Monday, April 11, 2011

Into The Crystal Ball- 2011 Playoff Edition

It must be that time of year- the snow is melting, the Sun stays up a little bit longer and the Florida Panthers have no more games left to play. It must be playoff season.

While this season may not be remembered as a classic, it has been more memorable than seasons that came before it. Only two Canadian teams made the playoffs, the lowest number since 1977-78, though the Vancouver Canucks became the first Canadian victor of the President’s Trophy since the Ottawa Senators did it in 2003. Headshots became a hotter topic than it did in the year before, with stars like Brad Richards, Sidney Crosby and Max Pacioretty felled for long periods by hits to their heads. The Western Conference playoff race was tight all season long, with most of the teams in the chase until the final week of the season and the Chicago Blackhawks- last season’s Cup champion- needing 97 points (the highest total in league history for the “final” playoff team in any conference) to qualify for the postseason. Not to be outdone were the Senators, who missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons after 12 straight postseason years and the Phoenix Coyotes, whose off-ice drama once again unfortunately overshadowed a great product on the ice.

With all that said, it’s time to unveil the Crystal Ball and reveal who will be your 2011 Stanley Cup champion.

Eastern Conference

Conference Quarterfinals

  1. Washington Capitals vs. 8. New York Rangers. A rematch of the 2009 first round where the Rangers blew a 3-1 series lead, though this will be a different series. Much of that is because of Washington, as the Capitals no longer play an up-tempo offensive game, playing instead a defensive game in order to minimize their issues in net, which are still very much in play this season. The Rangers are still very much the same, being an aimless team without any assets except Henrik Lundqvist in net, as Marian Gaborik disappointed with just 48 points and 22 goals in 65 games this season and have lost significant offensive punch with Ryan Callahan out with a broken leg. Now, on paper this does suggest an easy Washington victory- New York just doesn’t have the weapons to truly exploit the Caps’ deficiencies in net- but if the Rangers could take a 3-1 series lead against Washington with much the same team as this season, they can do it again. Furthermore, this may be a different Capitals team but it’s not a better one- the issues still exist in net (Brayden Holtby still being very green) and although they play better defensively, this still isn’t anything more than an average defensive team at best (their success comes because they’re better as a team unit than possessing superior defensive capabilities). Lastly, the Rangers were the fifth best defensive team in the NHL this season, allowing one more goal than the Capitals did, which spells problems for a suddenly goal-starved Washington team (eleventh least amount of goals scored this season). This will again go seven games, but with New York’s clear advantage in net and comparable defensive skills, the Rangers will be the winners. Rangers 4, Capitals 3.
  2. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 7. Buffalo Sabres. If the Vancouver Canucks are scared of the Chicago Blackhawks, imagine what the Philadelphia Flyers are feeling. This may be the first time since 2006 that Buffalo and Philadelphia have met in the playoffs but the last two times the Sabres dominated the Flyers in the playoffs, winning in six games in 2001 and 2006, with each sixth game being punctuated by Buffalo blowouts. Suffice to say this won’t be the same kind of series. Although the Flyers’ defence has issues with its speed- Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Sean O’Donnell are getting up there in age and only Matt Carle and Andrej Meszaros have any kind of wheels on the blueline- the Sabres aren’t the team to exploit those issues. The Sabres do have the speed to give Philadelphia problems but outside of Thomas Vanek, there’s no finisher, and Buffalo had tons of problems with the physical Boston Bruins last year and the Flyers pose the same kind of problem- with more skill. Goaltender Ryan Miller- if he is fully recovered from the injury he suffered late in the season- could steal this series for the Sabres, but he’ll have to have the series of his life to do it, so don’t bet on it. Philly will have a fight, but they’ll be off to the second round. Flyers 4, Sabres 2
  3. Boston Bruins vs. 6. Montreal Canadiens. The series every hockey fan wanted- and the series the NHL dreaded. This has been a season series punctuated by nastiness on both sides, from the Pacioretty hit by Zdeno Chara to the 8-6 slugfest in February to the line brawl that occurred after Pacioretty scored an overtime winner in January. However, this likely won’t be a very long series. Although the Canadiens won the season series, the Bruins’ two victories- the 7-0 shellacking late in March and the 8-6 win- showed just what Boston can do at full strength. Not only do the Bruins have the size advantage with players like Patrice Bergeron, Nathan Horton and Chara, they can now compliment it with skill from players like newcomer Tomas Kaberle and rookie Brad Marchand; and that combination ran all over the Habs in those two games. Yes, Carey Price finally proved he could be the next Patrick Roy, but he’ll need the series of his life if Montreal is to win, and he’ll have to outduel Boston’s Tim Thomas- who had a Vezina-type year- to do it. Furthermore, this is suddenly a Canadiens team that just can’t score anymore, with its primary scorers- Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez- all having significant slumps this season. This won’t be a sweep but it won’t be long either. Bruins 4, Canadiens 1.
  4. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 5. Tampa Bay Lightning. If this were any other year, I’d start by talking about how Crosby and Evgeni Malkin line up against the Tampa Bay trio of Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. However, this isn’t any other year. Crosby and Malkin are both out, meaning this is a Penguin unit anchored by Marc-Andre Fleury in net and little else, making it an astonishment that this team even made the playoffs, let alone contended for the division title. The Lightning, for their part, slumped horribly in the last two months of the season after being comfortably in the Southeast Division lead, and they don’t have an injury to blame for that one. Still, if there was a matchup that could bump them from their slump and show the hockey world what they could truly achieve, it’s this one- without Crosby or Malkin, the Penguins will have no offence, and the high flying Lightning who have tons of speed and Ryan Malone’s net presence (whom the Penguins have missed since he left in 2008) will give Pittsburgh fits, much like the Canadiens did last season (only that Montreal has less skill than the Lightning do). Furthermore, Dwayne Roloson- who knows all about championship level goaltending when he did it for the Edmonton Oilers in 2006- will be equal to the task against Fleury. If Crosby can come back before the series is finished (highly unlikely) the Penguins may have a shot, but otherwise this is Tampa’s series to lose. Lightning 4, Penguins 1.

