Monday, April 9, 2012

Round One Playoff Predictions

I haven’t written much about the NHL this season, but I have been following it closer than ever before. So once again, the playoffs our upon us, and my beloved LA Kings have not made it easy on themselves, by losing their final two games against San Jose so that they have to face off against the President’s trophy winning Vancouver Canucks. Oh well. Here is how I see each series breaking down.
Western Conference
1)      Vancouver vs. 8) Los Angeles
Personally, I do not believe that this Vancouver team is as good as the one they had last season – and it will be worse if Daniel Sedin does not come back as expected. The Sedins and Kesler have not been as dominant as they have in the past, and you never know what Luongo you are going to get. You also wonder if having had a long playoff run last year if they are going to start wearing down at some point. Still, you don’t win the President’s Trophy unless you are a great team – they are the one team that knows that if they don’t win the Cup, it will be viewed as a failure. As for LA, they have been much better since the Jeff Carter trade. They underachieved much of the year, but they are still one of the very best defensive teams in the league, and in Jonathan Quick, they SHOULD have the Vezina trophy winner. If the Kings have learned from their last two quick playoff exits, they could upset the heavy favorites in Vancouver. 
Prediction: Los Angeles in 7. I am NEVER NOT going to pick the Kings to win. I honestly believe this is going to be a long series, and that LA could easily pull off a HUGE upset.

2)      St. Louis vs. 7) San Jose
I have to wonder if this season has been too much too soon for the St. Louis Blues. They haven’t made the playoffs in a few years, and then this year everything came together and they had a great regular season. But do they have enough experience to actually compete for the Stanley Cup? They are the best defensive team in the league, and have two great goalies if one falters. They are also hard to check, because they have offense by committee. As for the Sharks, this was a disappointing season for them, but they do have a lot of playoff experience. I do have to question the goaltending, as Anttii Niemi has had an up and down season, and they are not great defensively. They can be great offensively though. They also have to answer the bell that this team is not too old to compete lest they be blown up.
Prediction: St. Louis in 6. St. Louis may be inexperienced, but I normally take defense over offense in the playoffs, so I’m taking St. Louis this round.

3)      Phoenix vs. 6) Chicago
Phoenix won the booby prize of being the best team in the Pacific division which was weaker than most years this time. They have a hard working team, lead up front by two great veterans in Shane Doan and Ray Whitney, on the back end by one of the best, most under rated d-men in the game in Keith Yandle, and have amazing goaltending by Mike Smith. The Blackhawks on the other hand have more depth than last year, but you do have to wonder how good they can be if Jonathan Toews cannot come back. Still, they have responded well in his absence, and with Duncan Keith they have depth, with or without Toews.
Prediction: Chicago in 5. Chicago has too much depth for the Coyotes, who have not been able to overcome the first round hump in the previous two years. If the Coyotes are to win this one, they need Mike Smith to steal it – and I don’t think he’ll do it.

4)      Nashville vs. 5) Detroit
Nashville may well be the quietest Cup contenders this year – no matter how well they do, they never seem to get much respect. They added depth on defense with Hal Gill, to go along with two of the very best in the league in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. In Pekka Rinne, they have one of the best goalies in the league. With Radulov, they have added a legitimate scoring star. As for Detroit, they are always a threat. Although many of their best players – Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Lidstrom – are getting older, and you do have to wonder if Jimmy Howard can backstop them to a deep playoff run. This is going to be a death match, with the victor being a legit threat to win the Western conference.
Prediction: Nashville in 7. It’s going to be tight, but I think Nashville has the defensive depth to get this done.

Eastern Conference
1)      New York Rangers vs. 8) Ottawa
The Rangers had a great season, really coming through defensively, and especially in net with Henrik Lundqvist, and just enough offense to win, with Brad Richards and Marion Gaborik finding instant chemistry together. They may not be the most exciting team in the gang, but they play a solid team game, and have few holes in their lineup. As for Ottawa, their complete rebuild that they started last year is WAY ahead of schedule. They have more offense than the Rangers with the likes of Spezza, Michalek, Alfredson and d-man scoring leader Eric Karlsson. But they have less overall depth, and counting on the inconsistent Craig Anderson in net may well be their downfall.
Prediction: New York in 5. The Rangers simply have too much depth to be beaten by the Sens this year.

2)      Boston vs. 7) Washington
The Bruins may not be quite as good as last year, but they still know how to win. Zdeno Chara can be the most dominant player in any series, and can shut down nearly any forward, so good luck Ovechkin. Though Tim Thomas is certainly not as amazing as he was last year – not to mention the fact that he let his batshit crazy side out this year – he still has the ability to be dominant. Up front, they have enough depth to make up for the fact that they do not have any real offensive superstars. As for Washington, they should have been much better than 7th this year, but for some reason, they never really came together this year. They seem like a team of individuals more than a cohesive unit. Alex Ovechkin can still be one of the best in the game – as he proved down the stretch this season. As a team though, they just do not have the depth.
Prediction: Boston in 6.The playoffs are about heart – the Bruins have it, the Caps don’t.

3)      Florida vs. 6) New Jersey
The Florida Panthers were one of the great stories of the regular season this year, ending the longest current playoff drought at 10 years (sorry Toronto, that honor now belongs to you). They did it with a team effort – no real stars, but a team that gets the job done, and relying on a resurgent Jose Theodore in net. They went to more overtime and shootouts than any other team in the league in this year, which means they can keep things close. As for New Jersey, after a disappointing season last year, they responded well this year – Kovulchuk has never been better, Zach Parise came back with a strong year after being injured last year, and Adam Henrique was one of the best rookies of the year. Martin Brodeur may be in the twilight of his career, but he can still pull out some great performances.
Prediction: New Jersey in 6. There is no shootout in the playoffs, so Florida probably doesn’t stand much of a chance of winning this one.

4)      Pittsburgh vs. 5) Philadelphia
Undoubtedly the marquee matchup of the first round, these two teams quite simply hate each other. For Pittsburgh, with the MVP of the league in Malkin and a great Crosby back, they are going to score a lot of goals. They are also deeper up front than ever before – with Sullivan, Neal, Staal, Kunitz, etc. On the defensive end, they are solid, especially Kris Letang if he can stay healthy. And they have one of the best goalies in the league in Fleury, who knows what it takes to win. For Philly, they are bigger and tougher up front than ever before. Claude Giroux is as good as any center in the league, and add in players like Simmonds, Hartnell, Jagr, Reade, Schenn, etc and they can keep pace with the Pens up front. On defense, they have a huge hole without Pronger, but they have gotten the job done. The real question mark is crazy Ilya Bryzgalov, who can be amazing or horrible depending on the night.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 7. It`s going to be tough, and whoever wins this one will most likely be my pick to win the whole Conference, but I think the Pens have the skill and depth to win.

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