Posted by: mdegeorge | April 13, 2011

NHL Playoffs: First Round Diagnosis

If the 2010 NHL playoffs taught us anything, it’s that magical things can happen when the temperatures here in the United States get decidedly non-hockey like. Whether it’s a devilishly hot goaltender going on a run for the ages at the expense of favorite after favorite, a team turning terms like “never” and “no team has been able to…” on their heads or a group of talented youngsters erasing a half-century hoodoo twice their age, the unexpected becomes commonplace on the rink when the calendar turns to April.

Sergei Bobrovsky. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

The change from regular season to playoffs in the NHL is unlike any other in professional sports (with the possible exception of how pitching staffs are handled in Major League Baseball’s postseason). The way in which the intensity is ramped up, each hit is magnified, each turnover more devastating creates a game almost unrecognizable from its more laidback regular-season version. The excitement is palpable.

On the precipice of another scintillating quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup, it’s time to look at the first-round matchups in each conference and try to tease out the surprises that may be in store.

Starting in the East (yeah, I might be biased):

No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. No. 8 New York Rangers

Seeding comes to mean so little here in the NHL, especially when the underdog sports a 3-1 record in the head-to-head series and is credited with a defeat so resounding that it caused the other team’s head coach to fear for his job and rethink his entire system. That’s the boat the Rangers find themselves in as a result of the 7-0 hammering they delivered to the Caps Dec. 12. The new Caps focused more on puck control and workmanlike effort than finesse and the tremendous skill of their players. The goal totals of snipers like Alexander Semin, Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have all fallen this season, but they were able to ride coach Bruce Boudreau’s new philosophy into a strong second half and the top spot in the East.

The new playing style is exactly what suits the Rangers, especially without injured workhorse Ryan Callahan. They’ll be content to win the 3-2 games on the strength of Henrik Lundqvist in goal and could make some hay if Marian Gaborik shows up for a change. In the past, this was the type of series that would have been the undoing of the Caps (grinding physical team, goalie who can steal games, uncertain goaltending situation for the Caps, and a key injury in Mike Green). The style change is somewhat concerning, as the Caps, especially Semin, have been notoriously goal-shy in series past; perhaps the new approach could mitigate the need to rely on four to five goals per game. Ovechkin’s numbers (20 goals, 40 points in 28 games) have never dipped though.

The Diagnosis: This matchup is trap-ridden for the Caps, and it’s their series to lose if Semin or Michal Neuvirth slip up. But the vulnerability of the Flyers and Pens mean the Caps have to see it as their year. Each four playoff series (one win, three losses) in the Ovie era has gone seven games, including a 2009 opening round meeting with the Rangers in which the Blueshirts squandered a 3-1 series lead. The Caps need to prevail and finally seize their chance. Caps in 6

No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 7 Buffalo Sabres

A rematch of the 1975 Stanley Cup Final, this series could come down to a battle of injuries and attrition. The Sabres dominant force in net, Ryan Miller, has played only twice since injuring his collarbone March 29, though he professes to be ready for Game 1. Still, Lindy Ruff is without key veterans Mike Grier, Jochen Hecht, Jordan Leopold and Derek Roy likely for the series. The Flyers cantankerous defenseman Chris Pronger is the glaring absence on the other side, all but assured to be out for at least the first two games of the series and perhaps longer seeing as how he has yet to resume stickhandling after 17 games after injuring his hand blocking a shot. Wednesday, captain Mike Richards was mysteriously absent from practice for a “maintenance day”, clearly indicative of some kind of cover up.

The Sabres have often lacked offensive punch, but the emergence of Drew Stafford as a second front-line power forward along with Thomas Vanek is a major contributor to their standing fourth in the conference in goals. They charged hard down the stretch, winning eight of 10 to get into the playoff fold, while the Flyers dropped 10 of their last 15 (albeit six in shootout or overtime) as they eased off the gas late. One of those wins for the Sabres was a 4-3 overtime triumph over the Flyers April 8 as part of a season-series split.

The Diagnosis: Like the Rangers, the Sabres are the kind of team that can capitalize on opponents’ inconsistency with the combination of just enough scoring and a goalie who can steal contests. The Flyers meanwhile have been unable to recapture the line-combination magic that had them atop the East standings for much of the season. Sergei Bobrovsky makes his playoff debut as a rookie who’s been shaky down the stretch; expect Brian Boucher to make more than just a cameo this series (as he did last spring). I just have to think that the Flyers have too much talent not to survive this test, though the Sabres will test them in the fullest. Flyers in 7

No. 3 Boston Bruins vs. No. 6 Montreal Canadiens

The only intra-division matchup in the East, only meeting of Original Six teams in the first round, and the most-frequent playoff pairing in NHL history (33 meetings) is one in which there’s no love lost, even before the controversial check by Boston’s Zdeno Chara laid up Montreal’s Max Pacioretty. It will be a brutal series dominated by defense. The Canadiens last season triumphed in two series thanks to an ethereally hot goaltender now plying his trade elsewhere (Jaroslav Halak) and a hot run by a forward (Mike Cammalleri). This season, they’ve struggled for goals at times, finishing 12th in the Eastern Conference and last among the 16 teams to make the playoffs in goals scored. Still, they managed to get the better of Boston, winning the season series, 4-2.

Boston has had more than its fair share of offensive struggles in recent years, but they seem to have rectified matters in that department this season. Milan Lucic has developed into a 30-goal scorer, Patrice Bergeron is healthy again, and Nathan Horton proved to be an excellent acquisition. Their defense has been among the best in the league, thanks to likely Vezina winner and holder of the highest single-season save percentage in NHL history Tim Thomas.

The Diagnosis: The Bruins are better offensively, better on special teams, and have the better goaltender, though Carey Price specializes in hot streaks. The Bruins will have to somehow conquer last season’s playoff collapse in the Eastern Conference finals, but on paper I think they have a big edge. Bruins in 6

No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning

Who would have ever thought a series featuring Pittsburgh would feature them looking up at the other team in the superstar standings? That’s the case though, as it’s Steven Stamkos, Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis improbably garnering the spotlight over the likes of Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and Tyler Kennedy. The Pens remain the most impressive story in the NHL this season. Take the top three forwards from any of the teams around them in the standings out of the lineup for an average of 39 games and see where they are. They managed to almost pip the Flyers for the Atlantic Division despite their big three of Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal suiting up on the same night once all season. Yet they’ve managed to plod quietly down the stretch picking up wins in eight of their last 10. Anyone who thinks this is just a team waiting for Crosby to come back from his concussion to save them, which looks increasingly unlikely, is misinformed.

That’s fine and good, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to a short series. The Lightning in many ways resembles the Pens team that won the Cup two years ago: the offensive power to explode at any moment, just enough veteran grit and toughness to balance the youthful talent. The Lightning will want to win games 5-4. The Pens need to control play with their possession offense, spend a lot of time forechecking and cycling on the half-boards and take 3-1 affairs. The difference could come in goal. Marc-Andre Fleury is one of the best big-game goalies in the league. Dwayne Roloson, though capable of amazing hot streaks and certainly a veteran at age 41, has just 33 playoff games under his belt.

The Diagnosis: The Lightning possesses one of the most potent, if streaky, power plays in the league. The Pens meanwhile led the league in penalty killing despite missing Staal for half the season and having their defensive pairings constantly disrupted due to injury. With the exception of Malkin and Crosby, everyone is now healthy for the Pens. The knock on Pittsburgh has always been that they win too many games in the shootout (a league-high 10 this season), but Fleury’s virtuosity will shine though. They’ll need contributions from midseason acquisitions James Neal and Alexei Kovalev and could use a jolt from the long-lost Mike Comrie. But the Lightning, in their first playoffs of the Stamkos era, will take their lumps before they prosper as did the Pens and Caps with their superstars. Penguins in 6

Western Conference

No. 1 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 8 Chicago Blackhawks

The Canucks have to be cursing the hockey gods, wondering what they’ve done to deserve this pairing. It’s the third straight season the Canucks have met the Blackhawks, with the skaters from the Windy City taking each of the previous two. The defending Stanley Cup champs, while not as formidable as they were a season ago, have to be the scariest 8 seed in history. Vancouver has enough to contend with, what with the hopes of being the first Canadian Cup champ in almost two decades and the curse of recent Presidents’ Cup-winners’ playoff failures looming. Still, it’s difficult to argue with a team that finished first in the NHL in goals allowed and first in goals scored and lostonly four games since March 1.

Pedigrees aside, it’s a tough matchup for the Canucks. They’re top heaving when it comes to scoring, though their first two lines of the Sedin twins and Alexandre Burrows and Mikael Samuelsson-Chris Higgins-Ryan Kesler are among the best top six in the league. The problem is that the top two pairings for the Blackhawks (Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson) are also among the most efficient in the league. The difference-maker could be Dave Bolland, who did an excellent job nullifying the Sedins last year, though his status for Game 1 is doubtful.

