Wednesday, April 11, 2012

2012 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

It's the most wonderful time of the year!  We've got the start of baseball season and playoff hockey to burn up all the non-work hours in the day.  As always, here are my picks for the first round matchups.


EASTERN CONFERENCE
Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa (8)
The Rangers have been solid all season.  Typically they go through a slow spell, quite often at the end of the season, but not this year.  The name of their game was defense and they gave up the third fewest goals of any team in the NHL.  Ottawa, meanwhile, has been struggling recently.  They won a fair number of games, but gave up the most goals against of any playoff team.  Erik Karlsson had his breakout season this year, but how will he handle playoff pressure?  The one odd stat is Ottawa won the season series against New York 3-1 and outscored them 14-8.  Still, Rangers in 6.

Boston (2) vs. Washington (7)
The Bruins, the defending Cup champions, are built from the back out. Goalie Tim Thomas is the reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe winner and captain Zdeno Chara anchors one of the best defensive corps in the league. The Bruins score goals by by committee, which is needed depth for a long playoff run. The Caps have had a down year and they still haven't addressed their defensive holes. Added to their woes this year is a big question mark on who will be the starting goalie. The defending champs are a lock to win this. Bruins in 5.


Florida (3) vs. New Jersey (6)
One interesting sub-plot is Devils head coach Pete DeBoer was fired by Florida two years ago. This series I have a hard time getting a read on. The Devils are a much more solid team and have Martin Brodeur. But Marty has been less than human (16-26) since the Devils won the Cup in 2003. Florida has a good, young core led by Stephen Weiss, made a big splash in the offseason with their acquisitions, but have some question marks in goal (Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen, really?). Conventional wisdom goes with the Devils in an upset. Devils in 7.


Pittsburgh (4) vs. Philadelphia (5)
This is the series that even the most casual hockey fan can get excited about.  Saying the Penguins and Flyers don't like each other is a supreme understatement.  They actively loathe each other, and it makes for spellbinding hockey.  The Flyers have been good all year and have had very few losing streaks.  Claude Giroux stayed at the top of the NHL scoring race all season finishing with 93 points, good enough for third behind Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin (109) and Tampa's Steven Stamkos (97).  Top netminder Ilya Bryzgalov has been lights out for the past month, but this is after some shaky outings in the first 3/4ths of the season.  Philly's also a little banged up, missing three solid defensemen, James van Riemsdyk, and Daniel Briere (who got injured by Pittsburgh's Joe Vitale in the 4/1 matchup between the two teams).  Briere was a key player in the Flyers' 2010 run, scoring 30 points in 23 games.  Another minus for the Flyers is they've given up the first goal in 24 our of their past 32 games.  They have a good record coming from behind, but uphill is the wrong way to play hockey in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh is as hard to beat as they've been for the past couple years.  A team-wide dedication to defense gives them the third fewest goals against in the East and the second best penalty kill in the league.  And this is with Art Ross winner Malkin and stud James Neal (7th in points, 4th in goals, 1st in power play goals) on the team.  The Penguins have 5 players with 20+ goals, and Matt Cooke with 19, and had nearly a dozen players make career best numbers this year.  Malkin hit a career best in goals, game winning goals, and shots.  Neal hit bests in goals, assists, shots, points, and power play goals.  Pascal Dupuis hit career bests in almost every single offensive category and had an NHL-best 17-game scoring streak to end the season.  On the minus side, the Pens have had some defensive lapses in the last month of the season.  They got blasted by some fairly bad teams and made way more turnovers than any team should be able to get away with.  Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury can make a strong case for team MVP.

Each game of the series should be must see TV.  Penguins in 6.



WESTERN CONFERENCE
Vancouver (1) vs. Los Angeles (8)
After last year's crushing Game 7 defeat, Vancouver regrouped and had another solid season.  Solid may be an understatement because they won the President's Trophy for best regular season team.  A lot of people (not me) were surprised at how great a season Los Angeles netminder Jonathan Quick had.  He finished the season second in GAA, second in save percentage, first in shutouts, and fifth in wins.  Unfortunately for him, Los Angeles had a hard time scoring, ranking 29th out of 30 teams.  This could be a sleeper of a series.  Boston's tight D and strong goaltending won them The Cup last year, but I just don't think LA has the offensive weapons to topple Vancouver.  Expect a lot of 2-1 games in this series.  Vancouver in 7.

St. Louis (2) vs. San Jose (7)
In any other year, the seeds would be reversed.  Thanks to great coaching by Ken Hitchcock and a strong, young core, St. Louis raced to the top of the Western Conference a couple years before anyone thought they'd be ready.  St. Louis goalie Brian Elloitt ranked first in the league in GAA, save percentage, and second in shutouts.  San Jose has been on the verge for so many years, but it looks like their core is starting to fade.  St. Louis in 5.


Phoenix (3) vs. Chicago (6)
The Coyotes won three out of the four regular-season games against the Blackhawks and enter the postseason on a roll.The Blackhawks looked sure contenders around the season's midpoint, but a long losing streak, an unsettled situation in net and a concussion for their captain threatened to derail the season. I talk about goalies a lot, but they are quite often key in playoff matchups. Phoenix's Mike Smith has been on fire for the past month plus.  I'll have to go with the playoff veterans, though.  Chicago in 6.

Nashville (4) vs. Detroit (5)
This series is intriguing. This is Nashville's eighth trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the third time it will face Detroit. The Predators lost each of those two previous matchups in six games (2004 and 2008), but this is the first time Nashville has finished ahead of the Red Wings in the standings and will, as a result, hold home-ice advantage. Detroit hasn't played well on the road all season, and that could be the key to this series. I have such a hard time betting against Detroit, but Nashville in 7.


There you have it.  I didn't pick any sweeps, and that's what usually burns me.  Check back again in two weeks to see how I did.

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