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Runs scored by Giants outfielder Hunter Pence, most in majors

2012 Stanley Cup playoff preview

Posted by Ron Opher On April 10

The NHL playoffs are a season unto itself. Two months of grueling action becomes a war of attrition.

But before you can think about winning the Stanley Cup, you have to survive the first round. Both of last year’s Stanley Cup finalists, Boston and Vancouver, had to survive seven-game series in the first round.

Ron Opher has all the angles covered in his in-depth previews of each series. Eric Fisher adds his own predictions at the end. Both agree that the Western Conference seems much more wide open than the Eastern Conference. But do they agree on the outcomes? Read the following previews to find out.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

RANGERS (1) vs. SENATORS (8)

The New York Rangers have been a consistent team all season, leading the Atlantic Division just about wire-to-wire. A resurgent season from Marian Gaborik (41G, 35A, +15), who finally is living up to his big free agent contract, and a decent season from this year’s free agent prize Brad Richards (25G, 41A) helped propel the Rangers to greater heights in 2011-12. Add the improvement of home grown talent in captain Ryan Callahan (29G, 25A) and defensemen Michael Del Zotto (10G, 31A, +20) Ryan McDonagh (7G, 25A, +25) to the stellar goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist (39-18-5, 1.97GAA, .930SV%) and you have the ingredients of a team poised to go far in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Each of the five Rangers’ defensemen who played in at least 50 games had a + rating, and the team had the lowest goals allowed (187) in the Eastern conference. As strong as the defense is, if there is a weakness on the Rangers, it’s a lack of scoring depth – only 3 players tallied 20 or more goals (though 9 did have 10 or more goals).

The Ottawa Senators by all accounts overachieved in 2011-12. Most experts, including both of us at PhillyPhanatics.com, picked them to miss the playoffs. But Ottawa challenged Boston in an otherwise weak Northeast Division, before falling off the pace in March and hanging on for the #8 seed, finishing 4-6-0 over their last 10 games and having the longest losing streak to end the season (3 games) of any playoff-bound team. You do have to respect Ottawa’s firepower (249 goals, 4th in Eastern Conference). They are led by four NHL All-Stars in forwards Jason Spezza (34G 50A), Milan Michalek (35G, 25A), captain Daniel Alfredsson (27G, 32A) and the NHL’s points leader at defense, Erik Karlsson (19G, 59A). As they score in bunches, the Senators have also given up the highest goal total among all playoff-bound teams (240). Interestingly, Ottawa is one of only 2 of the 7 Canada-based NHL teams to make the postseason (Vancouver is the other), so as much as rivals in Toronto and Montreal gnash their teeth, chances are the Senators carry the hopes of just about all of Eastern Canada as the playoffs get underway.

Analysis: The Rangers can neutralize the Sens’ potent offense and score the opportunistic goals they will need to advance. New York is also a far more physical team than Ottawa, and that aspect of the game becomes critical in the playoffs, when the ice seems to get smaller as every inch of territory is contested.

Upset probability: Low
Prediction: Rangers in 5

Eric’s analysis: The Senators could be dangerous, but probably not against the Rangers and their team-wide commitment to defense. Oh yeah, Lundqvist is pretty darn good in goal. If the Senators don’t win one of the first two games in New York, this series could be over in a hurry. Prediction:  Rangers in 5

*****

BRUINS (2) vs. CAPITALS (7)

The Boston Bruins seemed to sleepwalk through their season as defending Stanley Cup Champions, in a very weak Northeast Division. They toyed with Ottawa until well into March, but then threw it into another gear and beat the Senators by 10 points in the standings to claim the division title and an NHL-record 20th 100-point season (the Flyers are second with 19). What is most fascinating about the Bruins this season is their 102 points is tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference (their 40 regulation + overtime wins was also good for fourth), but their +67 goal differential led the entire NHL. Before we anoint the Bruins as a powerhouse, consider that their divisional record was 19-4-1, with 89 goals for and 52 goals against. The Bruins were 30-20-3 and +30 against the rest of the league — still very good numbers, but not dominant. Against Washington, the Bruins ended 1-2-1 in the season series.

