Saturday, May 01, 2010

How the Canucks and Canadiens can square off in the Stanley Cup Final

MONTREAL- FEBRUARY 2: Sami Salo #6 of the Vancouver Canucks defends against Scott Gomez #91 of the Montreal Canadiens during the NHL game on February 2, 2010 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Canadiens defeated the Canucks 3-2. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

Seeing the Vancouver Canucks defeat the Los Angeles Kings was expected. The No. 3 seed in the West was a team with playoff success, were among the favourites for the Stanley Cup, and were facing off against a Kings team that, while promising, figured to be too green to be much of a challenge.

The Montreal Canadiens in Round 2? Who could have seen that? After all, they only finished 33 points behind the Washington Capitals during the regular season and scored 101 less goals than the Capitals did. However, Montreal’s clear advantages in net and on defence as well as a one-dimensional Capital attack was what propelled the Canadiens through. It wasn’t easy, though- Montreal had to come back from 3-1 down in games to win in seven, and in doing so became the first 8th seed to do so against 1st seed since the NHL adopted the 1-8 seeding in 1994.

The Canadiens’ victory raised the possibility of an all-Canadian Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1989, when those very Canadiens lost to the Calgary Flames in six games. It’ll be quite the challenge for both teams but, in a NHL world where no one is terribly overmatched, it’s not a challenge that can’t be overcome. While I’m not going to go out of my way and predict it, I will state how it can happen, with an analysis of the challenges for both teams.


How they got here

Defeated #1 Washington Capitals 4-3

Game 1: Montreal 3, Washington 2 (OT)

Game 2: Washington 6, Montreal 5 (OT)

Game 3: Washington 5, Montreal 1

Game 4: Washington 6, Montreal 3

Game 5: Montreal 2, Washington 1

Game 6: Montreal 4, Washington 1

Game 7: Montreal 2, Washington 1

Key Performers: Goaltender Jaroslav Halak stole the series in stopping 131 of the last 134 Capital shots in Games 5 though 7, including 53 in Game 6. Part of Halak’s performance is the fact that Halak did not concede the lead in any of those contests.

Forward Michael Cammalleri paced all Canadiens with 10 points off five goals in the seven game set, tying him for the lead in the series with Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin.

The Immediate Challenge: The Pittsburgh Penguins advanced to the second round after defeating the Ottawa Senators in six games, going to overtime in Games 5 and 6. It was a wobbly series for Pittsburgh, as they also went up 3-1 in games against the Senators only to see Ottawa extend it to six winning in triple overtime in Game 5 and nearly force a Game 7 after going up 3-0 in Game 6. Sidney Crosby paced all scorers with 14 points in those six games, though he was effectively a one-man show- Evgeni Malkin relatively underperformed with eight points in those six games, and he was second on the team. No player on the Penguins scored more than twice other than Crosby, Malkin and Matt Cooke, and Cooke only got to three because he scored twice in Game 6 against Ottawa. Still, this is a very hard working team that finds a way to win, and their offence does have a lot of weapons that are waiting to wake up.

In terms of the straight matchups, the Canadiens don’t have the top end talent the Penguins have (who does, really?) but down the line Montreal’s lineup is deeper. At forward, Montreal can boast two quality scoring lines with a clear No. 1 line (Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Cammalleri), with two decent checking lines. After Crosby, Malkin, Jordan Staal (if he can go for the rest of the series) and Chris Kunitz, the Penguins become an army of checkers. It’s a great army of checkers but it’s still an army of checkers. On defence, the pickings for the Penguins are slim after Sergei Gonchar (who underperformed against Ottawa), Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski whereas the Canadiens can boast a very competent bunch, with or without Andrei Markov (though if Markov can go it’d be a big boast). Montreal can lean on Hal Gill’s shot blocking prowess, Jaroslav Spacek’s offence (and new ability at being a shutdown defender), Josh Gorges and Roman Hamrlik, as well as youngster PK Subbhan who looks like he could be an elite defender one day. In goal, the edge goes to Montreal by a wide margin, because Halak has been brilliant and Marc-Andre Fleury has been okay in these playoffs, but even if you take out the playoffs, Halak has still done better than Fleury- the only difference is that Fleury had playoff success whereas Halak now has that too.

