The Quest for the Stanley Cup starts tonight as the NHL’s exciting month of playoff action is set to begin this evening with 3 games on the schedule. Many of the usual suspects return for this season’s playoff run, including defending Stanley Cup Champions the Boston Bruins, so the next four rounds of do-or-die hockey should be pretty outstanding to watch. The matchups could also not get much better, as there is a first round series in the Eastern Conference that erupted in a brawl the last time the teams met (Flyers and Penguins on April 1st) and the second seeded Bruins facing a surging Washington Capitals team. The Western Conference also has great matchups, with Jonathan Quick (one of the top net-minders in the league) and the Los Angeles Kings trying to upset the top seeded (and defending Western Conference champion) Vancouver Canucks. The young St. Louis Blues will also try to defend their home-rink and take care of the veteran-laden San Jose Sharks in what should be a fun series. Without further ado here are the matchups and some of my thoughts on each series:
#1 New York Rangers (109 points) vs. #8 Ottawa Senators (92 points): The New York Rangers were the best team in the Eastern conference for almost the entire season, and with good reason. Rangers net-minder Henrik Lundqvist is on the verge of earning his first Vezina Trophy (given annually to the best NHL goaltender) after finishing a stellar regular season where he came away with 39 wins, a 1.97 Goals Against Average (GAA), and a .930 save-percentage. The top defensive pairing of Ryan McDonough and Dan Girardi definitely helped Lundqvist out, as the Rangers led the league in fewest goals allowed with just 187 on the year. New York can also score goals as speedy superstar forward Marian Gaborik finished with his second 40+ goal season in the past three years, and is joined by captain Ryan Callahan (29 goals) and new acquisition Brad Richards (25 goals). The Rangers have embraced coach John Tortorella’s style of play and are a tough team to beat when they play a disciplined, physical, structured brand of hockey that feeds on defense and capitalizing on the mistakes made my opponents.
Ottawa is a team with a tremendous offense this season, scoring a robust 249 goals, as the Senators forwards headed by Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and breakout phenom Milan Michalek helped produce the fourth most goals in the Eastern Conference this year. The Senators top defenseman can also get in on the scoring act as Erik Karlsson finished the year with 78 points, and the aging Sergei Gonchar is still an offensive threat even as he turns 38 years old on Friday. Goalie Craig Anderson will have his hands full with the Rangers forwards, but he finished with 33 wins, a 2.84 GAA, and .914 save percentage, and when hot he’s been absolutely terrific. Ottawa will need to get back in the defensive end and help out Anderson if they want to give the Rangers a scare in Round 1.
My Prediction: Rangers in 5.
#2 Boston Bruins (102 points) vs. #7 Washington Capitals (92 points): The Bruins are the defending Stanley Cup Champions and are looking to make the same kind of run that brought the Cup home to Boston last year. They have a tough first round matchup here with the Washington Capitals, as the Capitals won 3 out of the 4 regular season matchups between the two clubs. The Bruins are a club that is built from the back out as the undoubted leaders of the squad are goaltender Tim Thomas and captain defensemen Zdeno Chara. The Bruins are a team that plays hard-nosed defensive hockey and rely on their physical nature to force mistakes. The scoring for the Boston club is well-balanced as six players scored more than 20 goals (and Nathan Horton would have been the 7th to do so before suffering a serious concussion at the end of January). The Bruins will need to count on Brad Marchand, Tyler Seguin, Chris Kelly and David Krejci who all set new career highs for goals in a season, while Patrice Bergeron solidified his position as one of the elite two-way forwards in the league.
The Capitals have one major piece that they need to figure out before this series starts: finding a healthy goaltender. Washington’s defense is not overly physical, and with injury problems to the goalies on their roster a huge question mark is raised about this team. Thomas Vokoun has had a strong season while healthy and would be the preferred net-minder for Washington, but he currently has a groin injury and his availability is questionable. Michael Neuvirth is their backup goalie and has struggled at times and he also has a lower body injury which could limit his availability. That would leave the Capitals to third stringer Braden Holtby who has only 21 games of NHL experience. Winning in the playoffs is about having a goalie on a hot streak, so maybe one of these guys will step up. The star player to watch on the Capitals is their forward Alex Ovechkin who had an off-year for his standards but finished with 38 goals and a team leading 56 points. Alexander Semin has played well lately and is known for being particularly streaky in the postseason, so those are two guys that the Bruins will need to keep an eye on and contain over this series.
My Prediction: Bruins in 6.
#3 Florida Panthers (94 points) vs. #6 New Jersey Devils (102 points): The Florida Panthers earned the #3 seed by winning their first ever division title in franchise history. Their reward: a first round matchup with Marty Brodeur and the battle-tested New Jersey Devils. These teams split the regular season series 2-2, with New Jersey outscoring Florida 12-11 in those 4 games, so expect a closely contested series. First year New Jersey coach Pete DeBoer also has an axe to grind with the Panthers, the team who fired him just two seasons ago, which should make for an interesting subplot to this matchup. While the Panthers lack elite talent up front, they do have a strong defenseman presence with offensive minded defensemen Brian Campbell and Jason Garrison, and top defensive-minded veterans Ed Jovanovski and Mike Weaver. They also have a bona fide #1 goaltender in Jose Theodore who won 21 games this season, posted a 2.46 GAA and .917 save percentage, and brings postseason experience playing for Washington, Colorado, and Montreal during his NHL career.
The New Jersey Devils have a star goaltender of their own, Martin Brodeur, who is sure to be a key player in this series. Brodeur is the NHL’s all-time leader in games played, wins, and shutouts, and his next playoff win will be his 100th of his career. Offensively the Devils spread out their scoring, but they were led by forwards Ilya Kovalchuk (37 goals) and captain Zach Parise (31 goals). On special teams the Devils were the most dangerous shorthanded team this year, scoring 15 goals while a man down on the campaign. If that continues look for the Devils to advance to the second round.
My prediction: Devils in 6.
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins (108 points) vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers (103 points): Pittsburgh and Philadelphia will renew their rivalry for the state of Pennsylvania beginning tonight at 7:30 on NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus). This is the series (outside of the Bruins) that I am looking forward to most in the Eastern Conference, as these are two teams that really don’t like each other. This is the sixth time that these teams will matchup in the postseason (series is nicknamed the Keystone Showdown), with Philadelphia taking 3 of the first five series but Pittsburgh winning the two most recent in 2008 and 2009. On the forward lines, Pittsburgh has some of the most depth and talent, as Jordan Staal is a star that usually centers the Penguins third line. On the Penguins side they roll out Sidney Crosby (who most people know because of his concussion history), another star in Evgeni Malkin, and a less talked about star in James Neal who produced 40 goals and 41 assists on the year. In goal the Penguins present Marc-Andre Fleury who finished this season with a career high 42 victories.
The Flyers have some star power of their own. The trio of Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, and Jaromir Jagr are all game-changers on the Flyers top line, and the second line of Danny Briere, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn all can be threats when given space and time. The Flyers defensively employee very large men, as four of their top six defenseman stand 6’2” and 220 pounds or bigger. Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov will need to rebound from a poor postseason last year with Phoenix, so it will be interesting to watch how this team comes together during this win or go home postseason format.
My prediction: Penguins in 6.
#1 Vancouver Canucks (111 points) vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings (95 points): Throughout this season, Vancouver has been the team that has impressed me the most over the course of the year. Don’t get me wrong, I hate this team and the whiny Sedin sisters, but they have played some excellent hockey this year en route to finishing the season with the best overall record. Thankfully for fans of every other team in the league the Canucks have a date with one of the top defensive teams in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings. The Canucks have plenty of depth offensively, and may need it as the status of Daniel Sedin (concussion) is uncertain, but his brother Henrik, Maxim Lapierre, and trade deadline acquisition Samuel Pahlsson have been very effective this season. On the second line Vancouver touts Ryan Kesler who is one of the top two-way player sin the league.
The Kings are an offensively challenged squad and will rely heavily on goaltender Jonathan Quick. Quick led the league in shutouts while putting up a Vezina worthy season and would have had 40 victories on the year if he had an adequate attack. The L.A. Kings were among the top third-period shutdown teams which could be a solid indicator for the playoffs as every move is magnified on this stage. The Kings will need big series from Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Matt Richards, and Jeff Carter if they would like to advance to the second round, and I’ll be pulling for them to do some damage in this playoffs.
