Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Into The Crystal Ball- 2010 Second Round Edition

The second round is here, but it’ll take a lot to top what we saw in Round 1. The first round featured the best series since the lockout, with the Montreal Canadiens, the 8th seed and the wounded giant, came back from a 3-1 series deficit to upend the President’s Trophy champion Washington Capitals, who will now have the whole summer to find answers as to why their power play didn’t work when it needed to (1 for 33 in the series, the last miss with 1:45 to go in Game 7 and a goal behind), why their top players stayed on the perimeter and didn’t attack the net and why they don’t have a true shutdown defenceman or a goaltender. Full credit to the Canadiens, though, who were extremely well coached in sticking with the structure that made their upset possible, as well as Jaroslav Halak, whose performance- including a 53-save Game 6 and 131 of the last 134 Capital shots- was downright legendary in the City of Legends. He was on the cusp of the elite this season with a .924 save percentage- after stoning the Caps, he just thrust himself into it; and with it into Montreal lore.

His present for imitating Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy? The Pittsburgh Penguins, where he’ll have to be legendary- or, as TSN’s James Duthie put it, “Halakian”- to move to Round 3. It’s not outside the realm of possibility either, but the Canadiens’ task got much tougher because the Penguins’ top scorers- Sidney Crosby among them- attack the net, unlike the Capitals who showed they were too afraid to go inside. Still, if Halak can get inside the Capitals’ heads, he can get inside the Penguins’ heads.

With that said, it’s time to peer into the Crystal Ball™ and tell you who wins in Round 2 (Round 1 record: 7-1, the one series incorrect being Boston-Buffalo):

Eastern Conference

Semifinals

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens. How many of you had this series pegged when the playoffs started? Or even after Game 4 in Montreal? I picked the Canadiens to defeat the Capitals in Round 1 but the Boston Bruins busted my bracket in defeating the Buffalo Sabres. Still, after Game 4 Montreal looked like a fragile team and it would have taken an epic performance to get them to Round 2. That’s precisely what they got from Halak, who allowed just three goals in the final three games and never relinquished the lead in any of them despite being under siege. His performance inspired the team, which won the way I thought they would- with structure and defence. Having impact players like Michael Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and defenceman Andrei Markov helps too, as well as “warriors” like Hal Gill, Josh Gorges, Domonic Moore and Travis Moen, who were all instrumental in keeping the dangerous Capitals offence and power play out of the danger zones. They’ll have to be even more warrior-like if they’ll have any chance at upending the Penguins. Unlike the Capitals, the Penguins’ top scorers- Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz- all attack the net, meaning they’ll be a lot harder to defend than the perimeter-happy Capitals. Still, the Canadiens can still expect to win the battles at the backend- Kris Letang was the only Penguin to show up against the Ottawa Senators, as Sergei Gonchar and Brooks Orpik were MIA and Pittsburgh doesn’t have the shutdown services of a player like Gill or Gorges like Montreal does and Halak has definitely outperformed Penguins’ counterpart Marc-Andre Fleury, though Fleury has been good. The Canadiens thus have the ingredients for another upset, though I can’t see Sid and the Penguins, who also play hard and will be harder to defend against, losing out, though this will be a close one. Penguins 4, Canadiens 3

(6) Boston Bruins vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers. Remember the Philadelphia Flyers? They put on a show against the New Jersey Devils and their perplexed defence and romped to a five game victory, the only short series of the first round. They did with a mobile offence led by Mike Richards, Claude Giroux, big Scott Hartnell, and Daniel Briere up front as well as Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn and big Chris Pronger on the backend. Goaltender Brian Boucher also redeemed his career with his performance, channelling his 2000 form in outplaying Devils great Martin Brodeur. The Bruins will be a different beast than the Devils, in that Boston is a big, physical team predicated on defence first, an effort anchored by Zdeno Chara, as well as stupendous goaltending from Tuuka Rask. Boston’s physicality was the key to defeating the Sabres, who, like the Capitals, fell in love with the perimeter making them easy to defend, but they’ll be put to the test against the Flyers, who don’t shy away from physical contact. It’ll also be a test for Rask, who will face a real offensive threat for the first time in the playoffs. Rask doesn’t have to be Halakian, but as he goes, so will the Bruins because if they can’t contain the Flyers’ offensive threat then they’ll be in store for a long series. Yes the Flyers don’t have Simon Gagne or Jeff Carter, but they’re still deeper than the Bruins, whose forward corps are bare after Marc Savard (who will thankfully return), David Krejci, Milan Lucic and the yeoman Miroslav Satan. The defence vs. offence dynamic will be the key to this series, but the Flyers’ offensive superiority and physicality will put them through to the Conference Final for the second time in three years. Flyers 4, Bruins 2

Finals

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers. Third time in three years the Battle of Pennsylvania is contested in the playoffs (and sixth time overall, with the Flyers holding a 3-2 edge), with this being the second time in that same span that the series decides the Eastern winner. The 2008 series went five games after a 3-0 series start for the Penguins, but in 2009 the Flyers provided more of a challenge, losing in six games. This series should also be a close one, as the Penguins aren’t the team they were in 2008 or even last year. Philadelphia can score with the Penguins, and the Pittsburgh defence isn’t as stout as it once was. Boucher is also playing like a goaltender on a mission, and, coupled with a stronger Flyer defence will pull Philadelphia through to the Final, though it’ll be very close. Flyers 4, Penguins 3

