Sunday, April 08, 2007

Into The Crystal Ball

So now that the National Hockey League playoffs are set after a thrilling shootout in New Jersey, I’ve decided it’s time to predict who will come out victorious once the Stanley Cup is handed out in June. Without further adieu:

Eastern Conference

First Round

(1) Buffalo Sabres vs. (8) New York Islanders:
The speculation here would be whether or not Rick DiPietro would be able to come back sometime during this series, but it wouldn’t much matter- the Sabres have too much offensive depth and have the superior goaltender regardless in Ryan Miller. The Islanders may have warmed a lot of people’s hearts with their plucky play down the stretch, but against a Sabres team that works just as hard as they do and is superior in terms of talent, this one won’t be close. Buffalo 4, NY Islanders 1.

(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Tampa Bay Lightning: It’s Martin Brodeur vs. “Marhan Denqvist”, as in Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist. The Tampa Bay Lightning don’t have a clear starter between the two and against a legendary goaltender like Brodeur, that simply won’t be good enough. The Lightning have more depth than many might think- Nick Tarnasky and Jason Ward have proven themselves to be capable checking line forwards and Vaclav Prospal and Ruslan Fedotenko are up to their old tricks behind Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards- but the Devils are who they are, the NHL’s premier defensive outfit and certainly have the offensive punch in Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta to be able to pull them through. New Jersey 4, Tampa Bay 2.

(3) Atlanta Thrashers vs. (6) New York Rangers:
The Thrashers make their playoff debut against a Rangers team with something to prove after last year’s debacle. The Rangers enter the playoffs again as a sixth seed, but they’re better matched this time around as they finished with just three fewer points than Atlanta. The two teams do match up well on paper boasting two very talented goaltenders in Kari Lehtonen and Henrik Lundqvist, an array of offensive talent led by the likes of Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta and Jaromir Jagr and Michael Nylander in New York as well as veteran leadership in Keith Tkachuck in Atlanta and Brendan Shanahan in New York. The key will be in net, and it’ll be Lundqvist and barely- Lehtonen has no playoff experience and the Thrashers come in as the favourites, so look for Lehtonen to put up a good fight but eventually succumb to the pressure, while Lundqvist won’t want last year’s playoff debacle to happen again. NY Rangers 4, Atlanta 3.

(4) Ottawa Senators vs. (5) Pittsburgh Penguins:
Another even match-up of first round match-ups in the Eastern Conference, at least on paper with both teams boasting an array of offensive depth, good but not great goaltending and offensively gifted defencemen, with the story going into this series being the playoff debuts of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and company in Pittsburgh. The Senators should have the edge considering they have playoff experience, but choking in the playoffs is an annual tradition in Ottawa especially against up-and-coming teams like Pittsburgh, so expect another spring of coming up short in the Canadian national capital. Pittsburgh 4, Ottawa 2.

Second Round

(1) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) New York Rangers:
Miller vs. Lundqvist, the Sabres’ extreme offensive capabilities vs. the Rangers’ limited capabilities. This one will again come down to goaltending, and again it will be Miller. The Rangers might make this one a series, but it still won’t be close. Buffalo 4, NY Rangers 2.

(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (5) Pittsburgh Penguins:
Brodeur vs. the 2007 edition of the high-flying Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. While in the first round, Pittsburgh could rely on Ottawa’s annual chokes to see them through, they’re up against a Devils team that knows how to win in the playoffs. The Penguins should also make this one a series, but like the Sabres-Rangers series, it also won’t be close. New Jersey 4, Pittsburgh 2.

Conference Final

(1) Buffalo Sabres vs. (2) New Jersey Devils:
The Sabres made it their goal this year to finish first overall in the East to ensure that they could have home ice advantage at this crucial stage and now they have it. The Devils will again face a team with loads of offensive talent, but the difference this time is that the likes of Chris Drury, Daniel Briérè and company are playoff hardened, especially after last year’s disappointment against the Carolina Hurricanes at this stage. Brodeur will have the edge over Miller, but the Sabres have the offensive wheels and the work ethic to match up well against the Devils. It’ll go down to the wire, but expect the Sabres to use home ice advantage for their ultimate benefit. Buffalo 4, New Jersey 3.

Western Conference

First Round

(1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (8) Calgary Flames:
This is a rematch of the 2004 quarterfinal without many of the same faces on both sides, especially in Detroit. The Wings are a quicker and smaller team this time around and got to where they are with hard work and great coaching from Mike Babcock, but they’re not as strong as their seeding might suggest. The Wings don’t have that much bona fide offensive power past Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and have trouble against bigger opponents (even with Todd Bertuzzi, who has a lot of proving left in the playoffs), like the Flames. Calgary stumbled towards the end of the season, but against Detroit they are more than capable opponents. The Flames are bigger, have just as much offensive punch and have a better goaltender in Miika Kiprusoff, as Domonik Hasek has lost a step in his older years and still hasn’t played in the playoffs since 2002. The Wings should still make this one a series, however. Calgary 4, Detroit 2.

