2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Daniel Friedman's Semifinal Predictions
The 2010-2011 NHL Eastern and Western Conference Quarterfinals were perhaps the most exciting the game has ever seen.
If there was any testament to the salary cap leveling the playing field, the first round was it.
Virtually every series was close, save for Detroit-Phoenix (the Red Wings swept the Coyotes) and Washington-New York (the Capitals would knock out the Rangers in five games), with half of the first round matchups needing a decisive Game 7 and another two ending in six contests.
There were dominating performances, gutsy comebacks, goaltending clinics and entertaining moments of speed and skill.
There were sighs of relief and moments of disbelief. There were heart-warming victories and heart-breaking losses.
In a nutshell, there was just about anything and everything on a hockey fan's wish list. You couldn't have asked for a more action-packed start to the playoffs.
When the dust settled, eight teams earned the right to advance to the Semifinals.
One can only hope that this round produce half as much fireworks as the first.
Here's how I think it will all play out.
Eastern Conference: No. 1 Seed Washington Capitals vs. No. 5 Seed Tampa Bay Lightning
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Prediction: Washington Capitals win series in six games.
Upon defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins last night in a Game 7, the Tampa Bay Lightning are on cloud nine, of that you can be certain.
This team is clicking on all fronts, and they're showing a side to their game that wasn't particularly evident during the regular season: defense.
Matthias Ohlund and Eric Brewer, both of whom I predicted would be factors for this team down the stretch, have been just that, playing vital roles in the Lightning's first round success.
Steven Stamkos has woken up, and Steve Downie and Ryan Malone are providing secondary scoring. Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis are up to their usual tricks.
To say Dwayne Roloson is playing well would be a gigantic understatement. He's playing like a man possessed.
Additionally, Simon Gagne, who did not enjoy nearly as good a year as he would have liked, has made his presence felt, logging some key minutes and chipping in offensively.
All of these facts need to hold true through the Bolts' matchup with their divisional rivals, the Washington Capitals. That's because the Caps have more firepower, a better defense, and, arguably, comparable goaltending.
They also happened to waltz through the first round, with the exception of one afternoon at Madison Square Garden, when the New York Rangers pulled-off a gritty come-from-behind victory in Game Three.
Washington was already a dangerous team before they learned to forecheck. Now that they have, the sky is the limit for these Capitals.
It will be interesting to see if Tampa Bay, who were not faced with the difficult task of shutting down a star player in Round 1, can shut down three of them (Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom).
I think Tampa will push this series close to the brink, because they do have scoring, not to mention clutch goaltending and a solid defense, but I still believe when all is said and done, Washington will best them. They are too good, too experienced and too frustrated to let this one slip away.
Eastern Conference: No. 2 Seed Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 3 Seed Boston Bruins
Prediction: Philadelphia Flyers win series in seven games.
This is going to be the most evenly-matched series of the semifinals.
Boston's offense, featuring Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, Michael Ryder, Chris Kelly and Patrice Bergeron, to name a few, has shown the capability to rise to the occasion. They also play a physical game, something that was tough for the Montreal Canadiens to handle in the first round.
On defense, Zdeno Chara and Tomas Kaberle lead the way, followed by a strong supporting cast which features Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference.
These four can more than hold their own on the ice, play smart defensively and move the puck well. Chara's got the fastest slapshot in the NHL, so you know he's dangerous.
And of course, Tim Thomas has put up a near-impenetrable fence in goal for the B's, per usual. Thomas is an absolute battler, and will certainly pose a challenge for Philadelphia's shooters.
Speaking of Philadelphia, they're pretty good too.
Their offense is the cream of the crop. If you're looking for the best group of forwards in the league, look no further than the Philadelphia Flyers.
Philly rolls four lines that can beat you in any way, whether it's along the boards, in the corner, out in open-ice, the slot, you name it. Between Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Ville Leino, James van Riemsdyk and several others, this team is stacked with offensive firepower.
Another Flyer that could become a nightmare for Boston is Daniel Briere.
He's already scored seven points in these playoffs, giving him 94 in 93 career postseason games. That's just over one point-per-game, an outstanding achievement for an outstanding hockey player.
Having said all of this, is it possible to choose between these two powerhouses?
Both Philly and Boston are dominant teams, but neither is unblemished. The Bruins' power play has been nothing short of abysmal, while the Flyers' goaltending (stop me if you've heard this before) hasn't been good.
