Until his appearance for Canada at this year’s Olympic tournament, Marc Edouard Vlasic was probably the most underrated defenceman in the NHL. Though never flashy, Vlasic does all the little things well – gap control and positioning, smooth outlet passes, and the complete and utter destruction of dangerous scoring chances. In my opinion, Vlasic is a microcosm of his team – an underrated, but incredibly important cog in a team who often rides second fiddle to the big names in the Western Conference like Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, and 1st place Anaheim. Is it finally time for the Sharks to rise up and claim their rightful place as one of the NHL’s elite post-lockout teams?
Boston – Detroit
A veteran laden Bruins team which finished atop the NHL standings faces an underdog group filled with talented youngsters. The Bruins long-time core of forwards (Krejci, Lucic, Bergeron, Marchand) has been filled out nicely with the additions of Jarome Iginla and Reilly Smith, as well as a pair of Swedes in Loui Eriksson and Carl Soderberg. While Detroit has done exceptionally well given their injury depleted lineup, it’s hard to imagine super sophomores Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar keeping up their recently torrid scoring pace in a 7 game series against the likes of Rask and Chara. And with Pavel Datsyuk not at 100%, and Henrik Zetterberg out for the series, the smart money is on Boston. Their four-line attack is a lot for any team to handle, especially a team like Detroit, who doesn’t really have the horses on defence that they once did; of their top-4 defenders from the 2011 playoffs – Lidstrom, Kronwall, Rafalski, Brad Stuart, only Kronwall remains.
Pittsburgh – Columbus
The most potent offence in the East faces off against the Eastern Conference’s version of the Nashville Predators. Columbus has a number of underrated forwards, like future star centre Ryan Johansen, small sniper Cam Atkinson (reminds me of Steve Sullivan), grinding power forward Brandon Dubinsky, and two-way Russian centre Artem Anisimov. To say nothing of last year’s Vezina winning goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky. They also employ a tough forecheck, and have a lot of skilled guys who are also muckers, like Foligno, Calvert, and the aforementioned Dubinsky. But the skill in Pittsburgh is overwhelming – Sid, Gino, James “the real deal” Neal, Kunitz, etc. Kris Letang is back to anchor the D-crew, and for all the talk surrounding him, Marc-Andre Fleury has been very good this season. Plus, Pittsburgh has been banged up all year, and now that they finally have Martin, Orpik, Scuderi, Malkin, and ‘Tanger all ready to go, I think they’ll raise their game enough to beat a young, albeit tenancious opponent. I think each game will be hard fought, but it would take a small miracle for Columbus to make it out.
Tampa Bay – Montreal
Sometimes you hear people say “this team is red hot”, or “wow this player is on a tear”. That expression could be used for Carey Price, who’s put the world on notice ever since his uber-solid play at this year’s Olympic games. But if you want to suggest he’s “on a hot streak”, I object. I don’t think Price is “so hot right now”, I think he’s flat out the best goalie in the NHL. Some goalies “steal” games – they get shelled and still manage to win. Other goalies are solid – they win you the games you’re supposed to win. Not that many goalies do both. Price does both. You know who else did that? Patrick Roy. Bam. Comparison made. Montreal has had a lot of scoring depth the past two years, but now that they’ve added Tomas Vanek, they also have a legitimate top-line with Pacioretty-Desharnais-Vanek which could make them a handful for their next opponent if they’re able to move on. (Would likely be Boston…!) On the Tampa side, the health of Ben Bishop, Valtteri Filppula, and rookie sensation Ondrej Palat are all in question, and I think as a whole, they just won’t have enough to get by a solid group in Montreal.
New York R – Philadelphia
Very even match-up. New York has the edge in goal with Lundqvist – especially if Steve Mason is out (already not playing game 1), but Philadelphia has the depth and talent that New York can’t match. Voracek is big, fast, and has tons of skill; Simmonds is a beauty power forward with size, strength, and surprising hands; Hartnell is a great net presence with good finish, Matt Read is an underrated sniper who plays responsibly too, Sean Couturier is a future Selke winner, and Vinny Lecavlier has been there before. And then there’s Claude Giroux – what can you say about this guy? With the exception of size, Giroux has everything you could possibly ask for – speed, shot, hands, vision, and most of all, a tremendous ability to raise his game when it’s on the line. Furthermore, the best pick-up at the Trade Deadline this year was defenceman Andrew MacDonald (similar to St. Louis’ Jay Bouwmeester who was acquired last season). Good size, skates well, makes very good decisions, moves the puck well, and keeps the game simple. He’s already re-signed long-term, and has formed a nice shut-down pair with Luke Schenn. All that said, New York is a good team too – they also have plenty of depth at forward, and a nice defence, but their top-end guys are really under the gun. After 19 games with the Rangers, Martin St. Louis scored only 1 goal, and for his part, Rick Nash has never been a big guy in big moments. I also feel that Henrik Lundqvist isn’t quite what he used to be; his backup – Cam Talbot, had a better G.A.A and save % this season by a wide margin, (2.36 vs. 1.64; .920 vs .941), and provided a lot of stability at times when Lundqvist was struggling. And when your top-scoring forward over 82 games is Mats Zuccarello, I think that says something about the quality of your team. New York also suffered an injury to a key player – Chris Kreider – a big young winger who can really fly. He’s exactly the kind of player who would have been valuable come playoff time when things tighten up and there’s a little less room to move. When all’s said and done, I feel that Philadelphia is one of those aggressive, attacking teams that really takes the play to their opponent. If Lundqvist doesn’t stand on his head, I think Philly comes out ahead.
