-By Bill Duke
Now that the pesky regular season is over, it’s time for the NHL to finally get down to business. The playoffs start tomorrow night, so without further ado, here are some predictions for what to expect this spring.
1 San Jose vs 8 Colorado:
I’ve said it before, this just feels like San Jose’s year. In much the same way Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings flopped repeatedly in the playoffs until finally breaking through and hoisting the Cup, this Sharks squad has paid their dues and should now have the necessary experience to finally get over the hump. So long as Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle step up their games (as they’ve both done in playoffs past) the Sharks should breeze past Colorado without breaking a sweat.
If you’re one of those people who put a lot of stock into how a team ends the regular season, then you have to feel good about San Jose’s 8-1-1 record down the stretch. But if the Sharks have an Achilles’ heel, it might be the fact that Evgeni Nabokov has choked both in last year’s playoffs (.890 save percentage) and at this year’s Olympics (.853 Sv %). It’s a concern, but Nabby hasn’t always been a big-game choker. The good news is that San Jose, and Nabokov, may have finally timed their late -season slump so as to allow it to pass prior to the first round.
PICK: SHARKS IN 4
2 Chicago vs 7 Nashville
I still don’t know how Nashville does it. This team should, by all accounts, suck. And yet, here they are, back in the playoffs once again at the expense of teams with real top shelf talent such as Calgary, Anaheim and Dallas. Perhaps the Predators’ greatest asset is their discipline; they finished the regular season with by far the fewest penalty minutes against (710 mins, compared with the Lightning, who finished at the other end of the spectrum with 1377). Some of that advantage is mitigated by the fact that the Preds’ powerplay finished 24th in the league at 16.4 %. But enough about Nashville…the Blackhawks are a deep, talented team and are a real threat to not only win the conference, but to be the last team standing this June. Their only red flag? Once again, it’s between the pipes.
Youngster Annti Niemi was fine in the regular season (and perhaps even great down the stretch) but his lack of experience might be the Hawks’ undoing, though not in the first round.
PICK: BLACKHAWKS IN 5
3 Vancouver vs 6 Los Angeles
Make no mistake, the Canucks are Canada’s best chance to bring the Cup north of the 49th. That said, their blue line is banged up and their first round draw is a frisky, young team capable of blitzkrieg-ing even the best team to death. I’m already starting to sound like a broken record, but goaltending is, once again, a concern.
Roberto Luongo has been terrible down the stretch, and despite the fact he has come up big in playoffs past, he has also been prone to mental lapses. He has been known to follow up a fantastic playoff performance with a total airhead special.
The Canucks are the ultimate wild card in this year’s playoffs. They could win it all, or they could go down with a nary a whimper.
PICK: CANUCKS IN 7
4 Phoenix vs 5 Detroit
Poor Phoenix. They tally more than 100 regular season points, give San Jose all they can handle in the race for the division title, and their reward is a date with last year’s conference champions. Detroit has been one of the best teams in hockey since Christmas, posting a 23-10-8 record in the second half and an 8-1-1 mark in their last 10. They are peaking at the right time and have no obvious weakness. Phoenix is a nice team, and they might even be able to steal a series or two if Ilya Bryzgalov stands on his head (which he’s done consistently this year). But their work is certainly cut out for them.
The only argument against the Wings making noise in the playoffs this time around is the fact that they are an older team that has gone to back-to-back Cup finals. Those extra games, plus the Olympics, have to be taking a toll on guys like Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Brian Rafalski. Still, the tired legs likely won’t show up in round 1.
PICK: RED WINGS IN 6
Conference Championship: 1 San Jose vs 2 Chicago
It may be a tad bit convenient to choose the top two seeds to meet in the Conference Championship, but that is exactly what I’m going to do. Give the nod to San Jose, whose leaders gained invaluable experience at the Olympics this February. Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Dan Boyle and, to a lesser extent, Joe Thornton all played integral roles in Canada’s gold medal run. This is the year San Jose finally wins the West.
