All eyes should be on the Penguins and their attempt to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. The Capitals, however, ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy. So, who gets the nod? Sid the Kid or Alexander the Great?
Washington, with a franchise-record 54 wins and 121 points, finished head-and-shoulders above of the East’s next closest pursuer, the Devils, at 103 points.
But, as critics would ask all season long, are they that good? The Caps were one of only four teams in the East to eclipse 100 points. All but one of the West’s eight qualifiers crested the century mark. The Caps are also playing in a brutal Southeast Division, so wins are much easier to come by. The Southeast was the only division that has one playoff team.
There’s no denying that the Caps are the East’s most potent offensive team, having scored nearly 100 more goals than the second-place Devils (318-222), but everyone knows that offence alone will not win you a Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh’s ability to play shutdown hockey was consistently overlooked last season, and that’s the reason why they were able to oust the Red Wings in the Cup Final on their second time around.
The Capitals made good use of the NHL trade deadline to add third- and fourth-line role players who bring playoff savvy and experience into the dressing room and onto the ice. The additions of F Eric Belanger, F Jason Chimera and F Scott Walker will pay dividends, even though it may not show on the scoresheet. Those could be the kind of pieces that make the difference in winning a deciding game this season, as opposed to getting blown out at home against Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the second round last year.
(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens
Game 1 @ WAS, Thu, Apr 15 7:00pm EDT, TV: VS., TSN
Game 2 @ WAS, Sat, Apr 17 7:00pm EDT, TV: VS., TSN
Game 3 @ MON, Mon, Apr 19 7:00pm EDT, TV: TSN
Game 4 @ MON, Wed, Apr 21 7:00pm EDT, TV: TSN
Game 5 @ WAS, Fri, Apr 23 7:00pm EDT, TV: VS., TSN
Game 6 @ MON, Mon, Apr 26 7:00pm EDT, TV: VS., TSN
Game 7 @ WAS, Wed, Apr 28, TBS, TV: TSN
The regular-season series was tied, with the teams splitting four games and each winning once at home and once on the road. Three of the four games were decided by a single goal (the other by two), with one by a shootout and another in overtime. Usually, any series involving Montreal would mean the pressure would be on the Habs, who have won a record 24 Stanley Cups, but this year, that’s not happening – The pre-series pressure is squarely on F Alex Ovechkin and the Caps, who haven’t played a meaningful game since last year’s playoffs.
Montreal just barely hung on to make the postseason, while the Capitals are still a finely-tuned machine even when they’re running at less than full capacity. This series will come down to one wild card – goaltending, as both sides have been mediocre at best. The Caps goaltending has been questioned all season long, while G Jaroslav Halak the ability to steal games. And what about G Carey Price? If Halak sutters, can Price do anything to get his trade value back up? Both Halak and G Jose Theodore are in their contract years and playing for their salary next season, so you can expect both to stand on their head in this matchup. Thedore making his return to Montreal will be something fun to watch. You know he’ll be trying extra hard to stick it in Habs fans’ faces for the disappointing end to his Canadiens career.
Ovie broke out of his late-season goal-scoring slump, which is bad news for the Habs. Montreal will have to try and find a way to slow down Washington’s high-powered attack. But because Montreal is so soft in their style of play, it’s hard to see them doing anything against such a potent offence. They lack offensive punch, they’re slow on defence, and they don’t play a physical game. The Caps offensive dominance will be too much for the Habs to handle, but they’ll still come away with a game or two.
X-Factors: Canadiens’ F Travis Moen and Capitals’ G Jose Theodore. For a team that’s going to need physical play and someone to do the dirty work, not to mentioned being undersized, Moen is key to the Habs’ success. While he only has one goal since December 16, he did score seven playoff goals for the Ducks during their Cup run in 2007. And that’s exactly why Montreal signed the 6’2″, 215 pound forward last summer – for his experience, his grit, his leadership and his size.
Washington’s defence and goaltending are criticized this postseason, and rightfully so. Time and time again, the playoffs have proven the “offence wins games, defence wins championships” phrase right. Washington can score all the goals they want, but if they want to make it deep in the playoffs, they’ll need to learn to keep the puck out of the net and to defend. Last year, Theodore lost Game 1 to the Rangers and never played again. This year, he gets another chance to prove he’s still the same netminder as the one who won the 2002 Hart Trophy. And the fact he goes up against his old team gives him plenty of reason to get back to form.
Pick: Caps in 5
(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers
Game 1 @ NJ, Wed, Apr 14 7:30pm EDT, TV: TSN
Game 2 @ NJ, Fri, Apr 16 7:30pm EDT, TV: TSN
Game 3 @ PHI, Sun, Apr 18 6:00pm EDT, TV: TSN
Game 4 @ PHI, Tue, Apr 20 7:30pm EDT, TV: TSN2
Game 5 @ NJ, Thu, Apr 22 7:00pm EDT, TV: TSN
Game 6 @ PHI, Sun, Apr 25, TBD, TV: TSN
Game 7 @ NJ, Tue, Apr 27 7:30pm EDT, TV: TSN
Philadelphia beat New Jersey in all but one of their six regular-season meetings, so the Flyers at least go into the series as somewhat confident underdogs. Keep a close eye on G Martin Brodeur, who’s recent playoff performances have been sub-par to say the least. He also appeared in 77 of 82 games for the Devils this season, and as usual, Brodeur will be gassed come the second season. The Flyers come in with an odd goalie tandem, set by Brian Boucher and Sebastien Caron, rather than Ray Emery (hip surgery) and Michael Leighton (high ankle sprain, out at least for the first round). Boucher is years removed from his incredible regular-season shutout record with Phoenix, but he is an experienced netminder who plays well under pressure. One thing Boucher will need to watch for is his rebound control.
Philly’s best chance to win is through their style of play – blue collar, physical hockey along the boards. Playing into Jersey’s system won’t do them any good. D Chris Pronger and D Kimmo Timonen will have to set the tone on the blueline, while F Mike Richards, F Simon Gagne, F Danny Briere, F Scott Hartnell and F Jeff Carter will need to produce up front.
While we know what the Devils will do defensively, they’ll need to put the puck in the net. F Zach Parise showed his offensive potential on Team USA, and he’s the first Devil to record back-to-back 80-point seasons. F Ilya Kovalchuk’s playoff psyche is unknown, having only played 4 career postseason games. He’ll need to be the difference maker. The Devils will also need to rectify the powerplay issues that plagued their team towards the end of the season if they want any chance at making a run for the Cup.
On paper, this looks like a blowout. Brodeur vs. Boucher? A structured Devils team vs. an unpredictable Flyers team? All of this means that there’s potential for an upset. Will the Flyers pay the price for not upgrading in net at the Trade Deadline?
X-Factors: Flyers’ F Claude Giroux and Devils’ F David Clarkson. Giroux scored the shootout winner in the final game of the season against the Rangers, which got the Flyers into the playoffs. He’ll need to be that clutch and more in the playoffs. In the ’09 playoffs, Giroux was the Flyers’ best player too, scoring two goals and five points in a six games against the Pens. Carter’s health remains a concern, so expect Giroux to get a lot of ice time.
Clarkson, 26, is the Devils’ version of Bruins’ F Milan Lucic. He hits, fights and plays aggressive, not to mention score. He’s their go-to power forward. He missed nearly half of the 2009-10 season due to injuries, but when healthy, Clarkson has been an impact player, contributing 11 goals and 24 points in 45 games – great numbers for a third-liner on a defensive-structured team.
Pick: Devils in 6
(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins
Game 1 @ BUF, Thu, Apr 15 7:00pm EDT, TV: CBC
Game 2 @ BUF, Sat, Apr 17 1:00pm EDT, TV: NBC, CBC
Game 3 @ BOS, Mon, Apr 19 7:00pm EDT, TV: VS., CBC
Game 4 @ BOS, Wed, Apr 21 7:00pm EDT, TV: VS., CBC
Game 5 @ BOS, Wed, Apr 21 7:00pm EDT, TV: VS., CBC
Game 6 @ BOS, Mon, Apr 26 7:00pm EDT, TV: CBC
Game 7 @ BUF, Wed, Apr 28 7:00pm EDT, TV: CBC
These two teams have been so surprising this season: who would’ve thought that the B’s would have so much trouble to just make the playoffs, and who thought that the Sabres would dismantle the Northeast? If G Tuukka Rask folds under the pressure, G Tim Thomas has plenty of reason to pick up the slack – he’ll be dueling his fellow Team USA netminder, G Ryan Miller. After a great postseason last year, he lost his starting gig after a terrible first half this year.
This series has the potential to be a great goalie matchup. The Bruins’ total of 206 goals scored is the fewest among the 16 playoff teams. Miller should be rested for the series. He played in one of the final three games in the regular season, and he will be key to Buffalo’s hopes, along with their great penalty kill that’s been very hot as of late.
The Sabres are getting bitten by the injury bug at the wrong time – currently, the Bruins start the playoffs without No. 1 centre F Marc Savard, and top-six D Dennis Seidenberg, D Mark Stuart and D Andrew Ference – all of whom are great players. The Sabres aren’t fully healthy either, as F Tim Connolly, F Jochen Hecht, F Drew Stafford and F Patrick Kaleta were all out at the end of the regular season with unspecified timetables for return. Rask was 4-1 against the Sabres this season, and I think he steals a first-round victory from Miller. This matchup has the potential for another upset. Even if Boston loses, they’re immediately consoled: they get either F Taylor Hall or F Tyler Seguin at the 2010 Entry Draft, and they have the Leafs’ 1st-rounder in 2011, as another bad season in T.O. could mean another top-5 pick for Boston. Either way, I sense an upset.
X-Factors: Bruins’ F Milan Lucic and Sabres’ F Tomas Vanek. Lucic, 21, is a beast and is the model example of someone who is capable of single-handedly changing a series. He hits, he scores, he fights, and he plays that ‘style’ of playoff hockey – everything needed for postseason success comes naturally to him. Like the rest of the Bruins, however, Lucic has struggled through an injury-plagued season. He broke his finger (14 games) early in the season and suffered a severely twisted ankle (18 games) at mid-season. After an encouraging 17-goal, 42-point effort in 2008-09, Lucic was limited to nine goals and 19 points in 49 games this year, and he hasn’t been the dominating physical presence that had Bruins fans had projected him to be – the next Cam Neely. He does, however, enter the playoffs on a three-game point streak.
Vanek’s skill must come through this postseason. He recorded 27 goals after seasons of 43, 36 and 40, and thus, fall well short of expectations. Rather than competing for the ‘Rocket’ Richard trophy every year, he raises questions about his performance. Can he step up? After missing six games with a groin injury, Vanek returned for the season finale and scored four goals – by the end of the second period – against Washington in a 5-2 Buffalo victory. The Sabres hope he’s clicking at the perfect time.
Pick: Bruins in 7
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators
Game 1 @ PIT, Wed, Apr 14 7:00pm EDT, TV: VS., CBC
Game 2 @ PIT, Fri, Apr 16 7:00pm EDT, TV: VS., CBC
Game 3 @ OTT, Sun, Apr 18 6:30pm EDT, TV: CBC, VS.
Game 4 @ OTT, Tue, Apr 20 7:00pm EDT, TV: CBC, VS.
Game 5 @ PIT, Thu, Apr 22 7:00pm EDT, TV: VS., CBC
Game 6 @ OTT, Sat, Apr 24 7:00pm EDT, TV: CBC, VS.
Game 7 @ PIT, Tue, Apr 27 7:00pm EDT, TV: CBC
The Penguins are starting with the same seed they had last year when they won the Stanley Cup. The Pens have been successful in pacing themselves this season – Pittsburgh went 45-28-9 for 99 points last season and went 47-28-7 for 101 points this season. The Penguins appear to be healthy as they begin their title defense. With F Evgeni Malkin healthy, this team is much more dangerous than they have been of late. The goaltending experience alone should be enough for the Pens to come out on top – but, both teams rank 14th and 16th among playoff teams in goals allowed.