Western Conference

(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings. That was quite the adventure. After three tense games where no break was going San Jose’s way capped by a Dan Boyle own goal, it looked like San Jose was going to bow meekly again in Round 1 to the underdog Colorado Avalanche. Instead, Boyle, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and role players Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and Ryane Clowe stepped up and rescued the Sharks in the final three games, smoking Colorado in Game 5 and 6 by a combined score of 10-2. Their present? The Detroit Red Wings, who went on a similar adventure against the Phoenix Coyotes. The younger Coyotes gave the Wings quite the run in the series, whose energy, enthusiasm and speed allowed them to be aggressive and disrupt the “planned plays” the Red Wings had in their arsenal. However, by Game 7 the experience of the Wings took over, with a 6-1 statement that firmly entrenched that Detroit is still very much a factor in the Stanley Cup race. That game saw the rebirth of veterans defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom and forward Tomas Holmstrom as well as Valteri Filppula, while Pavel Datsyuk cemented his case as the game’s best player by defending and attacking with equal skill and proficiency. Detroit’s other stars in Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and Johan Franzen also figured in the Wings’ series victory, though Brian Rafalski was relatively quiet against Phoenix. The Red Wings also showed that Jimmy Howard is the real deal in net, which allowed Detroit to be more adventurous in the series than they had been in the past with Chris Osgood. Despite all this, the Red Wings’ play still lapsed at times against Phoenix and one has to wonder if the old bodies will be up for the Sharks or if Phoenix really did wear them out. Having said that, the Sharks play a “slow” game which suits the Wings fine, and the Sharks’ big guns- Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau- have yet to come to the fore in these playoffs (a familiar refrain for Sharks fans); and against the Red Wings that just can’t happen if San Jose expects to win. So while I expect San Jose to give them a push, Detroit’s methodical game (which will take out “The Big Three” even more) will overcome another underachieving San Jose team that still hasn’t learned how to win in the playoffs. Red Wings 4, Sharks 2

(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (3) Vancouver Canucks. To paraphrase the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “We meet again, Chicago Blackhawks!” The Canucks and Blackhawks face off against each other for only the fourth time in their history but the second time in two years. Last season Vancouver was torched by Chicago’s speed, culminating in the Game 6 “track meet” that spelled the end of the Canucks’ season. Many of the particulars for the Blackhawks return for this series, including star defencemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell and star forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Sharp (all of whom were vital in the Canucks’ loss last season), but they’re not the same team (as I thought prior to Round 1), and the Canucks are a different team now. Led by Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the Canucks can also score- and score a lot. The Sedins, now paired with Mikael Samuelsson- who has also been scoring at will in these playoffs- are backed up competently by Ryan Kesler, Alexandre Burrows, Pavol Demitra, Mason Raymond, Kyle Wellwood and Jannick Hansen, getting strong, two-way play out of all the forwards. The defence is still pretty slow, though Christian Erhoff has been competent and Kevin Bieksa and Sami Salo have shown their scoring touches. The Canucks can also afford to be adventurous with Roberto Luongo in net, who finally rediscovered his form against the Los Angeles Kings. That’s one advantage the Canucks now have over the Blackhawks, because Antti Niemi (who replaced the departed Khabibulin) hasn’t been nearly as good as Luongo has been this postseason, a play that has meant Chicago has had to be more tentative this season than in years past. Against the offensively challenged Nashville Predators it would suffice. Against the Canucks- who can score and score lots- it won’t. Unless Keith, Seabrook and newcomer Marian Hossa rediscover their game and Niemi plays close to the level of Luongo, the Canucks can expect to put the Blackhawk net under siege. The Blackhawks should give Vancouver a push, but Luongo will save the day allowing the Canucks to drown Chicago in goals. Canucks 4, Blackhawks 2

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings. Last season when I predicted this matchup in the Round 2 preview, I noted how similar these two teams were- greatly structured with great two-way play with lots of skill upfront and on the backend. I also said Vancouver would win because they had the goaltender and Detroit didn’t. I can’t say that now. Luongo is still great, but Howard is looking like he’s on his way to becoming Luongo’s equal, and that’ll turn the tide significantly in Detroit’s favour. It’ll still be a classic series, but whereas last year Vancouver could rely on its goaltending and Detroit couldn’t, now the Wings- with all their experience and acumen- can and that’ll allow them to eventually pick apart the Canucks and ask questions about why they don’t have a mobile defenceman like Detroit does in Rafalski and Lidstrom. Red Wings 4, Canucks 3

Stanley Cup Finals

(W5) Detroit Red Wings vs. (E7) Philadelphia Flyers. The last time these two teams played in the Cup Final was 13 years ago and Detroit won in a sweep. The Flyers were big and slow then and the Wings were, well, the Wings which is why Detroit won as convincingly as it did. Philadelphia isn’t the same lumbering bunch that it was in 1997, though they don’t have the skill to do anything except push Detroit. The Red Wings have more skill, experience and playoff acumen to pick apart the Flyer game, which will lift them to their second Cup in three years. Red Wings 4, Flyers 2

-DG


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-DG

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