Archive for April 11th, 2012

My NHL Playoff primer: Eastern Conference picks

- April 11th, 2012

Our fearless forecast in the regular season brought five out of eight successful selections for the playoffs.

We had the Bruins, Rangers, Penguins, Flyers and the Capitals to make it, missing the Devils, Panthers (who didn’t) and Senators (see Panthers).

Teams we overvalued were the Sabres (who didn’t?), Jets (so I was wrong, but they missed plenty of opportunities to get into the Top-8) and the Lightning (who I had second, but expected much better goaltending from Dwayne Roloson after reaching Game 7 of the East final last season before bowing out to eventual champs).

We had the Caps as the East rep in the Stanley Cup final and unlike the San Jose Sharks, we’re totally abandoning Alex Ovechkin and company. Although I think Braden Holtby will hold up fine – he’s unflappable from his day with the Hershey Bears – I have no faith in this collection and think they’re on the verge of blowing up the core. They’ve already fired one coach this season and there are strong rumblings that Dale Hunter might be heading back to the London Knights next season.

With that in mind, here are our Round 1 picks in the East:

(1) New York Rangers (51-24-7, 109 points) vs (8) Ottawa Senators (41-31-10, 92 points)

Full marks to head coach Paul MacLean for leading the Sens into the playoffs when most pundits had them dead last (we had them 14th in the East, just ahead of the Panthers). Norris candidate Erik Karlsson is dynamic with the puck and can dictate the pace of the game. Jason Spezza found a new level to play at, producing 34 goals and leading the forwards. Craig Anderson should hold them in games, but the Rangers counter with one of the best goalies in the NHL in Henrik Lundqvist (who is more rested than previous seasons thanks to the strong play of backup Marty Biron) and have a group of fearless shot-blockers both on defence (led by Dan Girardi) and up front (with captain Ryan Callahan). Marian Garborik is playing inspired hockey once again, rookie Carl Hagelin has been a great find and the Rangers have a former Conn Smythe winner in Brad Richards to help with the production. Perhaps most importantly, the Rangers are a physical team that can wear you down. The Sens played them tough during the regular season and might steal a game, but that’s it. Rangers in five.

(2) Boston Bruins (49-29-4, 102 points) vs (7) Washington Capitals (42-32-8, 92 points)

Yes, the Bruins have dealt with some injuries and will be without Nathan Horton (concussion) for the entire playoffs and don’t have as much depth as they did when they captured Lord Stanley’s mug in Game 7 at Rogers Arena. However, Tyler Seguin took a huge step forward in terms of offensive production, two-way play and overall maturity, while guys like Brad Marchand plays the gritty game that’s required to have success. Alex Ovechkin had a strong second half and should benefit from the return of Nicklas Backstrom. Heart-and-soul guys like Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera will have chip in offensively and Joel Ward will have to find his playoff form (which was missing in action for most of the regular season after signing a big free agent deal) for this team to have a chance. Although Tim Thomas hasn’t played as well as he did last season, he’s a winner and will help the Bruins move on with relative ease. This could be a clean sweep, but we’ll give Ovie and company the benefit of one home-ice win. Bruins in five.

(3) Florida Panthers (38-26-18, 94 points) vs (6) New Jersey Devils (48-28-6, 102 points)

Most folks believe the Devils are going to knock out the Southeast Division champions with relative ease. Not so fast. We understand the Devils have high-end talent in Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias and Zach Parise, along with solid rookie Adam Henrique and David Clarkson had a breakout season with 30 goals, but we’re not entirely sold by their depth or defence corps. Martin Brodeur put up pretty good numbers (31 wins, 2.41 GAA, .908 save %) and has proven he can get it done, but if Jose Theodore can elevate his game (or Scott Clemmensen fills in admirably), we think the Panthers might just pull off an unlikely outset. Stephen Weiss is getting his first taste of the playoffs, Tomas Fleischmann had a great season after a serious health scare last season and Kris Versteeg knows what it takes to get to the top of the mountain. The defence is rather unheralded, but Brian Campbell is a strong puck mover and plays big minutes. Jason Garrison has a big shot from the point, while Ed Jovanovski, Erik Gudbranson, Mike Weaver and Dmitry Kulikov might have what it takes to keep Kovalchuk under wraps. The Devils could easily win in five, but we see Kevin Dineen’s first foray into the Stanley Cup playoffs to include a big upset. Panthers in seven.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins (51-25-6, 108 points) vs (5) Philadelphia Flyers (47-26-9, 103 points)

The marquee match-up of the first round is much better suited to be the Eastern Conference final, but one of these teams (both legit Stanley Cup contenders) will be going home prematurely. The Flyers boast plenty of firepower in Claude Giroux, Jaromir Jagr, Danny Briere and play with a serious edge (Scott Hartnell had an unbelievable season and is a physical force). The defence corps improved with the addition of Nicklas Grossman but this is the time of the year when being without Chris Pronger (concussion) will really hurt them. Ilya Bryzgalov is the ultimate wild card in this series. If he plays like he did down the stretch, the Flyers could easily win. If he plays like he did for the Coyotes last spring against the Red Wings, they could be swept (unlikely, but possible). Evgeni Malkin is the clear-cut MVP this season and getting Sidney Crosby back adds another layer. James Neal has a potent shot and Pascal Dupuis has proven to be more than just a versatile guy, he’s a point producer now. Chris Kunitz shines at this time of season, Jordan Staal must play big and Mattt Cooke needs to be feisty. Kris Letang is key for the Pens defence corps, especially running the power play and Marc-Andre Fleury enjoys these type of tests. That’s why I’m taking the Penguins in seven riveting games.

