2010 NHL PLAYOFF PREVIEW
Incredibly the NHL's Regular Season is done and dusted for 2009/2010 - where have the last 7 months (and 1,230 NHL games for that matter) gone?
The Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins (backstopped once again by Marc-Andre Fleury who made THAT save LEFT) will mount their defence from the 4th seed position in the Eastern Conference (the same seed as last season), while the team they defeated last June - the Detroit Red Wings will try and make it a three-peat of Penguins-Red Wings Finals from the unfamiliar 5th seed in the Western Conference (they were 2nd last season).
The dominant team of the Regular Season was the Washington Capitals who took out the President's Trophy with a 54 win and 121 point season. Their nearest challenger for the first silverware handed out in 2009/2010 was the San Jose Sharks who claimed the top seed in the Western Conference with 51 wins and 113 points.
So onto to the Playoff Predictions for Round 1... and free of charge we give you our predictions for the second and third rounds and picks for the combatants of the 2009/2010 Stanley Cup Finals.
What are your picks?
Conference Quarter Finals - Predictions
#3 Buffalo SABRES
#6 Boston BRUINS
#4 Pittsburgh PENGUINS
#5 Ottawa SENATORS
Quarter Final Preview: The Penguins find themselves back in the same situation as last spring - a tough first round opponent but high expectations for a long playoff run. This time the Ottawa Senators will be out to end the Stanley Cup defence early but they will have to do it without Alexei Kovalev - a massive loss. Pittsburgh didn't have the services of last year's Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin for parts of the last month but he had 4 points alongside Sidney Crosby (5 points including his 50th & 51st goals of the year) in the regular season finale against the Islanders. Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson will carry the Senators offence in this series but the play of goaltender Brian Elliott will have to be beyond stunning to make this go back to Ottawa for a Game 6. Pittsburgh will roll out superstar duo Crosby and Malkin ahead of Sergei Gonchar and Marc-Andre Fleury and a supporting cast that is both playoff tested and boltered by some new faces eager for a crack at the dance. On paper the Senators need a miracle.
#1 San Jose SHARKS
#8 Colorado AVALANCHE
Quarter Final Preview: Shock horror - the San Jose Sharks are the #1 seed in the West! Seriously though the fact the Colorado Avalanche are IN the playoffs at all is truly a shock. Goaltender Craig Anderson, rookie head coach Joe Sacco and a bunch of rookies have given the Avs a chance at a Cindarella story but the San Jose Sharks have so much to prove this spring that you can't see the fairytale coming true this year. The Sharks are loaded at forward with Dany Heatley (39 goals) and Patrick Marleau (44 goals) likely to form a dominant unit alongside Joe Thornton (69 assists and 89 points) - either on the power play or on the Sharks top line. The supporting cast is solid with Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski scoring 20 goals each and Dan Boyle adding 58 points from the blueline. But goaltender Evgeni Nabokov will not be a San Jose Shark if he fails in these playoffs... 44 wins in 71 starts is impressive but he's impressive every regular season. The team could really use a big playoff performance from veteran Rob Blake as teams will be looking to shut down Boyle first and foremost in the game plan. For Colorado they need Anderson to be stellar in every game (38 wins & 7 shutouts for the season suggests he may be up to it) but the offence needs to click from Game One with the pressure on Milan Hejduk (23 goals), Matt Duchene (24 goals), Chris Stewart (20 goals), late season acquisition Peter Mueller (9 goals in 15 games) and playmaker Paul Stastny (59 assists) to replicate their regular season numbers. The Avs didn't have a dominant defenceman and it's hard to see anyone outside of Kyle Quincey stepping up... yes Kyle Quincey is Colorado's potential shining light on the blue line... uh oh. (alright we'll give you Jean-Michael Liles but he's never blossomed like everyone expected).
#2 Chicago BLACKHAWKS
#7 Nashville PREDATORS
Quarter Final Preview: You've gotta admire the Nashville Predators ability to make the playoffs with the roster they have. They have missed just once in the past five seasons (by 3 points in 2008/2009) and qualify in 7th spot to get a matchup against a Western Conference heavyweight in the Chicago Blackhawks. Seriously name Nashville's best player - not only this season but since they started making the playoffs in 2003/2004 - it isn't easy is it? That's the reason they are such a good team but also the reason they haven't advanced past the first round once. The Blackhawks added Marian 'Stanley Cup Finals Curse' Hossa in the off-season and although he's been solid (51 points in 57 games), Chicago fans will expect at least 10 goals from him this playoff campaign. He's surrounded by stars in Chicago with Patrick Kane (30 goals), Jonathan Toews (68 points in 76 games) and defenceman Duncan Keith (69 points) ready to rumble in the playoffs (the Blackhawks also had Patrick Sharp, Troy Brouwer & Kris Versteeg pass 20 goals). But the loss of Brian Campbell to an Alexander Ovechkin hit induced injury (back possibly in May) is seen as the one thing holding the Blackhawks back from a Stanley Cup run... oh and goaltending.
