2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Mapping the Path to Hockey's Holy Grail
There has been a little bit of everything in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Dirty hits, fights, upsets, overtimes...because it's the Cup.
Every Eastern Conference series has gone at least six games, leaving them still sorting out the next round on Thursday while the Western Conference has stood poised to move on since Monday. The NHL announced they will begin play Friday.
If there are Eastern Conference games on Tuesday and Saturday of next week, we can hockey on every day until the first domino of the second round falls. True followers of the greatest playoff competition in the world are always looking ahead.
That is especially true when there are so many good storylines.
Even as a fan of an established team, I know this is good for the league. The unpredictability of an open competition sparks interest and debate, which sparks more interest and debate...
Often the actual games do not go as we expected in the first round, leaving many a savvy forecaster kicking his or her proverbial wounds. Some of us are just arrogant enough to give it another try, assuring our readers we have done better in the past and are not totally devoid of any prediction prowess...
Nashville Predators over Phoenix Coyotes in Five
Make no mistake about it: The Phoenix Coyotes are for real.
In January, I began calling for them to sell off their veterans to allow them one last chance at the Stanley Cup. Then, a one-point-from-perfect February gave them the Pacific Division lead.
However, they were inconsistent in March and lost the division lead, only to gain it back with a big pair of wins over the season's final 30 hours. As the second-worst division winner in the much deeper and tougher Western Conference, I did not give them much chance against the playoff-savvy Chicago Blackhawks.
Sure, they were helped greatly when the thug who should not be in the league took out Marian Hossa. But that does not account for surviving five overtime games and never facing elimination.
They were better than Chicago. But so was Detroit, who lost to the Nashville Predators in five games.
The Coyotes cannot count on their goalie outplaying two-year Vezina Finalist Pekke Rinne. They have been the lowest-scoring playoff team in the Western Conference since the trade deadline, and now they have to figure out how to make it happen against perhaps the best goalie in the world.
Nashville has way more balance. They are among the 10 stingiest teams while being top-10 in scoring, power play and penalty kill. They were in the second round last season, where Phoenix has never been.
This season could be their last chance, as the team's miserly budget could mean a mass exodus of talent. Potentially playing for a last time in a city that never took to the team is hardly equivalent.
St. Louis Blues over Los Angeles Kings in Seven
Both of these teams are better than their season-long statistics show.
The Los Angeles Kings were the second-lowest scoring team in the NHL over the season. However, they averaged three goals per game after the pre-deadline trade for Jeff Carter.
The St. Louis Blues were a struggling team worst in the league on the power play when Ken Hitchcock took over about a month into the season. However, they have been the best power play since the All-Star break.
For the season, they are still in the bottom half of the league (19th) with the advantage (16.7 percent). They scored less frequently (2.51 GFA) than anyone but L.A. in the Western Conference. But they gave up the fewest shots (26.7) and goals (1.89) in the NHL and have its seventh-best penalty kill.
Both teams also saw a drop-off at the end of the season. But since the two dispatched last year's conference finalist with but three losses between them, they look like the teams they were in March.
The Blues may seem less experienced, but they are a playoff hockey team. They are a little deeper and the longer the series goes, the better for them. Now that the standard first-round home ice problem is no more, they will win the series in Game 7.
New York Rangers over Washington Capitals in Seven
The Washington Capitals have been a disappointment in the playoffs for four consecutive seasons. They have never gotten out of the second round and were out before that twice.
Last summer, they appeared to upgrade. They got a first-round pick for Semyon Varlamov and practically stole Tomas Vokoun from Florida to replace him. They let Scott Hannan go and upgraded to Roman Hamrlik, who was only a couple years older, but a better shot blocker and much better offensively.
Only Vokoun was not the stud he was expected to be, and was unavailable for the playoffs. Washington had to rely on the backup to their backup goalie, Braden Holtby, who came into the playoffs with just 21 games of NHL experience.
Meanwhile, Hamrlik appeared to hit the wall. A genuine No. 2 defenceman in 2010-11, he was barely a top-four guy this season.
To make matters worse, captain Alex Ovechkin had one of his worst seasons, and coach Bruce Boudreau was fired. They made the playoffs under Dale Hunter, but their improvement was only marginal, and they drew the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round.
However, the Caps played well enough to knock the B's out. As the second round awaits, one wonders if the Caps may be ready to be the team they have been on paper.
With New York's win earlier Thursday night, they get a chance at a rematch with the team that has bounced them out in the first round twice in the last three seasons.
