Today begins the most solemn occasion in all of sport, the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Tonight, April 14th, 2010, there begins an 8-week journey that will crescendo with the jubilation of one city, one team and one fanbase. Assuredly 15 other teams and their followers will be devastated. The odds are not in anyones favor. It seems that so many times the pain of the losses seems to outweigh the joy found in the wins. Yet, this is the costly price that hockey players, coaches, fans all pay gladly for a chance to have their team raise Lord Stanley’s Cup during those hallowed days in early June.
As I sit here planning out my predictions and rolling over the countless hours of hockey I have watched in the last 6+ months, I can’t help but have that nervous energy. It’s that feeling you get before moving away to college. It’s the feeling you get when you have to buy a new pair of sneakers. It’s like the feeling you get when you have to stand up and share about something you care passionately about in front of a large crowd. Mostly it’s that feeling you get sitting in a roller-coaster train right before the ride starts.
The stakes are high. The results are uncertain. This could be painful. This could be disastrous. This could be exhilarating. This could be perfect.
Round 1 Matchups and Predictions:
(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens
The Capitals won the President’s trophy for the best regular season in the league this year. They did this behind the explosive offense of well-known Alexander Ovechkin. However, his supporting cast has been phenomenal. Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, Mike Green et. al. have been a tour-de-force of offense the likes of which the league has not seen in some years.
The Canadiens squeaked into the playoffs riding the play of goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price. Their offense has been OK throughout the regular season. They have specialized in having a great power-play. Their defense has been good enough, but not spectacular.
This series will hinge almost entirely on the play of Montreal’s core forwards. The play of Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Tomas Plekanec and their top line forwards will have to be exceptional. It is a given that the Capitals will produce offensively, no matter how good the goaltenders for Montreal play. Therefore, the only hope the Canadiens have is to somehow hold Washington to an average of 3 goals/game and pray they can score 4 occasionally and send this series the distance. Anything can happen in a game 7, and I think that is the only scenario Montreal could even hope to win. Unfortunately for the Canadiens I just don’t see this happening. PREDICTION: WASHINGTON CAPITALS IN 4.
(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers
New Jersey comes into this series having played an entire season of stringent defensive hockey in front of a top-notch goaltender in Martin Brodeur. The difference this year is that New Jersey has seen the flourishing of offensive threat Zach Parise and added one of the best Left-Wingers in the game in Ilya Kovalchuk at the trade deadline. A sound defensive system, an elite albeit older goaltender, and a newly above-average offense. That is a formula for playoff success. The question for New Jersey will be if they can put all the chemistry together to have the 3 part equation work out correctly.
Philadelphia has Chris Pronger and a cast of Thugs. They are a rag-tag group of juvenile delinquents that somehow managed to pull themselves into the 7 seed in the Eastern Conference on the last day of the season by winning a shootout over the New York Rangers. The Flyers have depth issues all-over, but they are the roughest team in the league and therefore could always make noise in the playoffs. They also have Ville Leino, Dan Carcillo and an assortment of circus-like characters that entertain fans but are not part of a championship winning formula. The Flyers deserve everything they get, and I can only hope that is an early playoff exit.
This series has the makings of a true battle. I think that New Jersey’s depth and ability to produce offensively against the unsteady goaltending of Philadelphia will eventually be the difference. Hopefully American hero Zach Parise can knockout Chris Pronger this time around since it didn’t work out in the Olympics. PREDICTION: NEW JERSEY IN 5
(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins
The Buffalo Sabres’ playoff chances can be summed up as follows: Ryan Miller.
Honestly though, the Sabres are reminiscent of the American Olympic team from this past February. A tough group of forwards who struggle to produce goals frequently, a defense that can get the job done but is certainly unheralded, and a hero, Ryan Miller in net.
The Boston Bruins made it to the conference semi-finals last year and this year have struggled all season to score goals. Their offense is abysmal and the loss of Marc Savard to a concussion has depleted their core down the middle. Their #1 playmaking center is out, that is tough to overcome in the playoffs. Boston will rely on improved defensive play of Zdeno Chara, Dennis Wideman and pray that rookie goaltender Tukka Rask can stay hot and pull out some spectacular saves to save a game or two.
This series is the best chance for an upset in the Eastern Conference, however I just can’t see the bottom 3 seeds making noise against the top 3. Ryan Miller is stellar in net for Buffalo and they are a deeper team. They should eventually take the series. PREDICTION: BUFFALO IN 6
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup Champions, and yet, they abound with questions entering this years tournament. It is impossible to argue that they couldn’t get on a run and make it all the way back to the finals, but they have needs to address first. What sticks out about the Penguins this year is the seeming lack of passion and commitment to defensive scheme. It is not fun having to backcheck and play a defensive game, but that is what it takes to win in the playoffs. It is possible the loss of Scuderi affects the Penguins this playoffs more than they had believed or hoped when they let him go to LA. It seems as though they lack a shut-down defensive pairing with their 3-4 group of d-men. They still have the forward depth and the goaltending depth, so anything can happen, but it is not a foregone conclusion.
The Senators have ridden the hot goaltending of Brian Elliot and the balanced play of a tough and talented forward core led by Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fischer. Unfortunately for the Senators, Alexi Kovalev, a key offensive weapon, recently went down with injury. Losing Kovalev will be tough to overcome, but the group in Ottawa is full of character and are a tight-knit group. Their team play and potential for frustrating play will give them a great shot in this series.
