By Sean McCafferty aka Ranfordfan30

With teams having about ten games remaining, now appears to be a great time to look back on my early season predictions, see how badly I called this year’s NHL race to unfold, and make a few bold predictions as to what will happen between now and when Lord Stanley’s Mug is handed out.

My early season predictions for the Eastern Conference had a nice mix of accuracy, and being totally off base.
Of the four teams I considered to be playoff locks, three of them are looking very good. Boston, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia are all in comfortable spots, but the team I pegged to win the East’s regular season crown is fighting for its life… The Washington Capitals continue to bounce in and out of the final spot, hardly the lock I considered them to be.

Half the bubble teams I expected to make the playoffs look like they will. The New York Rangers are sitting in first place (obviously not a bubble team, but in the playoffs none the less) and the New Jersey Devils looked poised to make it as well. The Tampa Bay Lightning now look to have an impossible hill to climb, and will miss the post season. The Buffalo Sabers are making things very interesting down the stretch, but it’s going to be too little too late.

The three teams I predicted to be just outside the playoff picture: Montreal, Carolina, and the New York Islanders, are all very far out. In two cases I expect perennial underachievers (NYI, CAR) to take a small step forward, and in the other I expected a perennial bubble team to miss. They are actually the worst three teams in the conference.

This leaves four teams I completely wrote off before the season began. The Toronto Maple Leafs, after a great first half, have done their best to prove me right. Only race they’re in anymore is the one to stay out of the basement. The Winnipeg Jets, a team I expected to be nowhere near the playoff picture, are just on the cusp of making it. A dominant home record has them in ninth place, with a real shot at extending their season.

Toronto missing the playoffs, again

Ottawa has defied expectations, and instead of being near the bottom of the league they’re sitting in a comfortable playoff spot. Florida should be considered the surprise of the league. Instead of assuming their regular position at the bottom of the league, they’re winning their division and should expect to get at least a couple of home playoff dates.

How much will things change before the post season actually begins? I don’t think much. In fact, I don’t think at all. The playoff bracket is going to look like this:

1. New York Rangers
2. Boston Bruins
3. Florida Panthers
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
5. Philadelphia Flyers
6. New Jersey Devils
7. Ottawa Senators
8. Washington Capitals

This is going to create four great matchups.

Can Ryan Callahan lead the Rangers to playoff success?

The New York Rangers will be heavily favored against the Washington Capitals, like all #1 seeds are. If the Capitals can finally get things clicking though, they shouldn’t be considered pushovers. With Alex Ovechkin, they’ve got one of the most explosive players in the entire league. I don’t think it will be enough though, and I suspect the Rangers will win a short, but hard fought, five game series.

The Boston Bruins will matchup against their division rivals, the Ottawa Senators. This appears to be the most obvious choice of the bunch, as it is very hard to bet against the defending champs, especially when they may have an even better team this year. While I hate predicting sweeps, this could very well be one. I’ll give the Sens a little credit, and bank on them to pick up a single win at home, with the Bruins winning this one in five.

Watching the New Jersey Devils take on the Florida Panthers will once again provide more ammunition for the argument that teams should just be ranked one through eight, instead of giving the division winners a top three seed. The Panthers, while a great story, are clearly a team that should be in the bottom half of the bracket. Expect the Devils, with future hall of famer Martin Brodeur still tending net, to come out of this one with a victory in six games.

That leaves us with the battle of Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Penguins taking on the Philadelphia Flyers. This should be as good a first round matchup as we’ve seen in recent memory.

Bryzgalov will be key to the Flyers chances

The Flyer’s ability to keep this one close will depend on offseason acquisition Ilya Brysgalov, and how he performs in the Philadelphia goal. He’s been nothing short of a disappointment all season, but a strong playoff performance will make fans forget about that in a hurry.

The Penguins chances for success this post season can be summed up with two words: Sidney Crosby. They’re a fourth place team without him, and are arguably the best team in the league with him. If he comes back and is as good as ever, expect the Penguins win. My bet: with Crosby back in the lineup, Penguins win the series in six.

Those four series set up what will be even more exciting second round matchups. The Rangers will get to host their cross-river rivals, the New Jersey Devils. This is finally the time when Brodeur does not get the better of them, and you’ll see the Rangers run though the Devils pretty quickly, winning in five games.

The defending champs in Beantown, facing the best player on the planet in Steeltown, will make for what may be the best series of this year’s playoffs. This is when I expect last year’s playoff success, and the extra games that come with it, to finally catch up to Boston. Expect Pittsburgh to win a grueling series, eking this one out in seven games.

Penguins vs Rangers for the Eastern conference finals. Not only should this be a great series for fans, but it will also be a great one for the league. Having Crosby back in the spotlight, playing against one of the league’s premier franchises,

Will Sidney Crosby hoist the Cup again?

should be a boom for ratings. Expect Crosby, Malkin, & co. to be at their best, and get back to the Stanley Cup finals with a six game victory over the Rangers.

What does this leave for the Finals? If Pittsburgh can really get there, nobody in the west is going to be able to stop them. Sidney Crosby makes his comeback complete, and ends the season off with his second championship.