NHL Playoff Preview

Ladies and Gentleman: The 2011 NHL Playoffs are upon us, so shave those faces (or legs) for one last time because the games begin tonight. Here’s a little of what you can expect from now until June.

The first round this year is loaded with great matchups and maybe even more so than usual.

It’s hard to remember a year when the playoffs were this hard to predict, especially because a few of this preseason’s best teams now represent the lower seeds of this year’s tournament and will have to embrace their role as underdogs in order to advance to the finals.

This year the playoffs are highlighted by Vancouver’s cruise through the regular season. The Canucks enter the playoffs as the favorite to win it all and expectations are higher than ever for Canuck fans in their 40th season. A Cup run won’t come easy for the favorites though, as they draw the defending champs in the Chicago Blackhawks, who, despite barely making their way in, are still a team to be reckoned with.

With expectations, though, comes pressure, unbelievable amounts that often cause some of the league’s best teams to fold. A few of this year’s top teams bear these high expectations, like the Canucks. One such team is their top-seeded counterpart in the Eastern Conference, the Washington Capitals, who last year met by a hot Montreal Canadiens team in the first round and were upset.

Capitals’ head coach Bruce Boudreau changed things this season, committing his high-scoring team to defense and getting his guys to play like a team that could make a deep playoff run. Washington will look to reverse their fortunes this year against the eighth seeded New York Rangers, who barely snuck in to grab the last spot. If the Rangers are to pull off the upset, Vezina candidate backstop Henrik Lundqvist will likely have to stand on his head and sniper Marian Gaborik will have to regain his goal scoring tendencies, neither of which is too far-fetched.

Speaking of teams with high expectations, the two seed Philadelphia Flyers draw one of the tougher matchups in the playoffs in the seventh seeded Buffalo Sabres.

These teams have followed very different paths this season. Since “Pegula Day,” the Sabres have the fifth best record in the entire NHL (16-4-4) and have been in playoff mode for months now, needing pick up wins at the end of the season to make the postseason. On the contrary, Philly has stumbled into the playoffs, losing 16 of their final 25 games, after being the top team in the East for most of the season. Buffalo will need team leaders Thomas Vanek and Tim Connolly to come up huge to upend the Flyers, however it is very conceivable, especially if defenseman Chris Pronger can’t go at all for Philly.

The other two Eastern Conference series are great matchups as the third seeded Boston Bruins take on the Montreal Canadiens, while the Pittsburgh Penguins are pitted against a tough Tampa Bay squad. Given the rivalry, Montreal-Boston should be a must watch after the Max Pacioretty incident while Pittsburgh will likely find the road to the Cup difficult without stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Aside from the Vancouver Canucks, the Detroit Red Wings are one of the scariest teams in the Western Conference.

After playing relatively under the radar throughout the season–or at least as under the radar as the Red Wings can be–Detroit will be looking to continue their playoff dominance after clinching a playoff berth for a 20th consecutive season. Everyone is talking about the Canucks, but don’t forget about the Red Wings as they are loaded with veteran leadership and are always poised to make a deep run.

Also threatening Vancouver in the West will be the second seeded San Jose Sharks who drew a matchup with the Los Angeles Kings, and the Anaheim Ducks face the Nashville Predators. The Sharks are notorious for their ability to choke year after year when it comes time for the playoffs and the Kings don’t plan on making it easy for them to shed that label. Even though the injury bug knocked out star Anze Kopiter, Los Angeles is still one of the most potent offensive teams in the league.

Anaheim will find themselves in a tight battle with the Predators in the first round, but if their recent play is any indication, the Ducks will be a hard team to knock off. Led by NHL scoring leader and MVP candidate Corey Perry and a solid defense, they’ll look to dispatch of the Predators, who will need a solid effort from their own underrated defense and goaltender Pekka Rinne if they wish to finally make it out of the first round this year.

As uncertain as everything is this postseason, one thing is for sure. There will be some exciting hockey played, so pull up chair and take it all in, it’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs.