time Ovechkin rolls over the boards. Injuries leave the Capitals no option in net other than untested Braden Holtby, opposed by Tim Thomas, last year’s Conn Smythe winner. Feels like deficit spending.
Prediction: Bruins in six.
3. Florida vs. 6. New Jersey
The Sons of Sunrise are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2000, ending the NHL’s longest drought (10 DNQs). But the Panthers hardly raced across the finish line, going a league-worst 2-3-5 over the last 10 games and finishing the season underwater on the scoreboard (minus-24 goal differential). Bruins fans rarely see Ilya Kovalchuk at his best, but the Devils’ $100 million striker is among the game’s most dazzling talents, and he rebounded this season with a team-high 37 goals and 83 points. In the Devils net, future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur is less than a month shy of his 40th birthday, but still capable of being the difference in the series. If Florida has a chance here, it would come via the power play, which ranked seventh at 18.5 percent. But here’s the rub: New Jersey ranked No. 1 on the PK this season, snuffing out nearly 90 percent of its shorthanded situations. Nice finally for the Panthers, who made it to the 1996 Cup Final in their Miami days, to be back in the show, though it likely will end faster than a spring shower on a Fort Lauderdale beach.
Prediction: Devils in five.
4. Pittsburgh vs. 5. Philadelphia
The puck drops in Game 1 Wednesday night, but these two squads could be beating each other up at the morning skate. Bad blood makes for good business, even better TV, and these two can’t stand one another, as evidenced by an irate Flyers coach Peter Laviolette recently standing on his bench to holler at Penguins bench boss Dan Bylsma. These Flyers are better than the bunch that was swept by the Bruins in Round 2 last year, but they don’t have the skill level among their forwards to match superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (who does?). Philly also doesn’t know whether high-priced Ilya Bryzgalov will be the answer to its prayers or the extension of its nightmare in net. Bryz had some very rocky stretches this season and lost two of his last three starts, allowing nine goals in the two losses. The Penguins went most of the season without Crosby, who continued to deal with concussion-related issues, but they were carried by the amazing Malkin, the only player this season to crack 100 points (50-59-109). Can’t they make this a best-of-15?
Prediction: Penguins in seven.