Playoff Preview and Predictions
By Scott Lowe
1 Capitals vs. 8 Rangers
An angry Capitals team, embarrassed by last season’s early playoff exit and two blowout losses to the Rangers this year, will be too much for New York to handle. Lundqvist may steal a game – or even two – but no more. Washington’s new defense-first style combined with its offensive depth will frustrate the Rangers, who probably hope to get under the Caps’ skin and sit back until opportunities present themselves. The Caps will take lessons learned in last year’s loss against a Montreal team that played a similar style to what the Rangers figure to present and use them to roll to victory in five games.
2 Flyers vs. 7 Sabres
This series seems to be one that a lot of people are picking as a potential upset for a few reasons. First, the Flyers have just not played well lately, dropping to second in the conference after appearing to have the top seed locked up. Part of their struggles can be attributed to the absence of top defenseman Chris Pronger and faceoff specialist Blair Betts, both of whom may return to action in this series. Another reason people are picking against the Flyers is goaltending. Sergei Bobrovsky is young and has never had to withstand the pressure of the NHL in April, and Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton are career journeymen. Yes, the latter two contributed to last year’s playoff run, but this year Philly is the hunted, not the hunter. Third, there always seems to be a 7 vs. 2 upset. I was originally going to jump on the anit-Philly bandwagon, but the more I break down the matchup, the more confident I am that the Flyers will prevail. They have too much depth up front and are too solid defensively to fall to a team that really has been carried by one line the last few weeks of the season. There also are big holes in the Buffalo defense. Ryan Miller will be good enough to overcome those holes for part of the series, but Philly’s depth will wear the Sabres down and the Flyers will win in seven.
3 Bruins vs. 6 Canadiens
Montreal’s injuries on defense (Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges) and lack of scoring punch are concerning. Carey Price’s poor playoff showing last year and late-season swoon this year are concerning. Recent Montreal performances against the Bruins in important late-season games are concerning. Still, it’s the Habs and Bruins, so anything can happen. Boston just seems to be too deep up front and usually is more than willing to slug it out and make the game ugly, something Washington at times was not willing to do in its upset loss to Montreal a year ago. And to top it off, the Canadiens are up against the league’s top statistical goaltender in Tim Thomas, who posted a sparkling 2.00 GAA and a modern-day record .938 save percentage. The Bruins’ special-teams balance also was impressive throughout the season, as they ranked seventh in the league in both power play and shorthanded situations. But they have struggled on the power play (10.4 percent) since acquiring extra-man quarterback Tomas Kaberle from Toronto. If those struggles continue, and if Price returns to his first-half form, the Habs have a chance. In the end the Bruins are too balanced and will win in six.
4 Penguins vs. 5 Lightning
Pittsburgh has really bought into the up-tempo, physical systematic approach that Jack Adams Award-candidate Dan Bylsma has preached all year. The Penguins’ play without superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin has been nothing short of miraculous. It’s almost as if they’ve been on a mission to show people that they can be successful without those guys. To be that successful, however, has taken maximum effort every night out. Pens' forwards Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy have emerged as the team’s most consistent on a nightly basis, while “first liners” such as James Neal and Alexei Kovalev have struggled. Neal and Kovalev have combined for three goals in the 39 games they’ve appeared in since being acquired, although both scored several key shootout goals to help Pittsburgh earn important standings points. There are no shootouts in the playoffs, however, and a deeper look into the numbers shows that the Penguins earned just 13 regulation wins in 41 games played without Crosby. Of course if Crosby pulls a Willis Reed and returns at any point in this series it could prove to be the shot in the arm Pittsburgh needs. Pittsburgh’s offensive lineup (Neal, Letestu, Kovalev, Kunitz, Stall, Kennedy, Dupuis, Talbot, Asham, Rupp, Adams, Conner and maybe Comrie) just doesn’t appear to be one that’s built for a serious Cup run and doesn’t match up with Tampa's forwards (Stamkos, St. Louis, Malone, Gagne, Lecavalier, Downie, etc.). The Pens are clearly more solid on defense and should have the advantage in goal, but at some point you have to score goals to win four games. Tampa wins this one in six.
