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Blue Line Buzz: Storylines, Predictions, Breakout Candidates

Dan Pennucci

Dan is a former sportswriter and English teacher. He has been covering hockey for Rotowire since 2002. Supports the New Jersey Devils, Washington Nationals and Chelsea FC.

Not too many surprises in the finals days of the NHL's regular season in terms of the playoff races. Teams like Colorado, Dallas and Buffalo simply were not consistent enough throughout the year to secure a berth in the race for the Cup. Considering the hype Buffalo received at the beginning of the year, their absence in the post season is conspicuous. The big-money contracts to Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff did not pan out, along with the balance of forwards and what was expected to be an otherworldy season from Ryan Miller, the pieces were there for Buffalo to be a player in the Eastern Conference, but they came together way too late.

That being said, crack open a few Steamwhistles and enjoy the madness that will ensue over the next six weeks.

Playoff Storylines

-Florida faces New Jersey in the Eastern Conferences, meaning New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer sees his old team in the post season, the team he never could get to the post season. Making matters worse for the Panthers is the question of who will be in goal. Scott Clemmensen or Jose Theodore?

-Washington scraped its way into the playoffs, earning the seventh seed in the East and a date with the defending Stanely Cup champion Bruins. Can't see this series lasting too long, especially with Captials' star players having a penchant to disappear. Maybe Mike Green will show up in the playoffs? One has to wonder if the Caps will add another banner to their collection in the Verizon Center rafters, perhaps "2011-12 Eastern Conference 7th seed, lost Southeast Division to Florida."

-St. Louis and San Jose's first round playoff series will be an entertaining one, as the Sharks are not your typical seven seed. 12 years ago, 8th-seeded San Jose shocked the Blues following St. Louis's huge season, signaling the end of former Blues' goalie Roman Turek; that season was just Patrick Marleau's third in the league. St. Louis has earned a reputation this year as one of the league's best defensive teams buoyed by the goaltending of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, who certainly is no stranger to the playoffs.

-Chicago will have its hands full trying to score on Phoenix's Mike Smith, plus the Blackhawks haven't exactly had the most sound defense and goaltending this season, which is great news for Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata.

-The Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series will easily have the atmosphere of a conference finals matchup. Two teams that simply abhor the other's existence make for intriguing theater. Look for Philadelphia to try to goon it up and get the Penguins off their game, but Ilya Bryzgalov will have to be all-universe to get the Flyers through to the second round. Good luck with that.

Infallible Playoff Predictions:

East: First Round

Rangers in 5 over Ottawa: King Henrik too much, Ottawa can struggle to score.
Boston in 5 over Washington: Bruins are a deep team, Thomas will own Caps.
New Jersey in 6 over Florida: Devils' scoring depth too much for Florida
Pittsburgh in 7 over Philadelphia: Crosby, Malkin star in a bloodbath of a series

Second Round

New Jersey in 7 over Rangers: Bitter rivals reunite, Devils finally solve Lundqvist
Pittsburgh in 6 over Boston: Fleury outduels Thomas, Pens' Neal too much

Conference Finals

Pittsburgh in 5 over New Jersey: Pittsburgh power play makes Devils pay.

West: First Round

Los Angeles in 7 over Vancouver: Bobby Lou's swan song, Kings start scoring
St. Louis in 6 over San Jose: Blues' goalies deny inconsistent Sharks' offense
Phoenix in 5 over Chicago: Mike Smith continues regular season magic for Coyotes
Nashville in 6 over Detroit: Changing of the guard in Central Division. Rinne shines.

Second Round

St. Louis in 5 over Los Angeles: Kings' scoring woes return thanks to Halak, Elliott.
Nashville in 7 over Phoenix: Rinne outduels Smith, Radulov, Weber spark Nashville

Conference Finals

Nashville in 6 over St. Louis: Preds score just a bit more in series of goalie duels.

Stanley Cup Finals:

Pittsburgh over Nashville in 6: Nashville can't match Penguins' scoring.

Conn Smyth Trophy to Pittsburgh's Kris Letang.

Blue Line Breakout Stars For Playoff Pools:

-New Jersey's Marek Zidlicky, despite one point in the season's final eight games, mans the point on a power play with three 30-goal scorers.

-Oliver Ekman-Larsson had a breakout season with 13 goals and should cause problems for anyone Phoenix plays.

-The Kings' Slava Voynov will be too much to handle for Vancouver in the first round.

-Expect Ryan McDonagh, Michael Del Zotto and Dan Girardi to have themselves a productive postseason for the Rangers.

