Archive for April, 2012

My predictions for the NHL Playoffs: Road to the Stanley Cup

April 11, 2012 Leave a comment

As a born and bred Canadian, I breathe hockey. My entire life I have cheered for every Canadian team in the NHL. I started following the league in 1996 at just seven years old, which means that I’ve never seen one of my teams win a championship, despite four Stanley Cup Finals appearances. Well, maybe this year’s the year … maybe.

Only two Canadian teams made the postseason this year: the Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks. The Senators are a true Cinderalla, probably fortunate to have made it this far at all. The Canucks, though, own the league’s best record and came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup last spring. Needless to say, I am placing my hopes and reams with Vancouver this year in seeing Lord Stanley’s trophy return to it’s rightful home.

The following are my predictions for which teams will advance out of the first round. I will be making a fresh wave of these for each round of the best tournament in sports. And for those of you who read these prognostications and declare my obvious bias for the Canucks … well, ok, you’re probably right.

Eastern Conference

1) New York Rangers vs. 8) Ottawa Senators

Ottawa might have been a trendy pick for a first round upset if it hadn’t experienced a disconcerting three game slide to close out the season. You have to wonder how worn out this team is psychologically after overachieving all season to reach the playoffs. Predicted as cellar dwellers this season, coach Paul MacLean has accelerated the rebuilding process in Ottawa and helped his young stars to play efficient hockey. Chief among them is Erik Karlsson, who has a very good chance at finishing as a Norris-candidate for best defenseman.

On the other side of the coin, the Rangers face all of the pressure in this series after their best regular season in almost twenty years. This squad has also done its fair share of overachieving, but a loss to the Sens in the first round would be catastrophic. Ultimately, I believe the Rangers’ style of play is more built for the playoffs than Ottawa’s high risk, high reward attack. I believe New York will grind the Senators down and prove that they simply want this series more.

Prediction: Ottawa has already performed beyond everybody’s expectations, and no matter what happens in this series, they’ve had a successful season. The Senators steal one early and everyone starts talking upset, but New York takes care of business the rest of the series. Rangers in 5

2) Boston Bruins vs. 7) Washington Capitals

This was the hardest series of the first round to pick. It’s hard to pick against the defending champion Bruins, even with their well-publicized ups and downs this year. Boston owns the best goal differential in the league, and in the middle third of the season looked absolutely scary to play against. The controversy that erupted over Tim Thomas refusing to visit the White House cooled the team down in a hurry. Over the last ten games, the Bruins and perhaps most importantly Thomas seemed to return to form. But despite the fact that they are defending Lord’s Stanley’s Cup, that brutal stretch in the early part of 2012 likely lost them a lot of their intimidation factor.

The Washington Capitals, on the other side, have endured a turbulent season to say the least. After firing coach Bruce Budreau and hiring Dale Hunter and enduring an injury to highly-valuable center Niklas Backstrom, the Capitals managed to stay afloat despite playing mostly uninspiring hockey throughout the 82-game schedule. Over the past ten or fifteen games, the Caps have played likely the best they have all year, though, and with Backstrom in the lineup and Ovechkin playing like a 60 goal scorer, they certainly have a chance to make some waves in the postseason. One hiccup to that prospect, however, are injuries in net– Tomas Voukun and Michael Neuvirth are both indefinitely, leaving young but promising Braden Holtby as the starter.

Prediction: The Capitals fluster the Bruins early in the series, ride a suddenly famous Holtby to a couple of close wins and finally finish off Boston in the first round’s biggest upset. Capitals in 7.

3) Florida Panthers vs. 6) New Jersey Devils

This is a classic example of a three seed benefitting from a weak division and going into the first round as underdogs. The Florida Panthers are in the postseason for the first time in eleven seasons, but are not expected by anybody to make any sort of serious run. While they may be fueled by an us-against-the-world mentality, the reality is that they benefitted from seventeen of what fans deride as “loser points.” From losing frequently in overtime and the shootout, the Panthers padded their place in the standings without winning a ton of hockey games.

This may help to explain why the red hot New Jersy Devils are favored in this series. The Devils have successfully flown under the radar all season long, partly because they finished fourth in a stacked division including the Rangers, Penguins and Flyers, all of which enjoyed superb seasons. But Ilya Kovalchuk has produced, the anxiety of Zach Parise leaving has been put on hold, and future hall of famer goalie Martin Brodeur may have his best and final chance at making another deep playoff run. That the Devils put so many distractions behind them and finished with more than 100 points (due in part to six straight wins to close out the schedule) in their brutal division speaks to the hidden strength of this team.

