The Quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are about to begin. For fans of the 16 teams that will vie for Lord Stanley’s Cup, this time of year can be as stressful as it is exciting. Heroes and legends are born in the post-season and there’s no doubt we’ll see our fair share made in the next eight weeks. Players can create an aura of being a ‘playoff performer or shake off a bad season with the playoff’s blank slate.. Players can also earn the stigma of being the type of player who just can’t get it done when all the chips are on the table; a reputation that can dog them for years until they prove other wise.

As always, there are some great match-ups in the first round. A few that will grab the attention of hockey fans across the globe and some series that may fall into the background. One thing is certain, for the fans of the teams involved in these eight first round battles, their living rooms and basements will be transformed into amusement parks with the main attractions being the roller coaster of emotions that only the Stanley Cup Playoffs can deliver.

The Winnipeg Jets did not make the playoffs, so my horse is out of the race. But I still love this time of year. With the Jets out, I’ll instead follow the players I love and the players I drafted in my playoff pools. Here’s my look at each of the first round series and just how I see them unraveling.

(1) New York Rangers vs. (8) Ottawa Senators

The Rangers finished second in the Presidents Trophy race, finishing atop the Eastern Conference with 109 points. The Senators, the consensus pick among preseason polls to finish in a lottery pick, ended up surprising everyone with top eight finish and 92 points.

Surprisingly the Sens had the Rangers number, taking three of four meetings this season. Led by Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, the Senators can compete with the Rangers offensively but that’s where the comparisons end. Defensively the Sens are suspect and the Rangers are solid. A whole team buy-in to defence and shot blocking puts the Rangers in a different league. Not to mention the shots that the Blue Shirts don’t block still have to get by one of the NHL’s best goaltenders in Hendrik Lundqvist.

Although the season series points to the Senators, the playoffs are the playoffs and the Rangers are built for it.

Prediction: Rangers in 6

(2) Boston Bruins vs. (7) Washington Capitals

This series is another example of a one where the underdog got the best of the favorite in the regular season. The Capitals topped the Bruins in three of four meetings and finally seemed to be showing their ‘on paper’ form. Nicholas Backstrom returning to the line-up for the Caps is a huge lift and Alexander Ovechkin finding his stride during the stretch makes the Caps better than their record shows. But the Bruins are the defending champions. They’re a little banged up and a little bruised, but the Bruins can bang you up and bruise you up better than any team in the NHL. While Tim Thomas doesn’t seem to be the goaltender he was a year ago, he’s also proved that he’s most dangerous when you count him out.

Caps are better than they’ve played but the Bruins still have some gas in the tank to at least get them past this round.

Prediction: Bruins in 6.

(3) Florida Panthers vs. (6) New Jersey Devils

I guess the Devils are the underdog as the lower seed. However, they did finish with eight points more than the third ranked Panthers and got those eight points in a way harder division. The Panthers had an awful -24 goal differential (them and the Caps are the only negative teams to make the post-season. Yes, the Southeast was that bad) and they staggered into the playoffs with only two wins in their final ten games.

The Devils on the other hand stormed into the playoffs winning seven of their last ten and had the 4th most road wins in the league. Led by Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, the Devils offense will be more than the Panthers can handle. And even at 40, Marty Brodeur has shown flashes of his old self and should have no problem out playing Jose Theodore.

Devils are coming into the series the ‘underdogs’ but are leaving the victors.

Prediction: Devils in 5.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers

This series has me licking my chops. So many storylines and so much drama the battle between these Pennsylvania rivals. While their games are always intense but the last two meetings this season have taken this war of blood and goals to a whole other level.

The Pens represent skill and the Flyers represent toughness, but what makes this series so appealing is that both teams can bring what the other excels at. The Flyers’ hopes hang on goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov avoiding a cosmic breakdown and instead carrying his end-of-season form into the playoffs. The Flyers have a wealth of offensive talent but even Giroux, Jagr and Hartnall won’t be able to keep up with Crosby, Malkin and Neal. But there’s no doubt they’ll come close.

In the end the City of Champions will be too much for the City of Brotherly Love.

Prediction: Penguins in 7.

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings

This is unfortunate. I really thought that the Kings could have a chance at an upset against almost any team in the East. And by almost, I meant not the Canucks. Looking at the Kings roster and then looking at how many goals they managed to score this season will boggle your mind (194 goals scored, one of two teams in the NHL that didn’t break the 200 goal barrier). The only thing that kept the Kings a float is the one player that makes the Kings an upset candidate against almost anyone: goaltender Jonathan Quick. Quick could very well be the Vezina winner this season and is the only chance the Kings have of stealing games against the Canucks.

With it looking more and more like both the Sedin Twins will be taking the ice come game one, the Canucks are a juggernaut at all ends of the ice. Their defence is solid, and say what you want about Roberto Luongo, but when he’s on, he’s as good as anyone in the game. And just in case Bobby Lu is off, they have a rock solid back-up in Cory Schneider

Quick might steal one or two in this series, but the battle of the coast goes to the north.

Prediction: Canucks in 5

(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) San Jose Sharks

The Sharks have the experience; they’ve been to the conference finals the last two seasons but have come up short in each. But they’re also perennial underachievers. That hasn’t changed this year, their underachieving just started a lot earlier. Even though the Sharks are facing a Blues team with less ‘star’ power, the Blues owned the Sharks winning all four meetings this season.

The Blues have been a huge surprise this year. While they’ve performed below expectations in the past few seasons, they’ve really soared above and beyond them this year. A young, hardworking and extremely well coached team has been a force all season long. What makes the Blues dangerous is their production by committee making them a hard team to shut down. The Blues also effectively used goaltending by committee in the regular season, but that doesn’t work in the playoffs. Blues are going to have to go with one and hope to get the same results.

Pack up the Orca and get Chief Brody, the Blues are going Shark hunting.

Prediction: Blues in 5

(3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks

How ready is Jonathan Toews? It’s a good question and its one that’s weighing on the minds of Blackhawks fans and with good reason. Toews hopefully can get his team’s anemic power play going and maybe even their penalty killing (ranked 5th last and 4th last respectively).

The Coyotes are a well very well coached team. Dave Tippett has made them consistently competitive while being given a roster that could leave a lot of coaches out of a job.  When Ilya Bryzgalov left the desert for the streets of Philadelphia there was a big hole left in the Coyotes crease. Enter Mike Smith, who has been lights out in-goal for the Coyotes and the main reason the Desert Dogs skated to a 20-6 -5 record after February 1.

This is a tough one to call but when in doubt go with the goaltending.

Prediction: Coyotes in 7

(4) Nashville Predators vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings

This is one of the series that I’m really looking forward to. The Red Wings, while still solid, don’t seem to be the team they used to be. While no one was better than the Wings at home this season (31-7-3), they were weak on the road (17-21-3). Perhaps the long seasons are taking their toll on the Red Wings, or maybe the Wings just know what it takes to win and are saving that extra gear for the post season. Either way, this is part of what will make this series a great one to watch.

The Nashville Predators are a great story: A team in a non-traditional hockey market making it work. They didn’t do it through gimmicks and big name spending; they did it by crafting a contender through smart drafting and careful development. They have one of the league’s best goaltenders in Pekka Rinne and the league’s scariest back-end pairings in Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. Their forward lines don’t feature the star power like the Red Wings, but they do run deep and they use that to their advantage.

It’s going to be a tough one to call, but I think home ice will make the difference.

Prediction: Predators in 7

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Born and raised Winnipegger. A life long Jets fan, as well as a Pop-Culture and sports junkie. For thoughts on the Winnipeg Jets, the NHL and things irreverent follow him on Twitter.

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