Wednesday, April 11, 2012

2012 Stanley Cup Quarterfinal (predictions)

2. St. Louis Blues vs. 7. San Jose Sharks
For only the second time since the lockout and first since 2009, the Blues have entered the Stanley Cup Playoff and won't be scheduling those early tee times in the golf course. They'll face a San Jose squad that has been to the Western Conference Finals in consecutive seasons and a team laden with playoff-savvy veterans. The Sharks were the pick in the preseason (myself included) as the team to come out of the Western Conference. They've molded this team as one that is built for the playoffs, they added a few pieces (Brent Burns and Martin Havlat) to add to that playoff-tested lineup. They finished strong this season, going 7-2-0. Even though San Jose has the players with better offensive numbers, I believe defensive-minded teams win titles and the Blues are built from the back on up and their goaltenders were the best tandem the NHL saw this season. Jaroslav Halak will get the start over Brian Elliott, who's nursing a minor upper-body injury but there's no difference between the two when it comes to San Jose. I've seen the best of Antti Niemi and also the worst at times this season, and I think the Blues' edge in goal will really stand out. St. Louis was 4-0-0 against the Sharks in the regular season, outscoring them 11-3 and it's no mistake why the Blues only allowed three goals in four games: Halak and Elliott were in top form. San Jose will not be an easy out for the Blues in this series but ...

1. Vancouver Canucks vs. 8. Los Angeles Kings
This might be one of the more intriguing 1 v 8 matchups simply because the Kings are a tough, hard-nosed group with strong goaltending in Jonathan Quick and a group that also thinks defense first. LA won't be intimidated against the two-time Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks, who also finished strong with strong goaltending as well. The Canucks starting this series without Daniel Sedin (concussion) has to be a concern for Vancouver despite their string finish down the stretch. In a playoff series that can be drawn out, a difference maker like Daniel Sedin affects other players, namely his brother Henrik Sedin. Quick led the NHL with 10 shutouts this season and this is the kind of goalie that has the capability of not only stealing one game but even two or three. That's how good he's been. What concerns me about the Kings is their lack of scoring despite having a plethora of offensively gifted talent. For this reason alone, I have ...

3. Phoenix Coyotes vs. 6. Chicago Blackhawks
Jonathan Toews is expected back for the Blackhawks, who were 13-5 without him while recovering from a concussion. But how much can Chicago really expect from Toews after missing all that time? Hard to throw a talent like that back into a lineup -- and a playoff series to boot -- and expect him to pick up where he left off. Luckily for the Blackhawks, they have the Hossas and Kanes and Sharps that have enough firepower to offset Toews' loss. But on the other side, there's a veteran-laden team in Phoenix that just quietly goes about its business and won their first-ever division title in franchise history. The main reason why? Mike Smith. Aside from the Blues' Brian Elliott, this was arguably the best free agent pickup by any team last summer. Smith has allowed two goals in his last five games, including three shutouts, and has the ability not only steal a game but games.Chicago seems to be the darling pick here and understandably so but I give a huge edge to Smith in goal over Corey Crawford, who could be on the short leash of Joel Quenneville if he doesn't perform well. Probably the best game I've ever seen Crawford play was that Game 7 loss to Vancouver last season. But he's been far from that performance in an up-and-down year. ...

4. Nashville Predators vs. 5. Detroit Red Wings
Central Division foes clash in the first round and unfortunately one of these teams will not be around when the conference semifinals begin. The veteran Red Wings, who have now made the playoffs in 21 straight seasons. But Nashville may have its best team ever when they begin the postseason tonight. The Predators have gone for it, loading up on talent at or around the trade deadline. Then there's getting back Alexander Radulov, who's been tearing at up overseas in Russia and the KHL. Nashville is deep, they're disciplined and they're well-coached. But there's still that mystique of the Red Wings that somehow is hard to shake. Jimmy Howard can match Pekka Rinne in goal, Nicklas Lidstrom is ... well ... Nicklas Lidstrom -- all world, all everything. The guy is one of the best ever. The one guy I think Nashville needs to neutralize is Pavel Datsyuk. Henrik Zetterberg is skilled in his own right, but Datsyuk is all-world. The guy has the ability to take over a game and be a game-changer. If Nashville has trouble with him, they'll have trouble in this series. That job will fall in the hands of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but the Predators rely on them for so much more. I just feel like they'll be spent by the end of the series. I want to pick Nashville to win here but something won't let me do it, so ...

1. New York Rangers vs. 8. Ottawa Senators
As good as the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist have been this season, it was the Senators who had New York's number. Winning three of four and boasting a lineup that features veterans like Alfredsson, Spezza, Gonchar and Michalek to go with rising star Erik Karlsson, the Senators will not be intimidated by the Eastern Conference regular season champs. But Lundqvist and his 39 wins will be tough for Ottawa to overcome. There is a decisive advantage in goal comparing Lundqvist to Craig Anderson for the Sens. The Rangers block shots (4th in the NHL) and they hit you (NHL leaders) and in prolonged series, that begins to wear on teams dependent on their offensive skill-sets. The Rangers can strike at you with the Gaboriks, the Callahans, the Richards' and the Girardis on the blue line. Throw in a Michael Del Zotto and younger stars like Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin and you have the makings of a deep playoff run. The Rangers losing three of four to the Sens in the regular season will give them enough incentive not to overlook Ottawa, so ...

2. Boston Bruins vs. 7. Washington Capitals
The Capitals finally caught some fire at the end of the season and Alexander Ovechkin finally looks like the player of seasons past. He looks motivated for a change and that bodes well for Washington. But when it comes down to the postseason, goaltending matters so much and the Capitals will try to oust the defending Cup champs with 22-year-old Braden Holtby (Michal Neuvirth and veteran Tomas Vokoun are out with injuries). This Boston team is so deep and so well-balanced, they don't need much in order to gain an edge. The Bruins got another solid year out of Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara had another Norris Trophy-like season. If Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand persevere, this could get ugly real quick. Boston will get the tough minutes and offensive production from David Krejci and Milan Lucic but this is one of the most balanced team in the NHL and will move on ...

3. Florida Panthers vs. 6. New Jersey Devils
The one series that looks boring on paper. It won't be. They met in 2000 and it was an extremely boring series, with the Devils moving on and winning a Stanley Cup. New Jersey, like Chicago in the West, seems to be the darling pick in this series. Easy to think that way with Kovalchuk, Parise and Elias lurking. But the Panthers won't woo you with star-studed names but they will roll four lines at you, with the fourth producing like the first. Florida had money to spend last summer and Dale Tallon wrote checks quicker than he could count. Tomas Fleischmann had a solid year and Brian Campbell was invaluable on the Panthers' blue line. Jose Theodore doesn't jump out at you as one with gaudy numbers but I just don't know how much more Martin Brodeur has anymore. ...

4. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 5. Philadelphia Flyers
This may be the most anticipated matchup of the first round. They're neighbors but they're not friends. Not by a longshot. They hate each other and in a playoff series, there will be a number of bruised and battered bodies left to continue on to the second round. There's a boatload of talent on both sides. Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Letang and company for the Penguins. Giroux, Briere, Hartnell, Jagr and company for the Flyers. Fans will be in for a treat watching the skill-set of these two teams. But this is becoming a broken record, but the game-changer in this series will be Marc-Andre Fleury. I just think he out-performs the enigmatic Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryzgalov got his game going late in the season and finally gave Flyers fans a reason to believe why he was given that fat contract last summer. But whichever one cracks first, will have a tough time of it. Fleury has been there, done that. In the end, it will be the difference. ...

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