8. NY Rangers (93 points) vs. 1. Washington 107 points
Season series: Rangers, 3-1
It’s a made-for-American-TV series, and one that might come with yet another upset for the Capitals, who have gone to Game 7 in their last four playoff series and lost three of them. Ouch. The Capitals already had the decided offensive advantage here, even before the Rangers lost spiritual leader Ryan Callahan (broken leg) with three games left in the season. There really is no reason the Blueshirts should win, but they clearly have bought into coach John Tortorella’s disciplined, aggressive system and they also have a superb netminder in Henrik Lundqvist. All that can go a long way. The Capitals dialed back the offense considerably this season, in hopes of finding a semblance of a defensive foundation, and they made some important deadline pickups in Marco Sturm, Jason Arnott, and Dennis Wideman (out now with a leg hematoma). No question, with the shrewd Tortorella behind their bench, the Rangers will lead with their ‘F’ game — for frustration. If the Capitals get rattled by it, they could come apart quickly.
Prediction: Rangers in five. 7. Buffalo (96 points) vs. 2. Philadelphia (106 points)
Season series: Split, 2-2
Like the Bruins, the Flyers showed signs of fatigue and lack of focus down the stretch, going a tepid 7-7-6 in their last 20 games. The Sabres finished a sizzling 16-4-4, putting them shoulder to shoulder with the Canucks as the hottest clubs to close out the season. Not a good matchup here for the Sabres, because they can’t come close to equaling Philly’s scoring depth or overall quality and versatility on the blue line. If not for their respective finishes, most everyone would have the Flyers as locks to sweep the series. So, what’s the “but’’ here? Once again, continuing a long Flyers tradition, no one really knows what to expect in net, where rookie Sergei Bobrovsky likely gets the call to start the series. If he’s up to the task, there are no “buts.’’ If not? Then the ever-opportunistic Sabres, who continue the roll-four-line approach under steady coach Lindy Ruff, could make it painful for Peter Laviolette’s club. Probably nothing to worry about here for the Flyers, but . . .
PREDICTION: Flyers in five. 6. Montreal (96 points) vs. 3. Boston (103 points)
Season series: Montreal, 4-2
It’s getting a little monotonous, given that this is the fifth time these longtime rivals have met in the postseason since the spring of 2002. But no denying, it’s always fun. The risk here for the Bruins is what might happen if the small, speedy Habs draw penalties and cash in on power plays. The Bruins either score five-on-five or they don’t score, making it all the more critical not to get caught up in a game of chasing Habs forwards around the ice or killing man-short situations. Boston wants to keep play at even strength, keep it predictable, and try to wear down the Habs with consistency and will. The trump card here for the Bruins is that they know they can intimidate the Habs in the physical game, which means the Canadiens will try to define it as a speed-and-skill series. Boston will attempt to win it with thump blended with dump-and-chase. Montreal will approach it like a pack of pickpockets set loose on a bunch of Times Square drunks on New Year’s Eve. All eyes on the turnbuckle, everyone.
PREDICTION: Bruins in six. 5. Tampa Bay (103 points) vs. 4. Pittsburgh (106 points)Season series: Split, 2-2Given the serious injuries to top forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin this season, a 106-point season is nothing short of amazing for the depleted Penguins. Fact is, it’s their second-highest point total in franchise history. They are going to rely on overall defensive commitment and the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury, who overcame an abysmal start (1-6-0) and re-established himself as one of the game’s top young ’tenders. The Penguins fortified themselves with the late-season acquisitions of James Neal and Matt Niskanen from the Stars, who in the end failed to secure a playoff spot. This will be Tampa star Steve Stamkos’s postseason debut, and he has some extra incentive to dent the net after fading a little over the final quarter of the season. It’s an impressive offensive cast, with star Vinny Lecavalier becoming a more complete — if less potent — player this season. The Penguins get the edge in defense and netminding (Fleury over veteran retread Dwayne Roloson). But the diverse Tampa offense should be too much to stop.
PREDICTION: Lightning in six.