Sunday, April 11, 2010

Into The Crystal Ball: 2010 Playoff Edition

It’s finally here. After six long years months, we’ve finally hit the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 2009-10 season. It was a year where the Chicago Blackhawks continued their ascendancy, the Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche made it back to the postseason and the Phoenix Coyotes surprised everyone by challenging the San Jose Sharks for the Pacific Division title. It was also the year where Steven Stamkos proved he is an elite player by hitting the 50-goal mark, but it was also a year where the Sedin twins showed they belonged in the elite category as well. There were also several significant disappointments, such as the continued uncertainty regarding the Coyotes in Phoenix (stories that saw numerous reckless rumours about hockey returning to Winnipeg) and the descent of the Calgary Flames, a team that was supposed to be a contender for the Cup but instead whimpered through the season and right out of the playoff picture. The Philadelphia Flyers also could have seen themselves in that group, but an exciting shootout victory on Sunday sends them in at the expense of another team that disappointed, the defensively challenged New York Rangers. Finally, no recap of the year could be complete without mentioning the Toronto Maple Leafs, who bottomed out this season despite not having a first round draft pick to compliment that. The Leafs may look like they’re finally on track with a plan, but it’s small solace for fans until they see results.

There will be plenty of time to recap the season properly once the playoffs are finished. To tell you how they get there, here’s the Crystal Ball™:

Eastern Conference

Quarterfinals

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens. There were rumblings in Montreal that this was the series they wanted because it meant Jose Theodore is coming back to the town where he won the Hart Trophy and now they get him back. He doesn’t come back anywhere close to that kind of form, being the weak link (.911 save percentage and 2.81 goals against average) on a team that feasted the Southeast Division. The Capitals did it mainly through their fearsome offence, led by the usual suspects in Alexander Ovechkin (109 points), Nicklas Backstrom (101), Alexander Semin (83) and Mike Green (76), with Brooks Laich surprising with 58 points of his own. Washington does have multiple issues on the backend, which gives a team like the Canadiens some hope. Montreal may not have a megastar, but their offence is actually deeper than Washington’s (Montreal has nine players who have 40 points or more (or would have 40 points or more had they played a full season) where as Washington has eight) and is led by an elite player of their own in Michael Cammalleri. The Canadiens also have a far more competent defence with a clear anchor in Andrei Markov (a player the Capitals wished they had) and backed up with the likes of Hal Gill, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Jaroslav Spacek. Then we get to goal, where the Canadiens can bank on Jaroslav Halak, who firmly entrenched himself as a legitimate NHL starter this season and may have even crossed into the elite. It’s those intangibles- defence and goaltending- that will decide this series, and the Canadiens will give the Capitals more than enough time to find those pieces this summer. Canadiens 4, Capitals 2.

(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers. Though it’s a daunting task for anyone to face Martin Brodeur, the Flyers are in the perfect position to do it. A lot is made of the Devils’ offence, but the truth is the Flyers did better than their rivals by the Hudson, outscoring New Jersey by a count of 236 goals to 222; and, unlike the Devils, Philadelphia’s offence isn’t focused solely up front. The Flyers can lean on Chris Pronger (55 points, his fourth best career total), Kimmo Timonen (39) and Matt Carle (34) on the backend, whereas New Jersey only has Andy Greene’s career best 37 points (of which only six- the best on the team- are goals) amongst its rearguard. Sure, New Jersey has Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston and Jamie Langenbrunner as a fine set of top six forwards, but without help on the blueline, it’s a fairly straightforward game plan- collapse in front of the net, deny the forwards the time and space they need and watch the Devils defencemen miss the net. Meanwhile, Philly’s own offensive force- led by Mike Richards, who may have had an off year with 61 points but is still the heart and soul of the team, and backed up by a competent cast including Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere, breakout star Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell and Simon Gagne- can create numerous chances of their own, and the Devils’ defence, while competent, doesn’t have a shutdown ace among them, so they’ll have trouble with the Flyers’ offence all series long. That leaves Brodeur- is he going to be the great equaliser? Well, Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher is far removed from the form he had in 2001 when he was a great goaltender (.905 save percentage as a starter) but Brodeur hasn’t been a world-beater at all this season, with a .916 save percentage this year (good enough for a tie for 12th) and looks to be slowing down. Also, the playoffs haven’t been kind to Marty in recent years, and if the Olympic experience- where he allowed way too many soft goals in the Canadian net- is any indication, that streak isn’t about to end soon. Philadelphia couldn’t have asked for a better situation. Flyers 4, Devils 1

