No rest for the wicked. Just one night after a thrilling finish to round one of the Stanley Cup playoffs, that saw the underdog Montreal Canadiens upset the powerful Washington Capitals in game 7, the puck is set to drop on round two.
The first round saw some significant upsets in the Eastern Conference, with the #1 Caps, #2 New Jersey Devils and #3 Buffalo Sabres all falling by the wayside. Only the #4 Pittsburgh Penguins manage to avoid upset, staving off the Ottawa Senators in 6 games.
In the Western Conference the series were bitterly contested, but in the end the #1 San Jose Sharks, #2 Chicago Blackhawks, and #3 Vancouver Canucks all advanced. Only the #5 Red Wings bucked the trend, taking out the 4th seeded Phoenix Coyotes in 7 games. However, even that series can hardly be called an upset, since the Wings have been to the Stanley Cup Finals in each of the past two seasons, and had they not been crippled with several key injuries this season would almost assuredly have finished in the top 4 of the conference.
So, now that 8 teams have been eliminated and the conferences have been reseeded, who are the favorites to move on beyond round 2? Read on for my predictions:
#1 San Jose Sharks vs. #4 Detroit Red Wings
Predicting a winner in any of the quarter-finals is a challenge indeed, but this match-up is the one that is likely going to cause the most dissension among the ranks of hockey prognosticators. The San Jose Sharks had yet another stellar regular season, finishing 1st in the Western Conference and 2nd overall with 113 points. However, despite the fact they finished 11 points ahead in the regular season, many are picking the Sharks as the underdog in this series.
To uncover the logic behind this you have to look no further than the recent playoff history of the Sharks. Ever since Joe Thornton arrived in a trade from the Boston Bruins the Sharks have been a perennial regular season powerhouse. Yet, despite finishing at or near the top of the standings each year, come playoff time the wheels seem to fall off. Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, so rock steady in the regular season, seems unable to stave off the playoff nerves and his play has been suspect in each of the Sharks' disappointingly short playoff runs.
All the blame cannot be laid at Nabokov's skates. Joe Thornton, the very man whose arrival turned the Sharks into a Stanley Cup contender has been unable to elevate his game in the way that other superstars like Sidney Crosby, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky have. In some years he's been a complete non-factor, and even when he manages to put up some decent stats the points he gets never seem to be of the clutch variety.
Fellow star Patrick Marleau has followed much the same path, unable to light it up, despite the fact that Thornton's presence has certainly alleviated the need for Marleau to play against other teams' best defensive players.
The Red Wings, on the other hand, have no shortage of players that manage to "get it done" come playoff time. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom were all stellar in the Wings first round match-up against the Coyotes. Tomas Holmstrom continues to be a royal pain in the rear for opposing goalies, and his net presence is an immeasurable help to an already lethal Wings powerplay. Add the big bodies of Johan Franzen and Todd Bertuzzi and you can imagine what a time San Jose's defenders are going to have letting their goalie see pucks.
The biggest question for the Wings comes in goal. Rookie Jimmy Howard had a great regular season, but on the big stage of the playoffs his play has been a little up and down so far. In some games against Phoenix he was doing his best Terry Sawchuk impression, while in others he looked more like Alain Chevrier. He will have to find some consistency as he will be facing considerably tougher shooters than he did in the Phoenix series.
Overall, wisdom would dictate that this is the Wings series to lose. They have a vast edge in experience and can certainly match the Sharks in skill. Despite that, I just have this nagging feeling that this is San Jose's year to do some damage. Many of the Red Wings' players are past their prime, and after a grueling 7 game series against Phoenix might be suffering some fatigue.
Prediction: San Jose wins the series 4 to 2
#2 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #3 Vancouver Canucks
While San Jose/Detroit might be the hardest of the second round series to call, this one isn't far behind. A grudge match that goes back to last playoffs when the Hawks eliminated the Canucks in 6 games, this might just be the most entertaining series we see in these playoffs.