The Senators are missing a huge ingredient to their success. F Alex Kovalev (torn ACL in left knee), the team’s fourth-leading scorer, is out of the playoffs. Kovalev scored 18 goals and contributed 31 assists in 77 games. Regardless of Kovalev’s inconsistency, his offensive talent will be missed this postseason.
Usually, the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchups are close, but not this year. The Penguins, who are much deeper offensively, more experienced on defense and superior in goal. The Pens move across the street to the Consol Energy Center and the NHL’s newest arena next season, so they’ll be looking to shut down Mellon Arena with a second straight Stanley Cup.
The Senators and Penguins meet in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. The last time the Sens and Pens met, Ottawa was sent packing after four games. An argument can be made for the Sens getting stronger and the Pens getting weaker. There remains a big talent gap, however, and I don’t expect a very different result. The Pens are my team to beat in the East.
X-Factors: Penguins’ wingers and Senators’ F Matt Cullen. Pittsburgh is deep down the middle, with F Sidney Crosby, F Evgeni Malkin and F Jordan Staal on the draw. But the only Penguin to reach the 20-goal plateau this season was F Bill Guerin. F Chris Kunitz, F Ruslan Fedotenko and F Pascal Dupuis continue to look for permanent spots on lines, and with the acquisition of F Alex Ponikarovsky at the Trade Deadline, they wanted to add some production. But not to the tune of two goals, nine points and a minus-6 rating in 16 games. Poni is in a contract year, and with Malkin as his centre, he’s got a prime opportunity to play big.
Cullen, acquired from the ‘Canes at the Trade Deadline, is a scoring, faceoff-winning bigman. He plays the point on the PP, and his big frame is great along the boards fighting for pucks. Cullen will need to produce in the absence of Kovalev if the Sens want any chance of beating the Pens.
Pick: Penguins in 4
In the West, seven of the eight playoff teams reached 100 points. No one would be surprised if a lower seed were to knock off a higher one in the conference quarterfinals, or any round for that matter. The matchups are just that close.
The Sharks won the West for the second straight season after the Blackhawks failed to earn the extra point at home against the Red Wings on Sunday. The Sharks are once again in the drivers’ seat, and while many are counting them out early, this year, that may be a mistake.
While San Jose has a terrible post-season track record, this year could be different. The Sharks better built for playoff success this season, with the additions of F Dany Heatley, F Manny Malholtra, F Scott Nichol and D Niclas Wallin will do for a positive playoff outlook. In addition, the big-three of Heatley, Marleau and Thornton each won Olympic gold medals in 2010, and with the experience of winning on the grandest stage, it might be just enough to will them deep into the playoffs.
That said, Chicago is the most well-rounded team this post-season, finishing 6-0-1 in their last 7. Coming off a conference finals appearance last spring, Chicago didn’t skip a beat in the regular season. The Blackhawks forced opponents to play their style of game by maintaining puck possession, scored goals and showing that they work together as a cohesive unit, ready for a run at the Stanley Cup.
The rest of the field is up in the air. The Canucks are more than a dark horse. They’re often overlooked in the West, and they easily have what it takes to rise above. Detroit’s chances for a three-peat as conference champion are great with a spectacular 17-3-2 run to end the season.
But the real question is how the newcomers will react. Who could have guessed that the Coyotes, Kings, Predators and Avalanche would all make the top eight? The three youngest teams – the Coyotes, Kings and Avalanche – all started fast and were able to maintain their level of play, holding off the likes of the surprisingly disappointing Flames, Ducks, Stars and Blues.