(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins. It’s tempting to start and end off this piece with Sabres’ goaltender Ryan Miller, who had another elite-level season with 41 wins and a .929 save percentage, the latter being second in the league and thus being enough to write off any other goaltending opponent. Not the Boston Bruins, who have Tuukka Rask, who is the leader in save percentage after 45 games with a .931 clip. It is true that Rask is entering his first playoff game this spring but Buffalo fans shouldn’t assume that means he won’t play up to the form he showed this season. So, if we’re being conservative, the goaltending battle is even for the Sabres and the Bruins. It’s everywhere else where Buffalo outmatches the Bruins. Buffalo may not have the size the Bruins have but they do have the skill, with a mobility to their game that the largely stationary Bruins will find hard to keep up. Boston only has four players above 40 points- Patrice Bergeron (52), David Krejci (51), Zdeno Chara (44) and Mark Recchi (43)- so offence will be hard to come by, while the Sabres have six- Derek Roy (68), Tim Connolly (65), Jason Pominville (62), Thomas Vanek (52), super rookie defenceman Tyler Myers (48) and Jochen Hecht (42)- with a seventh (Drew Stafford, who had 34 points in 71 games) who would have had 40 over a full schedule. That will be the difference in this series, because the Sabres can produce offence whereas the Bruins can’t. It will still be very close because of the goaltending, but Buffalo will wind up being a goal ahead. Sabres 4, Bruins 3

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators. This meeting will be the third time these two teams faced off against each other since the lockout after having never faced each other before in the postseason, with each series over quickly- in 2007, the Senators won the 4v5 series in five games while in 2008 the Penguins won the 2v7 series in four games. This series will continue that trend. Although the Penguins’ offence isn’t as potent as it’s made out to be (only Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are above 50 points), this is still a team with a lot of skill and a lot of size to boot, with players like Maxime Talbot, Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz that can play in the corners and a great set of mobile, offensive rearguards in Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski (with the tough Brooks Orpik rounding out the top four) meaning they can play however you like. That’s not good news for the Senators, who have an aversion to anything but the perimeter game despite having skilled players like Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, though the return of Milan Michalek- the only Senator who really drives the net- should help. Ottawa does have a great defensive game anchored by defencemen Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov and forwards Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly that should keep the games close, but Pittsburgh’s offence will create far too many chances for the Senators to keep up. Ottawa also can’t expect to win the goaltender battle, because it’s a dead heat between their goaltender Brian Elliott and Marc-Andre Fleury of Pittsburgh. Therefore, the Penguins should romp to Round 2. Penguins 4, Senators 1

Semifinals

(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens. If the Canadiens looked in the mirror they’d see the Buffalo Sabres. Really, there’s not much that differentiates these two teams- they both have a great set of mobile forwards backed by mobile defencemen with a great goaltender between the pipes. Thus, the difference will be which goaltender can rise to the challenge. It’ll be close (once again for the Sabres) but my money is on Buffalo and Ryan Miller, who have been to a conference final before whereas Jaroslav Halak hasn’t, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this went either way. Sabres 4, Canadiens 3

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers. There will be disappointment that Washington doesn’t get to renew their rivalry with Pittsburgh (one that existed before Crosby and Ovechkin, by the way), but the good news is that we’ll get the third straight year with the Battle of Pennsylvania. Prior history favours the Penguins as although on paper they’re even (even in net), these are the same two casts that played each other the past two seasons; but here’s a stat I bet most of you didn’t know. In all but two cases since snapping a five-year playoff drought in 1995, whenever the Flyers won in the first round they always won in the second round. That leads me to believe they’ll find some way to beat Pittsburgh here, even if it defies all logic. Flyers 4, Penguins 3

Finals

(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers. What playoff year isn’t complete without a Buffalo-Philadelphia series? Here’s where the Flyers hope prior history doesn’t play itself out (unlike in the previous round) because in the last two series these two teams have met, the Sabres defeated the Flyers in six games with the sixth game being an eight-goal blowout, 8-0 in 2001 and 7-1 in 2006 (making TSN’s James Duthie crack, “next time it’ll be 6-2”). I don’t anticipate the Flyers getting blown out in Game Six again this time around, because even though they’re evenly matched on paper (both have skilled forwards and defencemen), I don’t think it’ll get that far- Miller is just *way* too good for Boucher and the Flyers to handle, and he’ll be relieved to finally face a goaltender who’s not as good as he is. I give Philadelphia one game and that’s it. Sabres 4, Flyers 1

Western Conference

Quarterfinals

(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Colorado Avalanche. Colorado surprised everyone with a trip to the playoffs, but the truth is that the Avalanche benefitted greatly from the Calgary Flames’ own collapse down the stretch because Colorado and its super rookies- the ones who carried the team this far- sputtered after the Olympics, almost giving up a playoff spot that was but assured in February. Having said that, this is still a skilled and hardworking team, led by Paul Stastny, Peter Mueller and super rookies Matt Duchene and Chris Stewart up front and John-Michael Liles on the backend; with Craig Anderson finally establishing himself as a starting goaltender in the Colorado net. It will be a tall task getting past the Sharks, who feast on opponents like this in the playoffs (ones that are largely non-playoff savvy, as the Avs are at the top end of their depth chart). San Jose has one of the best sets of forwards in the NHL led by Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski, with Dan Boyle and Rob Blake providing the offensive and defensive anchors (respectively) on the blueline; and we haven’t even got to Evgeni Nabokov and his .922 and 42 wins yet. Colorado’s last playoff series was a sweep in 2008 against Detroit, and this one will be just as long. Sharks 4, Avalanche 0

(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators. A lot will think the Predators don’t match up well with the Blackhawks because Nashville doesn’t have a “name” like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, but the reality is that Nashville has only one less 40-point man than Chicago does. So who are the Predators? They’re led by Steve Sullivan, Patric Hornquist, Martin Erat, Jason Arnott and Jean-Pierre Dumont up front with the Predators’ distinguished defensive troika of Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Dan Hamhuis on the backend and any goalie you like in Dan Ellis and Pekka Rinne. It’s still no match for Kane, Toews, Marian Hossa and defenceman Duncan Keith on Chicago, even if the Blackhawks don’t have a goaltender to match up with Rinne or Ellis. That lack of goaltending will push this series longer than it should, but Chicago will still prevail. Blackhawks 4, Predators 2

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings. The Canucks had to breathe a sigh of relief when they learned they weren’t drawing the Detroit Red Wings in Round 1, and they’ll breathe even more of a sigh that they drew their coast-mates the Los Angeles Kings. On offence the Canucks can lean on the elite duo of Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the best pair at creating offence in the NHL (bar none), because finally the Sedins have tons of support, whether it’s linemate Alexandre Burrows (67 points), Ryan Kesler (75), Red Wing reject Mikael Samuelsson or Mason Raymond (both with 53 points), which is more than the Kings have. Los Angeles does have elite forward Anze Kopitar and an impressive cast in Ryan Smyth, Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov and Jarrett Stoll, but it’s not as deep as Vancouver’s forward set. The Kings do have the advantage on defence with sophomore sensation Drew Doughty (who is emerging as an elite all-around defenceman) and Jack Johnson which is more than the Canucks can bank on (Alexander Edler, Christian Erhoff and Sami Salo are no slouches, but none are anchors like Doughty is). The deciding factor will be in net, because as great as Jonathan Quick has been for Los Angeles, he’s no match for Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo, who may have had an off year (.913 save percentage) but does have the gold medal to lean on. Furthermore, Los Angeles’ forward set is largely big, so the Canucks’ rather slow defence won’t have any problems keeping up. It’ll be a good series, but the Canadian team on the Pacific coast moves on. Canucks 4, Kings 2

