Tuesday, April 13, 2010

NHL Playoff Predictions

As regular readers know, although I spend most of my time writing about movies, I am also a big hockey fan. This year, I decided to have some fun and look at the NHL playoffs series and make my own predictions. The season has been great, and I expect big times from the playoffs as well. This year, I am particularly excited because my favorite team - the LA Kings - are in from the first time in 8 years. So take my prediction in that series with a grain of salt if you like. The rest of the series' I do not have a vested stake in.

Western Conference Playoffs
It is quite clear that the Western Conference was the better of the two conferences this year. The top 7 teams got to the 100 point plateau in the West, compared to only 4 in the East. In fact, the bottom two teams in the east playoff picture – Montreal and Philidelphia would have finished tied for 12th in the West, and none of the bottom 4 would have made the playoffs at all. I think that each of the series’ in the West have the potential to be great – while in the east things probably won’t really heat up until round 2. Below, I offer my thoughts on the series’ ahead.

(1) San Jose vs. (8) Colorado
This is the only completely lopsided series in the West this round. San Jose – with its great starting line of Thornton, Heatley and Marleau, solid secondary scoring in the form of Pavelski, Clowe and Setoguchi, solid defense core led by Boyle and Blake and net minding by Nabokov should be able to beat Colorado easily. For their part, Colorado is probably happy to be in the playoffs at all. The future looks bright for them with great young players like Statsny, Duchene and Stewart up front, and a young goaltender in Anderson looking good for most of the season. The Aves do have some experience in the likes of Foote and Tucker, but they are simply outmatched here – especially since a solid player like Mueller is unlikely to play this series, and the aforementioned Duchene will not be at 100%. The Aves only real hope here is that the Sharks do what they have seemingly done in all of their previous playoffs runs and choke. Nabokov, as we all saw at the Olympics, can be inconsistent as well. But really, although I do not think the Sharks will make it out of the West this season, I also do not think that they will choke in the first round when they are so much better than their opponent.
Prediction: San Jose in 5.

(2) Chicago vs. (7) Nashville
This series has the potential to be much better than most 2 vs. 7 series usually are. Led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, goal scoring should not be a problem for the Black Hawks. In addition Duncan Keith is one of the best offensive defensemen in the game, and adds firepower from the point, and Brent Seabrook is one of the best defensive defensemen out there. However, missing Kim Johnsson and especially Brian Campbell on defense makes them a little weak in the depth charts on the blue line. The big question for Chicago will be the goaltending. They basically went with a platoon approach most of the season – splitting games between Antti Niemi and Christobol Huet – but Niemi seems to have grabbed the starting job down the stretch. But he has no playoff experience, and has been at times inconsistent this year. Nashville on the other hand doesn’t have the scoring depth up front – but they do have a host of solid players – Sullivan, Hornqvist, Erat, Arnott, Dumont – any of them can beat you, so it will be hard for Chicago to shutdown just one line. With big Shea Weber manning the point, he also provides offense as well. Like Chicago though, the question will be goaltending. In his second full season in the NHL, Pekka Rinne has established himself as a sometimes brilliant goaltender, with the ability to steal games from his team. He is going to have to, since Chicago is a much deeper team. If Rinne is the best player in this series, than Nashville has a shot at an upset. If not, Chicago makes it to the second round.
Prediction: Chicago in 6

(3) Vancouver vs. (6) Los Angeles
For the first time in a number of years, you can say that Vancouver’s offense is not an issue heading into the playoffs. Led by Art Ross trophy winner Henrik Sedin, and supported by his brother Daniel, along with Burrows, Kesler, Samuelson and Raymond (all have at least 25 goals), the Canucks are one of the best scoring teams in the league right now. But it is the defense and goaltending that could be an issue. Their best defensive defensemen Willie Mitchell will not play, and whether Salo, O’Brien and Rome can play is still questionable – but all may not be as effective as they should be. Normally, the Canucks feel confident in Roberto Lunogo, but he has been massively inconsistent all year long, especially since the Olympics – and nowhere was this more evident than when he gave up 8 goals against the Kings a little more than a week ago. As for the Kings, they started off strong, but have cooled a little bit down the stretch. However, they also have scoring depth, just not as much as the Canucks. Anze Kopitar has become a star in the league, and teamed with Smyth and Williams are looking good. Stoll, Brown and Frolov really picked up their game down the stretch, and Handzus, Modin and Simmonds can grind it out with the best of them, and also put some points on the board. On defense, I think the top six – lead by Drew Doughty, but also including Johnson, Scuderi, Jones, O’Donnell and Greene – can match up against anyone. The biggest question marks for the Kings will be their lack of playoff experience (they haven’t made it 8 years) and in goal. Jonathan Quick was great for most of the season, but cooled down considerably nearing the end of the season. He needs to be at least as good as Roberto Luongo for the Kings to win this series. This is going to be a great series.
Prediction: LA in 7.

(4) Phoenix vs. (5) Detroit
You have to feel bad for the Phoenix Coyotes, who have been the best story in the NHL this season coming in 4th in the West with 107 points. They worked so hard, only to have to face the resurgent Detroit Red Wings in the first round. For the Coyotes, they are hoping that Ilya Bryzgalov can continue to be one of the best goalies in the league and carry them past the Red Wings. The Coyotes offense is more by committee than by stars – with players such as Doan, Wolski, Stempniak, Lombardi and Vrbata all dangerous. On defense, they have a solid group led by Jovonoski, Morris, Aucion and Yandle. As for the Red Wings, they look pretty bad for much of the season – but since the Olympic break, they have been the best team in the league and slowly climbed themselves for 9th to 5th in that time. The experience of the likes of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Holmstrom, Filppula and Bertuzzi will help – and on the blue line with Lidstom, Rafalski and Kronwall. In short, these are guys who know how to win in the playoffs. The question mark for them is in net – can rookie Jimmy Howard play the way he needs to in the playoffs for the Red Wings to win? I think this is going to be another great series which could come down to the wire.
Prediction: Detroit in 7.

