2012 NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions
It has finally come! The 2012 NHL playoffs! The most exciting (yes I’m probably quite bias) games in major league sports. The season was full of surprises, let downs, and everything in between. We had teams make it to the playoffs that “shouldn’t have”, and teams that “should have” missed the mark entirely.
#1 New York Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa Senators
The Rangers were predicted to be much better this season than years past due to the pickup of premier centerman Brad Richards. They would have an elite set-up man for Marian Gaborik and all-star goaltending in Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers didn’t quite follow the script exactly, but still ended up first in the eastern conference. The emergence of Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto as more than just 2nd or 3rd string defenseman gave this team a whole new look. It was no longer just Lundqvist that made their defense good, now they had 4 very capable defensemen with Girardi and Staal (though Staal has been the one Ranger who has had a pretty bad year). Derek Stepan emerged as the teams top center for a while with Gaborik and Anisimov or Callahan. This is by far the best Ranger team we have seen since they won the cup. The one question I have for them though is whether or not their D’s inexperience will hurt them a lot in the playoffs. All four of the aforementioned players have very little deep playoff experience and especially going against a team like Ottawa, this could be hurtful.
Everyone counted out the Ottawa Senators this season despite their all-star roster. They have a bunch of really good, sort of “‘Ol reliable” players with Alfredsson, Michalek, Spezza, and Gonchar combined with a very talented young group of Colin Greening, Kyle Turris, Zach Smith, Eric Condra, Jared Cowen, and of course, leading point scorer for defensemen Erik Karlsson. Overall, this is an underrated team, and if they get out of the first round, which I don’t think they will, could be a sleeper.
Game Changer : Craig Anderson, Ottawa’s goalie, will have to revert back to his days in Colorado if the Sens will have any hope of beating the Rangers. With the Rangers defense, Anderson will have to steal several games for them to win. This season he has been good, but not good enough to beat the Rangers in a best of 7.
Prediction: Rangers in 7. Ottawa was a very good 7th seed for much of the season. They are looked at as a young team, but still have several players who have some great playoff experience. All in all though, the Rangers are just too good not to get out of the first round, but I think Ottawa will make it interesting.
#2 Boston Bruins vs. #7 Washington Capitals
Boston has had a roller coaster of a season. After apparently suffering a worse hangover (stanley cup variety) than the sorority girls at my cliche alcoholic college campus, the Bruins hopped their way in spurts towards a second straight division title. Tim Thomas was not quite as good as last year, but who can repeat a performance like last years? He was still very solid in net. Zdeno Chara posted a career high in points, as did 2nd overall pick Tyler Seguin, who led the Bruins in points (67) and goals (29). David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and highly anticipated Joe Corvo all slumped at times, but overall had a successful season. The Bruins were very streaky this season, which usually does not bode well for playoff teams, but then, they did win a cup last year, so I don’t necessarily think that that is an overly-important influence. The thing that has really impressed me this year about the Bruins is that they have stayed true to themselves, even when they were last in the east, they kept battling, and won their division. Individually, Rich Peverley, who put up 42 points in 57 games, Chris Kelly, who had 20 goals and 39 points, and Benoit Pouliot, who had 32 points in 74 games, all stand out as the players who have really made the difference for the Bruins. Lucic, Krejci, Chara, Bergeron, and Seguin are expected to produce, and they do, though not as well as people think. It is those “grinders” who put up those kind of numbers that make the Bruins the real contender that they are. Well, that and Thomas.
The Washington Capitals are looking just about as different as possible from the last two years. Alex Ovechkin has been average, though much better recently. Nick Backstrom was having a great season before he got injured. Alex Semin, much like Ovechkin, has been average, but better recently. Mattheiu Perreault and Marcus Johansson have stepped up at times but have not really fully stepped up as a reliable second-line center for the Caps, though Johansson more by way of being forced into service on the first line following Backstrom’s injury. Dennis Wideman has been the stalwart of the Washington defense, with John Carlson and Mike Green being pretty average. The Caps signed Tomas Vokoun to be the #1 goalie, but before he could establish that in the playoffs, he and Michal Neuvirth both got hurt. It looks now like Braden Holtby will be the starter for the Capitals. He has been very good in the limited amount of time he had to play this season. He is untested in the playoffs though, and is quite the wild card for the Capitals.
Game Changer: Nicklas Backstrom is really where the offense for the Capitals begins and ends. After such an extended absence due to injury, no one is really sure what to expect from Backstrom. If Backstrom plays well, it makes the Caps a completely different offensive team.
Prediction: This is a very unpredictable series. If the Capitals get great goaltending from a classic dark horse goalie, the Caps have a shot. I’m going to go with Bruins in 7, only because they’re at home.
