Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Looking to the Stanley Cup: First Round

By Eric Redner
The Phanatic Magazine

Starting Wednesday, we will be treated to another round of beards, octopus, and the overall mania that inflicts 16 cities every year starting in mid-April. It all ends sometime in June when one team will hoist Lord Stanley's Cup and police in the victorious city, and sometimes the losing city, will be busy making sure their streets are not torn apart. Let the chase for the Cup begin.

The following will have my predictions for the first round. Just a little side note, I made predictions at the beginning of the season determining the top eight seeds in each conference. I nailed three positions, Buffalo, Ottawa and Dallas. My notable mistakes; Carolina winning the Southeast and finishing second in the conference, Philadelphia finishing fifth and Edmonton winning the Northwest and finishing third in the Western Conference.

Eastern Conference

1. Buffalo (53-22-7) versus NY Islanders (40-30-12)
Season series - Buffalo won 3-1

When Wade Dubielewicz pokechecked the puck away from Sergei Brylin in the last round of the shootout to win the game for the Islanders the team jumped out on the ice and celebrated like they had just won the Stanley Cup. I hope they enjoyed it because that is as close as they are going to get.

Buffalo is too fast and deep for the Islanders to compete. Only with Rick DiPietro in net would New York stand a chance and there is still no telling when he will make it back on the ice. New York might take a pity game at Nassau Coliseum to give the crowd something to cheer about, but I doubt it.

Buffalo in four games.


2. New Jersey (49-24-9) versus Tampa Bay (44-33-5)
Season series - Tampa Bay won 3-1 (one win in the shootout)

At first look it seems that Tampa Bay stands a good chance at taking down the Devils. Since the All-Star break the Lightning have played good hockey and bounced back from a slow start to challenge Atlanta for the Southeast Division crown. The team has the third and fifth top scorers in the league with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. Plus, Tampa Bay has matched up well against New Jersey over the past three seasons and have won nine of 12 games.

But, as we've seen in the past, it's goaltending that wins playoff games and the Devils have a guy in net you might have heard of. He set the record this year for most wins by a goaltender and appeared in all but four games for the Devils this season. His name is Martin Brodeur.

I'll take a team with Brodeur in net any day over a team with Johan Holmqvist manning the goal.

New Jersey in five games.

3. Atlanta (43-28-11) versus NY Rangers (42-30-10)
Season series - Atlanta won 3-1 (two wins in overtime)

This is definitely one of the more interesting series in the first round. These teams played each other tooth and nail this season and while Atlanta won the series, two of those wins came in overtime so the Rangers still wound up with four points in the series.

The Rangers have been one of the best teams on the ice since the All-Star break and the main reason for their success has been sophomore goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. A lot of times you see goaltenders who had good rookie seasons come out and struggle the next year. Lundqvist had some shaky games in the first half of the season, but since the All-Star game has posted an
18-11-4 record to go along with four shutouts. Oh, Atlanta ice girls, stuff some cotton in your ears if you don't like cursing. Also, another reason for the Rangers late-season success has been the play of Jaromir Jagr and Petr Prucha, both of whom seemed to struggle in the early part of the season, but have kicked into a higher gear as of late. Lastly, I believe the Rangers made
one of the best trades this season when they acquired Sean Avery. He is not a scoring machine, but his presence added some grit to a team that was sorely lacking any toughness.

Atlanta fans have to be happy to see their team in the playoffs for the first time. This is a strong team with good forwards, an experienced defense and a good goaltender. The one problem with this team throughout the year has been its inconsistency. When this team plays solid hockey they can beat any team out there, but when they play bad, they play really bad.

When it comes down to it I think Atlanta has the better team on paper, but we know that games aren't played on paper.

NY Rangers in seven games.

