NHL Playoff Predictions 2011: The X-Factor for Every First-Round Matchup

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst IApril 13, 2011

NHL Playoff Predictions 2011: The X-Factor for Every First-Round Matchup

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    The regular season is over, the talk of who has the upper hand leading into each series has almost come to an end and we're just hours away from the 2011 NHL playoffs kicking off in style. Every matchup has key members and every team has important players who must produce. But in every series, there is one player who may prove to be more of a factor than anyone else. 

    In every series, there's usually an *x-factor.

    Whether it's a player who will be called upon to shut down the opponents or one who needs to step up on offense if his team is to advance to the second round, every series has "that guy." Every series. 

    And though it's difficult to say who exactly will be this x-factor in each matchup, it certainly doesn't hurt to take a look at a few guys who are poised to play important roles—maybe more than they're expecting. 

    The series are set and it's almost that time to sit in your favorite spot on the couch for the next eight weeks or so straight. But before you do that, here's a look at the possible x-factor of each series, and what they'll have to do if their team is to move on to Round 2. 

    Ding ding. 


    *Apologies if you've confused this look at x-factors with Simon Cowell's new show, but if that's the case, why not stick around and read anyway? You never know, you just might learn something—like how the NHL is the best reality TV there is. 

    Or how Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella is the American version of Simon Cowell. Just louder.

Washington Capitals vs. New York Rangers: Marc Staal

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    This is not the same old Washington Capitals coming into their series against the New York Rangers, but it is the same old Rangers that will be showing up to the dance—with their balanced, defense-first attack that relies heavily on the play of Henrik Lundqvist to get them through. 

    And surprisingly enough, that's sort of the way the Capitals have gone this season as well. No longer are they simply a one-line team, banking on Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom to combine for five points every night in order to win the game. No, they too have gone the way of the balanced attack, with more focus on defense this season.

    But that isn't going to change how the Rangers will need to stop the Caps this round. If they're going to do that, it'll still start with them stopping the heavy firepower from Ovechkin and friends, and on a Rangers team that lacks experience on the blue line, you can bet the majority of that responsibility will sit with 24-year-old Marc Staal. 

    Staal has played in 17 playoff games in two appearances to the NHL's second season and has never gotten past the second round. He'll be matched up on a nightly basis with the Capitals' best, and though they aren't a team that can boast any significant playoff success of late either, it'll still be a task for the Blueshirts against the Eastern Conference's best this year. 

    Stall averaged over 25 minutes of ice time this season and has become a player they rely on heavily to shut down the opponent. He isn't going to get the job done on offense—although he has improved in that area this season—but that's not what they need him to do. 

    Contain the skill on Washington and force the other guys on the team to carry the offensive load, and you've got a chance to beat them. 

    But if Staal and the gang can't slow down a Capitals team that will be determined as ever to win the Cup, they'll find themselves on the wrong end of a short series—and on the receiving end of multiple John Tortorella tongue lashings.

    You might want to pay attention to the post-game interviews in this one. Between Tortorella and Bruce Boudreau, there could be some serious off-ice fireworks. 

Philadelphia Flyers vs. Buffalo Sabres: Chris Pronger

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    Chris Pronger hasn't played a game since March 8, as he continues to be day-to-day with that injury and will not be expected in the lineup when the Philadelphia Flyers open their series against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night. So how exactly is he the x-factor then?

    In fact, that's exactly why he's the x-factor, because he may or may not be a part of this series at all—which is a huge boost to the Sabres chances and a big blow to the Flyers'. 

    When it comes to the playoffs, Pronger is about as intimidating as it gets and has a resumé—and wrap sheet—that speaks for itself. After missing the playoffs his first two seasons with the Hartford Whalers, Pronger hasn't missed the postseason since—this is the 15th-straight year (1995-2011). He's played in 170 playoff games, tallied 120 playoff points, has been to the Stanley Cup Finals three times and won the Cup once. 

    But it isn't just what he's done through his career that makes him such a critical factor in every series he plays in. It's what he does on the ice every night. He is, by far, one of the scariest players to play against—in history. He's huge, he's dirty, he's incredibly talented, and even if you beat him, he'll still mess with your mind—like stealing a game-winning puck or two. 

    He's been suspended eight times in his career for a total of 22 games, including twice in the 2007 playoffs—one of only three players in history to be suspended more than once in the same postseason. Yet, unlike so many goons and tough guys in the game today, he is given the utmost respect for what he does. He's a rare breed in that he'll score the game-winning goal and then eat your face.

    The Sabres will catch a huge break if Pronger misses significant time in this series, because frankly, the Flyers are a different team without him on the ice. 

    They're hopeful to get him back sometimes during the first round, but even if he does come back, questions about the strength of his hand and his month-long absence will linger and may play a role. But if there's one guy you can't count out in the playoffs, it's Pronger. 

    He is one of the few players who can seemingly single-handedly knock you out and then knock your team out, just because he can. 

Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price

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    Listen, there's not even a point of contemplating who the x-factor is in this series with the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens. There is no debate, so why waste time rambling about anyone else other than Carey Price?

    The entire series could well come down to how well Price plays between the pipes and don't go trying to convince anyone otherwise. You'd just be wasting your time. 

    If the Canadiens are to have success in the postseason, it's going to have to be a lot like last season—hang on for the ride and hope to God your goalie makes some saves. Jaroslav Halak put the team on his back. With the kitchen sink full of pucks thrown at him, he barely let one through. 

    Price needs to do the same for his club this season because, plain and simple, the Canadiens are going to need it. The Habs are the lowest scoring team of the 16 in the playoffs, and they have just two players who scored over 50 points on the season. They don't beat you with offense—they beat you by stopping yours. 

    Price played 72 games in 2010-11, two fewer than Cam Ward who played the most, and with 38 wins was tied with Roberto Luongo for the most of any goalie this year. Price was great this season, but he also had his struggles. His 28 regulation losses on the year are second only to Edmonton's Nikolai Khabibulin for the most in the league—and as you'll recall, the Oilers didn't do so well. 

    And it will be a test for the 23-year-old netminder, who has a career postseason record of 5-11-0, with a .894 save percentage and a 3.17 goals-against average. He's also lost his last eight playoff games, which doesn't exactly intimidate the opponent. 

    The Canadiens did win the season series 4-2-0, but the playoffs are a different animal entirely, and it's tough to see them hanging with the big, bad Bruins over a seven-game stretch. But if the Canadiens are going to get through this series, it's Price who will have to lead the way, no doubt about it. 

    The Bruins are more dangerous on offense, better defensively and have the best goalie in the NHL right now—not to mention they're bigger and badder, and that's before you even start to talk about Zdeno Chara. 

    On paper, this series is all Boston. On the ice, this series needs to be all Carey or else. 

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: Kris Letang

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    One thing is clear going into the series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning—this is not your younger brother's Penguins. 

    The Penguins will be entering the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs under completely different circumstances than years prior, mainly because they'll be without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin—something that just sounds plain wrong. 

    And yet, without their two biggest stars, the Pens have found a way to win this season, and not only that, they've found a way to lockdown home-ice advantage in the first round, even without their two best players for nearly half the year. 

    But it's not only that they don't have the top one-two center punch in the league to guide them back to the Finals. It's that, since the trade that sent Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars, there's been a lot more pressure on blue-liner Kris Letang—and he hasn't exactly stepped up to the challenge. 

    Though Letang piled up an impressive eight goals and 50 points through all 82 games this season, he was two different players in the first and second halves of the year. He scored just 14 points in the final 41 games and finished the regular season with a giant question mark hanging over his head. Which Letang will show up in the playoffs?

    The Penguins have needed offense from everywhere without Crosby and Malkin, and I mean everywhere. Crosby played just 41 games but still was the highest scoring Penguin on the season—by nine goals and 16 points—so clearly they've been a balanced club since. Second on the team was Letang, who has to produce against the high-flying Lightning if they're going to continue their success in the playoffs. 

    Letang is the x-factor for the Penguins, and though they've still been a great team through his second-half struggles, you've got to think they'll need their best all-around defenseman to be at his best if they're going to win the games that really matter. 

Vancouver Canucks vs. Chicago Blackhawks: Corey Crawford

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    All the talk about this series that can be done, pretty much has—over the past two years—but just as the two playoffs battles between the Blackhawks and Canucks before it, this series will once again see a new goalie in net for Chicago. And his team's hopes rest on his thickly-padded shoulders. 

    Corey Crawford has played in one NHL playoff game in his life. One. In the 2009 postseason, he appeared for 16 minutes, made seven saves and allowed a goal in what is his only playoff experience up to this point. So it's a good thing the first team he'll see wasn't the best, highest-scoring, most dangerous of them all this year...oh wait. 

    If the Blackhawks are going to beat the powerhouse Canucks for the third straight year, Crawford is going to have to be a wall behind them. With the Sedin brothers and Ryan Kessler roaming the ice for more than half the game combined, he'll hardly get a rest at all after the drop of the puck. 

    Not to say a goalie with little or no experience can't win in the playoffs, because the Hawks only have to look as far as last season on their march to the Stanley Cup. Antti Niemi came into those playoffs without having played a single minute of playoff action before that, and he ended up with a large trophy raised over his head. Cam Ward also did it as a rookie in 2006, taking the Carolina Hurricanes to a Cup win, while taking home the Conn Smythe Trophy as well. 

    The difference with boys from the Madhouse on Madison this season is, well, they're a different team. They dropped half their championship club during the offseason, and though the key members like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook still remain, it's the rest of the players who weren't there last year that will need to step up their games.

    Chicago is the underdog in this series for the first time. They tripped and fell through a screen door, with everyone laughing at them, to get into the playoffs. And though they may be in the heads of the Canucks players because of what's happened in the past, they still need to beat them four times in the present if their playoffs are to have any future. 

