Round Two - Playoff Predictions
by Colin Van Osch(NHL)
Posted on April 29, 2009, 11:37 PM
Round Two Predictions
Now weíre past the most stressful 2 weeks of my life. Frankly, I love the playoffs. Some say that I drift through the dreary monotony of the remainder of the year, eagerly anticipating the return of playoff hockey like one would anticipate the return of a long lost love. Sure, there are other women along the way, by which I mean useless regular season games, but itís not until the return of the playoffs do I feel like I regain a spring in my step.
But, alas! Trouble in paradise! Much like an old lover, you often find yourself blind to the downside of the return of a loved one. For me, the first round is Hell. Why? I feel compelled to watch every single game. I PVR games, I run 2 TVís at once, I forego sleep and sexual congress with my better half. I am proud to say that out of a potential 44 games, I watched 38. Itís an average of slightly less than 3 games a night, and itís nothing short of grueling. Keep in mind that the first few days were 4 games a night until we got some sweeps out of the way, and itís almost nothing short of heroic.
The point Iím getting at is, this is my vacation. Having a maximum commitment of 2 games a night is heavenly. How lucky am I that the next 4 series, on paper, look phenomenal. Weíve got about 24 hours until Round 2 starts, and Iím shooting for my first 100% completion rate in a few years (not counting Conference Finals or Stanley Cup Finals).
So, here we go.
The Western Conference
Detroit Red Wings (2) vs. Anaheim Ducks (8)
My first thought on this series is that Detroit must be getting exhausted. I was amazed they had their legs in the first series, and I was shocked when they manhandled the young Blue Jackets so easily. I donít know that the sports fan in me wants to see Detroit win. Thereís no sizzle there anymore. The fire is out. Detroit is a good team, they have been since Christ was a child. The defending Stanley Cup champions arenít going to be pushovers. Not in this series. Not in any series. They havenít been swept in a series since 2003. Against Anaheim, when it was the 2nd seed vs. the 7th seed.
Detroit is a good team, and if Osgood is turning it on, they are a great team. I will only say to Anaheim what I said to Columbus. Theyíre not undefeatable, but you can give them nothing. Detroit is not a team you can make a lot of mistakes with. Every player on that team is on their 3rd season in the last 2 years. It was a lengthy run last year, itís been a long year and the best thing that has happened to them is that they got some time off between Columbus and Anaheim. Thatís not something I normally say, but when youíve played 190 games in the last 18 months, getting a week off is a Godsend.
Anaheim is terrifying. In the first round, I thought there was a definite possibility of an upset and it played out. The lead line of Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan are amongst the best front lines in the league right now and Anaheim has a vicious defensive corps. They have a young goaltender, dying to prove his worth who stood on his head when challenged and showed an unmistakable calmness in Round 1. After watching Anaheim destroy San Jose, I was fully prepared to give them the go ahead in this series, but thereís a few points to consider.
Firstly, Anaheim may have beaten the Presidents Trophy winner, but they werenít playing a quality team. You could count on the fingers of one hand the players who showed up to play on any given night. Anaheim beating San Jose will provide an extra dose of momentum, but itís a lot more impressive on paper than it is in reality.
Jonas Hiller has been fantastic. Really, it seems like every year, a marginal-to-above-average goalie emerges as his teams savior. Sometimes itís a journeyman who has seen backup time on every team in the league like Dwayne Roloson. Sometimes itís the latter, an up and coming rookie who has everything to prove and nothing to lose like Jonas Hiller. Sometimes that works out, but every single time itís the story of the series. Itís an overblown situation. The number of times that this young goalie ends up being the pivotal point in the series is miniscule. Every year, another Jonas Hiller or another Simeon Varlamov shows up, and the next year it is briefly mentioned until it fades. Ask Ilya Bryzgalov or Ray Emery. Hiller is a good goalie. He hasnít been challenged enough in the first round to prove that heís going to bring the same cold composure against a strong Red Wings team.
Anaheim has done a lot of good things. I have a lot of time for that top line, and I think Getzlaf is a Top 10 player in the league. That defensive teaming is fantastic, and the acquisitions of Wishniewski and Whitney at the deadline are simply stunning when you consider what that adds to the team. If Hillers composure moves into this round, they are a serious threat.