Photo credit: Matthieu Stréliski (@strem)

The Strategy For Round 2: The Penguins present a different challenge than the Capitals do in Round 1. Whereas Washington is perimeter happy and scores primarily off the rush, Pittsburgh will get traffic in front of the net and attack the defenders, meaning it will be difficult to predict where the shot will be coming from. Halak will again have to be sharp in net, and the Canadien defenders will have to stand their ground and prevent the Penguin attackers from getting lanes to the net. They will also need to win the battle in front of the net, making sure the Pittsburgh screen can’t get set up. This is where a player like Gill needs to be a factor, because his size will be effective in clearing the traffic in front of the net. Montreal will also need to cover the points and remove the shooting lanes, because then the screens become ineffective; and their team speed can go a long way in doing that. The shot blocking will again have to be top notch, because if it isn’t, that also helps create inadvertent screens. They’ll also have to study the Penguin tapes with precision because the Penguins love to run set plays, especially on the power play, and anticipating those plays will go a long way in thwarting the powerful Pittsburgh attack.

One area the Canadiens do have an advantage in is team speed, as well as their defensive structure. The Senators showed in their series that the Penguins will give up a lot of chances if you keep them in front of you and, against Washington, the Canadiens were effective at creating offence off of counter attack situations. Pittsburgh has a lot of big bodies that aren’t necessarily great at quickness, so if Montreal can play responsibly in their own end, they can generate a lot of chances in transition with their speed. One thing the Canadiens cannot do is allow themselves to get involved in battles along the board, because the size of the Penguins will wear them down. They’ll also have to attack the Pittsburgh defenders, not just because their speed would allow them to drive past them but because it’ll also create penalties, which is key considering the Canadien power play is red hot and the Penguin penalty kill is abysmal (68% against Ottawa) so that is an opportunity that Montreal cannot waste.

After Round 2: The task changes depending on who Montreal faces in Round 3. The Philadelphia Flyers present a better match up because, like the Canadiens, they’re mobile but the Canadiens aren’t as physical as the Flyers, which presents some problems. The key to beating Philadelphia is avoiding physical play and using their speed to create chances. They can afford to get into an uptempo game with the Flyers because their offences feature the same level of skill and Montreal can expect to win the goaltender battle, though Boucher will be good. The Boston Bruins will be tougher, because they’re bigger, they’re physical and they’re much better defensively than the Canadiens are, plus they have Tuuka Rask in net, who only posted the league’s top save percentage this season (93.1%!). Montreal’s only hope is to turn this into a track meet because then Boston won’t be able to keep up. Fortunately, the Canadiens’ speed should figure to give the Bruins’ defence some challenges, and, unlike the Buffalo Sabres in Round 1, the Canadiens actually have finishers to bury the chances their speed will generate. In any case, Montreal has to avoid physical play because they’re not built for that and instead use their speed- if they control the tempo they’ll control the Bruins and eventually beat them.


How they got here

Defeated #6 Los Angeles Kings 4-2

Game 1: Vancouver 3, Los Angeles 2 (OT)

Game 2: Los Angeles 3, Vancouver 2 (OT)

Game 3: Los Angeles 5, Vancouver 3

Game 4: Vancouver 6, Los Angeles 4

Game 5: Vancouver 7, Los Angeles 2

Game 6: Vancouver 4, Los Angeles 2

Key Performers: Forward Mikael Samuelsson was a force against the Los Angeles Kings, racking up 11 points (tops on the team) off of seven goals in the six game set, finding chemistry alongside Henrik and Daniel Sedin. The Sedins were also impact players during the series, with Daniel behind Samuelsson with 10 points and Henrik not far behind with eight. Forward Steve Bernier also figured in the attack with four goals in the series, as did Pavol Demitra with a brace and Ryan Kesler with four assists.

