Today marks day one of the 2013 NHL playoffs, where the best eight teams from each conference fight in one of the hardest sports tournaments in the world, in pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Sports columnists Ryan Lehal and Vyas Saran present their first-round predictions for all eight series’ that begin this week.
David vs. Goliath. Expect that line to be dropped by play-by-play guys all throughout the series, as the Presidents Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks face off against the lowly 8th seeded Minnesota Wild. But this year, hesitation is due whenever an assumption gets made about how simple a series against the last seed would be; as a Canucks fan, I don’t know anything about this. At all.
But this is still the most favourable matchup for the Hawks. Mike Yeo’s Wild squad as usual showed a lot of promise early on and posed a threat to the Canucks’ division winning chances, until a late season breakdown that they were lucky to weather, and gain a spot in the playoffs. Realistically, winning even one game for the Wild would exceed fan expectations, versus that of Hawks fans who just want another cup.
Challenges for the Blackhawks mainly hover over the expectations they face as the league’s best regular season team. Just as the Canucks faced for the last two years, having a dominant regular season doesn’t equate in gaining the trophies that players, and fans, really want. Other than that, the only structural and personnel issue lays in goal, as the tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery post comparably impressive numbers.
For the Wild, the biggest tangible obstacle for them towards a first round upset, is scoring. The Blackhawks are second only to the Penguins in league scoring, and boast superstars like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews who can crush any teams back end. To fight this, Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota’s goalie who their chances rest on, has to be on top of his game and get hot. Scoring threats are nothing when an elite goaltender is on his game, making this the most important key to making it past the league’s top team.
Prediction: Blackhawks win in five
In any other year, Detroit would come into this series with home ice advantage against Anaheim, but the tables have turned in this post-post-lockout era. The Red Wings have once again made the playoffs adding to their now 22-year streak, which is something to motivate the team to build on, but their opponent in the Ducks is a fearsome one that climbed their way to third in the league standings.
This series will be an interesting as the Red Wings, who have iced a mostly AHL roster, have had a winning record against the Ducks, and have gained the upper hand in the six playoff matchups they’ve shared in the last sixteen years. Adding to that, the two people to watch in this series closely, are not players, but coaches – Bruce Boudreau’s credibility was tainted after the boot from Washington, but he resurged the Anaheim offense, and he faces the legendary Mike Babcock, who has made a mountain of a team out of a molehill that is a mostly AHL roster wearing the winged wheel logo.
For the Ducks, most call to coach Bruce Boudreau’s effect on the team and goaltender Viktor Fasth’s surprising rookie performance in tandem with Jonas Hiller, as uplifting factors to the Pacific Division champions’ recent success. Despite having the best regular season record in franchise history (this includes the critically acclaimed tenure of Emilio Estevez), the Ducks haven’t been able to crack the Red Wings, who they’ve faced six times now in sixteen years. To win, the Ducks need to continue their scoring success in combination with consistency from the goalie duo of Fasth and Hiller.
The Red Wings haven’t had as successful of a season, as they’ve been teetering on edge for the last few months, pushing many to wonder if the City of Detroit would finally implode after finally losing the last good part of its town. The Wings could bring another one home if the same pieces from cup runs of the past come out to shine, which calls for a prime performance from stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. This still can’t be achieved unless the younger core, whose experience pales in comparison to the Ducks roster, step up – keep an eye out on players like Valterri Filpulla, and Damien Brunner (and homers, if you will, Todd Bertuzzi).
Prediction: Ducks win in six
After the upsetting result in the 2012 playoffs when the Canucks were supposed to reach the finals once again, a lot of fans in Vancouver have since assumed that the team’s peak is behind them. Arguably though, this team is stronger on paper after last season (save for a lack of a superstar-level Ryan Kesler) with the acquisitions of Derek Roy and Jason Garrison, and the positive development of players like Chris Tanev and hopefully, Frankie Corrado.
Against the Sharks of 2013, this is even truer, as the Bay area team has lost a lot more than it’s gained since the two teams have last met – at the trade deadline, it seemed like they were holding a fire-sale after trading Douglas Murray and Ryan Clowe to the Penguins and Rangers respectively. Looking back at the beatings the team threw at Vancouver this past year (going undefeated in all three games against the Canucks), the Sharks are ignoring media opinions and seeing this as an even matchup.