Ever since the acquisition of Roberto Luongo from the Florida Panthers the Canucks have been a team that excelled at defensive stinginess while simultaneously having troubles putting the puck in the opposition net. What a difference a year makes. This season the Canucks have done a complete flip-flop. These days Roberto and the d-men in front of him seem to struggle for consistency. However, the Canucks' high-octane offense, led by Art Ross Trophy winner Henrik Sedin, and his equally talented brother Daniel, often comes to the rescue, winning in the style of the 80's Edmonton Oilers by piling up goals and winning games 6-4, instead of 2-1.
The Sedins have had a great season, but certainly haven't had to do it all themselves offensively. Ryan Kesler had a career year, piling up 75 points in the regular season. Alex Burrows wasn't far behind, eclipsing the 30 goal mark for the first time in his career. The Canucks' scoring depth doesn't stop there with Mikael Samuelsson, Mason Raymond, Kyle Wellwood, Steve Bernier and Pavol Demitra all capable of putting the puck in the net on a regular basis. Samuelsson, in particular, has been hot of late, and his 7 first round goals vaulted him into the league lead in that category.
Despite the impressive array of firepower boasted by the Canucks, the Hawks will be far from intimidated if this turns into a run and gun series. They have plenty of stars of their own, including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. The Canucks are all too aware of the Hawks' scoring prowess as Kane and company rifled 7 goals past Roberto Luongo in game 6 last year to send the Nucks packing.
The role players on the Hawks will also have a big impact on this series. Last year Dustin Byfuglien had a running war with Roberto Luongo, constantly piling into him, and causing general havoc in and around the crease. It is no coincidence that Hawks' coach Joel Quenneville has decided to move Byfuglien up to forward for this series, even though he has recently spent most of his time patrolling the blueline. The renewal of the battle between Byfuglien and Luongo will be just one of the interesting storylines in this series.
On the blueline the Hawks will most certainly have an advantage. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell will anchor a defensive core that is the envy of the rest of the league. These three will play huge minutes, and the Sedin twins will have difficulty getting their vaunted cycle game established against the skill, speed and strength of Keith and Seabrook.
In net, the Hawks have something of an unknown commodity in Antti Niemi. The Finnish netminder was inconsistent all year, though his 7 shutouts, 2.25 GAA and 26-7-4 record bespeak the talent he possesses. If he can find his A game for this series the Hawks are an awfully good bet to come out of this series victorious.
Out of all the second round match-ups I think this one has the greatest chance of going the distance. If it does wind up in a 7th game, the Hawks would have home ice advantage. However, as we just saw in the Phoenix/Detroit and Montreal/Washington series home ice guarantees nothing. I think Roberto Luongo is going to be hungry after last year's game 6 debacle, and the Sedins and Samuelsson are going to be too much for even Keith and Seabrook to handle.
Prediction: Vancouver wins the series 4 to 3
#1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #4 Montreal Canadiens
Though NBC and the NHL will not get the Crosby vs. Ovechkin match-up they were drooling over, Sid the Kid vs. the storied NHL franchise he grew up idolizing isn't a half bad storyline either.
The Habs are fresh off an exhilarating game 7 victory over the Washington Capitals, while Pittsburgh has been enjoying a bit of rest after a hard fought 6 game first round victory over the Ottawa Senators.
At first blush the Penguins would seem to be the landslide favorites in this series. Led by a pair of superstars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and with the experience of two straight Stanley Cup Finals runs (and one Stanley Cup) under their belts they would seem to have the decided edge. However, the one major dealbreaker in predicting any playoff series in years past has always been the emergence of a hot goaltender.
They don't come much hotter than Jaroslav Halak. After a shaky start to the series that saw him pulled partway through game 3 and replaced altogether by Carey Price in game 4, Halak managed to find his best stuff for the final 3 games of the series, all but single-handedly bringing the Habs back from the brink of elimination to spoil the Capitals' playoff party. If he can continue to play that well he will certainly give his team the chance to continue their Cinderella run.
However, no matter how good Halak plays his teammates are going to have to start scoring a few goals for the Habs to have a realistic hope in this series. Mike Cammalleri was on fire in round one, scoring 5 goals, and Thomas Plekanec chipped in with 4 of his own. However, Brian Gionta needs to chip in more, and Andrei Kostitsyn will have to score more consistently. Yes, he had 3 goals in the Washington series, but all 3 came in a single game.
