First Round NHL Playoff Preview – Part 1

There’s no love lost between the Penguins and Flyers in the Battle of Pennsylvania. (Photo: Jason Cohn/Reuters)

The best tournament in all of sports begins tonight.

Sixteen teams will fight, scrap and claw for their playoff lives until one emerges as victor in two months.

No, I’m not talking about The Hunger Games.

It’s the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs, the battle for the most historic and legendary trophy in sports.

As we prepare for two months of outstanding hockey, I’ve compiled a preview of what we can expect from the three series which will open tonight. Tomorrow I will post a preview for the other five series.

Conference seeding is listed beside each team in parentheses.

Eastern Conference

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers

Season Series: Flyers won four of six games

Game 1: Tonight at 7:30 PM Eastern Time

Forwards: The Penguins (108 points) are loaded. With Sidney Crosby out of the lineup for most of the season with his concussion troubles, Evgeni Malkin stepped up in a big way, scoring 50 goals and leading the league with 109 points. He should win the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. James Neal and Steve Sullivan are both a little banged up but are expected to play in Game 1. Neal broke out with 40 goals and 81 points playing alongside Malkin this season. Then there’s Crosby, who’s been more than making up for lost time with a sizzling 12 points in his last 5 games. Long story short, when the Pens offence is clicking on all cylinders, they have no equal. Claude Giroux of the Flyers (103 points) reached superstar status this season, finishing third in league scoring with 93 points. Maxime Talbot played six seasons for Pittsburgh, winning a Stanley Cup with the Pens in 2009, before signing with the Flyers in the off-season. He chipped in with 19 goals this season and always steps up his game in the playoffs. Speaking of former Penguins turned Flyers, 40-year old Jaromir Jagr is still humming along, playing 74 games and putting up a respectable 54 points in his return to the NHL after his European sebbatical. You may remember he starred for the Pens for 11 seasons, winning consecutive Cups in 1991 and 1992. Daniel Briere’s status is still unclear after he missed the last three games of the season with a back injury. Young players Jakub Voracek (age 22), Wayne Simmonds (23) and Brayden Schenn (20) will play significant roles and could make an impact.

Edge: Penguins

Defence: Flyers captain Chris Pronger has already been ruled out for the playoffs after suffering a concussion on December 2nd. That’s a big loss. Andrej Meszaros isn’t expected to see action in the first round due to injury as well. The Flyers have a lot of depth on the blueline, with Marc-Andre Bourdon, Pavel Kubina and Andreas Lilja all stepping up with increased roles. Penguin Kris Letang is one of the most creative offensive defencemen in the game, and his 42 points in only 51 games proves his ability. Matt Niskanen hasn’t been skating in practice and his status is uncertain for Game 1. Ben Lovejoy is still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery but has been skating and may be available sometime during the series.

Edge: Flyers

Goaltenders: Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been here before and knows what it takes to win the Cup. Fleury finished second among goalies with 42 wins (one behind Pekka Rinne of the Predators) and had a 2.36 goals-against-average and a save percentage of .913. Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov may only be afraid of bears in the forest, but he should at least be wary of the potent Penguins attack. He had an up-and-down season but still put up 33 wins, splitting time with Sergei Bobrovsky.

Edge: Penguins

Pick: Penguins win in 7 games

Western Conference

(4) Nashville Predators vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings

Season Series: Each team won three games

Game 1: Tonight at 8 PM ET

Forwards: The Predators (104 points) improved their forward unit with the acquisitions of Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad at the trade deadline. On March 22, Alexander Radulov returned from Russia and has given the Preds a dynamic offensive threat in their top six, with seven points in nine games. Andrei’s brother Sergei had a solid season with 17 goals but has been inconsistent, finishing the season on a nine game scoring drought. Martin Erat (58 points) and Patric Hornqvist (27 goals) are legitimate offensive threats. Still, this team is built on defence and goaltending and don’t necessarily need the offence to light the world on fire to be successful. The Red Wings (102 points) feature a veteran group of forwards with plenty of playoff experience. Pavel Datsyuk put up 67 points in 70 games, but it’s his two-way game that makes him so effective. Ditto for Henrik Zetterberg, who had 69 points. When you throw in Valtteri Filppula (66 points), Johan Franzen (56) and Jiri Hudler (50), this is a very dangerous team that can beat you in a variety of ways.

