Friday, May 1, 2015

NHL Playoff Predictions: Round 2

Self-edited, originally from Sports Illustrated

Round 1 is finished, and most of my predictions were spot-on - including the number of games!

I can't promise the same for the second round, especially in the East, where any team could eliminate any opponent, but I'll get my feet wet anyway.

Anaheim Ducks versus Calgary Flames:

This will likely be the only series with one team clearly dominating, and though my heart is with the Calgary Flames, with their superb kids showing the way (notably Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau), the absence of would-have-been Norris winner Mark Giordano will prove to leave too big a hole against the scoring ability of superstars Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. The series will be decided by its goaltending, where the Ducks have two young - and therefore ''unproven'', though every player starts out that way - goalies in Frederik Andersen and John Gibson, and the Flames counter with Swiss Olympian Jonas Hiller, capable of shutting out superstars and letting in 6 goals the next game, and dependable backup Karri Ramo.

Ducks in 5 6.

Chicago Blackhawks versus Minnesota Wild:

The Wild advanced past the Blues because they were the better team at every position, which will not be the case here. The Hawks have two superstar offensive Olympians in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane that are heads and shoulders above Zack Parise and Jason Pomminville, but hockey being a team sport, that may not matter in the end, as both teams are even when it comes to depth on their scoring and checking lines up front. When it comes to defense, again, the Hawks have the Wild beat with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook being superior to Ryan Suter, but the Wild are much better with the rest of their crew, their 3-7 spots all better than the Hawks' 4-7 players. It will likely come down to - surprise! - goaltending. Don't get me wrong, Corey Crawford is an elite goalie, top-10 most of the time, top-5 a lot of the time, a Stanley Cup winner (and almost MVP), and he is a much better and reliable goalie in terms of career path than Devan Dubnyk, but ''Duuubs'' has probably been the best goalie (certainly the most impactful) in the world this season, whereas Crawford has even had to watch backup Scott Darling start playoff games in the first round. I bet against the Hawks in Round 1, going against my heart in trying to predict an upset, and it cost me a perfect record. I'm torn in this one, as I am for the next two series.

Hawks in 7.

Washington Capitals versus New York Rangers:

Are there two players who get more flak than Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Lundqvist for not having won a Stanley Cup yet being elite players/best of the world at their position? At least Lundqvist can polish his Olympic gold medal when he goes to bed at night, but the ultimate team prize still eludes each of them, and both deserve to shut their critics up with a Cup win. But who eliminates who? The Caps are playing their best team game since the late 1990s under head coach Barry Trotz, but is that enough to get past one of the best-balanced teams in the league, and Presidents' Trophy winners to boot? The Caps have the best shot in the world (Ovie), and an elite, probably top-5 center and setup man in Nicklas Backstrom. Braden Holtby has now entered the conversation as one of the best Canadian goalies currently playing (along with Carey Price, Crawford, and Roberto Luongo), and the team's defense is potable, in the upper tier of the Eastern Conference. That's a combination that could certainly challenge for the Cup. But the Rangers have a deeper attack, one where Derick Brassard can pass to Rick Nash in a deadly set-up/shoot-or-deke combo, with former Cup and Art Ross winner Martin St-Louis likely manning the other wing while Mats Zuccharello deals with what seems like a concussion. And with all due respect to Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen who are the drop-off after John Carlson and Karl Alzner, they just cannot compare to the likes of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle and Kevin Klein. And should the Caps' offense get past those defenders, they still have to beat King Henrik - I mean, ''best in the world'' beats ''third-best Canadian'' pretty much any day of the week, no matter how you slice and dice it. Sorry, Ovie, perhaps next year.

Rangers in 7.

Tampa Bay Lightning versus Montréal Canadiens:

The series of the sweeps! These two teams met in last year's first round, with the Habs sweeping the Bolts in 4 games, mostly because then-Vezina nominee Ben Bishop was out with an injury. Well, he's here now, and coming off a shutout win to close out the 7-game series against the Detroit Red Wings after a game in which he was so-so. Oh, and he got an assist on the winning goal, cementing his place as the best puck-moving goalie in the NHL, just in case Montréal goalie Carey Price wanted to have a battle at playing the puck rather than stopping it. And during this regular season, Tampa won all 5 games (4 in regulation, one in extra time) between the two teams, including two games in which they ran up the score against Price, 7-1 in the first game, 5-3 in the last regular-season meeting between the teams, and a couple of 4-2 showings in the middle. There's also the fact that after least year's sweep, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman noticed his defense was a tad too slow against Montréal's forwards, so he went and remodeled it, adding Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison over the summer and Braydon Coburn at the trade deadline to complement superstar Victor Hedman. But with all due respect to Hedman and the rest of the Tampa D, a defense anchored by Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban is one that can shut down any Triplets Line and any Steven Stamkos, and that may be what they end up doing. They have 7 chances at doing it 4 times, and that's something they can very well end up doing, regardless of Max Pacioretty not scoring, as long as he keeps setting up Tomas Plekanec for shorthanded goals.

Lightning Habs Bolts Canadiens Tampa Montréal in 7.

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