Conference Semi-finals

2. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 8. New York Rangers. If this was 2008, we’d talk about how Lundqvist could steal this series for the Rangers because whomever the Flyers have in net just won’t compare. That won’t work this season with Sergei “Bob” Bobrovsky in net, who gave the Flyers the kind of solid starting goaltending it has lacked since Ron Hextall manned the pipes; and, just like the Sabres before them, the Rangers may have the speed to give Philadelphia’s slow blueline fits but without the skill to make any kind of difference, and the two-way presence of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter- two of the league’s best- means that New York won’t have the defensive breakdowns Washington will give them. This won’t be a long series. Flyers 4, Rangers 1.

3. Boston Bruins vs. 5. Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning will be buoyed by their high profile victory over the Penguins, but they’ll be brought down to earth by the Big Bad Bruins. Although Tampa wins the speed and skill battle, the Bruins have the size advantage and enough skill to mean that the Lightning won’t win it by a large enough margin to make a difference. Furthermore, Thomas is going to win the goaltending battle with Roloson, although Roloson’s playoff experience will make it closer than one might think. Still, this will be a long series, as both teams will give each other fits with their skillsets, but Boston, with its size and skill combination, will wear out the Lightning and move on to their first conference final since 1990. Bruins 4, Lightning 3.

Conference Finals

2. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 3. Boston Bruins. The Bruins and Flyers meet again a year after the NHL’s greatest series in decades. No doubt the Bruins will have a renewed sense of purpose, because the Bruins won’t want to blow a 3-0 series led two years in a row. Fortunately for them, there won’t be a 3-0 series lead to blow, though this will go seven games. It will also again be a slugfest, with each team’s physicality and size giving this series that extra degree of nastiness, only this time there’s enough skill on both sides to produce some exciting hockey. The difference in this series is that Boston has just a bit more speed and offensive acumen on defence in the presence of Tomas Kaberle and the better goaltender in Thomas, because in crunch situations- such as overtime in the seventh game- having that extra save and a defenceman that can create a breakaway (stuff Boston didn’t get last year) on their own gives a team a small enough edge to get over the hump. Bruins 4, Flyers 3.

Western Conference

Conference Quarterfinals

  1. Vancouver Canucks vs. 8. Chicago Blackhawks. Ahhh! No! Not the Blackhawks! Anyone but the Blackhawks! Yes Canuck fans, it’s Chicago all over again, the same team that defeated Vancouver two straight seasons in playoff series that were essentially six game sweeps. Is there any reason to think that this series will be any different? Well, Chicago doesn’t have many of the same tormentors that they called upon in 2009 and 2010, like Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg and Antti Niemi, depth that will be missed this time around, plus the Canucks are a much better unit all around this season, having scored the most goals this season and allowed the least amount of goals this season, all due to a stronger two way team game from players like Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler and goaltender Roberto Luongo, who had a quietly dominating season in 2010-11. Still, this is a Blackhawks team that still has the explosive Patrick Kane and one of the league’s best two-way players in Jonathan Toews, key figures in the Canuck defeats of years past. If that’s not enough to convince the lay person for a Chicago upset, all one needs to do is bring up the November 20th game where Vancouver was blasted 7-1 by Chicago, the game the Canucks said turned their year around. That game showed that this was still a Canuck team that had a lot of work to do, as their blueline didn’t have the pace to handle teams with speed, even though they’re more responsible with Dan Hamhuis patrolling the blueline; and they still don’t have that puck moving defenceman their offence sorely needs. Sorry B.C., but your tormentors will strike again. Blackhawks 4, Canucks 2.
  2. San Jose Sharks vs. 7. Los Angeles Kings. The Battle of California lives with the Sharks and the Kings facing off for the first time in their history, with the Kings representing the first test for a San Jose team that pledges it is better with Antti Niemi in net than Evgeni Nabokov. The jury is still out on that. Niemi did post Nabokov-like numbers with a 2.38 goals against average and .920 save percentage and the team has virtually the same makeup as in years past, but this was an incredibly streaky Sharks team this season, needing a late surge just to assure themselves of a playoff spot, let alone win a division. The Kings won’t be the team to test them though. Without Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles now lacks the focal point of its offence, and the slump of Drew Doughty this season means there are question marks on the blueline as well. Goaltender Jonathan Quick may be the equalizer having posted stellar numbers this season, but if last year’s poor playoff was any indication, he’ll need to prove he can step up his game in post-season play. The Sharks will be challenged, but they’ll win this round of the Battle of California. Sharks 4, Kings 2.
  3. Detroit Red Wings vs. Phoenix Coyotes. I could just write “the Coyotes won’t win and the Red Wings will because they’re the Red Wings” and that’d be all I’d need to write- on paper, this is a cakewalk. However, games aren’t won on paper, and if the Coyotes showed the NHL anything last year, the Red Wings don’t always play to their capacity. Yes, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom are among the best at their positions but age is getting to them, and Jimmy Howard took a step backward in net after two promising seasons. Furthermore, the Coyotes, while lacking any kind of real elite scorers, have the kind of speed and work ethic that can drive the slow, plodding Wings nuts, a formula that almost worked last year and just could work this year. Let’s also not forget Ilya Bryzgalov could steal a series all on his own, and this year there’s a great chance he’ll rout the goaltending battle with Howard. This will still likely go seven, but the age questions mean that this will be the ‘Yotes’ year. Coyotes 4, Red Wings 3.
  4. Anaheim Ducks vs. 5. Nashville Predators. Is there a playoff team more snakebit than the Predators? Every year, it seems, the Predators beat the odds and make the playoffs with a ragtag team that, on paper, looks like it doesn’t even belong in the AHL let alone the NHL...and then the playoffs start. What gives? This year looks to be no different. While the Ducks don’t quite get the press the Wings and the Canucks did this season, they’re built to be a contender, with the league’s only 50-goal scorer in Corey Perry, a reborn Teemu Selanne (31 goals, 80 points) and three others with at least 65 points (Ryan Getzlaf (76), Bobby Ryan (71) and Lubomir Vishnovsky (whose 68 points led all defencemen in scoring)). Jonas Hiller did have a bit of an off-year in net but he still was effective with a .924 save percentage. What’s better about this year’s version of the Ducks versus the 2007 version that won the Stanley Cup is that this is a younger, faster team that sacrifices no size, allowing them to play any way that is required and for years to come. So what chance does Nashville have? Well, there’s Pekka Rinne in net, who just may be one of the NHL’s best goaltenders, but that’s really it- this army of checkers won’t stand a chance against a team built for the playoffs. Ducks 4, Predators 0.

