It’s that time of year again (actually, games are going on as I type this because I’ve been thrown a little off my game with arrival of Gabriel and all), time to take a look at the NHL playoffs and see how things are going to shape up. The regular season was a wild ride, especially the final weeks as several teams were battling for a few remaining playoff spots. The final team in the East came down to a single game on the last day of the regular season in which the Flyers managed to win the 8th seed in a shootout (ugh, stupid shootouts, but hey, that’s not what we’re here about today). So here we go, my picks for the 2010 race to the Stanley Cup.
(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadians
Washington, behind the not quite best goal scoring performance of Ovechkin powered through just about every team that they faced this season. With a powerful offense, solid defense, and moments of inspired goaltending, the Capitals won the President’s Trophy for the best record in the regular season. Montreal comes in to this series having played some of the worst hockey of their season. They had been around the middle of the pack in the playoff race, but lost so many games in the final few weeks that they just barely squeaked in to the finals. However during the season series between this team they both walked away with 5 of a possible 8 points. Carey Price, who played all 4 games against the Caps this season, looks like he’s going to be relegated to the bench, backing up Jaroslav Halak. Halak has been solid most of the season, and if he steps up come playoff time the Canadians might make a couple of games interesting. Overall though I think this one is probably one of the easiest calls. The Capitals will move on to the second round.
(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers
If I were to pick a potential big upset in the East this would be the one. The Flyers owned the Devils in the regular season. The Flyers went 5-1-0 against the second seeded Devils, and that has to have the Devils staff worried. I have a feeling they were all cheering for the Rangers on Sunday and were a bit disappointed by the loss. Brodeur has been solid all season (though he has lost a lot of the spark of his early days – still a top goal tender who can steal games, but not so good he’s going to steal a series). New Jersey, however, has more than a fighting chance in this series. With some great scoring talent in the likes of Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner facing down a less than talented goal tender (Brian Boucher), the defensive core of the Flyers are going to have their work cut out for them. Pronger will be leading the defensive effort for the Flyers, and he’ll bring it, big body hits, getting the stick in the chest of the shooter, and the occasional less than legal hit – Pronger will be hounding Jersey’s top lines. I think there’s every indication that this series will go the full seven games, and when the dust settles I’m calling the upset, the Flyers are going to move on to round 2.
(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins
Here’s another series that has the whiff of upset around it. The Bruins handily won the season series between the two teams, going 4-2-0. This certainly wasn’t the best possible matchup for the Sabres who are back in the playoffs after going 3 seasons of early tee times. Unlike the Devils v. Flyers, this series looks like it’s going to be a low scoring one. Neither team had high scoring players, but relied on solid goal tending, tight defense, and spreading the offensive love around. Tuuka Rask, and not Thomas, will be starting in net. Rask won the starting job after some early poor play by Thomas. Rask took the opportunity to start and ran with it, helping the Bruins earn their sixth seed. Ryan Miller will be in net for the Sabres. It’s been a long season for Miller with the addition of the Olympics, but he’s handled it pretty well. He’s had a couple stumbles, but over all he put up some of the best numbers in the NHL. The Sabres defense is looking much better this year than in years past. Rookie Tyler Myers has been a dominating force on the ice. And at 6’8″ he’s capable of moving all kinds of bodies around. He also put up 48 points during the regular season and is not afraid to take big shots from the blue line. If Tim Connoly or Thomas Vanek can step up there game it would give the Sabres a huge offensive lift. They’ll be the x-factor in this series. It’s going to be a tough fought one, and it may sound like the fan boy in me, but I think the Sabres will manage to pass this test and move on to the next round.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators
The Senators have been hot hot hot. However last season the Penguins took them down in 4 games, and haven’t been too shaby this season either. No surprise that Crosby has been dominating, and Malkin has played pretty well himself. The Pens are loaded with offensive assets and are going to look to hammer Ottawa’s netminder. Marc-Andre Fluery has had a pretty good season in net for the Pens and he’s going to be looking to keep players like Jason Spezza off the score sheet. While the Sens are going to be going with the relatively unknown Brian Elliot in net. He’s got a tough job ahead of him facing the Penguins how powered offense. Defense won’t be much of a factor in this season. Both have defensive players who look to jump up in to the offensive rush when the opportunity presents itself. Look for a high scoring series that the Penguins end up coming away with in the end. Penguins are going to be going to round 2.
