I don’t have as much time as I’d like to elaborate on these picks, but I’m morally obligated to make them prior to any games beginning, so here they are. I’ll be doing a post-mortem on round 1, as well as a more detailed look at the rest of the playoffs, so stay tuned.
(If you’re up for a laugh, check out my 1st round playoff picks. I went 3/8! Bear in mind that I am not always this foolish – I was 7/8 last year, and 6/8 the year before.)
(2) St. Louis vs (8) Los Angeles
Winner: Los Angeles
Why: The Blues matched up really well against San Jose – bigger, faster, younger, and better goaltending. But the same can’t be said against LA. The Kings have tons of size up front – Kopitar, Carter, Brown, Penner, King, and Nolan – and lots of speed between Richards, Williams, Lewis, Richardson, Stoll, as well as the aforementioned Carter and Brown. Furthermore, Jonathan Quick is about as good a goalie as you’ll find. Because both of these teams are so good – and so evenly matched – it may come down to who gets a break in a key game 4/5. And when the game is tight, I like to have Mike Richards on my side.
(3) Phoenix vs (4) Nashville
Why: Speaking of evenly matched, how about Phoenix and Nashville. Great goaltending, tight defensive systems, very strong bluelines, and – at least on paper – a bit challenged offensively. The reason I like Nashville is that they have a bit more talent up front than in the past, adding a game-breaker like Alex Radulov, which helps bring more out of other skilled players like Erat and the Kostitsyn’s. And while Nashville’s two-way centres like Fisher and Legwand are countered by Phoenix’s Hanzel, Vermette, and Langkow, I prefer Nashville’s depth guys better – Gaustad, Halischuk, Bourque, Spaling - to the players in Phoenix’s bottom-6 like Pyatt, Gordon, Brule, and Chipchura. Phoenix has been resilient all year so don’t count them out, but I think Nashville – for probably the first time in their history – has just a little more star power.
(1) New York vs (7) Washington
Winner: New York
Why: This one is a struggle to explain, because I actually think that Washington is probably a better team from the goal out, but I like the Rangers to come through. Yes, Braden Holtby was majestic against the Bruins, and out-dueled last year’s Vezina and Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas, but I don’t think lightning will strike twice. I’ve seen this story before, where the underdog goalie outplays the heavily favoured rival goalie, and it usually doesn’t last. In 2004 when Philly’s Robert Esche played unexpectedly well against New Jersey’s legend Martin Brodeur and forced them out in the 1st round. But he got worse in each round that followed, eventually losing to Tampa Bay in the Conference Finals. Same thing in 2010, when Brian Boucher was significantly better than Brodeur in a 5-game series win by Philadelphia. Boucher was terrible in the next round against Boston, before getting hurt and making way for Michael Leighton’s unexpected heroics (which again only lasted for about 1 round). I’m not saying that Holtby isn’t a good goalie, but there were no expectations of him beating the Bruins; now that they’re into the 2nd round, guess what: expectations.
And then there’s Henrik Lundqvist – the consensus best goalie in the world, and one with a history of success against Washington. He nearly stole their 1st round series in 2009 – a time when the Caps were a far more dangerous team offensively. The Rangers took a 3-1 series lead against the heavily favoured Capitals squad, solely due to the play of Lundqvist, before succumbing to the Caps’ then-dynamic attack. To my eye, Washington is no longer the same team, and though I think the series will be close, I like New York to once again squeak it out.
(5) Philadelphia vs (6) New Jersey
Why: I think this series will be very interesting. Just like Washington is no longer the offensive juggernaut they once were, New Jersey is no longer the defensively stifling, systems-oriented team of their past. They actually have very good offensive depth up front with the likes of Parise, Kovalchuk, Elias, Zajac, Henrique, Clarkson, Zubrus, and Sykora, as well as a little more on the back-end with the deadline-day addition of Marek Zidlicky. In some ways, this will present a greater challenge to Philadelphia, whose defence is banged up with injuries to Grossman and Meszaros, and of course Chris Pronger. While Coburn and Timonen were matched up against Malkin and Neal, leaving only two truly dangerous Pens in the rest of their lineup (Staal and Crosby, the latter of which didn’t look right for most of the series), Philly’s depleted blueline will now need to stop the Elias and Henrique lines, and hope that Timonen and Coburn can shut-down the ever dangerous Parise-Zajac-Kovalchuk line.
All that being said, I don’t think New Jersey will win the series. Philly just has too much skill, and different types of players that complement each other. Small, quick, skilled forwards like Briere and Read mixed in with big, skilled forwards like Voracek and Jagr; gritty guys Hartnell, Schenn, and Simmonds; two-way players like Couturier and Talbot; and then there’s the guy that stirs the drink – a man whom Flyers coach Peter Laviolette boastfully called “the best player in the world” – # 28, Claude Giroux. I’ve watched Giroux for years, from his days in Gatineau of the QMJHL, when he barely made the team as an undrafted 17-year-old, to his play in the 2008 WJC for Team Canada, his quick 33-game transition through the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms, and now his gradual but steady ascent to the top of the NHL’s elite. He was very noticeable in his first-ever NHL playoff series in 2009, playing against the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
(Go to 2:57 to see Giroux’s short-handed magic)
He was instrumental the following year in the Flyers’ unexpected run to the Stanley Cup final, scoring 10 goals (2nd) and 21 points (3rd) on his team in scoring. He was the 3rd most dominant forward in the NHL during the season, behind only Malkin and Stamkos, and during this year’s playoffs, he’s taken it to a whole new level, displaying a combination of speed, skill, grit, vision, and pure passion that very few players will ever possess.
I don’t think New Jersey will be able to stop him.