The Immediate Challenge: This is the second consecutive season the Vancouver Canucks have to deal with the Chicago Blackhawks after only meeting with the ‘Hawks twice in their entire previous history (1994 and 1981). Last season, the Blackhawks used their speed to continually get behind the Canucks’ largely immobile blueline, drowning Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo in chances and eventually goals, while having Nikolai Khabibulin stop whatever the Canucks threw at them. This year the forward and defence corps return basically as constituted, but Khabibulin does not- Chicago will have to rely on Antti Niemi in net, and Niemi was anything but spectacular against the Nashville Predators. So Vancouver can expect to win the goaltender battle, and by a wide margin, as even though Roberto Luongo’s numbers weren’t stellar, he got better as the Kings series went on and made many clutch saves when the Canucks needed it most, suggesting that he is now back in top form.

The other key difference is that Vancouver finally has the horses to score with the Blackhawks. Vancouver scored 25 times against Los Angeles, an average of over four per game, and while most of the offence was concentrated on the Sedins and Samuelsson, many of the Canucks’ other forwards showed signs of waking up as the series ended. Alex Burrows- the Canucks’ regular season leader with 36 goals- scored in the final game, Bernier had a pair in the Game 5 rout, Demitra recorded three points in the game and Alexander Edler joined Christian Erhoff, Kevin Bieksa and Sami Salo as Canucks defencemen with goals. At the other end Chicago doesn’t enter this series on the same kind of tear they did a year ago, with several of their players- most notably Duncan Keith (two points), Kris Versteeg (no goals), Brian Campbell (no points in three games) and Dustin Byfuglien (no points) underperforming, though Jonathan Toews (eight points), Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp all have seven or more points against the Predators.

Chicago Blackhawks v Vancouver Canucks

The Strategy For Round 2: Score. It doesn’t get simpler than that. On top of this being looking like it’ll be an offensive series, Vancouver has capitalize on its goaltending superiority and bury the chances Chicago will give them. This is why I think Vancouver has a real good chance at winning this series and moving on to Round 3, because in a game where you’re trading chances, it’s the goaltender who is better that wins the game and that’s Luongo by a mile. Vancouver also knows that they were two minutes away from going up 3-1 in the series last season before Martin Havlat scored to turn the series around, so the Canucks have to use that experience to motivate them to close the series better.

They will likely have to make an adjustment to counteract Chicago’s speed and that’s making sure one of their forwards is always high in case the Blackhawks force a turnover in their zone. The Canucks’ defence doesn’t have the footspeed to keep up with the Blackhawks’ mostly fast forwards, so getting two-way play out of their forwards- which that have gotten so far in the playoffs- will be the key in making sure the defending isn’t caught too far up ice. They’ll also need Luongo to come up big when it matters most- Luongo doesn’t have to make fifty saves because he knows that if Chicago scores five Vancouver can score six- he just has to make sure he doesn’t allow that sixth goal.

They’ll also need a big performance from these guys if the Canucks will have any chance at winning:

Buckle up- this series will be fun, and this time Vancouver’s got the tools to win it.

After Round 2: If Vancouver thought Chicago would be tough, wait until they meet the San Jose Sharks or Detroit Red Wings. That’ll be no treat. While it’s tempting to root for the Sharks because of their playoff failures, if they get past the Red Wings, there will be no questioning their legitimacy as Stanley Cup contenders, since this will be the furthest they have gone since 2004 and the first time this group- long hailed as Stanley Cup favourites will have achieved playoff success. So don’t think a Vancouver-San Jose series would be a slam dunk. The Sharks play a similar game to the Canucks with the cycle down low, only that San Jose is the physically stronger team. Beating the Sharks would mean creating opportunities off the rush, and that comes by playing superior defence. It’s in the cards for the Canucks but it’ll be difficult. The Red Wings, and their star power, will be even more daunting. Detroit may be showing signs of slowing down but this is still a team that never quits and finds a way to win, plus the puck possession game they play is run so perfectly that there isn’t a team that can match it. Vancouver’s only hope is to use its speed at forward, which has given Detroit tons of problems in these playoffs. They’ll need to use that speed to keep the Red Wings in front of them and deny Detroit the time and space they need to execute the plays they want, but it’ll be tough to keep them at bay all the time. No matter who Vancouver faces in Round 3, expect it to be a long series, perhaps even going to overtime in Game 7.

