Folks, first off I apologize – this is late and it will be much more brief than usual, but as many of you know it’s been a very rough week for me and my family and I simply didn’t have time to do a proper preview column. Since the playoffs have started, I think it would be inappropriate to do a predictions column – after all, five teams already have a win – but I will look at some keys to each series, and pick my key performer for each team. Let’s start out West.
#1 Vancouver vs. #8 Chicago – keys:
-For Vancouver, this is a HUGE mental test – Chicago has tortured the Canucks the last two playoff seasons, and really made goalie Roberto Luongo look bad. Talent-wise, the defending champion Blackhawks are still dangerous but not nearly what they were a season ago – they lost a lot of grit and also the goalie who keyed their Cup run. At this point it’s clear that Vancouver has a huge edge in net and also in depth – their SECOND-line center had 41 goals – so they just need to get over the mental hurdle that Chicago has become for them.
-For Chicago, they are frankly outmanned and need to get in Luongo’s head. Losing via shutout in Game one was not what they needed, and they desperately need to get Luongo off his game in game two or this will likely be a short series. They need to win all the little battles as well – special teams, faceoffs, etc – just to give themselves a chance. I think Game Two is absolutely critical in this series, much more so than in any other series if Chicago is going to have any chance.
Key players: for Vancouver, I hate to keep bringing him up but if Luongo plays to his level the Canucks will easily move on. He has to play big. For Chicago, Kane and Toews have to recapture the magic from a year ago and provide some serious offense.
#2 San Jose vs. #7 Los Angeles – keys:
-San Jose finds itself in an unusual spot for this time of year – off the radar. Everyone’s talking about the Vancouver series and how good the Canucks are, and the run the Ducks went on late in the season…I have heard almost nothing about the incredible closing kick by the Sharks. In January this team was 21-19-5 and in danger of missing the playoffs – they went 27-6-4 the rest of the way. Reminds me very much of a certain Cup-winning team in 2009…and to top it off, they draw a Kings team that is missing their best player in Anze Kopitar, making a tough task almost impossible. San Jose simply has to remain calm and confident and ride their late-season momentum like Pittsburgh did two years ago.
-The Kings NEED a spark – with Kopitar gone and having dropped three of their last four games, their confidence has to be sagging and if they lose two games in San Jose, it’s probably all over for them. Somehow they need to contain the explosive Shark offense and steal a game.
Key players: for San Jose I’m going with Joe Thornton. They will probably win this series without him playing well, but if he goes into another playoff funk they won’t escape the second round. Big Joe has to play like the star he is. LA needs a HUGE series from their goalie, Jonathan Quick, but I’m going to single out Rob Scuderi – he will be assigned to shut down the Sharks’ top line, he’s been there before, and he is their best chance for some key leadership.
#3 Detroit vs. #6 Phoenix – keys:
-I have talked a lot about goaltending, and Detroit is no exception – Jimmy Howard had a very up-and-down season and he needs to be consistent for the Wings to have a deep playoff run. In addition, this is a VERY veteran team and one has to wonder if and when fatigue will set in – the NHL has become an extremely fast-paced league and it really is a young man’s game more so than it ever was. Can the graybeard Wings defy that trend?
-Phoenix seemingly won with mirrors all season – much like they did a year ago. Devoid of stars, this team had only one 20-goal scorer – but had eleven score 10 or more. Phoenix is a disciplined unit that needs contributions from all parts of its roster to win, but relies heavily on their defense and goaltender. The Coyotes cannot afford to get into run-and-gun contests with the skilled Wings – the more 2-1 games they play, the better their chances are.
Key players: for Detroit, I’m going with Howard – Detroit will always score their share of goals, the key is to stop enough to win. If Howard has a few poor games it could spell trouble for Detroit. For the Coyotes, I’m singling out Shane Doan, their leading scorer – someone HAS to step up for this team, and their captain and longest-tenured player seems the best bet to me.
#4 Anaheim vs. #5 Nashville – keys:
-Anaheim amazed me with how well they played in the second half, and particularly how they managed to keep winning even though they had four goalies start 10 or more games. This team is extremely top-heavy – their offense comes almost entirely from their top four forwards, and much of the rest of their roster had a negative plus/minus. The stars must play like stars for Anaheim to win.
-Nashville is almost a carbon-copy of Phoenix – their leading scorer only posted 50 points and they have no superstars, but they have an underrated blue line and goalie, and they have a very underrated coach in Barry Trotz. Nashville wants to play Anaheim 5-on-5; almost their entire roster posted positive plus/minus totals, and what they lack in star power they make up for in depth. Staying out of the box will be crucial for the Preds.
Key players: for Anaheim, I’m going with Corey Perry. He scored 50 goals this season, most in the league, but can he do it on the big stage? His offense is critical to the team’s success. For Nashville, I’ll say defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter – these guys are probably the best 2-way defense tandem in the league, and they will be counted on to provide offense AND to stop Anaheim’s big guns. This should be the most entertaining series out West this round.
#1 Washington vs. #8 NY Rangers – keys:
-For the Caps, the regular season was not about anything other than refining their game – especially their defensive system. No one in the league or in DC cared about the Caps’ seeding after last year’s epic playoff collapse – it was clear from the first of October that this team was a solid playoff team, and clearly they have more talent than any Eastern Conference foe. Can they overcome their playoff demons, and can they overcome a longtime nemesis in the Rangers? Strangely enough, the Caps were not a great offensive team this season – they scored 14 fewer goals than Pittsburgh, for example, and 30+ fewer than Philly. If opponents shut Ovechkin down, will his teammates pick up the slack?