If they're going to win this series, the Bruins' power play needs to be effective, especially because they are up against a team that is among the league's best in shorthanded situations.
Not only that, when Philly gets the man-advantage, they usually convert, so Boston has to be able to respond on the scoreboard when given the opportunity to do so.
The Bruins, for the most part, were able to stay out of the penalty box against the Habs. They'll need to continue that trend if they're going to emerge victorious in this best-of-seven.
In their previous series, the B's just could not set up on the power play. They simply could not get anything going while up a man.
Boston may have been able to get away with that against Montreal, but they won't against Philadelphia, of that you can be certain.
Meanwhile, the Flyers' presence between the pipes has been virtually non-existent. So much so that Mike Milbury was moved to call the debacle an "organizational failure."
While that may seem hypocritical (and it absolutely is), coming from a man who himself is an organizational failure, the point remains true, nonetheless.
Goaltending always seems to be Philly's Achilles Heel, and I really feel that in Sergei Bobrovsky, they have found Achilles's long-missing bandage.
But they inexplicably scratched the rookie netminder for much of the Sabres series, leaving Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton, two goalies who are literally pad-strapped question marks.
Boucher and Leighton were tasked with keeping the Flyers alive. Boucher did look as if he had finally settled down in Game 7, and, if you're a Flyers fan, you certainly hope that's the case.
Philly doesn't need him to steal the series, he just needs to be solid enough to keep them in it.
Should that happen, the Flyers are going to come out on top.
Western Conference: No. 1 Seed Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 5 Seed Nashville Predators
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Prediction: Canucks win series in six games.
The Vancouver Canucks had a lot of trouble knocking out the Chicago Blachawks, but that doesn't sway my opinion of them, not one bit.
I sincerely believe that much of what Vancouver dealt with against the 'Hawks was psychological. This was the team they never seemed to be capable of defeating, time and time again.
Well, they managed to get that monkey off their backs, via Alexandre Burrows' fantastic performance in one of the greatest playoff games in years.
Burrows enjoyed his first goal in that game so much he decided to put out a sequel, launching an absolute rocket past Chicago's Corey Crawford to win the decisive contest in overtime for Vancouver. It was as if he put all of the anger and frustration from years past into that shot.
And so, the Vancouver Canucks are headed to the second round of the postseason, and they'll have no easy task this time, facing the upstart Nashville Predators.
The Predators were not widely-expected to eliminate the Anaheim Ducks in the first round.
That is, unless you play for Nashville.
Shea Weber and Co. certainly believed in themselves, and they ousted the Ducks in six games, catapulting them into the semifinals for the first time in franchise history.
But just how on earth are they doing it? With some clutch scoring, a strong defense (led by Weber and Ryan Suter) and superb goaltending by Pekka Rinne.
Remember that name, Pekka Rinne.
Ultimately, I feel that the Canucks are simply too deep to lose this series, but I do think that Nashville won't go quietly.
Vancouver will sigh in relief that the opposing players aren't wearing red sweaters with Indian-head logos, that's for sure.
But the bigger point is, now that they have finally defeated the one team they never could, the Canucks feel they can beat anyone right now.
I bet they could.
Western Conference: No. 2 Seed San Jose Sharks vs. No. 3 Seed Detroit Red Wings
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Prediction: Detroit Red Wings win series in six games.
The Los Angeles Kings were unable to exploit San Jose's defensive weakness.
Make no mistake, the Wings will. There's more than enough offensive talent on this squad to turn the Sharks upside-down, from Selke (best defensive forward) nominee Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen.
San Jose can score, with players such as Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, but on defense, they're thinner than an iPhone. Dan Boyle aside, there isn't another quality rear guard that comes to mind, not one.
On the other hand, Detroit's stacked on the blueline, with the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom, Nicklas Kronwall and Brian Rafalski.
They're also strong between the pipes. As both Jimmy Howard and Joey MacDonald have shown, they can handle these pressure situations.
Antti Niemi has been solid, but he needs to be superhuman if the Sharks are to advance any further in these playoffs.
To me, the biggest issue with San Jose is that, much like the Washington Capitals were last season and the previous one, they are a one-dimensional team. These guys are all about offense.
That type of run and gun strategy isn't going to work against a team like the Detroit Red Wings.
Detroit is too well-rounded, and they possess the puck so effectively, something that could become a major issue for the Sharks if they can't put the clamp down defensively.
I don't think they will, which is why I'm picking the Red Wings to make relatively-short work of San Jose in this series.
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