Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Best Time of Year: The Playoffs

It’s every hockey fans favorite time of year and now that the brackets are set, I will be offering my real predictions for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Starting with the west, the top seeded Vancouver Canucks take on their playoff kryptonite the Chicago Blackhawks. The San Jose Sharks, looking to get back to the Conference Finals and farther play in-state and Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Kings. The perennial favorite Detroit Red Wings are in for a 2010 rematch with the Phoenix Coyotes, and the Anaheim Ducks will face off against the Nashville Predators.

In the east, the first place Washington Capitals look to get on the right track as they start out against the New York Rangers. Last season’s surprise, the Philadelphia Flyers will play a familiar playoff foe in the Buffalo Sabres. The Northeast Division winning Boston Bruins take on Original Six rival Montreal Canadiens and the Pittsburgh Penguins take on the high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning.

1. Vancouver Canucks v. 8 Chicago Blackhawks – These teams have a history together, as the Blackhawks have been the team responsible for knocking out the Canucks in each of the last two Stanley Cup Playoffs. This time around the Canucks are the heavy favorites after completing their best regular season campaign in their history and winning the President’s Trophy.

 In goal, the Canucks have the decided edge as Roberto Luongo goes head to head with rookie Corey Crawford. I’m still not convinced in Luongo’s big game abilities and this is a big year for him to show the world he’s ready to play on the big stage. Crawford is a question mark because despite his regular season numbers, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are an entirely different story. If Crawford can be this years Antti Niemi for the Hawks, this series could be a lot closer than Canucks fans would like to see.

Chicago is probably the only team the Canucks did not want to see in the playoffs this year and for good reason. They have an explosive offense led by Toews, Kane, and Hossa, and if they can clamp it down defensively they will be a very tough team to beat.

The Canucks, led by the Sedin’s, Alex Burrows, and Ryan Kesler are equally dangerous up front and they may arguably have the second best defensive corps in the league. This should be a hard-fought, hate-filled series that could go the distance.

My Prediction: Chicago in 6.

2. San Jose Sharks v. 7. Los Angeles Kings – Another series that’s sure to be a thriller. Anytime a playoff matchup takes place between two division rivals, let alone from the same state, you can count on a brutal physical series. These two teams don’t like each other one bit and it will show on the ice.

The Sharks are going to need production from their big three, something they haven’t had much of lately in the post season. Joe Thornton seems to have the inability to perform in the playoffs and if the Sharks want to get back to the Western Conference Finals he will need to step it up. Patrick Marleau has had an incredible year with 37 g and 73 pts that he looks to continue into the second season. Dany Heatley is the other member of the Sharks big three and it’s imperative he returns to his 06-07 playoff form when he helped the Ottawa Senators get to the Stanley Cup Finals.

 With Anze Kopitar out for the entire playoffs and Justin Williams perhaps missing a few games, the Kings may struggle to score goals. Defense and stellar goaltending from Jonathan Quick will have to be major factors if the Kings want to win this series.

My Prediction: San Jose in 7.

3. Detroit Red Wings v. 6. Phoenix Coyotes – A rematch of last year’s first round matchup that the Red Wings won in 7 looks to be less thrilling this time around.

In my opinion, Phoenix is outmatched in every aspect of this series except goaltending. Ilya Bryzgalov will have to stand on his head if he wants to get his Coyotes out of the first round this year, and that may be asking a little too much. I think Bryz gives his team a chance to win each game but the lack of scoring for the Coyotes coupled with the inability of their defense to stop wave after wave of Red Wing attack leads to a short series this year.

Not to mention, the Red Wings transform into a completely different team come playoff time, and they will be way too much for the Coyotes to handle.

My Prediction: Detroit in 5.

4. Anaheim Ducks v. 5. Nashville Predators – The Ducks come into this series with perhaps the hottest player in the NHL right now in Corey Perry. Perry scored 20 goals in his final 22 games to reach the 50 goal mark for the first time in his career. Perry and linemates Ryan and Getzlaf may be the scariest unit in the entire league.

Aside from that top line, however, the Ducks don’t have much to offer. The series may be decided by the play of Jason Blake, Saku Koivu, and Teemu Selanne on the second line for the Ducks.

