2011 NHL Playoffs: Predicting Winners Through Round One
Chicago Blackhawks, 2010 Stanley Cup Champions
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As we have learned before in the playoffs, there seems to be an atmospheric effect on all the participants from playing in the mini-tournament that seems to change the way teams play—good and bad. What can we learn from this? Sometimes, the NHL's post-season is unpredictable. This year especially, where we've seen the league's best teams face significant struggles in the leading weeks to the yearly tournament, it should result in some entertaining, nail-biting hockey.
Nonetheless, there always are the dominant teams of the NHL, and this year is no different. Teams like the Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings are entering the postseason on high notes. In contrast, teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings are entering with question marks due to the way they qualified for the tournament.
However, like I mentioned above, the playoffs are, in fact, unpredictable. You can look no further than last year's tournament for evidence. Did you predict the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens would make it all the way to the Eastern Conference final, toppling the hockey giants the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins were and still are?
What about the then-Philadelphia Flyers, who qualified for the postseason on the last regular season day and are sneaking in as a seventh seed? With their goaltending question marks, did you bet on them making it all the way to Game Six of the Stanley Cup final?
This proves the predictable sometimes becomes unpredictable. However, part of the entire fun process of the NHL's playoffs is, of course, attempting to predict the winners through each round. So, before we get to the predicting, let's just review the first round matchups:
WESTERN CONFERENCE MATCHUPS
Vancouver Canucks (No. 1) vs Chicago Blackhawks (No. 8)
San Jose Sharks (No. 2) vs Los Angeles Kings (No. 7)
Detroit Red Wings (No. 3) vs Phoenix Coyotes (No. 6)
Anaheim Ducks (No. 4) vs Nashville Predators (No. 5)
EASTERN CONFERENCE MATCHUPS
Washington Capitals (No. 1) vs New York Rangers (No. 8)
Philadelphia Flyers (No. 2) vs Buffalo Sabres (No. 7)
Boston Bruins (No. 3) vs Montreal Canadiens (No. 6)
Pittsburgh Penguins (No. 4) vs Tampa Bay Lightning (No. 5)
Western Conference: First Seed vs Eighth Seed
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This one seems to ring a bell, doesn't it? For the third consecutive postseason, the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and current President's Trophy winner Vancouver Canucks will meet. The first two times these two powerhouses met—both in the conference semi-final round—the Blackhawks prevailed in six games both times, overpowering Vancouver on both ends of the ice.
This time though, the tables seem to be turned. The Canucks have been pegged to win not only this round, but the entire tournament. The team that General Manager Mike Gillis has built is similar to the mold Stan Bowman had in place a year ago—an elite top six that fills out a dominant power play and reckless bottom six that boasts one of the best penalty kills in the league, on top of course riding the hot play of their goaltender.
And there is no arguing against that. Henrik and Daniel Sedin seem to be at the most dominant of their games, both eclipsing 100 points, and both are up there in the league with the best in their styles of play. They have the league's best supporting cast, with maybe the league's best two-way forward in Ryan Kesler leading the way. Goaltender Roberto Luongo has had perhaps the most successful year of his career this season, playing rested and under 65 games. And the Canucks boast perhaps eight-10 defenseman that could fill out any team's top-six defenders with ease, showing their depth.
Their depth and level of talent and skill is undeniable, and that's why they are receiving such praise from those in the hockey world and being chosen as eventual Cup champions.
Not so fast, though, because if you thought the playoffs are based off just talent and skill, you're wrong. If there's any team that can beat the adversity, beat the injuries and play off pure heart and hustle, it's the Chicago Blackhawks. On top of those unteachable traits, they do have skill that can match the Canucks.
First, they have Olympic gold medalist Jonathan Toews centering their top line, with just as elite wingers Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa on his side—all coming off excellent seasons. After that though, is where the everyone start's asking questions about this team.
However, people have to understand that the reason the Blackhawks felt so comfortable trading away pieces like Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Brent Sopel is because they felt they had the minor league to depth to replace these players. And despite the struggles they have faced this season, they still do have the depth of a Stanley Cup Champion thanks to the expected emergence of many youngsters coming from their minor league team.
Troy Brouwer, Viktor Stalberg and Jake Dollard, among others, have played admirably in the bottom six to fill out the roster quite nicely. Not to mention, Corey Crawford's regular season play has been far superior to what Antti Niemi put forth last season, as he too has been playing admirably, while giving the 'Hawks stability in the crease.
Of course, this is all added to an elite defensive core led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and an offensive core as potent as any in the league led by Toews and Kane. But it doesn't finish there. There is always the mental side to the game of hockey, and I believe this is the big factor that's going to play a big role in determining the winner of this round.
In this case, it favors the Windy City. When you factor in that, in the Canucks' dressing room, they will have to deal with the pressure of exorcizing the demons of Chicago—while also worrying about being upset as the most dominant team during the regular season in not only this round, but all four rounds necessary to win the tournament—it's certain to take a toll on the Canucks' level of play. Though it doesn't seem like anything big, at least not big enough to determine a winner of a playoff round, the seed of doubt is planted in the Canucks' room simply because of past playoff failures, mixing in with the confidence the Blackhawks have by facing a familiar foe. It doesn't equal a recipe of success for the Canucks.
PREDICTION: The Chicago Blackhawks over the Vancouver Canucks in six games.
Eastern Conference: First Seed vs Eighth Seed
Alexander Ovechkin's offensive production has also fallen off with the implentation of Bruce Boudreau's defensive scheme; he can still play some good hockey though.
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This one sounds a bit familiar too, no? For the second time in three years, the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers meet in the NHL playoffs. Surprisingly, they gave us quite of the treat last time around, with a near upset and then a miraculous comeback to conclude a grueling seven-game series won by Washington. I expect 2011's version to be much of the same, mainly due to the big factor the two team's goaltenders play in this series.
The two team's goaltending tandems can be said as the complete opposite to each other. On one side in Washington, the goalies can be said as simply riding the wave of success the team has been going through of late. On the other side in New York, the goalie (no plural in this one) can be said to actually be the wave the team is riding on. And that is going to be the biggest factor to make this series an interesting one, because when Henrik Lundqvist is on, he can take the Rangers as far as he wishes. However, he doesn't get much help, and that's where the rest the Capitals' superiority steps in.
The once goal-driven Caps are now a defensively-minded team with a conservative approach to the offensive zone. Thus, their power-play has suffered (dropped to floating around the 15-20 mark this season, compared to staying in the top two for almost all of last season in efficiency), their amount of goals scored per game has suffered (finished in the 20th spot this season, compared to first last season) and even their shots on per game has fallen as well (around the 15-range this season, finished in top five last year).
But as we have learned (and especially the Caps have learned), offense rarely leads you to Stanley Cups. Defense does, and the Caps have that. They rank fourth in goals allowed per game, second in penalty kill efficiency, they're one of nine NHL teams that allow under 30 shots a game, they rank sixth in face-off winning percentage, they have a .565 winning percentage when being out shot by the opposing team and have a .906 winning percentage when leading after the second period. All these statistics are simply results of the Caps' newly enforced defensive system, and I see no way the offensively-average New York Rangers will be able to overcome the defense-first mindset Washington is in.
The Rangers don't have a 30-goal scorer to boast, they don't have a 60-point player and their power-play efficiency can be non-existent (ranks 18th in the NHL, only a few points out of bottom five). Sure, you have a perennial Hart and Vezina candidate in net. But without anything special other than Lundqvist himself, it'll be tough to overcome a team so committed to defense.
PREDICTION: The Washington Capitals over the New York Rangers in six games
Western Conference: Second Seed vs Seventh Seed
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The battle of California is sure to bring some entertaining scoring rallies. The often criticized San Jose Sharks face off against the up and coming Los Angeles Kings in a battle of two of the league's most enigmatic offenses.
The Sharks have been through a learning season, perhaps more for the better than the worse. For three years straight, they have dominated the regular season, finishing atop every offensive category. But as their Eastern Conference replicas, the Washington Capitals, have learned, offense won't get you very far. In fact, it hasn't, resulting in three straight disappointing exits for the Sharks, leaving them asking questions of what happened?
However, starting this season with adversity and struggling to muster up some offense, it appears the Sharks have gone through a much-needed learning process. But the question remains: Have they learned anything? I mean, sure, you can have seven guys with at least 20 goals and 50 points. But when you have all your top players floating in and around the even mark in plus/minus, a red flag goes up. It still appears defense hasn't yet been properly taught to the Sharks, who are run by Todd McLellan, a well-known offensively-minded teacher.
