Another hockey postseason is upon us, which means an array of heated rivalries, lots of nail-biting action and of course, playoff beards. The No. 1 seeds in both conferences (Caps in the East, Canucks in the West) look strong on all aspects and should be able to go deep into the playoffs. There are a number of great first round match-ups including the always heated rivalry of the Bruins and Canadiens as well as the Flyers and Bruins and division rivals Sharks and Kings in the West. Here’s a look at the first-round match-ups and some predictions as the teams look toward their ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup trophy.

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. No. 8 New York Rangers

No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 7 Buffalo Sabres

No. 3 Boston Bruins vs. No. 6 Montreal Canadiens

No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No.5 Tampa Bay Lightning

Alright, of course you already know who I want to come out of the East and judging from how they’ve been playing lately, the Caps are probably a pretty decent bet at this point. However, their first round match-up with the Rangers scares me a bit just because of how familiar the teams are with one another and how tough New York plays the Caps every time they meet. Henrik Lundqvist always plays well against the Caps and has shut the Caps out the last two times he started against them (7-0 and 6-0 wins, respectively).

Obviously, this is the playoffs and things will be a little different than they were during the regular season. I fully expect the Caps to come out firing, which is what they need to do because if they can keep pressure on Lundqvist, he’s going to break eventually. And with the way the Rangers have not been able to score lately, it bodes very well for the Caps, who finished fourth in the league in goals against (2.3) and second in penalty kill (85.6%).

I think the best first-round match-up in the East will be between the Bruins and the Canadiens. These two teams always play each other tough and this series won’t be any different. But if you want to see scoring, you may want to pick another series to watch because this is going to be some hard-hitting, close played hockey. Bruins’ goalie Tim Thomas was amazing this season, posting a 2.00 GAA on his way to what should be his second career Vezina Trophy. But Montreal’s Carey Price is no slouch. Price went 38-28 this season with a 2.35 GAA and a .923 save percentage and solidified himself as one of the best young netminders in the NHL. The Canadiens do have a good chance to knock off the Bruins considering how close every game will probably be, but I can’t go against Thomas and the experience of the Bruins.

I don’t see the Penguins having any trouble with the Lightning even though they won’t have Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby on the ice. The Lightning can score at will with guys like Steven Stamkos, Vincent LeCavalier and Martin St. Louis, but I don’t think they will have enough to get past the Penguins. Despite not having Malkin or Crosby for most of the second half of the season, the Pens still found a way to finish fourth in the conference and earn 106 points. They just know how to win and should be able to get past Tampa Bay relatively easily.

Western Conference

No. 1 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 8 Chicago Blackhawks

No. 2 San Jose Sharks vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Kings

No. 3 Detroit Red Wings vs. No. 6 Phoenix Coyotes

No. 4 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 5 Nashville Predators

The Canucks have been the best team in the NHL all season long and I don’t see anything changing when the playoffs come around. They have one of the top goalies in the league in Roberto Luongo and two of the best scorers in the league in the Sedin brother, Henrik and Daniel. They are virtually unbeatable at home and are hard to beat when they are visitors. So getting past the first round should be easy right? Wrong. The Canucks are rewarded with the No. 1 seed by having to face the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks.

I understand the Blackhawks aren’t quite as dominant as they were this time last season, but they are still very dangerous. When the defending champs get into the playoffs like they did, on the last day of the regular season, it gives them that small boost of confidence they need to make a run. And even though I like the Canucks to get to the finals, I’m not going to discount the Blackhawks to knock them out in the first round.

I think the second most dangerous team in the West isn’t the No. 2 seed Sharks, but the Red Wings. Even though they sputtered a bit toward the end of the season, this team is full of veterans like Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg (if healthy) and Kris Draper that are capable of making a deep run in the playoffs. They may have a bit of a tough time in the first round just because of how well Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov has played over the past few weeks, but I just think they have too much firepower and experience to be ousted early.

My pick to come out of the West is the Red Wings. As long as Jimmy Howard is able to play up to his potential the Wings should be fine. Veteran Chris Osgood is still recovering from his sports hernia surgery, so Howard will get the call in the early going. They are capable of beating any team in the West and I see them making a run at the Cup like they did just a few years back. The Sharks are another team I could see sneaking into the finals based on how they bounced back last season after getting booted out in the first round two seasons ago. They will be much more confident this season and won’t have as much pressure on them with them being the No. 2 seed and not the top seed. Much like the Wings, they have a veteran squad that is very tough to beat at home. Not to mention they finished the season 7-2-1 to jump into that No. 2 spot.

So, my prediction as of now will be the Caps (homer pick) and the Wings in the finals. Obviously, I’m hoping the Caps can exorcize some playoff demons and win it all, but it’s not going to be that easy. I’ll take the Caps to win it all anyway and hope that my homer pick prevails and the Caps are the 2011 Stanley Cup champs.

Submitted by Steve Giles