You might hate to hear it, but parity is alive and well in the NHL. All eight opening series turned out to be relatively even affairs. Even the most vaunted #1 seed looked like average joes against the bottom side – one getting humiliated while the other squeaked by in rather unconvincing fashion. And the remaining 'favorites' didn't get off easy, but you could've guessed that from the first two statements. But hey, that's playoff hockey, folks.
Once again, the first round made a mockery of the term 'home-ice advantage'. Of the 48 contests, the hosts prevailed in only 18 of them – including a paltry six of 21 in the Western Conference. Perhaps every club should play on the road all the time. Or at least set up situations that would make it feel like an away game, like hiring fans to shout out random obscenities at their players.
The second round promises an additional dose of excitement. Great goaltending, snazzy scoring, and yes, the promise of more upsets. Without giving too much away, I honestly don't feel strongly about that last point. But based on my prognostication track record, almost anything I say can be ignored. Hope I didn't spoil your upcoming reading pleasure.
Second Round Preview
(2) St. Louis vs. (8) Los Angeles (Season series: Los Angeles 3-1)
Where did this come from, Andy McDonald (eight, including a whopping six power-play points)? Ditto for Patrik Berglund (seven, and a plus-4). It's reassuring to know you have an all-star caliber backup in Brian Elliott (1.37 GAA, .950 SV% in four) to 'fill in' for Jaroslav Halak. Even though neither their production nor their ice time has been significant, you cannot discount the leadership and playoff experience both Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner (each stuck at a point) possess. Imagine the Kings without Jonathan Quick (1.59 GAA, .950 SV%) between the pipes and how different their season would've been. Not a lot on the scoresheet, but Mike Richards (three) and Jeff Carter (two) finally appeared to reconnect on the ice. Willie Mitchell and Alec Martinez were probably overlooked in 99% of playoff pools, but they are receiving their share of man-advantage duty (almost four minutes each per outing).
Prediction: Most would say it is a copout to claim this series will come down to which goalie makes more mistakes, but that could be all that is needed in a specific game or two. Although neither club can boast a solid offense, the Kings have consistently shown they are unable to keep up if the opposition pots three or more. Jonathan may be Quicker, but their attack is sicker (in the negative, diseased sort of way). St. Louis in six.
(3) Phoenix vs. (4) Nashville (Season series: Phoenix 2-1-1)
After concluding the schedule with five straight victories, Mike Smith (1.81 GAA, .950 SV%) remains the hardest netminder to beat. With all the attention being lavished upon the likes of Ray Whitney (three), Shane Doan (two), and Radim Vrbata (one), it's easy to forget about the little guys. Antoine Vermette (five, including three PPGs) has surged to the top of the charts, while Mikkel Boedker (consecutive overtime winners) has come through in crunch time and even Gilbert Brule and Daymond Langkow (both at three) are contributing. Poor Pekka Rinne and his measly .944 SV%, which surprisingly ranks him the worst (!) of the remaining keepers in the West. Thumbs up to Gabriel Bourque (four, including three goals), who has played a starring role after appearing out of nowhere. Thumbs down to the Kostitsyns (combined three points), but they'll have the opportunity to pick up their game.
Prediction: Everything related to Glendale's Finest doesn't necessarily revolve around Smith, but their success strongly hinges on how the 30-year old performs. Nashville possesses the deeper set of resources, but Phoenix can't be very far behind. The Predators ripped through Detroit, but didn't exactly tear through the net (13 goals in five). So in this war of attrition, the winner will be. Phoenix in seven.
(1) NY Rangers vs. (7) Washington (Season series: Tied 2-2)
The Rangers managed to overcome Ottawa, even though they could only muster 14 goals in seven games. Without much blueline offense to speak of in the first 82, four New York defenders notched at least two points – led by Anton Stralman (two PPGs and a PPA) and Dan Girardi (three assists, 28 minutes a night) with four. Henrik Lundqvist continued his stellar Vezina run by stopping 205 of 217 shots. Washington's surprise win started and ended with rookie Braden Holtby, who turned back an average of almost 35 shots per outing. Since the arrival of Dale Hunter behind the bench, the Caps have adopted a tighter defensive approach and it shows in their outstanding penalty killing (Boston could only strike on two of 23 power-plays). Nine forwards reached the multiple-point mark, led by the much maligned Alexander Ovechkin (five, but leads club with 31 hits).
Prediction: Holtby has carried Washington this far, but there's no substitute for depth and aggressiveness. The Bruins may not have crowded the freshman on many occasions, but the Blueshirts will not be shy in doing so. Ottawa have woken up the giants and now they're ready to dominate. Rangers in five.
(5) Philadelphia vs. (6) New Jersey (Season series: Philadelphia 3-2-1)
No need to repeat Philly's scoring feats, whether it be their nearly five-goal average or their 52.2% power-play efficiency. Nice to see many Flyers getting involved, including first-year forwards Brayden Schenn (six), Sean Couturier (four), and Matt Read (four). Ilya Bryzgalov (3.89 GAA, .870 SV% in six) didn't display his regular effort but Sergei Bobrovsky (five goals allowed in 37 minutes) was nowhere near becoming a viable replacement option. He may turn 40 next week, but Martin Brodeur (2.06 GAA, .920 SV%) still wants to prove he is among the NHL elite in net. Way to turn it on after a mediocre regular season, Travis Zajac (leads NJ with six). And how did Stephen Gionta (two clutch goals) start to look better than his older brother? Jersey will require more from Marek Zidlicky (two assists), who is far and away the team's top rearguard threat.
Prediction: Not to disparage the Devils' physical style (or lack thereof), but they can't duplicate the intensity the Penguins stacked against the Flyers. Bryzgalov loves going up against Jersey (only one goal allowed in four appearances this season) and he's starting to turn around his game in the right direction. Go for the substance over the flash. Philly in five.
Goaltending has been the name of the game, unless you're the Flyers. So it wouldn't be a shock to see netminders dominate the race for the Conn Smythe trophy. Here are my top-5 picks based on their playoff performance and their overall value to their team: 1. Claude Giroux; 2. Mike Smith; 3. Braden Holtby; 4. Jonathan Quick; 5. Pekka Rinne.
Am I allowed to change my Cup prediction now? Of course, it's my column. However, I will not back off from
my quick change right before of Phoenix in the West. Solid defensively, improving offensively. And even though I loathe Philly, my instincts are screaming to pick them from the East. After that, give me the 'Yotes over the Flyers in seven to take the inaugural Bryz Bowl. Hope you continue enjoying the postseason. I'll be back to preview the Conference Finals.