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2011 NHL Playoff Predictions: Penguins Vs. Lightning, Capitals Vs. Rangers, Flyers Vs. Sabres, Bruins Vs. Canadiens

While the NHL's Western Conference seems to have the majority of this season's heavyweights, the Eastern Conference seems primed with potential upsets and turbulence. Without further adieu, here are our first-round playoff predictions from our hockey bloggers Stephen Catanese and Jimmy Rixner:

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) New York Rangers

Season Series: Rangers 3-1

Stephen Catanese says:

Once again, Washington enters the playoffs the top seed in the Eastern Conference and, once again, the Capitals will have to deal with questions about their legitimacy as a Stanley Cup contender. Bruce Boudreau's ability to turn the Capitals' focus towards a defense-first mentality may be a positive sign, but there are still questions to be answered. Still, the thoroughly mediocre New York Rangers are not the team to ask them. Capitals in five.

Jimmy Rixner says:

The Rangers' loss of Ryan Callahan to a broken leg can't be understated - he was a utility player who could do it all. Rangers captain Chris Drury is back, but still unable to pick up much of the slack from Callahan's absence, which will be enough for Alex Ovechkin and the Caps to win. The big question, though, is whether the notoriously short-leashed Bruce Boudreau stick with starting playoff goalie Michal Neuvirth if Washington gets off to a slow start? Unless the Capitals trip themselves up with personnel moves, they should move on. Capitals in six.

(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (7) Buffalo Sabres

Season Series: Tied 2-2

Stephen Catanese says:

The loaded Flyers seem to be the firm favorite in this series, but a weak end to the season coupled with Buffalo's strong performance down the stretch raise serious questions about the Flyers' viability. Buffalo is the hot team coming into the series and boasts far superior goaltending, while Chris Pronger, Philly's top blueliner, may be forced to remain on the sidelines. On paper, this should be Philadelphia's for the taking. In reality, it might be a wee-bit different. Buffalo in six.

Jimmy Rixner says:

With Chris Pronger returning from injury, the Philadelphia Flyers easily best the Buffalo Sabres on paper. Playoff games, of course, are not played on paper, but unless Ryan Miller reverts to Olympic form, this series could be over quickly, as the smallish Buffalo forwards just don't seem to have the punch to breakthrough Philly's defense enough to keep pace. Flyers in five.

(3) Boston Bruins vs. (6) Montreal Canadiens

Season Series: Montreal 4-2

Stephen Catanese says:

My heart says that Montreal wins this series, but my head is firmly placed in a different position. What was arguably the most intense series of the regular season now has to be the premier series in the Eastern Conference. Montreal won the season series, and Boston has begun to fade down the stretch, but I can't look past the Bruins' balance and size in this one. Bruins in six.

Jimmy Rixner says:

Rivals Montreal and Boston will lock horns in what should be the most intense series in the East. Boston has the advantage of depth, and Montreal has been beset by injuries, but I like Montreal's emotion and motivation. If Carey Price can be consistent, the Canadiens ought to make this more competitive than most think, and Montreal knows a thing or two about upsets. Canadiens in seven.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning

Season Series: Tied 2-2

Stephen Catanese says:

I already outlined my thoughts on this series, in depth, earlier this week. But, to summarize them, the Penguins look to be out-gunned in this one. If the referees swallow their whistles and the series turns into a grindfest, it'll begin to favor the Penguins. But if the Penguins continue to take penalties and the offense remains stagnant, it'll be an uphill climb. Lightning in six.

Jimmy Rixner says:

I think the Pens/Lightning series will boil down to physicality and mistakes, as most playoff series do. Show me who punishes a team more and I'll show you who's more likely to make mental and physical errors.

Eight Penguins have more hits than the leader on Tampa. Pittsburgh will be the more physical team. The Penguins' forwards will batter the Tampa defense, eventually resulting in turnovers and poor decisions for the Lightning. In a long series, this is page one in Dan Bylsma's playbook.

And about Tampa's defense - young stud Victor Hedman is already injured and missed games recently (though he will play). Hedman is also making his NHL playoff debut, as is Mike LundinBrett Clark only has 10 games of NHL playoff experience. Small weaknesses like that glare throughout Tampa Bay's roster.

Throw Sidney Crosby's status aside, because it seems unlikely he's back in the lineup in the immediate future. I still like the Penguins. They have more physical forwards like Chris Kunitz, James Neal who will hit Tampa's defense often. They have guys like Tyler Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis who are better in the corners than Tampa will be.

If they can stay out of the penalty box, the Penguins will have their strengths (goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the defense) matched up on Tampa's strength (skilled forwards like Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos).  Then Pittsburgh's forwards will grind down Tampa's defense and get pucks to 41-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson. Sooner or later they'll break through. Pens in six.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.