Picking seven out of the eight first round Stanley Cup Playoff series correctly was almost enough to make me forget my less than stellar Masters predictions - well almost.
I managed to get all four winners right in the Eastern Conference after the ice chips settled and three of four in the West, with only the Anaheim Ducks spoiling the perfect record. Should have known better than to rely on Joe Thornton.
With renewed confidence, I present my second round selections. No guarantees, but they are probably as good as any stock tip you've received in the past six months or so.
Series I - Boston Bruins (1) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (6)
Season Series: The Bruins dominated the Hurricanes during the regular season, winning all four games.
Playoff History: Boston leads series 3-0. This is the first post-season meeting between the clubs since the 1999 Conference Quarter-Final, won by Boston in six. It's also the first time the clubs have met past the first round. The other two meeting were in 1990 and 1991 when Carolina called Hartford home.
Stanley Cup Experience: The Hurricanes have nine players who have taken a drink from Lord Stanley's mug. Four Bruins are also Stanley Cup winners.
Who's Hot: Forwards Michael Ryder (4 goals, 7 points), Phil Kessel (4-2-6), David Krejci (2-3-5) and Marc Savard (2-3-5) led the Bruins versus Montreal. For the Hurricanes Eric Staal (5-2-7), Ray Whitney (3-4-7) and the surprising Chad Larose (2-5-7) led the offense, while Jussi Jokinen proved to have a knack for scoring the big goal when needed.
Who's Not: The Bruins will look for bigger contributions from rookie Blake Wheeler (0 points) and veteran Mark Recchi (0-1-1) in round 2. Captain Rod Brind'amour, winger Eric Cole and power-play specialist Anton Babchuk were held pointless by New Jersey and will have to supply some offense if the 'Canes have any hope.
Key Match-up: Eric Staal vs. Zdeno Chara. Staal is the heart of the Carolina offense and Chara is simply the most physical defenseman in hockey. If the Carolina center can still be a difference maker with the big Slovak on his back, the Canes have a chance. If not, it could be a short series.
X-Factor: Goaltender Cam Ward of Carolina. The Hurricanes will need their goalkeeper to duplicate his effort in the 2006 playoffs, when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy, to have any hope of advancing. His play in round one is definitely cause for optimism.
Prediction: Carolina's been as good as anybody since mid-season and seemed to have some mojo going after their incredible escape from the brink of elimination against the Devils. Look for the upset - Carolina in seven.
Series J - Washington (2) vs. Pittsburgh (4)
Season Series: Washington won three of four games during the season, losing the other in overtime.
Playoff History: Penguins lead the series 6-1. The last two playoff meetings between the once and still bitter rivals were in the first round in 2000 and 2001, both won by Pittsburgh. One memorable chapter of the rivalry took place in 1995, when the Penguins rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Caps in seven games.
Stanley Cup Experience: Pittsburgh has five players on the roster with Stanley Cup rings and most of the key players return from the team that went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008. Washington has only one former Stanley Cup champion in the line-up, Sergei Federov, who won three Cups with Detroit.
Who's Hot: The usual suspects led their respective clubs in round one. For the Penguins, Evgeni Malkin lead all scorers with nine points (4-5), center Sidney Crosby had four goals and four assists and won over 63% of his face-offs and veteran blue-liner Sergei Gonchar added five points (1-4). On the Washington side, Alexander Semin (5-3-8), Alexander Ovechkin (3-4-7) and Nicklas Backstrom (0-7-7) all averaged at least a point a game up front and blue-liners Tom Poti (2-4-6) and Mike Green (1-4-5) provided offense from the back end.
Who's Not: The Penguins might need a bigger contribution from center Jordan Staal (0-1-1 in six games) and winger Petr Sykora (0 points in 4 games) to beat the high-powered Capitals. Sykora was a healthy scratch for games five and six of the series and will need to respond if and when he's given a second chance.
Key Match-up: This series may well come down to which of the league's two mega-stars want it the most. Both Sidney Crosby of the Pens and Alexander Ovechkin of the Capitals have great supporting casts but both are the unquestioned leaders of their respective teams. Add in a generous portion of personal dislike between our two protagonists and you have a recipe for a great series.
X-Factor: Rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov of the Capitals. The young netminder stepped in admirably when veteran Jose Theodore didn't answer the bell in game one against New York. His numbers in round one were spectacular but you have to give the punch-less Rangers' offense some of the credit. He'll face a much different challenge against the talented penguins.
Prediction: Wouldn't this make an amazing Stanley Cup final? Look for the Penguins experience and a super-motivated Sidney Crosby to be the difference in this one. Penguins in six games.
