2011 NHL Playoffs: Predictions, Analysis for All Second-Round Series
There's a lot to love about a game 7. There's so much pressure and so much tension riding on the results of those games, and the results is some of the best defensive hockey you'll find anywhere. While this may not be very action-packed, it can lead to some of the best hockey games of the playoffs.
On the other hand they can be bracket killers. I went into the final day of the Conference Quarterfinals with the chance to go a perfect eight-for-eight. With two game 7 overtime losses, I fell to a frustrating six-for-eight.
Hopefully this round is better for me.
If you want to read my quarterfinal predictions, you can find them here.
Without further ado, here are my predictions for the four semi-final matchups, all of which are sure to offer some serious excitement and amazing hockey and all of which have been extremely difficult for me to predict.
Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Season Series: WAS 4-1-1
The Washington Capitals exercised their regular-season demons with the New York Rangers convincingly in the first round, including showing some signs of the resiliency that they lacked last year in their shock first-round exit. This year they're showing they have the power to push through defenses while still keeping the puck out of their own net.
Goaltender Michal Neuvirth had a stellar first round and proved the Caps can rely on him to backstop them the rest of the way. That being said if he does falter the Caps have talent to back him up in Semyon Varlamov and even Braden Holtby has proven he's capable of taking some time between the pipes if the big club needs him.
The Caps did fairly well in their season series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, winning four out of the six meetings. However this is the playoffs, and things from the regular season do not always apply here.
The Lightning managed to claw their way back from a 3-1 series deficit against a very good Pittsburgh team to win the series 4-3, and they even did so by winning two games in Pittsburgh, and that's saying something considering how notoriously good the Pens are at home in the playoffs.
The big factor is going to be the matchup is going to be the Lightning's stacked offense vs. the Washington defense, which many people believe is their biggest weakness. The likes of Mike Green, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner will have to find a way to shut down the high-scoring Steven Stamkos, MVP candidate Martin St. Louis, all-star Vinny Lecavalier, and even surprise playoff superstar Sean Bergenheim, who absolutely tore the Pens normally rock-solid defense apart last series.
Another big story is going to have to be the play of Alex Ovechkin, the superstar who leads this team in nearly every facet of the game. If he plays to his potential, the Caps will no doubt get a great boost from him. If he doesn't, the team will struggle, particularly offensively when they'll be facing a solid goaltender in Dwayne Roloson.
Prediction: Capitals in 7
Philadelphia Flyers vs. Boston Bruins
Season Series: BOS 3-0-1
All credit to the Buffalo Sabres for their stellar play and phenomenal defense/goaltending, However, for a team that dominated the East for so long, I'm surprised and kind of disappointed in the way the Flyers handled that series. I guess I should have seen it coming considering how hot Buffalo was going in and how poorly the Flyers were playing over the finish of their season.
However, a convincing 5-2 win in the deciding game 7 was perhaps a sign that the Flyers who dominated the East for much of this year might be back for good.
And this comes just in time too as they go up against a Bruins team that has been almost as good all year long.
The Bruins are no doubt in the same boat as the Flyers, having to play all seven games of their previous series to overcome their biggest rivals in the Montreal Canadiens.
The big storyline out of Boston in my eyes has to be the play of Tim Thomas, who after having such a dominant regular season, really didn't look all that sharp in several games during this series, one which saw the Bruins lose the first two games... at home.
So no question the big matchup is the high-power offense of Philadelphia vs. the recently-rather-flat Bruins defense and Tim Thomas.
If Thomas can find his form again, then I expect this series will be a lot like the Buffalo series for the Flyers: on some nights particularly frustrating when the offense completely runs dry.
However, the Bruins dominated the season series against Philadelphia, and with Zdeno Chara likely patrolling the blueline against the Flyers top line, this could be over for the Flyers very quickly. They better hope they can figure out how to score goals by the bucketload again and fast.
Prediction: Bruins in 6
Vancouver Canucks vs. Nashville Predators
Rich Lam/Getty Images
Season Series: Tied 2-2-0
This is an extremely interesting matchup in that it pairs what many people are calling "the Best in the West" in the upstart Predators with the team that is statistically the best in the Western Conference in the Vancouver Canucks.
But beyond the politics of the matchup there's something else very striking that makes this series so difficult to predict: they play a very similar high-intensity game that relies on a strong forecheck and lights-out defense.
Additionally this is also a matchup of two of the best home-ice teams in the league, both of which finished with less than 10 regulation losses in their own building this year (both had nine).
Here's my breakdown.
Defensively: I've got to give it to the Predators. They've relied on their defense all year and they just managed to completely shut down one of the best offensive units in the league in Anaheim to get to this second-round series. With a first-pairing like Shea Weber and Ryan Suter their defense is going to give the Canucks absolute fits in the offensive zone. However goaltender Pekka Rinne was blitzed by the Ducks' offense in the quarter finals, giving up less than three goals only twice in six games, showing he's beatable by a strong offense. Sidenote: this might be the series to determine who is the runner-up to Tim Thomas for the Vezina.
Offensively: Hands down this one goes to the Canucks. They were the best team in the league five-on-five, and scored more goals per game than any other team in the league. Their top line includes three of the league's top scorers in the league, including a Hart Finalist and Art Ross winner, and a guy who finished the year with 41 tallies of his own. And the depth goes beyond that as well through to three lines that can score on just about any shift they're on the ice.
Special teams: This one also goes hands down to the Canucks whose power play finished the year tops of the league and whose penalty kill finished a brilliant third. The Predators power play which suddenly found life last season against the Anaheim penalty kill that was the worst in the league of the 16 teams to make the playoffs is going to have one incredibly different story on their hands so it'll be interesting to see if they can keep the fire going.
Bottom line: the Predators offense that suddenly found life may have just been the beneficiary of an Anaheim defense that was at best mediocre (or, as we are recently discovering, playing while horribly injured). The Canucks offense is going to be bombarding the Preds defense and Pekka Rinne with at least 30 shots per night, while the Preds offense is going to be facing a much more talented group of defensemen, and might cause their offensive woes to crop up again.
Prediction: Canucks in 6
San Jose Sharks vs. Detroit Red Wings
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Season Series: SJS 3-1-0
You want to talk about a series that's been giving me an absolute fit? Here you go.
The Sharks are looking as dangerous as ever right now, proving that they have the offensive firepower to carry them deep into the playoffs, and the defense to support them, both in keeping the puck out of their net and also by helping to put it in their opponent's.
The only real weakness I can see in San Jose at the moment is in net. Antti Niemi was far from impressive last series against a Los Angeles team that really didn't have a lot to offer offensively with its top scorer Anze Kopitar out for the entire first round.
Niemi was pulled twice in this series and gave up three or more goals in five of the six games against LA.
Additionally the Sharks struggled heavily on their home ice last series. While they were the only team to win a game at home, they were also only able to do so once. This could be a problem because the Joe Louis Arena is a much tougher place to go in and win than Staples Center.
Meanwhile Detroit had a bit of a lousy finish to the regular season, but pulled it together quickly to absolutely dominate the Phoenix Coyotes on their way to a first-round sweep. (sidenote: am I the only one who really feels like it sucks that this might be the way the Phoenix Coyotes end their existence?)
The depth and playoff experience on the Detroit squad is unparalleled and the bottom line is they know what it takes to win in the playoffs. As for the Sharks... well I think everyone knows their history and tendencies when it comes to the playoffs (notwithstanding last year's five-game series victory over these same Red Wings).
Either way, it's not looking too friendly for San Jose right about now. If they want to have a chance of moving on in this series they're going to have to find a way to hold their home ice and keep their offense producing consistently.
Their defense is going to have their hands full with the Red Wings offense that is stacked with names like Thomas Holmstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and (oh yeah...) that Pavel Datsyuk guy who everyone is always raving about.
If Antti Niemi is going to backstop a team to a second consecutive Stanley Cup, he's going to have to prove his worth over the next four to seven games.
Prediction: Red Wings in 6
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