(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) New York Rangers
Season series: NYR 3-1. On paper, this looks like an easy win for Washington, but the Rangers also beat them 7-0 and 6-0 this season. I think the teams are far more evenly matched. It’s a rematch from last season’s playoffs–in 2010, New York had a 3-1 series lead before falling apart at the seams. Many thought that this year’s Caps team would slip up, and possibly, their opportunity to seriously compete for the Cup was gone, but the team has been reborn and head into the 2011 playoffs as the 1st seed in the East.
This series should be interesting on a number of levels. First, we get to see two of the most short-tempered coaches in the league face off in Bruce Boudreau and John Tortorella. Caps’ G Michael Neuvirth is making his playoff debut, so we’ll need to keep an eye on him and how he adapts and bounces back from mistakes. Will he be on a short leash? Probably. Boudreau obviously has no problem pulling his goalies (see: Jose Theodore), and Semyon Varlamov has been the netminder for most of the season anyways–in fact, I’d be surprised if we didn’t see at least one switch. As for Henrik Lundqvist, he fatigued down the playoff stretch last year, and his performance suffered as a result. He was supposed to get a lighter workload this year, but backup Martin Biron broke his collarbone, forcing King Henrik to take the reigns almost every night. Will he suffer from fatigue again this year? We also get to see a new Caps’ defensive style, which essentially the opposite from their all-out offence that we’ve seen over the past few seasons. Will their new found defence help them over the hill?
Let’s talk some numbers now. The Caps and Rangers ranked 4th and 5th in goals allowed per game, respectively, which has me thinking that goals will be scarce. Speaking of goals, let’s touch on some cold streaks–Alexander Semin has gone seven and 17-game stretches without scoring a goal. Last year, he didn’t score at all in the playoffs, despite 44 shots on goal through seven games. Marion Gaborik, on the other hand, is in the midst of a nine-game slump at the worst possible time. Somehow, the Rangers made the playoffs despite their leading scorer being invisible. Not to mention, he’s been benched by Tortorella for long stretches during games. Both men will need to pick it back up if they want their respective team to advance, especially Gaborik, as Ryan Callahan (broken ankle) is out long-term. Both teams are undefeated when leading after two periods (Rangers are 29-0-0, Caps are 29-0-3).
The stat that sticks out to me is that Washington is 26-9-11 in one-goal games, 7th in the NHL, which could be the deciphering factor in this series. They’re also 2nd in the league on the penalty kill. The Rangers have scored just once in their past nine games on the power play, but allowed just one power-play goal in their past 10 games. After a recent struggle, the Caps have scored five times on the power play in their past four games, and have allowed just five goals in their past 12 games on the PK. Needless to say, special teams will be crucial in this series.
This playoffs will be a big step to see whether or not the Caps don the title ‘playoff chokers.’ After winning the President’s Trophy last season, they were knocked off by the 8th-seeded Habs, despite having a firm 3-1 series lead. Is this year’s team different or more of the same? Both teams come in injury-plagued, so depth will play a key role. Advantage, Caps.
Pick: Caps in 7
(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (7) Buffalo Sabres
Season series: 2-2. This series has a lot of history behind it, and should be an absolute blast to watch. The Sabres have won the past two series (2001, 2006), but those were different teams. A lot of people are picking the Sabres to upset since Philly’s struggled a lot lately (lost 16 of its final 25 games (9-9-7) and five of its last six (1-3-2) entering playoffs), but they’re still the same team that made it to the Cup final. They’re a lot better than how they’re playing. On the other side, the Buffalo is rolling, going 28-11-6 record since the new year–coincidentally, right around the time the team was taken over by Terry Pegula. They’ve been saved by breakthroughs from youngsters Drew Stafford, Tomas Vanek, Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis.
That said the biggest card in this series is the health of Chris Pronger–the playoff machine is currently day-to-day, but how much rust will he have to shake off before getting back to playoff-form? Philly is going to need to crash the net hard to keep Ryan Miller off his game, especially considering that he’s coming off an upper-body injury over the past week.
Rookie Sergei Bobrovsky will start in goal for the Flyers, but after struggling down the stretch, how will he fare against the Sabres’ 9th-ranked offence? The Flyers also have veteran Brian Boucher behind him. Meanwhile, the team just called up Michael Leighton from the AHL–the same Michael Leighton who backstopped the Flyers to the Cup final last year. Philly has struggled hard in March, and enter the playoffs in a bad mind frame. There’s no doubt they can reach the Cup final again, but they’ll need to turn it around–and quick. I’m taking the upset.