Prediction: The Devils, winners of six straight, stay hot against the Panthers and finally get people’s attention after outplaying Florida in every facet in the series. Congratulations to the Panthers on ending their playoff drought, but they’ll have to wait at least another year to advance past the first round. Devils in 4.

4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 5) Philadelphia Flyers

This will likely be the best series in the first round. It has every element, including two strong division rivals, animosity (between players as well as coaches) and the league’s best forward, Sidney Crosby, back in the playoffs. The Penguins are the media’s darling to ride their new momentum to a deep playoff run and another crack at the Stanley Cup. Right wing Evgeni Malkin is the clear favorite for regular season MVP, the team is scoring at a high clip and the Penguins finished the season on an 18-4-1 tear, part of that with Crosby but managing most of it without him. Everyone and their bandwagon friend seems to like this squad and their chances at some hardware this spring. Unfortunately for them, they have one of the most difficult draws of the first round, rival Philadelphia, which has owned them this season.

The Flyers are a scoring machine, led by seven players with at least 18 goals this season. Scott Hartnell has transformed into a prolific scorer and Claude Giroux led the team and points with 93. Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov has been through a roller coaster season, including some brutal stretches early in the year. But before he went down with a foot injury in late March, Bryzgalov looked like he was finally getting comfortable in Philly, and he will be back for the first round. This Flyers team will be a pain in ESPN’s side, as the network has almost unilaterally declared the Pittsburgh Penguins as the inevitable Stanley Cup Champions.

Prediction: The series does indeed become an instant classic as many expect it to be. Neither team is able fully wrest momentum from the other in a see-saw series, and most of the games will be won on the road. It’s one of those match-ups where you hate that somebody has to lose, but Philadelphia finally ruins Sid the Kid’s triumphant return to hockey and spoil’s the Penguins chances at another parade. Flyers in 7.

Western Conference

1) Vancouver Canucks vs. 8) Los Angeles Kings

Ryan Kesler’s line has not been productive, captain Daniel Sedin’s status is unsure for the playoffs after missing the last nine games with a concussion, and Roberto Luongo was recently booed off the ice at home after a subpar performance. And with all of this surrounding the team, the Canucks won eight of their last nine contests and finished in sole possession of the league’s best record. If the Canucks are this good when operating at 75%, how good might be the postseason if they play the way they’re fully capable of? However, the Canucks are beatable, and the following must fall into line if they expect to advance through a balanced Western Conference again: 1) Daniel Sedin, at some point, needs to return. It’s tough to envision Vancouver hoisting the Cup without their high-scoring captain. 2) Ryan Kesler’s second line needs to score. Kesler was crucial to the Canucks’ success last spring and will need to regain his playoff scoring touch. 3) Roberto Luongo needs to stay psychologically strong after a meltdown in last year’s finals. When Luongo is good, he’s as good as any goalie in the league. When he’s bad, particularly in the postseason, he can be downright awful. Backup Corey Schneider is currently a fan favorite for his consistently strong performance in net, and the odds are that both goalies will be called on to backstop the Canucks in the coming weeks. 4) The Canucks will need to avoid looking past the current series in their eagerness to return to the finals. I see this as possibly the biggest obstacle, mentally, for this team– being patient and cranking out one series win after another rather than thinking of the next challenge.

As for the Kings, this team was expected to get into the postseason in a much better position at the beginning of the year. But the Kings should be praised for making the playoffs after a coaching change early in the season, undergoing a major trade at the trading deadline with Columbus, and simply struggling to score all season long– Los Angeles scored the second fewest goals of any team in the entire league, non-playoff teams included. Goalie Jonathan Quick is clearly the team MVP, and he’s certainly capable of stealing a game or two if he gets hot, but it seems he would need a series reminiscent of J.S. Giguere circa 2003, or Dwayne Roloson circa 2006 to steal four games against a deep Canucks team.

Prediction: The Kings take either game 1 or game 2 in Vancouver, and the hysterics begin north of the border. But the Canucks sweep the Kings in L.A., and after another hiccup in Vancouver against a stingy Jonathan Quick, the Canucks triumph again in California and take the series. Canucks in 6. 

