Thursday, April 28, 2011

Into The Crystal Ball: 2011 Conference Semifinal Edition

What a first round. There were four Game 7’s, with two of them going to overtime. History was made when the Nashville Predators eliminated the Anaheim Ducks for their first playoff series victory, doing it in dramatic fashion when Shea Weber tied Game 5 with 37 seconds remaining. History was also made- or almost made depending on your view- when the Vancouver Canucks survived a spirited comeback by the Chicago Blackhawks (who become just the seventh team to force a Game 7 after trailing a series 3-0) when Alexandre Burrows buried the overtime winner in Game 7. Burrows’ winner meant the Canucks beat the Blackhawks for the first time in three tries in the last three years, exorcising a demon that has haunted Vancouver in the past few seasons. Only the Detroit Red Wings- who may have ended the Phoenix Coyotes’ run in Phoenix like they had ended the Winnipeg Jets’ run in Winnipeg 15 years ago- and the Washington Capitals had easy victories in their series, as the San Jose Sharks got pushed by the massive underdog Los Angeles Kings to six games. The Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins also survived upset scares in beating the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens (respectively) in seven games. Finally, the Pittsburgh Penguins showed how much they missed Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when they couldn’t finish the deal against the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose depth on offence proved to be the difference.

How will the second round play out? Here’s your answer.

Eastern Conference

Conference Semi-finals

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning. The Capitals enter the second round after finishing a series in fewer than seven for the first time since 1999 and the Lightning enter the second round for the first time since their Cup run in 2004. The teams must like their chances against each other, as the Lightning can feel confident knowing they defeated a defensive team whereas the Capitals must feel that with their offensive guns they could put pressure on a Lightning defence that a depleted Penguins team could not. Both teams also come in with questions, as Tampa’s Steven Stamkos has yet to really get on track (his only two goals of the playoffs came in Game 5, continuing his long slump) and, although Michal Neuvirth and the Caps played great defence against the Rangers, it was still against the Rangers, a team not known for their offence; and the last time Washington played great defence against the Rangers in the playoffs they were promptly blitzed in the next round. Still, there’s little reason to believe it’ll happen this time around- the Capitals proved all season that they are better defensively, and against a Lightning team with question marks on the blueline (beating an offensively challenged Penguins team doesn’t count), Washington is better positioned to win this time around. It’ll be very offensive, with Martin St. Louis and Alexander Ovechkin trading goals, and the Lightning can make a series of it with wily veteran Dwayne Roloson in net, but ultimately Washington’s superior defensive play will win this series. Capitals 4, Lightning 2

(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (3) Boston Bruins. Flyers-Bruins, Round Two, for the second straight year. No introduction is needed, really because everyone knows the Bruins became the third team in NHL history last year to blow a 3-0 series lead. It shouldn’t happen this time around, though this should still be a very long series, as by the time it’s over this series will be described as “the real Conference Final”. Both teams enter this series with serious questions- the Bruins only advanced because Tim Thomas took them there as their power play didn’t score once and their offence is non-existent, whereas the Flyers needed their backs against the wall to beat a Sabres team they should have beaten easier than they did, with questions (again) concerning their goaltending. Having said that, the two teams do match up very well- on paper, both teams have lots of offensive weapons (especially if Tomas Kaberle wakes up and leads the Boston power play, though the Flyers have a bit more depth), both teams can match each other physically and their bluelines are also sterling (though questions will be asked if Chris Pronger can be the Flyers’ anchor again). The Bruins should have the edge with Vezina nominee Thomas against the question mark in the Flyer goal, but as last season proved, even if the Bruins have the edge in net, the Flyers can still get it done. This series could go either way, but since I must pick, I am going to go with the Flyers, who have more speed than the Bruins do. Boston couldn’t handle Montreal’s speed, and the Flyers are just as fast and have a lot more skill than the Canadiens did, which should be enough to get the Flyers- barely- through. Flyers 4, Bruins 3

Conference Finals

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (2) Philadelphia Flyers. It’d be no surprise if the Flyers secretly thought all year that this is the series they wanted to play in- after all, Washington did steal the No. 1 seed from them late in the season, a seed the Flyers held almost all year. It’ll be in this series where the Flyers prove that they really are the No. 1 seed, as Philadelphia’s offensive guns will really test Washington’s defence and this time the Capitals will face a defensive team that’s actually capable of playing defence. The Flyers’ questions in goal may mean this will become a series, but the most complete team in the East will emphatically prove it against a team that’s still building itself. Flyers 4, Capitals 2

Western Conference

Conference Semi-finals

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (5) Nashville Predators. That was close, wasn’t it British Columbia? Chicago, the arch-nemesis of the Canucks nearly beat them again in the most remarkable of fashions, and a 3-0 comeback would have likely been the most crushing defeat of not just the Blackhawks over the Canucks or even of the Canucks’ history but in NHL history in general. No wonder Vancouver celebrated like it won the Cup when it was all over. Their prize? The Nashville Predators, who actually made history in defeating the Anaheim Ducks, their first playoff series victory in franchise history and gave Vancouver fits during the regular season, being one of the few teams to actually beat the Canucks at home during the season. Usually, what happens during the season doesn’t indicate playoff success (see the Canadiens’ 4-2 record against the Bruins), but in this case, it can be a predictor of the playoffs. The Predators gave the Canucks fits because they’re fast, and Vancouver has shown that they can’t handle speed- Chicago gave them fits three years in a row because of their speed, the only reason why the Blackhawks couldn’t pull through this time is because of their lack of depth. Nashville, however- and this might come as a surprise- can actually match the Canucks on the depth chart. They may not have the top end talent, but their offensive attack is deeper. Against Anaheim, 18 of the 19 Predator skaters found their way on the scoresheet, with 12 of them actually scoring a goal (Mike Fisher being the most productive with three goals and three assists for six points). Vancouver, meanwhile, only had 12 players on the scoresheet and just nine with goals (Daniel Sedin was a one-man wrecking crew with five goals and seven points), and the Canucks played one more game than the Predators. You also have to ask questions about the goaltending in Vancouver- though Roberto Luongo stood on his head in Game 7, his play late in the Chicago series was so questionable that Cory Schneider got a surprise start in Game 6. Pekka Rinne, meanwhile, may not have been lights out for Nashville against Anaheim but he was solid throughout the series. Finally, the lack of an elite puck moving defenceman- the kind that can get the offence started quickly- is missing in Vancouver, whereas the Predators have Ryan Suter. It’s that combination of speed, depth and goaltending that will allow the Predators to shock the Canucks, though it’ll be a tough series. Once it’s all done, Nashville will shock the hockey world- and remind the Canucks of the piece they’re truly missing. Predators 4, Canucks 3

(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (3) Detroit Red Wings. Everyone remember the Wings? I know it’s hard, ‘cause they haven’t played in so long but they did happen to sweep the Phoenix Coyotes earlier in the playoffs. Shocking...I know (and that’s sarcasm by the way). The Sharks are in our memory banks a little clearer because the Los Angeles Kings- yes, those same Kings with the hapless offence without Anze Kopitar- took them to six games; and probably should have taken them to seven if they didn’t blow that 4-0 lead in Game 3 (or managed to win a home playoff game at all). San Jose, thus, may have won the series, but they enter the next round with the same question marks about their mental toughness- their play against Los Angeles was very inconsistent, with a full 60 minute effort non-existent during the series; not to mention the fact Antti Niemi, the Sharks’ goaltender, can’t seem to be good from game to game. Meanwhile, the Red Wings enter the second round looking like the Red Wings of old- playing hockey any way you like it and like a well-oiled machine, with the kind of swagger you’d expect from Detroit. All this without Henrik Zetterberg. Yes, these two teams played last year with virtually the same lineups and San Jose clobbered them- but this is a different year. Detroit’s got its swagger back and not only that they’re playing “prepared”, something they didn’t do last year. San Jose, meanwhile, looks tentative and unfocused and with Niemi allowing beach balls, I don’t think there’s any question who comes out on top in this series. Red Wings 4, Sharks 1

Conference Finals

(3) Detroit Red Wings vs. (5) Nashville Predators. Until last year, Nashville had only played two opponents in the playoffs- San Jose and Detroit. This will mark the first time since 2008 that they’ll have played one of those two in the playoffs, and this time it’ll be the Wings, Nashville’s perpetual tormentors. Is there any reason to believe that this series will end any differently than the ones that happened before it? Well, Nashville does have Pekka Rinne in net and not Dan Ellis, but that’s about it. However, this isn’t the same kind of Nashville team- yes, they’re still the same, speedy, “lunch pail” bunch the Red Wings handled in recent years but this time they’re a confident bunch, not the deer-in-the-headlights team that wilted as soon as the playoffs got tough. This time, Nashville believes they can defeat Detroit, and speed can give the Wings issues. Not only that, but this is a Predators team that can defend the best (if they can handle the Ducks’ and Canucks’ potent offence they can handle the Wings’) and they do have a much better goaltender in Rinne than Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, who has let in a few beach balls in this postseason. Therefore, it’ll be Nashville- but only a whisker. Predators 4, Red Wings 3

Stanley Cup Finals

(E2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (W5) Nashville Predators. The Flyers make their return to the Final a year after the disappointment of last year, whereas Nashville makes its debut. This time, though, Philly will enter the Final as the favourite, and there should be little reason to doubt that status. Yes, Nashville does have the better goaltender, but the Flyers have the speed to keep up with the Predators; and not only that, they’re physical enough to wear out the smaller Predators. This isn’t to say that Nashville will roll over- the team from the Music City will make a series of it, like they always do, because they work too hard not to make it happen- but against a Flyer team that has suddenly rediscovered its talent and its focus, it just can’t keep up. Flyers 4, Predators 2


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