Pick: Sabres in 7
(3) Boston Bruins vs. (4) Montreal Canadiens
Season series: MTL 4-2. Wow. The animosity and tension between these two teams–stemming not just from an Original 6 rivalry, but from the Zdeno Chara/Max Pacioretty incident–is unreal, let alone seeing it a minimum of four more times. It’s almost as if these two teams were destined to play each other in the first round. You know Chara is going to get booed like crazy when Game 3 takes place in the Bell Centre, which should be fun to watch. He’s also a big name to keep an eye on, as he’s only made it to the third round of the playoffs once in his career. As the teams’ leader, he’ll need to come through big time.
Let’s start with goaltending, where we have a solid matchup between the likely Vezina Trophy-winner Tim Thomas and standout Carey Price. It’s funny–with two outstanding goalies, logical dictates that scoring will be scarce, but looking back at their games this season, neither goalie has been great against their opponent. I think the key here will be the contrasting styles between the two teams: Boston is a very physical team that likes to do the ‘dirty work’ along the boards, and getting into the rough and physical areas. They may be the most physical team in the league, whereas Montreal is probably the least physical. They rely on speed, quickness and pure skill, which has caused problems for Boston, enough to win four of six matchups in the regular season. Montreal will never be able to match Boston’s muscle, so their best bet is to take the damage and hope to draw some penalties–from there, they can use their speed advantage to spread the puck around and try and score on the powerplay. The Habs ranked No. 7 on the man advantage during the regular season, so you know they can make the most of their opportunities.
Speaking of the PP, the Habs also come into the series with a considerably better special teams, ranking 7th in penalty killing as well as the powerplay, whereas Boston finished 20th on the powerplay and 16th on the penalty kill. As I’ve stated above, I’m a firm believer in the concept of ‘offence wins games, defence wins championships.’ That said, a big matchup will be between Chara and the Habs’ front line of Cammalleri-Plekanec-Kostitsyn line–Montreal ranked just 22nd in offence, and they’ve only won a handful of games when this line is off the scoresheet. If Chara and Tomas Kaberle can keep the puck away from the front of the net and force them along the boards and into the corners, the B’s will advance.
Boston will be looking to overcome last season’s epic loss to the Flyers where they blew a 3-0 series lead. I think they do it, but just barely.
Pick: Bruins in 7
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning
Season series: 2-2. Let’s cut to the chase–the Pens don’t have their captain, Sidney Crosby (concussion). He’s currently skating with the team and doing non-contact drills, but his return remains unknown, four months removed from a concussion (January 6). Presumably, he’s out, but to be honest, if the Pens advance far enough, I think he just randomly shows up. Aside from Sid the Kid, the Pens are also missing Evgeni Malkin (torn ACL and MCL). Playing without the best player in the NHL, as well as an elite sniper means that the Bolts have the significant advantage offensively. Tampa will not be able to sit back and relax with these two out, because Pittsburgh is a very deep team. The Pens will need to continue to rely on Marc-Andre Fleury to close out games, as well as executing defensive shutdowns if they want to advance.
Steven Stamkos, after a near Rocket Richard-winning year, has gone cold down the stretch, including scoring just twice in his past 13 games. His slump forced rookie head coach Guy Boucher to switch up the lines. Will Stamkos’ struggles carry over to the playoffs? Goaltending for Tampa shouldn’t be an issue, as both Dwayne Roloson and Mike Smith have been solid down the stretch. If they can match Fleury throughout the series, I think the Bolts can advance.
A key player to watch for is Ryan Malone. The big man won a Cup with the Pens in 2008 (as well as an Olympic silver medal in 2010), and is a Pittsburgh native to begin with, so he should have an emotional series. With Steve Downie back in the fold too, the Lightning have the physical and emotional advantage. The Pens’ X-factor will be the Fleury’s consistency. He’s been a rock down the stretch, and was named team MVP for the regular season. He set a franchise record with his third straight season of 35 or more wins, but he needs to keep that going throughout the playoffs.
The Pens rank 3rd in the league in winning percentage in one-goal games, 7th in goals against per game and 1st on the penalty kill. They’re 26th in third-period scoring, however, which could be a problem (of note, Tampa has a 6th-ranked power play, while Pittsburgh is 25th). Since their 1-2 punch has been out, Pittsburgh has relied on a committee of scorers. This may not work every night, but I think it shows just how deep this team is. It’s a battle of offence (Penguins) vs. defence (Lightning), and you know my stance on that by now.
