The Fanzine Sports Desk NHL Playoff Preview
Here’s a fun fact: Two California teams qualified for the 2012 National Hockey League Playoffs, which is the same number of Canadian teams to qualify.
Chin up, though, ye Great White Northerners: your sole Western Conference entrant, the Vancouver Canucks, is on many a shortlist to take the Cup (not mine, though). Not only did the Canucks make a late run and capture the President’s Trophy (awarded to the team with the best regular-season record), but there’s this: a belief that a team has to experience heartbreak before tasting the ultimate sweetness of a champion. The Canucks have done that both historically, as a franchise (they’ve made the finals three times since their inaugural 1970 NHL season, losing all three); and specifically, for this incarnation of the team (last year, the Canucks lost thanks to some Jeckyll-and-Hyde goaltending by Roberto Luongo). Sorry, Vancouver, I think you are in for more heartache (but no more riots, please, hmm?).
While the seeding format of the NHL playoffs make it pointless to predict specifics after the first round (there is no bracket, per se: after the first round, the four teams remaining in each conference are again ranked best to worst, and the highest seeded team remaining plays the lowest-seeded team remaining), what follows are a series-by-series prediction for the first round.
New York Rangers (1) v Ottawa Senators (8)
At the risk of misusing this term, I’m going to say that, with all due respect to Ottawa, Occam’s Razor applies here. That is, the most obvious outcome—i.e., the Rangers winning handily—will happen. Four of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams are from the Atlantic Division, arguably the best in hockey right now. It would be hard to imagine that the team that topped this donnybrook of a division won’t beat the second fiddle in the weak Northeast division, which includes also-ran train-wrecks Montreal, Toronto, and Buffalo.
The Rangers won the Eastern Conference this year because of stellar goaltending, a season-long consistency, and a top-down, team-first-ethos, that included a berserker’s dedication to shot-blocking and fighting for team-mates (neither of which I’m a fan of, but that is another story; I mention these only to illustrate the all-for-one attitude). The Rangers—suddenly—are a home-grown and young dynasty, blooming right before our eyes. (Every G.M. in the league inquired about the Rangers young defensive corp at the trade deadline). Their best players, winger Marian Gaborik and G Henrik Lundqvist, have played like their best players. Big-ticket off-season signing Brad Richards was slow to start, but of late, has shown flashes of the puck-handling, play-making brilliance he was brought in for. Captain Ryan Callahan is, game in game out, worth the price of your cable bill: a controlled dynamo who hits, blocks shots, scores goals, and even bleeds for the team. Add to this a supporting cast of role players, (including Martin Biron, one of the best backup goaltenders in the league) and five solid defensemen, and you have a team that expects to go deep into the playoffs.
Ottawa’s points leader, Jason Spezza, is always a threat, but goalie Craig Anderson’s goals against average (GAA) is almost a goal more than Lundqvist’s (2.83 v 1.93). It’s a cliche, but goaltending generally wins a playoff series.
Pete’s Prediction: New York in 5.
Boston Bruins (2) v Washington Capitals (7)
Last year’s champions begin the long road back against probably the easiest opponent in the East. I say easiest because, despite their wealth of individual talent, the Washington Capitals suck in the playoffs. They haven’t figured it out. Alexander Ovechkin hasn’t figured it out. Mike Green hasn’t figured it out. Alexander Semin doesn’t really care. The only guys who know how to play playoff hockey are Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich. Maybe Nicklas Backstrom will get it this year since he seems to be the key for consistent offensive success, even for (actually, especially for) Ovechkin. The “Great 8,” one of several obsequious nicknames the Capitols’ fawning home-r announcers love, had better wise up and start realizing that the way to playoff success is not hanging out by the fucking blue line in your own end just because you’ve been backchecked into oblivion the whole game by opposing forwards. Also, I hated Dale Hunter as a player and I hate him now as a coach. There, I said it.
