By Ryan Stieg, AllPuck.com
The playoffs have been interesting so far. Some teams have surprised me. Others haven’t at all.
The biggest surprise was the play of the New York Islanders. I thought Pittsburgh would wipe the floor with the Isles and that they should feel lucky if they pick up one game in the series. New York ended up staying with the Penguins in almost every game, and lost two heartbreakers at home in overtime. I never thought I’d say this, but the Islanders look as if they are finally turning things around. (Just in time for their move to Brooklyn!)
Another surprise was the performance of the Minnesota Wild. I’m not surprised that they lost to Chicago, but because they got bounced in only five games. Losing their top goaltender didn’t help, but Minnesota’s offense was stagnant the whole series. The Wild also looked terrible in Game 4 as they got shut out at home and handed the Blackhawks all the momentum in the series. Nevertheless, Minnesota looks stable and if they can add another scorer and fix their inconsistency in the net, they should be a force next season.
Speaking of net consistency, here’s Vancouver. The Canucks’ first-round sweep didn’t surprise me at all. They looked flat-out awful against the Sharks. Roberto Luongo started the first two games in net and didn’t look that bad, but then he was pulled for Cory Schneider, who wasn’t an improvement. Vancouver needs to fix its goaltending problem next season, or else they can kiss their fading Stanley Cup hopes goodbye.
Anyway, we’ve said goodbye to eight teams and are now off to the Conference Semifinals. Here are my predictions for the second round.
Chicago vs. Detroit
If you want scoring, this is your series. The Blackhawks peppered Josh Harding and poor Darcy Kuemper relentlessly in the first round, and are looking to do the same to Jimmy Howard. Meanwhile the Red Wings came back to win Games 6 and 7 thanks to the hot play of Henrik Zetterberg, and eliminated the favored Ducks. Zetterberg and Johan Franzen have been the goal scorers so far, while Pavel Datsyuk has been an assists machine. This will effectively counter Chicago, which used a balanced attack to overwhelm the Wild. Patrick Sharp was the leader with five goals, while Marian Hossa and Bryan Bickell each had three. Patrick Kane has yet to score in the playoffs, but still had five assists and continues to be dangerous. Corey Crawford also continues to be hot in the net and I think that puts them over the top. Detroit will give them a battle, but Chicago wins 4-2.
Los Angeles vs. San Jose
The battle of the California teams will be interesting. San Jose’s veteran lineup thundered past the overrated Canucks, while Los Angeles rode 2012 postseason hero Jonathan Quick past the Blues. St. Louis, which lacks a clear scorer, had difficulties getting the puck past Quick all series and when paired up against the merely decent Brian Elliott, it wasn’t really a contest. Looking back, I feel foolish picking the Blues considering the exact same thing happened last season. The Kings will have it much more difficult this time around as the Sharks have a powerful offense and can score at will. So far in these playoffs, the big four have led the way. Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski each have four goals, while Logan Couture and Joe Thornton each have five assists. Can they lead San Jose to it first Stanley Cup berth? I think they might. Los Angeles had to battle back from two games down to beat St. Louis, and rode Quick to get it done. As much as Quick can turn things around for the Kings, the Sharks are rolling. They’ll continue on to the Conference Finals. San Jose 4-3.
Pittsburgh vs. Ottawa
Normally, I’d pick the Penguins in a cakewalk, but Pittsburgh had a hell of a time trying to put the eighth-seeded Islanders away last round. The Penguins are definitely stacked overall and their big three – Crosby, Malkin and Iginla – were hot in the first round. However, starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury left a lot to be desired, racking up a horrible 3.40 goals-against average against the Isles along with an .891 save percentage. Fleury is capable of turning things around, but he’ll be on a short leash this round. Ottawa was able to handle the second-seeded Canadiens rather easily, and they didn’t need a lot of goals to do so. Craig Anderson has also been very hot in net and isn’t showing any signs of cooling off, so they are secure defensively. This one will be close, mostly due to the play of Anderson, but I still think Pittsburgh prevails, 4-2.
Boston vs. New York
For the second round in a row, the Bruins will take on an Original Six team. It will be interesting to see if they have as many problems this time and if luck will be on their side. Boston was up 3 games to 1 on Toronto and the Maple Leafs were able to fight back and force a Game 7. The Leafs were actually up by three goals late before blowing the lead in the final two minutes and falling in overtime. Boston was definitely lucky, but it was also the better team in the series, and it will be in this one too. David Krejci led the Bruins with an insane 13 points against the Leafs, but Milan Lucic was close behind. Patrice Bergeron also came through in the clutch with the game-tying and game-winning goals in Game 7. The Rangers have the ability to stage an upset. Derick Brassard put forth nine points in the first round and Henrik Lundqvist showed why he won the Vezina Trophy last year with a 1.65 GAA and .947 save percentage in the series. New York is still emphasizing why fans should “Believe in Blue” on their website, but I don’t think they will be believing much longer. Boston wins 4-3.