Speaking of sleepwalking, the Washington Capitals, after normally finishing at or near the top of the conference, struggled all season and squeaked their way into the playoffs – not quite catching Florida for the Southeast division crown, but edging past Buffalo in the season’s last week to make the playoffs, claiming the #7 seed in a tiebreaker with Ottawa. Washington even fired head coach Bruce Boudreau and replaced him with former Capitals instigator Dale Hunter, who has brought the same mixed results as Boudreau in his tenure thus far. To be fair, the Caps have missed Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green for about half a season each. Both are back in the lineup, so there should be no excuses talent-wise, though something seems to be clearly missing. Maybe it’s a full commitment from Alexander Ovechkin (38G 27A, -8 in 78 games), who has noticeably slipped from among the league’s elite to simply a very good player. Ovechkin will have the opportunity to silence his critics beginning this week, though his critics figure to be right in the end.

Analysis: The Washington Capitals are a team looking for a push to get their off-season started, and the Boston Bruins will be glad to oblige. Washington is a team with a fragile psyche, and if the Bruins can capitalize on that by getting an early jump in the series, says here that the Caps will not recover. The more Dale Hunter exhorts his troops, the more they will tune him out. Expect some roster shakeup this summer, beginning with Alexander Semin, as Hunter looks out of place coaching a team with finesse but no heart.

Upset probability: Low
Prediction: Bruins in 4

Eric’s Analysis: The Capitals made a late surge to qualify for the playoffs and almost steal the Southeast Division title. With Tomas Vokoun (groin) and Michal Neuvirth (lower body) unlikely to be ready for the start of the series, Braden Holtby will be in goal against Tim Thomas. Advantage: Bruins. As with the Rangers-Senators series, if the Capitals don’t win one of the first two games in Boston, this could be a quick series. Prediction:  Bruins in 5

*****

PANTHERS (3) vs. DEVILS (6)

The Florida Panthers, like the Ottawa Senators, snuck up on a lot of people with their improved play. They ended up riding GM Dale Tallon’s offseason free agent spending spree all the way to the top of the Southeast Division — in turn riding career-highs in goals from newcomers Tomas Fleischmann (27), Kris Versteeg (23) and Sean Bergenheim (17) and the solid play of newcomers Brian Campbell on the blueline and Jose Theodore in the nets. The Southeast arguably deserved no teams in the playoffs, as every non-Southeast team in the NHL playoff mix had a + goal differential — with Washington at -8 and Florida at a league-worst -24 among playoff-bound teams. In fact, non-playoff teams Buffalo, Winnipeg, Montreal, Dallas and Colorado all had better goal differentials and Calgary had an identical one, meaning that the Panthers were tied for 20th in the NHL in goal differential (and also were in a 4-way tie for 20th with 32 regulation + overtime wins), but are seeded higher than the Penguins and the Flyers. What is wrong with this picture?

The New Jersey Devils avoided last season’s early swoon and were rewarded with a trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing the party in 2011. So what is the more accurate measure of this team — the Devils’ 102 points and league-leading 6-game win streak to end the season, or the Devils’ fourth-place in the Atlantic Division and 12 points accrued in shootout wins, leaving them sixth in the Eastern Conference in regulation + overtime wins (6 less than the Penguins, 7 less than the Flyers and 11 less than the Rangers)? The Devils had winning records in the regular season against only two playoff-bound teams from the Eastern Conference – the two teams seeded below them (Washington and Ottawa), so unlike the legitimate gripes of Flyers and Penguins fans with their seedings, the Devils are 6th seed on merit. New Jersey may look like second-class citizens as far as Atlantic Division teams go, but that won’t matter in Round One as they take on the equally mediocre Florida Panthers. Goalie Martin Brodeur (31-21-4, 2.41, .908) again leads the way, along with forwards Ilya Kovalchuck (37G, 46A), Zach Parise (31G, 38A), Patrik Elias (26G, 52A) and David Clarkson (30G, 16A). These are not the Devils of old, as they had 7 players with 17 or more goals, but also had 16 players on the roster with a minus rating, including 4 of their top 5 point-getters (all named in the last sentence). The Devils earn their keep on the power play, tallying 44 goals – 33 of which were scored by those same four players who led the team in goals.