-For the Rangers, they are overmatched talent-wise, much like Chicago – but they have an excellent, proven goalie in Henrik Lundqvist who can be the great equalizer. Lundqvis almost stole Game 1 and he will have to steal at least two games if New York is to pull off the upset.
Key players: for the Caps, I’m going with Mike Green and Alex Semin. Ovechkin will produce; he always does…but he needs help, and Green and Semin are noted playoff underachievers. Both have to come through if the Caps hope to drink from the Cup. For the Rangers, it begins with Lundqvist but another key is Marian Gaborik – the star forward had a very disappointing season but if he can find his old form, he can provide a real spark for the Blueshirts.
#2 Philadelphia vs. #7 Buffalo – keys:
-Philly REALLY sputtered down the stretch, finishing in a tie with Pittsburgh and only gaining the #2 seed via tiebreaker. Of particular concern (as usual) is the goaltending – Sergei Bobrovsky started the year on a crazy roll, but really hit a wall late in the season and was pulled in the last game of the year. His backup, Brian Boucher, is a good guy to have in relief but not someone likely to carry a team to the Cup. Philly also missed Chris Pronger, who is due to return from injury in this series – the Flyers will score their share of goals, but they MUST tighten up the defense to make another run.
-Buffalo strikes me as very much an average team – except for goalie Ryan Miller. Miller’s numbers weren’t great this season, but he kept the team afloat during a few tough stretches and I believe he will rise to the challenge come playoff time. The question is, will his teammates offer enough help? Buffalo MUST win the special-teams battle; Philly’s power play wasn’t great this year but the Flyers were lethal 5-on-5, while the Sabres were- you guessed it – about average at even strength.
Key players: for the Flyers, I have to go with Bobrovsky – if he doesn’t right the ship, Philly can still get by the Sabres but will find life very difficult against a team like the Caps, Bruins, or Pens. For Buffalo, Thomas Vanek was their leading scorer and has to be their best non-goalie player in this series. Buffalo needs to find a way to average three goals per game to win the series in my opinion, and Vanek needs to score.
#3 Boston vs. #6 Montreal – keys:
-Boston has two potential concerns – #1, Tim Thomas had an AMAZING year and will probably win the Vezina trophy – can he play close to that level in the playoffs? Tukka Rask gives them a viable alternative, but make no mistake, the Bruins need excellent goaltending. #2, can the team find consistency on offense? They were a very hot-and-cold scoring team, particularly down the stretch. It seems like the Bruins have a lot of talent at forward, and they scored plenty of goals, but their record was frankly not great in the last month of the season, particularly for a team with the best goal differential in the conference.
-Montreal has to hope that Carey Price’s redemptive season carries over to the postseason – make no mistake, this is his team and he has to shine if they are to win. The Canadiens scored by far the fewest goals of any Eastern Conference playoff team, so it figures that they will need to win a lot of low-scoring, 1-goal games. Also, they were poor at even strength and the bruins were very strong 5-on-5, so the Habs need a lot of penalties to be called, and they need to cash in on their power play opportunities.
Key players: I hate to make things overly simple, but for me the key players are Thomas and Price. This has the potential to be a ‘1st team to two goals wins’ type of series, and in those cases the goaltenders are even more important. I will say that Mike Cammalleri will need a repeat of his great 2010 run for Montreal to have a real shot at winning this series.
#4 Pittsburgh vs. #5 Tampa Bay – keys:
-I’ve talked plenty about the Pens all winter, so let me throw some amazing stats at you…the 2011 Pens won more road games than ANY Pens team in their history – yes, even more than the 1993 team. Despite the injuries, only two teams finished with more points than Pittsburgh, and only one had more wins. These Pens were also the first in team history to lead the league in penalty killing, and as mentioned above they managed to outscore the Caps. Frankly, this team has been AMAZING in its resilience and toughness all season long, and even if they lose to Tampa I will look back on this group very fondly for their ability to persevere.
-The Lightning have two areas of concern to me: their defense corps is average at best, and they are pinning all of their hopes on a 41-year-old goaltender. Granted, Roloson saved their season when he came over in a trade, and he looked pretty good in Game One – but really, would you rather have him, or Fleury? No contest to me. Tampa has an imposing set of forwards and frankly quite a bit more scoring depth than the Pens have – but they do rely on Stamkos and St. Louis to do much of their scoring. Despite facing the top penalty kill, I believe Tampa wants to avoid 5-on-5 play and let their lethal power play do some damage. Pittsburgh has the ability to grind teams down if the game is played at even strength, but in games where lots of penalties are called Pittsburgh has struggled – it affects their ability to play all four lines, and their power play has been such a mess that it has killed their momentum at times.
Key players: for Pittsburgh, James Neal and Alex Kovalev were brought in for this time of year – Neal in particular HAS to find the back of the net soon. For Tampa, Vinny Lecavalier is not the threat he once was, but he has to provide some secondary scoring, especially if Orpik and Letang continue to shut Stamkos and St. Louis down.
I have to finish with two predictions – #1, I think Crosby misses this round, but comes back for round two if the Pens advance. #2, I was thinking Pens in six before game one, and I saw nothing in that game to change my mind – Tampa is a tough team, but Fleury will be the difference!
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.