Boston will need Tim Thomas to get back into last year’s form. It was a short summer for them and the guy will turn 39 in a week, so one has to wonder. The giant Zdeno Chara will keep the crease clear for him, but might be well-served to throw a few high shots in the direction of opposing players’ heads with that 108mph slap shot. David Kreiji needs to stay healthy as Nathan Horton is already done for the season, but Boston still has Milan Lucic who packs plenty of vinegar and skill, and if the well-horned Brad Marchand can do what he does best—namely pester the hell out of the other team, draw penalties, and score timely, backbreaking goals—the Bruins will make it through this series with relative ease. The question is how much left they have in the tank for the long road ahead.
Mike’s Prediction: Bruins in 6
Florida Panthers (3) v New Jersey Devils (6)
This matchup perfectly illustrates why I loathe the NHL playoff seeding system. The leader of the weakest division in each conference gets the automatic third seed which usually sets the stage for typical NHL-inspired lunacy, like the sixth seed actually being a better team than the third seed. Congrats, then, to the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils, who finished the season with eight more points than than their third-seeded opponents from sunny Florida. The Pride of Newark finished on a six-game winning streak, though why they would want to jeopardize their gift of a sixth seed is a mystery. Be that as it may, this one will be a snoozer, with both teams employing that scourge of the 90s, the deadly-dull trap. Home-ice advantage aside, the Panthers don’t seem like much of a threat to the Devils: Florida’s goal-differential is a minus-24, and they scored the second-fewest goals of the eight playoff-bound teams. Not a promising stat, when you are facing Martin Brodeur.
Sure, Marty is not the Marty of five or fifteen years ago, but he remains a solid presence in net, chalking up another 30+ win season. RW David Clarkson netted 30 goals to go with 138 penalty minutes, timeless and classy C Patrik Elias tallied 78 points, and Ilya Kovalchuk played up to his team-leading contract with a team-leading 83 points (and as a throw-in, one fighting major, against the Flyers).
Pete’s Prediction: New Jersey in 6
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) v Philadelphia Flyers (5)
The epic bloodbath that was supposed to happen this weekend between these two teams ended up being a bore-fest highlighted mostly by Joe Vitale destroying Harry Zolnierczyk in a fight in the first period. Their previous game seemed to better set the stage for the war that will be their playoff series, with Vitale taking out two Flyers, coaches arguing on the bench, coaches whining in the press, coaches getting fined by the NHL, Sidney Crosby whining about a cheap shot. Yeah, there’s lots of bad blood between these two teams, but at least Flyer forward Scott Hartnell knows how to play to the crowd.
Despite the injuries both teams suffered throughout the season, they actually match up well in terms of skill and temperament. The Flyers will have to stay disciplined as the Penguins have a lethal powerplay consisting of Kris Letang, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, and Chris Kunitz doing the dirty work in front. And the Penguins are finally healthy at the right time. They are excellently coached by Dan Bylsma and have the league’s best penalty kill. They are solid up and down the lineup and happen to have a couple guys named Crosby and Malkin, two guys who love to pad their point totals against the Flyers. The Penguins also have Jordan Staal, an excellent two-way forward who could be a number one center on a different team, but is instead relegated to third line here; Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik anchor a solid defense in front of Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Philadelphia Flyers lost their all-important edge this past week: access to DeeJays barbeque ribs. In the meantime, they are trying to recover from injuries that have plagued them all year. The Flyers are without veteran dman and King of Post-Season Snarl Chris Pronger as they have been for most of the year. With defensemen Andrej Meszaros and Niklas Grossmann, and forwards Danny Briere and James Van Riemsdyk all injured, the outlook agains the Pens may look pretty grim. However, for the Flyers, who’ve lost the most man-games to injuries next to the Penguins, this is nothing new. Sean Couturier, picked 8th in the 2011 draft only because he had mono earlier in the year, is emerging as a quality defensive forward who can play important minutes. Matt Read, Eric Wellwood, Eric Gustafsson, and Brayden Schenn are all rookies who can play. The emergence of Claude Giroux as the team’s number one guy makes up for disappointing seasons by Briere and Van Riemsdyk, and summer acquisitions Max Talbot (a former Penguin), Jaromir Jagr (future HOFer, and former Penguin of course), Jakub Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds have shored up the lines. Briere will need to find his usual playoff game, or find a bus ticket.
Although we expect much bloodshed, goaltending is going to be the ultimate difference maker here. The Flyers’ Ilya Bryzgalov finally found his way out of the woods and back to his game in March, when he was named the NHL’s number one star, before getting sidelined by a chip fracture in his foot and sitting for three games. Flyers fans wait with bated breath to see which Bryzgalov comes to play next week: will it be the Bryz of March, or the horrendous Bryz of December-January when Flyers fans were dreaming of a buyout clause in the new CBA? He had an uneven playoff series last year with Phoenix, but he seems to have found his confidence and his game in Philadelphia. In order for the team to move on, he will have to back in Bryzness. But none of this will ultimately matter because…
I predict both teams will beat the hell out of each other this series and will have little left for the second round. The persistent and well-crafted animosity has seethed like caustic bile through every facet of each game for the last several years and is going to boil over now. Buffalo Sabres fans take note: this is what a real rivalry with the Philadelphia Flyers looks like. This not a series to be missed, even if you hate both teams.
Mike’s Prediction: Philadelphia in 7
Vancouver Canucks (1) v Los Angeles Kings (8)
This series might be one of those cases where a dangerous 8-seed takes a vulnerable 1-seed (the Canucks’ top-of-the-league status notwithstanding). Why vulnerable? Vancouver ply their trade in the weak Northwest division, where they were the only team to qualify for the playoffs. In division play they compiled an 18-5-1 record (only Boston did better against their own division). If I was a Canucks fan, I would never again trust Roberto Luongo between the pipes; if the big man didn’t believe in karma before, he must certainly now. To wit, after posting a 1-0 shutout in game 5 on home-ice during last year’s Cup final, Luongo snarkily pointed out how the game’s lone goal came when his Boston counterpart, Tim Thomas, got caught out of net. The following game in Boston, Luongo was yanked eight minutes in, after allowing three quick goals. Boston won the Cup in game 7 in Vancouver by a 4-0 score. Riots ensued. That’s karma for you.
Water under the bridge, though, right? Except that backup netminder Cory Schneider had a better season, besting the nominal #1 in both save percentage and GAA; Schneider started 33 games, too, a large enough sampling to show this is more than just a statistical anomaly. Then there is LW Daniel Sedin, whose jaw happened to occupy the same time and space as the sharp elbow of Black Hawks’ Duncan Keith. A concussion resulted. The concussed-twin Sedin is supposed to return in time for Game 1, but who knows with head injuries? Plus, he’s been out since mid-March and might need a few games (or weeks) to get his legs and timing back.
The Kings are far superior in net, presenting one of the best goalies in the NHL in Jonathan Quick, who pitched 10 shutouts, and posted otherworldly numbers in both save percentage (.929) and GAA (1.95). The Kings don’t score a lot of goals—only 194 this season, least of the eight playoff teams—but they make up for it at the other end, allowing only 179 goals, the second-lowest total of the eight playoff teams. The big Yugoslav, Anze Kopitar, led the team in goals, assists and scoring. If he has a good series, and some of those other Kings’ dormant weapons kick it up a notch (talking to you Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, et al), it might be enough for the Kings to sneak through. Go California!
Pete’s Prediction: Los Angeles in 6
St. Louis Blues (2) v San Jose Sharks (7)
This is probably the easiest pick for me in the whole first round: the San Jose Sharks stink in the playoffs. They always have and always will until they get rid of Joe Thornton. They have average to subpar goaltending with Anti Niemi and Thomas Greiss. The aforementioned Thornton and Patrick Marleau are perennial disappointments in the post-season, but they might feed off of Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture’s energy because for some reason it takes kids who want to win to motivate the veterans who’ve never won a Stanley Cup. Defenseman Dan Boyle will need to put pucks in the right net this year.
The best thing the St. Louis Blues did this season was fire coach Davis Payne and put Ken Hitchcock in his place. The defense-first Hitchcock has won an incredible 43 games out of 69 since then. The Blues have one of the strongest goalie tandems in the post season with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot and one of the more underrated offenses in the league. Under Hitchcock, the Blues are a disciplined, counter-attack team that will make you pay for your mistakes, and with the Sharks you better believe there will be a lot of them. St. Louis will be a force this post-season and should go far.
Mike’s Prediction: St. Louis in 5
Phoenix Coyotes (3) v Chicago Black Hawks (6)
This series is another case where the 6-seed actually has a better record than the 3-seed. Phoenix won the Pacific Division (and therefore the 3-seed) with 97 points, whereas Chicago is battle-tested coming out of the tough Central Division where they earned 101 points. A four-point regular season separation is mighty close to call for the playoffs, so what’s a pundit to do? Coin toss. Right now, I’m going to flip a coin and then make the case for my winner. Here we go: Heads Phoenix, tails Chi-town. Heads it is, I’m picking Phoenix.
Why? Long-time captain Shane Doan is a difference maker, and I always rather liked D Michal Rosival when he patrolled the Rangers blueline. I’m a grudging fan of Raffi Torres too, as long as he plays under control. I remember being amazed back in the 2007 Cup finals, watching Torres tear-ass around the ice hitting every ‘Cane that stuck his head out of the bunker during the 2007 finals. He was with Vancouver last year, so has important finals experience (albeit, twice on the losing side).
Chicago will be hurt by the questionable status of stud Jonathan Toews, another NHL star knocked out by a concussion. The Hawks still have a decent core from their Cup win two years ago (Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane, Dave Bolland, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp) but their goaltending is spotty at best.
Pete’s Prediction: Phoenix in 7
Detroit Red Wings (4) v Nashville Predators (5)
The Red Wings are always a playoff powerhouse. Their euro-centric style can be dazzling but controlled by tight checking and physical play, but the amount of pure skill the Wings possess can sometimes render that useless. Pavel Datsyuk will always be the great two-way forward he is and easily burn you for highlight-reel plays. He’s the likeable Sidney Crosby. Henrik Zetterberg, along with the Rangers’ Ryan Callahan, is probably everything one would want in a team captain. Johan Franzen goes all David Banner in the playoffs and becomes the hockey version of The Hulk (or in his case, The Mule). The defense is anchored by 41-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom who is still easily one of the best in the game, and if one thought Niklas Kronwall was a mean motherfucker in the regular season, get ready for a post-season Kronwall-ing and keep your damn head up for god’s sake. Goalie Jimmy Howard absolutely needs to stay healthy because the Predators have a big advantage in that category.
The Predators have quietly assembled one of the most underrated playoff teams and have excellent goaltending in Pekka Rinne and defense with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, both of whom will be highly-sought after free agents this summer. So there’s a lot of urgency to this team to make the most out of this opportunity. The addition of hulking defenseman Hal Gil was a smart move at the trade deadline and gives them more of a snarl on the backline, plus Gil has plenty of playoff experience (plus a Stanley Cup). You won’t see any superstar names among the Predators’ forwards, but you will see two Kostitsyns, a Hornqvist, and a Goc. It won’t always be pretty but their workman-like attitude cannot be taken for granted. Getting Alexander Radulov back from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League late in the season can’t hurt either. I also enjoy the fact that coach Barry Trotz has eyebrows reminiscent of the Flash Gordon character Ming the Merciless. That’s what they’ll need in this series.
Mike’s Prediction: Nashville in 7
art by Danny Jock