First-round Stanley Cup playoff picks 

April, 11, 2011
04/11/11
10:52
AM ET

First things first: These eight first-round matchups are as competitive as any I've seen in my career covering the NHL. I really wouldn't be too surprised by any result, particularly in the East.

Here are my thoughts on the opening-round series, complete with my best flip-of-a-coin selections:

East

1. Washington Capitals vs. 8. New York Rangers

What to make of this matchup? The eighth-seeded Rangers, who slipped into the playoffs after a near-fatal stumble in the deep stretch, enjoyed much success against the No. 1-seed Capitals during the regular season, taking three of four games by a combined score (excluding shootout) of 17-6. That's a substantial figure.

New York slammed Washington 6-0 in their most recent meeting Feb. 25 in D.C. That loss seemed to stir the Capitals, who went on to finish the season on a 16-3-1 run.

Statistically, there isn't much difference between the teams. In many areas -- goals scored, goals against and 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio, to name three -- the regular-season numbers are nearly identical.

As always, the Rangers will rely on star stopper Henrik Lundqvist, who went 2-1 against Washington with a pair of shutouts. The 29-year-old might be a little crease-weary after starting the last 26 games of the season (due to an injury to veteran backup Martin Biron).

At the other end of the rink, Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau will decide between Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov. I'm guessing that Neuvirth will start the series. Will he finish?

In the spring of 2009, the Capitals had to rally from a 3-1 series deficit to win a decisive Game 7 2-1 at Verizon Center. The Rangers are a much more dangerous underdog in this series. And of course, they certainly don't carry the heavy weight of expectations their opponent does.

This is an incredibly tough pick for me. On one hand, I believe the Capitals are ready to take another step forward in the playoffs. They're playing harder and smarter than they have in the past. On the other, I think they've drawn a bad match. The Rangers are a gritty group that has every reason to believe they can beat the Caps.

In the end, it won't be much of an upset to me if the Rangers win, but I'll take the Capitals in 7.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.

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