The NHL Playoff Match-ups are set and surprisingly the New York Rangers, who will face the Washington Capitals in the first round of the NHL playoffs, knocked off the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-3, in regulation today to hand the Pittsburgh Penguins the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Here are the complete match-ups:
Series ‘A’ – #1 Boston Bruins vs. #8 Montreal Canadiens
Series ‘B’ – #2 Washington Capitals vs. #7 New York Rangers
Series ‘C’ – #3 New Jersey Devils vs. #6 Carolina Hurricanes
Series ‘D’ – #4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers
Series ‘E’ – #1 San Jose Sharks vs. #8 Anaheim Ducks
Series ‘F’ – #2 Detroit Red Wings vs. #7 Columbus Blue Jackets
Series ‘G’ – #3 Vancouver Canucks vs. #6 St. Louis Blues
Series ‘H’ – #4 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #5 Calgary Flames
Western Conference Preview
Series E: San Jose vs. Anaheim
The Sharks go a league best 53-18-11 under first year coach Brian McLellan and what do they get rewarded with for the playoffs? A first round date with the Anaheim Ducks who have one of the best defensive corps in the NHL and are less than two years removed from a Stanley Cup in 2007. However, some of the quotes I read from the San Jose players indicates that they would rather play the Ducks than the Blues (St. Louis won today to move up from eighth to the sixth seed) simply because of the easier travel schedule. For a team that has designs on winning a Stanley Cup that seems like decent logic.
What do I like about San Jose: The Sharks have some veteran Stanley Cup winning experience on their blue line in Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, something they have not had in recent years. Up front they have Joe Thornton (who has yet to produce in the playoffs) and the resurgent Patrick Marleau to go with a whole host of good forwards to include Devon Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, and Milan Michalek.
The concern about the Sharks: At one time or another, 12 different players spent time out for injuries in March, with Boyle, goalie Evgeni Nabokov, and defenseman Brad Lukowich also spending games in street clothes. The team has maintained that it expects all players healthy for the playoffs.
What I like about Anaheim: Their top four defenseman in Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Ryan Whitney, and James Wisniewski plus a top line of Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry. They also have rookie forward Bobby Ryan who netted 31 goals and 57 points in just 64 games. Add in a hot goalie in Jonas Hiller plus 2003 Conn Smythe trophy winner J.S. Giguere as the other net minder and this is a team that could make a serious run.
The concern about the Ducks: They no longer have the solid role players who helped them win the Cup back in 2007 with Chris Kunitz (Pittsburgh), Andy McDonald (St. Louis), Travis Moen (San Jose), and Samuel Pahlsson (Chicago) all moved at this year’s trade deadline or fairly recently. Also, word has it that coach Randy Carlyle will go with Giguere in the playoffs and he has been shaky lately. I think starting Hiller might be the better option.
Analysis: The Sharks have too much depth for Anaheim. They will use their team speed and skill to control the puck for the majority of this series. Only concern is Nabokov, who missed three weeks back in March.
Prediction: Sharks in 6 games.
Series F: Detroit vs. Columbus
The defending Stanley Cup Champions got better last summer when they added free agent forward Marian Hossa for one season. On paper they seem like they have a great chance to repeat but, as I wrote back in February, I spoke with an NHL scout who is very familiar with the Red Wings and he said that this team doesn’t play hard every night and that they play “spot hockey.” I have a feeling Detroit will be more focused starting this week. The Blue Jackets have been one of the big surprises this season thanks to the play of rookie goalie Steve Mason who seemingly came out of nowhere to pretty much lock up the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year).This is the first ever trip to the post season and I’m sure the town is going nuts (but not as crazy as when Buckeye football starts up).
What I like about Detroit: What is not to like? They have the best overall defensemen in the league in Nicklas Lidstrom and they have three of the best forwards in the NHL in Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Hossa. Brian Rafalski, Nicklas Kronwall, and Brad Stuart round out their top four defensemen. In goal they have Stanley Cup champion Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin, who has been on two Stanley Cup finalists (Edmonton and Pittsburgh) since the lockout ended in 2005.
The concern about the Red Wings: Goaltending has been inconsistent and Hossa is not 100% healthy right now.
What I like about Columbus: Mason. He has stolen games all year so why can’t he steal a playoff series? I also like the season Rich Nash had as he finally played to his potential with 40 goals, 39 assists in 78 games, but more importantly, he bought in to coach Ken Hitchcock’s system and was +11, the highest rating he has ever had in his six year career. Their defense played above expectations and Mike Commodore, who I ripped the Blue Jackets for signing to such a big money and term contract last summer, had a very good year and was +11. Hitchcock even got a +23 out of 30 year old defenseman from Prague, Jan Hejda.