Analysis: The Panthers are playing with the house’s money. Unlike the Capitals, who are looking to end their season, the Panthers figure to be resilient and keep playing right until someone tells them it’s over and it’s time to shake hands. Their 24 overtime games (including 6 in their final 9 games) were a league high, as were their 18 overtime/shootout losses. New Jersey likes to play overtime, too – and captured a league-high 12 shootout wins this season. Expect close, low scoring games and probably multiple overtime games in this series – but also expect the Devils, with superior goaltending and a playoff-tested lineup, to prevail in what might be the dullest series in the NHL’s first round with lots of time spent watching plays broken up in the neutral zone.

Upset probability: High
Prediction: Devils in 6

Eric’s analysis: Former Flyer Kevin Dineen guided the Panthers to their first playoff berth in 12 years. They open against the team that swept them out of the 2000 playoffs in four games, the New Jersey Devils. The Devils are coached by Pete DeBoer, whom the Panthers fired at the end of last season. Florida played poorly down the stretch and their goaltender situation, with Jose Theodore and former Devil Scott Clemmensen, is a bit unsettled. New Jersey is the best team nobody is talking about. Prediction:  Devils in 5 (That’s 3 series in a row on which Ron and I agree!)

*****

(4) PENGUINS vs. (5) FLYERS
also see Eric Fisher’s full-length series preview

I won’t talk much about the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ 108 points, second in the Eastern Conference, or their +61 goal differential, second in the NHL, or their 282 goals scored, tops in the NHL — and all accrued in the NHL’s strongest division. I won’t talk about the likely Hart Trophy winner, Evgeni Malkin (50G, 59A), or the return from concussion of Sidney Crosby. Instead I will muse about how an organization that clearly does not need to goon it up, chooses to do so anyway. In the season’s final week alone, the Penguins delivered two knee-on-knee hits on their top rivals (Joe Vitale on the Flyers’ Nicklas Grossmann and Brooks Orpik on the Rangers’ Derek Stepan — only Orpik was called, a major in a 4-1 game with under 5 minutes left). Vitale not only knocked Grossmann out for the regular season, he also knocked out Danny Briere with a nearly blind-side hit with just over a minute left in a game the Flyers were on the verge of winning handily, after Bylsma used the privilege of the last change at home to send out a thug-studded lineup. Let’s also not overlook “tough guy” Derek Engelland repeatedly trying to punch Wayne Simmonds in the face after Simmonds declined to engage Engelland due to over twenty fresh stitches to Simmonds’ face from a puck which hit him the day before. What is as disturbing as Dan Bylsma’s clear directive to win in every situation which presents itself (as he articulated very literally in front of NBCSN cameras after Saturday’s season finale in response to a question about Vitale’s fight with Harry Zolnierczyk) is the NHL’s WWE-like reaction to all this nonsense.

Yes, I know I will again upset our wrestling writer, Achilles Heel, but the NHL — rather than choosing to follow the NFL’s hard line on bounties — instead chooses to “smack down” those who speak out against the Penguins’ dirty play and clear targeting of players for injury. No one can deny that Grossmann is the Flyers’ top physical presence on defense, and that Briere has long been one of the league’s elite playoff performers, and had steadily elevated his game down the stretch until Vitale targeted him. Instead of fining and suspending Penguins’ players and coaches, the NHL handed a tepid $2500 fine to Penguins’ assistant coach Tony Granato, more for egging on Peter Laviolette’s in-game tirade (Laviolette was assessed a $10,000 fine after smashing a stick, climbing on the ledge of the boards and calling out Bylsma, then calling Bylsma “gutless” after the game) than for actually contributing to the on-ice hooliganism of his players. After Orpik’s dirty play on Stepan, Rangers’ coach John Tortorella was fined $20,000 for pointing out after the game that the Penguins are one of the most arrogant organizations in the league (they are), they whine incessantly in the name of protecting their two star players (they do) and yet they play as dirty as anyone in the league (they also do). Analyst Mike Milbury had similar comments on TV, and then was forced to apologize.

It’s one thing to have your star players coddled by the league, but the NHL does not need to protect the Penguins’ goons as well, who are clearly going after other teams’ players. Let’s throw in that by protecting Crosby and Malkin and the goons who hunt down opponents’ players on the ice, the league is by extension protecting hockey icon Mario Lemieux up in the owner’s box as well. It’s enough to make any fan of the other 29 teams sick and enough to have me openly question the integrity of the National Hockey League,  the league that brought you John Ziegler and, by extension, agent/inmate Alan Eagleson, by the way. It’s time to take a stand and point out that if the NHL wants to move out of the stone age and be perceived as a great sport, and not associated with a sport with concocted storylines and predetermined outcomes, the NHL needs to get serious about protecting the safety of ALL of its players.

