It’s that time of year again! The 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs start tomorrow! And that means Pierce and I will be writing all of our playoff predictions for each round. Here are my thoughts on each of the match-ups for the conference quarterfinals…
1. Vancouver Canucks vs 8. Los Angeles Kings
Vancouver was one win shy of a Stanley Cup championship last season, and they return to the postseason with largely the same group. For the second season in a row, they start the playoffs with the best record in the NHL. They can score with all four lines, and have a plethora of two-way forwards who can play on both sides of the puck. They can also score from the blue line with three defensemen in the team’s top 10 scorers. The defense has plenty of playoff experience from last year, and if the Kings can get past them, they still have to face the talented goaltending duo of Roberto Luongo and Corey Schneider.
The Kings will counter with their own hot goaltender, Jonathan Quick, who has quickly become a favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the NHL. Quick will keep the Kings in it against the Canucks, but he will need goal support that was so hard to get during the regular season. Los Angeles was one of only two teams to score fewer than 200 goals this season, which is surprising with the talent that they have on their roster. Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter (who’s recovering from injury, by the way), Justin Williams, and Dustin Brown will need to increase their offensive output in order survive the first round against the President’s Trophy winners. It’s possible that Jonathan Quick can single-handedly carry the Kings further into the playoffs, but I don’t think the Kings will be able to score enough goals to make it.
VANCOUVER IN 6
2. St. Louis Blues vs 7. San Jose Sharks
After a mediocre start, the St. Louis Blues skyrocketed up the standings under the guidance of defensive head coach Ken Hitchcock. Goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot thrived under his defense-first system, leading the NHL with a very impressive combined 1.78 goals against average and .932 save percentage. The Blues didn’t have any star-caliber forwards with their top point scorers (David Backes and T.J. Oshie) gathering just 54 points. Instead, they score by committee with 12 different players scoring over 20 points. The most impressive offensive outputs are actually from their two young defensemen, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shatenkirk, who amassed 51 and 43 points, respectively. However, the young core of the Blues team lacks experience in the playoffs. Halak made a huge playoff run two seasons ago with the Montreal Canadiens, and Andy McDonald won the Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, and both will need to step up their games to carry their team.
San Jose, on the other hand, is no stranger to the playoffs. They are also no stranger to early exits. Every year, the Sharks are expected to contend for the Stanley Cup, and every year they fall short. The Sharks struggled mightily against the Blues in the regular season, getting outscored 3-11, so they face a tall order. However, the playoffs are a different beast and the Sharks are always dangerous. I think these games will be very tightly contested, especially for a 2 vs 7 matchup, but I expect the Blues to prevail.
ST. LOUIS IN 5
3. Phoenix Coyotes vs 6. Chicago Blackhawks
There are two players that could be deciding factors in this series. Over in Phoenix, it’s the man between the pipes, Mike Smith. Smith has proven that he’s a legit #1 goalie in the NHL, thriving in coach Dave Tippett’s system. Smith and the Coyotes enter the postseason on a 5-game winning streak, during which Smith recorded three consecutive shutouts and allowed just two goals. Two goals against. In 5 games! If he can keep that up, the Coyotes will take the series, but Smith will be hard pressed to keep those number while facing the likes of Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, and this series’ other game changer: Jonathan Toews.
Toews has missed the past 22 games due to a concussion, but is expected to be back in Chicago’s lineup for the start of the playoffs. When he does return, he brings with him a 0.966 point per game average to boost an already potent offense. Chicago’s big question mark is in goal, with two goaltenders who have been inconsistent all season. If young Corey Crawford falters, the Blackhawks can turn to veteran Ray Emery who has been all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. I would like to see the Phoenix Coyotes finally advance past the first round, but I have to believe that Chicago’s offense and experience will be too much for Smith and the Coyotes.
CHICAGO IN 6
4. Nashville Predators vs 5. Detroit Red Wings
This is another series in which I believe experience will prevail. The Predators have won a grand total of one playoff series. The Red Wings have won 11 Stanley Cups… The Nashville Predators had an excellent season, and if any year was “the year” for them, this would be it. They have the best defensive shutdown pair in the NHL, and one of the best goalies in the world. They are scoring by committee, and they just added Alexander Radulov, the offensive star from the KHL. It is highly unlikely that the Predators will be able to retain all of these key pieces, so it’s do or die for Nashville. Unfortunately for them, they’re facing the Detroit Red Wings.
Pavel Datsyuk. Henrik Zetterberg. Johan Franzen. Tomas Holmstrom. That’s some serious star power up front. And behind them? Oh, just some old guy named Nick Lidstrom (7 Norris Trophies as the best defenseman? 11 All-Star games? No big deal). Niklas Kronwall provides the intimidation factor with his demolishing hits, and Jimmy Howard seems to be fully recovered from his injuries, finishing the season with a total of 8 goals allowed in his final 4 games. The Red Wings have struggled this season, but have played much of the season without key players. Now that they are finally healthy (and rested), I fully expect them to use their talent, leadership, experience, and coaching to come out on top.
DETROIT IN 6
1. New York Rangers vs 8. Ottawa Senators
The New York Rangers have been a top team in the NHL for a few years now. They have built their team around arguably the best goaltender in the world, and he has done his part. In front of Henrik Lundqvist is a very strong core of young defensemen: Marc Staal (25), Ryan McDonagh (22), Michael Del Zotto (21), and led by veteran Dan Girardi (27). They have an equally impressive forward corps of Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, and Stanley Cup Champion Ruslan Fedotenko. And did I mention they added Brad Richards this year? The Rangers have incredible depth this year with a great balance of talent and grit. If they can stay healthy throughout the playoffs, they have a great chance of making a deep run.