Eastern Conference Playoffs
The Eastern Conference gets most of the headlines when it comes to the NHL, even though they are easily the weaker of the two conferences this year. The bottom four teams in the playoffs would not have made it with their point totals in the West – and the bottom three teams pretty much backed their way into a playoff position, rather than really come on strong at the end. I really only think one of these series is going to be much of a battle. Round 2 should bring fireworks, but round 1 is just a formality for the top teams.

(1) Washington vs. (8) Montreal
I think the President’s Trophy Winning Washington Capitals are going to have a tough time getting out of the Eastern conference this year. Having said that, I think they will no problem beating the Montreal Canadians. It is no secret that the Washington Capitals are the best offensive team in the NHL. Led by Alexander Ovechkin, alongside with Backstrom, Semin and Green, the Caps score every night and make it hell on their opponents. The defense is fine as well. The question mark will be in net, as neither Varlamov nor Theodore have been consistent this year. For the Canadians, they are weaker up front – duh – but have some good forwards in Plekanic, Gionta, Cammaleri and Gomez. The defense is decent, but not spectacular led by Markov. If the Canadians are to have any chance at all at beating the Caps, they need goaltender Halak to play with super human ability. Anything less, and the Caps will bowl over the Habs easily.

Prediction: Washington in 5.

(2) New Jersey vs. (7) Philadelphia
While it’s true that the addition of Ilya Kovulchuk didn’t make them into the powerhouse some thought it would, it definitely did help with their scoring up front. Add him alongside Parise, Zajac, Langenbruner and Elias and you have a team that can score. They do not have star defensemen, but rather a group who plays well together game in and game out. Goalie Martin Brodeur has not had his best season, but he is one of the best to ever play the position, and will be solid in net again this playoff season. The Flyers on the other hand fumbled and stumbled their way down the stretch, needing a shootout win in their last game to even get in. Six different goalies played from them this season – and with their best two out for the season, they are going to have to hope that the inconsistent at best Brian Boucher can play better than ever before. Up front, they have a talented group of forwards with Richards, Carter, Gagne, Briere and Giroux – and they’ll need them to try and keep the play in the Devils zone. On defense, they are led by Chris Pronger, along with Timmonen and Carle – who will have their work cut out for them trying to keep pucks away from the net. If the Flyers had decent goaltending, they could make this a series so it’s up to Boucher to come up big – just like he did in the final game of the series.
Prediction: New Jersey in 6.

(3) Buffalo vs. (6) Boston
There is no secret as to why the Buffalo Sabres had such a good season – you have the best goalie in the league, as they do in Ryan Miller, and you’re going to win more than you lose. But aside from Miller – who could be the ticket for the Sabres to get out of the East, he is that good – they have a solid team in every position. Led by rookie Tyler Myers on defense, the core blue liners are solid clearing pucks out of the zone easily, and contributing a little offensively. Up front, they don’t have a superstar, but instead a number of players who can score – Roy, Pominville, Vanek and Connelly (if he is back from injury which looks unlikely, although they will hopefully have Hecht and Stafford back). For Boston, after losing Marc Savard to that cheap shot by Matt Cookie, they have faltered, being slightly not as awful as the Habs and Flyers to get the 6th seed. In net, they seem to be going with Tukka Rask, although Tim Thomas is waiting in the wings – neither have been consistently great this season though. Led on defense by Zdeno Chara, along and Wideman, they are solid, but not spectacular. On forward, the absence of Savard (as does missing Seidenberg on defense) hurts, but they will hope for Bergeron, Krejci, Recchi, Wheeler and Sturm to make up for it. Had the Bruins been healthy and playing at their full potential, they would have had a shot to upset the Sabres. But they aren’t.
Prediction: Buffalo in 5.

(4) Pittsburgh vs. (5) Ottawa
This has the potential to be the best first round series in the East. The Pens are the defending Stanley Cup Champions, and are looking to repeat. Crosby had another great year, and now that Malkin is healthy, the team is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. I don’t think they’re quite as good as they were last year – the loss of Scuderi on defense hurts a little – but this is a well rounded team from Fleury in net all the way through the lineup. They could easily come out of the East. As for the Sens, it is a little cloudier. When they are firing on all cylinders, they are capable of playing with the best in the league – but inconsistency has been a big problem for the team this year. They have a strong offense – led by Spezza, Alfredson and Fisher. They are missing Kovalev, which may hurt, although given his penchant for disappearing in the post season, it could be a blessing in disguise. On defense, they are led by the pairing of Philips and Volchenkov who are going to be the biggest factor in this series – they will have to find a way to stop Crosby. In net, it looks like Elliot is going to be the go to guy, with Leclaire looking for a chance to get in. If the Sens get strong goaltending – and that’s a big if – and they play the way they are capable of, then I think they can give the Pens a run for their money.
Prediction: Pittsburg in 6.
So that's it for round 1. If I'm right on all eight (and that would be a miracle), Round Two will look like this: San Jose vs. LA, Chicago vs. Detroit, Washington vs. Pittsburg (and what a series that would be!) and New Jersey vs. Buffalo. But even if I'm wrong on all of them, I'll offer my prediction for Round 2 in a few weeks. Enjoy round 1!

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