If you followed March Madness this spring, you know that this year was a wide open field and resulted in some big time surprises all the way to the Finals. Looking at the field for this year's NHL Stanley Cup Finals, you get the sense that maybe there's a theme for 2011. Consider the following:
- Last year's champs defaulted into the final spot in the West
- The best team in the East all season (Philly) collapsed down the stretch and is back to questioning their goaltending
- The Pens are still facing their first Spring without their top 2 players (maybe)
- Several other teams also enter the dance with their top players on the shelf (Detroit - Zetterberg?, Buffalo - Roy, Anaheim - top 2 goalies are out, Washington - no telling how healthy Semin and Green are right now, Ranger - Callahan, LA - Kopitar...)
- San Jose is looking good, but how is that different than any other season in the past 10 years?
Just about the only team that enters the playoffs with virtually nothing to worry about is the Vancouver Canucks… which may make them the team most likely to suffer a shocking first round upset (ala Capitals last spring). It's tough to make any sense out of what will happen in the next two months, but we're here to try.
Washington Capitals (1) -vs- NY Rangers (8)
Believe it or not, this may be the toughest series to call for me, and here's why: The Capitals finished as the top team in the East again, though they took a very different path getting there this season. You'll read how Coach Boudreau has transformed this team into a defensive juggernaut. That hype is overblown. There are all kinds of questions surrounding the goaltending on this team. Their best option statistically this season was Braden Holtby, and there's no indication that he'll be in the mix. Varlamov and Neuvirth have much to prove as a starting goalie. And despite the notion that the Caps are an offensive force, they have no balance. They finished the season with just 3 20-goal scorers and a host of injury concerns.
Two weeks ago, I would have felt confident picking the Rangers to upset the Caps in this round, based on their all-around team play, and the man in the cage. However, the loss of Callahan is huge. Perhaps bigger than the loss of Kopitar in LA. Even so, this Rangers team is built for ugly, boring playoff hockey.
Outlook: Could easily go either way, but I'm looking for a repeat of last year's early exit. Rangers in 6.
Philadelphia Flyers (2) -vs- Buffalo Sabres (7)
Here is another matchup that shouldn't be hard to call, but is. A few months back, the Flyers were on top of the league and the Sabres were an afterthought for the playoff picture. The teams have been moving in opposite directions since. Philadelphia started the season with a dilemma of which hot goalie to start each night, as Bobrovsky and Boucher exchanged outstanding performances. The two have slid down to mediocrity in the past two months, causing the Flyers to bring Leighton back into the picture in recent weeks. Outside of goaltending, there are very few questions worth considering with the Flyers lineup. No team can touch Philly in terms of total depth, both in scoring, and in defensive play. This team is solid and balanced from top to bottom, with 6 20-goal scorers, and one more at 19.
The factor that gives Sabres fans hope is consistency across the roster. That is, everyone can score a little, but nobody scores a lot. An impressive 11 players topped 10 goals this season, but only Vanek managed more than 52 points on the year. The assumption that this team relies on Miller is false, they've done just as well (if not better) with Enroth filling in this season, as they have with Miller. I'm not doubting that Miller can be the Halak of 2011, but don't assume it's a no-brainer that he's the team's MVP this spring.
Outlook: Any objective look at these teams has to reach the conclusion that Philly just has far more talent than the Sabres. If Roy were healthy, this may be more of a discussion. Philadelphia in 5.
Boston Bruins (3) -vs- Montreal Canadiens (6)
I'm still having a hard time processing the fact that Montreal won two rounds last spring, so I can't just write them off. However, please tell me what there is to be excited about with this team. The top scorer on the team this year was Tomas Plekanec with a whopping 57 points. The bright side, at least for Round 1, is that the Bruins top scorers only reached 62 points. Just by the numbers, the Bruins are the superior team. Boston outscored Montreal by 30 goals, and they allowed 14 fewer on the season.
In terms of goaltending, you obviously know what to expect in Boston. Thomas has been in a class by himself all season long. Should he falter, Rask is a fine backup plan. With Price, Montreal fans have to be cautiously optimistic that he can carry his fine regular season play into April and perhaps May. No guarantees there.
Outlook: If you followed the head-to-head matchups between these teams, you know that anything can happen. So make this the 3rd series in the East that the coin toss can decide. I'm a little more confident on this one in leaning towards the Bruins. Boston in 6.
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) -vs- Tampa Bay Lightning (5)
These are not your father's Pittsburgh Penguins. For two decades now, Penguin fans have been accustomed to run and gun, entertaining hockey with lots and lots of goals scored. Defense was an afterthought. Switch those sweaters with a mid-90's Devils jersey this year and nobody would blink an eye. This team is all about defense right now, by necessity. Having seen every Pens game this season, I can even throw out the word… boring. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, as the team continues to kill time waiting for Sid to return.
Tampa Bay is a team changing identities, following a decade of complete mismanagement. The question is, are they ready yet to prove they are for real? The offense relies far too heavily on St. Louis and Stamkos (and even Stamkos has been MIA in recent weeks). The team doesn't have the defense, and nowhere near the goaltending that the Pens bring to the series. Tampa allowed 41 more goals than the Pens this season.
Outlook: The Pens are certainly capable of bailing out early this spring, as the goals have been hard to come by lately. They may have fallen into the best possible matchup for them, as the teams below Tampa all put up more of a fight defensively. Unless Crosby returns soon, I can't see Pittsburgh playing into May; however, I do see them advancing to round 2. Pittsburgh in 5.
Vancouver Canucks (1) -vs- Chicago Blackhawks (8)
If there is one team that should be a no brainer in round 1, it's the Vancouver Canucks. The only cause for thinking this thing through any further is the fact that their opponent took them out 2 springs in a row now. Will Luongo be thinking about that entering action this week, or is this just a stop on the way to the Finals? Vancouver boasts three of the top forwards in the game today with the Sedins and Kesler. Injuries this season have given them a chance to flaunt their incredible depth on defense. I just can't see this team losing right now.
Chicago limped into the playoffs by default with a Dallas loss on the last night of the season. Despite still possessing a talented stable of forwards, they just don't seem to be a team with the desire to get back to the top, back-to-back.
Outlook: Vancouver in 5.
San Jose Sharks (2) -vs- Los Angeles Kings (7)
At the start of the season, I picked LA to make it to the Finals. I was still optimistic that my pick was worth justifying up until Kopitar went down a few weeks back. Without their superstar up front, the Kings just don't have the firepower to compete, particularly with a team like San Jose. LA should have Justin Williams returning shortly, which will give some cause for help, but it just won't be enough.
The Sharks are always a tough pick to justify, just based on their history of disappointment. They seem to be on solid ground coming down the stretch. They also have good balance in their scoring, with 7 20-goal men this season. And don't forget that last year's Cup winning goalie has the crease for the Sharks.
Outlook: Compared to the decisions back East, this one seems somewhat obvious: San Jose in 5.
Detroit Redwings (3) -vs- Phoenix Coyotes (6)
Since the lockout, the 6th seeded teams have won more Round 1 matchups than the favored 3rd seeds. That could easily happen in either conference again this year, and I'm picking it to come true out West. And for me, the biggest reason is named Ilya Bryzgalov. If this series comes down to a goaltending duel, Phoenix walks away with the win for sure. Howard has proven to be a good starter over the past two years, but has a ways to go before entering the conversation against what Bryzgalov has proven.
While just one Phoenix forward reached 20 goals (just barely), there were a gaggle of others that fell just short. 11 players topped the 10 goal mark, and 8 of them topped 15. Another interesting (and meaningless) stat is that four of those guys had more goals than assists. The Coyotes don't look great doing it, but they just get it done.
Detroit may start the series without Zetterberg and/or Kronwall. Not bad, considering the injuries they battled through earlier in 2011. No doubt this is a good team and could go deep.
Outlook: Just feels like an upset to me. Phoenix in 6.
Anaheim Ducks (4) -vs- Nashville Predators (5)
Time to get that coin back out of your pocket if you're looking to pick a winner here. While neither team looks particularly fierce on paper, you probably wouldn't want to face either one of them right now either. Both teams have won 7 of 10 down the stretch. With Anaheim, you have perhaps the best top 4 forwards on an NHL roster. The line of Perry, Getzlaf, and Ryan, when together, is unbeatable. Add in Selanne, and you've got a top-heavy Anaheim offense that can score. The problem here is depth. And goaltending. While they've gotten good results from their goalies this season, health is the factor right now with Hiller and Emery on the shelf to start to series. That leaves Ellis with the reigns, and cause for concerns in So Cal.
Nashville has no such concerns regarding their goalie situation. While he won't win it, Rinne should be among the finalists for the Vezina. And while he won't win it, Trotz should get plenty of due consideration for coach of the year. He continues to get results from a team that on paper looks like a bottom-feeder. The average fan would be hard pressed to name a single forward on this roster. Sergei Kostitsyn and Martin Erat top out the scoring at 50 points. The strength of this lineup lies in what may be the best defense in the league. Weber, Suter, Franson, Klein, etc. provide as much offensive chances from the back end as the Nashville forwards provide up front.
Outlook: Too close to call with any certainty, but the Ducks typically win in the Spring, while the Preds never do. Anaheim in 7.
Just like with the NCAA tournie, all bets are off if you're trying to predict the two teams who will be left standing in June. While I expect plenty of upsets along the way, I'm leaning on a safer bet for my two finalists. I'm expecting the Flyers to come out of the East for the 2nd straight season to face the Canucks in Round 4.
Outlook: Flyers win the Cup in 6.