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2013 Playoff Preview

by chewy 30. April 2013 08:35

In the Spring of 1992, after saving my paper route money for weeks, I skipped school one day, woke up at 3AM and camped outside of Greengate Mall to be first in line for playoff tickets.  Roughly one week later, I sat with mixed emotions, front-row tickets in hand to Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals, as I watched my favorite player, Ronnie Francis, dismantle the Blackhawks in Game 4.  I was left holding a meaningless ticket to a game that would never be played.

 

Now, 21 years later, if all goes to plan, the Penguins and Blackhawks seem all but certain to meet once again in those Stanley Cup Finals.  If all goes to plan.  Which it obviously never does in the NHL playoffs.  Which is why predicting what will transpire over the next 2 months is perhaps the most challenging task a hockey writer can undertake.  Of the 8 opening round series, only the Pens and Hawks can be thought of as heavy favorites to advance.  Each of the other 6 series could be decided on a coin flip.  And as I witnessed up close in 1993, even an unbeatable Penguins squad could in fact lose to an eight-seeded Islanders…

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

 

Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs New York Islanders (8)

Speaking of which… could it  happen again?  Could the most talented team in hockey stumble in the opening round against an Islanders team that is seemingly just happy to be there?  Despite the fact that history is on the Islanders side, it's just not going to happen this time around.  The '93 Pens were built on raw talent alone and had below average  goaltending in Tom Barrasso, particularly in 1993.  While Fleury's performance last year was strikingly similar, he seems to have righted the ship.  And even if he is distracted by becoming a new daddy this week, Pittsburgh can safely turn to veteran Thomas Vokoun and barely miss a step.  Make no mistake.  With all the talent and grit added to an already talented and gritty team, the one thing that can mess up the parade plans in Pittsburgh is goaltending.

 

On the other side of the rink, the Islanders are in fact a fun team to watch.  With John Tavares officially arriving as a legit superstar this season, and with the team boasting a variety of speedy forwards that can turn a game around in seconds, it should be an entertaining series to watch.  Against any other opponent in the East, New York would have a fighting chance.  But against this all-star team, they should just be happy to be there.

 

Prediction: Penguins in 5.

 

 

Montreal Canadiens (2) vs Ottawa Senators (7)

The Habs defaulted into the Division Champ slot, despite a late-season collapse.  The hockey world was drooling over a certain Montreal-Toronto first round matchup, but will have to "settle" for the first Senator-Canadiens playoff meeting since the 1920's.  This one has all the makings of an epic storyline and could easily go either way.  On one hand, Montreal took an impressive storybook rebound season and scarred it with some downright awful play as the final weeks played out.  They had just enough to hang on to the #2 seed, but left plenty of questions, starting with the mindset of Carey Price.  If he falters, as he clearly did in the final weeks, the Habs have no one to lean on.  This is where a guy like Jaroslav Halak would be a nice card to play. 

 

The Senators are the team that won't give up or go away no matter how many people believe they will or should.  Despite losing their most significant pieces, the Sens persisted and played a team game to keep themselves from sliding.  Kudos to the coaching squad and the leadership of Alfredsson to get them here.  Now what are they going to do with it?  In a series like this, it will likely be decided by goaltending.  In which case, with recent history in mind, the edge clearly has to go to Ottawa.

 

Prediction: Senators in 5.

 

 

Washington Capitals (3) vs New York Rangers (6)

As the Kings demonstrated last season, getting hot at the right time can be all it takes to roll your way through the NHL playoffs.  A month ago it seemed impossible that the Capitals would even qualify for the post-season.  Today, it's not uncommon to hear predictions of their first Stanley Cup party.  The turn around has been awesome to behold.  Mike Green, Niklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin have turned the calendar back a few years and are once again a trifecta of skill that no team seems capable of answering.  So can Lundqvist be the one to end this run?  Of all the series, this one may be the most difficult to predict.

 

The Rangers are a very different squad than the one that started the season with high expectations, only to fall upon hard times very quickly.  The team clearly missed the elements that left in the off season, such as Prust and Callahan.  Callahan is back now, which helped New York compile 10 wins in April to salvage the season.  However, without Staal in the lineup, the Rangers may not have enough to shut down the top unit of the Capitals.  Then again… there is Lundqvist. 

 

Prediction: Rangers in 7.

 

 

Boston Bruins (4) vs Toronto Maple Leafs (5)

It's hard to fathom how the Bruins fell to the fourth seed.  Despite playing in a division that sent 4 of 5 teams to the playoffs, Boston clearly  was the team to beat in this group.  They faltered greatly in April, and struggled to score goals.  With just a week left in the season, Milan Lucic was watching games from the press box.  These are not good signs for a team preparing for battle.  They will face a team with whom they share much recent history.  Kessel, Seguin, Rask, Hamilton… the storylines surrounding trades will be told, but the bottom line here is that the Leafs look good right now and the Bruins do not.

 

Toronto brings an imposing lineup of forwards, including the unstoppable-when-healthy Lupul/Kessel combo.  Youngster Nazim Kadri was one of the biggest surprises of the season, blossoming in the wake of the coaching/GM changes to find his way into the top 25 for points in the NHL this season.  James Reimer has also surprised many, giving the Leafs no reason to sell the farm for a shot at Luongo at the deadline.  That may change this summer if he falters, but for now, the Leafs look like a good bet to advance to Round 2 for the first time in many, many moons.

 

Prediction: Leafs in 6.

 

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

 

Chicago Blackhawks (1) vs Minnesota Wild (8)

Congrats to the Wild for making the playoffs.

 

Prediction: Hawks in 5.

 

 

Anaheim Ducks (2) vs Detroit Redwings (7)

Congrats to the Redwings for… no.  I can't bring myself to complete that sentence.  Though, truly, just to be there for the 22nd straight season is something to behold.  But will it be enough to get them past the most underappreciated good team in the NHL right now?  The Ducks have put together an amazing rebound season, but have received very little attention in the wake of Chicago's epic winning streak in the West.  Nevertheless, this is a very good team having a very good season.  The Ducks are rolling three quality lines and getting scoring from each.  Selanne and Koivu, while playing on the third line, have combined for 20 goals alone.  Francois Beauchemin has re-emerged as a top-end and potential Norris Trophy nominee defenseman.  Anaheim also has 2 top-notch goalies on their hands should they need to choose.  And I haven't mentioned the resurgence of captain Ryan Getzlaf. 

 

The Wings have pulled off the unthinkable by clawing their way into the 7th seed, despite the decimation of their defense.  And they did it with impressive defense.  Jimmy Howard put up perhaps the best season of his career, at the most needed time.  But make no mistake.  This team belongs to Zetterberg and Datsyuk.  It's on them to determine how far the story can continue.

 

Prediction: Anaheim in 5.

 

 

Vancouver Canucks (3) vs San Jose Sharks (6)

There are a hundred ways to break down this series, but no matter how you approach it, it comes out a tie.  On offense, the edge has to go to San Jose.  Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Havlat, etc. hold a slight edge over the likes of the Sedins, Kesler, Burrows and newcomer Roy.  The difference maker here may end up being defenseman turned winger Brent Burns.  On defense, Vancouver can boast of the advantage.  San Jose parted ways with Douglas Murray to make room for more speed and agility, but leaves them in envy of the like of Edler, Bieksa, and Hamhuis.  In net, it's a tie.  Niemi put up a quietly outstanding season, while Vancouver can turn to either Luongo or Schneider as the mood fits.  Either way, it's looking like a good series and a tough one to call.

 

While the Canucks have more or less rolled towards another division title, the Sharks have been on a roller coaster ride.  They started the season on fire, fell flat on their faces in March, and dominated in April.  At least they're hot at the right time.

 

Prediction: Sharks in 6.

 

 

 

St. Louis Blues (4) vs Los Angeles Kings (5)

If these teams played 100 more games this season, they would probably still finish within a point or two of each other in the standings.  Both teams boast of significant depth, great goaltending, and a bit of grit, which should make this the most interesting series to watch in the West. 

 

The Blues enter the playoffs in complete control on defense.  Elliot is stopping everything, thanks in large part to the stacked defense and stifling system that Coach Hitchcock brings wherever he goes.  No team can match the 3 pairings on the blue line that St. Louis can serve up.  Up front, the Blues can roll their lines with ease, with scoring threats on the ice at all times.

 

The Kings will have a tough go at defending their crown, but come with basically the same set of weapons that dominated last spring.  Their top two lines can match up evenly with anyone in the West, but they do get a little thin in terms of scoring beyond that.  On defense, Drew Doughty could ultimate be the factor that gets them past the first round. 

 

Predictions: Blues in 7.

 

 

 

STANLEY CUP PREDICTIONS

 

I'm typically uncomfortable going with the crowd with my picks.  After all, I did name the Sabres as my pre-season selection to hoist the Cup.  However, in this case, I can find no plausible piece of evidence to suggest that anyone can defeat the Penguins in a 7-game series.  All that's left to be decided is the name on the other end of that history.  To me, it will come down to the Central Division.  Hawks or Blues.  Ultimately, I see St. Louis getting to the finals.

 

Penguins over Blues in 5 games.  MVP honors this season will go to the Real Deal James Neal.  With Iginla, Malkin, Crosby, and Letang finishing 2nd through 5th in voting.

 

 

SORTING THROUGH THE ODDS

 

If you're still reading, most likely, it's because you're about to fill out your selections for a playoff pool.  So while you've gained nothing by reading one more article picking Pittsburgh to win it all, I will offer up my rankings from 1-16 of the teams in terms off their likelihood to hoist the Cup in 2003:

 

1. Pittsburgh - could sit their top power play unit for the game and still be the most talented team in the league

2. St. Louis - depth wins in the playoffs and this team has no weak line.  Deep at offense.  Deep at defense.  Deep in goal.

3. Chicago - that winning streak happened for a reason.  This team is the most talented in the West.  If Crawford can stay hot, they have a shot.

4. Toronto - time for crazy.  The Leafs just feel like a team ready to make a run.  I see them reaching the Conference Finals and becoming the only team to give the Pens a slight scare.

5. Anaheim - this is a different team since Boudreau took over last year. 

6. Boston - if they survive the opening round with the Leafs, it will be by rediscovering the scoring.  If that happens, they will make a run.

7. LA - they are the defending champs.  All comes down to Quick.

8. San Jose - Their biggest test may come in the opening round.  This team has to feel like the window is nearly closed.

9. Vancouver - see above.  If they can overcome San Jose, they have a shot at advancing.

10. New York Rangers - if they do go a few rounds, Lundqvist will be the hands-down MVP

11. Washington - if they can keep the magic rolling, this is a talented group of players

12. Ottawa - go ahead, keep doubting them.  If they go far enough, they may just add Spezza at some point.

13. Montreal - all about Price.

14. Detroit - the streak is a alive.  Just be happy with that.

15. Minnesota - back in the playoffs for one week.

16. New York Islanders - sorry about that first round draw.

 

 

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