If Detroit has ever had a problem with something, itís that theyíre in the spotlight and as such, have a narrow pedestal thatís easy to be knocked down from. For all the years they have been favorites to win the Cup, they have done it only a select few times and suffered some embarrassing defeats when they decided to only put half a team on the ice mentally. I think in the forward depth category, Detroit takes it. Detroit has 4 rock steady lines and are going to threaten from every angle. Defensively, I donít think thereís a team in the playoffs left who isnít afraid of facing this grouping, and itís not just because Chris Pronger is a dangerous psychopath. This is going to come down to Osgood vs. Hiller. If Osgood shows up to play, and Hiller doesnít, the Red Wings win. If Hiller shows up and Osgood doesnít, the Ducks win. If neither show up, the Red Wings win. If both show up, the Red Wings win. It hurts me, but on the whole, Detroit is a rock solid team who have the skills to break Hiller. The Ducks have Gigeure, but he has been on the bench for the better part of 2 months now and I donít see him coming in and doing anything that is going to save this series. Hiller needs to show up and the #1 line for Anaheim need to rattle Osgood early. Really early.
I told myself that after I denied my gut and went with San Jose in Round 1, I wouldnít bet against Anaheim again in a toss up. Every game is going to be great, but I canít defend why Anaheim would win this barring a meltdown in Hockeytown.
Detroit in 6
Vancouver Canucks (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (4)
This is the money series for this entire playoffs. Honestly, short of Vancouver and Pittsburgh making it to the finals and going 7 games, I just canít see how this will be eclipsed.
You have to love Chicago. I mean it, itís actually required. For the most part, these players have only heard about the playoffs or seen it on the TV. The way they came into the first game against Calgary was astounding. They played with the confidence and the patience of grizzled veterans. Itís not just that they played with the confidence to know that they could hold their own. They had the confidence to know that they could get away with making plays and that they could pinch on a play or crash the net and not get caught. The way they played in the first round filled me with confidence that this team could make the Conference Finals.
Vancouver has been my favorite to come out of the West since I saw the brackets. I donít want to repeat myself, but this team lacks a visible flaw. Their first line is dizzying in the way they cycle. Their second line, if Sundin is healthy, can provide secondary scoring in a way that most teams can only dream of. The third line of Wellwood-Bernier-Raymond was one of the best in the first round of any team. When you talk about unsung heroes, if you can find me someone who has been abused and belittled as much as Kyle Wellwood who has gone on to prove again and again that he is a viable asset, I will bow to you. I thought it was a shame when Toronto let him go, I think it was a shame that people gave up on him. He is a smart player and he makes a difference. The defense are deadly. The Canucks have 2 of my favorites in Bieksa and Mitchell. They have 2 good puck movers in Edler and Ohlund and if Sami Salo is healthy, he should be able to pick up the slack that is created with the continued employment of Shane OíBrien.
I would like to digress for just one second. I hope, sincerely, that I am not cursing him, but I have to say this.
Roberto Luongo, this is your last chance with me. Now, when people told me you were an elite goaltender who was stuck on a bad team in Florida, I believed them. I believed you when you said that you could win Stanley Cups if you had better teams in front of you. I have no doubt that you are in the upper echelon of goalies. It is, however, put up time. Youíve proven to me that you are a good Regular Season performer. So is Joe Thorton. Show me that youíre a credible goaltender who can hold it together when the going gets tough, because for all your pretty numbers in the Regular Season, youíve rarely impressed me in the post season and youíre never going to get a better team in front of you than you have now. Your promise of winning a Stanley Cup when you have a good team in front of you is going to be about as worthwhile as Sather saying he could win a Cup every year with New Yorks budget. You donít need to win it, but you need to come out of this conference.
Moving on, I do have a lot of faith in the Canucks, previous diatribe aside. I think that this is the years that they have the tools to support their goaltender. This is going to be a tight series, but Iíve limited it to 2 reasons that Chicago is going to struggle.
Ben Eager is a liability and I don't know that Joel Quenville knows it yet. I donít like singling anyone out. I think he has merit as an antagonizer and as an energy player who occasionally pockets a goal. Everytime I see him he is either taking a stupid penalty or doing something that warrants a stupid penalty. I donít think he needs to be benched. He is an asset to this team for no more than 8 minutes a game. If you put him on the ice, it needs to be to draw someone like Bieksa into a fight with him, someone who will legitimately be missed for 5 minutes. He cannot go out there, take a roughing penalty or a high sticking penalty or a charging penalty or what have you in an attempt to Ďruffle their feathersí. There are some people who do this role well. There are some people who are so intent on playing this side of the game that they are creating a disproportionate amount of chances for their opponents compared to the number of penalties they draw. Eager is drifting to this classification, so until that clears up, Eager needs to be kept either in line or off the ice.
Finally, the reason that Chicago was so immensely successful in Round 1 was the combined work of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who really could never get enough props. They canít be everywhere though. They have a good supporting cast with Walker, Barker, Campbell and, to a lesser extent, Hjalmarsson. These are not shut down defensemen though. They range from very good in Barker, to competent in Walker and Campbell, to functional in Hjalmarsson. You only have one grouping that could shut down a major line, and that line is going to have to be the Sedins. Keith and Seabrook need to be on the Sedins like they were on Iginla, and you can bet your last dollar that theyíll be matched every second of every game in this series. I do expect that, despite Keith and Seabrooks outstanding shutdown abilities, that the Sedins ability to cycle is going to get them out of position enough to create chances. They wonít be frequent, and they wonít be glaring chances, but all Henrik and Daniel need is 1 second and a small opening to embarrass you.
Additionally, that opens up Sundin, Demitra and Kesler/Burrows though, and that is a major problem. I have full confidence that Barker and Campbell will be able to hold their own against this line, and by no means do I think that theyíll skate circles around them. They simply will not be able to fully contain them and they will put up numbers. That line is going to be a bigger threat than the Sedins. Add in that theyíve got great scoring touches in their energy line, and I see Vancouver being able to put up good numbers on this team. Itís really the reason I have Vancouver going so far. They always have another bullet, and when the barrel runs dry, Luongo is there to hold down the fort.
I might PVR this entire series because itís going to be a thing of magic. This is Pittsburgh vs. Washington with none of the hype. Enjoy it, please.
Vancouver in 6
The Eastern Conference
Boston Bruins (1) vs. Carolina Hurricane (6)
On paper, you would assume this is going to be a blowout. The Boston Bruins were far and away the best team in the East this year and challenged for the Presidents Trophy for the first time in 19 years. They have the odds-on favorite for the Vezina Trophy in Tim Thomas, and my personal pick for the Norris in Zdeno Chara. Theyíre a hard team to play and theyíve got 4 lines that can either beat you with speed, or beat you the old fashioned way: To death. On the surface, this series could go the way of Boston and Montreal.
Here are 5 reasons this series is winnable for Carolina.
1) Momentum: Carolina is coming off of a major upset against Jersey. Not just in the sense that they were unlikely to win. In the sense that, with 90 seconds left in the series, they were not going to win. Everyone talks about getting the goal right before the period ends to take all the momentum going forward - Carolina has that. In spades. They have the most momentum of any team coming into the second round, because they defied logic to come forward, they did it with an offensive outburst to end the series and they did it against the most elite goaltender in the history of the game. This team is going to bring so much energy to the first game that if you could harness it and bottle it, it would be illegal to sell to children. By the time this series starts, theyíll have had a 3 day break. Boston will have been idle for 2 weeks and should start slow out the gate.
2) Eric Staal: Tied for most points in the playoffs after round 1. Scored the series clinching goal. Scored a number of big goals and has been a consistent threat and the best player on the ice. The best goalie in history couldnít shut him down. Tim Thomas may have been the best this year, but heíll have his hands full keeping Staal off the board.
3) Their performance since the trade deadline has been second to few. The energy and confidence this team got with the return of Erik Cole propelled them from a team that was on the precipice of making the playoffs to a team who at one point was poised to have home ice advantage in Round 1. They have been red hot since the deadline and if you donít believe they can harness that and work some miracles, you didnít see Game 7.
4) Cam Ward 2009 is playing like Cam Ward 2006. Ward has been less than stellar since his Conn Smythe run, but his recent work is enough to make you forget that Carolina went right into the tank after their big win. Cam Ward, when hot, is as good as Tim Thomas, who himself is a notoriously streaky goalie. If 2006 Cam Ward shows up, Carolina removes the goaltender advantage, and that Cam Ward can make the ridiculous, enthusiasm draining saves that will leave the Bruins depleted and scratching their heads.
5) Experience. A decent amount of that 2006 Stanley Cup team is intact. Boston has been to the playoffs, but beyond Mark Recchi, they donít know how to deal with the increased pressure as the playoffs drag on. They donít have players who even yet know what itís like to have their back to the wall where I misstep could cause the series. If Boston goes down the first 2 games, they might panic. If Carolina goes down the first 2 games, I think theyíll be equipped to pull themselves together, knowing that theyíve been there and that all things are possible with enough effort.
This is not a team to discount, sneer at or dismiss. Carolina is a strong, intelligent team who does not make a lot of mistakes. This series is going to be a very blue collar series. The work is going to be done in the trenches and the big goals arenít going to be scored by deking out half the opposing team and going top shelf. Theyíre going to be big shots from the blue line that produce rebounds, theyíre going to be tip ins and screens and scrambles. There is going to be blood on the ice and not a single player from this series is going to leave with an injury unless required to by medical staff. This is going to be a really uplifting series to watch.
Who wins? You could go either way. Boston is in their position for a reason. They are a solid team. Breaking down this series, I fully expect that Carolina is going to beat Boston in Game 1. Boston will be like your winter car. It has been a while since they were up and running, their pieces are going to be stiff and itíll take them a while to get going. Match that Boston should come out of the gate slow and Carolina have a juggernaut of momentum, and Carolina takes Game 1 and home ice advantage. However, I see Boston back in Game 2 to split the initial home and home, and I donít see Carolina taking 2 in their own building in 3 and 4. I think Carolina is strong, and I think theyíll be in a good position if they come back to Boston for Game 5 with a 2-2 split. There is no easy series to choose in this round, but you have to believe that even with all of Carolinas positives, you have to give this to Boston in a long series.
Boston in 7.
Washington Capitals (2) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (4)
Finally, the dream matchup. Semin and Ovechkin vs. Malkin and Crosby. The most exciting, anticipated series in the last 20 years. In a perfect world, this series will go 7 games, all of them to overtime, and the last goal will be the highlight reel goal that they can show during every single commercial break during the next round. And guess what?
Itís not going to happen.
Pittsburgh is going to take this. In a walk. I like Ovechkin as much as the next guy, and Iíd love to see him have a measure of success. Heís a great player and I think heís great for the game. Semin is a good player and Backstrom is one of the most underrated players in the entire league. However, Washington narrowly averted getting past the New York Rangers. Not by random chance or by falling behind with bad bounces. They nearly got beaten by the New York Rangers because they were being outplayed and outclassed by The New York Rangers. Bad news a-brewin'.
Pittsburgh isnít a cakewalk team. Theyíre not a team you can offer quarter to and spot a 3 games to 1 lead and expect to walk out. Pittsburgh has got the defense to contain Washingtons guns, and theyíve got an actual elite goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury. Theyíve got scoring deep. They have a wealth of playoff experience and are riding a heat wave into the playoffs. Last year, they made a bad decision to add more playmaking to the front, by moving character player Colby Armstrong and top-tier grinder Erik Christensen to acquire Marian Hossa. This year, they made the moves to recapture that grit. Chris Kunitz for Ryan Whitney wasnít a trade I liked at the time. Itís paying dividends now. Bill Guerin for a draft pick was always a great deal. Picking up Craig Adams off of waivers helps them with their depth at a reasonable price. They took stock of what they were missing last playoffs and acquired it all back for the bare minimum. Pittsburgh was good enough to challenge for the Cup last year, and theyíve done everything to make themselves better for this run.
Washington, on the other hand, has an elite player in Ovechkin, they have a good but overrated scorer in Semin, and they have a tragically underrated playmaker in Backstrom. Their secondary is questionable, save for Brooks Laich and Matt Bradley. If the first round was any indication, none of them intend on showing up. On their defensive corp, they have the worst Norris finalist in the history of the NHL in Mike Green and little else. Not to show disrespect for Brian Pothier and Tom Poti, but theyíre not making me salivate. Letís just say that.
Goaltending, well. Simeon Varlamov managed to contain a team that was the 5th lowest scoring in the league during the Regular season at 2.56 goals per game to 1.17 goals per game with 2 shutouts and a 4-2 record. Itís not unimpressive. Given the options that the Capitals have, Varlamov is the filly you run with during the remainder of your run. He is the x-factor and the unknown during this series. I have seen 6 games with him in, and I donít know that Iíve seen him tested more than once or twice. Iím not sure how his East to West game is, but if itís not outstanding, heís going to find himself burned more than a few times. Heís the great unknown but I donít know that it will be enough.
The bottom line is this. Do I think Varlamov can outperform Fleury? I do not. Do I think that the quality of Washingtons shots when theyíre being pressured by Pittsburghs defense is going to be superior compared to the chances Pittsburgh will get in the same circumstances? Certainly not. Do I think that there is any 1 area where Washington outshines Pittsburgh? Not a chance. Washington is coming off of their worst game in the series, and possibly the worst game Iíve ever seen them play. Ovechkin looked lost and constantly stayed out for 45 to 70 seconds longer than his line mates. The last time I saw a player take personal stock and no longer relying on his teammates to help out, it was Jaroma Iginla in 2004. That didnít end well for them either. This will be high scoring, and Pittsburgh will light Washingtons goalies up for more than 6 goals in at least one game in this series. Theodore will see playing time before itís done, even if itís in a relief role.
Pittsburgh in 5.
This is the most exciting round of playoff hockey I can ever remember seeing, on paper. From the blue collar series between Boston and Carolina to the megastars in Washington vs. Pittsburgh. From the perennial giant vs. giant killer series in Detroit vs. Anaheim to what just looks like the greatest series possible on paper in Chicago vs. Vancouver, thereís something for everyone in the next 14 days. Iím satisfied with my choices, and frankly, thereís no outcomes that wouldnít lead to me being excited for the next round.
Iíll be doing post-game recaps in separate threads, so you can read along with the running blog for the entirety of the round, he says to the 4 people who look at his columns.