4. Ottawa (48-25-9) versus Pittsburgh (47-24-11)
Season series - Pittsburgh won 3-1 (two wins in the shootout)

I hope they keep extra red light bulbs in the arenas cause these two teams are going to score about 100 goals in this series. Ottawa was second and Pittsburgh finished fourth in the league in scoring. Plus, the teams have the No. 1 and No. 4 overall point leaders in the NHL, Sidney Crosby and Dany Heatley.

This series will rest on the play of Crosby. If the Senators can keep him in check, rough him up and throw off his concentration Ottawa should have no problem with this very young and inexperienced team. However, should Sid the Kid kick on the afterburners and do what he did to defenses all season long, it will go a long way to winning Pittsburgh its first playoff series since
they defeated Buffalo in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2001.

You want to take Ottawa in this series because they seem to be the better team, but then you remember how many times this team has choked in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh in six games.


Western Conference


1. Detroit (50-19-13) versus Calgary (43-29-10)
Season series - Tied 2-2

In my humble opinion Calgary should not be in the playoffs. They lost their last four games of the season and edged out Colorado by one point for the final spot.

But, we should not have to watch Calgary for very long in the postseason as Detroit will most likely extinguish the Flames rather quickly. Calgary has a lot of experience on their roster and an excellent goaltender in Miikka Kiprusoff, but the Red Wings have a good offense, excellent defense and are very well coached.

Detroit in five games.


2. Anaheim (48-20-14) versus Minnesota (48-26-8)
Season series - Tied 2-2 (Minnesota won one game in the shootout)

Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra are going to have a very difficult time as they will have to skate against Chris Pronger or Scott Niedermayer for their duration on the ice.

However, this series is going to come down to defense and goaltending and while Anaheim has the better blueliners, Minnesota has a better goaltender and a better defensive-minded coach in Jacques Lemaire.

This is going to be a very low scoring series and as soon as Minnesota takes a lead in a game look for them to completely shut the game down. If the Wild can get a win in Anaheim in Game 1 or 2, it will go a long way towards them advancing to the second round.

Minnesota in seven games.



3. Vancouver (49-26-7) versus Dallas (50-25-7)
Season series - Tied 2-2

Marty Turco would love to win this series to get the monkey off his back since contributing to Dallas' opening-round losses in the past two seasons. Roberto Luongo has to be happy to be playing in the postseason for the first time in his seven-year career and would love to win his first series. Sadly, though, one of these goaltenders will go home very unhappy by April 23.

The season series between these two teams was a very tight affair with every game a 2-1 contest and one win coming in overtime and one in the shootout. The NHL can only hope these teams play a little more exciting hockey in the playoffs.

Both teams have played well to close out the season. However, the Canucks have the better defense and the Sedin twins have been playing fantastic hockey this season.

The Stars will need Mike Modano to lead this team as he's done before and Turco to play well, but somehow I just don't see that happening.

Vancouver in six games.

4. Nashville (51-23-8) versus San Jose (51-26-5)
Season series - Nashville won 3-1 (One win in the shootout)

Nashville desperately needs to win at least one playoff series and hopefully go deep in the playoffs this year in order to remain in the Music City. Will that be enough motivation for this team to move past a very talented San Jose squad?

The Predators landed the big name before the trade deadline when they mortgaged a bit of their future in order to acquire Peter Forsberg. However, the injury plagued Forsberg appeared in just 17 of Nashville's 24 games since the team acquired him on February 15 and he posted just two goals and 13 assists during that time. However, if he remains healthy the man is a force in
the playoffs and can lead Nashville to the next round by himself.

San Jose, though, is the logical choice in this series. The forwards on this team, led by Joe Thornton, are superb and San Jose has the better goaltending. This team is bigger and stronger than Nashville and has the better coach in Ron Wilson, but does it have the leadership to make it over the hump?

In the first round I believe they do.

Side note, this is a rematch of last year's Quarterfinal series, which San Jose won in five games. The teams even finished last season in the same positions as this year.

San Jose in six games.
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