2011 NHL Playoff Predictions: The Top 5 Stories of the Postseason
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Though baseball season may have arrived, it doesn't officially start for us hockey fans until the Stanley Cup has been hoisted.
As one season ends, it's just the beginning of another for a fortunate group of 16 teams. The playoffs bring drama, enthusiasm, emotion and of course, when it's all said and done, history.
Look for these following five stories to develop and excitingly play out in what should be another roller coaster of a ride we so respectfully title the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
History will be made.
San Jose's Postseason Woes Continue
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The San Jose Sharks have made it to the playoffs nearly every season since 1993-94, with a record of 67-73 in the postseason.
The stumbling Sharks have made it to the Western Conference finals only twice: in 2004, losing to Calgary, and last season, where they were swept by the eventual champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, in four games.
The most frustrating thing about that is the fact that San Jose has now won the Pacific division the past four years in a row.
Former longtime goaltender Evgeni Nabokov came under much scrutiny after struggling to shut the door in the postseason while racking up impressive consecutive regular-season records.
The Sharks are hoping that Antti Niemi, who backstopped the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup since 1961, will replicate his play from last year's playoffs.
However, this won't be the case at all. Niemi has put together quite the second half, but has not been anything stellar this season for the Sharks, especially in the consistency department.
While it seems they have all the tools on paper, the intangibles one needs to excel to the next level just aren't there and have not been for many consecutive years.
Look for San Jose to beat an offensively-depleted Los Angeles Kings team, who are without the services of their leading scorers, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams.
The Sharks will make yet another early exit in the second round this time.
Luongo Flourishes, Silences Critics
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Let's be honest. In his career, Roberto Luongo has not played his best hockey in the springtime...yet.
The pressure of being Captain Canuck had been relieved this season to allow Luongo to focus on the only thing he should be concerned with: stopping the puck.
After posting one of his best seasons to date—one for which he will likely be nominated for the Vezina trophy—Luongo will continue the momentum into the postseason to rear-guard the dominant Vancouver Canucks into the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Canucks have a lot of firepower and depth up front with an impressive blue line to compliment the forwards, but Luongo will still have to come up with the big saves late in games to preserve leads.
A team can't go too far without a spectacular netminder in the playoffs, and Luongo is up for the task this year.
Look for Vancouver to break the President's Trophy "curse," and make a deep run this year.
Caps' Defensive Style a Success
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It's no secret that the Washington Capitals have some of the most dynamic forwards in the game today in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin.
What may be somewhat of a secret is how improved defensively this team is.
This season, the Caps were second in the Eastern Conference in goals allowed with 197—two more than Boston, who only allowed 195.
Comparing that with last season, the Caps allowed 233 goals, good for only seventh in the East.
In years past, star captain Alex Ovechkin has been an all-offense type of player.
While his point totals have been absolutely incredulous in recent seasons, come playoff time, Ovie's lack of defense caught up to him and the Caps.
This year, it may be easy to say that he had a down year.
However, I wouldn't say that by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I'd go so far as to say he had one of the most important seasons of his career.
Bruce Boudreau harped on the importance of defensive play after losing out in the playoffs somewhat early after great regular seasons, something the Great Eight has made a serious effort trying to improve.
Ovechkin set career highs in blocked shots, hits and nearly his lowest penalty-minute total of his career with 41 (40 in 2007-08), while still scoring 32 goals and 53 assists with a plus/minus of 24 in 79 games this season.
This is probably a play that went unnoticed amongst all the YouTube offensively-beautiful plays, but Nicklas Backstrom defines defense and heart on this play, one that will always be engraved in my mind.
It is this type of sacrifice that helps win championships.
Throw in the additions of Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm and Dennis Wideman and you have more players that reinforce this more defensive style of play, and it improved this Capitals team immensely.
Look for Washington to make a deep run this year to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Habs/Bruins: There Will Be Blood
This will be the most intense and exciting series to watch hands down.
These Original Six rivals always wage wars on the ice against each other in single games during the season.
Imagine nothing but a seven-game series between these two. It's like a dream come true for all hockey fans.
From the now-famous February 9th brawl in Boston, to the Chara/Pacioretty incident on March 8th in Montreal, these two teams will show just what playoff hockey is all about.
Both will come out of the gate hitting hard and digging deep to win every foot race.
Due to the nature of this series, I believe it would be a safe bet to take the winner all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Whoever triumphs will have survived a war, and surviving this series early will put the winner in the perfect, determined mindset for the rest of the playoffs.
Look for Boston to win this one in what will be the closest, best six games of the year...and also for Zdeno Chara to thrive under all the jeers at the Bell Centre.
Flyers Stunned by Early Exit
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This may be the most shocking story of the postseason.
The Sabres are red-hot leading into the playoffs. In their last 24 games, the Sabres compiled an impressive 16-4-4 record, including going 8-1-1 in their last 10, and are currently on a four-game winning streak.
On the other end, the Flyers are rather cold going into the playoffs, posting an uncharacteristic 7-7-6 record in their last 20 games and losing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference to the surging Washington Capitals in the process.
While Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton nearly got the job done in Philadelphia last year, the Flyers are chancing it with rookie Sergei Bobrovsky, who has not played a minute of Stanley Cup hockey.
Leighton has recently been called up to the Flyers, but he has barely played in Philadelphia this season.
It's not a good sign when a team rolls into the playoffs with three goalies.
On the other end, the Sabres' Ryan Miller has played in the playoffs before, and last year he made a run to the gold medal game with the U.S. Olympic team; he understands the kind of pressure present in the playoffs.
While the Flyers boast a deep lineup, the Sabres have a more offensive top six that will be too much to handle for the Flyers goaltending.
With the likes of Thomas Vanek, Brad Boyes, Drew Stafford, Jason Pominville, along with rookie sensations Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe, the Sabres have excelled offensively without their No. 1 center, Derek Roy, who was lost to a leg injury just 35 games into the season.
Though they don't boast as much physicality as the Flyers, Buffalo has the resiliency to thrive in the postseason, and will do just that.
Look for Ryan Miller to capture his form of last season, when he took home the Vezina Trophy as the league's top netminder, leading the Sabres to a first-round upset over the Philadelphia Flyers in six games.