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Predictions off the Cuff – the 2nd Round Begins

In Hockey on April 30, 2010 at 2:02 pm

– by Ryan Wagman

The first round of the 2009-2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs was fascinating, enthralling and humbling. Sometimes all at once and sometimes in turn. At The Campbell and the Wales, Bill and I both made the same core selections from the first round and now we are both forced to look at the next round with a new slant, especially for the Eastern (Wales) Conference. We both aced the West and flunked the East.

Most importantly, I learned a lesson. Maybe re-learned would be more appropriate. Nevertheless, I am looking at things differently now. In the NHL, the playoffs are called the Second Season for a reason. What went on before is no longer very relevant. Only today counts. The intensity of today trumps everything. So I won’t be looking at seasonal numbers as I preview the already-underway second round.

Campbell (Western) Conference

San Jose Sharks vs Detroit Red Wings

After taking their sweet time exorcising the demons of previous playoff failures, the Sharks, playing with a largely ineffective top line of Joe Thornton-Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley (who, for reasons unbeknown even to me, I will now refer to as the Tubthumpers), woke up to take the last three games against the “plucky” Avalanche, thanks to strong play from their ferocious “second” line of Pavelski, Clowe and Setoguchi.

The Red Wings did what Red Wings do and prevailed in a hard-fought seven game series against the “upstart Phoenix Coyotes.” Sometimes, after six evenly played matches, the seventh game is a beautiful, fairly even game decided by a lucky bounce or two, like the last game of last year`s second season. Sometimes, the seventh game is a blowout. It happened last year when the Penguins crushed the Capitals in the second round on their way to those same Cup Finals. And it happened a few nights ago as the Wings soared past the Desert Dogs with a 6-1 humbling when it mattered most.

Assuming Marleau recovers soon from his mysterious injury, one interesting take-away from this series will be in watching how Wings coach (and former Canadian Olympics coach) Mike Babcock handles his one-time charges, Dan Boyle and the Tubthumpers. He has seen them work together to great effect in the Olympics and should have a better grasp than most opposing coaches about what makes them tick.

But it won`t matter. With two more goals in the first game of this series, Joe Pavelski is still melting the ice he strides upon. At some point, the Tubthumpers will wake up. The Red Wings are here by dint of a strong will. The Sharks are the more talented team, and the sceptre of playoff failure is off after the collapse of the Capitals has allowed them to give that dubious honour to another batch.

Prediction: Sharks in 6.

Chicago Blackhawks vs Vancouver Canucks

Whenever anyone asks me who will win the Cup this year, I say that I don`t know. But if I had to guess, I would think the Hawks will be one of the teams fighting it out until the very end. Like last year, their journey passes through Vancouver. But these are not the same teams as last year. They are both stronger, smarter, and possibly more exhausted. Both rosters are littered with 2010 Olympians who have played longer seasons than they should be used to.

Both teams have strong offenses and suspect defences. The Canucks have a wonderful goalie with a relatively weaker defensive unit in front of him. Luongo has been brilliant at times, and fallible at others. He has yet to show the sustained excellence required of a long playoff run, but we all know that he has it in him.

The Blackhawks have suspect goaltending (Niemi is rebound prone) but have a very strong blueline corps to protect him, made evident by the way they lapped the field in fewest shots against per game this year. And Brian Campbell is back from his broken clavicle and has had a few games under his belt to get into the flow again.

The Sedins will have a few more synergistic moments of hair-raising beauty (Mikael Samuelsson – who knew?) and Toews will respond with grit to match Kane’s flash. And the Blackhawks will prevail in the most exciting matchup of the second round.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 7.

Wales (Eastern) Conference

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Montreal Canadiens

The East, as a conference, humbled me. I sort of understood when the Flyers took down the Devils. I hinted as such, while nevertheless picking the Devils. Yet I thought that Pittsburgh over Ottawa, the one Eastern series I got right would be one of the biggest mismatches of the first round. Ottawa was without Kovalev and shortly lost Michalek as well. Yet the Penguins struggled to put them away, their power play sputtering along to the same miserable rate they played at for most of the season.

As for the Canadiens’ shocker, I can’t say that I saw it coming. Some others did (well played, Timo) but not me. After the Capitals stormed back from a 4-1 deficit back in Game 2, I thought the series was over. In a way, it was. That was the last spark we saw from Washington, even though they went on to win the next two games as well. In five of seven games in the first round, Jaroslav Halak was spectacular. The rest of the team did what needed to be done, scoring just enough do that Halak didn’t need to be perfect, just close. And he was. And now the reigning champion Penguins are the top seed remaining from the East, assuring home ice advantage for the Stanley Cup Finals belonging to the Western Conference representative, no matter who they may be.

So now what? The Canadiens bend-not-break defensive unit can channel their combined energy into stopping the Penguins’ centres and push play to the perimeter. They will manage a few odd-man rushes against Marc-Andre Fleury and a few of those will result in goals. While the Blackhawks-Canucks series should be a joy for all neutral hockey fans, this series should be left to hardcore fans of the teams in question. We will see some ugly hockey, but not without its tense moments. Fewer goals, fewer blowouts. And Montreal’s Cinderella run will move on for one more round.

Prediction: Canadiens in 7.

Boston Bruins vs Philadelphia Flyers

This one is for the Boosh. But more than that, it’s about the Pronger effect. You see, Chris Pronger does not do short playoff runs. He carried the Oilers to an unlikely final against Carolina. He charged the Ducks to a Cup victory 12 months later. And now he is leading a pack of hungry and limping Flyers.

Boston will be boosted by the return of Marc Savard from what seemed like a season ending hit received from Matt Cooke. Had Washington knocked off Montreal last week, we would now be reading about redemption in the form of a long, bloody battle between the Bruins and the Penguins. But Savard now has to find his legs against a more rough and tumble bunch in this year’s version of the Broad Street Bullies. And the Bullies will need to be tough, what with Jeff Carter hurt again and Simon Gagne and Ian Laperriere also missing from their roster. Mike Richards will have to lead the offense. Daniel Briere will have to make phans believe that he is earning (if only for a few weeks) his outsized salary so that for at least parts of the next five seasons, he won’t be seen as a complete waste. Claude Giroux will need to continue to stamp his place as a bona-fide offensive force. A similar step forward by neophyte James van Riemsdyk would also be appreciated.

I don’t believe in the Bruins. Rask looks great in net. They have some nice pieces here and there. But Boston showing up for the second round has almost as much to do with Buffalo skipping out on their end of the first round. Thomas Vanek missed half the round and scored twice in the three games he did play. No one else picked up the slack while he was gone. The Bruins were the lowest scoring team in the regular season. The Flyers were one of the most prolific. The Bruins weakness plays into the hands of the Flyers (Boosh may be loved, but he isn’t respected as a winning goalie).

When was the last time a Conference Final was fought between the 7th and 8th seeds? I don’t know, but I can guess when the next one will be

Prediction: Flyers in 6.

Playoff Predictions: Counterpoint

In Hockey on April 14, 2010 at 4:21 pm

by Ryan Wagman

Among the things I think about when lying in bed awake before the alarm goes off is the concept of clutch performances in sports. In baseball Sabermetric circles, it is often repeated that there is no such thing as “Clutch”; that in typical clutch situations, such as “Late and Close”, or “2 Outs and runners in scoring position”, the ability to perform well is not repeatable beyond a player’s innate ability to perform at all. And lying in bed, I think to myself that maybe the issue is our bias of what constitutes clutch. Seasons are long and what a player can bring himself to do in a ‘late-and-close’ situation early in the season is probably not the same as later on, when extending the season seems in doubt. Anyone who watched the Flyers and the Rangers go to the shootout knows that Brian Boucher was facing a very clutch situation and responded with two of the biggest saves of his life in stoning Erik Christensen and “Chokin” Olli Jokinen. He knew what was on the line – look how high he jumped, in full gear, after winning. A given player may not respond to a typical “clutch” situation early in the season simply because that extra drive cannot come through. The player may not be able to suspend his disbelief (however deeply hidden) that there will be many more opportunities for that sort of heroics later on. Can there really be any doubt that, as hockey fans, we are privy to an extra level of desperation of play when the season becomes more played out and each point takes on that much more immediately understandable significance?

