By: Chris Dagonas
The NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin tonight, with three Western Conference match-ups: Chicago vs Minnesota, St. Louis vs. Los Angeles, and Anaheim vs Detroit. The shortened season led to some surprises, such as the Leafs making the playoffs (ha-ha) and Tampa Bay featuring the top two scorers, yet still finishing second last in the Eastern Conference. Today, we’ve got the Same Page playoff preview, including predictions for the first round match-ups.
(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs (8) Minnesota Wild
We already mentioned Chicago in a column earlier this year, so I won’t dwell too long. We are talking about the Stanley Cup Champions of a mere 2 years ago. Patrick Kane ended the year as the fifth best scorer in the league, with Jonathan Toews in the top 15. Ray Emery and Corey Crawford form an almost-impossible-to-beat goaltending duo. They currently sit third and fourth, respectively, in Goals Against Average. The Hawks are young, which means they’re built for the grind of playoff hockey, and their goaltending duo means they don’t rely too heavily on one goalie. If one struggles, the other is more than capable of providing above-average backstopping. They can roll four lines and have a solid defensive corps.
Can Minnesota stop them? Even slow them down? Niklas Backstrom (no, not that Nicklas Backstrom) posted a less than stellar 2.48 GAA this season, on a team that, for the most part, disappointed its fans. You may remember that the Wild added two all-stars, left wing Zach Parise and defenceman Ryan Suter. They held up their end, finishing first and third in points, respectively, but this team struggled on defense (they’re the only team in this year’s playoffs with a negative goal difference), and it will ultimately be their undoing.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 5
(2) Anaheim Ducks vs (7) Detroit Red Wings
Anaheim has had a very under-the-radar second place finish. It could be that they play on the west coast, and most of their games begin around the time I’m getting ready for bed (I get up early for work, OK?), but I always found myself surprised when I’d see Anaheim so high in the standings. Nevertheless, they feature all-world centre Ryan Getzlaf, and two young snipers in Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. On the negative side, a good deal of their secondary scoring this season came from guys who were in NHL 2000, namely Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne, and Sheldon Souray. This has been a short season, and Selanne has proven himself capable of steady playoff performance. However, Selanne was a -10 player this year. That is a problem, as Selanne can’t be trusted right now in high-stakes even strength situations, which is what the playoffs are all about.
Anaheim also has a conundrum in goal. Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth split duties this season, both with respectable outcomes. When it comes to the playoffs, however, who does Boudreau go with? Fasth has the better measurables; lower GAA, higher save percentage, more shutouts. Hiller has the playoff experience that can be important when the pressure mounts. It must be nice to have two great options, but the Ducks’ fortunes could rest on who is between the pipes.
Did someone say playoff experience? Meet the Detroit Red Wings. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are point-a-game players and perennial all-stars, and Jimmy Howard provides security in goal. Without Niklas Lidstrom, the Wings turned to Nik Kronwall for calm, stable Swedish leadership on the backline. He had a very good offensive year, but he also finished as a minus-5. When your best defender is a minus player, you may have a problem on defense. Look for 25-year-old defender Jakub Kindl to step up and try to put the shackles on Getzlaf. If he can have some success, the Wings have a chance.
Prediction: Ducks in 7
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs (6) San Jose Sharks
How important was the return of Ryan Kesler earlier this month? In just 17 games played this season, Kesler became the Canucks second-best scoring centre. He finished the season at a minus-5, but he was regaining his strength and conditioning for most of April, so he gets a pass on that. Remember that Kesler was the 2011 Frank Selke Award winner, which is a nice defensive bonus, given that his game also features plenty of offensive skill. A Kesler vs. Joe Thornton matchup could end up resembling a war, with the two of them banging and crashing each other all over the ice. The Sedin twins will perform as consistently as always, the defensive corps is steady and experienced, and Corey Schneider will get the nod over Roberto Luongo in net. Kesler will be the X-factor for the Canucks.
The Sharks have been a playoff mainstay for about a decade, but they are on their way to a rebuilding phase in the next few years. Thornton is now 33, Patrick Marleau is 32 and Dan Boyle is 36. Young star Logan Couture is an excellent player, but the team will need to find a few more fellow youngsters to build around, and may be looking to trade their veterans in the next season or two. Goaltender Antti Niemi shared the league lead for wins, with 24, and boasted a very good .924 save percentage. Meanwhile, this season, the Sharks were not very good on the road this year, amassing a record of 8-14-2. Playoff teams need to be able to play successfully on the road as well as at home, especially since the 6th-seeded Sharks will likely be the road team throughout their playoff run. Their road struggles will probably be enough to sink the Sharks, and this could be the last time for a while that the Sharks are featured in a playoff article.
Prediction: Canucks in 6
(4) St. Louis Blues vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings
The Blues are an interesting team. They don’t feature a dominant scorer, or even scoring line, and are full of scrappy young players that can play on both ends of the ice. They’re simply average at both offense and defense, and their goaltender, Brian Elliot, is a bit of a journeyman who has found a home in St. Louis. On paper, this doesn’t really look like a playoff team, but they were very solid both at home and on the road.