NHL Playoff primer: Western Conference picks

- April 11th, 2012

So, the Stanley Cup playoffs are finally upon us. Thank goodness.

Before we delve into the annual post-season picks, here’s a quick thought on looking into the old crystal ball back in October, when I managed to predict six of the eight teams to earn invites in the Western Conference.

Other than missing the St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes, we had the other six.

The two incorrect choices?

None other than the last-overall-but-not-drafting-first-after-the-lottery Columbus Blue Jackets (who lost out to the Edmonton Oilers) and Anaheim Ducks, who started slow, made a nice run and then faltered down the stretch.

It was a rough up-and-down season for our pick for my Stanley Cup pick as the San Jose Sharks needed a strong finish just to get into the dance as the seventh seed.

We’re not going to abandon them completely and we think there’s a chance they could still win it all, but we’re moving over to the Nashville Predators as not only the West rep but the ultimate Stanley Cup champions in an exciting seven-game series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pekka Rinne claims the Conn Smythe Trophy, earning a slight edge over captain Shea Weber, who will be a force at both ends of the ice.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, here’s a closer look at the first-round match-ups in the West:

(1) Vancouver Canucks (51-22-9, 111 points) vs (8) Los Angeles Kings (40-27-15, 95 points)

After making it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final last spring and despite winning the Presidents’ Trophy this season, some folks are pegging the Canucks for a first-round playoff exit. We’ve always loved the way Mike Richards plays the game and he might give the Sedin Twins some trouble this round and Jonathan Quick led the NHL with 10 shutouts, but this team struggles to score goals and that’s never a good thing in the playoffs. Drew Doughty had a down season and even if Jeff Carter’s ankle holds up, we just don’t think it will be enough. Sure, there’s the potential for a goaltending controversy with the continued emergence of Cory Schneider but look for Roberto Luongo to hold up, at least in Round 1. Ryan Kesler, David Booth and Chris Higgins chip in with the secondary scoring and the Canucks get the job down. Canucks in six.

(2) St. Louis Blues (49-22-11, 109 points) vs (7) San Jose Sharks (43-29-10, 96 points)

It’s tough to argue with what Ken Hitchcock did after taking over a Blues team that was 6-7 to start the season and finished tied for second overall in the league. They play a stifling defensive system and have two outstanding goalies in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott (Halak starts Game 1 as Elliott is day-to-day). As an aside, the Sharks would probably love to have either, but while the embattled Antti Niemi has struggled with consistency, he’s also won a Stanley Cup (with Chicago in 2010), so that has to count for something. When we saw the Sharks in Winnipeg earlier this season, I was thoroughly impressed by the dynamic inside their dressing room and with the talent assembled by Doug Wilson and his staff. After getting to the conference final last spring, look for Joe Thornton to help lead the Sharks to an upset over a young Blues team that took a huge step forward and has a bright future. Part of a bright future occasionally includes a heartbreaking first-round exit. A healthy Marty Havlat is the wild card in this series, while Logan Couture is going to shine. Take the Sharks in six.

(3) Phoenix Coyotes (42-27-13, 97 points) vs (6) Chicago Blackhawks (45-26-11, 101 points)

You have to wonder if this might finally be the year the Coyotes win their first playoff series since moving to the desert. They don’t have to face the Detroit Red Wings this spring, but that doesn’t mean it gets much easier as the Blackhawks serve as the opponent. There is still some uncertainty surrounding the future of the Coyotes’ franchise, but the whispers of an imminent move aren’t nearly as loud this time around. The Coyotes are led by ageless winger Ray Whitney (24 goals, 77 points), Radim Vrbata (35 goals, including 12 GWGs and 62 points), captain Shane Doan (22 goals, 50 points) and emerging blue-liner Keith Yandle. Between the pipes, all Mike Smith did in replacing Ilya Bryzgalov was record 38 wins in 67 games, posting a 2.21 GAA, .930 save % and eight shutouts. Pretty darn good numbers all around. The biggest question surrounding the ‘Hawks is the status of captain Jonathan Toews, who missed the final 22 games with a concussion. He’s been skating but not sure if he’s good to go for the series opener. Corey Crawford didn’t perform the way he did in the playoffs last season, but the experience should serve him well here. We see the Coyotes putting up a great fight, but Toews pushes the Hawks in a series that goes the distance. Blackhawks in seven.

(4) Nashville Predators (48-26-8, 104 points) vs (5) Detroit Red Wings (48-28-6, 102 points)

Just two points separate these two teams and this series should be one of the most entertaining to watch during the entire playoffs. The Red Wings were the best team in the NHL at Joe Louis, but struggled on the road. There are plenty of folks who believe the playoff-tested Red Wings just might have one more run in them, but we think it’s the Preds time to shine. After finally getting over the hump and winning a playoff series last spring, we’re banking on the netminding of Pekka Rinne, the two-way play of All-World D-men Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and the balanced-but-sometimes-sputtering offensive attack. The Predators take scoring-by-committee to a new level, but the addition of Alex Radulov from the KHL is a major X-factor. The size of Paul Gaustad and the speed of Mike Fisher will help combat the likes of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, while Marty Erat is going to lead the way offensively. This could be the year in Music City and having to knock out an old foe who inflicted some of the growing pains for the franchise seems fitting. Predators in seven.