Stanley Cup Playoffs: Previews of First Round

Steve O Speak

By Guest Blogger AlanZlot:

It took until the last scheduled game of the NHL regular season to complete this year’s Stanley Cup playoff picture, but it is fair to say that after last year’s tournament, no one should be counted out.

The final team into this year’s field was last year’s champion, the Chicago Blackhawks. On Sunday, the Detroit Red Wings allowed the Dallas Stars a chance to steal the eighth and final playoff spot with a win over the Blackhawks at Joe Louis Arena.

With their destiny in their hands, the Dallas Stars lost to the Minnesota Wild 5-3, allowing the Hawks to sneak back in to the playoffs. The chase for the Cup begins Wednesday with five opening-round matchups scheduled to take place.

This season was one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory. In the Eastern Conference, just 14 points separates the No. 1 seeded Washington Capitals and the No. 8 seeded New York Rangers. Since the 2000 season, only the ’08 playoffs (10 points) had a closer point margin separating the top and bottom seeds.

The Vancouver Canucks dominated the Western conference in winning this year’s Presidents Trophy as the NHL’s top team in the regular season. Vancouver finished with 117 points and will take on the Blackhawks in the first round.

Since the All-Star break, the West proved to be a gridlock of playoff hopefuls as teams like Dallas and Calgary were in and eventually out of the final playoff spot for much of the second half. Just eight points separate the No. 2 seed and the No. 8 seed and that number was as low as five in late February.

While everyone else is still pondering how a 21-year-old blew a shot at a green jacket on Sunday, it is time for hockey fans to get down to business.

Can the Canucks become the fourth team since 2001 to win the President’s Trophy and the Stanley Cup? Will Alex Ovechkin and the new-look Capitals finally “Rock the Red” into June? Who will be this year’s version of last year’s seventh seeded Flyers?

The First round is sure to please so here are my predictions for the teams that should advance into May and possibly beyond.

No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 7 Buffalo Sabres
One word looms large in Philadelphia this morning: goaltending. The Flyers lost 10 of their final 15 games and blew a 10-point lead, coughing up the No.1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference.

Six of the losses came after regulation and guess what, hockey fans—last year’s Flyers also lost 10 of their final 15 games and went on to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Sabrescame from behind to beat the Flyers on Saturday in overtime, earning a playoff berth. But they did so with with an energy that will be hard to sustain for a long playoff series.

Ryan Miller is capable of stealing a game or two in this series. I would not be surprised to find the Flyers down two games to one after the third game. With that said, the Flyers are too deep and will be getting Chris Pronger back.

The Flyers are four lines deep and six defenseman solid. That was part of their secret in last year’s postseason.

Flyers goalies Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher were a combined 46-23-12 with 2.50 goals against and a .915 save percentage. Philadelphia’s head coach Peter Laviolette won a Stanley Cup with rookie Cam Ward and Martin Gerber back in the ’05-06 season.

Laviolette will figure this situation out and while the goaltending in Philadelphia may not be enough to win a Stanley Cup this year, it is enough to beat the Sabres in seven games.

No.3 Boston Bruins Vs. No.6 Montreal Canadiens
If you like Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots and old time hockey, then this will be your series. Fate has a funny way of rearing its beautiful head at times in life and sports, and this is one of those instances.

Whichever team you root for in the NHL, it will be hard not to watch the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadians play in what could be a first-round classic.

There are more side stories to this series than there was during the Tigers Woods fiasco. This will not be a series for the faint of heart. If you do not like fighting in your hockey than this is not your series.

There is still the yet unresolved “little” issue of the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty in the minds of the Habs. Will blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 2 last spring be a motivator or a haunting memory for the Bruins?

Those are just two of the stories amongst many in what should be a hard fought series. Unfortunately, I look for this to be a hard fought, but short series.

Although the Habs won four of the six regular season meetings, the Bruins have a better balanced playoff team.

