Monday, April 11, 2011

John's Playoff Picks - Eastern Conference

It's the time we've all been looking forward to...The Stanley Cup Playoffs. After 82 games, the pretenders have been weeded out and its down to sixteen. Here are my first round predictions. I promise not be a pansy and choose all favorites - because we all know an upset is looming large. I'll try to avoid the wimpy "push" when I don't know. I'll give it a shot.
We all got our little "theories" about the playoffs. I know I got mine and I am sure you'll be sick of them by the end of this. Here is my little template for this picks article, in order of importance (to me):

Goaltending: (Which starter is better, duh)
Scoring: (Pretty all encompassing. Does team have top-end scoring? Scoring Depth? It can come from forwards or defense...basically, who can light it up better?)
Defense: (not team defense or any of that crap...who has a better top 4 or overall D corps)
Intangibles: (Which team has better coaching? Does team have clutch players that seem to come up big? Does the coach or team have the moxy for the big moments? That kind of overrated (see SJ v DET, 2010), but sometimes valuable thing that makes all the difference)

I feel I am qualified (not really) to talk about this because...I picked last year's Super Bowl matchup after the NFL regular season. This means I was either lucky (probable) or I am actually good at this picking winning teams thing (unlikely). If I keep this up, maybe I can replace Maggie the Monkey?
Ok, enough of these monkeyshines...(rimshot)

No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. No. 8 New York Rangers
Its hard to imagine that the hockey gods would actually punish us by making this series happen again; as it was painfully boring last time. Usually, 1 v 8 matchups get a lot fanfare because sometimes top teams aren't able to get it going (after coasting in) in the playoffs and getting beat to the punch by a scrappy team that has been in "win or go home" mode for weeks. This "mode" forces them to maximize their potential. This nearly happened a few years ago when a scrappy Ranger team nearly took out the heavily favored Caps. Everyone will use this for fodder as to why this will be a possible upset. I am not buying (see below).

Goaltending: Rangers, but not as much of an edge as people think. Contrary to popular belief, Lundquist is not good enough to steal this series.
Scoring: Capitals. Rangers don't have much pop throughout their lineup. Whatever pop they do have is either injured or is soft.
Defense: Both teams really have mediocre, overrated D corps. Give it to Capitals just because their guys have more ability.
Intangibles: I'm sitting here with my mouth open. Both coaches are overrated. Both teams seem to wilt when it matters, so I have to guess that the Rangers have this edge with a lot of their guys that lack playoff experience, but play with a lot of jam. Also, as much of a attention-whore spazz as Tortorella is, he does have a cup win.

PREDICTION: Capitals in 5.  Rangers are hoping that the Caps will play undisciplined enough to keep them in the series, like last time. Hey, that's not a bad bet. At some point, the Caps goaltending and mediocre defense will be exposed, but they can "litterbox" it for now with the goal scorers they have up front.

No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 7 Buffalo Sabres
This series intrigues me. Going back to the point I was making upsets, it seems like this is classic scenario. A rested Philly team that is kind of  a mess going into the playoffs versus a Buffalo team everyone kind of forgot about with Ryan Miller coming back to Earth and their top offensive playmaker (D. Roy) out. However, the Sabres seem to be formidable lately and are playing well. Now the age old this a perfect mix for an upset?

Goaltending: Not even a question - even if Miller isnt' healthy.  Enroth has been great when called upon. For Philly, Bobrovsky may be wearing down and Boucher is what he is; a solid backup.
Scoring: Flyers, hands down. They have top end scorers (Carter), emerging scorers (Giroux, Van Riemsdyk), and amazing scoring depth. I am too lazy to look up how many 20+ goal scorers they have. But they showed Pens fans how deadly they can be if you take shifts off defensively.
Defense: Flyers. Not really sure what Pronger's status is; if he is out for some, most, or all of this series. But when hes in there, as much as he is hated, he is a winner and glues that D together in a real decent unit. Lots of good giants in this series too, with Myers and Coburn.
Intangibles: May be the best coaching matchup of the first round. Philly did make it far last year and had that taste of success, so I give them the nod here.

PREDICTION: Sabres in 6.  This is one of those all-or-nothing type series. Either Philly will get good (or even average goaltending) and steamroll Buffalo, or Buffalo will ride the wave they are on right now and take home the big upset. I am putting my money on a rested Ryan Miller over the unknown commodity.

No. 3 Boston Bruins vs. No. 6 Montreal Canadiens
Another tough series to handicap. Lots of history, but I mean recent history. I don't care about Original Six Waxing Poetic crap when players had no helmets. You have the big, tough Bruins versus the slick, fast Canadiens. Canadiens took the season series and also upset the Bruins a few years back, but the Bruins blew them away a few weeks ago and ran away with the Northeast Division.

Goaltending:Maybe the tightest one of the first-round series. I am going to go with Carey Price and the Canadiens. I do realize the season that Thomas had, but I just don't feel he steps up in the clutch. Maybe I am proven wrong this time.
Scoring: Also tight. Both teams have decent scoring depth, but seem to lack a true game-breaking star. In this case, I will go with Bruins because of the size and grit they have with guys like Lucic, Marchand, Horton, etc.
Defense: No doubt its Boston here. They have Chara, who is a monster, to go with a real solid group that added Tomas Kaberle, who hasn't had the wear and tear of a long run on his body in quite a few years.
Intangibles: I'll go with Montreal here. They have a really solid coach and went on a nice run last year and as Pens fans can attest to, an ability to step up in big situations. Can't fail to mention the extra motivation the Pacioretty hit may give - sometimes contrived crap like that can motivate. Let the record show that Max made a large error in judgement pushing Chara for no reason to celebrate a win a few months ago.

PREDICTION: Boston in 7. Such a bitter rivalry, all kinds of storylines. At the end of the day, will the speed and finesse of Montreal beat the big, bad Bruins? I say no. I think Boston will grind down the Habs blueline that is already thinned out and Boston just has too much depth at key positions.

No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning 
There are a lot of ways to look at this series. So many "what if's". What if Crosby/Malkin were healthy? What if Tampa's top six forwards play to their potential? Is Tampa's 5 seed watered down by playing in the Southeast? But this is the magic 8 ball gives these answers.

Goaltending: Penguins. If goalies, other than Hasek on "late-90's unreal mode", actually were considered for NHL MVP, Fleury would have to be a candidate. Hes been remarkable and has already shown his playoff potential. Dwayne Roloson has seemed to play the Pens tough, but is also 41 years old.
Scoring: I got to say Lightning here. If Pens have full arsenal, its a different story, but I am assuming no Crosby and we know there is no Malkin. Tampa has some series scorers, but they scored intermittently throughout the season. For instance, Stamkos was on crack for the first few months but now in hiding. Now, Lecavalier is playing like he is actually interested.
Defense: Penguins. The Pens top four may be the best around. They also have decent depth. Tampa has some decent guys, but they really don't stand out. 
Intangibles: While Boucher seems like a good up and coming coach, not sure he can match Bylsma. Also, Pens have so much Cup experience in the lineup and seem to have better players on their 3rd and 4th lines.

PREDICTION: Penguins in 6. Its going to be a grind for the Penguins. It will be tough to manufacture goals, especially if Tampa D and Roloson are on. But there is one truth to this series that I just can't get away from, the Penguins ability to forecheck against what is generally a old and/or lumbering defense. Its great that Tampa has the game breaking scorers, and they will surely make it a series, but the Pens will "grind these bitches down" (as Bylsma would say) and really establish a presence in zone time that will be the difference.
Back tomorrow with some West Coast (or Conference) Love.

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