The Kings are the defending Stanley Cup Champions, and it is usually a very rough path for defending champs to repeat. Having an extra long recovery period helped the Kings, and they retained most of their championship roster. Most of their key players are in their mid-to-late twenties, which means they have the stamina required for the playoff grind. While the Kings can score a ton of goals, their unsung hero this season has been rookie defenseman Jake Muzzin. He led the team with a plus-16 rating, and will be relied on to squash the Blues’ attack. Last year, Jonathan Quick was unbeatable throughout the spring, but he struggled this year to return to that form. Without Quick’s outstanding play, the Kings will have little chance to repeat. Like the Sharks, the Kings also struggled on the road, but they also sport the league’s best home record. I predict that the home team will take each game.
Prediction: Blues in 7
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs (8) New York Islanders
Pittsburgh ended the year with the second-most points, and tied for most wins with Chicago. Remarkably, they have no overtime or shoot-out losses this season. They have been missing Sidney Crosby for just over a month, but have gone 8-4 without the world’s best player, showing they are more than a one-trick pony. Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin are more than capable of shouldering the load until Crosby returns, which could be later in the first round. This Penguins team is not spectacular defensively, but that shouldn’t hinder their progress until the later rounds, if at all.
The New York Islanders are the only team in this year’s playoffs with a sub-.500 record at home during the regular season. This can be a problem, particularly if Pittsburgh take their first two at home. Home ice should be a fortress in the playoffs, and if the Islanders can’t be trusted to defend their home ice, then they will fall quickly. The Islanders will rely on John Tavares and Matt Moulson, but don’t have enough fire power or defensive presence to stop the Penguins’ attack.
Prediction: Penguins in 4
(2) Montreal Canadiens vs (7) Ottawa Senators
As a Leafs fan, I am predisposed to rooting against Montreal in every circumstance. A Leafs-Habs matchup would have been a spectacular example of playoff hockey rivalry at its finest. Alas, it was not to be, and the Ottawa Senators, by defeating the Boston Bruins on Sunday evening, earned the 7th spot and the Canadiens match-up. It will be all the more gratifying, then, to be able to explain why Montreal will fall to Ottawa in the first round. The Habs are limping into the playoffs with a 4-6 record in their last 10. They don’t have a take-over-the-game kind of star, and goalie Carey Price has just come off his worst statistical season since his rookie year. If I were a Montreal fan, I’d be extremely nervous about this match-up.
What if I told you that the league’s second-best defensive team was the Ottawa Senators? Mind blown? I thought so. Vezina candidate Craig Anderson has been the biggest reason that the Senators have made it to the playoffs. Playing almost the whole season without elite defender Erik Karlsson, and with a slew of other injuries, seemed like a daunting task, but the Senators persevered and pulled off an impressive season. Even better, Karlsson is back, having played 27 minutes on Sunday night. This could be the big upset of the first round.
Prediction: Senators in 7
(3) Washington Capitals vs (6) New York Rangers
Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps are red-hot, setting a blistering pace through the month of April. Ovechkin finished third in scoring, and can score against any defense. Mike Ribeiro and Nicklas Backstrom (the other one) provide plenty of secondary scoring, and 22-year-old John Carlson has emerged as the defensive counterpart to Mike Green’s offense on the blue line. Goalie Braden Holtby emerged as a star during last year’s playoffs, posting a 1.95 GAA and .935 save percentage. If he can repeat that performance, the Capitals have a chance to stay hot and go deep this spring.
Who is Derek Stepan? The Capitals, and the hockey world, are about to find out. The 22-year-old blossomed into Manhattan’s best hockey player, and that’s saying a lot considering the star power of Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Henrik Lundqvist. As a plus-25, Stepan provides defensive cover, and will likely be in charge of handling Ovechkin’s line. His performance at his own end will make the difference in this series.
Prediction: Capitals in 7
(4) Boston Bruins vs (5) Toronto Maple Leafs
This has been a disappointing season for the Bears. While they were outstanding at home, they were merely average on the road, and have only won 4 of their last 10 games. On the plus side, they were a stellar defensive team, with potential Vezina candidate Tuukka Rask manning the pipes, and Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg combining to create a formidable defensive pair. Much more was expected of the Bruins, but their struggles would be forgiven if they made it late into the spring, which is a realistic possibility.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04. Back then, they were a veteran squad that relied heavily on Mats Sundin, Alex Mogilny, and other experienced thirty-somethings. This time around, the Leafs are an exciting young team, led by a group of early twenty-somethings in Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, and yes, even Nazem Kadri. Not only is Kadri the team’s second-leading scorer, he is also second in plus-minus, meaning he is playing well on both ends of the ice. In net, James Reimer started the year slowly, but has found another gear lately and appears to be peaking at just the right time. They probably would have preferred to draw the Canadiens in Round 1, as Boston usually has little trouble with the Buds.
Prediction: Boston in 6
We’ll be back at the end of the first round with a second-round preview. Until then, sit back with your Molson Canadian, your nachos and dip and your itchy playoff beard and enjoy the show!
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