On defense the Habs will continue to rely on Andrei Markov, along with the shutdown pairing of Hal Gill and Josh Gorges. I'd be a bit surprised if coach Jacques Martin matches Gill up against Crosby, as the slow-footed d-man would likely have issues trying to keep up with the elusive Pens' superstar as he twists and turns down low. Markov, with his quickness and his Lidstrom-like stick would be a better option to contain Crosby, while Gill could perhaps be more effective using his size and strength against the big body presence of Evgeni Malkin.
Probably the player with the potential to make the biggest impact on the series is Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury was brilliant last spring in leading the Pens to the Stanley Cup, but this season he has yet to come close to reaching that level of play. If he can come close to matching Halak's level in this series then it will be awfully hard for the goal-challenged Habs to come away with a series victory.
Ultimately, I think the Pens are going to dash the hopes and dreams of Habs fans everywhere. Halak can't possibly maintain the level of play he displayed in the last half of the Washington series. Crosby has been a one-man wrecking crew, and you can bet he will be at his scintillating best against the team he idolized as a kid.
Prediction: Pittsburgh wins the series 4-2
#3 Boston Bruins vs. #4 Philadelphia Flyers
Though a battle between the 6th and 7th seeds in the Eastern Conference might not look that compelling at first glance, this series has plenty of potential to be electrifying.
These two storied clubs took to the ice against one another in this year's iteration of the NHL's annual Winter Classic outdoor game. The game was a physically punishing affair and when the dust finally settled on the battle the Bruins had eked out a 2-1 OT win. You can bet the Flyers haven't forgotten that game, and will be using the loss as a motivational tool to help them get ready for this series.
Perhaps the most compelling storyline of this series is the duel in goal. The Flyers, on one hand, enter the series with both their #1 and #2 goalies out with injury. Instead, they've pinned their hopes on career back-up goaltender Brian Boucher. Though many would be automatically tempted to write the Flyers off, bear in mind that Boucher out-dueled Martin Brodeur in round one of the playoffs, and Swedish superstar Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers in the final game of the season just to help Philly squeeze into the playoffs. Boucher also has a history of getting hot from time to time, as evinced by his NHL record 5 game shutout streak.
The Bruins' goaltending situation is every bit as unexpected. At the beginning of the season no one would have predicted that defending Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas would be sitting on the bench, relegated to the role of back-up come the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs. Yet that is exactly what has happened. Thomas had an up and down season, while rookie Tuukka Rask was brilliant, leading the NHL in both save percentage and goals against average. Bruins' coach Claude Julien had little choice but to go with Rask. However, Julien does have the luxury of going to Thomas if Rask happens to stumble, a comfort that the Flyers' coaching staff doesn't have should Boucher cool off.
The match-up continues on the blueline with defending Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara and former Norris and Hart Trophy winner Chris Pronger matching up. Both are towers of strength on the back end, and both will play huge minutes against the other teams' top offensive threats. Both Pronger and Chara are more than capable of getting in on the offense as well, and their names should both show up on the scoresheet, particularly on the powerplay.
Up front both teams have some issues. The Bruins haven't been able to get their offense in gear all year, and the departure of Phil Kessel to the Toronto Maple Leafs really seems to have hurt their offensive chemistry. They will get a boost from the return of Marc Savard, who has been out with a grade 2 concussion ever since being on the receiving end of a blind side hit from Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke. However, it has been nearly 2 months since Savard has played a game, so how effective he will be remains to be seen. David Krejci and Michael Ryder will both have to step up their respective games if the Bruins want to score enough to win this series.
Normally I'd give the Flyers the nod at the forward position, but with Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne and Ian Laperierre all out due to injury the issue becomes a lot less certain. Mike Richards and Daniel Briere will have to pick up some of the scoring slack, and Claude Giroux will have to continue with the stellar play he exhibited in the first round.
Overall, I believe this may just be the most physical series of the second round. These two teams are going to heap punishment on one another and whichever one manages to limp out of this round is going to be bruised and battered going into the semi-finals. In my opinion, that team will be the Boston Bruins. With the Bruins' depth in goal and the key injuries Philadelphia suffered in the first round I have to give the nod to the B's.
Prediction: Boston wins the series 4-2