2012 Playoff Preview

Well let’s spend some time with the matchups in the first round of the Playoffs. I don’t want to make predictions, especially not for the Pens themselves, but I’ll give it a go with the other fifteen teams who stand a chance of winning the ultimate prize.

We’ll start with the Western Conference:

(1) Vancouver Canucks v. (8) Los Angeles Kings

Well, Vancouver was the President’s Trophy winner again this year for the second straight year. I mean they did make it to the Cup finals last year despite winning the President’s Trophy so it might not be as bad of a jinx for them as it is for a lot of teams. The Kings are Philadelphia West now so that means that they’re likely going to choke pretty badly. That’s about all I’ve got for this matchup.

(2) St. Louis Blues v. (7) San Jose Sharks

The Blues have been incredible since Ken Hitchcock took over. Incredible defense and goaltending have led the way all season. These are supposed to be the staples of a good playoff team, so we’ll see if that holds true. This is an interesting matchup because on the other side is the very experienced and seasoned San Jose Sharks who are coming off a down year. Again, I’m not going to make definitive predictions, but this is the type of series that could produce an upset, you have the Blues who are very young and have minimal playoff experience. On the other hand you have guys like Joe Thornton and Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle, who have all been around for a decade plus and have played tons of playoff games. They also have a Cup winning goalie, Antti Niemi, only three other teams in the playoffs this year can claim the same—Pittsburgh, Boston, and New Jersey. That’s not bad company.

(3) Phoenix Coyotes v. (6) Chicago Blackhawks

A very interesting series. The Coyotes are the Pacific Division champs, and that division seems to be a lot like the Southeast in the Eastern Conference. The competition just isn’t on the same par as the other divisions. They are the division champs despite having significantly fewer points, and playing worse competition from within their own division. Likewise, the Chicago Blackhawks are the fourth best team in the Central Division, which is the West’s Atlantic Division. To put it into perspective, the Coyotes won their division with 97 points, the Blackhawks came in fourth in their division with 101 points.

To add more complexity to that though, the Pacific still fit three teams in the Western Conference bracket (LA and SJ as well). So maybe it isn’t fair to say that Phoenix is so bad that they couldn’t even beat up on inferior competition. Further, despite putting up triple digit points totals, the Blackhawks are probably a far cry from the other playoff teams in their division (this a much different message than I’ll be making about the Devils, but more on that later). Big holes remain in the goaltending and defensive situation for the ‘Hawks and I think the team defense and goaltending of the Coyotes can more than nullify the big guns in Chicago’s lineup. This could be a real war.

(4) Nashville Predators v. (5) Detroit Red Wings

If the last series could be war in the sense of like the Falklands War, then this will be war like World War II war. The only matchup in the West that pits two division rivals against one another, this is going to be a bloodbath. Both of these teams have aspirations for a deep playoff run but one won’t even get out of the first round. Again, this is case in point for why the NHL needs to reformat the playoffs, you want to see both of these teams throughout multiple rounds, not one knocking out the other in the first round.

The relative future of both of these franchises is probably hanging in the balance somewhat with this series. The Predators need this if they want to have any chance of resigning either of their big time defensemen, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Overall the Predators definitely constitute one of those really deep teams, and they play a complete game, limiting chances and grinding out goals every night. Nonetheless, those two are supposed to be the cornerstones of the franchise and at this point, neither has expressed a particular loyalty and affinity with the club. Even if you are deep at every position you can’t lose the two biggest pieces one year after another and still be in the same position to challenge for the Cup, it just doesn’t happen.

The Red Wings are also at a crossroads, it isn’t so much that they’re too old now (although they are pretty old) it’s just that they’re at risk of losing that really elite status that has defined the franchise for the last 20 years. There is a lot of talk that this could be the last ride for Lidstrom, and the true heir apparent to their long legacy of incredible captains seems in doubt, although given that it would likely move to either Zetterberg or Datsyuk is a problem most teams would literally kill for. If the Preds happen to win this series this will mark three straight years since the Red Wings have made a deep push in the playoffs, and for a team that could be looking for its own new defensive identity, it couldn’t come at a worse time.

Oh good, now we get to move along to the Eastern Conference.

(1) New York Rangers v. (8) Ottawa Senators

Well this 1v8 matchup is a little more interesting than the West equivalent. Not inconsequentially because I know a lot more about these two teams. The Senators ended up the 8th seed after New York failed to down the Capitals in the final game of the season. If they had won they would have been the President’s Trophy winners. The last time that the Rangers won the Cup, 1994, was also the last time they won the President’s Trophy. Just saying.

The Senators actually held the advantage in the regular season series this year, 3-1. One of the best strengths for the Rangers going into this postseason is that they were really good at winning in close games. I can’t explain their style but throughout the entire season they would always let opposing teams hang close. This sort of counter-punching style works with some teams but it seems like the better offensive teams were able to exploit this (the Pens were 5-1 against the Rangers this year).

One thing the Senators definitely can do is score goals and score them in bunches. Again, personal experience with them beating up on the Penguins three out of four times this year tells me that if the Rangers want to win this series, they’re going to have to play crackdown defense and not really let the inexperienced Sens get into the series and believe they have a chance.

(2) Boston Bruins v. (7) Washington Capitals

I’m disappointed that the Capitals did sneak their way into the playoffs this year. For the longest time it looked good that they would be hitting the links early this year, but then the graciously pathetic Southeast division enabled them to rack up points they wouldn’t have earned otherwise and worked their way in as the seven seed. I’m not overly enthralled with Boston either. They are the reigning Cup champs, and they did have one of the best winning streaks of the season, but they’ve also been really sort of “meh” since the end of that streak. I would say that given the comparative strength of the Atlantic, the Bruins are really like the 5th best team in the East, yet they go in as the two seed.

If Washington decides to just play balls out offensively, coaching be damned, they might even win this series. If they let the Bruins play their clutch and grab stuff, nope. The Bruins are the better team here, overall more depth and much better from the defense back to the goalie. Again, I don’t really have a favorite in this series and I don’t really have a preference for who might win.

(3) Florida Panthers v. (6) New Jersey Devils

I’ve said before that I have some measure of “like” for the Panthers. I also really dislike the Devils (for obvious reasons). Nonetheless, if you are looking for a series that could be a sweep, look no further than this one. Of course if it is a sweep, you know it’s going to be the Devils over the Panthers. Practically no one on the Panthers has even played in the playoffs. The Devils are anchored by the winningest goalie of all time and 3-time Cup winner Martin Brodeur. In front of Marty is a really underrated defense, and a forward group with three 30-goal scorers (possibly the only team with three). I’m not trying to blindly throw love at a division rival, but the Devils could probably win any other division this year. If the shear discrepancies in talent aren’t enough, the Devils are coached by Peter Deboer, the guy who coached the Panthers last year. The Devils are the other pillar of consistency in the NHL over the last 20 years, just like the Red Wings. This will be their 20th appearance in the last 22 postseasons.

I like the Panthers, I’m glad they won their division, and I’m glad they finally ended their playoff drought, I still expect them to get slaughtered in the playoffs this year though.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins v. (5) Philadelphia Flyers

Now after making you wade through 600 words worth of crap, the part that you really care about. This is the marquee matchup of the first round. I’m not just saying this because I’m a Pens fan and semi-pro blogger. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, this is the best non-Original 6 rivalry in the NHL, and at least since these two teams have both been consistently good over the last half decade, it has to be THE best rivalry in the NHL right now. And now these teams are about to wage war in a best of seven throwdown. This is straight up War Games, worst-case scenario, total global annihilation type of war.

We’ll look at some of the issues that can both help and hurt the Pens in this series.