What’s the likelihood of all of this happening? Vancouver, as I stated before, has a great shot at defeating Chicago in Round 2, so much so that I favour them in that series. It’s only after that where I get iffy, because San Jose and Detroit are better teams than Vancouver and would likely get the nod in those series. Having said that, the Canucks do have all the tools to make a legitimate run at the Cup and they’re not so far behind Detroit and San Jose that they couldn’t beat them. Vancouver is still missing some pieces (such as a mobile defenceman) that could really put them over the top, but a run this year wouldn’t necessarily be out of the question.

Montreal has more of an uphill battle against Pittsburgh, one that I think they’re not likely to win. The Habs benefitted from the fact they played a perimeter team whose stars weren’t willing to “pay the price”, whereas the Penguins’ stars- Crosby and Malkin- do pay the price, so duplicating their play against Washington is not likely. Still, if you had to think of a team that has the “Edmonton Oilers feel” to it (referring to the Oilers’ 2006 Cup run), the Habs would be it. Montreal has very few stars like Edmonton did, but, like Edmonton, won with hard work and structure to overcome their talent deficiencies. A run to the Final wouldn’t be out of the question because the matchups are somewhat favourable to the Canadiens, but that run is only possible if they can get past Pittsburgh; and that’s a mighty big if. Still, Montreal defied the odds in beating Washington so there’s a chance they can do so against Pittsburgh as well- but it’ll take a mighty effort to do it.

So, Vancouver and Montreal...who ya got? Well, that’s beyond the scope of this’re on your own there. My job was just to get the Canucks and the Canadiens to the Final so Canada can be assured of their first Stanley Cup victory since 1993...once the teams are there it’ll be up to them to figure out how to win. There’s a good case for either side to win- both have strong goaltenders, both have strong two-way play and both are pretty mobile teams, so it’ll be a fun series to watch. At the very least it’ll be a satisfying series- Canada has waited too long to celebrate the Stanley Cup and this will finally be their chance...unless, of course, Taylor Hall decides to stay in Edmonton.


Friday, April 30, 2010

The Washington Capitals- the Phoenix Suns of the NHL

WASHINGTON DC, DC - APRIL 23: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals reacts after missing a scoring chance in the third period against the Montreal Canadiens in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on April 23, 2010 in Washington, DC. The Habs defeated the Caps 2-1.Washington leads the best of seven series 3 games to 2. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Before the playoffs began, the Washington Capitals were supposed to be the toast of the National Hockey League. The President’s Trophy winners by a country mile (eight points ahead of the San Jose Sharks), many pundits believed this would be the Capitals’ year. The skill of Alexander Ovechkin was without question, but finally he had some significant support in the likes of Nicklas Backstrom with 101 points and Alexander Semin with 40 goals (both career highs) alongside the scoring prowess of defenceman Mike Green (76 points, though just 19 goals after 31 the year before). There were multiple questions about their defence (16th in the NHL in goals against, and 4th worst among playoff participants) and their goaltending, but the NHL’s top offence (313 goals, the most since the Ottawa Senators scored 314 in 2005-06 and only the second 310+ goal season since the Detroit Red Wings scored 325 in 1995-96) figured to be enough to overcome those deficiencies. Besides, the Capitals could look at the Wings for inspiration- since 2006-07, Detroit had been dominant in the playoffs without a quality goaltender, and in previous playoffs Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov were competent at least, so a run may have been in order. For the first four games against the Montreal Canadiens in Round 1, everything seemed to be going to plan, with the Capitals winning three straight after Tomas Plekanec’s OT stunner for Montreal in Game 1.

Instead, Washington collapsed under the weight of vastly superior coaching by the Canadiens and a goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, who channelled his inner Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy and entered Canadiens lore in stopping 131 of the next 134 Capital shots over the next three games. More important than Halak’s sparkling save percentage (97.7%) was the fact that Halak never relinquished the lead in any of those games, being the very definition of “clutch goaltending”. Varlamov, who got the start for the Capitals in every game after Game 2, meanwhile couldn’t make a save when the team needed it most, notably in Game 7 when Domonic Moore beat Varlamov one-on-one late in the third period to give the Canadiens a 2-0 lead. Washington made a go of it when Brooks Laich popped in a goal a minute later, but the series-defining moment came seconds later, when Montreal defenceman Ryan O’Byrne was called for high-sticking with 1:45 left. The Capitals’ power play was 1-32 at that point with a chance at redemption, but, as they had done all series long, shot blindly from the point without much thought as the Canadiens erased their lanes, and fittingly the game- and the series- ended on yet another failed Washington power play.