Coming into the playoffs, the Canucks have greatly improved their record since the mid point of the year, where the power play was grossly ineffective, scoring was a rarity, and all six defensemen turned into pylons. The arguable turning point for this season has probably been the return of Ryan Kesler and the Roy trade, where power play goals shot up, and the back end has been hard to penetrate (unless you’re Nail Yakupov).
To beat the Sharks, the team has to have a balanced approach to get past the elite netminding Antti Niemi, and protect Schneider from the firewagon hockey game that Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, and Logan Couture. With less defensive responsibility on their plate, the Sedins and Burrows need to push forth a serious offensive game a la 2009-2011, and rely on scoring support from the Higgins-Kesler-Roy line, which needs to bloom.
For the Sharks to win, they need to elevate their game to the way they played in the first stretch of the season. At that point, the Sharks were placed with the Blackhawks as the best two teams in the league, both posting long undefeated records (of course, Chicago would extend their streak to 24, well ahead of San Jose’s 7). There, Patrick Marleau were scoring goals at a record pace, Joe Thornton was back in his prime, and the rest of the Pacific Division was trembling. To get anywhere this spring, San Jose needs to emulate this part of their season once again.
Prediction: Canucks win in six
The lesser-known storyline of The Hangover as we saw this week on TSN involves Anze Kopitar, Colin Fraser, and Dustin Penner’s fight against the pressure placed on the L.A. Kings squad after a Stanley Cup victory. The story of where they go is all up in the air, but we know it starts off, or ends, with some games against the St. Louis Blues. This pair of teams should be followed closely, as a rivalry may be on its way after going head to head twice in two years (last year, the Kings swept the Blues in the second round).
The Kings fared better than last year in the regular season, and held the fifth seed rather than squeaking in at eighth place. Despite an improved record, they’ve had a lot of problems this year in net and on the blue line – two areas that St. Louis has them overwhelmingly beat, as Jonathan Quick has failed to register a Vezina-contending performance, and Drew Doughty has been silent on defense for most of the year and lacked a scoring touch. In the Kings’ favour, scoring has gone up with huge contributions by Jeff Carter, who is the player to watch in this series.
Ken Hitchcock’s Blue’s stand to heavily challenge the Kings, as they’re coming into the playoffs with a stellar 11-2-0 record in the month of April. If any team knows that being hot coming into the post-season can lead to big cup runs, its Los Angeles. In Hitchcockian fashion, the Blues play a defensive first system that makes them competitive for the cup each year, thanks to the production by Alex Pieterangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and new acquisition Jay Bouwmeester.
The higher seeded Blues (by just one point) could take away this series by doing what they do best – consistent goaltending, and rock hard defense. As fun as this series could open up to be, we may see 1-0, 2-1 games, and a very frustrated Jeff Carter.
But again, the playoffs is another season, and the Kings could turn their switches on and make quick work of the Blues, who haven’t made it past the second round since 2001. Anyone would find it hard to believe that a team only a year removed from a Stanley Cup victory, and that hasn’t shed any of its weight, would go down early without a hard fight.
Prediction: Kings win in six
The Islanders reward for making the playoffs for the first time in six years is a matchup with arguably the most complete team in the NHL, the Pittsburgh Penguins. A team that already possessed the talents of Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Letang and Fleury got even stronger at the trade deadline acquiring the services of veterans Douglas Murray, Brendan Morrow and Jarome Iginla.
The Penguins are widely considered to be the favourites to win it all and it’s hard to disagree. Among the 30 NHL teams, Pittsburgh ranks first in goals per game, second in power play percentage and second in the plus/minus category.
The Islanders on the other hand are near the bottom of the league at number 21 in goals allowed per game. The fact that the Isles defence mainly consists of young and promising, but inexperienced talent, will see them collecting the puck out of their own net more times than not.
Pittsburgh simply has too much fire power, too much depth and too much experience for the young Islanders to handle. The Penguins should easily dismiss the New York Islanders in five games.
Prediction: Penguins win in five
The only all Canadian matchup of the first round sees the surprising Montreal Canadiens take on the even more surprising Ottawa Senators. Considering the Senators were without Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Milan Michalek for the majority of the season it is nothing short of astonishing to see them make the playoffs. Solid goaltending from the league leader in save percentage and goals against average, Craig Anderson, allowed this team to secure a playoff spot fairly early on. Without him, the Sens may have found themselves anxiously awaiting the results of the NHL draft lottery instead of competing for the Stanley Cup.
