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NHL Playoffs 2011: Eastern Conference Predictions

(1) Washington Capitals vs (5) Tampa Bay Lightning

Washington defeated the New York Rangers in five games.

Tampa Bay came back to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games.

The Washington Capitals changed their entire team mentality after losing in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. Instead of flying up and down the ice attempting to win by simply outscoring their opponents, the Capitals reinvented themselves as a defensively sound team that focused on puck responsibility over offensive prowess. The changes seem to have worked, as they defeated a physical Rangers team in five games -- the first time that a Capitals series had not gone the full seven games under coach Bruce Boudreau.

Tampa Bay has built their team around the offense, depending on the development of Steven Stamkos and the veteran presence of Martin St. Louis to score their way to victory this season. An early season trade brought in 41 year old goalie Dwayne Roloson, who has given them stability in net. This Lightning team is fast, aggressive, and quick to the puck. They were dominated by a shorthanded Penguins team in the first round, one that played them physically around the boards to take away their speed advantage.

Goaltending: Even

This is a battle of contrasts, as veteran Roloson matches up against Capitals rookie netminder Michael Neuvirth. Both played well in the first round, and displayed the necessary calmness under pressure that succeeds in the playoffs.

Defense: Washington

The offseason changes, along with the addition of defenseman Scott Hannan have transformed the Capitals into a team who is built for a long playoff series. They have the upper hand over a Lightning teal whose focus is on scoring as often as possible. This is a big advantage for the Capitals, and should play well in this series.

Offense: Tampa Bay

The Capitals have always been considered an offense-first team, but they were actually below league average in goals scored this season. The Lightning have taken the mantle of all-offense, all the time and have certainly run with it. They boast two of the top five scorers in the NHL, and racked up the goals against the Pens in the first round.

Special Teams: Even

Again, this is a matchup of strength versus strength. The Lightning power play has a great top line, but lacks the depth of some of the Western teams. The Capitals penalty kill was one of the best in the league. Neither team has a distinct advantage here.

The Washington Capitals will be playing a very familiar team, as the Lightning are built in their own image. This is a great litmus test for Alex Ovechkin and his Capitals, and the results will be fascinating. As long as Washington continues to stay the course and resists the trap of playing fast and loose with the Lightning, they should win this series. The Lightning are far too inconsistent on offense to win four games.

Washington in seven games.

 

(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs (3) Boston Bruins

Philadelphia overcame the Buffalo Sabres in seven games.

Boston won in overtime over the Montreal Canadiens in seven games.

This is the rematch that everyone was hoping for. the Bruins and Flyers meeting in the semifinals for the second straight season. In 2010, the Flyers came back from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the Bruins in seven games on their way to the Stanley Cup Finals. It was only the third time in NHL history that a  team had overcome such a deficit.

This season, both teams meet on the heels of lengthy first round series. With all of their history against each other, there are no secrets here. The Bruins know the Flyers will want to push the pace of the game; the Flyers know the Bruins will attempt to force a slower, defensive game on the series.

Goaltending: Boston

Huge advantage for the Bruins, as they will have Tim Thomas between the pipes. Thomas set the regular season save percentage record this past year and the Bruins know he gives them a chance to win every game. On the other side of the ice, the Flyers are entrusting Brian Boucher -- as long as he performs. Backup Michael Leighton is waiting on the bench and could see action at the first sign that Boucher falters.

Defense: Boston

The Bruins pride themselves on a sturdy, big defense in front of Thomas. Captain Zdeno Chara leads the way with his size and physicality, and the Bruins hold the advantage in this series. The Flyers can match up with the return of Chris Pronger, but they don't have the defensive depth that Boston holds.

Offense: Philadelphia

Here's the main advantage for the Flyers and their wild card in this series. Danny Briere had six goals in the first round series against the Sabres, and fellow forwards Claude Giroux and Jeff Carter provide great depth. Philadelphia will be able to pressure the Boston blue line with their constant attack. The Bruins simply do not have the forwards to match up against the Flyers, as Milan Lucic is their best possible hope for scoring.

Special Teams: Philadelphia

The Flyers power play reads like an all-star roster, and any Boston penalty creates an enormous opportunity for Philadelphia to score, even thought their unit struggled against the Sabres' Ryan Miller in the first round. Boston went zero for nine in their series against Montreal, a number that has to change for the Bruins to have a chance in this series.

Philadelphia has the offensive firepower, but enormous questions in goal. Boston has an elite goalie, but lacks a big scoring threat to put pressure on the Flyers. These two teams are very familiar with each other, and it should be an incredibly physical series. We;ll give the edge to Philadelphia based on their scoring depth and better power play unit, but if one of the Boston forwards steps up it could easily turn in Boston's favor. Whoever can control the pace in this series will be the likely victor. In the end, the Flyers simply have the better players.

Philadelphia in six games.