The Penguins have plenty of questions, but the Senators will be tough-pressed to overcome the loss of Kovalev. PREDICTION: PENGUINS IN 6
(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Colorado Avalanche
Oh San Jose, you are such an enigma. The Sharks have managed to earn another top seed in the Western Conference this year, and yet virtually none of the “experts” have picked them to win the cup. They are playoff failures year-in and year-out. Until they make it to the Stanley Cup Final and maybe even win a Cup, they will not get the monkey off their back. They have a balanced core on offense with great top-line forwards. Olympics watchers will be familiar with the Thornton-Marleau-Heatley line combination that was so good for Team Canada back in February. The defense is OK for the Sharks and they are anchored for better or worse by Evgeni Nabokov. Generally Nabokov is a relatively above-average to elite goaltender in the NHL, but he has struggled since the Olympic break and inconsistency has to have Sharks fans worried.
The Colorado Avalanche were a team on the rebound this season. Craig Anderson was a revelation in net and played very well the majority of the time. Matt Duchene has impressed as a rookie forward and with the tough-but-talented play of guys like Cody McLeod, the Avalanche found a way to make it back into the playoffs this year despite a slump through the month of March.
As much as San Jose has the playoff curse, I just don’t think a slumping Colorado team will be much of a test for the Sharks pending some absolutely stellar goaltending by Anderson or injuries for the Sharks. PREDICTION: SHARKS IN 5
(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators
The Chicago Blackhawks are the media darlings of the Western Conference. The entire season was a continued love fest for their “battle-tested youth” and how “hungry” they are. All the talk is about ending the 49-year drought in Chicago this Spring. The fact is, if not now, when? The Hawks will have interesting Salary Cap issues in the coming offseason so this is their chance to shine. They have a great group of forwards and defenseman. However, as has been beaten to a pulp this season, their goaltending is untested and questionable at best. Are Toews, Kane, Hossa etc. going to produce enough offense to win a game when Anti Niemi falters or Cristobal Huet is not getting the job done? It remains to be seen, but it should be one of the more interesting storylines of the playoffs.
The Nashville Predators are one of the best system teams in the NHL. They are not overly talented, do not have multiple, if any, superstars, and yet every year they continue to find ways to compete in the regular season and frustrate the “top” teams. Nashville is boring to watch because they play stifling defense and frustrate movement through the neutral zone better than almost any other team. Shea Weber on the blueline is a force to be reckoned with and Pekka Rinne has re-established himself as a highly competent and potentially show-stopping goaltender. The Predators are a tough matchup for any team.
Many people will likely pick the Blackhawks because they are the hot commodity of 2010. I would like to caution those picking the Blackhawks to consider how frustrating the Predators can be and how much the Blackhawks will have to battle in this first round. The talent of the forward and defense core of Chicago is too good to lose this series, but that doesn’t mean they won’t come out battered and bruised after a long battle. PREDICTION: BLACKHAWKS IN 7
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings
The Vancouver Canucks are perhaps the toughest team to predict in this entire 16-team playoff. They have a more exciting forward group than they have had in many years including the Sedin twins, Ryan Kessler, and the former Red Wing Mikael Samuelsson. Roberto Luongo, of Gold Medal fame with Team Canada, is in net for the Canucks. He has been up and down the last month or so of the regular season, so questions continue to abound about his ability to be consistent enough for the Canucks to string together multiple series wins. The defense of Vancouver is thin and there are injuries to the squad already. It is going to be tough for Vancouver to go far without playing almost flawlessly on D and avoiding further injury.
The Los Angeles Kings are a dangerous team at the 6 seed. They are a well-constructed team based around shut-down defensemen like former Penguin Rob Scuderi and stellar young D-man Drew Doughty. Doughty is the most impressive young defenseman that has been in the league in a number of years. He might be in consideration for the Norris trophy this season, and he is only 20 years old. That is a scary amount of talent. Up front the Kings are not overpowering on offense but they have key weapons in place. With decent goaltending from Jonathan Quick this team is easily capable of continuing onwards in these playoffs.
This series is going to be very fun to watch. Outside of the Red Wings series, I think this might be the series I’ll be interested in paying attention to the most. There is a lot of love for Vancouver this year, but I’m just not buying it. They are inconsistent and the Kings have found a way all year to get wins when nobody was really giving them a chance. They have flown under the radar all year and I think they will continue to do so on their way to an upset. PREDICTION: KINGS IN 6
(4) Detroit Red Wings vs. (5) Phoenix Coyotes
The Red Wings are the most experienced team entering the playoffs. They were oft-injured during the regular season, and for the first time in 18 years they find themselves not being a top-4 seed entering the playoffs. Lacking home-ice advantage, it will be important for the Red Wings to stay in that mid-March form which saw them go 15-1-2 over their last 18 games of the season. That is unreal. With a healthy lineup and Jimmy “Tiberius” Howard in net, the Red Wings are very capable of playing well above typical “5th” seed level.
The Phoenix Coyotes are the feel-good story of the year. They were maligned in the off-season because of ownership issues and constant rumors and threats of relocation have swirled around the team. In the midst of the turmoil the Coyotes rallied to become a formidable team that appears to have an abundance of chemistry. These players are a tight-knit group. They lack any superstar names, but they are consistent across the board. Their forwards are not incredibly productive, but will surprise with a special play every now and then. The defense is unheralded, but playing within their system they can shut teams down. Ilya Bryzgalov in net has been consistent and spectacular all season. He in all likelihood will need to continue to be lights-out.
This series will be a goaltending battle-royale with stifling defense. It will be exciting and I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least 2 or 3 games head into OT.
Side note, Phoenix is currently in the ownership of the NHL while the league attempts to negotiate with potential buyers. This means that the entity paying the salaries of the Coyotes players is also the same entity paying the salaries of the officials for this series. I’m not starting a conspiracy theory, I’m just stating facts. I put the amount of times I wonder openly about collusion because of horrendous refereeing at 3.
PREDICTION: WINGS IN 6
That’s it. Drop the Puck.