In what is somewhat of an oddity in the Stanley Cup Playoffs: the top three seeds from each conference all advanced. What awaits for the Conference Semifinals are four matchups each with their own intrigues and storylines.
1) Vancouver Canucks vs. 5) Nashville Predators (Nashville in 6)
There are some that believe that Vancouver, by finally defeating a Chicago team that had eliminated them each of the last two years, have overcome the proverbial “hump” and will plow through its competition. I don’t agree with that notion, not so much because Vancouver will fail in any particular manner, but because Nashville will play that well.
The Predators, coming off their first series victory in its history, have had some time to rest and gather itself. Vancouver, who will be playing just two days after their Game 7 victory over Chicago, may hit an emotional low playing against a team in Nashville that doesn’t really spark any excitement in any real way. That may prove costly down the road. Pekke Rinne, I believe, is perfectly capable of shutting down the Sedins as well as Vancouver’s other offensive options. I don’t think Roberto Luongo will play poorly as some of his critics may think he will, but I do think Rinne will outplay him in what will be more of a defensive series than people expect, and I say this despite Nashville’s offensive explosion in their first round series against Anaheim.
2) San Jose Sharks vs. 3) Detroit Red Wings (San Jose in 7)
Last year, Detroit put all the energy into just making the playoffs, then fought tooth and nail to get past a persistent Phoenix Coyotes team in seven games. By the time the Sharks had a go with them, the Wings were out of gas. This year, the Wings were able to conserve a bit going into the postseason, and they were the only team to sweep their opposition this year, handling a sloppy and unprepared Phoenix team in four quick games. This time around, Detroit has gas in their tank for this series.
So why do I have the Sharks still winning this series? Detroit’s penalty kill was perhaps its biggest weakness in its sweep of Phoenix, allowing six power play goals over the last three games of that series. San Jose’s power play is far more potent than Phoenix’s was, so if Detroit can’t get its penalty kill together, the Sharks can take full advantage. While all the rest has made Detroit healthier – Henrik Zetterberg is expected to be back for this series – San Jose is by no means hurting either. This may be the best series of the second round, but I do believe the Sharks will edge Detroit out in the end. Look for Joe Pavelski to continue to be a huge factor.
1) Washington Capitals vs. 5) Tampa Bay Lightning (Tampa Bay in 7)
Yes, I am expecting both top seeds to go down in the second round. I am also expecting both Pittsburgh and Washington to go down – in seven games – to the same team for a second straight year. Yes, Tampa Bay just barely squeezed by a Penguins team that was missing its two best players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Indeed, Washington has shrugged off the first-round choke label they earned after last year’s debacle. To be true, Washington plays a defensive style of play nowadays that is similar to Pittsburgh’s but they still have Alexander Ovechkin able and well. How do I have Tampa Bay winning this series?
Simple: goaltending. Michal Neuvirth played well against the New York Rangers, especially at home, but Tampa Bay’s offense is significantly better than the Callahan-less Rangers’. Martin St. Louis was vital to Tampa’s success against Pittsburgh, as was Simon Gagne and Vincent Lecavalier. Now can you imagine if Steven Stamkos finds a groove against the Capitals? These, combined with the improved play of Dwayne Roloson, as well as Tampa Bay’s defense, and don’t be surprised if the Lightning can pull off the upset here.
2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. 3) Boston Bruins (Boston in 6)
Like the other East series, I do think goaltending will be a big difference here. Not in the odd ironic manner as was the case with Philly’s last series against Buffalo where no goalie was really that great. Instead, Tim Thomas will be able to shut down Daniel Briere and the rest of Philly’s offense.
Speaking of offense, don’t expect much out of Boston’s this series. Philadelphia’s goalie-by-committee just barely worked against Buffalo, though it seems like Brian Boucher has gained the starting job for now. Expect Boucher or whoever to fare just fine against Boston’s offense. To pick the Bruins in six games would mean I expect Boston’s power play to actually connect for once, failing to do so against Montreal despite 19 tries. I do think Boston will get its act together on the power play, somewhat, enough for them to win four games anyway. Lastly, with physical teams like Boston and Philly, there will be a lot of hitting, perhaps several “bad” hits one way or the other, and overall a hard fought series as Boston will try to avenge the embarrassment that is 3-4 which Philly did to them just one year ago.