PICK: SHARKS IN 7
1 Washington vs 8 Montreal
By every measure, Washington is the best team in hockey. They won the President’s Trophy by 8 points, were the only sqaud to top 300 goals, led the league in goal differential (+1.05 per game), had the top power play in the NHL and took the 8th fewest penalties. They boast two 100-point scorers and the league’s top scoring defenseman.
The only problem? C’mon, you know what it is…I’ll give you one guess…it rhymes with “shmoalbending.”
Word is the Caps are going with Jose Theodore as their game one goaltender. That’s a mistake. Semyone Varlamov was by far the better goalie in lats year’s playoffs and was the slightly better goaltender (5.3 GVT to Theodore’s 5.2) in this regular season. He deserved the chance to open the postseason between the pipes. Factor in that the Caps will be playing at least two games in Montreal Bell Centre, a virtual house of horrors for Theodore, and Bruce Boudreau’s decision becomes a real head-scratcher.
PICK: CAPITALS IN 5
2 New Jersey vs 7 Philadelphia
I don’t care that Philly won the season series 5-1. I really don’t. New Jersey finished with the second-best goal differential in the East and boast one of the most decorated netminders in the history of the game. They may not be the highest scoring team in the world, but they do have two bona fide gamebreakers in Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. They also were the only team in the league to surrender fewer than 200 goals this season (191).
After two straight first round losses (and an Olympic benching) Martin Brodeur has something to prove for the first time in a long time. I’m certainly not going to bet against a future Hall of Famer with a chip on his shoulder.
PICK: DEVILS IN 6
3 Buffalo vs 6 Boston
The Sabres are a tough team to figure out; they look like world-beaters on one night and shrinking violets the next. While the Sabres don’t really wow you in any way, they also don’t have any glaring weaknesses. Their blue line was though to be thin this year, but the emergence of likely Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers made that concern an afterthought.
Buffalo also happens to boast a man who may just be the most indispensable player in the entire league.
Despite the fact he looks somewhat like a heroin addict, goaltender Ryan Miller should capture the Vezina trophy this season and single-handedly led Team U.S.A. to the brink of a gold medal at the Olympics. It’s Miller time in Buffalo, and if Ryan is on, the Sabres will be a tough out.
PICK: SABRES IN 7
4 Pittsburgh vs 5 Ottawa
This has all the makings of a close series. Like Detroit, the Pens have not only been to back-to-back Cup Finals but sent a bunch of key players to the Olympics. Their legs may wear out after a series or two. As for the Senators, it’s nice they’ve returned to the big dance this season, but they are ultimately a mediocre club that would have failed to qualify had they spent the season in the Western Conference. A negative goal differential, terrible powerplay and rather porous defense means Ottawa’s return to glory will be short-lived.
PICK: PENGUINS IN 6
Conference Championship: 1 Washington vs 2 New Jersey
Oops, I did it again – I went chalk in my Conference Championship pick. But really, when every Tom, Dick and Harry out there is picking Detroit and Pittsburgh, I think my selections are totally justifiable. I expect that the Capitals’ firepower will be enough to solve the Devils’ outstanding defense. As for the Capitals’ goaltending situation? Expect Theodore to bomb out and be replaced by the superior Varlamov after a couple starts in round 1.
PICK: CAPITALS IN 6
Stanley Cup Final: 1 San Jose over 1 Washington
Sharks over Caps is the same prediction I made way back in January, and I see no reason to change my mind now. Washington’s run-and-gun style will play just fine against Eastern foes, but the West was a superior conference that played more physical hockey all year long. The Capitals won’t be able to take a full series of Western-style banging.
San Jose has paid their dues, but the Caps need a little more seasoning before they will be able to break through the glass ceiling.
PICK: SHARKS IN 6
-You can read more of Bill’s work at DukingItOut.com