(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Colorado Avalanche
Quite frankly the Avalanche weren’t even supposed to be here. At the beginning of the season most hockey circles had Colorado finishing in the bottom of the West. The Avalanche don’t have much flash on offense. Their defense isn’t a hard hitting core. But both offense and defense have contributed to getting the Avs to where they are now. Throw in to that mix Craig Anderson, the surprising journeyman goaltender who is playing the best hockey of his life, and some of the best hockey in the NHL. Colorado is going to need Anderson to up his play to a whole new level. The Sharks have one of the deepest offenses in hockey this season. Thorton, Heatley, Marleau, Pavelski, etc. This guys are going to make it tough on Colorado to continue their feel good story. Still the spectre of playoffs past haunts the Sharks who last season, as the Presidents Trophy winner, got taken out by the 8th seeded Ducks. San Jose’s playoff history is riddled by upsets, underperformance, and just plain bad play. Nabakov, who is dominating in the regular season, seems to put his A game up on the shelf come playoff time and that’s going to need to change if they don’t want to be chased early yet again from the playoffs. I think San Jose has learned a lot from the past, and it’s a core of very determined players the Avs are going to be facing. Unless someone on the Avalanche steps up to become a big playmaker the Sharks are going to be able to take this series. I say the bad luck is over, and San Jose is going on to round 2.
(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators
Chicago comes in to this series as an offensive powerhouse. Nashville is just the opposite. The Predators squeaked by in several low scoring affairs, losing a lot of matches when faced with dominating offensive performances. Score more than just a couple goals on them and they’re hard pressed to catch back up. Goaltending is perhaps the only area that the Predators have been solid in. Pekka Rinne, when he’s been on his game, has carried his team to several victories. He’s managed to steal a few wins for them, and he’s going to have to do it again if the Predators want to hang with the high powered offense of Chicago. What could be the Predators saving grace is Chicago’s abysmal performance in net. They’ve needed the high scoring offense to carry games for them as they’ve yet to find a solid netminder (something they had issues with last season as well). Niemi is likely to get the nod over Huet, though neither of them have been a safe bet. There’s a chance the musical goaltenders will continue for the Blackhawks, which makes it hard for the team to rally around anyone. If the Blackhawks can manage to find some steady net minding they should do well. At the end of the day while the Hawks might have trouble further down the road, they should be able to move on to round 2.
(3) Vancouver Cannucks vs. (6) Los Angles Kings
How do you spell offense in Candian? Sedin. Sedin. The Sedin twins have played great hockey this year, more so than the year before. In fact when Daniel Sedin was hurt, his brother Henrik stepped up his play and led the offensive charge for Vancouver. With Daniel back their line has been simply dominating no matter who the opponent. Add to that goal medal winning Roberto Luongo and you have a team that’s looking to go deep in the playoffs. The Kings are looking to stop the Cannucks dead in their tracks. Their deep core of blue liners is going to look to shut the Sedin’s down, clogging the passing and shooting lanes, and bodying up anyone who comes close to the net. The Kings aren’t slouches in the offensive category either. Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Ryan Smith are going to look to take Luongo off of his game. Unfortunately for the Kings Jon Quick, their goaltender, has been on a bit of a slump. When he’s been on his game he’s been tight, but he’s going to have to find that game quick (no pun intended) if the Kings are going to pull off the upset. It’s hard to see the Cannucks not making the second round with their talent. They’ll move on to round 2 and send the Kings off packing.
(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
The Coyotes might not have big offensive names carrying them. Instead what they do is roll 4 solid lines on offensive all capable of scoring the big goal. It’s hard to defend against a team when you don’t have any single player to key in on. The defense of the Coyotes have some playoff experience with players like Jovanaski and Aucoin. Again the Coyotes are able to roll defensive lines and match up against the top offensive lines of most other teams in the NHL. Speaking of experience Detroit has plenty of it. While not as offensively dominating as the season before they still have what it takes to light the lamp and often. The biggest surprise for the Red Wings this season came when Osgood was chased from his starting job by Jimmy Howard. Howard has taken the ball and run with it, taking a team on the outside looking in all the way to the 5th seed. Single handedly he turned the Red Wings season around for them. He might not have playoff experience, but watching him play you wouldn’t know it. It’s not surprising to think that the experience of the Red Wings combined with the fantastic play in net will help them move on to the second round. The Red Wings will live to play another day – they’ll take down the Coyotes in a long knock out drag down fight.