Conference Semi-Finals

2. San Jose Sharks vs. 8. Chicago Blackhawks. Rematch No. 2 for the Blackhawks, who handled the Sharks so easily last year and will like their chances of doing the same this year. The only difference is that their goaltender last year, Antti Niemi, switched sides and will relish the thought of playing the team that spurned them, and there’s no Dustin Byfuglien or Andrew Ladd to cause havoc in the San Jose net. That lack of size will hurt the Blackhawks in this series, because Byfuglien and Ladd allowed them to match up with the Sharks’ size and now San Jose gains the size advantage. However, the speed advantage that the Blackhawks had with the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp (who should return for this series) will be present, and having run rings around the Canucks, they’ll do so again against a Sharks team that is even slower- though Niemi will keep it close. Blackhawks 4, Sharks 3.

4. Anaheim Ducks vs. 6. Phoenix Coyotes. The Coyotes will start this series with so much hope after winning their first playoff series since they were in Winnipeg and will like their chances against a skilled Ducks team, but the similarities with the Wings will end there. Anaheim isn’t old and has a lot to prove, namely that this group wants to show it is better than the 2007 team, which they are. With the energy and skill of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, as well as the veteran know-how of Teemu Selanne and Lubomir Vishnovsky’s vision on the backend, the Ducks will do what the Wings couldn’t- breeze through the Coyotes faster than a desert storm. Hopefully the golf courses will still be available in Arizona, since they didn’t expect the ‘Yotes’ run to be this long. Ducks 4, Coyotes 0.

Conference Finals

4. Anaheim Ducks vs. 8. Chicago Blackhawks. The Ducks take on the Blackhawks being the first team since the Toronto Maple Leafs of 1999 to host every one of their playoff series without winning their division. This is also the latest a 4 vs. 8 has occurred in NHL history, and will have an air of surprise attached to it, as neither team would have been pegged to go this far when the playoffs began. It won’t play like that though, as both teams will put up a fight. The Blackhawks will likely take a shock 2-0 series lead because the Ducks will be sluggish after two straight quick series, but once they dig in they’ll be able to turn the series in their favour. Chicago will have the speed and skill to keep up with the Ducks’ scorers, but the Ducks have more size and just that much more depth to give them the edge in this series, advantages they wouldn’t have had if Chicago didn’t have to make salary cap dumps. It won’t be easy but eventually the better and deeper team will prevail. Ducks 4, Blackhawks 2.

Stanley Cup Finals

E3. Boston Bruins vs. W4 Anaheim Ducks. This would have been funnier if the Bruins were playing the Mighty Ducks and not the Ducks (‘cause it’d be a riot for the “Big Bad Bruins” to play a Disney movie), but there’s nothing I can do. This will also be quite the series too, with the Ducks and Bruins both possessing a nice mix of skill and brawn, the Ducks having just a bit more skill and the Bruins having a bit more brawn. Boston will win the goaltending battle, though this will be counteracted by the Ducks’ depth on the blueline, with the Ducks possessing more mobility in the form of Lubomir Vishnovsky and rookie Cam Fowler than the Bruins do, who can really only call on Tomas Kaberle in that department. This could go either way, but this year, with the veteran presence of the Bruins and the Ducks still kind of “learning” their way with this young group, it’ll be the Bruins’ Cup. Bruins 4, Ducks 3.

-DG


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-DG

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