With that preamble out of the way, it is now time for clutch hockey, and by extension, clutch hockey writing. Yesterday, Bill Duke, our Campbell’s coverer, gave his take on each series in the first round. Having not yet seen his predictions, I will offer up my own, Wales-ian point of view.

Campbell (Western) Conference Quarterfinals

San Jose Sharks vs Colorado Avalanche

In sports, the reverse of clutch, is the propensity to choke, a phenomenon known only too well by the San Jose Sharks and their fans. A short look at their recent playoff history will provide ample evidence to that sad state. When Joe Thornton dropped his gloves against Ryan Getzlaf shortly before the 8th-seeded Ducks knocked out the Presidents’ Trophy winning Sharks in last year’s first round, some may have seen that as an act of bravado geared to try to spark his team. I saw that as an act of desperation and frustration borne out by the sense of impending failure. But I’m a writer, not a psychologist.

But not this year. At 27-6-8, the Sharks are second only to the Capitals in home ice record, while the Avalanche are among the worst road teams to make the playoffs with a record of 19-16-6 (not bad, but nothing special either). Momentum plays into the Sharks’ hands as well. From March 1 through the end of the season, the Avalanche stumbled into the playoffs at 8-10-3, including three losses to end the season, contributing to a drop from a likely 6th seed in mid-March to their final place in standings less than a month later. By contrast, the Sharks ended with a run of 11-7-2, including a season-ending three game winning streak (ominously having followed an overtime loss to the Avalanche on April 4th).

Also, according to my soon-to-be-released final special teams numbers, the Sharks ranked as the most efficient combined special teams unit in the NHL this year, far outperforming the Avalanche, who placed 21st. Health also favours the favoured. The Sharks enter the series with a healthy roster. The Avalanche should have Matt Duchene back from his recent torso injury, but Peter Mueller, who was excellent upon coming over in a trade from Phoenix near the deadline will miss at least the first few games of the series. Craig Anderson, so important to the Avalanche’s success early in the year, visibly tired and struggled down the stretch. For Sharks’ netminder Evgeni Nabokov, heavy minutes are a way of life. Outside of a short slump in mid-March, Nabokov performed steadily down the stretch. This year, the Sharks will make it out of the first round.

Prediction: Sharks in 5.

Chicago Blackhawks vs Nashville Predators

The Predators confuse me. They were among the consistently worst special teams performers – at both ends – in the NHL. Yet at 5-on-5, they seem to do alright. What does that say about Barry Trotz? The Predators went a blistering 14-6-1 down the stretch. Amazingly, they did not have a single player register more than the 51 points that both Patric Hornqvist and Steve Sullivan generated. The Blackhawks had four players surpassing that total, led by Patrick (Cabbie) Kane’s 88. A fifth player, Marian Hossa, also put up 51 points, but remember that he missed over 20 games to start the season. The discrepancy in each team’s special teams play is also vast. The Blackhawks’ success when up or down a man mirrors the struggles of the Predators in similar game-play situations.

After a rough patch wherein the Hawks won only two of nine from March 13-30, they closed the regular season winning six of their last seven by a combined score of 28-14. They should take their elevated play into their first round matchup against the Predators, and Antti Niemi will claim his first playoff scalp.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 5.

Vancouver Canucks vs Los Angeles Kings

Now things get really interesting. You might not have realized (and I might not be the first to point this out either), but these two teams were only separated by two points over the course of the season. Their special teams play was likewise similar; both teams had very effective power play units and both were more-or-less adequate when killing penalties. The Kings are completely healthy, while the Canucks are a little banged up – although their most significant injury, the concussion to shutdown defender Willie Mitchell, has already kept him out of action for nearly three months, so that doesn’t change what we’ve seen from them recently.

The separation in this series will be between the pipes. Jonathan Quick has struggled of late, going winless in his last eight starts, including twice being pulled. Like Craig Anderson of the Avalanche, this young American netminder has never had to play so much in a single season before. Luongo has also had a few stuttersteps in net since leading Team Canada to an Olympic Gold, including a horrific performance against these Kings less than two weeks ago, surrendering 8 goals on 29 shots. So what’s a pundit to do? I think this will be a phenomenal series, the most exciting in the Western Conference. But the higher seed will prevail.