    And they'll need Crawford to be on his game every single night to do it. 

San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings: Dustin Penner

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    The Los Angeles Kings series against the San Jose Sharks may well be defined by who isn't in the lineup rather than who is, but if there's a player who could be an x-factor in this one, it's Dustin Penner—if he can remember how to score goals, that is. 

    Penner played 19 games with the Kings after being traded from the Edmonton Oilers at the trade deadline, but in that time, he's scored just twice while adding four assists. He needs to not just show up in this series, but he needs to be big. In front of the net and in the corners, the Kings need all the help they can get up front now that they're without Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams for the series. 

    The Sharks have a lineup filled with big bodies, and Penner's 6'4", 245-pound frame will be crucial, especially in a long series. He knows what it takes to win a Cup, as he was a member of the Anaheim Ducks who won it all in 2007. 

    Whether that experience transfers this over to this year remains to be seen obviously—and his play of late suggests it might not—but the Kings are going to need all the help they can get against one of the hottest teams in the NHL since the All-Star break. 

    Penner has played in just two playoffs but has notched 34 games under his belt in that time— although he has just six goals and 17 points.

    All recent signs may point to a no-show from Penner in this series, and if that's the case, it's likely the Kings will see a quick exit. But if the 28-year-old can find his game once again and have an impact in these games, he could be the reason the Kings shine in Hollywood. 

Detroit Red Wings vs. Phoenix Coyotes—Ray Whitney

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    The Detroit Red Wings are no stranger to the playoffs, and when it comes to the first round of the playoffs, they're no stranger to the Phoenix Coyotes either. The two teams will meet up for the second straight year in what is sure to be yet another entertaining one. 

    And for the Coyotes, it doesn't matter when or where they play. If it's against the Red Wings, they are the underdog. This series is no different, and if the Coyotes are going to hang with the experienced Wings, they're going to need to continue to see production from a variety of sources—one of those being veteran forward Ray Whitney.

    The Coyotes are one of the more balanced teams offensively—with captain Shane Doan being the only player on the club who reached the 20-goal mark and the 60-point plateau—and they had 11 players who hit double-digits in goals. 

    Whitney's been on seven teams over his NHL career, and as a journeyman in this league, you tend to gain a bit of playoff experience—and real estate—along the way. He's appeared in 83 postseason games, with 18 goals and 43 points. Oh, and a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. The guy knows what he's doing when it comes to the second season, and he'll need to show it against the Wings. 

    Besides Doan and breakout star defenseman Keith Yandle, the 38-year-old Whitney needs to be one of the guys to produce regularly while facing a team that can just plain suffocate an offense. He pumped in 17 goals and 57 points through 75 games this year, and he needs to use both his skill and his hockey knowledge to help his teammates try and grind out a first-round win. 

    Whitney should be a factor both on and off the ice in this round, which is only beneficial for the members of his club. And if he can chip in and score too, he could be a major reason why the Coyotes can get past the Red Wings.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators: Shea Weber

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    I know, I know, it seems lazy to pick the most widely-known and best player from the Nashville Predators as the x-factor in their series against the Anaheim Ducks—where's my originality, right?

    Well, here's the thing, he's could prove to be the x-factor on special teams more than anything if the Preds are going to get by a Ducks team with some serious playoff experience on their roster. The Predators enter the playoffs with the worst power play of the 16 teams—they finished the season 26th in the NHL—and are going up against the Ducks, which average the third-most penalty minutes per game in the West.

    If ever there was a time for Weber to get his team's power play under control, now would be it, as they're likely to see a bunch of time with a man advantage. 

    Weber finished the season with 16 goals and 48 points through 82 games this season. He scored six goals on the power play, and the burly defenseman will need to continue to fill the net with a man-up, to kick start a less-than-stellar special teams.

    The Predators have the balanced scoring—seven players with at least 16 goals—and exceptional goaltending from Pekka Renne—a probable Vezina Trophy candidate—but to handle Anaheim's offense is going to be no easy task for this club. 

    They need to take all the advantage of their man-advantage when they get the chances, because in case you're not aware, the Ducks boast some pretty impressive numbers this year. 

    It starts with Corey Perry, who won the Rocket Richard Trophy this season with 50 goals. He was also the NHL's third-highest scoring player with 98 points. Ryan Getzlaf had 19 goals and 76 points, while Bobby Ryan finished off the year with 34 goals and 71 points. Not a bad first line.

    And all that even before mentioning 40-year-old Teemu Selanne who added 31 goals and 80 points. Seriously, he's 40. The blue line packs a punch, too, with Lubomir Visnovsky, who finished as the NHL's highest scoring defenseman (18 goals and 68 points) and will no doubt get some Norris Trophy consideration.

    Like I said, the Predators are going to need to take advantage of their opportunities—the Ducks kind of like to score...a lot.