Monday, April 12, 2010

NHL Stanley Cup playoff preview


The Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us. The Sharks played a solid 8-1-1 down the stretch to secure top spot in the West for a second straight season. Now we all remember how unceremoniously the Sharks departed last year at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks. But this year they face the young and struggling Colorado Avalanche. All the pressure in the hockey universe is on the Sharks right now, as an early playoff exit could also see the exit of Nabokov, Marleau, Head Coach Todd McClellan, and even General Manager Doug Wilson. That is a lot of pressure, but this team has been preparing for this moment since the curtain fell on their season last Spring.
Detroit and Chicago figure to be the other big teams in the West, but watch out for Phoenix. If they can get to the Wings early (Games 1&2 in Phoenix) in the desert, they may be poised for a long run with Illya Bryzgalof leading the way.

In the East, the Washington Capitals won the Presidents Trophy securing home ice throughout the playoffs. They had 20 points more than 2nd place New Jersey. Alex Ovechkin has a terrific supporting cast and the Caps are the favorite to come out of the conference. The Penguins are the defending champs and can ramp up their play at anytime. But 2 deep playoff runs and this years Olympics may have Crosby and co. running on fumes. This is a year that is very top heavy so 1st round upsets may be hard to come by. One thing is for sure, whatever team gets the best goaltending figures to be the last one standing.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

#1 SAN JOSE SHARKS VS #8 COLORADO AVALANCHE

The Avalanche exceeded expectations this year and surprised everyone by qualifying for the playoffs. Chris Stewart and Matt Duchesne lead a good young core as they try to shake up the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Sharks are are a top scoring team but will rely heavily on veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. The Avs need to stay out of the box if they're to have any chance in this series. Joe Thornton is healthy and the Sharks Power Play is lethal. The Sharks still have the bitter taste of their 1st round upset last year. If the Avs can steal game 1, the pressure will be enormous on San Jose. This is a better Sharks team and are playing much more inexperienced opponent than the Ducks were last year. The Sharks need to breeze through this series and they probably will.
PREDICTION: SAN JOSE IN 5.

#2 CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS VS #7 NASHVILLE PREDATORS




The Blackhawks just missed winning the west by way of their OT loss to Detroit in their season finale. The 'Hawks are extremely talented up and down their lineup. They gathered some much needed experience with their playoff run last year. The one question mark the past 2 seasons has been the goaltending. Enter Anti Niemi, who solidified his role as starter with a 2.25 GAA and a .912 save percentage, along with 7 shutouts. Brent Seabrook and Norris Trophy candidate, Duncan Keith will log big minutes on the blueline. They will need Patrick Kane to focus on helping Marian Hossa tow the line offensively and Jonathan Toews to lead them in the locker room. Nashville continues to send a quality product on the ice year in and year out. However, they are still a franchise in search of their first playoff series win. They finished the year 18 games over .500, but scored the same amount of goals as they allowed (225). Their leading scorer was Steve Sullivan who recorded 51 pts, the lowest total for any player who led his team. They have similar home and road records as well. Goalie Pekka Rinne has been spectacular some nights and dreadful the next. They will need All-Star D-men Shea Weber and Ryan Suter to shut down the 'Hawks top line if they are going to have a chance. Sorry Preds fans, you're still going to have to wait for that first series win.
PREDICTION: CHICAGO IN 6.

#3 VANCOUVER CANUCKS VS #6 LOS ANGELES KINGS


The LA Kings are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2001. They have a nice young core led by Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty. Doughty is their top blueliner and after only 2 seasons in the NHL is already among the top D-men in the league. This was validated by his Olympic selection to the loaded Canadian roster that took home the Gold. The Kings will need to match the Canucks offensive attack. Vancouver is led by Henrik Sedin who had his finest season leading the entire league in points with 112. Roberto Luongo is the unquestionable leader of Vancouver. He ranked among the elite NHL goalies with 40 victories and a .913 Save Pct and a 2.57 GAA. The Canucks have not performed well in the playoffs under Luongo and he desperately wants to shake that moniker. The Kings may just be happy to be here, but if Jonathan Quick can steal a game or two, this could be a long and difficult series. The Kings have a chance but will need their power play to be lethal. Doughty could begin to build his legend even more if he can guide this upstart team to places Kings fans have dreamed of since "The Great One" left.
PREDICTION: LOS ANGELES IN 7.

