Wednesday, April 11, 2012

NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Predictions

Who will get to drink from Lord Stanley's cup, or perhaps drop it in a pool.
With the NHL playoffs starting, it’s time to step away from our regularly schedule blog to talk Stanley Cup playoffs.  I’ll give you my take on the playoffs and who is going to win as I try to out-expert the ESPN hockey experts.

First a few notes: four teams from the Central division made the Western conference playoffs.  In both conferences, the 3rd division winner would have earned the 7th seed if seeding were based on season points.  And it sure seemed like no one wanted to win the Southeast.  Now let the best tournament in professional sports begin.

Eastern Conference

#1 Seed NY Rangers vs. #8 Seed Ottawa Senators

Someone forgot to tell the Senators they weren’t supposed to make the playoffs, so they found a way to make it in a year after breaking up their aging team and missing the playoffs.  They are only a few years removed from a Stanley Cup finals appearance.  Don’t expect too much from the Senators against the Rangers, who have been one of the top teams all season long.  They play solid defense and have all-world goaltender Henrik Lunqvist.  This series should be short.  Rangers in 5.

#2 Seed Boston Bruins vs. #7 Seed Washington Capitals

Last year’s Stanley Cup champs quietly snagged the second seed in the East.  The lineup is deep and tough, but Tuukka Rask is not likely to play and the ageless Tim Thomas struggled down the stretch.  As for the Caps, they had a chance to snag the Southeast Division crown and the third seed as the Florida Panthers falter down the stretch, but couldn’t get it together until the last few games and were unable to catch the Panth.  Fact: the Caps had a lower winning percentage after Bruce Boudreau got the axe than while he still was in charge.  They have goaltending issues themselves, but cannot match the Bruins anywhere else.  Unless Ovechkin hoists the Caps on his back, Bruins in six.

#3 Florida Panthers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils

The Panthers tried their best to back out of the playoffs, lost eight of their last ten including blowing a 3-0 lead against Winnipeg to lose 5-4 in OT when I was in attendance last week, but held off the Caps to clinch the 3rd seed and make the playoffs for the first time since 2000.   The Devils overcame a slow start, including a rough first half of the season by goaltender Martin Brodeur to crack the century mark in points as their younger players stepped up and some old stalwarts had good seasons.  My heard says pick the Panthers, hoping they can recapture the magic from their run to the finals in 1996, but my head says Devils in six.

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers
Concussions.  Fights.  Coaches standing up on the dashers calling each other out.   Malkin, Crosby, Staal, Letang, and Fleury.  Claude Giroux, Hartnall, Jagr and Bryzgalov.   This is the series everyone wants to see.  The Penguins survived a ton of injuries this season and are playing their best hockey of the year.  Evgeni Malkin will win the Hart trophy as MVP, and, oh yeah, Sidney Crosby is healthy and racking up points faster than anyone else.  Thrown on Marc Andre Fleury setting franchise records for career wins and wins in a season, and a team with a ton of playoff experience, and its easy to see why this team is the top pick to win the Cup.  But don’t sell the Flyers short.  Just eight months after trading away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and losing Chris Pronger for the season, the Flyers are back in the thick of things, with Claude Giroux having a breakout season.  Goaltending has been up and down for the Flyers and they are wondering which Ilya Bryzgalov will show up for the playoffs.  This will be a great series.  Pens in seven.

Western Conference

#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings
Vancouver caught fire the last few weeks of the season to clinch the President’s trophy.  They are deep, skilled, and experienced.  Daniel Sedin returned to practice this week and will play.  Ryan Kesler plays the type of game that gets noticed more in the playoffs, but the questions are about Bobby Lou.  I think Luongo will be on a short leash, as backup Corey Schneider has played excellent this season.  The Kings had a chance to with the Pacific and sew up a 3 seed but came up short the last week.  Jamie Quick has been unbelievable at times this season.  If he gets hot and Luongo falters and the Canucks get their confidence shaken, the Kings can steal this series, especially if they get ahead early.  Canucks in seven.

#2 St. Louis Blues vs. #7 San Jose Sharks

I remember when the Blues past the Blackhawks in the standings in February and I thought “Hey, where did they come from.”  Then I saw them dominated a game against the Hawks, hitting like crazy and jumping all over every loose puck.  Ken Hitchcock, no doubt winner of the Jack Adams coach of the year award, got these guys humming after the Blues fired Davis Payne.  They have no superstars, but a lot of great players—David Backes, David  Perron, T.J. Oshie, Alex Pietrangelo--  and by far the best goaltending this season.  Both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot had GAA’s below 2.00 this season.  San Jose got hot the last week not only to clinch a spot but to sneak past the Kings into the seventh slot.  Other than that, they are a mess.  Joe Thornton’s point totals were down, Martin Havlat was hurt for most of the season--surprise, surprise—they are not very deep, they are thin on D and are maddeningly inconsistent.  Blues in six.

#3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #6 Chicago Blackhawks

Still adrift while looking for new ownership, the Coyotes quietly won their division riding Mike Smith’s incredible play over the last two weeks of the season.  Ray Whitney, at almost age 40, led the team in scoring and former Blackhawk Radim Vrbata eclipsed the 30 goal mark.  They play solid team defense but don’t score much.  The Hawks were the top team in the west until their nine game losing streak in February and survived the loss of Jonathan Toews while he was out with a concussion.  They hope to have him back for the playoffs, but more importantly need Corey Crawford to play like he did during the last 15 games of the season.  Hawks in six.

#4 Nashville Predators vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings

This is the 22nd straight playoffs for the Wings, the current longest streak in sports.  After talking Alexander Radulov into returning to the NHL, this might be Nashville’s best chance to go deep in the playoffs, as Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are both free agents this summer.  Detroit is finally healthy, but must rely on Jimmy Howard in goal, who was inconsistent during the season and battled injuries the last month or so.  Detroit was great at home this season, but not so great on the road.  This will be a great series, with Nashville winning in seven.

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