Few preseason predictions turn out to be accurate. Part of this is related to time zone differences: I have repeatedly found how little understanding there is of the Western Conference for countless hockey fans, many more of whom live in the Eastern Time Zone than any other.
On the other hand, my own predictions for the Eastern Conference (just five of eight teams right, and two of them on opposite sides of the bracket) are unreliable because my focus is on the West. As a writer for the San Jose Sharks, I had seven of the eight teams correct in a Western Conference in which no seed was determined until the last day of the season.
But looking back on my predictions for the final standings just 16 days ago, you get an idea of how transient this season was. I had two of the six division winners wrong and even had one team wrong in the West. Thus, one should view the following first-round predictions with skepticism:
- Rangers over Senators in five: New York held off the hard-charging Pittsburgh Penguins and earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They are a strong defensive team that can finally back it up with scoring. The Ottawa Senators are one of the weakest teams in the playoffs—the only one in the bottom half of the NHL in record, with the third-fewest wins, fourth-fewest regulation and overtime wins, and third-worst goal differential despite playing in the second-weakest division (just 31 points over .500).
- Bruins over Capitals in six: Washington is a far better team on paper than they were on the ice, and that is always dangerous. They played well down the stretch and narrowly missed capturing their fifth straight division title. For once, they enter the game with lower expectations, and that could be of benefit to them. But they benefited from being in the worst division in hockey (as they have for all their title years) and have injury problems in net. Boston has the league’s best goal differential and has the ability to win at this time of year that Washington has yet to show.
- Devils over Panthers in five: Despite winning the pathetic Southeast Division, the Panthers are the least likely team to win the Stanley Cup in the 2012 playoffs. They have the worst goal differential, fewest total wins and fewest regulation or overtime wins. They played poorly down the stretch and made it in by taking weak competition to overtime, leading the league in OT losses with 18, a whopping eight more than any other playoff team. I would not pick them to win a single game if not for the fact that their opponent got a league-high 16 wins via the shootout, something unavailable to them now.
- Penguins over Flyers in six: I will keep saying it—Ilya Bryzgalov is not a big-game goalie and cannot carry a team. With the return of Sidney Crosby and continued absence of Chris Pronger, I would take all three Pens units over their Flyers counterparts, plus coaching and proven ability to win at this time of the year.
- Canucks over Kings in seven: L.A. is much better than its record indicates, becoming a team that can score and play defence after the trade for Jeff Carter. But he may not be at 100 percent, and as much as Vancouver does not know how to finish teams off under .400 winning percentage with the other team facing elimination last year), the Kings have yet to learn how to win a series. Vancouver is just too talented to lose this.
- Blues over Sharks in six: This year, Lou has bested Joe easily in the four battles of the saints, with a whopping 11-3 edge in scoring and two shutouts. But the Blues were not playing their best hockey down the stretch and lack the playoff experience of the Sharks, who ended the season with a .700 point percentage over their last 15 games. Ultimately, the Blues play suffocating defence, have almost as good a power play and have a great penalty kill while San Jose’s is atrocious. St. Louis also puts out consistent effort their opponents have lacked, and that is just too many pros on the Blues side to pick the Sharks; however, should this series go to Game 7, San Jose is the better bet playing without pressure.
- Blackhawks over Coyotes in six: Phoenix plays good fundamental hockey, but everyone plays better at this time of the year. The Coyotes comparative lack of talent is why they have never has won a playoff series, and this year they are facing a team that finished with a better record in a better division. The one place the Coyotes seem to have the advantage is in net, but that never paid off in previous seasons (see Bryzgalov comment in No. 4, above) and is not enough, even coupled with their superior pluck, to get them more than two wins in this series.
- Predators over Red Wings in seven: Detroit’s age will actually be less of a disadvantage for them this season because some of those players missed time. Of course, they also may not be at 100 percent. Nashville finished with a better record despi