Predators defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter may have something to say about all that though. Those two are the key for the Predators along with Vezina candidate Pekka Rinne. If the Predators can shut down the Ducks top two lines and Jonas Hiller can’t make it back in time to mind the net for Anaheim, I see Nashville advancing past the first round for the first time in their history.

My Prediction: Nashville in 6.

1. Washington Capitals v. 8. New York Rangers – Washington tweaked their style of play this year to prepare them for a long run this spring. For the second time in a row the Caps finish on top of the Eastern Conference and draw the 8 seed in the first round.

Last year it was the Montreal Canadiens who rode the stellar play of Jaroslav Halak to a game seven victory to put an end to the hopes of a Stanley Cup in Washington. This year, the Caps will have to beat Henrik Lundqvist, arguably the best goalie in the game.

As a Flyers fan, I am very familiar with the New York Rangers, who play a frustrating game to say the least. The Rangers goal is to block every shot their opponent takes and if they can’t, they let King Henrik clean up their mess.

The big question marks in this series are can Michael Neuvirth take his AHL postseason success and transfer it onto the big stage? And, are the Capitals good enough defensively to win a grueling series this year? Last time these two teams met in the postseason, two years ago, the Rangers got the early jump but ended up losing the series in 7. This time around, I don’t see the Caps being as fortunate and I think the Rangers frustrate the Capitals and stymie their offense and squeak out a win in game 7.

My Prediction: Rangers in 7.

2. Philadelphia Flyers v. 7. Buffalo Sabres – For the ninth time in team history, the Flyers will take on the Buffalo Sabres in the playoffs. These two teams met just the other week, a game which saw the Sabres win in overtime to clinch a spot in the playoffs.

The season series was split 2-2 this year, each team winning and losing on home ice. The last few weeks the Flyers have not been playing their brand of hockey and it has shown with pathetic efforts and embarrassing performances against some of the league’s worst teams. That all will change come Thursday.

The Flyers are built for the playoffs and there will be a drastic difference in their game once the second season begins, especially if they can get Chris Pronger back for game one. Despite the Sabres edge in goal with Ryan Miller, I think Sergei Bobrovsky will make a statement with his play and silence his critics, instilling hope in the Flyers faithful that they have indeed found their goalie. If the Flyers can play to the potential I know they have, I don’t see this one being much of a contest.

My Prediction: Flyers in 5.

3. Boston Bruins v. 6. Montreal Canadiens – "So we meet again." These two teams know each other well with their rivalry dating back to the Original Six days. Boston is a lot bigger and a lot stronger than the Habs, who rely mainly on speed to win their games.

Carey Price will have to step up to the plate and match the play of likely Vezina winner Tim Thomas. If the Habs can shut down the Bruins offense and use their speed to go around the Bruins, it should be an interesting series.

The Bruins undoubtedly still have a bad taste in their mouths after the way they exited last year’s tournament. This is going to be perhaps the most grueling series in the first round and I don’t expect anything less than 7 games to decide it. With that, I’m going with the good ol’ Habs to come out on top.

My Prediction: Canadiens in 7.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins v. 5. Tampa Bay Lightning – I wonder if the Penguins know just because Crosby is practicing doesn’t mean he can impact the series, he actually has to play for that to happen.

If Sid the Kid doesn’t come back for the first game or so of this series, the Penguins may find themselves in a hole too deep to get out of.

Steven Stamkos is sure to light it up in his playoff debut, while Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier both have plenty of postseason experience. If Crosby doesn’t return, these three look to be too much to handle for the mediocre Pens defense.

My Prediction: Lightning in 6.

So, there you have it, my predictions for the first round.

If these come true, it would set up a San Jose/Chicago Detroit/Nashville matchup in the west, and a Flyers/Rangers, Lightning/Canadiens matchup in the East. If that’s the case, my pick for the 2011 Stanley Cup Champions are the Philadephia Flyers (maybe a little biased). I really don’t see any team being able to beat the Flyers if they perform like I know they can. Either way, I can’t wait for the puck to drop on the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Here are Thomas Krulikowski's Picks for Round 1
Canucks in 5
Sharks in 6
Detroit in 6
Nashville in 7

Capitals in 7
Flyers in 5
Bruins in 6
Lightning in 6

From all of us here at ZelePUCKin, Good Night and Good Hockey!

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