(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (7) Minnesota Wild:
A lot is made of the Ducks’ defensive stalwarts in Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, the first line prowess of Teemu Selanne (the team’s real leader), Andy McDonald and Chris Kunitz, the second-line talent of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner and underrated No. 3 defenceman Francois Beauchemin, and the goaltending duo of Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov, but not a lot is made of the fact that after Beauchemin on the defensive depth chart is Joe DiPenta and on the offensive depth chart is Samuel Pahlsson. The Ducks are just not that deep talent-wise, but that won’t be a problem against a Minnesota Wild team that is similarly depth-challenged. The Wild have Marian Gaborik, Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra and an army of defensive-minded players like defenceman Kurtis Foster, but that won’t be enough against an again superior Ducks team that also beat Minnesota in the 2003 semi-final. Anaheim 4, Minnesota 2.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Dallas Stars:
Roberto Luongo’s playoff debut against Marty Turco’s playoff demons, but this time Turco has the advantage of being the underdog. Dallas lost a step this year in falling to sixth, but the Stars are still a talented team led in spirit by Mike Modano and in actuality by Brendan Morrow, who was a minus player for the first time in his career at –1. The Canucks don’t match up quite as well on the offensive end but are superior defensively and are a team on a mission to prove that last year’s disappointing finish was just a fluke. The X-Factor is Luongo, who, as mentioned, has never played in the playoffs but Luongo played a lot like the Canucks did this year- a man on a mission, and that should be enough to carry Vancouver to the second round. Vancouver 4, Dallas 3.

(4) Nashville Predators vs. (5) San Jose Sharks:
In comes Peter Forsberg but again Nashville gets the same result- a fourth seed and a playoff match-up against San Jose. Forsberg’s leadership gives Nashville a chance, but San Jose- who added Bill Guerin in much the same manner as Nashville acquired Forsberg- should be up to the challenge again this year. They do match up well on paper, so this series could very well be a toss up- but the Predators still have to develop any form of chemistry and that should be their ultimate undoing. San Jose 4, Nashville 3.

Second Round

(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (8) Calgary Flames:
Déjà-vu again for the Flames, but it won’t be déjà-vu again with the result. Unlike Minnesota, Calgary has the depth to be able to counter the Ducks, if only barely, and the Flames won’t want last year’s disappointment in having the Ducks on the ropes only to lose Game 7 to repeat itself, besides also being the underdog this time around. The Flames also better know their opposing goaltender, regardless of it being Bryzgalov or Giguere, unlike last year when Bryzgalov flew under the radar. The Ducks still have the horses to take it to Calgary but the Flames are better this year- and better prepared. Calgary 4, Anaheim 2.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (5) San Jose Sharks:
Both teams will be coming off difficult series, and again this one should be difficult as well. The Sharks have more offensive firepower than the Canucks do, but the Canucks are much better unit when it comes to playing together than Nashville is, and the Sharks do have chemistry issues as well, albeit not as much as Nashville does. Still, this’ll come down to goaltending once again, with Luongo being the superior netminder to Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov in San Jose, but this should also come down to the wire. Vancouver 4, San Jose 3.

Conference Final

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Calgary Flames:
In 2004, the Flames faced the Canucks when they were a third seed and history repeats itself here. The question will be whether or not the series would repeat itself- the Canucks and Flames went to overtime of Game 7 before Martin Gelinas ended the Canucks’ hopes, but this year, the Flames were the only opponent to consistently beat Vancouver. While regular season records typically mean nothing in the playoffs, the Flames’ performance against Vancouver was very telling. History will repeat itself in terms of the ultimate victor, but not in terms of the closeness of the series. Calgary 4, Vancouver 1.

Stanley Cup Final

Buffalo Sabes (East #1) vs. Calgary Flames (West #8):
This will be the first time a No. 1 and a No. 8 play in the Stanley Cup Finals, but unlike last year, this time Calgary and Buffalo actually played each other. The Sabres won 3-2 in a shootout, but don’t expect this series to be that close. The Flames will have gotten to this point on sheer work ethic and having just enough talent to get to this stage, but it’s not enough against a Sabres team that will work just as hard as they do and has a lot more talent. Calgary should make this a series, but it will be Buffalo who will ultimately get the Stanley Cup. Buffalo 4, Calgary 2.


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