Quest for the Cup!

Well it’s that time of year again, the Stanley Cup playoffs are set to begin tonight.  Once again I’ll take a look at the playoff matchups and make my predictions.  While it’s sad my Sabres decided to take a vacation the last quarter of the season and not make the playoffs, there are some really exciting matchups in the making here.  So let’s begin with:

The Eastern Conference:

#1 Boston Bruins v. #8 Montreal Canadiens – While there is some hype built up over this contest between two Original Six foes, it’s not going to be that much of a contest.  The Canadiens dropped up the second half of the season almost as dramatically as the Sabres, and while they managed to hold a playoff spot, they just barely did so.  The team chemistry displayed earlier in the season has all but vanished.  Their play style at times often looks like a bunch of little kids on the ice, all swarming around the puck with no concept of playing position.  Montreal comes in to this game with the 31st ranked goaltender in the NHL.  They won’t be able to rely on goaltending in clutch moments, and with the lack of a solid defensive core they must do all they can to stay out of the penalty box.  Even at full strength they will have their hands full.  They are facing the second highest goal scoring team in the NHL.  With 7 players scoring more than 20 goals during the regular season the offensive output of the Bruins can come from any direction.  They also have some talent in defense, with a strong grinding style of play anchored by the giant on skates Zdeno Chara.  Then there is goaltending.  Tim Thomas has the best GAA in the NHL and has been playing top notch hockey even after they locked up their playoff position.  I’m not sure Montreal will even be able to pick up the fluke win.  I’m calling this series a sweep.  Bruins in 4.

#2 Washington Capitals v. #7 New York Rangers – I’m still awed the Capitals are in the position they are in.  Yes, they have a talented offensive core, and face it I always managed to overlook it.  With Backstrom and Semin joining Ovechkin in the top 20 goal scorers category there is a lot of firepower on Washington’s side of the ice.  I do question their use of Donald Brashear, even in limited capacity, as it gives ample opportunity for the Rangers to find themselves on the powerplay.  However it is l likely he will see be rotated out on the ice to deal with Sean Avery, the Rangers chief agitator, and someone whom the NHL needs to find the courage to show the door.  Expect more than a few cheap shots and glove dropping incidents in this series.  The Rangers lack the big go to scoring options that the Capitals have, but they have consistently spread the scoring around which makes them tough to defend against.  Their defensive players are tough, and they limit the shots Lundqvist will have to face. The defense is going to have to hang tight in order to force low scoring close games.  While there will be a little bit of drama and a whole lot of blood I don’t expect it to be the best of series.  The Capitals will take this series in 5.

#3 New Jersey Devils v. #6 Carolina Hurricanes – These two teams seem to have some odd gravitational pull that causes them to keep running in to one another in the playoffs.  While not all the series have kept fans on the edge of their seats I expect that this one will be a little bit more of a nail-bitter.  Brodeur, the heart and soul of the Devils seems to be almost back to his pre-injury form.  He had a few streaky moments after his return, but his likely to gain that post-season focus that he is famous for the second the puck hits the ice for Game 1.  He’ll need to look sharp as Carolina has three solid scoring lines, any one of them likely to be the line each night.  Led in goal scoring by Eric Staal, along with snipers Rutuu and Eric Cole, they are going to find the net more than once in this series.  Even with stellar play Brodeur will unlikely be adding to his post-season shut out tallies.  The Devils, however, are no slouches on the attack either.  Unlike the Devils of a decade ago this team is about as far from the neutral zone trapping style of play that they made famous.  The Devils of this season are a fast paced run and gun for the net kind of team and they have the skill players to make it work.  Zach Parise will be leading the offensive charge while White and Salavador will be banging bodies around behind the blue line.  This series could come down to the special teams play, and if that’s the case I’d have to say Brodeur gives Jersey the edge.  The Devils win this series in 7.