The series loss means that the Capitals have just one series win since Ovechkin’s rookie campaign in 2005-06, so, naturally, fingers are pointing at Ovie’s way. It’s unfair to really put all of this on the shoulders of Ovechkin- he did have ten points in the series, including five goals- though it does suggest that Ovie doesn’t deserve to rank among the best in the NHL without success at the highest stage. It is more accurate to compare them to the National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Suns, who for years were maligned as a team that could score a ton during the regular season but, come playoff time, couldn’t play the “dirty” basketball needed to succeed at the grandest stage.

That is where the Capitals sit now. They have shown they can score at will in the regular season, where the time and space is there since defences aren’t always “in tune” and there’s a greater opportunity to play weaker defences since they have to play everyone in the NHL. Once the playoffs start, the time and space needed to score disappears as defences are keyed in and the Capitals have to play stronger opponents, meaning they have stronger defences to contend with. Washington has also shown they cannot deal with the adjustments that come with playoff hockey, as teams over a seven game set eventually learn your weaknesses and exploit them.

The series with Montreal was a textbook example. After the Capitals torched them for 16 goals in Games 2-4- scored mainly off the rush- the Canadiens adjusted, took away the lanes and stayed behind the puck. This forced Washington to the outside where the scoring threat is low and the shots easier to save (though Halak still had to be brilliant), which should have forced the Capitals to drive to the net. It’s not like Ovechkin, Semin or Backstrom couldn’t do it with their stickhandling skills or players like Mike Knuble with their size but it never materialized. Plus it’s not like the Capitals were caught totally off guard- after Game 4, Canadiens defenceman Hal Gill commented about Ovechkin’s “signature move”- drive on the wing, cut inside and shoot- so Ovechkin and the Capitals should have known the Canadiens figured him out. How did Ovie respond? By continuing to use the same moves. No wonder he and his team found it difficult to score.

So where do the Capitals go from here? Here are some points to consider.

