Let the playoffs begin! After a long and strange regular season which included a compressed schedule and a two week Olympic break, it’s time to settle down for some postseason hockey.
In no sport are the playoffs so different than the regular season. The intensity level is so much higher and every shift, shot, pass and hit is magnified. There are always unsung and unexpected heroes (remember John Druce?), thrilling overtimes and plenty of upsets.
Here’s a look at some things we can expect in the first round of the playoffs and why:
On paper, this looks like a mismatch. The Capitals just have too much firepower for the Canadiens. Montreal’s lack of size will hurt them more and more as the series progresses and the hitting begins to take a physical toll.
If Montreal is going to pull an upset, they need a few things to happen: 1) they need balanced scoring 2) The power play has been the key to the Canadiens attack all year. It gives their smaller players more room to maneuver. It needs to be in top form for the Habs to have a chance to pull off an upet 3) The big area Montreal has an advantage in on paper at least, is in goal. Jaroslav Halak must steal at least two games.
For the Caps, they need one of their goalies to establish themselves as the clear cut number one to give the team confidence for the rest of the Stanley Cup run.
The Pick: Capitals in 5.
The addition of Ilya Kovalchuk gives the Devils two very solid scoring lines. The biggest questions facing New Jersey are whether their defense corps will be able to rise to the occassion in the playoffs and whether or not Martin Brodeur is too tired now after playing 77 games this season, plus a few more at the Olympics.
Brodeur seemed to get his second wind down the stretch after hitting a lull in February. The past two seasons, he has failed to live up to his very high standards in the playoffs, especially last year in Carolina where he let a late lead get away at home in game seven.
The Flyers are barely squeeked into the playoffs after a late season slump. Brian Boucher’s play in goal has picked up of late as he shook off some rust, but he’s not an elite playoff goalie. The Flyers have plenty of scoring power and Chris Pronger adds grit and experience, but the Flyers lack of a proven playoff goalie will prevent them from challenging New Jersey.
The Pick: Devils in 6
These two division rivals don’t need a playoff series to dislike each other.
Neither team is an offensive juggernaut, especially since the Bruins will still be without Marc Savard, their top playmaking center. Boston had only one player with more than 20 goals (Marco Sturm with 22) and they must get more offense if they hope to pull of an upset. Zdeno Chara had nineteen goals last season but only seven this year. He needs to regain some of his scoring touch (and so do some other Bruins) if the B’s hope to pull off an upset.
Both teams are strong in goal with US Olympic hero Ryan Miller leading the Sabres while rookie Tuukka Rask backstops Boston. Defense and goaltending are the strength of both teams, but the Sabres have a tad more offense and home ice advantage.
The Pick: Sabres in 7
While these two teams were only seven points apart in the standings, all signs point to a Penguins romp. The Pens are the defending Stanley Cup champions, have a lot more playoff experience and have the best players in the series in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Ottawa will be without Alexei Kovalev for the series. Even though Kovalev had a rough regular season, he has plenty of playoff experience and typically raises his game a notch in the postseason. His loss also hurts the Sens scoring depth behind the big line which features superstars Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza. Ottawa goalie Brian Elliott has no playoff experience.
The Penguins have depth up the middle. The biggest concern in Pittsburgh is that the Pens just haven’t looked as sharp down the stretch as the did a year ago.
The Pick: Penguins in 5
The Sharks have a lot of pressure on them after their recent playoff failures. Despite finishing with more than 100 points in four of the last five seasons (and 99 points in the other year), San Jose has not gotten past the second round of the playoffs. Players like Joe Thornton, Evgeni Nabokov and Patrick Marleau have to prove they can step it up in the playoffs or major changes will be coming to Team Teal.
The Avs slumped down the stretch but held on to the eighth playoff spot. Making the playoffs was a surprise and a major accomplishment. The Avs relied too much on goalie Craig Anderson throughout the season and he seemed to be tiring down the stretch. Not having Peter Mueller won’t help.
The Avs are young and have nothing to lose, but the Sharks just have too much talent. Anderson will steal a game but no more.
The Pick: Sharks in 5
The Hawks are young, big and talented but they can underestimate the Preds at their own peril. Nashville doesn’t have superstars like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but they have a great work ethic and play solid defense in front of Pekka Rinne. Chicago went to the Conference Finals last season and anything less than reaching the Cup Finals will be considered a disappointment.
The big question in Chicago is in goal. Antti Niemi gets first crack at it, but neither Niemi nor Cristobal Huet fills most experts with confidence between the pipes. The Blackhawks have a lot more talent and one of the top home ice advantages in hockey, but the Predators are a very good hockey team and will make the favorites work for everything they get.
The Pick: Blackhawks in 7
The Canucks are considered Canada’s best hope to capture their first Stanley Cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. Only two points separated these teams in the standings but Vancouver has more playoff experience which should help.
Roberto Luongo needs to erase the memories of last year’s playoff meltdown. Leading Canada to the gold medal is good but it’s not a Stanley Cup. Vancouver has a second scoring line behind the Sedin Twins, but they are hurting on defense with Willie Mitchell out of the lineup and Sami Salo is also bothered by a nagging injury which eliminates Vancouver’s best shut down defenseman and compromises their leading scorer on the blue line. Mitchell’s absence makes it tougher for the Canucks to shut down Anze Kopitar.
The Kings have a coach with a lot of playoff experience in Terry Murray and leaders like Ryan Smyth who need to show the youngsters the way. Jonathan Quick was 0-3-3 in his final six games and looked tired. Top prospect Jonathan Bernier played well late in the season, but the Kings will go with Quick.
The Pick: Kings in 7
It’s almost unfair that the Coyotes worked so hard to finish with home ice advantage in the playoffs and then ended up with the defending Western Conference champion Red Wings.
Detroit has played exceptionally well down the stretch when most of their injured players returned to the lineup. Rookie goalie Jimmy Howard gets his first test of playoff action although backup Chris Osgood has plenty of experience and can step in if needed.
The Coyotes score by committee and will need to continue to do that against the effective puck possession system of Detroit. They also have an experienced playoff coach in Dave Tippett. Ilya Bryzgalov has been the difference maker in goal for Phoenix. If the Coyotes hope to pull off an upset, Bryzgalov has to be at his best in this series.
Phoenix may be the feel good story of the season, but by the end of the first round, the feeling will be gone.
The Pick: Red Wings in 6.