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.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ryan Wagman. Ryan Wagman said: Predictions off the Cuff – the 2nd Round Begins: […]

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