Tuesday, April 12, 2011

2011 NHL Playoffs Preview

By Andrew Jones

The table is set for the NHL's playoff race. The President's Trophy has been awarded to the Vancouver Canucks, as they and 15 other teams vie to hoist the cup that really matters, the lord of all trophies, Lord Stanley's.

The 2010 playoffs featured some lovely upsets, including the Washington Capitals suffering from the President's curse and falling to the Montreal Canadiens, the last team to get into the playoffs with 33 fewer points than the Capitals.

This season, the Canucks won the President's Trophy and their reward for such wondrous play throughout the season, the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks who defeated the Cinderella Philadelphia Flyers in six games, then made a huge trade two weeks later, sending Dustin Byfuglien (amongst others) to Atlanta, simply to help out the salary cap. This pairing is just one of many intriguing matchups that await us in the first round of the NHL playoffs.

Vancouver Canucks vs. Chicago Blackhawks

The Canucks and the Blackhawks met in the 2009 and 2010 conference semifinals, with the Blackhawks winning in six both times. But these are different teams. The Sedin twins remain the same and have continued to dominate, accumulating 198 points between them this season, one more than last season. Also, the Canucks scored more goals than any other team in 2010-2011 and allowed fewer goals than any other team, as well, a completely ridiculous and remarkable feat. They've improved all around.

The Blackhawks are the ones with the new faces. With a penalty kill ranked 25th in the NHL going up against the Canucks, ranked number one, expect a few shots to go in the net while a Blackhawk is sitting in the box. Lots of people think the Blackhawks have a chance at an upset here and I simply don't see it, playoff experience or not, President's curse or not.

Canucks in 5

San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

The California opening round will make travel a non-issue, seeing as each team only has to travel about 300 miles to reach the opposing team's arena. While the Sharks have been perennial chokers in one way or another, losing in the opening round in 2009 and getting swept by the Blackhawks in the conference finals in 2010, I don't think the choking will occur too early on.

The Kings, as a rather defensive team, are going to have a hard time stopping the Sharks, a rather offensive team for more than one game in a row. Something has got to give and I have a feeling it will be the Kings.

Sharks in 6

Detroit Red Wings vs. Phoenix Coyotes

This is an interesting matchup simply because both of these teams had better regular season records on the road than at home. This has the makings for an upset. Detroit, being not dominant at home, may leave Detroit down 0-2, which is just demoralizing, even if a team plays better on the road. Strangely, playing at home first might be a bad thing for the Red Wings.

These two teams met in last year's opening round of the playoffs as well, with Phoenix hosting. The Red Wings won in seven. Three of their four wins in that series were on the road.

Also of interest in this matchup is that three out of four games between these two teams during the regular season needed overtime to be decided. Throw in Henrik Zetterberg's mystery injury and I'm a little worried about the Red Wings in the opening round.

Coyotes in 7

Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators

Three teams from California in the NHL playoffs? And one from Phoenix? I protest.

While the Predators like to play defense. They certainly know how to score goals against the Ducks. In four games this season, the Predators went 3-1 against the Ducks and scored 17 goals, while allowing 11.

You may say, "Big deal. That's only four games." But take into account that the Ducks may be without all-star goaltender Jonas Hiller, who is suffering from vertigo and that trend of four plus goals per game could easily continue into the playoffs. Backup goalie Ray Emery looks okay, but he's not 100% as of now and he hasn't been at the top of his game since 2007.

Predators in 6

Washington Capitals vs. New York Rangers

I felt like the Capitals underachieved this season, and they still won the Eastern Conference. Alexander Ovechkin only scored 32 goals and the team as a whole went all boring and non-offensive, only scraping a number 19 rank in goals scored.

It's probably a good thing they're playing the Rangers. Unless Marian Gaborik steps it up and remembers how to score a goal, which he failed to do in the last nine games of the season, the Rangers are dead in the water.

Capitals in 5

Philadelphia Flyers vs. Buffalo Sabres

A lot of people seem to be on the Sabres bandwagon right about now, but is it with good reason? Ryan Miller is certainly a goalie that can shut a team down and he has been playing well lately, recording two of his five shutouts on the season in the final weeks. But I think Miller is still riding the fame train a little bit from the 2010 Olympic games in Vancouver. Yeah, he's a great goalie. Yes, he can take over a game if he's on. But this is a series against the same team for up to seven games, where players can figure you out a little bit.

Staying on, really on, for that long against the same team is not an easy task and it is simply a different skill than Ryan Miller showed us last winter. Miller simply doesn't have the playoff resume to prove he can upset the Flyers. His last run was in 2007 when the Sabres eventually lost to the Ottawa Senators.

The Flyers have a better team than they did last season and while the path to Lord Stanley's Cup may prove more difficult, I think they'll handle the Sabres in the opening round. They know how to score goals and they know how to break down a goalie, even the likes of Ryan Miller.

Flyers in 7

Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens

On paper, the Bruins outmatch the Canadiens. They score more goals. They allow fewer goals.

But the Canadiens won the regular season series 4-2. However, those 2 losses were some of the most ridiculous losses of the season. On March 24, the Bruins pounded the Canadiens 7-0. On February 9, Boston beat the Canadiens 8-6. The matches that the Canadiens won had much more reasonable scores. I think it is safe to say that there is the potential for some really interesting games in this series.

The one weakness the Bruins have in competing with the Canadiens is the power play. Boston is middle of the road to mediocre in killing penalties and managing to score. Montreal is pretty solid on both.

If Boston can stay out of the penalty box, which they're not particularly good at, they should be able to handle the Canadiens.

Boston in 6

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

I think this is the most intriguing matchup of the opening round. A lot of press has been given to Sidney Crosby and his concussion three months ago. The latest reports don't expect Crosby to be available for the opening of the playoffs and if he's not available for the opening, I don't expect he'll be available at all.

Remember that Evgeni Malkin has been out and will be out until next season after knee surgery, so the obvious choice to step up and fill Crosby's shoes is more unavailable than Crosby himself. Since Crosby's injury, the Penguins have been a streaky team, winning four here, losing four there, but have played well overall.

The problem is that they're facing Tampa Bay. If the Penguins had the tiebreaker over the Flyers and were opening against the Sabres, I might give them the benefit of the doubt ... though probably not. The Lightning are an explosive team led by the veteran Martin St. Louis and the young gun Stephen Stamkos, who teamed up for 190 points this season. While Stamkos cooled off as the season progressed, the Lighting's goaltending has improved.

More than likely, veteran Dwayne Roloson will start every playoff game for the Lightning. He has solid playoff experience and even at 41 is no slouch. I mean the guy started 54 games this season. Not bad for an old man. But if Rolo can't cope, the Lightning do have a capable backup in Mike Smith, who can get hot between the pipes.

Without Crosby's leadership, I just don't see the Penguins making a run or even getting out of the gate.

Lightning in 5

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