Oh, yes, their is another team involved in the Flyers-Penguins series. The Philadelphia Flyers weathered an off-season roster turnover, 12 rookies in the lineup, the struggles of free-agent acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov in goal, and the season-ending (and career-threatening) concussion suffered by captain Chris Pronger – not to mention long absences of Andrej Meszaros and James van Riemsdyk to injury. The Flyers ended up with the third-highest point total in the Eastern Conference, an even more impressive achievement in light of the unbalanced schedule and playing in the incredibly difficult Atlantic Division. Their reward is a matchup on road ice against a team with a 5-pont higher total in the same division, the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Flyers have acquitted themselves very well against the Penguins, especially in Pittsburgh, where they won the first 5 meetings (all in regulation time) between the teams at the Consol Energy Center, before dropping a meaningless season finale there on Saturday. The Flyers also were tied with Boston for most road wins in the NHL (25).

Analysis: The Flyers are resilient. The Flyers will not be intimidated. But the Flyers have an annoying habit of falling behind in games (in the last 8 games against playoff-bound opponents, their opponent has scored first each time). They are likely to play effectively against the Penguins 5-on-5. But if the Flyers take too many penalties — and there is a legitimate question about whether after what we’ve seen in the season’s last week whether they can avoid that — the Penguins’ power play can expose the depleted and banged-up defense corps. A minute-long shift killing a penalty for a defenseman can take as much or more out of you as a whole period’s worth of shifts at even strength. And the defensemen called upon to kill penalties are the ones expected to log ice time against Pittsburgh’s top players 5-on-5 as well. The Flyers also gave up the third highest goal total (232) among playoff-bound teams. All that adds up to the Flyers having to weather yet another storm just to be able to advance in the playoff gauntlet that may force the 4-5 series winner to go through Boston and New York as well. It doesn’t look too promising.

Upset probability: Moderate
Prediction: Penguins in 6

(Dream scenario: Jaromir Jagr scores series-winning power play goal for Flyers in Game 6, with Joe Vitale and Evgeni Malkin in the penalty box. Dan Bylsma stands on dasher boards to complain and slips, landing on top of Sidney Crosby. Bylsma fined $50,000 by the league — not for complaining or making an ass of himself, but because he injures Crosby. Mario Lemieux personally hands Bylsma his termination in the Penguins locker room at the Wells Fargo Center and forbids him to get on team charter back to Pittsburgh. Nick Grossmann, Danny Briere and Wayne Simmonds personally escort Bylsma to Greyhound bus terminal, telling him that there were nominated by the Flyers to “take care of every situation that presents itself” and buy him a one-way ticket to Muskegon, where he fades into oblivion until people learn of his “Disco Dan” moniker, whereupon he is recruited by Dancing with the Stars, at which point in time he begins a second career as a WWE manager.)

Eric’s Analysis:  Finally! A series on which Ron and I don’t agree! Both teams have overcome major obstacles this season. The Penguins excelled despite Sidney Crosby playing in only 22 games and Kris Letang being limited to 51 games. The Flyers lost captain Chris Pronger, whose career appears to be over, as well as James van Riemsdyk, Andrej Meszaros and countless others with an assortment of concussions and other injuries. They survived because of the contributions of first-year Flyers such as Wayne Simmonds and Max Talbot and a host of rookies, led by Matt Read, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn. And let’s not forget the contributions of rookie defensemen Marc-Andre Bourdon, Erik Gustafsson, Kevin Marshall and Brandon Manning.  Unlike some teams, the Flyers will not be intimidated by the Penguins’ talent. They beat the Penguins four times this season, with and without Crosby.  A lot can happen during a playoff series, and the Flyers need to avoid unnecessary penalties, but nothing that happens during this series is likely to faze the Flyers. I also have a hunch that Bryzgalov is going to outplay Fleury, leading the Flyers to an upset of the Stanley Cup favorites. Prediction:  Flyers in 7

