NHL Playoff Preview – Contenders

It’s never too early to start placing your bets. I placed mine back in July once free agency had ended. At that point I determined that one of four teams would win the Stanley Cup in 2011 – Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Vancouver, or Detroit. All four had had recent playoff success (all but Vancouver had been to the SCF in the last 2 years; Vancouver lost to the cup winner in round 2 in ’07 and ’10). All four had elite forwards and solid defences. Two teams – Vancouver and Philadelphia (both of which seriously challenged Chicago last year) – were on the rise, while the other two looked to regain their hegemony (having met in the finals in ’08 and ’09).

Fast forward to March, and very little has changed. While there are a number of good teams in the Western Conference, Vancouver and Detroit are the class of the group. That doesn’t mean that those teams will face off in the conference finals, (1 vs 2 rarely occurs), but regardless of who else may go deep in the west, I would be shocked not to see one of those teams in the final.

In the East, the landscape changed considerably when Pittsburgh absorbed cup-hope-killing injuries to Crosby and Malkin (they’re really showing their mettle though, staying near the top of the Eastern Conference with a group of under-skilled, over-achieving forwards.) While Philadelphia has been the strongest team in the East thus far, Pittsburgh’s loss has certainly been Boston’s gain. They’re a well-rounded group with vezina-quality goaltending, bruising forwards, and more than enough skill to compete with anyone. Another team has also emerged – remember the Washington Capitals? After finishing first overall last season, they languished in 5th place in the East for most of the year. However they’ve turned it on of late, winning 9 of 10 since the trade deadline. Even more impressively, they’ve been winning without Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green – arguably their two best players not named Ovechkin.

So which of these five teams has what it takes to hoist in June?

Vancouver is an easy answer. They’re leading the league by 9 points and have already clinched their division – the first team to do so. But maybe there’s more to that stat – is it just a coincidence that Vancouver plays in what is currently the worst division in the NHL? Teams play within their division 24 times per year (6 times against each divisional opponent), and Vancouver has feasted on the bottom feeding Oilers and Avalanche, going 9-0-1 thus far. (Inversely, one could trace Washington’s lack of early-season success to drastic improvement from Tampa Bay and Atlanta – each have cooled off considerably since the all-star break, perhaps contributing to the Cap’s rise). Nonetheless, with Luongo in goal, Kesler and the Sedins up front, and a disgustingly deep defensive core, the Canucks don’t really have any holes. They will be the obvious choice by hockey prognosticators come early April.

Detroit is well, Detroit. They’re quietly sitting in 3rd place overall, and have retained the majority of the players that guided them to a cup win in 2008 and a finals appearance in 2009. Last year the Wings went out in the 2nd round to San Jose in 5 games (though it’s worth noting that they managed to outscore the Sharks in the series). That was an off-year. With a frightening group that boasts the likes of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronwall, and about 8 other quality players, one would be foolish to ever count out Detroit. If they have a weakness, it is goaltender Jimmy Howard, who was outplayed last year by Evgeni Nabokov. However, that was his rookie season, so one could afford him a break. If anyone in the west is going to beat the Canucks, it will most likely be Detroit.

Philadelphia is this year’s Chicago. They have the deepest group of skaters, as no one can match their top-9 forwards or top-6 defencemen. They have four players who are more than capable of being #1 centres in Richards, Carter, Briere, Giroux. They have playoff experience, having gone to the conference finals in 2008 and the SCF last year. The only hole is in goal, with Brian Boucher and Russian rookie keeper Sergei Bobrovsky providing the achilles heal. However, one could argue that their goaltending is about as good as last year, where career AHL goalie Michael Leighton was just good enough to pick up from where Boucher left off in guiding the Flyers to game 6 of the finals. They have grit, leadership, and an ability to rise to the occasion. NeverĀ  underestimate Mike Richards or Chris Pronger come playoff time.

Washington is interesting. GM George McPhee has done a great job, as their defensive core, which was once a team weakness, is now an area of great strength. In addition to great youngsters like John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Jeff Schultz, they’ve added veteran d-man Scott Hannan, and massively underrated defenceman Dennis Wideman. Along with veteran Tom Poti and the supremely talented but enigmatic Mike Green, (both currently injured), they have a blend of size and skill, youth and experience, which will keep them at the top of the East for years to come. And though Oveckin has had a bad year by his standards, he seems to be finding his groove of late. In goal, they have 3 quality young netminders in Semeon Varalamov, Michal Neuvirth, and Braden Holtby, each of whom looks like a potential #1 goalie. Despite this obvious organizational strength, these goaltenders are all born in ’88, and goaltending is an older man’s game with few exceptions. (Basically you have to play for Montreal and have the surname Dryden or Roy). Washington could certainly make a deep run, but I don’t think they quite have what it takes to win the cup.

Which leads us to Boston. They don’t have many elite skaters (maybe Chara?), but Tim Thomas is a difference maker. Only a few weeks ago, he was putting together a historic year, with a G.A.A below 2.00 and a save percentage hovering around .950. Yowza. His stats have dipped a bit, but he’s still a lock to win the Vezina – his second in three years. (Last season he was a bit banged up – off-season hip surgery seemed to help). Don’t overlook that forward group though. David Krejci is one of the most underrated players in the league, and young players like Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand are having break-out years. Bergeron, Horton, Ryder, and the ageless Mark Recchi have been good all year long, and the additions of Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley added even more depth, character, and versatility to a solid group. On D, the addition of Tomas Kaberle is huge, as Boston has lacked an elite puck-moving defenceman since the departure of Ray Bourque. (In 2000). Overall, with all the size and toughness they possess, along with a strong commitment to defensive play, Boston certainly looks like a team that’s built for the playoffs.

So who’s going to win the Cup? Being objective, it’s hard not to like Vancouver, but the best team doesn’t always win, and pressure is a funny thing. (Also, having Henrik Sedin as your captain doesn’t inspire much confidence). I picked Philadelphia in July, and am inclined to stay with that pick (admittedly, partly for ego-based reasons). I know it’s a team game, but it’s hard to bet against Mike Richards, as I think he’s hockey’s greatest pure leader. He isn’t the most skilled player, and he’s certainly not the biggest, but his quiet intensity is reminiscent of Steve Yzerman – albeit without the same level of talent. I don’t know if he’ll win a cup this year, but the guy is a winner, and barring serious injury, he will win one day.

Prediction:

Philadelphia over Vancouver in the final

 

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