Antti Niemi will start Game One (he had 26 wins in 35 starts with 7 shutouts) ahead of Cristobal Huet (26 wins in 46 starts) but who starts Game Two through Seven is anyone's guess if the Blackhawks falter early in the series. The Predators are a little more settled in net with Pekka Rinne (32 wins in 54 starts with 7 shutouts) the starter but Dan Ellis is a handy #2. For Nashville to prevail their forwards must spread the scoring and the team defence needs to hold firm... but in truth they need a Jason Arnott to stand up and score 8 goals in the series for Nashville to really put Chicago out on their butt in the first round.
#3 Vancouver CANUCKS
#6 Los Angeles KINGS
Quarter Final Preview: How good was it to see the LA Kings finally have a good season? Mind you they slipped up in the season's second half to only claim a 6th seed in the West but their presence in the playoffs is a breath of fresh air. Their opponents the Vancouver Canucks have massive expectations entering the spring - with a true Stanley Cup or bust feel about the team. They think they are good enough to make a Cup Run but they'll have to deal with the upstart Kings first. Roberto Luongo delivered gold on the Olympic stage for Canada and for as long as you can remember he's been the best young goalie in the game... now he's 31 years old and has yet to play in a Cup Final. Heck he's never got past the second round and has only played playoff hockey twice in his career! For all his talent this is the playoff run that will have the most to say about his hockey legacy... his opponent in net is Jonathan Quick - who has had an amazing start to his NHL career - and significantly he's done that playing for the Kings! Luongo had 40 wins on the year but Quick was right behind him with 39 - plus they both had 4 shutouts. It is an intriguing goaltending duel and one that the Canucks will expect to win. Henrik Sedin took out his first Art Ross with a whopping 112 points and twin brother Daniel had 85 in just 63 games (projected to 111 points in 82 games) - so it's clear these two are the heartbeat of the Vancouver offence. Alexandre Burrows and Mikael Samuelsson both cracked 30 goals, while Mason Raymond, Ryan Kesler and the Sedins all had at least 25. The goals are there entering the playoffs but the wildcard is veteran Pavol Demitra who despite only having 3 goals in 28 games during an injury interrupted regular season - has 21 playoff markers, more than anyone else on the team. The Kings will throw Anze Kopitar (81 points), Dustin Brown (24 goals) and playoff veteran Ryan Smyth (25 career playoff goals) onto the ice to try and counter the Vancouver offence but it will be their defence headed by Rob Scuderi, Sean O'Donnell and youngsters Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson who hold LA's playoff hopes in their hands. There are some defensive minded forwards who can be a factor too in Michal Handzus and Jeff Halpern but if the Los Angeles D can't hold firm - the Kings will get beaten.
#4 Phoenix COYOTES
#5 Detroit RED WINGS
Quarter Final Preview: Did anyone in their right mind (inside or outside the Phoenix organisation for that matter) expect the Coyotes to be the #4 seed in the Western Conference come playoff time? Even the most wildly optimistic fan or official might've hoped for a playoff birth but FOURTH! Wow that's impressive for a team who had (and may still have) an uncertain future entering the season. Relieving 'The Great One' of his head coaching duties seems like the best decision of the decade by a GM and as harsh as it sounds - it was totally the right call to punt Wayne Gretzky even if Phoenix hadn't put together such a great season under his replacement Dave Tippett. On the flip side the Red Wings have been to the playoffs in each of coach Mike Babcock's five seasons at the helm and have two trips to the Stanley Cup Finals and one championship to show for it.
On the ice the Coyotes need huge production from their offensive stars like Shane Doan, Wojtek Wolski, Matthew Lombardi, Radim Vrbata Shane Doan and Lee '14 goals in 18 Games in Phoenix' Stempniak because the Red Wings own attacking arsenal of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Todd Bertuzzi & Tomas Holmstrom will produce since it's spring (although it is a shock to see Datsyuk as their leading goalscorer with just 27 goals in the regular season). The bluelines feature experience corps of Detroit (headlined by Nicklas Lidstrom & Brian Rafalski) vs the surprisingly successful Coyotes unit that helped the team to 50 wins (an improvement of 14 on 2008/2009). If Phoenix have an edge it is in net with Vezina contender Ilya Bryzgalov facing Detroit's Jimmy Howard - the latter of which has zero minutes played in the playoffs. Bryzgalov has been incredible in the two playoff campaigns he had with the Ducks (9-5 with a 1.68gaa, 3 shutouts & a .937 sv%) and had 42 wins in the regular season with the Coyotes as the unquestioned #1. Howard (39 wins) has held veteran Chris Osgood at bay for most of the season but you can't help but wonder if he falters in Game 1 & 2 - will Babcock go straight to the proven playoff performer in Osgood.