My 2013 Round One NHL Playoffs Previews and Predictions:

Hopefully I didn’t give it away with the title, but this is where I’ll predict winners for the eight first-round playoff series in the NHL.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(1)Chicago Blackhawks vs. (8)Minnesota Wild. The only advantage the Wild might have in this series is goaltending, as Nicklas Backstrom has historically been the better goaltender than Corey Crawford (who hasn’t?), but this year Crawford has actually played well, strange as that is to write. And other than that, the Wild are in trouble talent-wise because the Blackhawks have better top-end forwards in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane compared to Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, better forward depth, two all-star calibre defenseman in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to the Wild’s one in Suter, and better depth on defense, too. The Blackhawks are faster, more skilled, and deeper, and as long as their goaltending makes the easy saves, the Blackhawks will win the series. Blackhawks in 5 games.

(2)Anaheim Ducks vs. (7)Detroit Red Wings. For maybe the first time in his NHL career, Jimmy Howard actually played up to his reputation the last couple weeks of the regular season, and in important games to boot, which is usually where he’s faltered the most. As a result, the Red Wings have sustained their playoff streak when it didn’t look like they’d make it a few weeks ago. Still, I’ve seen Howard’s achilles-heel-like-play first hand too many times in the playoffs against the Sharks to expect anything other than performances tailor-made to lose his team the series. I expect Howard to falter at the most important moments in every close game against the Ducks, just like he did against the Sharks. However, unlike when the Red Wings lost to the Sharks in two straight playoff years, I’m not sure the Red Wings even need Howard to be his usual team-killing self to lose this series. I think they might lose it anyway, regardless of how he plays, because the Ducks are just that much better.

I do hesitate slightly in picking the Ducks for a few reasons, however. For one, the Red Wings are 2-1 against the Ducks this season. “For two,” (©) there’s a reason the Red Wings went on a run to get into the playoffs at the end of the season, and the truth is it probably wasn’t really Jimmy Howard like people are saying it was. I didn’t watch most the games, but I’ve learned from experience that any story you hear where Jimmy Howard was the hero and played well probably isn’t the truth. All I know for sure from the limited Red Wings action I caught on TV recently is that Jordan Tootoo’s return from injury made a huge difference in the depth of their team and their W-L record, and that college free agent signing Danny Dekeyser looks strangely similar to Niklas Kronwall out there on the ice, and I’m sure his addition helped the Wings, too, because he looks good.

Also Mike Babcock finally took my advice from maybe two years ago, and about two years late at that, to give Jakub Kindl significant minutes because he is and has always been much better than the likes of Jonathan Ericsson, and that’s helped too.

Couple those factors with the fact that Anaheim’s best play came towards the beginning of the season, before the league had figured out Viktor Fasth’s weaknesses in goal and started aiming their shots accordingly, and with the fact that Anaheim has limped into the playoffs to an extent, at least compared to how hot Detroit is right now, and Ducks’ fans might feel a bit of worry going into this series.

I understand why, as I’ve just illustrated by going over all the factors contributing to that worry, however in the end, I don’t think Ducks fans have anything to worry about because the Ducks are going to take this in 6 games.

(3)Vancouver Canucks vs. (6)San Jose Sharks. Well, I’m not sure I can predict a series with my own team. My heart says the Sharks, but my brain says the Canucks. It could also depend on whether Cory Schneider or Roberto Luongo starts for the Canucks, given that Schneider is 0-3 against the Sharks this season and I think has a pretty poor record against San Jose overall, while Roberto Luongo has seemed to win almost every game he’s played against the Sharks the last three seasons. Of course, that doesn’t include this season since Schneider got the net all three of those games between the two teams, but I still think Luongo is the better goaltender when on his game, and that his style and experience better suits playing against the Sharks than Schneider’s.

Maybe I’ll put in a concrete prediction for this one tomorrow before game one, but for now I can’t say either way.

(4)St. Louis Blues vs. (5)Los Angeles Kings. This one is difficult. The Blues have a great team on paper, perhaps an even better team on paper than the Kings now that Willie Mitchell is injured, but how do you pick against the team that has absolutely owned the other one both this season and last, and in the playoffs last season?

The Blues do have home ice for this series, and they also solidified one of the best defense corps in the NHL at the trade deadline by adding the big, smooth-skating Jay Bouwmeester. You could even argue his elite combination of size and mobility perfectly suits playing against the big, hard-forechecking Los Angeles Kings, and maybe fixes one of the problems the Blues had against the Kings before his acquisition.