2) St. Louis Blues vs. 7) San Jose Sharks

In the year 2000, the President’s Trophy-winning Blues were shocked by the upstart Sharks in seven games. This year, the Blues were in contention for the league’s best record up to the final week of the regular season, but nobody would be nearly as shocked if these Sharks could pull off the “upset” again. The Blues were never expected to play this well, but since Jack Adams award shoe-in Ken Hitchcock took over as coach early in the season, the Blues have led the league in goals against and claimed first place in a stacked Central Division. They are led by goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, who have each enjoyed career years, and went 30-6-5 at home despite not being very potent offensively; only David Backes and David Perron have scored more than twenty goals this year. The Blues are in the playoffs for only the second time in the past seven years, so a lot of pundits are predicting that their lack of experience will hurt them and that it will take another year or two to carry that success to the post-season.

The Sharks, meanwhile, suffered from the reputation as underachievers in the playoffs for several seasons, but recently have shed that label somewhat by making two consecutive trips to the Western Conference Finals. However, after being ousted in the semis by Vancouver last year, the Sharks turned around and provided one of their least inspiring regular season campaigns in years. San Jose didn’t clinch a playoff berth until the last week of the season and their streak of four consecutive division titles was snapped. Still, the Sharks by now are regular participants in the playoffs and have become a trendy pick to knock off St. Louis.

Prediction: It was tempting to take the Sharks, especially because they’re about as savvy as it gets for a No.7 seed with their recent playoff success. The Blues, however, have been playing a playoff-style game for a long time now. So despite their slump toward the end of the regular season, I believe the Blues have the balance and the goaltending to prove they’re here to win and not just happy to be here. Blues in 7.

3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. 6) Chicago Blackhawks

The Phoenix Coyotes are consistently dealt a terrible hand by the city of Glendale’s negotiations with the franchise. The controversy there is embarrassing for all parties involved. But coach Dave Tippett has masterfully, for the third straight season, got this club to play for each other and reach the playoffs– this time, with a division title and home ice advantage. After falling to Detroit in the past two years, the Coyotes will rely heavily on goaltender Mike Smith to get them past the Chicago Blackhawks. Smith has registered three consecutive shutouts at one point in the last two weeks of the season and is a popular pick to be the first round’s stingiest and most frustrating goalie if keeps up his play.

The Blackhawks themselves are possibly the most enigmatic team in these playoffs. You don’t really know what you’re getting with this Chicago team. The Blackhawks are dangerous as always on offense, but have been dangerously streaky, losing nine straight at one point. Captain Jonathan Toews, in many ways the motor to this team, is still recovering from a concussion heading into the first round, which can’t be good news. Kudos to this team for staying afloat in the Central Division, but the Blackhawks don’t intimidate anyone this year, partly because goaltender Corey Crawford regressed this season and the team has surrendered the second most goals of any in the tournament.

Prediction: The Phoenix Coyotes are actually underdogs in this series despite their home ice advantage. Fresh in the memories of hockey prognosticators is the Blackhawks’ championship run two seasons ago, and the near miracle series comeback against Vancouver last year. However, this Chicago team is more vulnerable than even last year, when they rode Corey Crawford’s hot hand to a near-upset as a No. 8 seed. This year’s Blackhawks will not come that close this time around. Coyotes in 6.

4) Nashville Predators vs.  5) Detroit Red Wings:

Nashville returns to the playoffs yet again and will square off with their old nemesis, the Detroit Red Wings. While the Predators are 0-2 in their playoff series’ against Detroit, they are favored in this series. Coming off their first series win last season against Anaheim, they are picked by many to make a deep run. They are led by workhorse goaltender Pekka Rinne (he leads the league in wins with 43) and two elite defensemen in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. After being aggressive buyers at the trade deadline, a lot is on the line for the Preds in what promises to be a taxing first round series.

Detroit, like Chicago, is a very difficult team to wrap your head around. They’ve had stretches this season when they play typical Red Wings hockey that we’ve come to expect– outshooting opponents, making them tire themselves about by chasing the puck all game long. This included an incredible 23 game winning streak at Joe Louis Arena, setting a new NHL record. But the Red Wings struggled mightily on the road all year and fell from contending for the President’s Trophy as late as the first week of March, to beginning the playoffs on the road. This inconsistency had the Red Wings slowly sliding down the standings and put them in an unfamiliar position by season’s end– that of the underdog.

Prediction: It’s impossible to feel totally comfortable picking against the Red Wings, but I’m a true believer in the Nashville Predators this season. The defensive abilities of this team are simply too overwhelming to ignore. The Predators, much like their division rivals St. Louis Blues, play playoff-type hockey all season long– and in a series where it’s tough to make any prediction, their consistency over the last two months gives them a slight edge in my mind. Predators in 7.

Categories: NHL
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