The Bruins are one of the best five-on-five teams in the playoffs and no playoff team has scored fewer goals at even strength than the Canadians. This is the major reason why Montreal will force a physical series. Only three teams in the NHL finished in the top 10 on both the power play and the penalty kill: Vancouver, Tampa Bay and Montreal.

In the end, even after a game that will feature 200-plus penalty minutes, this year’s Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas will outshine Carey Price in Montreal’s net.

Price has been up and down over the last month and took a beating in the last Habs-Bruins contest. Price surrendered five goals and was pulled at 4:29 into the third period.

If Game 3 in Montreal becomes a two or three-goal affair for either team, then lookout, hockey fans, it could take two hours to play the final 10 minutes.

The Bruins will win the only original six matchup in this year’s first round and while it will not be as easy as their four game sweep over the Habs in the 2009 playoffs, it will be not be much harder.

I like the Bruins in a “physical series” and I like them in five games.

No.4 Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. No.5 Tampa Bay Lightning

Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma sported a fedora reminiscent of the Toe Blake days in the NHL during this year’s Winter Classic. Blysma’s coaching job this year was also reminiscent of the greats like Toe Blake and even Scotty Bowman.

After losing Sidney Crosby and then Evgeni Malkin, many thought the Penguins would drop as Rory McElroy’s confidence did yesterday on the back nine at Augusta.

Instead, Bylsma, just like a US Marine, overcame and adapted. He continued to preach the system of defense he was running and got the most out every player on his team. Bylsma will win coach of the year honors.

Led by Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins still managed to record the second most regular season points in franchise history with 106. They play a tight and quick defensive style that forces turnovers and creates chances.

The Lightning are back in the postseason for the first time since 2007 and have not won a playoff series since winning the Stanley Cup in 2004.

One of the best top lines in all of hockey leads the Lightning. Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis combined for 76 goals, 114 assists and 190 points.

The home team won both games this year and this series comes down to one thing: Which team will win the third period? The third period will be bigger in this series than in any other for these simple facts.

With a 0-19-1 record, the Pens are the NHL’s worst team when trailing after two periods. The Lightning surrendered 88 goals in the final stanza, fifth most in the NHL this year.

This series is a tough call, but I like the Bolts’ ability to get out front more than I like the Penguins’ ability to come from behind.

Lightning net minder Dwayne Roloson will not outplay Marc-Andre Fleury, but the 41-year-old netminder will be good enough to propel Tampa Bay to a tough Game 7 victory.

After what Pittsburgh gained in having to overcome all their adversity this year and with many players called up from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, if the Pens remain healthy next season, then look for them to be the favorites to win next year’s Cup.


No.1 Vancouver Canucks vs. No.8 Chicago Blackhawks

On paper, no team looks more impressive than the Canucks. They are No.1 in almost every important category: goals per game, fewest goals against, power play and penalty killing percentage, regular season standings, home record and road record.

So how will the Blackhawks beat the Canucks? They won’t and it will not even be close.

The Hawks are tired and worn out. Since 2009, Chicago has played a lot of hockey. They played 164 regular season games, 39 postseason games and if you throw in the Olympics, in which many key Hawks players played in, exhaustion is more likely what this team suffers from.

The Blackhawks will be back next year after a well-deserved rest. Sorry Hawks fans, this could be a sweep, but for the sake of the defending champions, I will say Vancouver wins in five games.

No. 2 San Jose Sharks Vs. No.7 Los Angeles Kings

For the first time in NHL history, all three California teams have made the postseason. The all California first-round matchup between the Sharks and Kings will have a hint of old time hockey. The series will physical and hard fought.

The Sharks were 3-1-2 vs. LA this year but only outscored the Kings by an 18-15 margin.

The playoffs are all about defense and so are the LA Kings. The Kings finished seventh in goals against and were fourth best at killing penalties. They do not score much and if Sharks goalie Antti Niemi starts to have visions of his run last year in Chicago, then LA’s season could be over fast.

