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Apr
10

2012 NHL Playoffs: Pierce’s First Round Predictions

An NHL Playoff bracket with Pierce O'Toole's predictions for the winners of the first round of the 2012 NHL playoffs
It’s time for some of the greatest showings of athleticism there is: the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I’m pretty excited about it. So is Lance. And just like we did last year, we’re going to write some predictions and analysis for each of the rounds. Lance has already given his thoughts on the first round, so now its my turn.

Eastern Conference:

1. New York Rangers vs 8. Ottawa Senators
The Rangers have had an incredible season. They battled back from a middling season last year to be very strong contenders for the Cup. Henrik Lundqvist has always been an elite goaltender but he has stepped it up to a whole new level this year. It doesn’t hurt that there is a strong defense in front of him with Mark Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, and Ryan McDonagh. Marian Gaborik has been far more consistent this year, scoring goals on a regular basis, and a lot less injury-prone. The captain Ryan Callahan continues to be an impressive and imposing force on the ice. And just for extra measure there is Brad Richards. That’s an all around solid team with a lot of depth.

The Senators are what I would call a firework team. They can explode with firepower with Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek, and Daniel Alfredsson. Or even from defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Erik Karlsson. But the other reason I call them a firework team is that explosion can quickly fade and disappear. The Senators were off to a great start this year. They seemed unstoppable. But they have since struggled with consistency. While goaltender Craig Anderson can be solid he too has struggled with consistency.

I think these struggles are going to catch up with the Senators in the playoffs as the Rangers have rarely stumbled and remained a rock throughout the year. Also, as impressive as Erik Karlsson has been, he is young and has been of a liability as of late, making some poor defensive plays. These kind of problems get magnified in the playoffs and will be the Senators downfall.

New York in 6

2. Boston Bruins vs 7. Washington Capitals
The Bruins are the defending champions of the Stanley Cup, so they are undoubtedly a good team. But they have had some serious struggles this year. Their goaltending has been a bit shaky with losing Tuuka Rask to injury and with Tim Thomas being less consistent. But the team has more than made up for it with offense. The Bruins are tied with the Philadelphia Flyers for second in the league in goals. And it is hard to find a more defensively solid team in the league. Zdeno Chara leads a defense of Joe Corvo, Johnny Boychuk, and Dennis Seidenberg – guys that will mess you up and score points. They’re a force to be reckoned with in every position.

The Washington Capitals have an unimpressive post-season record. But normally they have entered the post season with a very impressive regular season performance. Not this year. This year the Capitals barely made it in to the playoffs. The team has been struggling all year. Nicklas Backstrom has gone out with injury. Alex Ovechkin has been a disaster this year, scoring the fewest points of his career by a large margin. Mike Green has been stricken with what seems to be an endless stream of injuries. Not to mention that two solid goaltenders, Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, have been mediocre at best when in net for the Capitals. However, there is still an incredible amount of talent on this team, and in the last few games of the season they seemed to be getting their act together.

If the Capitals can bring their A game they’ll be a hard team to play against. But other than a few performances towards the end of the regular season, I have no evidence to believe that will be the case. It’s going to be a case of too little, too late.

Boston in 5

3. Florida Panthers vs 6. New Jersey Devils
The Panthers are the Cinderella story of the year. They were a team that many considered to be a joke last year. So they made some changes and won the South East division title for the first time. The keys to their success were very solid goaltending from Jose Theodore, an unbelievably productive defenseman in Brian Campbell, and consistent scoring from Tomas Fleischman, Kris Versteeg, and Stephen Weiss. They also have a pretty lethal power play, ranked seventh in the league behind Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. I see no reason why these elements won’t continue to be strong in the playoffs.

The New Jersey Devils have been a bit of a changed team this year, meaning that they have had more of an offensive edge than they typically do. Ilya Kovalchuk has been playing more like a player that deserves his paycheck. Zach Parise and Patrick Elias have both had strong seasons. Adam Henrique has had a fantastic rookie year, racking up 51 points. Petr Sykora has been the best bargain in the NHL scoring 21 goals and 44 points while being paid the rock bottom NHL salary of $650,000. And then there is goaltending. Martin Broduer continues to start for the Devils, with a pretty impressive backup this season in Johan Hedburg.

The problem with Broduer is that he is aging and there are now two Broduers. There is the Broduer that will stop every puck thrown his way all night long, but there is also the Broduer that can’t stop a bright orange beach ball. And it is impossible to predict which one you are going to get. I don’t think it’s going to be an easy fight, but I think this duality is ultimately going to let the Panther edge it out.

Florida in 7

4. Pittsburgh Penguins vs 5. Philadelphia Flyers
This is the superstar matchup of the Eastern conference. The Penguins boast an embarrassment of riches. They have the NHL point leader Evgeni Malkin teamed up with power play goal leader James Neal. They have Kris Letang, a defenseman that is an offensive force to be reckoned with. Not to mention that he is fast enough to beat almost anyone back into his defensive zone. Brooks Orpik and Zybnek Michalek are a great pair of shut down defenseman, blocking shots and laying on hits when it matters most. And let’s not forget about Sidney Crosby, who has averaged nearly two points a game since returning from injury. All that and it is possible to say that the best player for the Penguins in the playoffs will be Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury has always been great for the Penguins in the post-season, coming up big when it counts.

