THE CIRCUS COMES TO TOWN

2009 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF PREVIEW

ROUND 2

 

I’m not entirely sure how you could have possibly topped the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs.  It had a little bit of everything.  We had players getting suspended for being undisciplined.  We had coaches getting suspended for being undisciplined.  We had four game sweeps.  We had seventh heaven (or hell).  On a personal note, it would have been nice to see my favorite team in the mix, win or lose – but as nerve wracking as it was for those who were cheering for a team now eliminated, at least now we all can sit back and enjoy the rest of the playoffs – or not.  We are all afforded the right to sit back and not watch too, but you’re missing out - really.

For the hockey enthusiast, or even the most diehard of fans, it doesn’t get much better than this – we’re now down to eight teams, and this is where we’ll continue to separate the men from the boys, the contenders from the pretenders, and, well, you know.  Throw in any cliché you like – these are the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where anything can happen and usually does.  The longer I continue to analyze this game, the more I realize I really know nothing – so let’s just roll with it!

EASTERN CONFERENCE

#1 Boston Bruins vs #6 Carolina Hurricanes

I’m still reeling over Game 7 between Carolina and New Jersey.  How on earth did Jussi Jokinen get so open for the back door play?  How did Eric Staal manage to score with 31.7 seconds left before overtime?  As Paul Maurice put it “definitely the right player was on the ice”.  I guess the biggest question is this – traditionally New Jersey has always had a defense first ask questions later attitude towards the game – and to a certain extent, they still do – how did they allow a game like this to slip away so suddenly and without conviction?  I’m sure these will be the questions fans and team brass alike will be asking as we evaluate the season from a New Jersey standpoint.  The Hurricanes, on the other hand, will be just happy to still be playing.  I know of a few people in my office hockey pool who are breathing a sigh of relief right about now.  I, unfortunately, am not one of them.

It’s only the fourth playoff series lifetime between these two if you count the Hartford years, and the Bruins have won the three previous meetings.  As I said in round one, Boston is icing their best team in years, maybe not as good as the teams who faced the Whalers in 1990 and 91, but definitely as tough.  The one rub against Carolina is they historically haven’t fared well when they get down in a series, a trend which, ironically enough, changed with the last series against New Jersey.  It was only their third seventh game victory in their franchise history, and now they are up against a much stronger opponent.  I’m not led to believe the way the Bruins have rolled along all season they’d allow this team back into a series too easily.  Then again, if conventional wisdom translated into reality, the Hurricanes wouldn’t be here either, would they?!

Why Boston should win: Make no mistake, with all due respect to Montreal, the Boston Bruins have barely worked up a sweat, while the Hurricanes had to battle 7 tough grueling games with the New Jersey Devils, in a series that wasn’t decided until the dying seconds of Game 7, with most games decided by one goal, and most of them decided late.  While New Jersey had Martin Brodeur between the pipes, they did not have a defenseman who could be considered a real shut down player, which has really been their Achille’s Heel since Ken Daneyko and Scott Stevens retired and Brian Rafalski ended up in Detroit.  The Bruins have two such players – Zdeno Chara and Aaron Ward.  The little bit of experience Zdeno brings to the table is made up by Ward’s 3 Stanley Cup rings.  You can bet Carolina’s game breaker Eric Staal will be seeing a lot of the Big Z in the coming nights.  One luxury coach Claude Julien has is he can roll four lines, without having to worry about who is on the ice.  Of the 13 forwards who dressed in round 1, 12 of them found the scoreboard, led by Michael Ryder and Phil Kessel.  I do worry a little bit about Boston’s ability to play disciplined, which for the most part they were able to do, but we can’t have another incident like the one Milan Lucic was suspended one game for.  With the games becoming ever more important, nobody needs the Boston Bruins living and dying on every penalty.  Goalie Tim Thomas wasn’t called upon to be sensational against Montreal, but depending on which direction this series goes, he will have to be more aware of who’s at the other end of the ice – 2006 Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward.