The Rangers led the league in hits and blocked shots. That is why they were fourth in goals against and fifth on the penalty kill, while the Caps rank 21st in both categories.
New York also scored more than Washington, and they played better against a tougher schedule. Even though the Caps looked better in the first round, it seems unlikely the better team on paper with home ice would lose to a team they have a vendetta against.
New Jersey Devils over Philadelphia Flyers in Seven
The Philadelphia Flyers had the worst of all match-ups in the first round.
The Pittsburgh Penguins had great scoring before getting Sidney Crosby back. They had the championship experience to retake the Stanley Cup.
They were the prohibitive favourites in the Eastern Conference. But the Flyers took it to them in the first three games of the series, and held on to win in six.
So because they beat the best, they must be the best, right? Wrong.
There was no defence played in that series. Defences are ruling the 2011-12 season, and the Stanley Cup playoffs have featured it prominently.
This is the year you want a goalie who will rise to the occasion. Like I told Philadelphia fans when they traded for Ilya Bryzgalov, he is not a big-game goalie.
The biggest games he faced as a Phoenix Coyote over the past two seasons were against the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs and against the division-leading San Jose Sharks during the regular season. He went 3-8 against the Wings and was winless in nine games, respectively.
Going 4-2 against Pittsburgh cannot erase that record when he was terrible in the series. He cannot match up against Martin Brodeur in his likely last roll of the dice to win a fourth Cup and solidify himself as the greatest of all time. Marty is not the goalie he once was, but he is a major reason they were top-10 defensively.
Philadelphia is better than New Jersey in scoring (tied for second vs.15th), power play (sixth vs.14th) and shot differential (plus 3.8 to plus 0.7). But if the Devils have indeed solved their penalty kill issues from early in the Florida series, they have by far the best kill in the league (led in shorthanded goals and gave up fewest power play goals with best percentage).
In a division rival series likely to see a lot of special teams time, the Devils get just enough to sneak past the Flyers.
Nashville Predators over St. Louis Blues in Six
As I mentioned before, the Nashville Predators are hungry. They are ready. Are the St. Louis Blues?
I have said it all season: Teams that have not made the playoffs for two consecutive seasons almost never win their conferences. But if any team is built to break that trend, it is the Blues.
They shut teams down before they get started. They maintain a strong enough fore-check to hurry the opposition's blue line. But they still clog the neutral zone well enough to stop teams from advancing quickly if the first pass is on.
If teams can get through the first two lines of defence, they keep you to the outside and get to the loose pucks from deflections and rebounds. Should you get through that, as well, either high-calibre goalie they have usually stymies your scoring chance, anyway.
But Nashville is almost as tough to score on and is better offensively. No team bulked up more at the trade deadline than the Preds, who have more on the line than many of the younger Blues.
Past the midpoint of the series, the extra two games the Blues have played to get there will start to take their toll on an inexperienced team. Exhaustion and youth will lead to mental errors, and Nashville is savvy enough to take advantage.
New York Rangers over New Jersey Devils in Five
The New York Rangers needed seven games to beat the Ottawa Senators, a team that finished in the bottom half of the league in point percentage and wins. I have them needing seven to get past the Capitals.
Yet they likely will be done playing before the New Jersey Devils. New Jersey has the oldest average roster age, and they run out of gas against a physical and talented Rangers squad.
Division rivalries usually level the ice a little for the underdog, but a five-game series actually reflects that. New York is better offensively and defensively, and close in special teams. The Devils rode a great shootout record into the first round and barely took down arguably the weakest division winner in NHL history: Florida had only 32 wins in 82 games excluding the shootout.
The only reason they beat the Flyers is this is the year defence returned to prominence in the Stanley Cup playoffs. These days, the Rangers play it even better than New Jersey.
Nashville Predators over New York Rangers in Seven
Over the course of the season, the Western Conference travels so much more than the Eastern Conference that they spend the equivalent of almost a week less in the air. It gives them a chance to hold about a dozen more practices to develop skills and chemistry.
But the Nashville Predators will have had two easy series to rest up while the Rangers were battling for their lives. Then right before the competition becomes fiercest, New Jersey robs them of sharpening their intensity like Nashville will need to against the St. Louis Blues.
Moreover, beating the best defence will be good practice for beating the fourth-best. The Preds have more urgency, probably the best coach in the game (not that New York is lacking behind the bench!) and the kind of depth and elite blue line that almost every Cup winner has.
New York has a very good blue line, but their top two are nowhere near the force that Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are. Pekka Rinne is one of the few goalies who can best Henrik Lundqvist, and there is more urgency in Nashville.