Western Conference Playoff Preview
Once again, this season showed just how close things are in the Western Conference. For example, if the Kings and Black Hawks had won their last game each, they would have met as the 4 and 5 seeds in the first round – since they lost, they dropped to 7 and 8. The difference between these teams is thin – and upsets are a definite possibility, so let’s look at the matchups.
1) Vancouver vs. 8) Chicago
If Vancouver could have chosen their first round opponent, they would have picked anyone else rather than Chicago – the team that has put them out of the playoffs in both of the last two years. Yes, Vancouver has strengthened their team since last year – given themselves more depth both offensively and defensively, and Roberto Luongo is coming off his best year ever in a Canucks uniform. And yes, Chicago is a shadow of the team they were last year – losing forwards like Byuflin, Ladd and Versteeg that drove the Canucks crazy, losing depth on defense (Sopel) and, just like last year, having to depend on an untested rookie goalie in net (last year it was Niemi, this year Corey Crawford). But the history is still there. Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Bolland, Keith, Seabrook, Campbell are still there as well. And the Canucks have suffered some injuries – there defense looks to be getting healthier, but they will be without their great checking line center Manny Malhorta. Still, given the year the Canucks had this season – given that the Sedin are firing on all cylinders, that Kesler has found more offense this year than anyone thought possible, given their overall depth, they should be able to beat the Black Hawks easily this year. If they don’t, than it will be the biggest choke of this year’s playoffs. I think the Hawks will send a little scare into Vancouver, but ultimately the defending champs will be eliminated.
Prediction: Vancouver in 6.
2) San Jose vs. 7) Los Angeles
My beloved Kings had such a strong second half of the season that it really looked like they’d be able to hang onto 4th, even without Kopitar, but after back to back losses to Anaheim to end the season, they dropped all the way to 7th. The Kings remain one of the best defensive teams in the NHL, amazing in their own zone and on the Penalty Kill. But in the 7 games without Kopitar, they have only managed 11 goals. Dustin Penner has yet to make an impact on this team, and Smyth has been slumping since January. The return of Williams, albeit at 80%, will help, but the Kings will still have problems scoring. And you cannot win if you cannot score. The Sharks on the other hand have been perhaps the best team in the NHL since January, making up for their horrible start, with great play. They are no longer a one line team – in fact Thornton, Heatley and Marleau have been a little disappointing this year, but the likes of Pavelski, Setoguchi, Clowe and super rookie Couture have more than made up for that. The Sharks are also deeper on defense they were a year ago, and they finally have a number 1 goalie in Annti Niemer who is a proven playoff performer. My heart says my beloved Kings will find a way to grind the Sharks down with their big bodied forwards and defense, and get top notch goaltending from Quick, and score just enough to win the series. My brain says that the Sharks are going to make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Prediction: LA in 7 (I believe in miracles!).
3) Detroit vs. 6) Phoenix
This is a rematch of last year’s first round series that the Red Wings took in seven games over the then upstart Coyotes. It was a hard fought series, where the veteran Wings were finally able to prevail. But this year, I expect the result to be different. The Wings have been weak defensively all season long – even Lidstrom is a minus player for God’s sake. Their goaltending is questionable – Jimmy Howard has not had the year he had last year. Zetterberg may well be hurt to start the series, and the Wings top forwards are almost all aging. The Coyotes on the other hand remain one of the hardest working teams in the league. Without an offensive superstar, they rely on offense by committee – and it works. On defense, they have a legitimate Norris candidate in Keith Yandle (if he doesn’t win, it’s because no one watches the Pacific division). In net, Ilya Bryzgalov remains one of the best, most consistent goalies in the league. Yes, it is silly to bet against the Wings, who have so much playoff success in their recent history. But this year, I suspect that the Coyotes will be the better team.
Prediction: Phoenix in 7.
4) Anaheim vs. 5) Nashville
This series could very well turn out to the most entertaining of all the first round matchups – which makes it sadder that no one will watch it. Anaheim has one of the most potent offenses in the league – in Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry, they have perhaps the best line of anyone in the league, and their second line of Blake-Koivu-Selanne has been playing great – especially Teemu, who at 40 is still one of the best scorers in the leaque. They are weak on defense however, dispite the fact the Lubomir Visofsky is a likely Norris contender (more for his offense than defense), and they have huge questions in net – as first stringer Hiller still has vertigo, second stringer Emery is still hurt, so they have to go with Dan Ellis in net (who, promptly became one of the NHL’s three stars of the week for the final week of the season). Nashville on the other hand doesn’t have the scoring power of Anaheim, but are rock solid defensively, and have one of the league’s best goalies in Pekka Rinne. Coach Barry Trotz deserves an award for getting this team, who on paper looks weak, into the playoffs year after year after year. This is going to be a battle of wills and styles, and will likely go the distance, with either team a decent bet to win.
Prediction: Nashville in 7.
Eastern Conference Playoff Preview
The Eastern Conference playoff race may not have been as exciting as the Western conference was, but the top 8 teams are all still excellent, and should make for an exciting first round. So let’s look at these series.
1) Washington vs. 8) New York Rangers
Despite a number of “What’s wrong with Washington?” stories in the first half of the year, the transformation between all offense and mix between offense and defense seems to be complete in Washington. They are much better prepared to play in the playoffs this year then they were last year, where they won the President’s trophy and got upset in the first round. Additions on defense, and Jason Arnott down the middle help. The question will be whether the goaltending can hold up. No such goalie questions plague the Rangers, who in Lundqvist have one of the best in the business. The question for them is if they have the depth up front and on defense to compete with the Capitals. Without Ryan Callahan, I doubt it.
Prediction: Washington in 6.
2) Philidelphia vs. 7) Buffalo
For much of the season, the Flyers looked to be the cream of the crop in the East. But they have fumbled and stumbled in the last 6 weeks, and do not really look like a Stanley Cup team right now. With Pronger questionable to be able to go, they could be in trouble – even with one of the deepest teams up front of anyone. And who among the three goalies they are currently carrying will step up? Buffalo on the other hand stumbled for much of the first half of the season – but came on strong at the end. If Ryan Miller is truly over his injury, I think the Sabres, who are flying high since they got a new owner, could give the Flyers fits in this round.
Prediction: Buffalo in 7.
3) Boston vs. 6) Montreal
The Bruins got Tomas Kaberle from Toronto in the hopes of making their power play better – and so far it hasn’t worked. Up front, the Bruins are deep, but do not really have a superstar to carry the load for them. On defense, beyond Chara, they are merely average. But in Tim Thomas, they have the best goalie in the league this season – and that may take them a long way. The Canadians still have the same small forwards that worked last year in the playoffs, and basically the same D as well – although the addition of Wisnewski and Sopel will help. And in Cary Price, they have the second best goalie in the league this season. This is going to be an epic battle, as it seems to be whenever these two teams meet.
Prediction: Boston in 7.
4) Pittsburgh vs. 5) Tampa Bay
Will Crosby come back this series? My guess is no – there is something wrong here, since he has been skating with the team for a while, but still is not cleared for full practice. But without Crosby, coach Dan Blysma has done an extraordinary job of getting this team to play better team defense, and get what they can in terms of scoring. Marc Andre Fleury looks like the goalie he was when the Pens won the cup – and not the one who blew it last year. The Lightning on the other hand have one of the most potent offenses in the league – led by St. Louis, Stamkos and Leclavier (who is playing like the Vinnie of old recently). The question mark for them is on the back end – and whether Dwayne Roloston can really be a Stanley Cup goalie again. Should be a good series.
Prediction: Pittsburg in 7.