(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Colorado Avalanche
Game 1 @ SJ, Wed, Apr 14 10:30pm EDT, TV: VS., CBC
Game 2 @ SJ, Fri, Apr 16 10:30pm EDT, TV: VS., CBC
Game 3 @ COL, Sun, Apr 18 9:30pm EDT, TV: VS., CBC
Game 4 @ COL, Tue, Apr 20 10:00pm EDT, TV: VS., CBC
Game 5 @ SJ, Thu, Apr 22 10:30pm EDT, TV: VS., CBC
Game 6 @ COL, Sat, Apr 24, TBD, TV: CBC
Game 7 @ SJ, Mon, Apr 26, TBD, TV: CBC
San Jose is healthy as it enters the post-season, vastly different from last spring. While G Evgeni Nabokov has been up and down following his disappointing Olympics, he was strong in his last couple appearances and he, like F Patrick Marleau, wants to atone for last year’s early exit.
Denver is a two-hour flight from San Jose, much easier to deal with in terms of jetlag than journeying to Nashville or Detroit. The Avs shouldn’t be able to handle the size and speed of the Sharks’ forwards, and Colorado is very young and lacks postseason experience at key positions. The Avalanche have to be very proud of simply reaching the playoffs. There’s no pressure on them to perform – the exact opposite of what the Sharks will be facing. But Colorado is truly outclassed in almost all facets of this matchup.
Another early exit for San Jose would spell big changes in the Tank. While Marleau isn’t expected back, an opening round loss would also likely spell the end for several other high profile Sharks. The Avs are playing gutsy, aggressive hockey. That leads to at least one win against the Sharks, but it also leads to mistakes. They’ve have cooled down considerably since their early season dominance and are still too young to hang around with the big boys. The Sharks are 5-1 in their last six conference quarterfinals, then the trouble historically starts. The Sharks are squeezing horseshoes and 40leaf clovers that they didn’t draw the Kings or Red Wings in the Quarters.
X-Factors: Sharks’ F Joe Thornton and Avalanche’ G Craig Anderson. Thornton and company have a long reputation of being playoff chokers, and they get a little kid in the form of the Avs to take it out on. Will this give them any momentum heading into the next round? As for Anderson, he’ll need to do everything possible to stop the biscuit. He’s struggled during the second half of the season, and I don’t see that changing now.
As for the Avs, no other team in the NHL has gotten more mileage out of its rookies. They’ll need a big swig from the fountain of youth to get by. Speaking of youth, F Darcy Tucker, 35, hasn’t been in the postseason since 2004, so you know he’ll be psyched. Plus, five of his 10 goals this season came in Colorado ‘s final 13 games; will it carry over?
Pick: Sharks in 5
(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators
Game 1 @ CHI, Fri, Apr 16 8:30pm EDT, TV: VS., TSN2
Game 2 @ CHI, Sun, Apr 18 8:30pm EDT, TV: VS., TSN
Game 3 @ NSH, Tue, Apr 20 9:00pm EDT, TV: VS., TSN
Game 4 @ NSH, Thu, Apr 22 8:30pm EDT, TV: VS., TSN2
Game 5 @ CHI, Sat, Apr 24 3:00pm EDT, TV: NBC, TSN
Game 6 @ NSH, Mon, Apr 26, TBD, TV: TSN
Game 7 @ CHI, Wed, Apr 28, TBD, TV: TSN
The Preds will rely on D Shea Weber, D Ryan Suter and D Dan Hamuis to not only stop the ‘Hawks’ balanced attack, but to generate offense in transition. G Pekka Rinne is a young goalie getting his first taste of the big game, and he’ll need to be stellar to give Nashville a shot at making this a competitive series. The big question is in the other net – G Antti Niemi. If he falters, they go to G Cristobal Huet, also unproven in the playoffs. This is a big series for unproven G Antti Niemi, who started only one of six against the Preds this year. Will the decision not to trade for a goalie come back and haunt the Hawks?
The Blackhawks are very deep, an understatement for a team that’s been so finely tuned, even with D Brian Campbell out. He’s expected to remain out until early next month. The Predators are healthy with the exception of D Denis Grebeshkov.