-The Blues' Kevin Shattenkirk will outperform Alex Pietrangelo in the playoffs, although both will be savvy picks in playoff pools.

Over the next few weeks, we will wrap up this season and fearlessly prognosticate the numbers for next year. Here's a look at what the defensemen cheatsheet should look like come September.

Next year's top 10 defensemen:

1. Erik Karlsson, OTT: Almost a point-per-game, ridiculous assist numbers and will be 22-years old when the season starts. Can easily make a case for him being a late first round pick.
2. Zdeno Chara, BOS: Not the trendy pick, but few are more reliable in multi-category leagues.
3. Kris Letang, PIT: Concussions derailed a potential 60-plus point season. Imagine him on a power play with a healthy Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal all year.
4. Alex Pietrangelo, STL: Breakout season with 12 goals and 51 points on a low-scoring team. Only going to get better, 94 points last two seasons.
5. Alexander Edler, VAN: Slowed during the second half (5 goals from January to April), still finished with 49 points. Great situation on Vancouver power play.
6. Dustin Byfuglien, WPG: 53 points in 66 games, 49 in 55 games after abysmal October. Great PIM and SOG numbers, plus-minus shaky due to Jets.
7. Shea Weber, NAS?: Basically a lock for at least 16 goals a season, assist numbers could be higher, below Byfuglien due to uncertainty about his team. Upside not as high as younger players.
8. Dan Boyle, SJS: Another strong season from Boyle, but goals were a little down at 9, owners settled for a paltry 48 points.
9. Michael Del Zotto, NYR: Numbers were a bit inconsistent at times, but 10 goals and 41 points for a 22-year old are nice.
10. Dion Phaneuf, TOR: Bounceback season under harsh scrutiny, big numbers in hits and blocked shots. Double digit goals are hard to come by.

Several other players can easily be on this list. I wouldn't be bullish on Florida's Brian Campbell and Washington's Dennis Wideman next year. Mark Streit can easily be on this list, but the Isles always present some uncertainty. Ryan Suter put up a career-high 46 points for Nashville but, if he leaves the Predators, it will be interesting to see what he will do without Weber on his side. Keith Yandle (11-32-43) and Drew Doughty (10-26-36) are also worth considering.

Throwing out Erik Karlsson's superhuman season of 19 goals and 78 points in 81 games, several other defensemen in the NHL had outstanding seasons.  To put Karlsson's numbers into perspective, as comparing one's season to those of his peers is a true measure of a season's success, Karlsson had more assists, 59, than the No. 2 man on the defensemen scoring list, Florida's Brian Campbell, had total points, 53.

Only four other players besides Karlsson cracked 50 points on the year, including Zdeno Chara. Just when you thought Chara could not get any more reliable or consistent, Big Z posted a career-best 52 points with his seventh double-digit goal season in the last eight. For good measure, Chara notched a career-high 40 assists and tied a career-high in plus-minus, finishing plus-33 for the Bruins. Chara's upside may not be that of Vancouver's Alexaner Edler or the Blues' Alex Pietrangelo, but Chara is a model of consistency in multi-category leagues. Eight of his 12 goals were on the power play and 224 shots on goal don't hurt your point production either.


-19 defensemen in the NHL finished the season with 10 or more goals, but just four of those players finished with 15 or more. (Erik Karlsson, Shea Weber, Florida's Jason Garrison, Detroit's Niklas Kronwall).

-11 players finished with 45 points or more but just five players notched 50 points or better. Two of the more impressive stat lines belonged to Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Letang due to their lower games played totals because of injuries. Byfuglien put up more points than all but two blue liners in the league while playing in just 66 games. Letang notched 42 in 51 games for a .82 points-per-game ratio.

-Several players that had their seasons decimated by injuries finished with solid point-per-game numbers, namely Carolina's Joni Pitkanen (.57) and James Wisniewski of Columbus had 27 points in 48 games (.56). Wisniewski missed a handful of games due to suspension and quite a few due to various injuries.

-Wisniewski's teammate, Nikita Nikitin enjoyed life in Columbus following the trade from St. Louis early in the season, posting 32 points in 61 games for a .52 PPG ratio.

-In several different stints with the Red Wings, 23-year old Brendan Smith registered seven points in 14 games. If roster spots ever open up on Detroit's blue line. Smith will be an intriguing prospect.

Question of the week: Biggest surprise of the playoffs? Biggest bust in the playoffs?

Contact Dan Pennucci here and follow him on Twitter @DVNucci42