RANGERS VS. CAPITALS
Both teams are coming in off Game 7 highs — the Caps after the unlikely win over defending champion Boston, the Rangers after gutting out a series over the pesky Senators. The Rangers have gained some confidence after a very tough series; the Caps are still a strange mix, with coach Dale Hunter not leaning on Alex Ovechkin and a defense that is still a bit shaky. Rookie Braden Holtby was the difference in goal for Washington against the Bruins, but now can he outplay Henrik Lundqvist? Tough assignment there.
Rangers: Lundqvist. He’s always the most important Ranger on the ice, and he’s never won a second-round series (0-2). This is his big test.
Caps: Holtby. He’s only 22 and has played more playoff games than regular-season games this year. Will the bigger spotlight wear him out?
Prediction: Rangers are rolling now, and they will get to Holtby. Rangers in 6.
FLYERS VS. DEVILS
Philly’s wild, violent win over the Penguins seems ages ago, given that the other three East series went seven, with the Devils advancing on a double-OT goal early Friday morning. The Devils have some firepower to take advantage of the Flyers’ slow defense, but no one has the weapons the Flyers have, from Claude Giroux on down to Sean Couturier — Peter Laviolette’s team puts out 12 forwards who can all score and hit every game. The Devils did well to squeak by the Panthers, but Marty Brodeur will have to play like a man a decade younger to give the Devils a shot here.
Flyers: Giroux. He was the best player on the ice last round, in a series that featured Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Devils: Ilya Kovalchuk. He wasn’t much of a force in the first round, and the Flyers’ nastiness could make him totally irrelevant.
Prediction: Flyers are brimming with confidence and could overwhelm Jersey. Flyers in 5.
BLUES VS. KINGS
If there’s a series where one goal will make the difference, it’s this one — the Blues’ Brian Elliott and the Kings’ Jonathan Quick are two of the hottest goaltenders around, and neither team gives an inch defensively. L.A. brushed off the Canucks with timely scoring and the Blues wore down San Jose with their big forwards and a potent power play. This is as even a series as there is left.
Blues: Alex Pietrangelo. A budding star on defense, this is Pietrangelo’s chance to shine against a Kings team that has shown some scoring punch of late.
Kings: Quick. He’s been their go-to guy all year, and now he gets a chance to steal another series.
Prediction: The Blues have surprised everyone this year, but the Kings get the last surprise as an 8 seed in the conference final. Kings in 7.
COYOTES VS. PREDATORS
Phoenix’s first playoff series win in what might be its last year in Arizona was no shock — this is a team to be reckoned with, from goaltender Mike Smith on up to a group of forwards who have tremendous balance. The Coyotes love to counter-attack; the Predators love to press and swarm, led by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter on defense and an active forward group.
Coyotes: Smith. He thwarted the Hawks last round, but he’s facing a better team this time.
Predators: Weber. His offense from the blue line could be the difference in what should be a low-scoring series.
Prediction: The Coyotes are the feel-good story, but there’s no stopping the Preds now. Predators in 6.