How Carolina could win: Do exactly what they did in Round 1, get the timely scoring from Staal, Ray Whitney and even Jussi Jokinen.  Never give up – proof of this was getting the game tying and series winning goals with seconds left.  In Game 4 against New Jersey, as controversial as it was, they scored a goal with 2 seconds left in regulation to tie the series.  Paul Maurice was able to match his lines up well against the Devils, and he’ll have to do it again against a stronger Bruins team if the Hurricanes have any hope of advancing.  A couple of timely fluke goals does not a Stanley Cup make – they will not be so lucky as to be so wide open late in games against this team – Boston plays the perfect shut down game, and Carolina needs to be ready for it.

Regardless of how this one turns out, prepare for another long one…

Prediction: Bruins in 7

 

#2 Washington Capitals vs #4 Pittsburgh Penguins

The conspiracy theories have already started, but make no mistake, the NHL now has the dream matchup they’ve been waiting for since Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were drafted.  The comparisons between the two have bordered on nauseating at times – one is the supposed poster child of the quote unquote New NHL, and the other is the most exciting player to put on skates since Wayne Gretzky.  News flash, in case anybody missed it, let me clarify – we are almost five years removed from the lockout – we can hardly call this the New NHL anymore.

Needless to say, regardless whether you’re in the Crosby or Ovechkin camp, or neither, this series will be a dandy.  And with all due respect to the New Jersey Devils and their fans, did you really want to see a Washington-New Jersey best of 7?  Well, apparently the NHL would like to think not.  Personally, after what we saw between the Devils and Hurricanes I would have said bring it on, but what do I know?

Why Pittsburgh should win: One word – depth.  I thought the Philadelphia Flyers had more of it, but apparently the Penguins decided this year was time to build on their experience from last spring, not regress to the level of, ahem, Calgary.  Sidney Crosby, say what you will, but he willed his team to victory.  Evgeni Malkin will continue to get his points, and will probably shadow Alex Ovechkin.  Bill Guerin hasn’t has this good a playoff in years, and we’re just getting started.  How silly was I to think a less than 100% Philadelphia Flyers would beat this team?  Sergei Gonchar clinched the last series – when was the last time he looked so good (and healthy!)?

How Washington could win: Use home ice advantage to their advantage.  They fell behind 2-0 to the Rangers in round one, at home, and had to eventually battle back from down 3-1.  Thankfully, 2 of the last 3 games were at Verizon Center, but the Capitals can ill afford to let themselves get into a hole against a stronger, faster and more powerful scoring Pittsburgh team.  Personally, I think Henrik Lundqvist was the better goaltender, but Marc Andre Fleury has actually played like it.  Simeon Varlamov, regardless of how he wants me to pronounce his name, he will need to continue to stand on his head, because he will be tested and tested often.  Washington will need score and score often.  Don’t wait until the dying minutes of the third to feed the puck to Sergei Fedorov.  Against this team, by then it will be too late.  Alex Ovechkin has to be better than 3 goals in 7 games, and enough skipping practice, OK young man?  I can’t really ask more of his play on the ice, but those pucks have to start going in.  The Penguins will not be as forgiving as the Rangers were – and let’s be honest, the Rangers were distracted by a number of different things.  The Penguins don’t seem to get phased by any of the mind games both coaching staffs will play.  As for Bruce Boudreau, quit with the smart ass quips about how “the circus is in town”.  While it may be true, it might be time to take the high road, as you never know what might fire up your opponent.  Don’t you know, them’s fighting words!?

Easier said than done – at least Boudreau was right.  This will be a circus from start to finish.  If you thought this matchup got intense during the regular season, just you wait.

Prediction: Penguins in 6

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

#2 Detroit Red Wings vs #8 Anaheim Ducks

So, let me just clarify this – it was inconceivable to think the Columbus Blue Jackets could knock off the defending Stanley Cup Champions, yet, not so inconceivable to believe the Anaheim Ducks could knock off the President’s Trophy winners and Stanley Cup favorites?  OK, whatever.  Here I go again basing predictions on conventional wisdom.  I mean, it was Detroit’s turn to choke in the first round, wasn’t it?  Win 2 straight Cups, lose in round 2, lose in round 1 two years in a row, win a cup, make the semi-finals, lose in the first round 2 more years in a row, win a cup?  Isn’t that how it works?

I guess Detroit has finally figured out how to win after going all the way.  How silly was I again to think they couldn’t defend their title when they practically have the same team as last year, plus Marian Hossa?  Why couldn’t I have picked the ultimate upset?  Oh well.

Why Detroit should win: For all of the aforementioned reasons – until the Champs are knocked out, I’m not betting against them.  And let’s face it, they’re just a damn good hockey team, so good, they’ll put you to sleep at times.

How Anaheim can keep their Cinderella season rolling: Keep everybody on the same page, keep the top line of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan together and scoring points.  Keep the Niedermayer brothers happy, keep Chris Pronger happy.  Most importantly, stay disciplined.  The Ducks know what it takes to win at this time of year, but I worry about them if they get into a long series against the one team who can grind it out with the best of them.  Furthermore, I worry if they get into penalty trouble.  San Jose was shooting blanks in round 1.  Detroit, quite frankly, did not, and will not.

Prediction: Red Wings in 7

 

#3 Vancouver Canucks vs #4 Chicago Blackhawks

They say the time for Roberto Luongo is now.  I’m not so sure he’ll need to take his Canucks team all the way to the promised land to earn his spot here next February for Team Canada, but if he can at least backstop his team to the final four it will go a long way to making the decision easier for whoever chooses the team.

The Vancouver Canucks are in uncharted waters.  Until this year, they had never led a playoff series 3-0, let alone sweep.  What’s even more remarkable is the team they swept – the upstart St. Louis Blues, who looked unstoppable down the stretch, and looked to make it a long series against Vancouver.  Now, if the Canucks can get past this series, it will only be their third time getting out of the third round in franchise history.  While I like what they’ve done so far, I see two glaring holes in their lineup – a marquee defenseman, and four solid lines.

Why Chicago should win: The only player in a defensive position on Vancouver’s roster I’ve heard mentioned in the same breath as Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is goalie Luongo.  Speaking of Team Canada, the team brass are taking notice to what Seabrook has done in round 1.  As for Vancouver, they will go as far as Luongo will take them, period.  They’ve had a long rest, sure, but they still don’t have the caliber of defenseman as even one of the aforementioned.  They don’t strike as fast in the offensive zone as Chicago’s front end can, and their goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin has been equal to the task.  Scoring is plentiful with Martin Havlat, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg all finding the net, but, when your energy line, led by Dustin Byfuglien is scoring, I just can’t see how the Canucks can compete, unless…

How Vancouver could win: Aside from the obvious Luongo stealing a game or two, get everybody scoring.  Taylor Pyatt will return to the team after a leave of absence to tend to the untimely death of his fiancée, but he hasn’t played in almost two months.  While we can’t even begin to imagine what Taylor must be going through, the team is also remembering one of their own in Luc Bourdon.  Witness the celebration by Alex Burrows on the series winning overtime goal in round one, and it’s easy to see the memory of Luc is keeping this team together.  If the Sedin twins can keep up their torrid pace, and if they can ever get Mats Sundin going, this could spell trouble for Chicago.  Sundin was brought here for the playoffs – now it’s time for him to prove he belongs.  We will need to also see a lot from Burrows, Ryan Kesler and company.

After what I’ve seen from Chicago so far, I think Vancouver will have a long way to go to match their intensity, speed, and depth.  The long layoff after their first round sweep may have helped on the injury front, but it will take at least half a game for the Canucks to get their legs back.  By then it could already be too late.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 6

 

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