Caps-Flyers Series Update
Flyers forward Daniel Briere, who injured his knee in a game against Pittsburgh last week, practiced today and says he’ll be ready for Friday night’s series opener against the Caps. Briere struggled most of this season but once Vaclav Prospal was acquired at the trade deadline he started to develop chemistry with Prospal and started scoring again. Briere will have to play well for the Flyers to beat the Caps. Defenseman Derian Hatcher apparently is targeting game two for his return.
Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post reported that defensemen Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Schultz skated today but after the initial team practice and are still hopeful for Friday’s game. However, defenseman Sami Lepisto was recalled from Hershey which indicates that at least one of Morrisonn or Schultz won’t play Friday. Forward Dave Steckel is also reported to be available for Game 1 as his broken finger has healed.
NHL Playoff Preview
Here is my analysis and predictions for the first round of the playoffs in the Western Conference
Western Conference: Detroit Red Wings vs. Nashville Predators
With all the talk of Pittsburgh picking who they wanted to face in round one of the Eastern Conference playoffs it appears that things are not totally on the level in the west either as Red Wings Coach Mike Babcock said last Saturday that the Predators made it clear in their Friday night 3-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks that they wanted to face Detroit rather than the San Jose Sharks. Given Nashville’s past playoff record against the Sharks (0-2) I would say Babcock is right. Nashville has faced the Red Wings as the #1 seed before (back in 2004) and did fairly well extending Detroit to six games. This year the task is tougher as Nashville goes with young goalie Dan Ellis in net against Detroit’s Dominik Hasek. The Red Wings are talented across the board and are led by Nicklas Lidstrom (five time Norris Trophy winner – soon to be six) and Brian Rafalski on defense and Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk up front. Detroit received a recent boost as forward Tomas Holmstrom, a pest to all NHL opposing goalies, returned to the lineup last Sunday after missing a month with an upper body injury.
Nashville has been the second biggest surprise in the NHL this season (after the Caps) having endured a change in ownership and a fire sale that saw them have to part ways with goalie Tomas Vokoun, forwards Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya, Scott Hartnell, and Scottie Upshall as well as defensemen Kimmo Timonen. Kudos go to GM David Poile and Coach Barry Trotz for putting this team into the playoffs. The Predators have a good young defensive group with Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, and Dan Hamhuis. The signing of forward J.P. Dumont was big and the Dumont-Jason Arnott- Alexander Radulov line is a dangerous one in the offensive zone (The 21 year old Radulov is not one for defense and can drive Trotz nuts at times).
Series Prediction: Detroit in five games – Nashville is just too young and the Wings are hungry this year.
Western Conference: San Jose Sharks vs. Calgary Flames
San Jose struggled with their game most of the season but in late February two key things happened to this hockey team. First, GM Doug Wilson traded for puck moving defensemen Brian Campbell from Buffalo who immediately drastically improved the entire San Jose defense. Second, much maligned center Patrick Marleau started feeling better and playing really well allowing the Sharks to get scoring from multiple lines. These two factors plus the strong play of Evgeni Nabokov in goal allowed the Sharks to go 18-0-2 before they lost their last two meaningless games after they had locked up the Pacific Division. Joe Thornton historically has not done well in the playoffs and doesn’t seem to be able to handle the pressure and more physical playoff style. Coach Ron Wilson is also known for saying things that incite the other team and causes his team to lose in the intangibles category (remember his famous “we’ll play all 7 in Pittsburgh and still beat them” line from his Caps days??!!).
After the Caps, I have seen Calgary play more than any other team in the league and I have to admit they are frustrating to watch and mind boggling at times. They have some of the best players in the league in forward Jarome Iginla, defensemen Dion Phaneuf, and goalie Mikka Kiprusoff yet this team could not put together a solid stretch of play over the last two months of the season. My observation of this team is that the defense is just not mobile enough (Corey Sarich and Adrian Aucoin are slow and Robyn Regehr appears to have lost a step this year) and they don’t have enough scoring up front after Iginla, Daymond Langkow, and Alex Tanguay. Tanguay looks to pass first all of the time instead of using his shot more often. Kristian Huselius was hot early but by the second half of the season he was in Coach Mike Keenan’s dog house and stopped scoring goals. Owen Nolan, despite an old body, still plays hard and can score some big goals but after that I don’t know who else on this team can put the puck in the net. I keep waiting for Matthew Lombardi to capitalize on his great skating ability and score more but he hasn’t done so.
Series Prediction: Sharks in five games – San Jose is just much better but Calgary could steal some games with Iginla and Kiprusoff and if the Ron Wilson factor kicks in.
Western Conference: Minnesota Wild vs. Colorado Avalanche
Minnesota quietly went about winning a very tight Northwest Division this season thanks to the great goaltending of Niklas Backstrom and Coach Jacques Lemaire’s defensive system. The Wild have a decent power play that relies on the heavy shots of forward Brian Rolston and defensemen Brent Burns and Sean Hill. Forward Marian Gaborik (42 goals, 41 assists) is a very good player and is extremely dangerous on the rush. Colorado will need to watch him closely.
As for the Avalanche, they made several moves at the trade deadline in order to make a deep playoff run. They signed free agent forward Peter Forsberg and they traded for defenseman Adam Foote (from Columbus). Also, captain Joe Sakic returned from hernia surgery to give the team a major offensive and leadership boost. However, the biggest thing that helped Colorado was the re-emergence of goalie Jose Theodore, the former Hart and Vezina trophy winner (Montreal 2002). If Theodore continues to play well then the Avalanche become very dangerous because of their offensive fire power that also includes forwards Ryan Smyth, Paul Statsny, Milan Hejduk, and Andrew Brunette.
Series Prediction: Colorado in seven games – The Avs have the playoff experience and it will show up against Minnesota.
Western Conference: Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars
A lot of people think Anaheim is the team to beat in the West because of defensemen Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Mathieu Schneider, and Francois Beauchemin plus goalie Jean Sebastian Giguere. Throw in Ryan Getzlaf, Teemu Selanne, and Corey Perry up front and it is hard to argue with that logic. Perry, however, will likely miss the first round due to a lacerated leg. The Ducks also have one of the premier checking lines in the league in Rob Niedermayer, Samuel Pahlsson, and Travis Moen. Chris Kunitz adds some scoring and grit as well.
Dallas at one point this season had a good lead in the Pacific Division only to see first place wilt away primarily due to the injury to defenseman Sergei Zubov (foot, hernia surgery). Without Zubov the Stars power play is less dangerous and their defense can’t move the puck up the ice as well. At forward, they still have an aging Mike Modano, a physical and tough Brendan Morrow and they traded for former Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards (2004) at the deadline. Forward Mike Ribiero led the team in scoring despite being banged up lately but will likely play in the series opener. Defensively they will rely on Phillipe Boucher, Stephane Robidas, and Matt Niskanen which is a group that won’t scare the Ducks forwards. Add in the poor playoff history of Stars goalie Marty Turco (11-18) and this series could get away from Dallas very quickly.
Series Prediction: Anaheim in five games – Anaheim plays physical and in your face hockey and can be over the edge dirty. I flat out don’t like them or their style and hope someone knocks them out, but it won’t be Dallas.
Enjoy all of the playoff games!!