Anaheim – Dallas
Is it as simple as Perry and Getzlaf versus Benn and Seguin? If so, this would be a tough series to call. But after those four potent talents, Anaheim boasts way more depth. Cogliano, Bonino, Perreault, and Palmieri are all underrated forwards who have quietly helped this team finish atop the Western Conference. They generate a lot of chances and puck possession for the Ducks. Silfverberg is another young talent, and Maroon has been playing an increased role of late. Anaheim also skates better than almost any team in the league, and their versatility is impressive – to a man, these forwards are either big and fast, or fast and skilled. Kari Lehtonen is a good goalie for Dallas, but he’s going to have to stop everything including the kitchen sink to win this series, and if the Ducks can hold Seguin and Benn even a little in check, I’m not sure where the rest of the offence would come from. For Dallas, Ray Whitney is day-to-day, Rich Peverley is out for the year after the heart scare, Erik Cole hasn’t generated much since early in the year, and 18-year old Russian talent Valeri Nichushkin might be spent after playing his first 82 game NHL season. Only question mark for the Ducks is in goal, where it looks like opening day starter Jonas Hiller will be a 2nd or 3rd string goalie – Frederik Andersen was a revelation for the Ducks, and will start, with goalie-of-the-future, John Gibson serving as back-up.
Colorado – Minnesota
This is an interesting series. At first glance, it would seem to be all Colorado – they finished 2nd in the West and 3rd in overall in the NHL, won the season series, and boast the better goalie. But they’re also a very young team – O’Reilly and Landeskog are 21; Mackinnon is 18 – are without their best player, Matt Duchene, for at least the first two games of the series, and they’re playing a veteran group that boasts some great players like Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Jason Pominville, and Mikko Koivu. Is Colorado ripe for an upset? If they are, it seems like not many are calling it. Perhaps that’s because Ilya Bryzgalov is an average goalie, at best, and despite Duchene going down with a knee injury, and Colorado having a high seed already locked up, they just managed to keep winning down the stretch. Their turnaround this year has been unbelievable, after finishing last year in 29th overall, and a lot of credit goes to the incredibly inspiring and stabilizing force that is Patrick Roy, who should call the cops if the Jack Adams trophy is awarded to anyone but him. Minnesota will be a tough challenge to be sure, but even without Matt Duchene, Colorado’s potent attack and strong goaltending should be enough to get by a strong Wild team.
St. Louis – Chicago
Two weeks ago, most people would have taken St. Louis. But now with the health of Backes, Oshie, Sobotka, and Berglund in question, and talented Russian Vladimir Tarasenko out indefinitely, the Blues are walking wounded. And Chicago is not the team you want to play when half of your top-9 forwards are shuffling in and out of the infirmary. While the Ryan Miller acquisition obviously made sense, it sucks that a team who’s been struggling to score (only 5 goals in their last 6 games!) effectively gave up power forward Chris Stewart (Blues scoring leader last season), and replaced him with 3rd line pest, Steve Ott. If all that wasn’t enough, Chicago is finally healthy after their own run of injuries. Assuming Toews and Kane are near 100%, coming off relatively minor shoulder and knee injuries, the entire Hawks group has a clean bill of health. They don’t quite have the depth they had last year after losing Frolik, Bolland, and Stalberg, but they still have so much high-end skill with Kane, Sharp, Hossa, Toews, and Keith – more than enough to get by a once mighty, now floundering Blues squad. Awful timing for St. Louis, but them’s the breaks.
San Jose – Los Angeles
For me, this is the single most interesting series in the first round. While everyone is talking about Chicago-St. Louis, I think the Stanley Cup finalist from the West will come out of this series. And I think it will be San Jose. Everyone talks about Quick, Kopitar, Carter, Doughty, and the grating, defensive style LA plays that is so conducive to playoff success. But when I look at how these teams match up, I see a Sharks team that has top-end talent similar to Chicago, and more depth than any team league wide, including Boston. The top-4 of Thornton, Marleau, Couture and Pavelski is second only to the Chicago four (Kane, Toews, Sharp, Hossa). But following them, you have Brent Burns – who is really coming into his own as a top-flight power forward; Tommy Wingels, who plays like a poor man’s T.J Oshie; dynamic rookie Tomas Hertl, who’s now healthy following knee surgery (and still has Joe Thornton’s admiration); Tyler Kennedy, who despite a somewhat underwhelming season offensively, is a versatile third line winger, and Marty Havlat, who for all his injuries over the years, can still be a dynamic top-6 forward over a brief stretch. They also have playoff predator Raffi Torres, who will be looking for his next Czech forward to run into oblivion. (If you’re unaware, youtube “Torres-Michalek” or “Torres-Hossa”). Depth guys like James Sheppard and Andrew Desjardins have moved up in the lineup and been very reliable, and if more injuries hit, the Sharks have another youngster in Matt Nieto who is both skilled and highly touted. This is a veteran group who is hungry to win. With the exception of Thornton & Marleau,(34), and Boyle (37), most of the other key players are in their mid-to-late 20’s. They also have a lot of size and skill, meaning they can’t be pushed around easily, even by a team like LA. Aside from their forwards, their defence boasts quiet stars in Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and veteran Dan Boyle, as well as some other unheralded young players – Justin Braun, and Jason Demers. In goal, Antti Niemi had just an ok year, but he was actually named the Sharks’ MVP last season, not to mention that he was good enough to win the cup with Chicago in 2010. I’m not saying Niemi will be the reason the Sharks go deep, but he’s good enough to take them there if they play as they can.