1 Canucks vs. 8 Blackhawks
Who would’ve thought that the defending champs would be carried for much of the year by rookie netminder Corey Crawford and end up backing into the playoffs? Salary-cap personnel losses and injuries to key players has turned Chicago into an ordinary team, but they still have a core group that knows what it takes to play deep into the playoffs and win a championship – just the thing that the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks lack. Don’t be surprised if the Blackhawks steal one early on adrenaline, but at the end of the day, Vancouver has a Jennings Trophy-winning duo in goal, possibly the deepest defensive unit in the NHL and one of the deepest and most talented forward groups in the league. It will be too much for Chicago. Vancouver wins in six.
2 Sharks vs. 7 Kings
San Jose has been the hottest team in hockey during the second half, suffering just six regulation losses in its last 37 games. The Sharks also have the experience of coming within one step of the finals under their belts, while the Kings are missing their top offensive threat in Anze Kopitar and another key forward in Justin Williams. Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and the goaltending tandem of Quick and Bernier will make it tough on the Sharks, but at some point the Kings will run out of answers for Marleau, Thornton, Heatley, Couture, etc. If Los Angeles was at 100 percent the Kings could pull this one out, but as it stands the Sharks will win in five.
3 Red Wings vs. 6 Coyotes
Detroit continues to succeed thanks to an unprecedented level of professionalism, veteran savvy, superior coaching and simple, yet fundamentally sound hockey. The Red Wings, particularly without injured Henrik Zetterberg, are not the daunting offensive machine of years gone by. They still have Pavel Datsyuk, who has battled injuries this year, rugged Thomas Holmstrom and skilled Johan Franzen to plug in on the first line, but the supporting parts such as a declining Todd Bertuzzi, a far-past-his-prime Mike Modano, an inconsistent Jiri Hulder and an old Kris Draper aren’t striking fear into anyone. Darren Helm, Danny Cleary, Valtteri Filppula and Justin Abdelkader are solid younger role players, but this simply is not your father’s powerful Detroit lineup. Perhaps most telling is that Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom is second on the team in scoring with 62 points, but is an uncharacteristic minus-2 for the year. Detroit is still solid defensively with Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart, but goaltender Jimmy Howard (2.79, .908) is no match for Phoneix’ Ilya Bryzgalov. The Coyotes are not an explosive offensive team, led by veteran Shane Doan’s 60 points and Norris-candidate Keith Yandle’s 59, but they are balanced and play a solid defensive game. This series should be low scoring, so with Bryzgalov more likely to make up for his squad’s mistakes, this one will go the distance with Phoenix advancing in seven.
4 Ducks vs. 5 Predators
Talk about the opposite end of the hockey spectrum. The high-flying, high-scoring Ducks featuring snipers Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and Teemu Selanne, each with better than 70 points, against the conservative, defensive-minded Preds, whose highest scorers each have 50 points. Still, Nashville owned the regular-season series, going 3-1 vs. Anaheim and netting 17 goals. Much like the Washington-New York matchup, however, those results don’t necessarily make sense when compared to the teams’ bodies of work. Both teams should be on top of their games, having fought hard to advance from the playoff fringes to the middle of the pack in the last few weeks, so this one should prove to be quite a high-speed chess match. The series features Anaheim’s third-ranked power play against Nashville’s No. 5 penalty-killing unit. Pekka Rinne has played at a near-MVP level for the Preds (2.12, .930), and along with a solid defensive group featuring Norris-candidate Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and up-and-coming Cody Franson (pus-10), should provide a stiff challenge for the talented Anaheim forwards. The Ducks’ goaltending situation will keep this one interesting and allow the Preds to counter-attack and stay in games. They say defense wins this time of year, and that’s exactly what’s going to happen here. Nashville wins it in seven.