Something positive about the Sharks back end, though, is that, despite playing in what appears to be an offense-first system, starting goaltender Antti Niemi has overcome the struggles he faced at the beginning of his career to finish off and put together a very solid season. This presents some hope he can steal a few games for the Sharks down the road.
The Kings are entering this series as clear underdogs, and will have to grind out their wins from determination and hustle, as top offensive players Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams are lost for at least this roundif not more. With this in mind, even with standing pat defensively, the Kings will have it tough trying to steal a series from the Sharks.
There is hope though, as they still have key pieces like Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, who are all coming off excellent seasons and will likely thrive under the playoff spotlight. Nonetheless, the Kings will need some big contributions from their lower lines to pull one out.
I don't believe the Sharks have it to go deep, but I do think they have the depth and offense to overcome an injury-depleted Los Angeles Kings team. However, the Kings will undoubtedly give their California counterparts a good run for their money.
PREDICTION: The San Jose Sharks over the Los Angeles Kings in seven games.
Eastern Conference: Second Seed vs Seventh Seed
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I believe this series will be the most decisive off all the series this season. The Philadelphia Flyers meet the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference quarter-final round, and I believe the Broad Street Bullies will take this one home in decisive fashion, based purely on the depth, skill and heart the Flyers team puts on the ice—something the Sabres cannot match.
For every good team to win, they have to lose first, and the Flyers have done that already. On top of that, they have the mold of last year's Cup Champion Blackhawks, depth at all positions and have a few players that are willing to go into the dirty areas of the ice, along with the elite skills also needed to go deep into the playoffs.
Players like Mike Richards, Scott Hartnell, Kris Versteeg and Darroll Powe are all big contributors to the defensive side of Philly's game, and they also contribute a fair amount on the offensive side too.
On top of their hustle and hard work, they have one of the league's more consistent and dynamic offenses. They've scored a third-best 3.12 goals per a game, while allowing a respectable 2.63, compared to the Sabres 2.93 and 2.78 tallies for/against per game.
Players like Claude Giroux, Jeff Carter, Richards, Danny Briere, defensemen Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen lead the way in one the league's top offenses.
However, the biggest element to the Flyers' game is that every single player on the roster is committed to working on both ends of the ice. Every player on the roster can be a two-way forward or defenseman, simply because the opportunity-friendly system that head coach Peter Liaviolette runs allows everybody from the first to fourth lines to contribute on both ends.
To put it simply, the Sabres won't be able to match the Flyers in any of the areas needed for this Buffalo team to complete the upset. Their offense and defense are average. They do have players who are willing to hustle into the corners to retrieve the puck, but Philly's entire roster has been made custom to doing that. They are outmatched in every category. Nonetheless, there is always one "if" situation, and this one comes into play when Ryan Miller's name is brought up.
Miller is another perennial Hart and Vezina candidate simply because of the contributions he puts forth on this Buffalo Sabres team. They will only go as far as he can go. If Ryan Miller is on the top of his game, he will be a tough tender to crack.
Furthermore, the relentlessness and agitation the Flyers also have in place won't allow Miller to get into a groove, proving this another non-factor.
PREDICTION: The Philadelphia Flyers over the Buffalo Sabres in five games
Western Conference: Third Seed vs Sixth Seed
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For the second consecutive year, the Detroit Red Wings and Phoenix Coyotes will meet in the postseason. Last time around, it was a surprisingly close series (albeit a boring one), as the Red Wings prevailed four games to three.
The questions surrounding these two teams will clearly dictate the winner, but it should nonetheless be another boring, low-scoring, close series right down to the wire that could go either way.
Detroit will bring their usual guns to this battle, as consistent playoff performers Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom, Niklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski will be thriving off successful seasons, individually and team-wise.
Detroit's two-way play is impeccable, often never matched, and can itself lead the team to a series victory.
However, there are two major questions heading into the series for Detroit. First, the question remains whether or not goaltender Jimmy Howard will be able to live up to the expectations after a disappointing playoff performance last year and a sub-par year this year (Howard's stat line of 2.79/.909 ranked among the lowest of starting goaltenders heading into the playoffs). He will need to have a convincing series to prove he can take the team on his back and run.
Another question mark for the Red Wings is when one of their most offensively key players, Henrik Zetterberg, will return. The star forward went down with an injury late in the season and his return has yet to be determined. He's already ruled out for Game One at least, possibly even Game Two. His absence will be felt mightily, as only he and Datsyuk are the only forwards that surpassed 60 points this season.
This is where perhaps the Phoenix Coyotes can jump in and pounce on a glorious opportunity. The Coyotes' statistic line isn't off the charts; in fact it be even be considered underwhelming. However, the team does represent a level of intrigue. It will remain to be seen how far Ilya Bryzgalov and their defense-first system will be able to take them.The Coyotes also have the potential for their youth to break out, as they have a solid mix of youth with veterans—a historically successful recipe in the playoffs.
The revamped defensive team, with the late additions of Rostislav Kesla and Michal Roszival, can also be noted as a deciding factor to this series. The play of the defense has been among the league's best down the stretch for Phoenix. Mixed in with Bryzgalov's consistency and the potential for a youth breakout, we could see this series result in somewhat of a upset.
PREDICTION: The Phoenix Coyotes over the Detroit Red Wings in seven games.
Eastern Conference: Third Seed vs Sixth Seed
What a treat hockey fans could be in for with this one. The Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens are set to faceoff in a playoff series for the first time since the Bruins swept away the Habs two years ago—on top of what has seemed to be the most heated season between the two in recent memory.
Much like Philadelphia with Buffalo, I believe the Canadiens will be a small bump in the Bruins' plans to move onto the next round. Simply put, the Habs are outmatched in every category in this series.
On the offensive side, these two teams implement completely different styles. The Bruins enforce an offensive style of driving to the net, collecting many of their goals through shots from in close or through rebounds down low while also maintaining a fast pace—straying away from the finesse, skilled style the Habs prefer to play.
Smaller players like Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Tomas Plekanec often prefer to generate scoring opportunities from the middle and from far out rather than going into the dirty areas.
I believe the Canadiens' offensive style fits perfectly into the Bruins defensive style of clogging up the middle and clearing out the body. Especially added to the fact that Montreal is a very small team and the Bruins are a big, physical team, it's a recipe for disaster for Montreal.
Montreal's defense is also not very mobile. They have a few bigger, slower bodies manning the point. This I think will be badly exploited by Boston, as the B's fast-paced, skate-to-the-outside scheme should do wonders for them.
Evidently, playing styles play a big factor in this series, and in favor of the Bruins.
However, there is a hope that Montreal can take this series, and it's placed on the shoulders of goaltender Carey Price. He has had his struggles against the Bruins (8-6 and 7-0 losses), but has had an overall excellent season and can be said as the sole reason the Canadiens are even in the playoffs.
PREDICTION: The Boston Bruins over the Montreal Canadiens in five games.
Western Conference: Fourth Seed vs Fifth Seed
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In the playoff series I'm looking the most forward to, the offensive powerhouse Anaheim Ducks faceoff against the defensively conservative Nashville Predators—a series where both franchises have a lot to prove.
These teams are two of the best at the systems they employ in their playing style, and it'll be interesting to see what the outcome is; however, I believe I have an early idea.
The Nashville Predators have miraculously qualified for the playoffs five of the past six years under a strict budget and without a player producing over 65 points in a season. The reason behind the success? You can look no further than head coach Barry Trotz and General Manager David Poile. The two men have worked wonders for this organization, and this is the year I finally believe they move past the initial stages and take a deep playoff run.
How they do it? On the back of goaltender Pekka Rinne. Rinne finished up the best season of his career. In over 60 games of work, the Finnish-product maintained a 2.12 GAA and .930 save percentage. Mind-boggling numbers when you consider the amount of games Rinne has played. Of course, you could attribute that to the fact that he plays in a defense-first system. But nonetheless, sustaining the level of play, even in a defensive system, is quite accomplishing. This team will only go as far as Pekka Rinne decides to take them.
A key stat: Rinne has allowed just under one goal per game when Nashville has entered the third period with a lead against Anaheim, showing he can do the rest from there.
Production will be needed from the offense as well though. Defensively, the Ducks are no slouch either, having their own ace in Jonas Hiller in net, along with surprisingly good seasons from veterans Toni Lydman and Lubomir Vishnovsky, and rookie Cam Fowler.
Expect Nashville's top offensive players in Martin Erat, Sergei Kostitsyn and Patric Hornqvist to step their games up as well to help ease the pressure of Rinne.