Pick: Pens in 7
(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Chicago Blackhawks
Season series: 2-2. The Hawks had control of their own fate, needing to win Sunday afternoon against Detroit to clinch the 8th playoff spot. Instead, they lost 4-2, putting their postseason future in the hands of the Stars, who needed two points to clinch. Unfortunately for them, they lost 5-3 in the final minute against the Wild. Now, there’s no question that Vancouver is good. They marked franchise records for wins, points and road wins, while leading the league in goals allowed and goals scored. They also have the No. 1 PP and No. 2 PK unit. Over the course of the 82-game season, they’re essentially unbeatable. But if you ask the 2010 Capitals, that 82-game season no longer means anything.
Not enough can be said about the Sedin twins. Henrik, who won the Rocket Richard last season, is going to be upped by Daniel, who will likely win the Hart this year. They combined for a ridiculous 198 points this season, and alongside Ryan Kesler, this line will cycle you to death. Chicago must find a way to stop them, otherwise, this series will be over in a hurry. Stopping the Sedins will be a full-time job, but one that must be completed if Chicago is to have any hope of an upset. How do you stop them? For starters, expect to see captain Jonathan Toews on them, as well as a combination of Brent Seabrook and either Duncan Keith or Niklas Hjalmarsson, as all four are their better defensive players. If their best defensive forward, Dave Bolland (concussion) can return, it’ll be a huge lift to the team, as he was excellent in defending the Sedins last year. His status for the series is currently unknown.
The Hawks are 4th in the NHL in goals per game and 4th on the power play. Offensively, though, they’ve taken a hit, ranking 12th in goals allowed per game and 25th on the penalty kill. The Hawks were just 28-6-3 in games in which they led after the first period and 24th in efficiency at turning leads into wins. This needs to change, as the Canucks are 41-2-6 when scoring first and 38-0-3 when leading after two periods, so Chicago will need to score early and often.
Vancouver, like Washington, will need to shake the ‘playoff choker’ title. Their expectations are incredibly high, but just as the Red Wings, Sharks and Capitals have all been knocked off as a No. 1 seed, Vancouver faces the stress that this could possibly happen to them too. Hockey is a Canadian game, and as Canada’s best team for the past few years, the entire country is riding their backs to bring the Cup home for the first time since 1993.
The X-factor for the Hawks will be Patrick Sharp, who tallied a ridiculous 11 goals in 11 assists last year. Now, he’s nursing a knee injury, but if he returns, he’ll play on a line with Toews and Marian Hossa. As for the Canucks, it’s the play of Roberto Luongo. He’s finally won a big game, backstopping Team Canada to Olympic gold in 2010. That said, in the NHL, he’s never gotten past the second round. This year, he enters the playoffs more rested than last year, as the club hopes to eliminate any fatigue. Luongo is tied for the league lead in wins and finished 4rth in save percentage and 2nd in goals-against average. On paper, it’s a clear-cut advantage over Blackhawks’ goalie Corey Crawford. That said, everyone had an advantage over Antti Niemi when the Blackhawks won the Cup last season.
Were the Canucks hoping to avoid this first-round matchup? Probably. Even if they weren’t, Chicago knows exactly what’s going through Vancouver’s head, and they’ll need to use that to knock them off their game. Vancouver will finally need to exorcise their demon, and stare death right in the face–the Hawks have knocked out the Canucks from the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. Does lightning strike a third time?
Pick: Hawks in 7
(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (7) Los Angeles Kings
Season series: 3-3.
“California girls, we’re unforgettable,
Daisy dukes, bikinis on top!
So hot we’ll melt your popsicle!
Oh oh oh ohhhhhhh!” – Katy Perry.
Sorry, I had too. These two teams do battle in an all-California matchup. These two teams just met on April 4, which saw San Jose win in a 6-1 blowout.
With no Anze Kopitar and no Justin Williams, I don’t think the Kings have a chance. The Kings are 25th in scoring, and losing their two best scorers makes them that much worse. They’re already a defensive-minded team, but that becomes even more obvious with no offensive firepower. Their big acquisition, Dustin Penner, has gone point-less in 12 games. They’ll need to sit back and wait for their chances, meaning the Sharks should have the puck in the offensive zone a lot–and that spells danger. Ryan Clowe (shoulder) has missed about a week, but is expected to be fine for the start of the series. Being on a line with Logan Couture will be huge, as Couture has struggled down the stretch. In contrast, Pavelski started very slow, but has been on fire of late.
