1753...
TGS SPECIFAL REPORT...NHL STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS PREVIEW!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Imagine the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat both losing in the first round of the NBA playoffs! It's only hard to envision because neither play in the NHL, where a postseason without a major upset would come as a surprise.

Welcome to the Stanley Cup playoffs, which are a far cry from the postseason in the NBA, especially in the first round, where, unlike pro hoops, upsets involving top-seeded teams are almost commonplace in the NHL. Those 8 vs. 1 matchups are hardly a fait accmpli in the NHL as they are in the NBA; indeed, we've seen an 8 seed knock off a 1 seed in two of the last three Stanley Cup playoffs (Anaheim over San Jose in 2009, and Montreal over Washington in 2010). And it wasn't long ago that every lower-seeded team won its Stanley Cup first-round series in the Western Conference, in 2006, with eighth-seeded Edmonton racing all of the way to the Finals (after beating first-seeded Detroit, fifth-seeded San Jose, and sixth-seeded Anaheim) before losing to the Carolina Hurricanes and their rookie goaltender Cam Ward in a riveting seven game-seires for the Cup.

A variety of reasons have been suggested why the playing field (or ice) doesn't seem to be as tilted as far in favor of the home teams in the modern-day NHL playoffs as it does in other sports. Some believe that the differences between the best and the nearly-best NHL teams simply isn't that great. The nature of hockey, with the distorting influence of the power plays, might be another reason. A hot goaltender can also quickly minimize any differences, perceived or otherwise, between two teams. Whatever the reasons, history has proven that it is never wise to summarily dismiss any team, even the longest shots on the board, in the Stanley Cup playoffs. As we've seen time and time again, anything can happen in a short series.

Also, don't forget that the "shootouts" from the regular season do not exist in the playoffs. Once a game goes to overtime, it's sudden death, even if the teams have to play all night (which has happened a few times in the past).

With that in mind, and the chase for the Stanley Cup beginning on Wednesday, we offer our preview of first-round action. Conference playoff seed ( ) noted for each team.

EASTERN CONFERENCE


Ottawa Senators (8) vs. New York Rangers (1)...Any chance for an upset here? As famous hockey mom Sarah Palin might say, "You betcha." Why? Only Pittsburgh and Boston scored more goals this term than the Senators, who will try to turn this into a shootout with the Rangers. Ottawa has a unique weapon in defender Erik Karlsson, who provides the Sens with a Paul Coffey-like dimension by offering electrifying offense from the blue line, with the uncanny ability to move the puck up ice, and quickly. Karlsson's 78 points were far and away the most for a NHL defender this season, and his puck skills are such that he helps greatly on defense as well by deftly moving the puck out of the Senator zone. Goalie Craig Anderson is finally healthy again after missing significant action over the past two months, though Ottawa stayed afloat in Anderson's absence with backup Ben Bishop between the pipes.

We thought the Rangers played a little over their heads this season, but there's no question that the offseason addition of C Brad Richards from Dallas added more bite to the Marian Gaborik line. Granted, New York has a big edge on defense, where John Tortorella's troops are extremely adept at blocking shots...and that's even before getting to the last impenetrable line of defense, GK Henrik Lundqvist. The Sens, however, will hardly be in awe, having beaten the Rangers 3 of 4 this campaign, and outscoring New York 7-1 in the last two wins. TGS Prediction: Nervous time for the Rangers, but they eventually survive-barely. Rangers in 7.

Washington Capitals (7) vs. Boston Bruins (2)...The Cup-holding Bruins pulled out of their early March nosedive to finish the season on a 7-2-1 uptick. Boston played in streaks all year, and coach Claude Julien is hoping that the Bruins are catching another updraft at just the right time, as they did last spring. This year, forces such as Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand will also have the extra confidence of being Cup winners, although GK Tim Thomas has been a bit erratic and has hardly looked like the guy who won the Conn Smythe Trophy last June.

The Caps are more of an X-factor than in recent seasons when they often flopped as playoff favorites; in that regard, maybe wearing an underdog label is a good thing. And we can hardly dismiss a side with Alex Ovechkin, even if he finished only 37th in the NHL scoring race this season. The recent return of Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green to active duty are pluses, and remember that Washington won 3 of 4 from the Bruins in the regular season. But Boston's 6-9 defender Zdeno Chara is the sort of roadblock who can impede Ovechkin, and the Caps hit the postseason with plenty of questions in goal with Tomas Vokoun likely out for this series with a groin strain and Michael Neuvirth game-to-game with his own injury. Washington is not the structured team that would figure to give the Bruins fits, either, and the inconsistencies that forced Bruce Boudreau to be fired and replaced on the bench by Dale Hunter in late November did not necessarily abate the rest of the season. TGS Prediction: The Caps have a puncher's chance, but goalie concerns are not good heading into the playoffs. After a few anxious moments, look for Boston to advance. Bruins in 6.

