Tonight is the night.  The 2010 NHL Playoffs start in just a few hours as four series get underway tonight, three tomorrow and the eighth and final first-round set starts on Friday.  For the next two months it’ll be pretty much impossible to avoid hockey on TV, at least if you live up here in Canada like I do.  Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins embark on the defense of their Stanley Cup Championship from a year ago.

The Penguins open up their playoffs tonight, hosting the Ottawa Senators in a series where they are clear favorites.  But the Penguins aren’t close to the top seed in the East (they finished 20 points behind Washington) nor are they the hottest team entering the playoffs (that would be Detroit who have won 8 of 10).  Once again Pittsburgh will be forced to prove that they’re more than the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin showcase.  Marc-Andre Fleury has struggled at times this year and he has yet to really cement himself as the dominant presence in goal he was expected to be.

This playoff has a lot of great stories tied into it.  The resurrection of the Los Angeles Kings as a legitimate contender.  Phoenix coming from the dregs of the league to become a 50-win team that nobody predicted.  Buffalo riding the greatness of Ryan Miller to a third seed in the Eastern Conference.  The old veterans in Detroit clawing their way back into the Stanley Cup chase after being discarded earlier this season.

Given time constraints, I can’t dive in and provide pages of analysis as I normally would love to, but here’s a quick and dirty batch of first-round playoff predictions.

Eastern Conference

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens – Capitals win in five games.

Washington just has too much star power.  Even their questions in goal can’t prevent the powers of Ovechkin, Backstrom et al from controlling this match-up.  Sad because there are few things more fun than Montreal on a Stanley Cup run.

(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers – Devils win in five games.

The Flyers had to go to a shootout just to get in.  Marty Brodeur is the keystone, but this Devils team has some great talent all over the ice.  They’re not going to get rattled by the Flyers physical play, and Philly has too many questions in goal.

(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins – Buffalo wins in six games.

They might only need to score 6 goals to do it, the way these two teams put the puck in the net (note:  poorly).  The Bruins will need Tuuka Rask to match Ryan Miller save for save to stay in this one.  Rask has been superb, but it’s tough to say a rookie can pick up and drag a team into the second round.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators – Pittsburgh wins in six games.

Crosby and Malkin are going to make Ottawa miserable.  The Sens will miss Kovalev because they just don’t have a lot of scoring depth.  Even having an off year I’d take Marc-Andre Fleury over Brian Elliot.

Western Conference

(1) San Jose Sharks vs.  (8) Colorado Avalanche – Sharks win in five games.

The Sharks can’t choke this fast… right?  They got rolling late in the year after some struggles, but the questions are the same as always.  Can Thornton and Nabokov elevate their game and lead this team like they should?  The Avalanche are just outclassed talent-wise.

(2) Chicago Black Hawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators – Chicago wins in seven games.

The ‘Hawks just have a boatload of balance and depth.  Nine guys scored at least 17 goals for Chicago.  It’s always nice when you can score even if Kane or Toews has an off night.  Pekka Rinne could turn this series for Nashville, but I’m not sure they can score enough goals to win four of seven.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings – Vancouver wins in six games.

The Kings are young and hungry… but not quite ready yet.  Luongo will outplay Jonny Quick in goal and the Canucks have finally found the offensive depth they’ve been missing for the past several seasons.  The Kings could swing this series with their young guns but unless Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson just crush the Canucks forwards, they’re in tough.

(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings – Detroit wins in six games.

Poor Phoenix.  A great, great season and they drew a real bear of a match-up here.  These aren’t the dominating winged-wheel teams of the past, but they’re a veteran club with a ton of playoff moxie and a hot young goalie to boot.  Phoenix needs Ilya Bryzgalov to be great to win, just like the regular season.  This could be a real dog fight, but the Wings have been rolling as of late and are primed for a post-season run.

Some startlingly vanilla picks pretty much ensure that I missed the call on at least a couple of these series.  But it’s playoff hockey and everybody knows what that means:  a hot goalie can swing any playoff series.  Even the entire playoffs, if the goalie is good enough (see:  Roy ’93, Hasek ’99).  So it’ll be interesting to see if a new face emerges to add to the group of goalies who stand out come spring… or if it’s an old favorite like Marty Brodeur who does it again.

Advertisements