Kings goalie Jonathan Quick seems to have the makings of being able to bust out in this year’s playoffs after being hammered by San Jose last year. However, he has no support in front of him, as Los Angeles is the worst offensive team in the post season.

Quick was not good last spring with a 3.50 goals against average and .884 save percentage in six games. He will be better this spring and will probably be better than Niemi.

The Kings offense was already anemic with Anzei Kopitar and Justin Williams. Now that both will be out, to me there is no way the Kings can win this series.

Quick and a stout LA defense could win two games, but look for San Jose not to repeat their misfortunes of two years ago when they lost in the first round to another California team.

In 2009, the Anaheim Ducks knocked the Sharks out in the first round after San Jose won the President’s trophy with 117 points that season. If they were healthier I would pick them, but they are not, so it is San José in six games.

No.3 Detroit Red Wings Vs. No.6 Phoenix Coyotes

After a thrilling Game 7 Red Wings victory over the Coyotes in the opening round of the playoffs last season, these two teams will do it again.

Both teams come into the first round in less than stellar fashion. The Wings have lost seven of their last 11 games and Phoenix has not been much better, losing three of their last four.

The Coyotes were in the middle of the pack in both goals for and goals against this past season. They were below average in penalty killing, ranking 26th, and not much better with the extra man, ranking 23rd in the league.

Without a prominent goal scorer, the Coyotes relied on balance. Phoenix had one player hit 20 goals this year (Shane Doan) while 10 Coyotes scored 10 or more goals last season.

Being a balanced and deep team may help the Coyotes in this rematch and if Henrik Zetterberg, who has already been declared out for Game 1, cannot return for the remainder of the series, the dessert dogs may just be able to pull the upset.

If Ilya Bryzgalov can post his career numbers in the playoffs (23 G, 2.23 GA .925 SP), then Phoenix wins. But that is a big if.

Without Zetterberg in Chicago for the season finale, Pavel Datsyuk showed just how valuable he really is. After all, this is the Detroit Red Wings and this is their 20th straight trip to the postseason.

Yes, health and age are issues, but that is the definition of experience in the NHL playoffs

Over that 20-year span, the Wings have exited just four times in the opening round that is once every five years if you are keeping score at home.

The last time the Wings lost in the opening round was five years ago to the Edmonton Oilers. Therefore, they are overdue for a first-round exit. Well, it will not be this year; the Wings will prevail once again and once again in seven games.

No.4 Anaheim Ducks Vs. No.5 Nashville Predators

They say defense wins championships and if that were the case in every scenario, then the Nashville Predators are the hands-down favorites to win the Cup this year.

The problem is, Nashville does not score and the difference in these two teams philosophies would be like comparing Charlie Sheen’s morals and scruples to Mother Theresa.

The Ducks have this year’s Rocket Richard Trophy winner in Corey Perry, who netted 50. Let us also not forget about the ageless 40-year-old wonder, Teemu Selanne.

Selanne had his best season since 2007 with 31 goals and 80 points. Nashville’s leading goal scorer is Sergei Kostitsyn, who had 23 goals this season. Kostitsyn and Martin Erat led the Preds this year with 50 points. That would have been good enough for fifth in Anaheim.

The Predators have everything you could ask for from a team to win a Stanley Cup defensively. They simply do not have enough on offense. Of all the playoff teams, only the Kings ranked lower during the regular season in terms of offense. While I do agree that defense does win championships, you still need some offense.

This is a notorious looking David Poile team. For many years in Washington, Poile assembled teams that were very good defensively, which translated into good regular seasons.

The lack of offense come playoff time killed the Capitals and hence their current reputation. With Poile at the helm and Barry Trotz on the bench, Nashville will meet the same fate as many of those Caps teams did.

Nashville may jump out to a 2-1, or 1-0 series lead, but once Anaheim is adjusted they will fly right past the Predators and win the series in six games.

Log in later today to view my Washington Capitals Vs. New York Rangers in depth preview.  I will break down each team and tell how and if the Caps will do this year what they could do not do last year, win as a No. 1 seed.




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