The concern about the Blue Jackets: No playoff experience and they are facing a team with a ton of it.
Analysis: The Red Wings are lucky that St. Louis allowed them to avoid Anaheim and gave them a much more favorable matchup with the young Blue Jackets.
Prediction: Red Wings in 5 games.
Series G: Vancouver vs. St. Louis
This looks like a low scoring series with two hot teams that have had very good goaltending down the stretch. St. Louis came from last in the Western Conference in early February to finish 6th overall while the Canucks rallied to catch and pass the Calgary Flames for first place in the Northwest Division.
What I like about Vancouver: First and foremost, goalie Roberto Luongo who is one of the best in the league. Next, the Sedin brothers, Henrik and Daniel, who both had 82 points in 82 games and seem to have thrived playing on a line with the pesky Alex Burrows (28 goals and 51 points – both career highs). Defensemen Willie Mitchell was a team high +29. Mats Sundin, who came on in mid season as a free agent and is starting to hit his stride. Sundin gives the Canucks the secondary scoring line they desperately needed.
The concern about the Canucks: Not much as they finished 23- 7-2 after February 1. One could question their ability to be physical in the playoffs as guys like Pavol Demitra, and the Sedins could be pushed around.
What I like about St. Louis: The Blues ended a three year playoff drought by compiling the best record in the NHL in the second half of the season (25-9-7). Chris Mason, who was signed as a free agent in the off-season from Nashville, went 26-21-7 with a .915 save percentage and he had six shutouts this year. Keith Tkachuk (25 goals), a power forward who goes to the net and can get the ugly goals. Brad Boyes (32 goals) and David Backes (31 goals). Rookie forward Patrick Berglund (21 goals and +19) is a future star. Good coach in Andy Murray.
The concern about the Blues: Goal scoring, they have the second fewest goals of Western Conference playoff teams after Columbus. They also lack playoff experience other than Tkachuk and McDonald.
Analysis: Both of these teams are hot and have confidence. I just think the goaltending edge is heavily in Vancouver’s favor and they will prevail.
Prediction: Canucks in 6 games.
Series H: Chicago vs. Calgary
The Blackhawks are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and Calgary is struggling just to field a lineup due to numerous injuries. Chicago won the season series 4-0 and seem to have Calgary’s number. The Hawks are a tightly knit group, which comes from having a large number of players in their early to mid-20s. Calgary has top two defenseman Robyn Regehr likely out in the first round. Chicago fired coach Denis Savard just four games into the season and replaced him with Joel Quennville and that looks like a brilliant move by GM Dale Tallon.
What I like about Chicago: First, goalie Nikolai Khabibulin OWNS the Flames and he beat them in the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals when he was with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Second, young forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Kris Versteeg. Third, a great home ice advantage with the loud and large Chicago crowds (22,000 a game at the United Center). Finally, the addition of Pahlsson, if he can remain healthy, gives the Hawks a good center who knows how to thrive in playoff hockey.
The concern about the Blackhawks: Depth. The “Bulin Wall” is 25-8-7 so why did they need to sign goalie Cristobal Huet to a big deal last summer? That money should have been used on a second line center. Defensemen Brian Campbell is a good puck mover but he isn’t the savior on the back line as the Sharks found out last year.
What I like about the Calgary: Goalie Mikka Kipprusoff, superstar Jarome Iginla, forward Daymond Langkow, talented young defenseman Dion Phaneuf, and the experienced Regehr plus trade deadline acquisitions Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold. This is a very good team when healthy.
The concern about the Flames: Injuries. Regehr is out for the first round and defenseman Corey Sarich is doubtful as well. Second line forward Rene Bourque has been hurt since February and he was having a career year. Todd Bertuzzi does not appear to be fully recovered from his knee surgery and Phaneuf is fighting an undisclosed injury. At least there is no salary cap in the playoffs so they can once again dress 18 skaters after using only 15 in their last two games against Edmonton.
Analysis: Bad matchup for the Flames, even when healthy. Chicago is too fast for Calgary and will bury them. Mike Keenan is a good coach but he hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996. Could he be fired if Calgary loses or will the injury situation give him another chance next season?
Prediction: Blackhawks sweep in 4 games.