Bryzgalov: everywhere you look, this is the biggest variable in the series. The Flyers didn’t trade away their captain and best goal scorer to see Bobrovsky start in goal in the playoffs, but you still have to wonder if we wouldn’t have seen him in net tonight if the Flyers hadn’t lost on Saturday in Consol. The thing that makes me nervous is just that the Pens haven’t seen that much of Bryzgalov, he only played in three of the meetings between these two teams, the three home games for the Flyers. He won the first matchup 3-2, got pulled in the second matchup which the Pens won 6-4, and won the third matchup when Hartnell scored with less than a second left in OT. His tenure in Phoenix isn’t overly reassuring either though, given that the Pens typically only matched up with Phoenix once a year. The fact that he hasn’t played in Consol with Philly can be both a blessing or a curse. We shall see.

Experience: this has to favor the Pens. I can only think of three guys on the Flyers roster who have won the Stanley Cup, Double J, Pavel Kubina (pretty sure he won it with Tampa in ’04), and the last is their captain, Chris Pronger, who won’t be playing due to concussion issues (a lot of people believe that his career is over because of it, if so he would be the third Flyers captain in recent memory forced to retire due to concussion, along with Keith Primeau and Eric Lindros (although Lindros retired from the Rangers) you stay classy Mike Milbury). Compare this to 11 players on the Pens roster. The Flyers have a number of other guys who have made it to the finals from their 2010 team, but they didn’t raise the chalice. Further, the Flyers have 4 or 5 true rookies playing in crucial spots in this series. The Penguins have Joe Vitale and possibly Brian Strait, neither of whom need to be super-human for the Pens to win. EDIT: somehow I forgot Talbot in my calculations of Cup winning Flyers, I guess that has to do with how invisible he was on the ice in the two seasons after the Pens’ Cup win.

The Flyers ARE 5-1 at CEC: at least they aren’t 6-0. That’s about all I have to say about that.

Both Teams are Deep: again, I don’t really need to go into detail, it’s pretty obvious if you’ve ever seen either of these teams play that they can score from anywhere. Both of these teams got at least 50 goals from their third line players (Cooke (19)+Staal (25)+Kennedy (10)=54) (Talbot (19)+Couturier (13)+Voracek (18)=50) that’s astounding in the modern NHL.

Defense is the Key: we know about the big offensive names, for the Flyers it’s Giroux, Double J, Hartnell, for the Pens it’s Crosby, Malkin, Neal. We know about the goalies, we’ve already discussed Bryzgalov and if you don’t know about Fleury, there’s nothing I can do for you. The key is the defense. IF the Pens defense plays the way we’ve seen for a lot of the last two years, great. If they don’t, and they play like they played in the last 10 games of the season this year, it could be a bit of an uphill battle. Pretty much the same can be said for the Flyers. Their actual defensemen aren’t overwhelming, they need to get good defensive zone play from their forwards, if they start to dominate on the forecheck, they’ll be right where they want to be. The Pens need to not let that happen.

Make no doubt about it. This series is going to be brutal. You will live and die with every shift. Every special teams opportunity could make or break a game, and the entire series. Losses happen, the Pens can’t run through the playoffs 16-0. It is a war of attrition. Whoever can withstand the most punches will end up on top. There will be moments of joy. There will be times you’ll want to throw something through your television. Bad calls will happen; favorable calls for the Pens will happen. Unlikely heroes will be made. Some of the big names might get shut down for a game or two, or even an entire series. In regards to the Flyers specifically: Talbot and Jagr are going to score huge goals. It is going to happen. It is going to drive you to the brink. Fleury might let in a soft one. It’s going to drive you to the brink. This is the time to lose your voice every game. This is the time to be weird and superstitious. The team you love won 51 out of 82. They have to take 16 out of the next 28. No more shootouts. No more 4-on-4 overtimes. They’ll keep playing, we as fans will keep cheering, until the puck crosses the line one final time. The pace will be amazing. There is literally nothing like playoff hockey. Enjoy it all. Take in as many games as you can, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Let’s Go Pens!

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