*****

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(1) CANUCKS vs. (8) KINGS

The Vancouver Canucks, one game short of hoisting the Stanley Cup last season, did earn a piece of hardware in 2011-12 — their second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy — with a 111-point season. For the third straight season, the Presidents’ Trophy went to a team that was the only representative from its division in the playoffs. In other words, all this trophy is starting to mean is that the winner is a good team in a bad division. In fact, the Canucks were nearly as dominant in the Northwest as the Bruins were in the Northeast, going 18-5-1 and winning by a margin of 75-42 (leaving them 33-17-8 and +18 against the rest of the league). Yes, Vancouver is loaded with talented players, including NHL assist leader Henrik Sedin (67A), his twin brother and left wing Daniel (30G, 37A, and expected to return from injury in time for Game 1), and another center-left wing tandem of Ryan Kesler (22G, 27A) and Alexandre Burrows (28G, 24A) up front. The defense corps is even better than last year, with the arrival of Dan Hamhuis (+29) to go with Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, Aaron Rome and Keith Ballard. Only Rome (-4 in 43 games) was a minus player among the defense, while only Manny Malhotra (-11), Maxim Lapierre (-3) and Dale Weise (-1) were minus players up front. In goal, the steady tandem of Roberto Luongo (31-14-8, 2.41, .919) and Cory Schneider (20-8-1, 1.96, .937) is poised for another playoff run.

The Los Angeles Kings, a chic pick to win the Pacific Division and make a deep playoff run, instead struggled to nose out the Dallas Stars and make the playoffs as the #8 seed. In fairness, the Kings were in the hunt for the division title all the way until the season’s last day. Los Angeles went 11-4-3 in March and April and seemed to find their form at the right time. The Kings allowed the second-lowest goals against in the NHL (179). They are by no means cannon fodder for Vancouver. On the other side of the coin, the Kings scored the second fewest goals in the NHL (194). Los Angeles only had 3 20-goal scorers (Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Dustin Brown) and 2 more 10+ goal scorers (Mike Richards and Drew Doughty). Add in Jeff Carter, who had 6 in 15 games as a King, but 21 overall, and maybe the Kings can ride the superior goaltending of Jonathan Quick (35-21-13, 1.95, .929) and terrific team defense to an upset. Rather than viewing the Pacific Division as weak like the Southeast, I view it as nearly putting 4 teams in the playoffs, without the benefit of what happened in the Central, where everyone got 100+ points at the expense of Columbus, the league’s worst team.

Analysis: The Western Conference is more tightly bunched 1-8 than the Eastern Conference. The very real possibility of an upset exists in each series. With most of the current Canucks playing deep into the playoffs last season, it is quite possible that fatigue and difficulty in matching last season’s intensity may both set in if the Kings can stretch this series out. With goals being tough to come by, Vancouver’s talent advantage may be negated by a combination of Jonathan Quick’s terrific goaltending, the gritty play of players like Dustin Penner and Mike Richards and the fickle bounce of the puck that sometimes proves insurmountable when chasing Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Upset probability: High
Prediction: Kings in 7

Eric’s analysis: Ron and I are on the same wavelength with this series. First, it’s awfully difficult for the loser in the Stanley Cup finals to make a deep playoff run the following year. Second, Canucks forward Daniel Sedin did not practice Tuesday – after having practiced Monday — as he attempts to return from a concussion. Third, Kings goalie Jonathan Quick had 10 shutouts this season. Fourth, the acquisition of former Flyer Jeff Carter has had a domino effect on the Kings, transforming them from the lowest-scoring team in the NHL to a decent scoring team (Carter is expected to return from a deep ankle bruise in time for the playoffs). Fifth, I picked the Kings to win the Stanley Cup before the season. I’m not so certain about the Kings winning the Cup, but I’ll pick them to pull off a first-round upset.  Prediction:  Kings in 7

*****

BLUES (2) vs. SHARKS (7)