  1. Get better against the rest of the NHL. Over the course of the regular season, a team plays 24 times against divisional opponents, providing a possible 48 points. The Capitals scored 40 points off 19 victories and two overtime/shootout losses, including sweeps of the Atlanta Thrashers and Florida Panthers and four dropped points each against the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning. For perspective, the Caps’ 40 points is the most in the NHL by seven points, with the next highest total being the 33 the Los Angeles Kings posted. Now, one could argue with the President’s Trophy such a gap would be expected, but Washington’s divisional point total makes up nearly one third (33.06%) of their total points. That’s fourth highest in the NHL and most out of all the playoff participants. In fact, the only other divisional winner to record more than 30% of their points against their own division this season was the Vancouver Canucks at 31.07%. A year before, the Capitals recorded 16 wins and 32 points against the Southeast Division. Such dominance is impressive, but it does come against a division that has never sent more than two teams to the playoffs in a single year since the lockout and features the only team- the Florida Panthers- to not qualify for the playoffs in that span. Furthermore, Washington’s record against the Top 5 in the Western Conference (where most believe the Stanley Cup winner will come from), prorated over 82 games, wouldn’t qualify the Capitals for the playoffs (the Caps would have 93 points, the Colorado Avalanche finished 8th with 95). Clearly, the Capitals benefit from being in a weak division and if they want to improve, they have to show they don’t just bully the weak but can dominate the best.
  2. Trade Alex for a power forward. No, I don’t mean Ovechkin. I mean Semin. After a goalless streak that now reaches 14 games following Game 7, it’s patently obvious that Semin, now 26, is the weak link on the Capitals attack. Like Backstrom and Ovechkin, he’s a perimeter player who loves to score off the rush, and, while he does it with deadly accuracy, the Capitals offence still suffers. What’s needed is someone who can go to the net and screen, so that the shots from the point (or wherever the Caps want to take their shot) won’t be seen by the goaltender and have a great chance at getting through. They also need that player to drive to the net and challenge the defencemen, because that creates space for Ovie and Backstrom to set up their shots or poke in rebounds. It would also greatly help their power play, especially with the bomb that Green and rookie sensation John Carlson have. Semin’s $6 million cap hit won’t be cheap to shop, but there are options out there, such as Columbus Blue Jacket Rick Nash, Florida Panther Nathan Horton (who could be packaged with Bryan Allen, a shutdown defender) or Anaheim Ducks Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry. A trade here is the best option, since the free agent list is slim and the Capitals will need what little cap space they have to resign Backstrom, who’ll be due a hefty raise from the $700,000 he made this season.
  3. Get a goaltender. Yes, Varlamov is just 23 and he’s still got plenty of time to grow. However, it’s clear after two seasons with the club he’s not yet ready for NHL play. Therefore, it’d be better if he could learn under the tutelage of a veteran who can be there for three or four years so Varlamov develops into the goaltender the Capitals need him to be. Some goaltenders will be available as free agents, like Marty Turco and Dan Ellis, and the Capitals should be aggressive in their pursuit. The way Washington plays they can’t afford to have any holes in net, because their aggressive style of play leaves them vulnerable and they’ll need a goaltender who can stop all the odd-man breaks the team will give up. This lack of confidence in the goaltending may be one reason why the Capitals didn’t send anyone to the net against Montreal, because they were too worried about having players deep and getting caught up ice. This could be seen as the few chances Montreal generated in Games 5 through 7 led to goals in what was the exact opposite of Halak; and you can’t attack effectively if you’re worried the slightest break is going to lead to a goal. Washington needs someone in net they can trust. It doesn’t have to be an elite goaltender, because this team doesn’t need a shutout to win, but an effective starter, because there will be times the offence goes dry (as it did against Montreal) and they’ll need a goaltender who can bail them out and steal a game every now and then. Three of the four Stanley Cup winners since the lockout won with a goaltender one wouldn’t call “elite” but each of them- Cam Ward, Chris Osgood and Marc-Andre Fleury- are dependable, which is more than you can say about Varlamov at this point.
  4. Shore up the blueline. We’d solve a lot of problems if Green could learn how to defend, but we can’t base our remodelling on something that might happen. Having said that, the Capitals aren’t particularly terrible at the backend, the problem is that after Green and Tom Poti, they have a bunch of No. 5 and 6 and no clear top end guys. Furthermore, none of the Capitals’ top blueliners could be described as a “defensive defenceman”, and they’ll need that if they hope to have any success in the playoffs. It would have definitely helped their penalty killing, which may have posted a respectable 80% clip but didn’t kill the penalties when it counted most, such as the 4-on-3 early in Game 7 that gave Montreal their deserved lead. It definitely would have helped out Green, because then he could focus on his play up ice since he knows he has a partner who can bail him out, like Brent Seabrook does for Duncan Keith (though Keith can hold his own defensively, unlike Green). The Capitals don’t need an elite guy- they just need someone who can step in and be a minute eater, like Toni Lydman or Willie Mitchell. Fortunately for Washington Carlson looks like he’ll be a complete defenceman so all they really need is someone who can “bide the time” while he develops. The Caps may not even need to go outside of the organization to fill this role because of the presence of Carlson and another fine youngster in Karl Alzner, who just may be ready to step in and play pivotal minutes next season. Still, it’s always important to err on the side of caution, and if Alzner or Carlson don’t develop as quickly as the Capitals would like, another option must be made available.

Those are the key areas I would focus on. While Washington’s loss against Montreal was catastrophic, wholesale changes are not what this team needs- it needs tweaks. They will need to make a splash and sign a quality netminder and they’ll have to move Semin to get the elite power forward they need, but a firesale, or trading Ovechkin or even firing coach Bruce Boudreau isn’t necessary at this stage. The Capitals are on the cusp of truly being a Stanley Cup contender and not the next version of the San Jose Sharks- they just need to make the right moves now. Otherwise, their legacy will be that like the Phoenix Suns- they can score all the time but they can’t win when it counts, and that’s not the future any of them should want.


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


(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


(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


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