Yet, they face a very talented foe in the Philadelphia Flyers. A team with Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Jaromir Jagr, Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, and Max Talbot. Do you know what those players can do? Score goals. A lot of them. If there was a team that could challenge the Penguins offensively it would be the Flyers. Then there is the curious case of Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryzgalov was an amazing goaltender when he played for the Phoenix Coyotes. He has been pretty poor for the Flyers, that is until recently. Bryzgalov seems to have gotten his head on straight and finished the season on a strong note.

While Bryzgalov finished strong, I don’t think it will last. And while the Flyers have a good defense, it isn’t as strong as Pittsburgh’s. Also, the Flyers take a lot of penalties, and putting Sidney Crosby, James Neal, and Evgeni Malkin on the power play together is a really bad idea.

Pittsburgh in 6

Western Conference:

1. Vancouver Canucks vs 8. Los Angeles Kings
The Vancouver Canucks are a great team. That is just a fact. They have been the number one team in the NHL two years in a row now. Last year they came one game shy of winning the cup last year. They are a great team. They have crazy good offense with Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Alex Burrows, David Booth, Ryan Kesler. They have strong defensmen that can also score in Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, and Alex Edler. And one of the best goalie teams in the league with Roberto Luongo and Corey Schneider. That’s solid.

The Los Angeles Kings did a fair amount of battling back to make it into the playoffs. Mostly because of their lack of goal scoring. The reason the Kings are in the playoffs absolutely has to be goalie Jonathan Quick. Mostly because of their lack of goal scoring. Quick has been fantastic, getting 10 shutouts this year. And backup Jonathan Bernier isn’t a slouch either. But big name acquisitions Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, not to mention team staples Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, and Justin Williams, are going to need to start scoring if they want to have any chance of getting past the first round.

I don’t think the Kings are going to make it here. There are just two many missing parts. And Vancouver is too complete of a machine. It’s possible that Quick could (and will) steal games for the Kings, but I don’t think he’s going to be enough to get them through this round. Mostly because of their lack of goal scoring.

Vancouver in 6

2. St. Louis Blues vs 7. San Jose Sharks
The Blues have been one of the best stories in the NHL this year. Coach Ken Hitchcock came to the Blues in the middle of the season and rapidly began to turn the team from a mediocre hockey club to one of the best teams in the league. It was the defense that benefitted the most from Hitchcock’s changes: Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shatenkirk scored 51 and 43 points respectively. The goalie tandem of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak also reaped benefits from Hitchcock’s system, with Elliott topping the league in goals against and save percentage. And Halak was not far behind.

The Sharks have been here time and time again. But they never seem to stick around. Which doesn’t make sense when you look at their offense: Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, Patrick Marleau, and Logan Couture. Looking to their defense doesn’t give any answers as they have a solid defense lead by high-scoring defenseman Dan Boyle. For whatever nebulous reason, the Sharks seem to choke and fail in the playoffs. But this year, I don’t think their failure will be a mystery.

Goaltending. On both sides. The Blues have an nearly impenetrable goaltending tandem. Which is quite a far distance from what the Sharks have in Antti Niemi and Thomas Greiss. Both teams can score. Both teams can defend. But only one has goaltending that is good enough to carry them forward in the playoffs. Hint: it’s the Blues.

St. Louis in 6

3. Phoenix Coyotes vs 6. Chicago Blackhawks
The Coyotes have surprised everyone this year by being a strong team all year and capturing the Pacific division title for the first time. The reason for the team’s success? Goaltender Mike Smith. The Coyotes have a decent defense led by Keith Yandle. Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney have been fantastic scorers this year. And Shane Doan is fierce competitor and a great leader on the ice. But Smith has walked away with shutouts during nights where he has faced over 50 shots. Whenever his team falters, he seems to be there to save the day.

The Blackhawks are a monster of firepower. Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp seem to score points whenever they step out on the ice. Jonathan Toews is out with a concussion but if he returns for the playoffs, he adds another level of firepower. However, all that firepower could be wasted if the goaltending is sloppy. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have traded off starting goalie duties through the year as both have had long periods of inconsistency.

While there is a lot of firepower on the Blackhawks side, as well as a lot of experience, I can’t give the round to them. All the odds seemed stacked against them, but I think that’s how Mike Smith and the Coyotes like it.

Phoenix in 7

4. Nashville Predators vs 5. Detroit Red Wings
The Predators have never been in a better position to contend for the Stanley Cup. The forwards tend to score by committee but the Predators recently added an offensive force in Alexander Radulov, scoring leader of the KHL. They have an incredible defensive pair in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Goaltender Pekka Rinne led the league in wins with 43. They are a solid team. But they face the Detroit Red Wings.

The Detroit Red Wings are a factory of winning. They have won the Stanley Cup 11 times. They have Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Tomas Holmstrom poised and ready to score. Defense? How about debatably the best defenseman to ever play the game: Nicklas Lidstrom. Goalie Jimmy Howard suffered from some injuries that affected his game but he seems to have recovered now. In fact, that could be said of the whole team. But now it is time to witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station.

I’d like to believe the Predators can pull this off. There is a chance they might as they have home ice advantage, since the Red Wings are like 9,000 and 1 in the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. But I think the Red Wings are too experienced in the post-season to lose this series.

Detroit in 6

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