#4 PHOENIX COYOTES VS #5 DETROIT RED WINGS



This is the most intriguing first round match-up. The Coyotes battled through bankruptcy, the threat of relocation and a small payroll to amass a staggering 107 points. Head Coach Dave Tippet has done a masterful job of implementing a successful system. They also made moves at the deadline and this team believes they can beat anyone. They are led by goalie Illya Bryzgalof who's regular season has him in Vezina Trophy contention. They will need to be at their best because they have a tall order. The Red Wings have played in the last 2 Stanley Cup Finals, winning in it all in 2008. They had an injury plagued regular season but got healthy just in time for the stretch run. They are now healthy and ready to ride rookie goalie, Jimmy Howard all the way into the postseason. Howard won the job from veteran Chris Osgood and hasn't looked back. HE has probably been the best netminder in the NHL, post Olympics. Coyotes really have nothing to lose, but in the end Zetterberg, Lidstrom, Franzen and Daytsuk may just be too much. However, this won't be a cakewalk for Detroit.
PREDICTION: DETROIT IN 7.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

#1 WASHINGTON CAPITALS VS #8 MONTREAL CANADIENS

No first round matchup appears to be more of a foregone conclusion than this one. The Capitals mopped up the competition in the Eastern Conference and only got better at the deadline. Role players like Mike Knuble and Eric Belanger compliment the league's top offense. This group features Alex Ovechkin (50 goals, 109 pts), Nicklas Backstrom (68 assists, 101 pts) who had a breakout year, and sniper Alex Semin (40 goals, 84 pts)who has one of the best snap shots in the game. The main concern for the Caps is goaltending. Jose Theodore will get the nod in game one, but Simeon Varlamov is waiting in the wings. For the Habs, Jaroslav Halak supplanted Carey Price as the starter in net. Montreal overhauled their roster after last years failures. Newcomers Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, and Brian Gionta who along with Thomas Plekanec will be relied upon for offense. They will need to play at a level we have not yet seen this group play at if they are to have any chance against the Capitals. This just may be Ovechkin's year, and this is just the first step.
PREDICTION: WASHINGTON IN 4.

#2 NEW JERSEY DEVILS VS #7 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS


The Flyers sneaked into the post season with a shootout victory over their rival Rangers in the regular season finale. Brian Boucher has taken over in net for a Philly team ravaged with goalie injuries this year. Captain Mike Richards will lead the way on offense along with Jeff Carter, Dany Briere, and Simone Gagne. The blueline is led by grumpy veteran Chris Pronger who has the ability to shutdown New Jersey's top line. Daniel Carcillo will be relied upon to aggravate Illya Kovalchuk and pester Martin Brodeur. And speaking of Brodeur, he is seeking his 4th Stanley Cup. He was solid again this year leading the NHL in wins (45) and shutouts (9). The Devils are challenged offensively and rely heavily on Brodeur night in and night out. They need Zach Parise to continue building chemistry with Kovalchuk if they are going to have a deep run. I think Philly can match-up decent against Jersey, but I just can't take Brian Boucher over Marty Brodeur in a 7 game series.
PREDICITON: NEW JERSEY IN 6.

#3 BUFFALO SABRES VS #6 BOSTON BRUINS

The Buffalo Sabres are led by Vezina Trophy and MVP candidate Ryan Miller. He gained national attention for his performance in net for Team USA in the Olympics. Miller has been at the top of his game for some time now and you get the impression something special might be happening in Buffalo. In his two previous trips to the playoffs, he has led the Sabres to the East Finals both times. The main problem for this squad is a lack of consistent scoring. If this team can't turn on the lamp and relies too heavily on Miller, the Sabres could go out early. But they do have a favorable matchup. The Bruins didn't achieve the level of regular season success they had hoped. Incumbent Vezina trophy winner Tim Thomas had to make way in net for Tuukka Rask who led the NHL with a microscopic 1.97 Goals against average. This team will need him to play well since they too are offensively challenged. I love Marco Sturm as much as the next guy but if he is your leading goal scorer (22), then you have some series issues. Zdeno Chara will need to log huge minutes and also be a force on the power play. The team who wins the special teams battle will win this series.
PREDICTION: BUFFALO IN 7.

#4 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS VS #5 OTTAWA SENATORS


The Penguins return to the postseason to defend their Stanley Cup championship. Sydney Crosby has had a magical year from winning the Cup last June to scoring game winner in OT, to deliver Olympic Gold to Team Canada in front of Canadian fans. Pittsburgh didn't have a great regular season by their standards, and haven't played their best hockey of late. They went winless in the regular season vs the Capitals and the Devils. They could be a little fatigued. Power play point man Sergei Gonchar has battled health issues all season along with 2009 Finals MVP, Evgeni Malkin. Marc-Andre Fleury has been very average in net for Pitt this year and he will need to play at a higher level than he has been if the Penguins are going to repeat. For the Senators, another year, another first round matchup with the Penguins. Mike Fisher had a breakout season for the Senators and Milan Michalek fit in nicely which helped them get over the loss of Dany Heatley. Daniel Alfredsson leads an offense which didn't feature a 30 goal scorer. Their offensive shortcomings may be too much to overcome against a high scoring Pittsburgh team. Brian Elliot had some quality starts down the stretch and he will get the start in Game 1. The Senators appear to be a bit overmatched in this series. Penguins may have a date with the Capitals in the second round.
PREDICTION: PITTSBURGH IN 5.

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