NHL Playoff preview: Canucks favored, upsets likely

Daniel Sedin and the Canucks are Stanley Cup favorites.
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES

The National Hockey League’s 30 franchises competed in 2,460 games over six months to determine its 16 best.

Now those 16 have the opportunity in the next two months to participate in the games that really matter.

The playoffs are upon us.

The two-month marathon for the Stanley Cup begins tonight with Game 1 in five series: Washington vs. New York, Pittsburgh vs. Tampa Bay, Vancouver vs. Chicago, Detroit vs. Phoenix and Anaheim vs. Nashville.

The other three series —Philadelphia vs. Buffalo, Boston vs. Montreal and San Jose vs. Los Angeles — start tomorrow.

In this new, parity-driven world of Gary Bettman hockey, there are no dynasties. Legendary teams such as the late-’70s Canadiens, the early-’80s Islanders or the five-Cups-in-seven-years Oilers would have been broken up due to the salary cap.

There have been five Cup winners in the five postseasons following the lockout, and only one team — the Detroit Red Wings — even reached the Final in consecutive years.

What the salary cap has done by leveling the financial playing field is guarantee all 30 of the NHL’s franchises are flawed in some way.

But arguments can be made for and against any of the 16 playoff squads winning the Cup. The ice is open. Anyone can win.

That was proven last year, when the Philadelphia Flyers clinched the last playoff spot in the East in the regular-season finale, then got red-hot and reached the Stanley Cup Final. Philadelphia lost the series in six games to Chicago.

Playoff capsules:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Washington Capitals (48-23-11, 107 points) vs. 8. New York Rangers (44-33-5, 93 points)

Game 1 is Wednesday, 7:30 P.M.

The scoop: A rematch of the 2008-09 first round series that Washington won in seven games after the Rangers took a 3-1 lead. The Rangers won the 2010-11 regular season series 3-1-0.

Player to watch: Washington goaltender Michael Neuvirth. There is a belief that Washington will not win a Cup because their young goaltenders, Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby are viewed as not yet ready.  If the Caps are to win it all, Neuvirth will have to take the next step. 

The prediction: It would be simplistic to suggest that the series breaks down to the whole-greater-than-its-parts Rangers versus the high octane Capitals. It is also the correct assessment. Bruce Boudreau implemented a defensive system to prepare Washington for the playoffs but their goaltending with cost them, again. New York Rangers in six.  

2: Philadelphia Flyers (47-23-12, 106 points) vs. 7: Buffalo Sabres (43-29-10, 96 points)

Game 1 is Thursday, 7:30 P.M.

The scoop: The last time Philadelphia won the Stanley Cup was the spring of 1975. Since then, they have had fantastic teams that came up short. The 2010-11 Flyers are deep at forward and on defense and could make a Cup run…if their goaltending holds up.

Player to watch: Philadelphia goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. The Flyers goaltending situation is akin to Washington’s. The difference is that while the Capitals have never won a Cup, Philly has two in its history. However, Philadelphia’s last Cup came 35 years ago.  

The prediction: Danny Briere said after a recent loss that Philadelphia’s focus is “the playoffs.” While it had been long known that the Flyers would participate in the important spring games, their cavalier attitude in the season’s final weeks is a concern. Buffalo Sabres in six.

3: Boston Bruins (46-25-11, 103 points) vs. 6: Montreal Canadiens (44-30-8, 96 points)

Game 1 is Thursday, 7:00 P.M.

The scoop: The 33rd playoff meeting between the Original Six rivals may be the most heated in Bruins-Canadiens history. In the aftermath of Zdeno Chara’s devastating check to Max Pacioretty, Mark Recchi questioned the severity of the Canadiens’ rookie’s injuries. Milan Lucic acknowledged that the Bruins “hate” the Canadiens while Montreal police began an investigation into the incident.

Player to watch: Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara. Following his check of Pacioretty, Chara, the Norris Trophy candidate, has become a villain in 29 of the 30 NHL markets. Already despised in Montreal, he will be booed lustily every time he touches the puck at the Bell Centre.  

The prediction: Of the eight first round matchups, this is the one to watch. The hockey will be intense and emotional throughout. Boston, for a very good team, has a troubling tendency to stop playing for portions of games. That Achilles Heel will bite the Bruins at the most inopportune time. Montreal Canadiens in six.   

4: Pittsburgh Penguins (49-25-8, 106 points) vs. 5: Tampa Bay Lightning (46-25-11, 103 points)

Game 1 is Wednesday, 7:00 P.M.

The scoop: Perhaps with the exception of Nashville GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz, no two individuals meant more to their team that Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. That the Penguins are a playoff team following the losses of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have a great deal to do with the efforts of the Jack Adams and Hart candidates. 

Player to watch: Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos. The National Hockey League’s second leading goal scorer makes his playoff debut.  

The prediction: The potent Pens transformed into a shutdown unit after Crosby and Malkin were shelved. Eventually, though, the lack of offense will hurt Pittsburgh, and the damage should come from Tampa Bay’s explosive group. Tampa Bay Lightning in six.


WESTERN CONFERENCE

1: Vancouver Canucks (54-19-9, 117 points) vs. 8: Chicago Blackhawks (44-29-9, 97 points)

Game 1 is Wednesday, 10:00 P.M.

The scoop: Vancouver, the National Hockey League’s best team in the regular season has an opportunity to exorcise playoff demons by eliminating the team that ended their 2008-09 and 2009-10 campaigns. Chicago qualified for the last playoff slot when Minnesota beat Dallas, 5-3, Sunday night. 

Player to watch: Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford. You’re a rookie manning the nets for one of the NHL’s historically significant franchises. Oh, you’re the no.1 for a team that is defending its first Stanley Cup Championship since the 1961-62 season. Other than that, no pressure.  

The prediction: We picked the Canucks as its Stanley Cup Champion before the season began. Nothing transpired over the six month regular season to change our mind. That they get to face Chicago in the first round is wholly appropriate considering that the Blackhawks ended their last two seasons. That won’t happen this time. Vancouver in five.

2. San Jose Sharks (48-25-9, 105 points) vs. 7. Los Angeles Kings (46-30-6, 98 points)

Game 1 is Thursday, 10:00 P.M.

The scoop: The NHL’s Pacific Division Nor Cal vs. So Cal playoff matchup. San Jose and Los Angeles each won three of the six regular season games between the rivals. Both entered the season as Cup contenders, so expect animosity to ratchet up as the veteran Sharks and young Kings meet in the playoffs for the first time.    

Player to watch: San Jose center Joe Thornton and San Jose right wing Dany Heatley. Have two supposed great players accomplished so little in the meaningful games? For the Sharks to win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, both will have to be dominant figures.

The prediction: Much like two of the franchise’s cornerstone players, Thornton and Heatley, the Sharks have yet to accomplish much in the playoffs. Two years ago, GM Doug Wilson publicly criticized his team following a first round loss. Will he break the team up after they lose to the Los Angeles Kings in seven games?

3. Detroit Red Wings (47-25-10, 104 points) vs. 6. Phoenix Coyotes (43-26-13, 99 points)

Game 1 is Wednesday, 7:00 P.M.

The scoop: The Western Conference second seed prepped for the playoffs by going 8-7-4 in the final two months. Phoenix qualified for the playoffs for the second straight year despite its well-chronicled ownership issues.

Player to watch: Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard. So you finish the regular year tied for second in wins with 37, but due to a 2.77 goals against average and a .908 save percentage, your employer publicly woos an over-the-hill goaltender who struggled badly in the KHL. When that fell through, the organization stated you’re their guy. Got to feel the support, no?

The prediction: The Red Wings are one of the most underappreciated dynasties in major American sports. Detroit has qualified for the NHL playoffs each of the last 20 seasons. In that time, they have won four Cups. Yet due to injuries and age, it seems as if they are ripe for the taking. Maybe it’s foolish but METRO is going with the Phoenix Coyotes to win in six.

4. Anaheim Ducks (47-30-5, 99 points) vs. 5. Nashville Predators (44-27-11, 99 points)

Game 1 is Wednesday, 10:30 P.M.

The scoop: If Pittsburgh-Tampa Bay is a dark horse as the best first round series, Anaheim-Nashville is 1A. The Ducks top line of Bobby Ryan-Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry is among the NHL’s top five trios, while the Predators boast a Vezina and Hart candidate in goaltender Pekka Rinne and Norris candidate in Shea Webber.

Player to watch: Anaheim right wing Corey Perry. The 2010-11 Rocket Richard Award Winner scored 50 goals in 82 games, and finished with 98 points. For good measure, he added 104 penalty minutes and staked a legitimate claim as one of the best power forwards in the game.

The prediction: The toughest of the eight series to pick. Anaheim’s physical style of play is designed to be successful in the playoffs. Much like the Rangers, Nashville’s whole is stronger than the sum of its parts. Only nine Predators finished in double figure goal scoring, yet 20 players finished with 10 or more points. Oh, and Pekka Rinne is the best player no one talks about. That’s why we’re going with the Nashville Predators in seven games.



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