The Senators have been struggling mightily for the past few seasons, but any team with Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Milan Michalek has the ability to compete in the playoffs. Perhaps the biggest star on the the Senators is defenseman Erik Karlsson, who has quickly risen to the top of the NHL. The dangerous defenseman has the ability to open up the offense, drawing attention away from the rest of the players on the ice. Goalie Craig Anderson is back from injury and has a history of stealing games in the playoffs. It’s possible the Senators can keep it close, and they even won the regular season series 3-1, but I don’t think they have enough to get past the Rangers in the playoffs.
NEW YORK IN 6
2. Boston Bruins vs. 7. Washington Capitals
The Bruins are the NHL’s reigning Stanley Cup Champions, and have not changed much at all from their championship team. In fact, if anything, they look more dangerous. Tyler Seguin is one year older, one year more experienced, and one year more dangerous. In just his second year in the NHL, he leads his team in scoring with 67 points. And it’s not just Seguin who’s offensively potent. It’s the whole team. The Bruins have four players who have scored over 60 points, six players over 50 points, and ten players over 30 points. They have the most intimidating defenseman (on both sides of the puck) in the league, and any of them can seemingly hit you through the glass (and one of them quite literally). In net, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas has been a little bit inconsistent this year, but is more than capable of backstopping his team to victory. And if he should falter, the Bruins have plenty of other viable options, including young Tuuka Rask, veteran Marty Turco, or rookie Anton Khudobin who recently stopped 44 out of 45 shots for his first NHL victory. Many people talk about teams being tired after winning the Stanley Cup due to their short offseason, but the Bruins look damn good to me.
The Washington Capitals, on the other hand, have looked pretty damn lousy for most of the season. And considering the team has Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, John Carlson, and Tomas Vokoun, there is no reason the Capitals should have limped their way through the season. Ovechkin scored just 65 points… 20 fewer than his previous career low, and 45 fewer than his career high 110 points. Their goals against average was 20th in the league, and that’s not good enough to get them through the playoffs. Washington has looked better as of late, going 6-2-2 to close out the season, and they did boast a 3-1 record over the Bruins in the regular season, but of course everything changes in the playoffs. The Caps added Joel Ward who had a monstrous playoffs last season, and they better hope he repeats that performance because the rest of the Capitals’ stars have had limited success in the postseason. They’ll need a real turn of events to have a chance to eliminate the defending champs, and I just don’t see that happening.
BOSTON IN 6
3. Florida Panthers vs. 6. New Jersey Devils
After 10 seasons without qualifying for the playoffs, the Panthers have finally made it back to the postseason dance. Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss, and Kris Versteeg have carried the offensive load for the forwards, and Brian Campbell has returned to form with 53 points from the blue line. Defenseman Jason Garrison came out of nowhere to score 16 goals, and looks to continue that in the playoffs. One thing that is going for the Panthers is they have quite a few players with playoff experience, even though the team itself has been absent for 10 seasons. The Panthers have a very mediocre goaltending tandem and will need them to step up in a big way if they want to get past the first round.
The New Jersey Devils are just one year removed from missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996. Ilya Kovalchuk is playing up to his name, Patrik Elias is having a successful season, and Zach Parise is being Zach Parise. Rookie Adam Henrique has been a sensation, scoring 51 points and being looked at as a potential Calder Trophy candidate. And Petr Sykora is the comeback story of the year, signing for measly $650,000 for a chance to return to the NHL and making the most out of his chance. The difference in this series will be goaltending, and although Martin Broduer is aging, he is much too experienced to let this one slip by. I have enjoyed rooting for the Panthers to get back to the playoffs this season, so I’d love to be wrong on this, but I think this is the end of the road for their fairy tale season.
NEW JERSEY IN 5
4. Pittsburgh Penguins vs 5. Philadelphia Flyers
Wow. What a matchup. It’s a shame that it’s in the first round, and one of these two teams has to go after just a couple short weeks. The Penguins boast an insane amount of star power and talent. They have the runaway points leader and MVP candidate Evgeni Malkin, teamed up with the real deal James Neal and two-time Stanley Cup Champion Chris Kunitz. Kris Letang is shaping out to be a great defenseman on both sides of the puck and Brooks Orpik is an excellent shutdown defender. Even Matt Cooke has become more effective as a scorer and an agitator, without taking the penalties and questionable hits that he once delivered. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has once again put together a phenomenal season with the second most wins (42) in the league right behind Pekka Rinne’s 43. Oh, and some kid named Sidney Crosby is back from his concussion. In just 22 games this season, he scored an incredible 37 points. If Crosby and the Penguins can stay healthy, there might be no stopping them.
However, if there’s a team that can stop them, it’s probably the very team they face in the first round. The Philadelphia Flyers have had the Penguins number all season, going 4-2 against their crosstown rivals. Even more notable is the Flyers’ 5-1-0 record in the Penguins’ new arena since the Consol Energy Center opened last season. How have they done it? Some will say that it was magical food. But just take a look at their impressive roster led by the young Claude Giroux. Scott Hartnell. Jaromir Jagr. Danny Briere. Wayne Simmonds. Matt Read. Brayden Schenn. Max Talbot knows a thing or two about scoring big goals in the playoffs, and the Penguins know that all too well. The Flyers now have an experienced playoff goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov and expect to go deep in the playoffs. Unfortunately for these two teams (and for us all), only one can move on. Whoever comes out on top will likely go limping on after a tremendous battle that promises to have plenty of physicality and bloodshed, and my gut tells me that victorious team will be the Penguins.
PITTSBURGH IN 7