Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Around the League: Playoff Predictions
It's around this time of year every season with the trade deadline distancing itself in the rear-view mirror that I make my first post-season predictions. The playoff picture may not be fully clear yet, so I'll wait before dissecting possible matchups, but with rosters more or less set for the stretch run, here are some of my favourites.
Expected playoff participants:
New York Rangers
New Jersey Devils
The Winnipeg Jets currently hold the 8th and final playoff spot but - while it would be a nice story - I expect the Caps who are 2 points back and hold a game in hand to catch them by early April. Washington has underachieved throughout the season but they are deep and talented enough that I expect them to put together enough of a hot streak in the remaining games to salvage a post-season birth - think the Habs of 2009 (and then quickly forget that painful memory). With the immense parity in the league, I expect the buffer established by the top 7 to be sufficient to hold on to their spots.
First Round Weak Links:
Barring a head-to-head matchup, I expect the East's Cinderella clubs in Florida and Ottawa to be the first round's easiest outs. 2011-12 was a huge step forward in the building process for both teams, but at least on paper, neither stacks up the conference's elite. The Sens have been led by phenom Erik Karlsson, but it should be noted that he and top center Jason Spezza rank 2nd and 8th in the league in powerplay points (Ottawa's PP ranks 6th overall). With powerplays tougher to come by in the post-season, the team may struggle to score - a significant problem when considering that they've allowed more goals than any other team in a playoff position.
Florida's patchwork club rising to the top of its division may be more linked to the struggles of Washington and Tampa Bay than the team's own strong play (a statement supported by their -21 goal differential on the season, worse even than Montreal's), but certainly they've surpassed expectations. The Panthers are one of the league's lowest-scoring teams and have only 3 40+ point forwards, one of whom (Stephen Weiss) has zero playoff experience. This will be a good year to bring some of the team's new core along and help them gel, but it is too early to be thinking about any kind of long run without a spectacular streak from either Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen, which I would doubt in either case.
Projected Eastern Conference Playoff Champion:
Evgeni Malkin has a Conn Smythe Trophy on his resume and his outstanding play this season is my main reason for picking Pittsburgh to return to the Stanley Cup Finals. With big wingers like James Neal and Chris Kunitz, the team has the resources to get passed the Zdeno Chara wall in Boston and to overwhelm the New York Rangers's young back-end. The team's top 4 is rock-solid, with strong production from Kris Letang compensating for the hole in the depth chart left by the absence of superstar Sidney Crosby. The Pens were my pick even before yesterday's news that Crosby has been cleared for contact and may play in the near future, but if he can return healthily, it will take the team to another level. Above all, the team's core, from Marc-Andre Fleury out, has been there before. They've been to the finals and lost, as well as won a Cup, and this experience will carry them a long way once again.
Expected playoff participants:Vancouver Canucks
St. Louis Blues
San Jose Sharks
Detroit Red Wings
Los Angeles Kings
On the strength of a 7-1-2 record in their last 10 games (including their win over the Canadiens), the Dallas Stars currently lead their division. However, I expect either them or the Phoenix Coyotes to slip up down the stretch, allowing the Los Angeles Kings to sneak into the post-season. Hey, my preseason picks to win the regular season conferences look pretty bad right now in Los Angeles and Washington so I have to stick to my guns at least a little bit, no?!
The Kings bolstered their league's worst-offense with the addition of Jeff Carter prior to the deadline and should start to see some dividends in the coming weeks. They are tied with San Jose in points (though the Sharks hold a game in hand) and sit 1 point behind the Coyotes (with a game in hand on them) to make the second season and with the sound goaltending they've been getting, should be able to jump over a club or two if those teams stumble.
The Sharks have seen a solid season collapse over the past little bit, but could still take their division if they can turn fortunes around.
First Round Weak Links:
The West looks rather evenly matched, with only the Stars (or Coyotes if they make it in Dallas's place) appearing like an easy out. Dallas's defense is suspect and they are the only team in the Western playoff picture with a negative goal differential. The team has gotten strong production from their underrated forward group, but it seems unlikely to hold up over a 7 game series against a tough opponent.
Projected Western Conference Playoff Champion:Vancouver Canucks
Like the Penguins before them, the Canucks will avenge a loss in the Stanley Cup finals by returning to the dance and this time winning it all. Their offense is led by the usual cast of characters in the Sedins, Ryan Kesler, and Alex Burrows, but they've bolstered their bottom 6 with proven playoff shutdown guru Sammy Pahlsson. The addition of toughness in Zack Kassian allows them to match up better against bigger squads, as does the size of Marc-Andre Gragnani bringing depth on the back end. This team has seen what it takes to get oh so close, and as a now famous Sidney Crosby NHL commercial once said, "never wants to be in that spot again." This is their year.
That's my take on how things will shake up for now. I'll certainly provided round-by-round predictions as the post-season gets underway in April, as depressing as it is to not count the Canadiens among the qualified teams.