The Predators finally get someone other than Detroit or San Jose in a playoff matchup, but they still won’t win a game on the road and they still won’t advance. The Predators have failed to break through for even a single road win in 10 tries. That has to change if they want to entertain thoughts of a major first-round upset. It’ll be the Predators’ underrated defence against the Blackhawks’ pressure and puck possession. Only once during the six-game regular-season series between them did a game feature more than five goals combined. Nashville is underrated in just about every facet of the game. They’re also very physical, but Chicago’s offensive firepower will be too much to handle.
The Hawks are nearly perfect – offensively and defensively, the team is sound. Despite the huge question marks between the pipes, they are my team to beat in the West.
X-Factors: Blackhawks’ G Antti Niemi and Predators’ G Pekka Rinne.
They’re going with first-year NHLer Niemi over the veteran Huet. Niemi started Chicago ‘s final nine games of the regular season and finished the year with an impressive 26-8-3 record and a 2.25 GAA that was among the top five in the league. The 26-year-old Finnish native, who’s about a month too old to qualify as an NHL rookie, had a six-game win streak snapped when Chicago lost to Detroit in overtime on the final day of the season. The ‘Hawks have a stacked team up front and on the blueline, but their Stanley Cup hopes will hinge on whether Niemi can carry over his regular season success into the spring. As for Rinne, he’ll have to stand on his head. Playoff hockey starts from the net out, and he’ll have to stop every puck his way if the Preds want to stand a chance.
Pick: Blackhawks in 5
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings
Game 1 @ VAN, Thu, Apr 15 10:00pm EDT, TV: VS., CBC
Game 2 @ VAN, Sat, Apr 17 10:00pm EDT , TV: CBC, VS.
Game 3 @ LA, Mon, Apr 19 10:00pm EDT, TV: VS., CBC
Game 4 @ LA, Wed, Apr 21 10:00pm EDT, TV: VS., CBC
Game 5 @ VAN, Fri, Apr 23 10:00pm EDT, TV: CBC
Game 6 @ LA, Sun, Apr 25, TBD, TV: VS., CBC
Game 7 @ VAN, Tue, Apr 27, TBD, TV: CBC
Easily the best series of the Quarters. This matchup has the potential for a long, hard-fought battle – just the way it should be. Both teams should like the easy travel and consistent schedule in this series – simple flights up and down the coast without having to cross any time zones and games set up for every other night.
The major question remains how the Kings’ young talent will adjust to playoff hockey. F Anze Kopitar, D Drew Doughty and G Jonathan Quick are all inexperienced, but with F Ryan Smyth and D Rob Scuderi being playoff vets, they should be able to make the adjustments.
Los Angeles didn’t play as well after the Olympics, but the Kings are still a dangerous opponent because, like the Avs, Preds and Coyotes, they don’t have any expectations or pressure.
The Canucks will be looking to F Daniel and Henrik Sedin, F Ryan Kesler, and of course, G Roberto Luongo to be difference makers. And while the Kings are healthy, the Canucks hope to have several defensemen back in time to start the playoffs. D Sami Salo, D Shane O’Brien and D Aaron Rome all suffered injuries in the final two games of the regular season, but all are expected to be back in time for Game 1. The Canucks, defensively deep, will be tested.
Quick had a great season in L.A.’s net, but he went cold in the final weeks. I think the Kings will adapt quickly to the postseason style of play and force the Canucks to a seventh game. With Luongo’s gold medal win, he’s finally gotten a taste of what a big win feels like. Will it help him in the playoffs?
X-Factors: Kings’ F Justin Williams and Canucks’ F Kyle Wellwood. Williams, 28, is a two-time 30-goal scorer with Carolina in 2005-06 and ’06-07 (seven goals and 18 points in 25 playoff games during Carolina ‘s ’06 Cup championship). Since those days in Carolina, Williams has had a bad run of injuries, including missing 28 games with a broken right leg this season. He returned from that setback on March 12 and was slow to regain his form, collecting just one assist in his first 10 games. Come April, Williams started to pick it up, with two goals and four points in six contests. The Kings are a young team playing in the postseason for the first time since 2002; they need their veterans, like Williams and Smyth, to lead the way.
Wellwood is a head-scratcher. He’s not big, he’s not physical, and is often criticized for disappearing for long stretches. He’s also very skilled near the net, and he proved in last year’s playoffs that he can elevate his play and be a two-way player. After coming to camp in the best shape of his career, the undersized Wellwood had a rough first half, not scoring his first goal of the season until Game 20. He’s woken up and has collected seven goals since the Olympics. Vancouver gets another offensive weapon if Wellwood continues his scoring success.
Pick: Canucks in 7
(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
Game 1 @ PHO, Wed, Apr 14 10:00pm EDT, TV: VS., TSN
Game 2 @ PHO, Fri, Apr 16 10:00pm EDT, TV: VS., TSN
Game 3 @ DET, Sun, Apr 18 3:00pm EDT, TV: NBC, TSN
Game 4 @ DET, Tue, Apr 20 6:30pm EDT, TV: TSN, FSAZ
Game 5 @ PHO, Fri, Apr 23 10:00pm EDT, TV: VS., TSN
Game 6 @ DET, Sat, Apr 24 2:00pm EDT
Game 7 @ PHO, Tue, Apr 27, TBD, TV: TSN, FSAZ
The Coyotes are in their first playoff appearance since 2002, but how much do the Wings have left after a wicked run to fifth in the West coming off of back-to-back Stanley Cup Final showings? Phoenix management look like geniuses after adding F Lee Stempniak, F Wojtek Wolski, D Derek Morris and D Mathieu Schneider. Coach Dave Tippett has turned the ‘Yotes into a feared competitor.
So what does Phoenix’ great season get them? A date with Detroit, who has been to back-to-back Cup finals, winning in 2008. The Coyotes have the speed and skill to compete with the Wings. The Wings are still recovering from injuries, and haven’t had much time to gel – their late-season streak was the team that they expected to have on opening night. Who knows what spot they’d be in had they been healthy all season.
I think it’ll come down to goaltending, although I’m not sold on rookie G Jimmy Howard, despite the solid numbers. If he falters, how short is the leash before G Chris Osgood comes in? Coach Mike Babcock only hoped he could get his injured troops back on the ice to make a run at it, and that has happened since the start of the calendar year. Detroit’s top players came through as they have so many times, and Howard finally lived up to the expectations of management. At the other end, the Vezina Trophy favourite G Ilya Bryzgalov gives his teammates plenty of confidence going into this best-of-seven series.
If Howard remains stabilized, the Wings take it in 6. Phoenix wins two at home. Detroit’s depth and experience prevails against Phoenix’ youth. Detroit is too experienced, too healthy and too hot. They closed with a 17-3-2 run and put the fear in everyone’s head that the Red Wings were the one lower-seeded team to try and avoid in the first round.
X-Factors: Coyotes’ F Lee Stempniak and Red Wings’ G Jimmy Howard. 14 goals in 18 games after being moved from Toronto, Stempniak has found his niche as a go-to scorer on a team that was desperate for offense. Only four full-time Phoenix players scored more than Stempniak’s 14 goals as a Coyote.
Like their Original Six opponent in the Central Division, Chicago, the Wings are riding a 26-year-old goalie into the postseason. Howard, unlike Niemi, is eligible for the Calder Trophy and figures to be one of the three finalists. He was in the minors for a long time before finally getting his chance this season. After a slow start in October, he stepped into in when Osgood fell apart and hasn’t looked back since. The fact remains, though, that Osgood was a stellar performer for the Wings in the past two postseasons as Detroit advanced to back-to-back Cup finals, winning in 2008. It’s a lot to ask of Howard to deliver the same calibre of play in his first postseason appearance, but thus far, he’s shown the ability to succeed under Red Wings franchise pressure, as well as against difficult Western Conference opponents. This year, Hockeytown’s playoff expectations remain the same – anything less than the Cup is considered a disappointment.
Pick: Red Wings in 6