Their opponents, the Montreal Canadiens are coming off a surprising season which saw them win their division for the first time in four years and finish second in the East (they were dead last a year ago). The Canadiens haven’t had a good playoff run since they made it to the Conference Finals back in 2010, but this year we could see them back in the final four. The maturation of PK Subban from a promising young defenceman to a potential Norris trophy finalist has been one of the main reasons the Habs have been successful this season. Subban is tied for first in defenceman scoring with 38 points (ranked second among all Habs skaters) and was a +12 this season, which is a far cry from the -8 he was just two years ago. His play along with agitating rookie forward Brendan Gallagher, who finished the year with 30 points, made the Habs the first Canadian team to secure a playoff spot. The Habs may still be small up front, something that they have been criticized over the last few years, but they don’t back down from anybody (cue Brandon Prust).
If the Sens want to have a chance at winning this series they need to play a bruising style of hockey, however, I do not see them beating up on the faster, more skillful Canadiens. In goal, the Habs are as solid as any team especially when goaltender Carey Price is on his game. Unfortunately for the Habs, Price has struggled in the latter part of the season and backup goalie Peter Budaj has seen a lot more action than Montreal would like. This may be Montreal’s only weakness but since Ottawa has had trouble scoring goals (27th in the league), which should continue into the playoffs as Jason Spezza is still out injured, it shouldn’t be a huge problem. Price will most likely regain his all-star form and the Habs should dismiss the Sens in six games.
Interesting match-ups in this series include:
Prediction: Canadiens win in six
With the re-emergence of Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals are as dangerous as any team heading into the postseason. Throughout the final few weeks of the regular season Washington was by far the hottest team in the league and thanks to the play of their Captain, the Capitals were able to climb up the standings and secure a playoff spot.
Ovechkin finished the season with 32 goals and 56 points, which was good enough to win the Maurice Rocket Richard Trophy. It is safe to say that Ovechkin is back and so are the other two big stars in Washington, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom. Adding in that Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer also had a terrific season in Washington, the Rangers are in for a long and grinding series.
The fact that Washington is capable of scoring more goals than New York, who struggled to put the puck in the net all year long, means that the Rangers will have to rely on their goaltending if they are to have a chance to win this series. Goaltending is the big advantage that New York has over Washington, but will it be enough to win them the series? It could be, but netminder Henrik Lundqvist will need some help from his defence. With Marc Staal out indefinitely for the Rangers, it looks like Lundqvist will be getting a serious workout in between the pipes.
The Rangers definitely have more grit and can wear their opponents down with their size and toughness. But if they can’t put the puck in the net, they will have a difficult time trying to keep up with the potent Capitals offence. The Rangers will definitely make this series close, but look for the Washington Capitals to win in seven games.
Prediction: Capitals win in seven
Will the Phil Kessel trade come back to haunt the Bruins or will Boston continue their past dominance of Toronto? This is probably the biggest storyline heading into the series and the Bruins could rue the day they traded Kessel (unlikely though). The Leafs match up well against the Bruins and will definitely not be intimidated by their physical play.
As we have seen all year, the Leafs are one team that will not be pushed around physically. Scoring goals has also not been a problem for the Leafs this year (ranked sixth in the league) and with the offensive talents that they boast, Boston may be in a little bit of trouble. Nazem Kadri has definitely been the key to Toronto’s offence all season long but he is not the only weapon in Toronto’s arsenal. The Leafs have five different players with double digits in goals and have seven players with 20 plus points. Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel are the two players that will be the difference makers in this series. Look for them to score some big goals for the. In goal for the Leafs, James Reimer has been fairly inconstant throughout his career but when he is on his game he is definitely one of the best goaltenders in the league. If he gets hot there is no telling how far the Leafs can actually go in the playoffs.
The Bruins on the other hand haven’t changed much since they won the Stanley Cup in 2011 (it still pains me to bring this up). The only real difference is that Tukka Rask is the starting in net instead of Tim Thomas. Rask gives the Bruins a great chance to win every night. Unfortunately, he can’t do anything about the goal support he gets from his teammates. This year Boston has gone through some lengthy offensive slumps, which may lead to their downfall. However, their defensive play is good enough to keep them in games and the depth that they have up front will be the key to their postseason success.
Toronto will not go quietly, but the fact is that Boston is a deeper and more experienced team than the Leafs. Look for the Bruins to eliminate Toronto in six games.
Prediction: Bruins win in six
What are your predictions? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
Vyas Saran is the Canucks Columnist for Vancity Buzz, and can be followed on Twitter via @vyassaran.
Ryan Lehal is a general sports columnist for Vancity Buzz, and can be followed on Twitter via @Ryan19L
Image Credit: AP