PAR-I-TY OF SIXTEEN

2011 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS PREVIEW

ROUND 1

 

Is it really that time of year again?  Seems like just a few months ago we were talking about the Chicago Blackhawks first Championship in almost half a century.  What a difference another season makes.  On the very last day of the regular season, having lost to Detroit earlier in the day, the Hawks had to go through the agony of waiting to see what would happen in game 1,230 between the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild before they would know their playoff fate.  A win by Dallas and they would be eliminated from defending their title.  Thankfully for them, the Wild beat the Stars 5-3, sending the Stars to the golf course.  Yes, the defending champs made it, just by the tape on the end of their hockey blades.  You want parity Mr. Bettman?  You got it!

So who has what it takes to win it all?  The so-called experts are saying Vancouver.  I’m saying no way in hell (and I’ll tell you why).  Many fans in South Jersey/East Pennsylvania are hoping Philadelphia, and they may be right.  Has anybody noticed the 2007 Cup Champions Anaheim Ducks are the 4th seed in the West?  Better yet, did anybody expect the NY Rangers to make it?  Are Washington and San Jose finally ready to take their game to a higher level?  Can Pittsburgh do it without Crosby and Malkin?  Will Detroit get one more before their veterans ride off into the sunset?  And finally, is Tampa Bay for real?  It’s going to be a great ride, again, so as always strap yourself in, and whatever you do, don’t blink because you’re bound to miss something.  After all, these are the Playoffs, where anything can happen, and usually does!

 

EARLY CONFERENCE/CUP PREDICTIONS

Well, here goes nothing…don’t read too much into this because last year the only one that I was right about was Chicago coming out of the West.  Yet, here is how I see it for this year.  Probably means Nashville will hoist the Cup – right?  We’ll see…

Eastern Conference Champion: Philadelphia Flyers

Western Conference Champion: San Jose Sharks

Eastern Conference Dark Horse: Tampa Bay Lightning

Western Conference Dark Horse: Chicago Blackhawks

Stanley Cup Champion: Philadelphia Flyers

Conn Smythe Trophy Winner: Claude Giroux

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Washington Capitals vs NY Rangers

Tagline: Haven’t we seen this movie before?

Headliner: Bounced in the 1st round last year by the surprising Montreal Canadiens, a quicker, grittier, more defensive minded Capitals team is determined not to let themselves lose the dreaded 8th vs 1st match up two years in a row.

Players to watch: Washington - Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin; New York – Marian Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky, Bryan McCabe, Marc Staal

Unsung heroes/Difference makers: Washington: Mike Knuble, Mike Green (if he can light a fire on the Power Play); New York – Henrik Lundqvist, Vinny Prospal.

Washington should win if: As has been the story for the last three years, if they can get the goaltending they need and if Alex Ovechkin doesn’t disappear.

NY Rangers could win if: Henrik Lundqvist steals a game or two.

Prediction: Capitals in 6

 

Philadelphia Flyers vs Buffalo Sabres

Tagline: The Philly Flu becomes a Buffalo epidemic

Headliner: Last year’s Eastern Conference Champions look to retain their title and get another shot at the elusive mug.

Players to watch: Philadelphia – Chris Pronger, Claude Giroux, Jeff Carter; Buffalo – Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, Tyler Myers

Unsung heroes/Difference makers: Philadelphia – Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, Ville Leino; Buffalo – Ryan Miller, Brad Boyes, Tyler Ennis

Philadelphia should win if:  Pronger gets and stays healthy.  Love him or hate him, he is the straw stirring the drink on this team.  And with three Stanley Cup Finals appearances since the lockout, including last year, he proves he is still a defensive force to be reckoned with.  A wise man once said “Good offense is a byproduct of good defense”.

Buffalo could win if: Miller gets hot.  He missed some time towards the end of the season due to injury, so fatigue should not be a factor.  Biggest question with Buffalo has always been, will they get enough offense?  I like how Vanek has stepped up this year, but don’t think for one second Philly won’t be all over him.

Prediction: Flyers in 5

 

Boston Bruins vs Montreal Canadiens

Tagline: Chara’s revenge?

Headliner: 33rd playoff meeting between these age old rivals could take their rivalry to new heights, that is, if recent events are any indication.

Players to watch: Boston – Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci; Montreal – Carey Price, Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri

Unsung heroes/Difference makers: Boston – Tim Thomas, Milan Lucic, Michael Ryder; Montreal – P.K. Subban, Brian Gionta, Travis Moen

Boston should win if: They stay out of the penalty box.  Chara traditionally has been a real defensive force in the playoffs, last year’s Conference Semi-Final notwithstanding.  If Thomas continues his record breaking year in save percentage, the Habs are in trouble.

Montreal could win if: Carey Price doesn’t become Gary Spice. If the team doesn’t let the emotions from this age old rivalry get to their head, they could make a real series out of it, as they proved last spring.  However, if this series goes like the last couple of games between these two have, it’ll be short and sweet.  Perhaps Ken Dryden can come out of retirement.  No?  Oh well.

Prediction: Bruins in 4

 

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Tampa Bay Lightning

Tagline: A new rivalry is born?

Headliner: 1st ever meeting between these two offensive juggernauts could end up the most intriguing series of the first round.

Players to watch: Pittsburgh – Jordan Staal, Alex Kovalev, James Neal, Sidney Crosby (if he returns from injury); Tampa Bay – Steve Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier

Unsung heroes/Difference makers: Pittsburgh - Tyler Kennedy, Chris Kunitz, Marc-Andre Fleury; Tampa Bay – Dwayne Roloson, Ryan Malone, Simon Gagne

Pittsburgh should win if: Even without their top two centers in the lineup, the Penguins are deep, and have players who can score.  Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, more often than not, no names mentioned, but they aren’t consistent enough.  We already know Evgeni Malkin won’t be back this season, and I’m hoping for health sake Crosby decides to pack it in for the year.  We don’t want/need another Eric Lindros on our hands.  That would be a shameful end for one of the most prolific players in recent memory.  The one thing Pittsburgh does have going for them is they have a Cup winning goalie, one of only two in this year’s tournament.

Tampa Bay could win if: Dwayne Roloson can rekindle the magic from 2006.  It’s been a long, tough ride for Roli the Goalie since Game 1 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final (damn you Andrew Ladd!).  We know The Lightning can score and score often, but can they keep the puck out?  Until they got Roloson I would have said no, but now, who knows?  Either way, it could turn out to be his last chance at redemption.  I’ve liked what I’ve seen from this team all season, and if they can get over the playoff butterflies, they could surprise a lot of people.  Roli just needs to make sure he communicates better with Marc-Andre Bergeron (Take the man, but not into my crease!).  In my estimation, the only thing missing from this team is Fernando Pisani, but I figure Gagne, Malone or Lecavalier can fill the role.  Don’t count out the Bolts.

Prediction: Lightning in 6

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Vancouver Canucks vs Chicago Blackhawks

Tagline: So you want the Cup, do you?  Come and get it!

Headliner: President’s Trophy winners in their 40th season look poised to go all the way.  However, the defending champions have their number.

Players to watch: Vancouver - The Sedin Twins, Roberto Luongo, Ryan Kesler; Chicago -  Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp

Unsung heroes/Difference makers: Vancouver – Dan Hamhuis (if he comes back), Alex Burrows, Mikael Samuelsson; Chicago – Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland, Duncan Keith

Vancouver should win if: They translate their regular season success into the post season.  If the Sedins play the disappearing act again, it could be a long summer for the Canucks, especially since there was so much anticipation going into this year.  Losing Manny Malhotra was a huge blow to this team’s scoring depth, and I’m not convinced they can ever recover from it, unless Samuelsson shows some of the flair he used to show with Detroit.  Chris Higgins and Mason Raymond give depth and grit, but can they distract the Hawks long enough to make up for any shortcomings?  Raffi Torres will miss the first two games of this series as he is serving a suspension.  If Vancouver can at least get the split heading to Chicago, it might not be so bad – if they go down 0-2, look out.

Chicago can defend their title if: They do exactly what they’ve done the last two playoffs – get in Vancouver’s kitchen and make Roberto Luongo look ordinary.  Let’s be fair, these are not the same Hawks who hoisted the Cup last spring, but they still have their bread and butter, as it were, and they are still deadly on the power play.  I have a feeling the Champs won’t go down without a fight.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 6

 

San Jose Sharks vs Los Angeles Kings

Tagline: “California Dreamin’…”

Headliner:  For the first time ever, all three California based teams will compete for a Stanley Cup.  It’s a shame one of them will be going home early.

Players to watch: San Jose – Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau; Los Angeles – Dustin Brown, Dustin Penner, Drew Doughty

Unsung heroes/Difference makers: San Jose – Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Dan Boyle; Los Angeles – Ryan Smyth, Michal Handzus, Jarret Stoll

San Jose should win if: Antti Niemi gives the same clutch performance in goal like he did for Chicago last year, and if the team lives up to their potential.  If it’s true what they say, you have to lose before you can win, then the Sharks have certainly done their time on the wrong end of the ledger.  This team and this city have been on the brink for far too long.  Now is the time.

Los Angeles could win if: The former Oilers on this team gel like they did in 2006, and if another former Duck can give even a fraction of the performance he did in 2007.  ‘Nuff said.  Hey Penner!  Are you alive over there?  Prove it, because from where I’m sitting, I haven’t seen you since Feb 28!  I said it before, and I’ll say it again – it’s a shame one of these teams will be going home early.  I think it'll take more than a "Miracle on Manchester" for the Kings to upset the Sharks, at least on paper.

Prediction: Sharks in 7

 

Detroit Red Wings vs Phoenix Coyotes

Tagline: The Desert Dogs attempt to learn the fine art of hunting Octopi

Headliner: In this rematch of last year’s Quarterfinal series, Phoenix looks to prove they belong here.

Players to watch: Detroit – Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Dan Cleary; Phoenix – Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata, Lauri Korpikoski

Unsung heroes/Difference makers: Detroit – Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Kris Draper; Phoenix – Ray Whitney, Adrian Aucoin, Ed Jovanovski

Detroit should win if: Who are we kidding here?  The Red Wings are a force every year, and continue to be.  This is Lidstrom’s team, and he’d like nothing more to get one more before he hangs them up.  This team just has an uncanny ability of getting it done when it matters most.

Phoenix could win if: Ilya Bryzgalov has the series of his life.  This franchise has never been out of the first round since moving out of Winnipeg.  Here’s an even more staggering fact – the team’s top seven defensemen have combined experience of more than 4,500 NHL games, yet 0, nada, zip, zilch in the Stanley Cup department.  Unless they can somehow create a parade to the penalty box from one of the least penalized teams in the league, I don’t see the ‘Yotes getting revenge in this one.  Hopefully it will still be as fun as last year’s series.

Prediction: Red Wings in 6

 

Anaheim Ducks vs Nashville Predators

Tagline: If “Disco Duck” were a country song, would Carrie Underwood cover it?

Headliner: Back in the playoffs after a brief absence, the Ducks look to fly high in the Music City, where the team they’re up against plays a similar defensive style to their former selves.

Players to watch: Anaheim - Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan; Nashville – Mike Fisher, Martin Erat, David Legwand

Unsung heroes/Difference makers: Anaheim – Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne, Jason Blake; Nashville – Steve Sullivan, Shea Weber, Pekka Rinne

Anaheim should win if: They continue to receive the balanced attack they’ve received all season long.  Perry was the only NHL player to reach the 50 goal plateau this season, so you know Nashville will be all over him.  However, they won’t be able to stop all of their other weapons. Selanne has indicated this will be his final season.  How cool would it be if he could get another Cup before retiring?  And cool would it be if Ray Emery could be the goaltender of record when it happens?

Nashville could win if: Pekka Rinne continues to play like the #1 goaltender the Predators hoped he could be.  Interesting to see Underwood whooping it up for hubby Fisher – one can only hope he can actually start scoring for her.  Ouch, that didn’t sound right, I’m sorry.  What else would you expect from a guy who lives in Ottawa?  If the Predators are going to pull off the upset, they’re going to have to try as best they can to win their home games, because the Ducks are lethal at home, especially in the playoffs.

How is it the 4 vs 5 match ups are always the most intriguing?  Bring it on!!

Prediction: Ducks in 7

 

 

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