Monday, April 12, 2010

Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference & Final Picks

Continuing where we left off, let's dive into the East...then I'll make my final predictions for who wins each conference and ultimately, the Stanley Cup.

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadians
(Season series was split, both teams went 2-1-1)

As insane as this is for me to even type, a friend of mine who is a huge Habs fan claimed to have actually been rooting for this match-up. This isn't something he just threw out there after it was already official, either; he actually made this statement before the Rangers-Flyers game that ultimately sealed the Habs' fate. A fate that will more than likely see them get swept right out of the playoffs for the second year in a row.

Now, of course, I suppose it is possible that the Presidents' Trophy winners get upset two years in a row. But likely? Not very. The Capitals score goals in bunches and have showed over the past few weeks that they are at least trying to play better defensively heading into the playoffs. Watch a Capitals game recently and you'll see players occasionally doing crazy things like- GASP- back-checking! Now, no one is going to confuse this team with, say, the New Jersey Devils. But this is still the overwhelming favorite in the East who rolled through the regular season, and even a minor defensive adjustment should be enough to take them far through the playoffs. Barring a complete and total breakdown from both of their goaltenders, the Caps will take this one easily. And to be quite frank, I'm not even sure both their goalies' breaking down would be enough for the Habs to win this series, either. Short of a meteor striking the location of a Capitals practice, I'm not sure anything would be.

Prediciton: Caps in four.

(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers
(Flyers won season series 5-1-0)

As any New York Rangers fan could tell you, there's nothing we enjoy more than watching the Devils lose. Last year was a particularly fun time, as the Devils won the Atlantic and promptly flamed out in the first-round for the second year in a row, in spectacular fashion. And there's nothing I'd love to do more than tell you it's going to happen again this year. But I can't. And the reason why is called Ilya Kovalchuck.

Now, I know what some are going to point to: one point in four games when his previous team was getting swept out of their only playoff appearance (by the Rangers, ironically enough). But being on a bad team that only got into the playoffs on the utter weakness of their division isn't enough to make Kovalchuck a Thornton-level playoff choker. You can't form a pattern from such a small sample size. And on this Devil team, Kovalchuck doesn't have to do it all. He just has to be good, as good as he's been for them while they quietly wrestled away the Atlantic crown from the Penguins and then held off the Sabres for second in the conference on their final day. And I think he will be.

The Flyers, of course, squandered a huge lead for a playoff spot and needed to beat out those same Rangers in a shootout on the very last day of the season just to get in. So they're not exactly coming in on a hot streak. And really, when it comes right down to it, Cam Ward and Henrik Lundqvist out-dueling Martin Brodeur over the past two years is one thing. But Brian Boucher? Think about this for a second: are the Flyers' group of forwards or defensemen really so much better than New Jersey's that you think they'll make up for the fact that their goalie is BRIAN BOUCHER and Jersey's goalie is MARTIN BRODEUR?! The answer you're looking for is a resounding "no."

Prediction: Devils in five.

(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins
(Bruins won season series 4-2-0)

Some people are already pointing at this clash of Northeast division rivals as perhaps the East's only potential for an upset this year, and I must vehemently disagree (on a couple of fronts, actually, but we'll get to that in a second). I know everyone had gotten all caught up in the story of these plucky Bruins battling their way into the playoffs, setting a new record for most short-handed goals on someone else's single power play in the process (nevermind the fact that it came against an eliminated Carolina team that actually appeared to somehow be skating around in their sleep at the time), but let's get real here. This is still the team who finished the NHL regular season dead last, 30th out of 30 in the NHL in scoring. I don't care how great they are defensively, this team simply does not score. Now we're taking that team and expecting them to score enough goals against Ryan Miller to win a 7-game series? Yeah. Not bloody likely.

Now, with all that said, if Tuuka Rask keeps standing on his head like he has all season long for them I suppose anything is possible. And of all the first-round match-ups, this one definitely has the most potential to go into multiple-OTs. It reminds me a little bit of that Vancouver-Dallas series from a few seasons ago: neither team could score to begin with and both goalies (Marty Turco and Roberto Luongo) were feeling it, so we had seemingly another seven games played in extra periods. But when two elite goalies playing at the top of their game play each other in a seven-game series, what usually happens is they simply negate each other and the better, more talented team wins out in the end. It happened then with Vancouver beating Dallas, and it will probably happen again this year with Buffalo beating Boston.

