By Jason Karnosky, AllPuck.com
In the first round, we predicted six of the eight series correctly. The two we were most unsure about were the two incorrect picks – no surprise at all that New York or Los Angeles won.
Now that the second round is here, the picture becomes a little more clear. Only one of the four series will go the full seven games. Which will it be, and who will move on?
1. Chicago Blackhawks (36-7-5) vs. 7. Detroit Red Wings (24-16-8)
How They Got Here: Chicago knocked out Minnesota in six games; Detroit won the last two games to eliminate Anaheim in seven.
After a slow start to playoffs, Chicago dusted off Minnesota in five-game series that was much closer than expected. Despite their patchwork of goaltenders, the Wild were resilient and slowed down the Blackhawks at times as Chicago struggled to unleash its entire offensive arsenal. However, often-forgotten forward Patrick Sharp was awesome, as was sniper Marian Hossa. Defenseman Duncan Keith posted a brilliant plus-5 rating and goaltender Corey Crawford was extremely dependable between the pipes. Even more impressive was the fact that despite not playing their best hockey, Chicago still got the job done against Minnesota in five games and progressively got better as the series wore on. If the Blackhawks continue to build on this early momentum, just about any Western Conference playoff foe will have a tough time matching up.
Detroit showed incredible heart overcoming an Anaheim team in a seven-game series where they were clearly overmatched. Three overtime wins, plus a pair of blown third-period period leads (almost a third in Game 7), show how lucky Detroit was to steal the series. The play of big-three forwards Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen carried the Red Wings, while Detroit, with the help of some brilliant coaching by Mike Babcock combined with solid goaltending from Jimmy Howard, managed to keep key forwards Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu at bay. However, Howard and Babcock, plus the overmatched Detroit defense, will have their work cut out for them against Chicago, which features an even deeper offensive team that will blast through every available hole in the leaky pipes.
This series marks the end of an era between two bitter rivals facing off in the Western Conference playoffs for the last time (Detroit departs for the Eastern Conference next season). It also marks the last series between two of the conference’s most dominant squads over the past five years. Detroit will have its moments in this series, but the sheer will of Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Franzen won’t be enough to stop a Chicago freight train picking up steam. The Blackhawks will dispose of Detroit in five games and carry on with its intended track to the Stanley Cup finals.
5. Los Angeles (27-16-5) vs. 6. San Jose Sharks (25-16-7)
How They Got Here: Los Angeles won four straight games to knock out St. Louis in six; San Jose crushed Vancouver in a four-game sweep.
Los Angeles finds itself in the unusual position of having home ice for a playoff series after taking four straight games to outlast St. Louis in an epic, collision-filled, six-game clash. The Kings and Blues competed for every puck, and each attempted to run each other out of the rink with a combination of speed and physicality never before seen in a prior first-round matchup. The difference in the series proved to be goaltender Jonathan Quick, who overcame some miscues and a slow start by his standards, to shut the door on the Blues’ offensive attack. Now the red hot defending champions, who started on the road in every series last year, will need a much different game to beat upstart San Jose. That really shouldn’t matter because Los Angeles has enough offense (Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams) to match up with a skilled team and enough toughness (Drew Doughty, Dustin Penner, Mike Richards) to overcome a physical squad.
For the past several years San Jose has been attempting to make itself over into one of the fastest teams in the NHL, and General Manager Doug Wilson might have finally put it together with the current rendition of the Sharks. For years teams could effectively shut down the Sharks’ big guns of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in the playoffs, then beat the rest of San Jose. Now two-way stars such as Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski are emerging for a team as deep at the center position as any in the NHL. They’re creating matchup problems, which creates openings for Marleau and Thornton on offense, especially on home ice. San Jose was relentless against Vancouver and exposed flaws in the Canucks that have been festering for years.
Each team comes into this series hot, having won their past four games. However, those previous-round victories mean little as these two California rivals with plenty of divisional history vie for supremacy. The Kings have the title that San Jose desperately covets. They also have a physically superior roster to the Sharks. San Jose will get its chances in this series and will try to outskate Los Angeles and force the Kings into penalty issues. Everything will likely come down to a goaltending matchup between Quick and 2010 Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi for San Jose. I doubted Quick in the first round, but I vow not to anymore, therefore I will take the Kings in six games.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins (36-12-0) vs. 7. Ottawa Senators (25-17-6)
How They Got Here: Pittsburgh outlasted the New York Islanders in six games; Ottawa needed just five games to physically knock out Montreal.