San Jose’s depth is unmatched. They’ve arguably got the best 1-2-3 punch, not just down the middle, but on lines as a whole. LA won’t be able to match it. Special teams will be big, as the Sharks’ 2nd-ranked PP takes on the Kings 4th-ranked PK.
My big question is whether or not the Sharks can exorcise their playoff demons. Sure, they lost in the West final last year, but are they truly over the hump? Acquiring Antti Niemi, I think, is a big step in the right direction.
Pick: Sharks in 5
(3) Detroit Red Wings vs. (6) Phoenix Coyotes
Season series: 2-2. This is a rematch of last year’s matchup, but this time, the Wings have home ice. Last year’s series went the full seven games, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that again, as the players and battles are the same. There’s a big contrast in offence, where the Yotes finished 13th in goals per game and 25th on the PP, while Detroit finished 2nd and 5th, respectively. Such a potent PP will wreak havoc on Phoenix’ 26th-ranked PK. They’ll need to stay out of the box, as they’re far better even strength (ranked 5th in the NHL) than they are anywhere else.
Ilya Bryzgalov needs to have a repeat performance from last year in order for the offensively-challenged Coyotes to stand a chance–they were outshot 52 times this season, yet still finished 3rd in wins when being outshot by an opponent. The Coyotes are also just getting healthy again, with Martin Hanzal and Ed Jovanovski back in action. Detroit will be missing Henrik Zetterberg (lower body injury) for at least the opener, if not more. Niklas Kronwall (lower body) is expected to be ready, while Chris Osgood (sports hernia) is probably done for the year, meaning Joey MacDonald will back up the inconsistent Jimmy Howard. Detroit’s depth will need to come through, and they’ll need to find secondary scoring and playmaking outside of their top two lines. The Wings also struggled a lot in March. They’ve won just four of their past 11 games, and their PP and PK also slipped. That said, in a meaningless game (for them at least) on Sunday, they beat an emotionally-charged Blackhawks team that was desperate to make the playoffs. They’ll need that determination and motivation to advance this year.
The Red Wings have been to the playoffs for 20 straight seasons. They have the same core that won the Cup in 2008 and made the finals in 2009. They’re also 32-8-6 when leading or tied after two periods, and have outscored opponents 84-67 in the third period while being outscored 84-75 in the first period. What does this mean? They’re clutch in late-game situations, and they come through big time when it matters most.
Pick: Wings in 7
(4) Anaheim Ducks vs. (5) Nashville Predators
Season series: NAS 3-1. Both teams face each other for the first time in the playoffs, and yet again, we see a battle of offence (Ducks) vs. defence (Predators). While the Preds won the season series, the Ducks are on a huge roll, going 15-5-0 over their last 20, which saw them jump from 11th in the West to 4th. Very impressive. The Preds’ lack of playoff experience is going to come into play, as they’ve never advanced past the first round before.
The Ducks’ goaltending situation is a bit of a mess, with Ray Emery, Dan Ellis and Jonas Hiller are all competing for the starting gig. Emery is likely to start, though he’s battling a lower body injury, while Hiller is fighting a case of vertigo. I don’t think their goaltending will be an issue, as all three have proven they’re capable. I think the depth chart will go as listed above.
Nashville will need to stop Corey Perry, who’s white hot, scoring 19 goals and 31 points in his final 20 games of the regular season. In fact, he’s been the best player in the NHL since the All-Star break. Teammate Teemu Selanne has also been lights out with 31 goals and 80 points in 73 games. The Preds have Pekka Rinne to rely on, but outside of him, I don’t see much else. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are a fantastic defensive tandem, helping them get to the 3rd-best team in goals allowed per game, but I don’t think they have what it takes to advance. They’re going to have their hands full with the Perry-Ryan Getzlaf-Bobby Ryan line, which could be the hottest line in the league.
Pick: Ducks in 6
2007-08: 12-3 (80%)
2008-09: 10-5 (67%)
2009-10: 9-6 (60%)
Total: 29/45 = 69%
2007-08: 11-4 (73%)
2008-09: 9-6 (60%)
2009-10: 11-4 (73%)
Total: 29/45 = 69%
2008: 5-2 (71%)
2009: 4-3 (57%)
2010: 3-4 (43%)
Total: 12/21 = 57%
2008-09: 9-2 (82%)
2009-10: 7-4 (64%)
2010-11: 8-3 (73%)
Total: 24/33 = 73%