Prediction: Canucks in 7.

Phoenix Coyotes vs Detroit Red Wings

Kind of strange to think that the Coyotes are the home team, isn’t it? I still don’t quite understand how they did it. Maybe it is true that in hockey, more than in other sports, coaching can be the difference between winning the draft lottery and home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Phoenix had the better record and the slightly better goal differential, but skater-to-skater, the Red Wings have the better team. The Red Wings have five players who tallied double digits in Goals-versus-Threshold (GVT) in rookie goaltender Jimmy Howard, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Brian Rafalski. Tomas Holmstrom and Niklas Kronwall also likely would have reached that milestone if they hadn’t both missed substantial portions of the season to injury. The Coyotes had three such players; Star goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, emerging defenseman Keith Yandle and the underrated Radim Vrbata. I suppose you could also say that their backup goalie, Jason LaBarbera, would have also achieved double digit GVT if he played a few more games. Ed Jovanovski, and Scottie Upshall may have also lost out on that mark due to injury, although Upshall still is injured. The Red Wings are now healthy.

The Coyotes biggest strength seems to be their coaching, with Dave Tippett seen by many as the odds-on favourite to win the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach. Then again, the Red Wings have Mike Babcock, generally viewed as one of the best over the last few seasons. Both teams are very efficient killing penalties, while the Red Wings have an upper echelon power play whereas the Coyotes have the worst power play among all teams in the playoffs, with over 1 minute more between power play markers than the runners-up, Nashville Predators. Going back to my earlier pre-amble on clutch play, we are all well aware of how the Red Wings have stepped up in the playoffs for several years in a row. No one can say that about the Coyotes, who have not been to the playoffs since before the lockout. We do not yet know if they have that “clutch” ability. Being wrong wouldn’t surprise me, but I think the Red Wings will advance.

Prediction: Red Wings in 6.

Wales (Eastern) Conference Quarterfinals

Washington Capitals vs Montreal Canadiens

I bet Habs fans rue the fact that their boys couldn’t beat the Maple Leafs in the last game of the season. One more point (they lost in overtime) would have seen a first round matchup against the Devils instead. C’est la vie, non? The Washington Capitals are the strongest team, up and down the roster, in the NHL this year. The Canadiens are….not. They have nice goaltending, with Jaroslav Halak showing well in his first extended run as a number one goalie and Carey Price a more than capable backup. Other than Halak, the only player from the Canadiens to amass over 10 GVT was forward Tomas Plekanec. Barring injuries, Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov would also have reach double digits. Lucky for Habs fans, they may have one advantage in this series; their power play. The Canadiens had the league’s 3rd most efficient power play unit and it may have finished even higher had Andrei Markov not missed nearly the entire first half with lacerated ankle tendons. The Capitals have one of the worst penalty killing outfits that is still active. The Habs will need to coax more than their share of penalties from the Capitals to have a good chance at a monumental upset.

Unfortunately for them, the Capitals can say the same. We said the Canadiens had the 3rd most efficient power play in the game. Well, the Capitals had the most efficient one. And no one was particularly close. The Capitals had six skaters with more than 10 GVT – four of them were over 20! (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and Semin). If either Theodore or Varlamov had played true #1 goalie minutes, he might have also got to 10. As is, Theodore was named the starter for the playoffs by Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. Theodore has performed very well since the Olympic break, which should be cause for optimism for Capitals fans and players. Assuming he gets a longer leash than he did last Spring, this should be a short series.

Prediction: Capitals in 4.

New Jersey Devils vs Philadelphia Flyers

I don’t care what anybody says, I like Brian Boucher. I had him in my hockey pool one year as my third goalie, and he ended up my top goalie. Needless to say, I did not win that year, but at least that pick worked out well. Jacques Lemaire is still Jacques Lemaire. Teams under his thumb will score around 225-230 goals if they are winners and closer to 200 if they are not. And he hasn’t won a playoff round since 2002-03. Then again, this may be the most talented he’s had. Brodeur has earned another shot at a long playoff run. That whole Olympic thing didn’t work out so well for him on a personal performance level, but he has played very well since the break was over. If anything the time away from the ice may have given him fresher legs than he normally has come playoff time. I don’t think this will be his last chance to win another Cup, but this may be his last best chance. Ilya Kovalchuk will not likely be back for another run with the Devils. The dual scoring lines featuring the big Russian and Zach Parise make the Devils more dynamic than Lemaire knows what to do with.