Edge: Red Wings

Defence: Everything I said about the forwards and their veteran savvy, same thing goes with Detroit’s defence. One of the reasons the Red Wings are the NHL’s most successful franchise is continuity. Nobody exemplifies this characteristic better than Nicklas Lidstrom. The captain had a +21 rating in his 20th season with the club at the age of 41. Niklas Kronwall is still one of the most feared hitters in the game, and also chipped in with 15 goals this season. Brad Stuart and Ian White are both longtime playoff warriors as well. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are the two pillars on the Predators blueline. Weber tied for the league lead among defencemen with 19 goals, was fifth in points with 49 and added a +21 rating. Suter had 46 points and was a +15. Hal Gill and Francis Bouillon provide experience on the back end.

Edge: Predators

Goaltenders: Preds goalie Pekka Rinne led all goaltenders with 43 wins in 73 games and earned himself serious Vezina Trophy (awarded to the league’s best goaltender) consideration. His 2.39 GAA and .923 SV% are also impressive. The Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard actually had a better GAA than Rinne with a 2.12 mark, although he played in 16 less games. He added 35 wins and a .920 SV%. Rinne will be asked to continue to carry his team throughout the playoffs. Will he be able to hold up?

Edge: Predators

Pick: Predators in 7

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings

Season Series: Each team won two games

Game 1: Tonight at 10:30 PM ET

Forwards: The President’s Trophy-winning (awarded to the team with the most points at the end of the regular season) Canucks (111 points) made it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals last season before bowing out to the Boston Bruins. Nothing less than winning the whole thing will be acceptable now in Van City. Their stable of forwards have an abundance of speed but were criticized for their inability to deal with the physicality of the Bruins last spring. Henrik Sedin (81 points) will be missing his twin brother Daniel (67 in 72 games), who could be out for a while with a concussion. The trade for David Booth (30 points in 62 games) back on October 22nd gave the Canucks a scoring power forward to play in their top six, but injuries and inconsistency have plagued him. Vancouver added playoff experience and a great face-off man in Sammy Pahlsson at the trade deadline. Pahlsson won a Cup with Anaheim in 2007. The Kings (95 points) also upgraded their forward unit at the deadline, picking up Jeff Carter who has nine points in 16 games since the trade. Carter has been hobbled with an ankle injury but is expected to suit up tonight. Anze Kopitar (76 points) is the offensive catalyst, but the team has struggled to score all season. The loss of Simon Gagne for the season due to a concussion has hurt the goal total as well.

Edge: Canucks

Defence: The loss of Jack Johnson to the Blue Jackets in the Carter trade hurt the Kings’ blueline depth. Drew Doughty has had an off-year offensively (10 goals and 36 points) but who hasn’t on this Kings team? The rest of the blueline has experience, but a lack of mobility may pose a problem. 24-year-old Alec Martinez will be given plenty of power-play time. For the Canucks, Kevin Bieksa scored some big goals during their title run last spring. Bieksa had 44 points and was a +12 this season. Keith Ballard is doubtful for tonight’s game with a concussion, but the Canucks’ depth on the blueline means his loss shouldn’t be a problem.

Edge: Canucks

Goaltenders: Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo received the brunt of the blame for the Finals loss to the Bruins last June. To make matters worse, he was outplayed by back-up Cory Schneider this season, meaning the Canucks will not hesitate to call Schneider’s name if Luongo struggles out of the gate. Jonathan Quick put up gaudy numbers in the Kings’ crease (35 wins, 1.95 GAA and .929 SV%) this season, and will be considered for the Vezina Trophy. If the Kings pull off the upset, the reason will be Quick.

Edge: Los Angeles

Pick: Canucks in 6

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Posted on April 11, 2012, in Hockey, International Sports and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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