Prediction: Buffalo in five.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators
(Season series was split, both teams went 2-2-0)

Ah yes, now it's time to pay off that bit of foreshadowing from earlier: I said I disagreed with the majority opinion of Boston-over-Buffalo being the East's only potential upset, right? Well, here's the other reason why: I think if there's going to be an upset at all in the remarkably top-heavy East this year, it's going to come in this series. And make no mistake about it, this battle of the defending Stanley Cup champions against a team that has been the definition of inconsistency all season long is FAR from your typical 4-5 matchup. Whereas usually the two teams are very close and the series can be reasonably called a toss-up, this year Pittsburgh will enter as the overwhelming favorites in the eyes of many. However, peel back a few layers here and you'll begin to realize that all is not well in the NHL's favorite city. Sidney Crosby's reinvention as a goal-scoring machine this season has been a feel-good story, and that feel-good story has allowed them to cover up some huge holes that suggest the Pens are not in for anywhere near that deep of a run this season. In no particular order, those holes are:

-Malkin's drop-off from his Art Ross season to an injury-plagued and utterly disappointing campaign.

-Marc-Andre Fleury's less-than-stellar play in goal; he's been pulled in seemingly every-other Pens game I've seen this year en route to a paltry .905 save % and 2.65 GAA.

-The Pens as a whole being unable to win big games against good teams all season. Against the top two teams in the conference, the Caps & Devils, the Pens failed to win even a single game in ten tries, and it was their epic run of futility against the Devils in particular that ultimately cost them the Atlantic.

-Their power play hovered around ten percent without Sergei Gonchar in the lineup for most of the season. No, that's not a typo- TEN PERCENT. Gonchar is back again right now from yet another injury, but who knows how long that will last?

Add all that up together and you've got a team that is on very shaky ground, in my opinion. They just looked tired for a lot of this year, and you know what? Who can really blame them? They've gone to back-to-back Stanley Cup finals, and that has to take its toll at some point. That's why I just don't see how they could possibly have another long playoff run in them.

With all that said, I can certainly understand why most everyone will pick them over Ottawa. But I'm willing to stand out on this limb all by myself. I think it all comes down to Brian Elliot first-and-foremost. All season long, for the most part, the Senators have gone as he has gone. When he's played well (and at times he's played VERY well this year), the team rattles off franchise-record win streaks. When he's played not-so-well, they lose 6 games in a row. They play a very tight-checking game in front of him and the roster has largely "bought in" to coach Cory Clouston, even (surprisingly) guys like Jason Spezza. Losing Alex Kovalev to an ACL tear hurt, sure, but there were many a night this year where they might as well not have had Alex Kovalev in the line-up anyway and they still found a way to win plenty of games. I believe that, no matter what, this series will be a lot closer than most people are expecting. But in the end, I really think the Senators can get it done, and send the NHL's poster boys home very early. Don't cry, Mr. least you'll still have the Caps.

Prediction: Senators in seven.

Alright, with all that said and done, I'm gonna make my final predictions for the rest of the playoffs. As a reminder, before the season started I went with Pittsburgh over Washington and Chicago over Vancouver for my conference finals, and ultimately Chicago over Pittsburgh for the Stanley Cup. Obviously I'm changing that prediction now if I'm telling you the Penguins are going home in the first-round, so without further ado....

Eastern Conference: Washington over New Jersey
Western Conference: Chicago over Detroit

Stanley Cup: Chicago over Washington

I'm sticking with my pick in the West and ultimately for the Stanley Cup, but I'm changing up some of the finalists in the process. Some of that's just due to logistics; if the first-round go as I predicted it, Chicago would face Vancouver in the conference semis. But in the East, I think it's clearly become Washington's to lose.

Alright folks, that'll do it for now. As a reminder, tomorrow night at 9 pm EST we'll have a special playoff preview edition of CIA Radio, so if you've got any comments of your own the link will be here (and on Facebook & Twitter) for you to call in and share your thoughts with us. I'll be live with my two co-hosts as we break down all these playoff matchups all over again. Until then, enjoy these two days off, because on Wednesday it's time to start playing for Lord Stanley's hardware!

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