Series K - Detroit (2) vs. Anaheim (8)
Season Series: The Red Wings had little trouble with the Ducks during the regular season, claiming seven of a possible eight points.
Playoff History: Series tied 2-2. After early round losses in 1997 and 1999, Anaheim has won the last two series. In 2003, the seventh-seeded Ducks swept the number two ranked Wings in the first round on the way to a surprising appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. Then in 2007, Anaheim beat Detroit in a bitterly contested six-game Western Conference final en-route to their first Stanley Cup.
Stanley Cup Experience: Nerves shouldn't be a factor in this match-up as no fewer than 36 of the participants have their name engraved on the cup at least once, 22 Red Wings and 14 Ducks.
Who's Hot: Eight different Red Wings averaged at least a point a game in round one, led by Johan Franzen (2-4-6) and the under-appreciated Daniel Cleary (2-3-5). The big line of Ryan Getzlaf (2-6-8), Corey Perry (3-1-4) and Bobby Ryan (4-0-4) and the Ducks' defense, anchored by captain Scott Niedermayer (1-4-5) did most of the damage for Anaheim.
Who's Not: Hart Trophy finalist Pavel Datsyuk (1-1-2) wasn't always Detroit's most dangerous player against Columbus, but then again, he didn't have to be. He may have to raise his game against the more experienced Ducks. As the Red Wings focus on Anaheim's big line, more will be expected of veteran Teemu Selanne (1-1-2) in terms of secondary scoring.
Key Match-up: Red Wings' forwards vs. the Ducks' defense. Detroit has as talented and deep a forward group as any team in the league. Anaheim's success is built around a big, mobile defense. A classic match-up to answer the age old question - does a good defense really beat a good offense?
X-Factor: Special Teams' play. Both teams have great power plays (Detroit ranked first, Anaheim fifth during the regular season) and are sometimes suspect when shorthanded (ranked 25th and 23rd respectively). The series could come down to which team is able to stay out of the penalty box, which is sometimes a problem for Anaheim.
Prediction: This will be a tougher series than expected, but if Chris Osgood can continue to provide good goaltending, it's hard to pick against the defending champs. Red Wings in six.
Series L - Vancouver (3) vs. Chicago (4)
Season Series: The teams split four games during the regular season, but the best indicator might be a convincing 4-0 Vancouver win late in the season.
Playoff History: Series Tied 1-1. The Hawks and Canucks haven't met in the playoffs since the 1995 Western Confernce semi-final, which Chicago swept in four games. Prior to that you have to go all the way back to 1982, where the Canucks beat the Blackhawks four games to one in the conference final, before falling to the Islanders in the Stanley Cup championship series.
Stanley Cup Experience: The Canucks are the only team left in the playoffs without a player with a Stanley Cup ring. Chicago has three players with championships including starting goalkeeper Nikolai Khabibulin who backstopped Tampa Bay to the 2004 title.
Who's Hot: A lot of pressure was placed on the broad shoulders of the Sedin brothers entering the playoffs and they responded against the Blues. Daniel led Vancouver with 5 points (2-3) with bother Henrik (1-3-4) just behind. Veteran defenseman Sami Salo (1-3-4) also had a strong opening round series. For the Hawks, rookie Kris Versteeg continued to open eyes around the league with a team leading seven points (2 goals, 5 assists). Forwards Martin Havlat (3-3-6), Patrick Sharp (3-3-6) and Jonathan Toews (2-4-6) and defenseman Cam Barker (3-3-6) and Brent Seabrook (1-5-6) were also consistent producers.
Who's Not: The Canucks will need more offense from veteran Mats Sundin (1-0-1), who missed time with a groin injury, and youngsters Ryan Kesler (0-1-1) and Mason Raymond (0 points in four games). The Hawks have so many weapons that all-around defenseman Duncan Keith going pointless in six games isn't a big cause for concern, but they should expect more production in round two from the Team Canada candidate.
Key Match-up: Samuel Pahlsson vs. Henrik Sedin. Unlike the Hawks who get consistent offensive contributions from three lines, the Canucks rely heavily on the Sedins to score their goals. Pahlsson was acquired from Anaheim to match-up against the top offensive centres. With respect to Olli Jokinen, Henrik will be his first big test in the 2009 playoffs.
X-Factor: Roberto Luongo, Vancouver. The Canucks' captain was nearly unbeatable down the stretch and during the first round sweep of St. Louis. He's the best at his position, no matter what the Vezina nomination say, and is looking to validate his ranking with a championship. He could be the difference in a close match-up.
Prediction: The Hawks are definitely a team on the rise, but their best years are yet to come. Look for the more experienced Canucks to book their place in the conference final. Vancouver in six games.
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