NHL Playoff Predictions 2011: Predicting the "X-Factor" in Each Series
There is no better game on earth than playoff hockey. Every shot, every hit and every penalty can mean life or death for a team once the middle of April hits. The Eastern Conference has so many good teams that it's almost impossible to pick a representative, and Vancouver seems poised to make a deep run in the West.
However, nothing is guaranteed in the NHL playoffs. There are always those players who make an impact on a series when you seem to least expect it.
Who will those players be this year?
Washington Capitals vs. New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist
After a slow start, the Washington Capitals morphed into the juggernaut that we all thought they would be during the stretch run. Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin started to find their scoring touch and a trio of young goaltenders played well enough to get the job done.
To stop the mighty No. 1 seed, the New York Rangers are going to have to rely on goalie Henrik Lundqvist. King Henrik posted another 36 wins this year behind an offense that was, in all fairness, fairly subpar.
The Rangers will be dealing with a gimpy Ryan Callahan, and there's no telling what could happen to Marian Gaborik between now and Wednesday.
For the Rangers to have a chance, Lundqvist is going to have to stand tall. If he can't hold the fort, the Rangers will be done in four.
Philadelphia Flyers vs. Buffalo Sabres: Tyler Myers
Big things were expected of the young Buffalo defenseman this year, and many people were let down by what they saw. Blessed with a massive frame, Myers is going to have his hands full with the Flyers and their seven 20-goal scorers.
Myers is going to have to be the one who sets the tone for the series. The Flyers love to crash the net and cause havoc, opening the shooting lanes up for their deadly snipers from the outside and scoring garbage goals in front of the net.
Myers will have to clear those bodies out and not be afraid to use that wide frame to block shots. Ryan Miller is going to need all the defensive help he can get.
On the other side of things, (not as much in this series though) the Flyers goaltending worries me. Sergei Bobrovsky held it together early in the season, but Philadelphia is limping into the playoffs and falling behind in the series at home would not be good for their confidence.
Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens: Tim Thomas
How could it be anyone else?
Tim Thomas has been absolutely spectacular this season, and posted a regular season record save percentage (.938) to go along with his 35-11-9 record. The playoffs are all about goaltending and Thomas appears to be on the top of his game.
The only thing that worries me is the lack of great playoff run on Tim's resume. The Bruins are an annual playoff team, but Thomas has been unable to bring them to the East finals.
In fact, the last time Boston reached the conference final was 91-92, when they lost to a loaded PIttsburgh Penguins team.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: Marc Andre Fleury
Marc Andre Fleury has been, without question, the Penguins MVP this season. Injuries to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal seemed to take the team out of contention, but Fleury held them together with stellar goaltending.
The Pens acquired some scoring ability with the additions of James Neal and Alexei Kovalev, but everything still rests on Fleury's shoulders. As long as he can keep the Penguins in the game, Pittsburgh has enough playoff experience to grind out four wins.
The real X-factor here though is the health of Sidney Crosby. Team officials have remained very quiet about his progress, and only give cookie-cutter answers but number 87 still looms in the background.
If Crosby pulls a Willis Reed and skates onto the ice at Consol Energy Center at some point, forget about this whole slide.
Vancouver Canucks vs. Chicago Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews
Last year's Conn Smythe winner has to get something done, and fast.
His Blackhawks executed the very definition of "backing into the playoffs" this year, and come in with almost zero momentum. Toews desperate needs to repeat his performance from last year, when he scored 29 points in 22 games to lead the Hawks to the Cup.
However, I've seen this movie about the Canucks before: Almost every season they seemed poised to make a run and they trip along the way. Ryan Kesler and the Sedins have the Canucks scoring tons of goals and Robert Luongo posted a 2.11 GAA this season.
The Canucks just need to play their game, not make any mistakes and take Chicago out early.
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings: Joe Thornton
Oh...Joe Thornton. In the regular season, it seems like nothing can stop him. He has posted at least 70 points in 9 of the last 10 seasons and topped 100 points three times in that span.
The playoffs, however, are a completely different story. Since 1998, Thornton has scored a grand total of 15 goals in 85 games. That's not good.
The man completely disappears come playoff time and, as a result, his team goes nowhere.
For the Sharks to finally make a run this year, Thornton will have to (as weird as it sounds) play these games like regular season games. I know the playoffs are a completely different atmosphere, but Thornton must get it done for San Jose to have a chance.
Detroit Red Wings vs. Phoenix Coyotes: Ilya Bryzgalov
The Red Wings are like the herpes of the NHL: They keep popping up when you want them to the least.
In all seriousness though, this Red Wings team is just as good as the one that won the cup a few years ago. The Ageless Wonder Nick Lidstrom is playing like he's 26 years old, and the usual suspects at the forwards position are always dangerous.
The X-factor in this series comes from the other bench however: Ilya Bryzgalov. With Shane Doan being the lone 20 goal scorer on the Coyotes, Bryzgalov is going to have to stand on his head to get Phoenix to the next round.
Detroit is a completely different team come playoff time and they know it. The Coyotes managed to get some playoff experience last year (against the Red Wings ironically), but I don't think that's going to be enough to hold off the veteran Detroit squad.
That is, of course, unless Bryzgalov figures out how to start scoring some goals.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators: Corey Perry
A team everyone seems to be overlooking this year is the Anaheim Ducks. They have seven guys on the team with Stanley Cup rings, have the reigning Richard trophy winner and a pair of 30 goal scorers to compliment Corey Perry.
50 goals is still a respected mark for a forward and Perry is going to have to continue his success in the playoffs. Nashville might look like a pushover to the casual fan but Pekka Rinne posted a great .930 save percentage this year to go along with his 2.12 GAA. He just didn't get the goal support from his team.
If Perry and the Ducks can get pucks behind Rinne, the series will be over before you know it. However, if Nashville can hang then maybe they can grind a couple out...