For teams poised for a championship run, often the first round series is the most difficult. This was certainly the case for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who got everything they could handle and more from the upstart New York Islanders, before stealing Game 6 in overtime to clinch the series. At times each of Pittsburgh’s big-name contributors was great against New York; at times they all had their lapses, especially in the defensive zone. Sidney Crosby came back and was a solid contributor, but lacked the fitness necessary for the playoffs. He will only get better as the Penguins move on, as will fellow superstar forward Evgeni Malkin, who made two big plays in the series-clinching game. To continue to push deeper in the playoffs, Pittsburgh will need more out of forwards Jarome Iginla, James Neal and Brenden Morrow, and the continued heart shown by their deeper lines as Ottawa will try to contain the Penguins’ biggest offensive threats. Pittsburgh will also need much more stingy play out of their exposed defense and their shaky goaltending, as a brutal Marc-Andre Fleury gave way to first round series savior Tomas Vokoun in between the pipes for the Penguins.
Ottawa showed its foolish to think of them as a typical seven seed. They bulldozed over a beat-up Montreal squad in the first round. Goaltender Craig Anderson was brilliant, but Ottawa was rarely pushed in the “compete level” department by Montreal. Perhaps the biggest surprise was how much tougher Ottawa played than the smaller Canadiens, who had no answer for the relentless physical attrition imposed by the Senators. Ottawa’s blue line, led by a still-healing Erik Karlsson, was dominant. The Senators also got timely efforts from depth players that saw many more minutes this season than they ever expected to. Coach Paul MacLean and captain Daniel Alfredsson were magnificent guiding the way, and both might get help from superstar Jason Spezza in round two, who at this point is still out with a back injury.
The Islanders exposed some weaknesses in Pittsburgh. The plucky Senators will probably try to pound the Penguins into oblivion and crash the net hard for goals, but I expect Pittsburgh to up their efforts. Due to the Penguins’ superior skill, Pittsburgh will overcome the Senators in five games.
4. Boston Bruins (28-14-6) vs. 6. New York Rangers (26-18-4)
How They Got Here: Boston knocked out Toronto in seven games after leading 3-1 in the series and trailing 4-1 in the third period of Game 7; New York blitzed Washington 5-0 in the seventh and deciding game.
With a 3-1 lead in the series over Toronto, the Bruins looked poised to finish off the Maple Leafs quickly and earn some much-needed rest. Someone forgot to tell the Maple Leafs, who took advantage of the timid Bruins and pushed them to the absolute brink with a 4-1 lead late in Game 7. Boston’s historic comeback, the greatest I’ve ever witnessed in an NHL winner-take-all clash, pushed the roller coaster Bruins into the Eastern Conference semifinals. Stepping back from this moment, at times during the series Boston was dominant against Toronto, especially with the play of their top line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Nathan Horton, who had struggled throughout the season. However, the Bruins blueline took a beating against the physical Maple Leafs, and goaltender Tuukka Rask showed some vulnerable moments. Both issues will need to be addressed if Boston expects to advance any further than the conference semifinals.
After a slow start against Washington, New York was the better team throughout Games 3 through 7, while goaltender Henrik Lundqvist stepped up and took over the series, as he needed to for the Rangers to win. The only major concern for New York is the continued lack of offense from their stars that were effectively neutralized by the Capitals. The play of defensemen Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh was huge, as was the contributions the Rangers got from role players like Brian Boyle and Derick Brassard. As the series wore on, New York finally started playing like the gritty Stanley Cup favorite everyone expected them to be before the season. If forwards Rick Nash, Brad Richards and company start clicking on offense, these Rangers have the makings of a dangerous playoff team.
A pair of seven-game survivors face off in what should be a tough, low-scoring series. Though both teams have showed plenty of resilience, the first few games will be important to determine which team wants this series more. Both squads enter on incredible highs, New York with its blowout dominance to dump the Capitals, while the Bruins came back from the dead against Toronto. My expectation is that Boston will go up early, let the Rangers back into the series and then will win another Game 7 to advance.
How the Rest of the Playoffs will play out:
Western Conference Finals
1. Chicago vs. 5. Los Angeles: This should be an epic clash between the West’s two most recent Stanley Cup champions. Due to their slightly superior depth, I will take Chicago in seven games.
Eastern Conference Finals
1. Pittsburgh vs. 4. Boston: The Bruins were a tired bunch during the first round and it will only get worse as they plow through New York. As Pittsburgh realizes how close they are to the finals, the Penguins will make quick work of Boston and sweep the Bruins.
Stanley Cup Finals
1. Pittsburgh vs. 1. Chicago: In this clash of two titans, I will take the Penguins, less banged up after escaping the weaker East, in a seven-game grudge match to win their second Stanley Cup in five seasons.