New Jersey Devils (6) vs. Florida Panthers (3)...We should clarify something in this matchup, because seedings or not, New Jersey is the favored team. The Devils notched eight more points (102 vs. 94) this season than the Panthers, and New Jersey's goal differential of +19 was a lot better than the Panthers' -24, one of the worst we can recall for a playoff participant. Florida also closed the season in retreat, with a 2-3-5 mark in its last ten games, and the Panthers also picked up 18 "loser" points (beaten in OT or shootout)...teams don't get those in the postseason. Credit GM Dale Tallon for patching together a playoff team after missing the postseason every year since 2000, but Florida has the third seed and home-ice edge in the first round only because it won the Southeast, the weakest of the East's three divisions.

Quietly, New Jersey was surging in the final weeks, winding up the regular season on a 6-game win streak while outscoring the opposition 22-9. Goalie Martin Brodeur is getting a bit long in the tooth but was on fire down the stretch, allowing just seven goals in his last five starts, and over his career has a 2.01 GAA and 23 shutouts in the playoffs. The Ilya Kovalchuk-Zach Parise line might also be one the most lethal in the playoffs. And, as if the Devils need any extra motivation, their coach, Pete DeBoer, was fired after last season by the Panthers. TGS Prediction: This won't be a genuine upset, but we expect the lower-seeded Devils to advance. Devils in 6.

Philadelphia Flyers (5) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (4)...Although their Saturday regular-season finale was rather tame, this has the potential to be the best series of the entire playoffs. Certainly it will have the spotlight in the first round, mainly because of the bad blood between the two sides stemming from their wild, 10-minute melee and resultant war of words after their recent April 1 game at Consol Energy Center. Putting these two together in the first round is begging for trouble.

Although the Penguins are the consensus choice to win the East now that Sidney Crosby has returned to active duty, the Flyers are also probably the worst possible matchup for Pittsburgh, and remember that Philly had won five in a row at the new Igloo before losing that meaningless regular-season finale in which Flyers coach Peter Laviolette rested key regulars G Ilya Bryzgalov & top scorer Claude Giroux. After last year's Philly merry-go-round in goal, Bryzgalov (imported from Phoenix in the offseason) represents an upgrade for the Flyers between the pipes and has been in very good form lately after mostly indifferent work for much of the regular season. Still, the edge in goal goes to the Pens and Marc-Andre Fleury, who won a Cup in 2009, and Pittsburgh is a different team now that defender Kris Letang (who provides offense from the blue line) is healthy and back in the lineup. With Crosby, Fleury, Letang, potential MVP Evgeni Malkin, and defensive ace Brooks Orpik, Dan Bylsma's Pittsburgh side certainly has the star power heading into the playoffs. TGS Prediction: Home ice might make the eventual difference, though we expect both sides to win at the other's home arena before this one is done. The edge to Pittsburgh is slight, but, in the end, we prefer Fleury to Bryzgalov and think that might be why the Pens survive. Penguins in 7.

WESTERN CONFERENCE


Los Angeles Kings (8) vs. Vancouver Canucks (1)...Right off the bat, this one has the simplest formula for a playoff upset because Kings' GK Jonathan Quick has the potential to stonewall any foe. With ten shutouts this season and a sparkling 1.95 GAA, Quick is giving L.A. its best goaltending since the days of Kelly Hrudey, or, for oldtimers, Rogie Vachon in the 70s. The Kings also have C Anze Kopitar available this postseason after he missed the opening round last year vs. the Sharks due to injury. On the negative side, L.A., though perking up on attack since adding C Jeff Carter from Columbus at the trade deadline, was still the second lowest-scoring team in the league. Carter is also iffy heading into the playoffs with a sore ankle. And the Kings lost a chance to win the Pacific Division in the last week when blowing late leads in two straight games vs. the Sharks, when wins would have had L.A. as the third seed in the West.

As for Vancouver, we've seen too many Roberto Luongo meltdowns in the past to assume the Canucks will steamroll their way through the playoffs. But Vancouver hits the playoffs on an uptick after winning 8 of its last 9, and Luongo was in good form the past few weeks, perhaps with the knowledge that his margin of error is slim since coach Alain Vigneault might not hesitate to go with very capable backup GK Cory Schneider (1.98 GAA; 1.25 GAA in his last six outings). Getting Daniel Sedin in the lineup (he's expected back from recent concussion symptoms) would help, and the Canucks' enforcers will be ready if the Kings target one of the Sedins or anyone else, as they did the Sharks' Logan Couture in the past week. TGS Prediction: We doubt Luongo could lose this series for the Canucks because Vigneault will go to Schneider at the first sign of Luongo wobbling. Quick can keep the Kings in this one for a while, but too much Canucks' firepower decides this one in Vancouver's favor. Canucks in 5.

