Thursday, April 28, 2011

2011 Stanley Cup Semifinal (Predictions)

1. Vancouver Canucks vs. 5. Nashville Predators
The Canucks are coming off a grueling seven-game series that saw them take down the defending Stanley Cup champ Chicago Blackhawks, so we will have a new champion in June. But the story there is the degree of difficulty for the Canucks after racing out to a 3-0 series lead, only to see them come within one shot of becoming the fourth team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead. Can you imagine the catastrophic proportions in Western Canada had that happened? Now, Vancouver wastes little time in going up against the Predators, who disposed Anaheim in six games, winning their first playoff series in franchise history. I personally would like to see the Preds prevail here. I like Barry Trotz (my Jack Adams winner), I like Shea Weber (my choice to win the Norris Trophy, by the way), I like Pekka Rinne and I like Nashville's us-against-the-world mentality. How does Nashville do this year after year without that major superstar power in their lineup up front? They do it with a structured style of play that is frustrating to deal with. Just ask the Ducks. They play extremely stingy defense and Rinne has quietly risen into that group of upper echelon netminders, so much so, that he's a candidate for the Vezina Trophy this year. And as much as the Canucks just taxed themselves in the first round with the Blackhawks, I just can't see the Predators shutting down this Canucks offense. I think they can slow them down but to completely shut them down, I don't think it happens. The Sedins, up and down in the Chicago series, will be the focal point of Nashville's stingy defense, but the ones I see having a difference-making series here are Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows. Burrows was huge in Game 7 against Chicago and that trend continues in this series. Even with the addition of Mike Fisher, Nashville just simply doesn't score enough for me to keep pace. They did against the Ducks and Ray Emery, but finally getting that monkey off his back, Roberto Luongo now can set his sights on prospering and doing greater things in the playoffs. Luongo is better than Emery and is good enough, along with that Canucks d-unit, to limit Nashville's chances. The Predators can sneak out a couple wins, but that's about it ...

2. San Jose Sharks vs. 3. Detroit Red Wings
You want action? You want drama? You want high-powered offenses? You want 5-4, 6-5 games? Strap on your seatbelts, because this is the series for that. These teams met a year ago in this same round, with the Sharks winning in five games. Detroit, who I keep thinking will melt down and fold into the old-age mantra and they continue to slap me in the face, will be motivated by that series defeat and the fact they will have plenty of rest after sweeping Phoenix in the opening round. The Sharks got here after slipping past a very game and tough LA Kings group. I look at both of the rosters in this series and I see very little that differentiates one from the other. The offenses are powerful, they're deep and very skilled. The defensive units play a very similar shutdown style with a flare for offensive production as well. To me, this series comes down to goaltending, and right now, I take Jimmy Howard over Antti Niemi. I know Niemi has a Cup to his resume (last season with Chicago) and was stellar with the Hawks, but that was last season. Niemi has been pulled in these playoffs a couple times already and his play has been suspect, to say the least. I'm not a big fan of Howard's -- yet -- but he did outperform (by a country mile) the Coyotes' Ilya Bryzgalov and looked very good in doing so. Special teams could play a big role in who walks away from this series as well. There are plenty of big names in this series: Lidstrom, Thornton, Datsyuk, Zetterberg (provided he's healthy), Heatley, Marleau, Franzen, Boyle, Rafalski ... the list goes on and on. But to me, it boils down to Howard vs. Niemi. I like Howard. It goes the distance ...

1. Washington Capitals vs. 5. Tampa Bay Lightning
Here is the East's version of the San Jose-Detroit series: action-packed, offensive talent galore, plenty of drama. These divisional rivals were locking up toe-to-toe throughout the season before the Caps went on a tear to overtake the Lightning for not only the division but the top seed in the East as well. Washington's five-game series win over the Rangers was impressive on many fronts, but what's most impressive is the Caps' defensive mentality and goaltending. Finally, Bruce Boudreau gets it. You won't win Cups outscoring people, you do it with a shutdown mindset first, score goals second. The Caps have the pieces in place to do both now. The Lightning overcame a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Crosby- and Malkin-less Penguins, thanks to Dwayne Roloson stealing a 1-0 Game 7 win at the new Igloo. As the Sharks-Wings series, the names jump at you in this series: Ovechkin, St. Louis, Stamkos, Lecavalier, Semin, Backstrom, Green ... all difference makers. And what about the play of Michal Neuvirth for Washington? Stood up and faced the challenge of Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers. The Capitals won four of six games with the Lightning in the regular season and I give them a slight edge in the postseason as well. I like their ability to defend and use the transition game to have success. Speed kills and Washington's forwards have the edge in that department over Tampa's D. This will be a challenge for the Caps D as well to contain the Lightning firepower, and guys like Malone and Gagne can really make a difference if Washington focuses primarily on St. Louis, Stamkos and Lecavalier. This series will be entertaining, but I think the Lightning strike stops here ...

2. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 3. Boston Bruins
A rematch of historical proportions takes place one year later here. And we all remember the Bruins blowing that 3-0 series lead, with the Flyers winning a seven-game series after trailing 0-3 for the first time since 1942. The Bruins have been looking forward to this and would want nobody else in this situation. What better way to erase a painful memory than to look your culprit straight in the eye and meet it head-on? However many games this series takes to win, there will be enough drama to rekindle an old soap opera. The Flyers overcame a 3-2 series deficit to dispose of Buffalo in seven games, while the Bruins likewise needed the maximum to eliminate nemesis and fellow Original Six foe Montreal. There's tons of talent on both sides in this series, but what sticks out for me will be Boston's emotion and Tim Thomas. The Bruins will play with a chip on their shoulders from start to finish and Thomas can steal wins, if needed. Although I didn't care for the Flyers' goaltending going against Ryan Miller, they somehow managed to stare adversity in the face and Brian Boucher won there by default despite the shoddy play of Sergei Bobrovsky and Michael Leighton. Philly may have the deepest group of forwards in the league from top to bottom. All four units have goal-scoring ability and can make plays on a whim. I think Zdeno Chara will play like the Norris Trophy candidate that he is here and will rise to the occasion and Thomas continues to amaze in net. Boston's wildcard, in my opinion, is Nathan Horton. He already has two overtime game-winners and the Bruins brought him into Beantown to balance out the scoring when going up against the likes of Briere, Carter, Richards, Giroux and Co. Chris Pronger is not the same and may not be until next season. I can't see him being a difference-maker against Bergeron, Krejci, Lucic, Ryder and the ageless Mark Recchi. Boston gets its revenge. I like them to move on ...

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