Eight teams remain in the race to sixteen wins as the NHL playoffs continue with second round action this week.
The opening round had a bit of everything – a sweep, four matchups that went the distance, blowouts, shutouts, overtime drama and a ton of suspensions as well as some other questionable conduct that went unpunished. Oh, and did I mention that a new champion will be crowned this spring?
Let’s get right to it with the Western Conference semifinals:
Vancouver (54-19-9) vs. Nashville (44-27-11)
The Vancouver Canucks (and their fans) are riding high after narrowly avoiding one of the worst collapses in NHL history against the Chicago Blackhawks, but how will that experience affect the team going forward? Sure, they won the series, but they also blew a three game lead and came very close to a complete meltdown. Nashville, on the other hand, turned a few heads with a six-game triumph over the Ducks, the first series win in the history of the franchise. The Preds are a tight-checking, defense first team with (usually) strong goaltending. We all know what the Canucks are capable of, but it’ll take guys like Ryan Kesler stepping up when he’s called upon to get them into that third round. After carrying their respective teams during the regular season, both Pekka Rinne and Roberto Luongo had somewhat disappointing opening rounds, so it’ll be interesting to see who wins the goaltending battle heading deeper into the playoffs. Vancouver is the superior team offensively, so Rinne will probably face more rubber, but I can see Nashville giving the Canucks some trouble and grinding out at least a couple of wins.
San Jose (48-25-9) vs. Detroit (47-25-10)
For the second straight season, it’s the San Jose Sharks and the Detroit Red Wings meeting in the second round of the playoffs and it should be another good one! The Sharks took the 2010 meeting four games to one (with the ‘one’ being a 7-1 loss), but the Wings aren’t coming out of a seven-game series this time around. In fact, Detroit hasn’t played since sweeping the Coyotes back on April 20th and they’ll be getting some help up front with Henrik Zetterberg returning to the lineup. He hasn’t played since early April when he went down with a knee injury, but the Wings still managed to cruise through the opening round in the absence of their leading scorer. The Sharks are coming off an emotional six-game win over the LA Kings, a series that showcased the depth of the team and the strength of their goaltender, Antti Niemi, between the pipes. I expect to see a tight, close-checking series that will end up featuring a couple of long overtimes. The question will be: whose depth players are able to step up to push their team over the edge?
Predictions: After much thought and consideration, I think it’ll be the Canucks and Wings in six games each (though I hope I’m wrong about that first one!).
Washington (48-23-11) vs. Tampa Bay (46-25-11)
A come from behind series win over the Penguins has the Tampa Bay Lightning earning some praise as we get set for second round action this week. Depth has been key for the Bolts all season long and that rang true in the opening set with several key goals coming off the stick of role players. The big difference though was Dwayne Roloson, who posted a 36 save shutout in game seven and comes into this series boasting a league-best .949 save percentage and a 1.77 GAA. He’ll really have to be on his game though if the Bolts have any hope of beating the high-flying Washington Capitals! The Caps beat the Rangers in five with captain Alex Ovechkin and rookie goalie Michal Neuvirth leading the charge – Ovie with six points, Neuvirth with a 1.38 GAA and a .946 save percentage. The team’s defense-first mentality this season has turned them into a true contender and key additions like Jason Arnott have added a new dimension to the leadership of the club. A wildcard in this series might be the play of Steve Stamkos, who didn’t do much in the first round.
Philadelphia (47-23-12) vs. Boston (46-25-11)
Both the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers have shown a flair for the dramatic so far in these playoffs, but will this series compare to what we saw last season? The Flyers battled back from down 3-0 in the series, and 3-0 in game seven, to send the Bruins packing and they eventually went on to lose in the Stanley Cup Final to Chicago. Philly has a huge amount of skill up front, led by players like Danny Briere and Claude Giroux, but the back end might cause them some problems. They did, after all, become the first team since the late 1980’s to win a series with three different goalies making an appearance. One key for the Bruins will have to be forcing the Flyers to be unsure in front of their netminder du jour. Meanwhile, Boston has great goaltending and a pretty solid lineup from top to bottom, but their Achilles heel so far has been the power play. You’d have to think that in order for them to have any continued success, they will have to do better than 0-for-21 with the man advantage!
Predictions: Capitals in six, Bruins in seven!