San Jose Sharks (7) vs. St. Louis Blues (2)...One of the best stories of the season was authored in St. Louis by veteran coach Ken Hitchcock, who took over a floundering Blues ship from Davis Payne on November 6 and helped forge a remarkable turnaround that had St. Louis in the mix for the President's Trophy (best regular-season mark) until the final game of the campaign. A combination of depth, pace, and structure proved lethal. Solid defense, wondrous goalkeeping from Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, and the production of the T.J. Oshie-David Backes line also made the Blues tough to beat, especially at Scottrade Center, where St. Louis was 30-6-5 this season. Veterans such as winger Jamie Langenbrunner and center Jason Arnott add Stanley Cup-winning experience to the roster.

The Blues, however, wobbled a bit at the finish line, and their aura of invincibility beneath the Gateway Arch was shattered a bit by three straight home losses to close the regular season vs. Columbus (Columbus?), Detroit, and Phoenix. Meanwhile, San Jose might have finally caught a bit of an updraft at the regular-season tape by winning 7 of its last 10 games, and for the first time in recent memory the Sharks will enter the opening round as an underdog. Although blanked twice at Scottrade Center during the regular season, San Jose has more playoff experience than the Blues, and the Joe Thornton-Patrick Marleau-Martin Havlat line remains lethal. TGS Prediction: We're guessing the Blues' late fade might be a warning signal, and that Hitchcock might not be able to translate the regular-season formula into the playoffs. The Sharks will relish their rare playoff underdog status and score one of the upsets of the first round. Sharks in 6.

Chicago Blackhawks (6) vs. Phoenix Coyotes (3)...One of the other quirky developments in this year's first round (much like New Jersey-Florida in the East) is Phoenix, on 97 points for the season, getting the third-seed and home-ice edge vs. Chicago, which finished on 101 points but behind three solid teams (St. Louis, Nashville, and Detroit) in the Central. Meanwhile, by virtue of stealing the Pacific title in the last week, the Coyotes get home ice at Glendale in this round.

The Blackhawks retain much of the core of their Cup winner from two years ago (including wingers Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa) with one glaring exception, and it's an important one in goal, where neither Corey Crawford nor journeyman Ray Emery is likely to provide what Antti Niemi (currently San Jose's goalie) did two years ago. Moreover, we're not sure about C Jonathan Toews, who's missed the last 21 games with concussion symptoms and whose status remains iffy for the Cup run. Meanwhile, Phoenix hasn't won a playoff series since the franchise was formerly located in Winnipeg as the "old" Jets with Pokey Reddick and Daniel Berthiaume in goal in 1987. But the Coyotes enter the playoffs hot, winning five straight, with GK Mike Smith allowing only two goals in that stretch. Phoenix also won its last three vs. Chicago this season and finished the campaign on a 20-6-5 tear since Feb. 1, with young Czech winger Radim Vrbata emerging as a star on the number one line alongside vets Daymond Langkow and Ray Whitney. The Shane Doan line provides extra depth, and Dave Tippett's teams always play solid defense. TGS Prediction: Phoenix was perhaps the West's hottest team the past two months, and no goalie is playing any better than Mike Smith at the moment. Although Chicago will have plenty of fans in the games at Jobing.com Arena, we do not like the Blackhawks' current goalie situation, and that might be the edge to push Phoenix into the next round. Coyotes in 7.

Detroit Red Wings (5) vs. Nashville Predators (4)...In a year in which they set an NHL home win streak record of 23, the Red Wings still couldn't get a home-ice edge in the first round of the playoffs, due mostly to their subpar 17-21-3 road mark. There were some injury concerns down the stretch (GK Jimmy Howard missed considerable action) that seem to be in the rear-view mirror at the moment, but Detroit's indifferent form away from Joe Louis Arena has been a concern to coach Mike Babcock all season.

On the other hand, Nashville believes this is the season to make a serious Cup run. Playoff regulars in recent years, the Predators finally won a postseason series a year ago against the Ducks and pushed the Canucks in the West semis before exiting. The big Fin, 6'5 Pekka Rinne, remains a blockade in goal, and the Shea Weber-Ryan Suter pairing might be the best defensive combo in the league. Adding winger Andrei Kostitsyn from Montreal at the trade deadline to reunite with brother Sergei has bolstered the offense, which also received a bonus when another winger, Alexander Radulov, recently returned to the fold after spending a couple of years in native Russia. We think Radulov might be the X-factor in the entirety of the playoffs, and if his influence grows in the coming weeks as it has since his late-season addition, this might be the year for the Preds, who still muck things up between the blue lines as good as ever for coach Barry "Count Dracula" Trotz. TGS Prediction: The home ice should be a factor simply because the Wings didn't play well on the road all season. If Rinne is hot and Radulov emerges, Nashville can go a lot deeper in the postseason than it ever has in the past...perhaps all of the way to the Finals. Predators in 7
.

Return To Home Page