My prediction: Canucks in 7. (Hope I’m wrong)
#2 St. Louis Blues (109 points) vs. #7 San Jose Sharks (96 points): The Sharks have a plethora of playoff experience and are sure to provide the Blues with a scare in the first round. The Blues dominated this season playing a defensive brand of hockey with an opportunistic offense and will need to do continue that run if they would like to knock off the Sharks. Led by net-minder Jaroslav Halak who finished in the top seven in GAA, save percentage and shutouts, the Blues were able to get over the 100 point mark on the year. Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo also played a huge in role the team’s success, eclipsing the 50 point mark for the first time in his career since being drafted 4th overall in the 2008 Draft.
The San Jose Sharks feature three 30-goal scorers at forward, and also one of the top centers in the National Hockey League in Joe Thornton. Logan Couture is one of the top young talents in the league and finished with 31 goals and 34 assists and is a player that the Blues will need to keep a solid eye on. The Sharks also have a goaltender with previous playoff success as Antti Niemi played 22 games with the Blackhawks two years ago on their way to winning the Stanley Cup and an additional 18 games for the Sharks last year in making the Western Conference finals. While Niemi doesn’t rank among the NHL’s best statistically he is one of those players who rises to the occasion, so expect a nice surge from the Shark’s net-minder.
My prediction: Sharks in 7.
#3 Phoenix Coyotes (97 points) vs. #6 Chicago Blackhawks (101 points): The Coyotes are trying to their first second round appearance since moving to Arizona, and the Chicago Blackhawks are trying to return to stellar playoff form after being knocked out in the first round last year while attempting to defend their 2010 Stanley Cup victory. This is the first postseason meeting between the two teams. Phoenix is led in goal by 30 year old Mike Smith who recorded 38 wins and 8 shutouts this season and whose play has only gotten better down the stretch. Up front the Coyotes feature Radim Vrbata, Ray Whitney and Shane Doan, who provide the club with both experience and production. The Coyotes have a young defensive group sparked by Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle who can both get involved in the offense also.
The Blackhawks have some question marks in goal as neither Ray Emery or Corey Crawford have really stood out. Crawford looks like the top option heading into the playoffs, but his leash may not be too long. Chicago will really need production from their star center Jonathan Toews, who unfortunately has some issues of his own to deal with as he recovers from a concussion. Luckily for Chicago they do have some other firepower with Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa, but it would be a huge pickup if Toews is healthy enough to go in round 1.
My prediction: Coyotes in 5.
#4 Nashville Predators (104 points) vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings (102 points): The Nashville Predators are not used to this stage as much as the Red Wings players are. This is the eighth overall playoff appearance for the expansion Predators, and the third time that they will face Detroit. The Predators have lost both of the first two series with the Red Wings in 6 games, but this is the first time that the boys from Nashville will have home ice advantage for the series. The Preds have a Vezina trophy finalist in Pekka Rinne, who topped the league with 43 wins and posted a 2.39 GAA and .923 save percentage. On defense they also present Shea Weber (a Norris Trophy finalist), Ryan Suter, and penalty-killing and shot-blocking specialist 6’7” Hal Gill.
The Red Wings counter with two extremely solid scoring lines, with Henrik Zetterberg, Valtteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler on the first line and Pavel Datsyuk, enforcer Todd Bertuzzi and Johan Franzen on the second line. Franzen is the player to watch as if he gets hot the rest of the team will follow. Defensively the Red Wings still have the legendary Nicklas Lidstrom who will be limited by a deep bone bruise in his ankle. Jonathan Ericsson, Ian White, and rookie Brendan Smith will also be vital to the Red Wings success or failure in this first round matchup. Jimmy Howard anchors the Red Wings defense and is one of the top goaltenders when healthy, so if he can battle through recent groin and index finger injuries the Red Wings will be a tough out.
My Prediction: Red Wings in 6.
The entire 2012 NHL Playoffs will be very entertaining to watch, and I encourage you to check out these games when they are televised by NBC Sports Network and the traditional NBC. Nothing beats the drama that unfolds when any hockey playoff game goes into overtime, as every single second may be the last of that game or that series. My early prediction for the Stanley Cup Finals will be the New York Rangers meeting the Vancouver Canucks, but I really hope I’m wrong as those are the two teams I least want to see playing for the Cup. I’d love to hear your predictions or your thoughts on the NHL season as its unfolded to this point, so leave a comment here if you would like to discuss some hockey. Thanks for reading!