The Diagnosis: With two offenses capable of prolific outbursts, it might come down to a goaltending battle. Roberto Luongo has been underwhelming in postseasons past. The title run in 2010 that came on the back of Antti Niemi now falls in the lap of rookie Corey Crawford. While he’s a gifted stopper, I’m not particularly sold on his ability to win a series and fully expect to see Marty Turco at some point during the series. The Canucks just have to beat this hoodoo eventually, right? Canucks in 6

No. 2 San Jose Sharks vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Kings

Speaking of perennial playoff let-downs, at least the Sharks are free of the President’s pressure this season. The protagonists up front remain the same in San Jose. Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley all need to step up to a degree they never have in the past. The Kings meanwhile are offensively challenged to say the least. They finished 25th in the league in goals, and that was before losing their most dangerous scorer in Anze Kopitar. They get to match up with the thin and young blueline of the Sharks, but unless Dustin Penner goes off in a big way, they’ll struggle to score goals.

The Kings meanwhile could stymie the Sharks enough to make a series of it. Jonathan Quick doesn’t scream big-game goalie at this point in his career, especially after the way the Canucks torched him last season. But Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson constitute one of the best defensive units in the league, including the fourth best penalty kill in the league.

The Diagnosis: Antti Niemi might not be the missing piece in the Sharks Stanley Cup puzzle. He is an improvement over Evgeni Nabokov, who many pointed to the problem in their previous troubles. But he’ll at least be enough to get him past the faltering Kings. Sharks in 5

No. 3 Detroit Red Wings vs. No. 6 Phoenix Coyotes

Another rematch of last season’s first round, the Coyotes are probably chomping at the bit to get a second shot at the Red Wings. Phoenix had a shot at Game 7 at home but got blitzed and lost in a 6-1 finale. The Coyotes are a fascinating team with unbelievable depth. They’ve got only one 20-goal scorer, and that’s the reliable Shane Doan, who’s not exactly what you’d think of as a superstar power forward. Behind Doan, whose stabilizing presence they missed in the back half of last season’s exit, they have three guys who scored 19 goals each, an 18-goal man, one with 17 and two with 16.

The Red Wings have some questions to answer. Henrik Zetterberg’s status is uncertain, and Niklas Kronwall is just returning from injury. Jimmy Howard is without a backup while Chris Osgood recuperates from hernia surgery, and the Coyotes might sense that desperation. They still have excellent depth and the irreplaceable playoff experience brought by the presence of such veterans as Niklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk.

The Diagnosis: The series could be won or lost by Ilya Bryzgalov. He got stung in Game 7 last season, and it’ll be interesting to see how he responds. The Vezina candidate could steal a game or two, but he might not be enough to keep the recovering Red Wings from moving on yet again. I’m rooting for the Coyotes, but I just don’t see it happening. Detroit in 6

No. 4 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 5 Nashville Predators

The Ducks might look like one-trick, or better yet, one-line ponies. That top line of Hart Trophy candidate and 50-goal scorer Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf is among the best in the league. But behind them, ageless wonder Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu are really the only offensive threats. The Predators staunch defense, led by perhaps the league’s best defensive pairing in Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, will have their hands full battling that top line. It makes Selanne the potential difference in the series, benefitting from the top line’s occupation of Suter and Weber. The ability of the Preds to score is an open question, but defensively, they should be able to handle the Ducks to a degree.

If this series comes down to goaltending, the Predators could be in good shape. Pekka Rinne is the best goalie nobody knows about, and this could be his coming out party on the big stage. The Ducks’ netminder is to be determined. Jonas Hiller is still experiencing vertigo from a puck to the head several weeks back. Late-season revelation Ray Emery is hurt, leaving Dan Ellis, a cast-off from Tampa who the Lightning deemed unworthy of being a postseason goalie when they upgraded to Dwayne Roloson in February.

The Diagnosis: It’s all about the tempo of games. If these are going to turn into 5-4 contests, the Preds shouldn’t like their chances. But in low scoring contests, Nashville could muster enough offense to survive. The franchise that lacks a playoff series win and faces a relatively uncertain future has pressure mounting. They’re 3-1 against the Ducks this season, and this could be their best chance for a series win. Predators in 7

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