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins v. #5 Philadelphia Flyers – In what might be the most watched of the first round series the battle for Pennsylvania will be raging in full force.  Better yet for those looking for some series entertainment these two teams are almost mirror images of one another on the stat sheets.  Each team finished the season with 99 points with Pittsburgh getting the 4th seed thanks to having more wins.  Of all the years I’ve been doing predictions this might be the hardest to call.  For the Penguins offensive fire power in the form of Crosby and Malkin have proven difficult for many teams to match up against.  These two seem to be everywhere in the offensive zone all at once and have a habit of turning a routine clearing attempt in to a highlight reel worthy goal.  The Flyers, on the other hand, will be looking to scoring depth to light the lamps.  They have some real offensive talent in Briere and Jeff Carter, but one can’t overlook players like Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, and Mike Knuble – all of whom have a wonderful knack for finding the back of the net.  In defense the Penguins are happy to have Gonchar back as he is a real difference maker in clutch situations.  He has been showing some signs of struggling since returning from injury so a lot will depend on whether or not he is back to come form when game one starts.  The Flyers will be relying on Ryan Parent who sees over 24 minutes of ice time a game to hold down the fort defensively.  He isn’t a flashy all-star caliber player, but he is a solid, and amazingly consistent defensive player who never quits fighting for the puck.  During their meetings in the regular season he has done a surprising job of suppressing the Penguins top line, though in the end there’s only so much one player can manage.  They don’t have any big bodies in the back (which has to be a first for the Flyers), so they will be looking for a quick transitional game instead of slogging it out along the boards.  In net both teams have netminders who have proven themselves in playoff contests, and both Biron and Fleury are looking sharp coming in to post season play.  In the end I have to go with the star factor that both Crosby and Malkin bring in to this contest.  Pittsburgh wins this series in 7.

The Western Conference

#1 San Jose Sharks v. #8 Anaheim Ducks – Looks like there is a little hockey excitement brewing in California with both these warm weather teams taking the ice in the first round of the playoffs.  San Jose comes in to this series with the NHL’s best record, which is no small feat.  They were an offensive dynamo in the West and surprise a lot of people with their constant end to end style of play.  With Patrick Marleau and Joe Throton leading a top-notch offensive attack the Ducks are going to be hard pressed to keep them from lighting the lamp.  If Cheechoo can overcome the regular seasons slump he has been in the last couple of seasons then the Sharks will have a close to unstoppable forward lineup.  The Sharks also have talented blue-liners with Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, both whom have ample playoff experience, and are extremely capable at shutting down teams top tier scorers.  Add to that Nabakov who had an amazing regular season that was overshadowed by the Sharks scoring prowess and you have a team that is tough to beat on either end of the ice.  The Ducks will look to run up the score with Getzlaf, Prerry, Bobby Ryan, and Selanne, all of whom racked up over 20 goals each during the regular season.  Coming in to the playoffs they have won 7 of their last 10, and have been skating well.  While their offense may have talent, their defense is the real strength to this Ducks team.  Chris Pronger leads a talented cast of defenders that include Scott Niedermayer and Ryan Whitney.  They have kept the Ducks in close contests all season and you can expect them to raise their game to the next level for the playoffs.  What might be the Ducks undoing is the lack of consistency in net.  The Ducks backup goalie, Jonas Hiller, played over 40 games this season with J.S. Giguere hard pressed to find his game.  The once feared Giguere has been plagued with poor performance and early exits all season long.  Still he is the likely starter for the series due to his depth of playoff experience.  If he can find his way back to his normal level of play the Ducks might have a shot at a first round upset.  Still, this game will go to the Sharks in 6.

#2 Detroit Red Wings v. #7 Columbus Blue Jackets – Ohio, welcome to playoff hockey.  Columbus is making their first trip to the NHL’s post season play and they will have their work cut out for them when they face the Detroit Red Wings, one of the winningest teams in pro-sports history.  Rick Nash is about to get his first taste of playoff experience and he is hoping he can help the Blue Jackets make it a long post-season run.  He is a talented play maker who can be counted on to be a consistent threat in the offensive zone.  Mike Commodore and Jan Hejda are going to be called on to elevate their level of game play when they face a team that has elite goal scorers at every position on the ice.  Finally, Steve Mason who has carried the biggest burden in net is going to have to play flawless hockey if the Blue Jackets are to have a chance.  Datsyuk, Hossa, Zetterberg Homstrom.  This isn’t just a list of future hall of famers, this is what the Blue Jackets defense will have to stop.  It’s a big job.  A job very few teams have been able to manage, and a nearly impossible job during a best of 7 series.  Short of a plague of epic proportions sweeping through the Red Wings locker room Detroit will dominant in the offensive end of the ice, controlling the puck, and setting up more scoring opportunities than some teams will see during their entire play off runs.  And that’s just going to be game one.  Even if the Jackets can gain control in the Red Wings zone they will find themselves staring down at Nick Lidstrom, Rafalski, and Nick Kronwall, all of whom not only possess amazing puck control, but aren’t afraid to play the body and throw big hits.  They clear their crease with amazing proficiency and give up very few quality scoring opportunities.  If there’s one downside for the Wings its that Chris Osgood had the worst season of his professional career.  He’s been struggling to find consistent play and if the Blue Jackets can exploit that they might manage to not embarrass themselves in this series.  I have a feeling Detroit fans can pull out the brooms and look for the series sweep.  Red Wings in 4.

#3 Vancouver Cannucks v. #6 St. Louis Blues – Both these teams recovered from abysmal play during the middle of the season to put together some strong end of season numbers.  Some people felt neither of these teams would be a very high seed in the playoffs expecting them to potentially be #7 and #8 if making the playoffs at all.  Both surprised critics and gave fans something to cheer about by closing out the regular season on a high note.  Now, both these high flying teams will collide head on to see which of them really had comeback kid written all over them.  Daniel and Henrik Sedin are the star attractions of the Cannucks and combine often to light up the lamp.  They received a point(one assisting, one scoring) 57 separate times this season.  Wonder twin powers have activated and these two always know where each other is on the ice making them a formidable duo.  On defense Salo is the closest thing they have to a big time name, but they play well together, and show up ready to play either a quick passed game, or a rough and tumble struggle every night.  The versatility of the defense makes up for their lack of big time players.  Luongo will anchor Vancouver in net and make them a very tough team to beat.  St. Louis will be turning to David Perron and Patrik Berglund (neither of whom are yet 21) to solve the Vancouver’s defensive riddle.  Add to the mix T.J. Oshie who has shown spectacular creative flair and the Cannucks will be faced with a tough challenge of their own.  St. Louis, however, has rotated defensemen so many times this season they need to put a revolving door in the locker room.  It’s surprising they were able to put together the record they did with the lack of consistency or depth in the defensive end of the ice.  Fortunately for the Blues Chris Mason has brought his game to new heights since they All-Star break and managed to give their offense the opportunity to out score opponents.  If Vancouver can get under his skin then the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.  A couple early big goals and I think this series ends in 5 with Vancouver coming out on top.

#4 Chicago Blackhawks v. #5 Calgary Flames – this is the West’s answer to the big showtime #4 v. #5 matchup in the east.  Chicago comes in to this game with one of the youngest teams in hockey.  It is a team that, like the Chicago metropolitan area, has completely reinvented itself.  Rather than fielding several players pushing their prime the Blackhawks have looked to youth, creativity, and speed to turn the ailing franchise around.  Johnathan Toews and Patrick Kane will lead the youth movement in Chicagoland, both of them have a nasty habit of lighting up the lamp with unerving frequency.  While they aren’t leading the league in goal scoring they are players who even at their young age have shown they are capable of being the go to guys.  Back on the blue line the Blackhawks have a little more experience, but haven’t sacrificed any speed.  Brian Campell and Duncan Keith both not only keep their crease clear of opportunistic offensive players, they both have a wicked shot from the blue line that has lit the lamp nearly as many times as the offense.  On the power play these guys are dangerous, and even short handed they can’t be discounted.  Chicago has a talent at special teams that can’t dismantle the hopes of their opponents.  Khabibulin has been giving the thumbs up as the starting netminder coming in to the playoffs winning a season long struggle for the top spot with Cristobal Huet.  Neither have been dominating this season, but Khabibulin’s playoff experience is what the Hawks will be banking on.  On the other end of the ice the Flames might not be pioneering a youth movement, but they do have a talented force of their own.  Recently acquired Olli Jokinen has found an immediate dynamic with Jarome Iginla that should make the Blackhawks worry.  Both not only have dead on shooting ability, but they are no strangers to banging around with big defensive foes.  They will cause no end of trouble for Campell.  Dion Phaneuf is one of the best blue-liners in the game today.  He’s gritty, he’s always where the action is, and his feet never quit moving.  He tracks his target down through a crowd and keeps top scoring lines from many opportunities.  Kiprusoff will be a tough nut to crack, and his netminding skill will test just how ready Chicago’s young defense is in the post-season.  Even if they dominate him in one game Kipper leaves it all out on the ice and will come back unpahsed by the events of previous games.  He is a solid goalie who will constantly keep the Flames hope alive.  In the end I say this one goes to Chicago in 7.

This has to be a first for me as I didn’t pick one upset in the entire first round.  I have a feeling the first round will go by the numbers, and while their will be numerous good games, and some come from behind victories, I just don’t see any team that is going to be upset worthy.  If an upset does come in would be in either of the #4 v. #5 matchups as in both occasions the teams are pretty evenly matched and an ill-timed injury could change everything.  If there’s an upset that I’d love to see it would be the Blue Jackets sinking the Wings, though this is the least likely upset in the first round.