This shouldn't be too big an expectation for the Preds' offense. They have outscored Anaheim 17-11 this season, while taking the season series three games to one.
Now, though I'm clearly predicting the Predators to take this round, that doesn't mean it will come easy. The Anaheim Ducks aren't any pushover. They employ one of the most dynamic offensive systems in the league, evident by the exaggerated production all over their roster—50 goals from Corey Perry, 70 points from Lubomir Vishnovsky three 30-goal men, etc.
The Ducks are also team of rarity, which sees many big men on their roster use size and skill to weave their way to the inside and outside of the offensive zone to create scoring opportunities by getting the opposing' teams' defense moving. I believe this will somewhat of a non-factor for the Ducks, as the Predators' defensive system often teaches them to stay on the body on based on angle—not on what he's doing. In essence, the Ducks will be putting out the fish bait, but there will be no bite.
I expect the series to be close early on until, eventually, the Ducks won't be able to sustain their high offensive play. Then the low-scoring, defensively-minded Predators will take charge and pull out a series victory.
PREDICTION: The Nashville Predators over the Anaheim Ducks in six games
Eastern Conference: Fourth Seed vs Fifth Seed
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For the first time in four years, the Tampa Bay Lightning will partake in the NHL's postseason. What better way to return than an opportunity to knock off the perennial contender Pittsburgh Penguins?
The Lightning seem to be well prepared for this opportunity, as their roster has been fined tuned and tinkled with all year in the search for a playoff team that is capable of a deep playoff run.
The Penguins, though they've lost their top two producers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, have still managed to keep themselves with the hierarchies of the Eastern Conference, and are still seen as a serious threat to opposing teams because of their experience and defense.
The Lightning are prepared offensively and defensively for the Penguins.
On the front-end, they feature two of the game's most potent scorers currently in Steven Stamkos and Martin St-Louis. Following these two, they do not see much of a drop off. Power-forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone provide some stability on the second scoring unit. Youngsters Teddy Purcell and Steve Downie have seen the remaining winger spots in a rotation with Simon Gagne to round out the top six. The bottom six has proved valuable as well. Numerous players have eclipsed 10 goals and 30 points playing on third line duty, rounding out one of the more dynamic and consistent offenses in the league.
The defensive side of things leaves something to be desired, though. Tampa Bay allows an eighth-worst 2.85 goals per a game, raising a cause for concern heading into a playoff round. Their opponent will be relying on mainly defense to grind out a series victory. Should the offense falter, the defense will have to step their games up considerably to allow Tampa to continue to compete in the series.
The Penguins will be a tough first task for the Lightning, despite being without their top scorers and dressing room leaders.
Since the injuries to Crosby and Malkin, Dan Bylsma has had his club revert back to more of a defensive style of play, which has paid great dividends. The Penguins have allowed a sixth-best 2.39 goals per game, while scoring nearly half a goal more than they've allowed.
Players who sat in the shadows of Crosby and Malkin—like Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy and Kris Letang—have raised their levels of play, showing offensive flare while also maintaining defensive responsibility. Especially Staal and Letang, who have become the Penguins' go-to offensive weapons with the injuries and departure of Alex Goligoski, have posted a combined 80 points and plus-22 rating in 124 games played.
Other players in more minor roles who have been forced to step up—like Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis—have indeed stepped up. These two have been the most notable, scoring almost 40 goals combined this season. Along with the additions of the offensivel- gifted Alexei Kovalev and James Neal, the Penguins offense hasn't suffered nearly as much as one would think.
Add that to a stable, consistent defensive group featuring some of the most reliable two-way defenders in the league—Zbynek Michalek, Paul Martin, Letang, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen—along with a goaltender who's coming his best season statistically, and you have a recipe for success.
However, the one thing the Penguins do have that the Lightning don't—something that cannot be taught, only learned—is playoff experience. This Penguins team has been in the dance for each of the last four years, visiting the Finals twice and converting one of those opportunities. I believe this will play the biggest deciding factor during the entire series. The Lightning will be rolling into Game One with nine players in their top three lines with no playoff experience, and only five players have made it past the second round with their previous teams.
So, though the skill, the defense and the hustle may be there for both of these clubs, the Penguins' far superior defense and exceeding playoff experience will most likely result in series clinching victory—albeit a close one.
PREDICTION: The Pittsburgh Penguins over the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games