The St Louis Blues were thought of by most as a playoff bubble team, not a powerhouse. But they brought in All-Star goalie Brian Elliott (23-10-4, 1.56, .940) in a deal with Ottawa, got the goaltending they expected the year before from Jaroslav Halak (26-12-7, 1.97, .926), made a commitment to defense under new head coach Ken Hitchcock (hired in November of this season to replace Davis Payne after a 7-8-1 start) and allowed a league-low 165 goals, capturing the Jennings Trophy as a result. Up front, power forward David Backes (24G, 30A, +15) leads the way, but right wing T.J. Oshie (19G, 35A, +15) also had 54 points in a breakout season. Veteran left wing Alex Steen (15G, 13A and a remarkable +24 in only 43 games) is another player to watch. A wildcard in providing scoring punch is the now-healthy Andy McDonald, who missed more than half the season with a concussion, then lost two weeks in March with a shoulder injury (this is sounding Danny Briere-like). McDonald tallied a sizzling 22 points (10G, 12A) in 25 games and could be a difference-maker in a balanced scoring attack with 11 players who scored 9 or more goals, but none with more than 24. Two of those 11 are from the backline – Alex Pietrangelo (12G, 39A, +16) and Kevin Shattenkirk (9G, 34A, +20), who scored 11 of their 21 combined goals on the power play. The “glue” on defense, however, is 10-year veteran (all with St. Louis) Barret Jackman, who tied a career high with a +20 rating, and is expected to help neutralize a potent Shark attack.

The San Jose Sharks are a top-heavy team, which has not generally proven to be a good thing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Three 30-goals scorers who play together (Logan Couture-31, Joe Pavelski-31, Patrick Marleau-30) on one line strikes fear in most opponents, but perhaps not the Blues. The second group of forwards includes top talents Ryane Clowe (17G, 28A) and Martin Havlat (7G, 20A in only 39 games), centered by Joe Thornton (18G, 59A). Havlat was acquired in the off-season, along with defensive stalwart Brent Burns (11G, 26A, +8, 81 games) from Minnesota for Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi. Many, including me, thought that trade would propel the Sharks to being a better defensive team, and in turn a better team overall. Burns, who hasn’t disappointed, is joined by ex-Bolt Dan Boyle (9G, 39A, +10, 81 games) and stay-at-home type Marc-Edouard Vlasic (4G, 19A, +11, 82 games) as the only Sharks defensemen to play in more than 66 games. The revolving door at the 4-6 defense spots is what holds the Sharks back. Arguably, 2010 Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi is overworked (68 games – a career high, 34-22-9, 2.48. 915), which is another concern heading into the playoffs.

Analysis: The Blues were 4-0 against the Sharks this season, outscoring them 11-3.  On the surface, it looks like an intriguing matchup of defense against firepower, even though the Blues only scored 18 fewer goals than the Sharks.  St. Louis was a phenomenal 30-6-5 at home this season, while San Jose was a pedestrian 17-17-7 on the road this season. Home ice also figures to factor prominently because each game’s outcome could very well be determined by line matchups, with the Sharks wanting to get some space for their scoring threats, but perhaps only able to do that at home with the last change at faceoffs. On the other side of the ledger, Ken Hitchcock has not led an NHL team out of the first round since the post-strike salary cap era (losing with the Flyers to Tampa Bay in 2003-4 in his last deep run). St. Louis is not playoff tested, while San Jose is. The question is whether the factors pertaining only to this season should be more relevant, or whether trends and factors that go beyond this season will rule the day. As much as I picked the Sharks to win the Cup, their inconsistent play this season is hard to overlook, especially in contrast to the Blues’ even-keeled dominance.

Upset probability: High
Prediction: Blues in 7

Eric’s analysis: The Blues were the NHL’s surprise team this season, battling for the Presidents’ Trophy until the final days of the regular season. But the Blues didn’t play very well the final week or two of the regular season. Had they faced the Kings, I would have picked the Kings to upset the Blues. The Sharks are a playoff-tested team, but they’ve often failed that test. The Blues’ 4-0 mark against San Jose is also difficult to overlook. I like the Blues’ balance, depth and Ken Hitchcock-inspired commitment to defense over the Sharks’ superior star power. Goaltending is a bit of a concern, but I like the Halak-Elliott tandem better than Niemi. Prediction:  Blues in 6

*****

COYOTES (3) vs. BLACKHAWKS (6)

The Phoenix Coyotes, contrary to popular belief, did not shrivel up and die after Ilya Bryzgalov left town to sign with the Flyers. Instead, Phoenix picked up Tampa Bay castoff Mike Smith, whose prior career high in games played was 42, and rode Smith for 67 games, a 38-18-10 record, and career bests in GAA (2.21) and SV% (.930). Smith’s 3 playoff games last season in relief of Dwayne Roloson were his first NHL playoff games, so how he will fare in full-time duty under the playoff spotlight is an open question. So, too, is who will play behind Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the blueline. Both Yandle, an All-Star who has played in all 82 games 3 seasons running and Ekman-Larsson, who hit the 82-game mark in this, his second NHL season, need more consistent play from their defensive mates, none of whom played in more than 64 games. Up front, Radim Vrbata lit the lamp 35 times, while Ray Whitney (24G, 53A) and Shane Doan (22G, 28A) also provide some firepower. The key player in the whole series, however, may be ex-Canuck instigator Raffi Torres (15G, 11A). Torres was on board Vancouver’s playoff train last season, and led the Coyotes in penalty minutes this season, with 83. If there is a guy who can get under Chicago’s skin and kick the Blackhawks in the proverbial shins, it’s Torres. Sometimes, you have to flash a nasty attitude to show you can go toe-to-toe with a championship-caliber team.

The Chicago Blackhawks are now two seasons removed from their Stanley Cup win. Last season, they played lackluster hockey, nearly missed the playoffs, went down 3-0 to the Canucks in the opening round before rallying to tie the series, only to lose to Vancouver in 7. Therefore, last season was a lesson in how not to show up late, turn it on, and expect positive results. Then again, maybe not – Chicago went 12-2-4 over its last 18 games, losing only to the playoff-bound Predators and Blues in regulation since February 26. Familiar names grace the top of the scoring list in Chicago – Hossa (29G, 48A), Sharp (33G, 36A), Kane (23G, 43A) and Toews (29G, 28A in only 59 games). Toews’ availability for Game 1 is in question, but he did practice Monday. Victor Stalberg added a career year (22G, 21A), while Dave Bolland tied his career high in goals (19). On the backline, stalwarts Duncan Keith (4G, 36A, +15) and Brent Seabrook (9G, 25A, +21) were joined by ironman Nick Leddy. Leddy and Kane were the only Blackhawks to play in all 82 games, though Leddy had an alarming -15 rating. Overall, the Blackhawks gave up the second-highest number of goals (238, behind only Ottawa’s 240) among playoff-bound teams. They will also scramble to finish off their defense corps with the likes of Niklas Hjalmarsson, Steve Montador and trade deadline acquisition Johnny Oduya. In goal, Corey Crawford (30-17-7, 2.72, .903) and Ray Emery (15-9-4, 2.81, .900) don’t inspire much confidence.

Analysis: Most experts are still blinded by the Blackhawks’ star power. After all, Chicago is only two years removed from a Stanley Cup win. But their depth is suspect, and their goaltending is shaky. A team that can’t keep the puck out of the net will have problems in the playoffs. Mike Smith may succomb to playoff pressure himself, but he has shown no indication of doing so this season, and participated in a Game 7 conference finals run last season, so he should be ready to go. Raffi Torres knows what it takes to beat the Blackhawks in the playoffs, and will likely factor prominently in this series’ outcome.

Upset probability: High
Prediction: Coyotes in 7

Eric’s analysis: Once again, Ron and I are on the same wavelength.  I’m guessing Tampa Bay wishes it had kept Mike Smith around in case Dwayne Roloson couldn’t duplicate his amazing 2010-11 season (he couldn’t). I was leaning toward the Blackhawks, but the injury to Toews scares me. I can’t overemphasize how important he is to Chicago’s chances.  The Coyotes are a team that doesn’t get much attention, but Shane Doan is a terrific captain and Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney form a dynamic scoring duo. Plus, Smith gives the Coyotes an edge in goal. Prediction:  Coyotes in 7

*****

PREDATORS (4) vs. RED WINGS (5)