The Flyers were thought (in some circles) to be leading candidates to win it all before the season began. With the caveat being that they get good goaltending from the mercurial Ray Emery. And he was pretty decent. Until he got hurt. Then, from out of the wild red yonder (Carolina) Michael Leighton arrived. And Leighton was even better. Until he, too, got hurt. And then Brian Boucher got the job. There was simply no one else – his backup going into the playoffs, Johan Backlund, has 40 minutes of NHL backstopping experience on his resume. Boucher had some stinkers, which he lost. He had some good performances which were not helped by a complete lack of scoring by his skating mates. So he lost those games, too. And he won a handful, including three of his last four to get the Flyers over the hump and into the playoffs, at the expense of the New York Rangers (and maybe the employment of Glen Sather). Boucher will need the series of his life for the Flyers to go forward. With two healthy rosters (notwithstanding the aforementioned goalie woes in Philly – Jeff Carter returns for the Flyers and Paul Martin is back for the Devils) this series could be a lot of fun. I think the team with the better playing goalie will win it. I have to go with the Hall of Famer.

Prediction: Devils in 6.

Buffalo Sabres vs Boston Bruins

There have been some rumours that Marc Savard may return in time to play in the playoffs. If the Bruins can hold the fort for him. It doesn’t look like he can be back for this round. Likewise, trade deadline acquisition Dennis Seidenberg is hurt and will not play. On the other hand, the Sabres’ injured forward, Tim Connolly, looks good to go by the third game at least. Both teams are among the lower scoring organizations competing in the playoffs, and among the best when it comes to preventing the opposition from scoring.  As such, I proclaim this series to be the one most likely to have multiple 1-0 games as well as most likely to go multiple overtimes. The Sabres have five forwards (Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Tim Connolly, Thomas Vanek and Jochen Hecht) with more production (as defined by GVT) than the Bruins top forward contributor, David Krejci.

A great sub-plot to this series is the matchup between the two towering defensemen; Tyler Myers (Buf) vs Zdeno Chara (Bos). Each has five letters each for both first and last names. Each compiled 14.6 GVT this season, although Myers was much more weighted towards the offensive side of the ledger. Another interesting sub-plot is the Bruins goaltending situation. Rask will be the starter, but last season’s Vezina winner, Tim Thomas was pretty good this season as well. How does he react if the Bruins are losing and he doesn’t get the call? And with that, my prediction – the Bruins will lose.

Prediction: Sabres in 6.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Ottawa Senators

Like in the Western Conference, this matchup of 4-5 seeds, which usually gives us the two most evenly matched teams, seems like a complete mis-match. One the one hand, we have the defending champion Penguins, with their superstars three centres deep (Crosby, Malkin and J. Staal). The Senators combat with Alfredsson, Fisher and Spezza. While Afredsson had a better year than Malkin according to GVT (14.8-13.7), and both missed over ten games (12 for Alfie and 15 for Geno), Malkin may be rounding into form in time for the Second Season, with four points in his last game and eight in his last five. And Sidney Crosby topped 50 goals for the first time in his career.

Surprisingly for a team with so much vaunted offensive talent, the Penguins were rather mediocre on the power play this year, finishing 17th in the league in power play efficiency. But the Senators were worse. And now the Sens will be without talented forward Alex Kovalev and most likely defenseman Filip Kuba as well, two of their most important power play performers. The Penguins are more or less healthy. In net, Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pens has much more press and history than the Sens’ relatively untried Brian Elliott, but based on this season alone, they go into the playoffs as near equals. Finally, I should point out how weird the Senators have been this year. Before New Years, they never had a streak longer than four games. Since then, they’ve lost five in a row, won 11 straight, lost five again, won six in a row to cement their place in the playoffs and then lost three of four prior to the series. I think another losing streak is coming.

Prediction: Penguins in 5.

Playoff Predictions: Plenty of Questions Between the Pipes

In Hockey on April 13, 2010 at 9:18 pm

-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.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

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

EASTERN CONFERENCE

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

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