Of course, the biggest problem the Blues have had against the Kings is that while David Backes and Anze Kopitar are in a sense mirror images of each other, and both huge, elite defensive centers, Anze Kopitar is just much more dynamic offensively, and faster. That’s really an analogy for how each entire team has compared to the other the past two seasons. Both are big and deep and play the same style, but offensively, Kopitar is better than Backes, and Jeff Carter is better than Chris Stewart, and Dustin Brown is probably still better than T.J. Oshie or even Alex Steen, and Justin Williams is better than David Perron.

However, with the emergence of Vladimir Tarasenko this season for the St. Louis Blues, coupled with the resurgent play of Chris Stewart and the aforementioned acquisition of Jay Bouwmeester on the back-end (and the loss of Willie Mitchell on the back-end for the Kings… so it’s like a four-point swing, as they say) the gap has been tightened. While the Kings top two lines still do exactly what the Blues’ top two lines do but better, the Blues might have the better depth at forward now. With a top-nine forward group of Perron, Backes, Oshie, Mcdonald, Steen, Tarasenko, Sobotka, Berglund, and Stewart, and Jaden Schwartz waiting in the wings, I think whichever three you pick out of those nine to be St. Louis’ third line, they beat out Jaret Stoll and say, Kyle Clifford, or Brad Richardson, or Dustin Penner, or Dwight King.

I mean, Stoll, Clifford, and King, especially, are pretty good. But Jordan Nolan hasn’t been getting many minutes even though he probably deserves more over Brad Richardson or whoever else, and I think the Blues’ probably have the better third line now, and quite possibly the better defense core. And with Jonathan Quick’s struggles all season long, you have to wonder if maybe goaltending won’t be an advantage for the Kings anymore. Although, to be fair, as hard as I was on Quick for most the season, and rightly so, he did look more himself to me maybe the last week of the season. Just a bit more like himself. So there’s that.

This one is hard to pick, probably the hardest Western Conference series for me to pick outside of the one my home team is involved in. It’s the Kings’ advantage in their top-six forward group versus the Blues’ advantages in potentially every other area among skaters, with goaltending maybe being a wash.

In cases like that, it’s usually the depth that wins out in the playoffs over top-heavy skill advantages, but I’m going to go with the Kings anyway, just because analysis be damned, when I watch these teams play, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter are just too dominant territorially for the Blues to handle, even if Kopitar can’t finish off plays and turn them into goals to save a starving Slovenian donkey’s life, and taking the analysis beyond two players, the Kings have just looked like the bigger, faster, more physically talented team when they’ve play the Blues.

Against many other teams, the Blues’ system, and their depth, and the good-not-quite-great top-end offensive talent they do have throughout their top-nine forwards is enough for them to have a great amount of success. But against one of the few NHL teams who can match their size, depth, and defensive acumen in the Kings, with their thoroughbred forwards Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter that the Blues still don’t really have on offense, the Blues have faltered. Will the additions of Vladimir Tarasenko and Jay Bouwmeester since last year’s playoff series between these two teams, combined with the improvement of Chris Stewart since he got back into shape in the summer, change the outcome this time around? It’s possible. I can’t stress enough what a loss Willie Mitchell is to the Kings. Not having him changes everything they do in a sense for the worse. They’re not the same impenetrable team.

But I’m still going to pick Kopitar, Brown, and Carter to come out on top against Backes, Steen, and company, in let’s say 6 games. I like the Blues’ defense, although Bouwmeester, whose hockey sense always disappointed me despite his highly impressive physical traits, has actually looked slightly less physically gifted since joining the Blues, like maybe he’s nursing an injury. Regardless, Alex Pietrangelo was my favorite defenseman in the NHL last season, although he too doesn’t look quite the same. Still, he’s about as good as anyone, so I expect him to be a force. But it’s at forward where I think the Kings have more elite players who will tilt the series in LA’s favor. Kings in 6.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(1)Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (8)New York Islanders. The Islanders are a deeper, more talented team than people realize, even on defense where they house some of the best, most underrated young defensemen in the NHL like Andrew Macdonald and Travis Hamonic. And then there’s Pittsburgh, who have maybe one of the most overrated defenses in the NHL. I mean, Letang is everything he’s hyped up to be, and now that Paul Martin is in shape, he’s actually underrated in his ability. Brooks Orpik seems to have jumped the Shark a couple of years ago, or rather hit a physical wall to where he’s just not the same two-way force anymore. Still, their top-four is fine, but the bottom defense-pairing that largely got them eliminated from the playoffs last season is still just as vulnerable. Deryk Engelland is still on the roster, and Douglas Murray might be even worse than Ben Lovejoy. But hey, at least he hits harder.

To be fair, they have added Mark Eaton since last season, and he’s played well for them in a depth defense role. But the point is that the Penguins are not without weaknesses, plus they’re one of the most injury-prone teams in the league when it comes to their key players, and the Islanders are actually similarly built to the team that eliminated the Penguins in the first round last year, the Philadelphia Flyers, full of speed. Just substitute John Tavares in for Claude Giroux and Mark Streit or Lubomir Visnovksy for Kimmo Timonen.

With that said, the emotional rivalry the Penguins share with the Philadelphia Flyers that got them in so much trouble in last year’s playoff series, penalty-wise and otherwise, does not exist in quite as strong a capacity with the Islanders, plus the Islanders are not as seasoned in the playoffs as the Flyers of last year were, nor are they necessarily quite as resilient or explosive. I just don’t see the same type of craziness happening two years in a row to the Penguins. They may still have some of the same achilles-heel issues in the depth of their defense core, but they’ve done well to armor it with much-improved forward depth. There’s just too much talent up front now with the additions of Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, and the underrated Jussi Jokinen, who I am on record as saying about right after the trade was made on trade deadline day that all the other GMs didn’t know what they were doing if no one was willing to outbid Pittsburgh for him.

As for goaltending, I think the criticisms of Marc-Andre Fleury are overblown. I’d still trust him in net more than most the unreliable NHL goaltenders that occupy nets these days. He’s talented and has pretty good size in net, and for the most part, I think he only really implodes when his team implodes first. So if his team keeps their shit together in front of him, he is more than capable of doing his job. Penguins in 5 or 6, I’ll say 6.

(2)Montreal Canadiens vs. (7)Ottawa Senators. This is going to be a close series between two very deep teams who are both lacking superstars up front with Jason Spezza out injured, Daniel Alfredsson in the latter stages of his career, and Tomas Plekanec a good but not elite player for the Montreal Canadiens (and the same can be said for Max Pacioretty).

On defense, both teams boast fantastic one-two offensive-tandems in Erik Karlsson and the underrated Sergei Gonchar for the Ottawa Senators, and P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov for the Montreal Canadiens.

I’ve been a big fan of the Montreal Canadiens all season long once I saw the level guys like Alex Galchenyuk, Rene Bourque, Brendan Gallagher, and Brandon Prust were playing at, and what that did for the depth of their team. Not to mention how huge Andrei Markov’s return to form, and health, has been. And with Raphael Diaz’s emergence as a pretty decent puck-mover on the back-end, along with the always excellent two-way staple Josh Jorges, I really like the Canadiens defense even after the “big two.” But maybe losing their most physical blue-liner, Alexei Emelin, to injury late in the season is what’s to blame for their collapse towards the regular season. I doubt one non-superstar player could make such a difference like that, but that’s what makes picking this series hard, I just don’t know what happened to this team because I didn’t watch any of their games the last two weeks of the year.

But looking at these two teams on paper, it’s close, especially with the addition of Cory Conacher for the Ottawa Senators, one of my “trade deadline winning” deals. And Craig Anderson could flat-out steal this series, a good point many out there are making.

However, what about Carey Price? We call it “stealing” when speaking of Anderson because, for one, he’s just that type of goaltender for some reason, can’t explain it, but the second reason is because he’s not quite a household name, despite his excellent play these last two years for the Senators. But still, good as he is, I thought Carey Price was a superstar? Maybe the best goaltender in the NHL, or the most talented?

So once again, I come back to this. I don’t know what happened with him or his team down the stretch, when the Canadiens got blown out multiple games in a row. All I know is when Price is on his game, I like him just about as much as any goaltender in the NHL, and while it’s true Anderson could steal the series, couldn’t you say the same for Price?

I honestly think Karlsson is the bigger X-factor for Ottawa, really the biggest X-factor in the series, period, and he could be the difference for Ottawa. But I’m going to the pick the Montral Canadiens in 7 games because P.K. Subban isn’t that far behind anymore, and as underrated as the Senators’ top-nine forwards and young defense are, I like the talent and speed of Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Michael Ryder, David Desharnais, Alex Galchenyuk, Brian Gionta, Rene Bourque, Brendan Gallagher, Lars Eller, and Brandon Prust better on offense, and the depth of the Canadiens’ defense should at least be in the same ballpark as Ottawa’s. But the length of that list of talented forwards for Montreal speaks for itself.

(3)Washington Capitals vs. (6)New York Rangers. This is a very hard series for me to pick barely having watched these teams at all. I don’t even know who is playing on half the defense for the Capitals after Green, Carlson, and Oleksy. But if the reports are true that Ryane Clowe and Brian Boyle are injured, I’m not sure the Rangers have the forward depth to beat the Capitals. Then again, I don’t know that the Capitals have the depth, either, because I don’t know who’s playing on their lower lines or defense pairs right now. Is it Jay Beagle or Aaron Volpatti in the bottom-six, for instance? Is Brooks Laich even playing?

I’m going to go with the Washington Capitals in 7 games just because Mike Green is healthy and hot, and Ryane Clowe is injured. The Capitals seem healthier right now, plus Chris Kreider has seemed out of shape and/or lacking confidence all season for the Rangers, when he was really supposed to be a big part of their forward depth this season after the Rick Nash trade.

I believe Nash and Ovechkin will both perform very well, as will Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan for the Rangers up front. I also expect their defensemen, guys like Ryan Mcdonaugh and Dan Girardi, to perform well in the two-way game.

However I think the difference for the Capitals will be their greater top-end skill past the Ovechkin-Nash match-up, namely Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Ribeiro, and Mike Green. Eric Fehr, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, John Carlson, Martin Erat, Matt Hendricks, and potentially Jay Beagle should also pitch in some, while guys like Derek Brassard, Taylor Pyatt, Anton Stralman, and John Moore should for the Rangers as well. Kreider, too, if he’s healthy, in shape, and gets ice time, but it looks like he’s at least going to be missing at least two out of three there. Capitals in 7 as long as Mike Green and everyone else stays healthy while the Rangers stay injured.

(4)Boston Bruins vs. (5)Toronto Maple Leafs. I think the Leafs will do better than many pundits think just because they have a lot more talent up front than most give them credit for, and the Bruins might actually have less top-end offensive talent up front than some believe. They have a great forward group overall, don’t get me wrong, much like the St. Louis Blues in the western conference, but they’re more the two-way variety than the offensive-superstar variety.

And Toronto, for their part, has some very high-skill forwards in Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri, Joeffrey Lupul, and James Van Riemsdyk, plus their depth has improved with the likes of Matt Frattin, although part of the reason they’ve struggled a bit recently in my opinion is that Frattin’s role has been reduced to the point of wasting his talents ever since Lupul has come back from injury. It’s great for the Leafs to have Lupul back, but not at the expense of wasting Frattin, who was one of their best players for most of the season.

If the Leafs continue to misuse Frattin and not give him ice time and line-mates he can work with, they may go to the Bruins quicker than I predict. But at least based on talent alone, if it is used correctly by coach Randy Carlyle, I think this is a better Maple Leafs team than the Bruins have beat up on the last few seasons, and in terms of skill, they might be just as deep as the Bruins.

Unfortunately for the Leafs, I think Claude Julien is a better coach than Randy Carlyle, and that the Bruins play a much more organized and consistent defensive system. And while the Maple Leafs may be able to match the Bruins in speed, skill, and depth up front now, maybe even exceed them in the speed and skill areas, I believe the Bruins will make up for it with their much greater size, physicality, and two-way play, not to mention the “little things” that often go unnoticed like faceoffs where I would imagine, without checking the numbers, that Boston excels at much more than the Leafs do. I’m sure they also have a better penalty kill, although Toronto probably has a better power-play I’d imagine. The problem for Toronto is no matter how good their power-play is, it’s probably going to have trouble scoring against the Bruins’ playoff-tested penalty kill.

So I could potentially give the speed and skill advantages to the Maple Leafs, but when it comes to size, physicality, two-way play by the forwards, defense, coaching, details, and experience, the Bruins probably have the edge in most those areas if not all of them, plus Tuukka Rask is probably still better than James Reimer, although I do think the team in front of Rask earns some of his good numbers for him, so to speak. The Bruins have proved over multiple seasons that their excellent defensive system and reliable play has a positive impact on their goaltenders’ save percentages. Regardless of who plays goal for them, their save percentage as a team is always high, and this has been going on for maybe three seasons now at least.

So I’ve got the Boston Bruins in six or seven. Let’s say seven just for fun since everyone else is saying it will be so one-sided.

Written by Shark Circle

Advertisements