The Nashville Predators are built around their two top defensemen and their goaltender. Even after losing Dan Hamhuis to the Canucks via free agency, Shea Weber (19G, 30A, +21, 10 PPG) and Ryan Suter (7G, 39A, +15) lock down opponents and chip in significantly at the offensive end of the ice. Goalie Pekka Rinne (43-18-8 in 73 games, 2.39, .923) elevated his game in last season’s playoffs to elite status. The Predators acquired huge defenseman Hal Gill and checking center Paul Gaustad at this season’s trade deadline after acquiring the steady Mike Fisher (a/k/a Carrie Underwood’s husband) at the 2011 trade deadline. With all the draft picks swapped out, and with Suter an unrestricted free agent and Weber a restricted free agent next season, there is no doubt that the future is now in Nashville. The question with the Preds, as always, is where will the goal scoring come from. Aside from Fisher’s 24G 27A, mainstays Martin Erat (19G, 39A) and David Legwand (19G, 34A) supply most of the offense, though sniper Patric Hornqvist tallied 27 goals (his third straight 20+ goal season) and four other forwards (Sergei Kostitsyn-17, Colin Wilson-15, Matt Halischuk-15 and Craig Smith-14) all cashed in with 14 or more. One of these four may be this season’s Joel Ward (7G, 6A in 12 playoff games in 2011 after a 10G, 19A regular season over 80 games). Ward left for Washington via free agency. Also keep an eye on Alexander Radulov (3G, 4A in 9 games), who returned to Nashville after 3 seasons in the KHL and battled injury to finally get on the ice down the stretch.

The knock on the Detroit Red Wings year after year is that they are old. Somehow, they must be adding new players since their string of consecutive playoff appearances has now hit 21 seasons — starting one year before Nicklas Lidstrom’s arrival. After giving up a league-high 241 goals among last season’s playoff teams, the Red Wings shaved that total down to 203, while still hanging in with the conference leaders in goals scored (248, tied with Chicago and 1 behind Vancouver). Detroit featured 11 players with 11 or more goals, led by Johan Franzen (29), Jiri Hudler (25), Valtteri Filppula (23) and Henrik Zetterberg (22). Pavel Datsyuk (19G, 48A) was limited to 70 games. Amazingly, only Tomas Holmstrom (-9) and Niklas Kronwall (-2) were a minus among all the regulars. Nicklas Lidstrom bounced back from a -2 campaign in 2010-11 (the only minus of his career) to post a +21 and his 17th double-digit goal-scoring season, pulling ahead of Paul Coffey’s 16, but still trailing Al MacInnis’s 19. All-Star Jimmy Howard (35-17-4, 2.13, .920) mans the nets for the third straight season.

Analysis: The teams split the season series 3-3; Nashville posted a winning record against each of the other Central Division teams. Detroit has knocked out Nashville twice in the first round of the playoffs (in 2004 and 2008 — here we are again 4 years later). Nashville’s head coach Barry Trotz has seen it all. He’s in his 14th season as the only head coach the Predators have ever known, and got to the second round for the first time last season. In contrast, the Red Wings have not lost in the first round since the first post-lockout season of 2005-2006, when their 124-point, Presidents’ Trophy-winning team was stunned by the 8th-seeded Edmonton Oilers. Head coach Mike Babcock has not allowed complacency to set in ever since. Home ice may very well be the key factor in this series — the Red Wings had the second-worst road record (to Washington) of all playoff-bound teams, at 17-21-3, and dominated at home (31-7-3). Nashville had the second-best road mark in the Western Conference (22-16-3), so they won’t likely be intimidated playing at The Joe. While I have picked each Western Conference series to go the distance, this one — like the 4-5 Flyers-Penguins series — is the only one in the West to feature division rivals, and will likely be the most intense series in the conference.

Upset probability: High
Prediction: Predators in 7

Eric’s analysis: The Predators were one of my preseason picks to reach the Western Conference Finals, but they draw the talented Red Wings in the first round. The Red Wings have superior firepower and a good defense. But the Predators also have a fine defense. Weber is fantastic. Suter isn’t too far behind. Rinne gives the Predators an advantage in goal against every team except the Rangers. Detroit is tough, but the Red Wings were a much better home team than road team this season. The Predators have home-ice advantage in this series. Advantage: Nashville. Prediction:  Predators in 7

*****

Looking ahead…

Eastern Conference semifinal: Rangers over Devils, Penguins over Bruins.

Eastern Conference final: Rangers over Penguins

Western Conference semifinal: Blues over Kings, Predators over Coyotes

Western Conference final: Predators over Blues

Stanley Cup final: Rangers over Predators

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