(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings. Quick question hockey fans- yes, you heard a lot about the surprising Coyotes, but what did you hear about more- the Coyotes’ players or how they’re about to move back to Winnipeg? If you answered in the latter you are correct. There’s a reason for that because this is a no-name bunch except for Ilya Bryzgalov in goal, Shane Doan up front and Ed Jovanovski on defence, but this is the hardest working bunch in the league and that’s why they’re 4th. Too bad they’re faced against the Red Wings, because they’re about to give the Howlers a playoff lesson they’ll never forget. Detroit may have lost a little forward depth with the departures of Jiri Hudler, Tomas Kopecky and Samuelsson last summer but this is still a star-studded bunch. Henrik Zetterberg. Pavel Datsyuk. Valteri Filppula. Johan Franzen. Tomas Holmstrom. Nicklas Lidstrom. Brian Rafalski. Niklas Kronwall. Oh, and guys, they’ve got a goaltender now too in Jimmy Howard. The Coyotes will get schooled in every facet of the game by a team that runs as perfectly as you could run it, and class will be over before Phoenix will get a chance to raise its hand to ask a question. Hey, at least they’ll have time to sort out the arena mess and give Gary Bettman more time to come up with more lame answers about why there isn’t a team in Winnipeg yet. Red Wings 4, Coyotes 0

Semifinals

(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings. Speaking of teams getting schooled, it’ll be Round 2 here in San Jose. The Sharks can say they have momentum after winning Round 1, but they wouldn’t have defeated a team with a playoff pedigree, and in Round 2 they’ll be matched up with the very definition of “playoff pedigree”. With Detroit hoarding the puck and swirling around a Sharks team that’s too slow to keep up and plays too much on the perimeter come playoff time, it’ll be San Jose again whimpering out of the playoffs, though at least they should give Detroit a fight. Red Wings 4, Sharks 2

(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (3) Vancouver Canucks. Last year, this series went six largely because the Canucks opened the series at home. They don’t have that luxury this year. There’s also no reason to believe Vancouver will have much of a chance, because the Canucks will have the same problem they had last year against Chicago- their defence just is too slow to deal with the speed the Blackhawks forwards have. With Chicago building momentum from Games 1 and 2 at home, Kane and Toews arcing and shooting at will amidst a bemused Vancouver blueline, this series will be over before the Canucks will get a chance to catch their breath. Blackhawks 4, Canucks 0

Finals

(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings. Last year the Blackhawks lost largely because they were taken to school by Detroit on playoff hockey. This year they’ll show they’ve learned their lesson, even if they’re still not at the level of their teachers yet. The ‘Hawks have the forwards to compete with the Wings’ best and their defence is also mobile and skilled to hoard the puck just like Lidstrom and Rafalski do. The only difference is it net. Unless by this point Antti Niemi has achieved a magical form, he’ll be no match for Howard, who was fourth in the league in save percentage this year and has given Detroit the game-saving goaltending they were lacking. It will be quite the fight, the set we should have had last year, but it’ll still be Detroit red moving on. Red Wings 4, Blackhawks 3

Stanley Cup Finals

(W5) Detroit Red Wings vs. (E3) Buffalo Sabres. It may seem weird to see the Sabres, who have the higher seed, be the “road” team for the Cup Final but the truth is that Buffalo has two less points than Detroit, the determining factor for home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Final. It’ll be a homecoming of sorts for Ryan Miller, who is from East Lansing, so he’ll be motivated to win in front of his “second home crowd”. Miller will have a match with Howard, and the Sabres, while offensively gifted, don’t have the horses to compete with the Red Wings, who have more offensive and more mobility. Buffalo should give Detroit a run, but for the third time in franchise history, the Sabres lose in six. At least a foot won’t be in the crease. Red Wings 4, Sabres 2

-DG


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-DG

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