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#3 Florida Panthers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils
The Florida Panthers, a ragtag group of given up on forwards and a select few of Dale Tallon’s favorite lists. This is how this team managed to not only get into the playoffs, but capture their first division title in franchise history. Their top line of Versteeg-Weiss-Fleischmann has been good all season and was at times probably the best in the league. Brian Campbell had 53 points from the blue line and Jason Garrison broke out with 16 goals. They have a balanced scoring approach with 9 players with 10 or more goals. Jose Theodore has been solid in net, but has a history of slumping in the playoffs. Also worth noting, the Panthers sort of sludged into the playoffs, with a 2-3-5 record in their last 10 games.
I don’t understand New Jersey. Their goalie starts getting old and probably needs more defensive players, and New Jersey says, “let’s get all forwards”. Adam Larsson leads the team for defensemen with only 18 points, this is unheard of. Brodeur has been average all season long, with spurts of genius interrupted by shots he would have stopped in past years but couldn’t now. Anyway, the pride and joy of the Devils is currently their offense, which has been dominant. Ilya Kovalchuk looks every bit the player the Devils signed him to be with 83 points, Patrik Elias has apparently not realized he is 35 and has 78 points, Zach Parise and David Clarkson both had bounce-back seasons with Parise getting 69 points and Clarkson scoring 31 goals. Adam Henrique will certainly be a Calder candidate with 51 points while centering New Jersey’s top line. Veterans Petr Sykora, Dainius Zubrus, and Alexei Ponikarovsky round out this very dangerous offensive squad.
Game Changer: Stephen Weiss will be tasting his first blood of playoff hockey. He has been quite good in the regular season for the Panthers and finally will get the chance to shine in the spotlight. With New Jersey’s formidable offense, the Panthers will have to find a way to put some points on the board, which begins with Weiss and the first line.
Prediction: New Jersey in 6. I don’t think this series will really be that close, but with Florida at home and in the playoffs for the first time since 2000, they might steal a few games.
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers
Oh boy, here we go with this series. This is absolutely the most unpredictable series in the playoffs. I’ll start with Pittsburgh by saying, they’re healthy! Sidney Crosby is playing arguably the best hockey of his still young career. Beyond that however, they have Art Ross (most points) winner Evgeni Malkin, who had an incredible season, the resurgent 40-goal scorer James Neal, puck-moving defenseman Kris Letang, and Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury in net. Combine all those elements with the best third line center in the league in Jordan Staal, and this is a team that looks like an all-star team in black and white.
The Flyers, after spending prodigious amounts of money to overhaul their roster, look that much different from the teams of the past few years. Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, and Jaromir Jagr round out a first line that performs so much differently than what the Flyers had with Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, but in fact is just as, if not more, productive than the more sniper-like lines of the past. Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, and Danny Briere round out a second line that again, doesn’t sound like it should work, but does. The third and fourth lines are very rookie-heavy with Matt Read, Sean Couturier, and Zac Rinaldo, combined with seasoned veterans in Max Talbot, Jakob Voracek, and Jody Shelley.
Many of the predictions are going for Penguins in 5 or 6. The argument, and it is a valid one, is that the star power of Pittsburgh is too much for any team to handle. Basically, if the Flyers play their first line, the Pens will be perfectly comfortable playing Jordan Staal’s line against them, which is very important because it leaves either Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby’s line to match up against the third or fourth line of the Flyers. This is really a great developmental strategy that is years in the making by Pittsburgh’s upper management. I have a problem with this idea though because I don’t think it gives enough credit to the third and fourth lines of the Flyers. These rookies have completely dominated other teams at some points in the season. Matt Read has 24 goals, hardly a grinding forward’s statistic. Sean Couturier’s +18 is second only to Hartnell’s +19 on the team, signifying defensive responsibility. Now do I think that this ragtag group of tough rookies are as good as Crosby or Malkin? No of course not. What I do think is that they are good enough to slow them down a fair bit. Everyone is talking about Pittsburgh’s depth but we forget that Philly has some great depth too, even if it is made of rookies.
Game Changer : Can the real Ilya Bryzgalov please stand up? Mr. Universe has personified the “up and down” season. His playoff numbers, though limited, are not stellar, so the question is, can he show up and be the player the Flyers are paying him 5.6 mil/year to be? If he can’t, this will be the short series anticipated by many.
Prediction: This series is going to physically destroy both teams. If it is any less than 7 games, then the winner will will go to the cup final. However I think the series will be too long and too physical for either team to be effective after it. I’m gonna have to go with Pittsburgh in 7.
By: Jonathan Bloom
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer