Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Around the League: Playoff Time

With the excitement of the NHL Draft Lottery behind us (and if you missed it, Edmonton won the lottery, meaning the Canadiens retain their third overall selection), and having survived the below scandalous Tweet from prospect Mikhail Grigorenko last night (which may or may no be an indication of anything at all, but regardless, had Tweeters from Montreal abuzz),

we can now turn our attention to the sadly Habs-less post-season.  Here, then, are my 2012 NHL Playoffs Predictions & Previews for the first round.


(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings

The matchups in the West are quite something this year, as all 8 post-season teams have a strong enough roster to win a best-of-seven against their opposition.  The Canucks came into the season as a Stanley Cup favourite, and haven't disappointed - Yet.  The Kings came into the year with high expectations based on an exciting off-season, but their play underwhelmed for much of the year.  They squeaked into the playoffs based on a late surge despite having scored just 194 goals - second least in the entire league.  The Canucks are on a mission to win at all costs, while the Kings will benefit from the added playoff experience of bringing in Jeff Carter (who, if/once healthy, will help the team offensively, though Vancouver is dealing with their own offensive health concern in Daniel Sedin) and Mike Richards, while being backed by a likely Vezina candidate in Jonathan Quick.

Canadiens implications: Acquired at last season's trade deadline, Vancouver was able to retain former Canadiens Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre, so that may be a reason to get behind them.  The Kings feature no former Habs, but their roster does include Justin Williams, an enemy of Habs fans for his unpenalized high stick to Saku Koivu's eye during the 2006 playoffs.

Prediction: Vancouver in 6.

(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) San Jose Sharks

The Blues and Sharks were both considered playoff contenders at the start of the year, with San Jose a perennial contender having made some significant changes, and St. Louis a younger team on the rise.  The Blues goaltending tandem has been remarkable this year, combining for 15 shutouts (Brian Elliott with 9 and Jaroslav Halak with 6), while netminding may be a weak spot for the Sharks, with Antti Niemi's numbers a little worse than last season (though he has proven he can take a team to a Stanley Cup).  The Blues may be inexperienced, but this is off-set by San Jose's reputation as a playoff choker, so it should make for an interesting matchup.

Canadiens implications: With Brian Elliott's health a question mark, former Canadiens playoff hero Jaroslav Halak should start the series for St. Louis, a team also featuring Matt D'Agostini as a depth forward.  The Sharks acquired the stud rental Montreal picked up the year of Halak's playoff performance in Dominic Moore as one of a couple of moves aimed to increase the depth on their bottom lines.  I imagine most Hab fans will be behind the Blues in this one.

Prediction: St. Louis in 6.

(3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks

The Coyotes defied odds once again to win their division for the first time in club history despite the overwhelming future uncertainty always hanging over the team.  Phoenix has questions between the pipes, but have assembled a rather deep roster at forward and defense, led by the likes of Shane Doan, Keith Yandle, and Ray Whitney.  The Hawks are a far cry from the Stanley Cup team of 2010, but still feature star power at forward (Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp), and some top defenders (Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook).  If the Coyotes have questions in net, the Hawks aren't much better off, with neither of Corey Crawford or Ray Emery instilling tremendous confidence.

Canadiens implications: Former Montreal first round selection Kyle Chipchura played 53 games for the Coyotes this year, scoring a career best 16 points in a checking role.  Chicago has no player with direct ties to the Habs, unless you count the Marian Hossa gloves incident of a few seasons back.  But we'll let Hab fans side with the Hawks since P.K. Subban picked them as a team to watch in the West.

Prediction: Chicago in 5.

(4) Nashville Predators vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings

The Predators find a way to qualify for the post-season with a roster of underdogs virtually every year, but for once, they've actually assembled a contender-worthy squad this time around.  Nashville is never an easy out, and has had numerous epic battles with far favourited Detroit squads in the past, so this should be a series to watch.  We can easily hand the goaltending battle to Nashville as anyone would take Pekka Rinne over Jimmy Howard, while we can give an edge to Detroit's forward group with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg compared to the Preds' lack of stars.  This may be a series, then, which comes down to defense, with Detroit's old guard of Nicklas Lidstrom, Brad Stuart, and Niklas Kronwall matching up against the younger Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.  The Preds were very active in filling out their roster at the deadline, while the Wings mostly stood pat, so we'll see what effect that might have come playoff time.

Canadiens implications: Nashville is the team perhaps most supported by Canadiens fans, since they added to a roster that already included Sergei Kostitsyn and Francis Bouillon by bringing in Andrei Kostitsyn and Hal Gill prior to the deadline.  Interestingly, however, the pick Montreal acquired for Gill is for this year's draft, meaning it will be slightly higher if the Preds get bounced in the opening round.  The Wings' core hasn't changed in many seasons, and has no direct ties to former Habs.

Prediction: Detroit in 7.


(1) New York Rangers vs. (8) Ottawa Senators

Some are predicting an upset in this series based on the Sens having won the season series 3 games to 1, but the playoffs are a beat of a different kind.  Ottawa was a big surprise this season as many saw their rebuilding team still a few seasons away from the playoffs, but a remarkable year for Erik Karlsson helped to speed up the curve.  Similarly, it was in part defensemen who helped New York win the conference, with the emergence of Dan Girardi even earning him Norris talk in some circles.  The series doesn't lack for stars at forward either, with Jason Spezza proving his career wasn't washed up thank to an 84-point season in Ottawa, while Marian Gaborik stayed healthy to play all 82 games for the first in his career for the Rangers.  The difference is likely to be goaltending, with Henrik Lundqvist being among the game's best.

Canadiens implications: The Rangers D boasts a talented young player whose name alone pains Canadiens fans, even though he never played a game in Montreal.  Former Hab first round pick Ryan McDonagh was sent to New York in the devastating Scott Gomez trade.  Ottawa also has a player drafted by Montreal but who never played for the team in tough guy defenseman Matt Carkner, while also featuring backup goaltender Alex Auld who battled for the #2 spot with the younger Ben Bishop this season.

Prediction: New York in 4.

(2) Boston Bruins vs. (7) Washington Capitals

The defending Stanley Cup champions had a strange season of cold streaks and incredibly hot runs.  Their roster hasn't changed terribly much since last year's playoffs, though they will miss the injured Nathan Horton who helped the Bruins through 3 and a half rounds a year ago.  Replacing him will be a much bigger contribution from sophomore Tyler Seguin who was a reservist for much of the run last season.  Washington made some depth moves this summer that sought to address the club's weaknesses for a run at the Cup, but the team disappointed.  We can begin with Alexander Ovechkin who finished below the point-per-game mark for the first time in his career, though 38 goals and 65 points are nothing to scoff at for most players.  The decline of Alexander Semin also continued, with the forward matching last season's points but in more games, and scoring just 21 goals - the least since his rookie season in 2003-04.  Still, many of the Caps additions (Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik, Tomas Vokoun...) focused on guys they believed could help in the post-speason specifically, so we will have to wait and see if they pay off.

Canadiens implications: As mentioned, the Caps signed both former Habs Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Halpern last summer, while goaltender Tomas Vokoun started his career (albeit briefly) in the Canadiens organization many years back.  Boston lost Michael Ryder who was important in the playoffs last year, but filled their ex-Canadiens quota by signing Benoit Pouliot instead.  Unfortunately for Boston, Pouliot was always entirely invisible in the playoffs in Montreal, even when he had a good regular season.

Prediction: Boston in 6.

(3) Florida Panthers vs. (6) New Jersey Devils

Like Ottawa, Florida surprised in a big way this season, but doing so more through strategic free agent and trade acquisitions than the emergence of younger players.  Though they won their division, the Panthers will be in tough in round 1 against a deeper and more experienced Devils group, which is led by their top trio of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and re-emergent 35-year old Patrik Elias.  New Jersey has also gotten important contributions from rookie Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson, providing balance to the roster that no longer depends solely on Martin Brodeur to steal games.

Canadiens implications: Goaltender Jose Theodore continues to revive his career, bettering his last season's numbers in Minnesota this year in Florida.  Montreal captain Brian Gionta's younger brother Stephen is on the Devils' roster, called up for one game this season in which he scored his first NHL goal.  6'5" New Jersey forward Dainius Zubrus was also once a Hab for parts of three seasons earlier in his career, before being a part of the trade that brought Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis to the Canadiens from Washington.

Prediction: New Jersey in 5.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers

The Penguins may be the fourth seed, but they earned that while dealing with a plethora of key injuries all season.  If there's a team that has no sympathy for that, it's Philadelphia, who had to get by without top players for much of the year as well.  The difference is that the Pens are now basically at full strength, while the Flyers are still getting by without defensemen Chris Pronger and Andrej Meszaros.  And in a matchup as tightly-contested as the battle of Pennsylvania - sure to be one of the most physical and entertaining of the opening round - that could be enough to make the difference.  The Penguins know what it takes to win and have arguably the top two players in the league with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, while Philadelphia will attempt to counter with their own wave of young talent that includes Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and Matt Read, supported by proven playoff performers Daniel Briere and 40-year old long-time former Penguin Jaromir Jagr.

Canadiens implications: Flyer Blair Betts was Hab property for a few days this season, but the injury that saw Montreal return him to Philadelphia following their waiver claim kept him out the remainder of the year.  Big Penguins forward Arron Asham was a third round pick by the Canadiens in 1996 and played 121 games for Montreal over 4 seasons.  Both clubs have contingents of French Canadian players, but both are also recent Montreal playoff rivals, so fans can go either way.

Prediction: Pittsburgh in 7.

No comments: