NHL Playoff Preview
The NHL season is quickly drawing to a close, and the anticipation of the playoffs marks possibly the most exciting time of the season. More than any other professional sports league in this country, the NHL exhibits wild performance difference in the playoffs than regular season. Last season, lowly Montreal beat MVP Alex Ovechkin and the high-powered Capital’s offense; moreover, Philadelphia, the last team to qualify for the playoffs, got to Game 6 of the Cup finals. The year before that, San Jose boasted the best record in the league, only to get snubbed by the Ducks. Though saying the regular season counts for little would be a bit extreme, the closest parallel in season and playoff structure, the NBA, doesn’t exhibit nearly this degree of what has been given many names: choking, momentum, underdog desire, etc. Whatever the logic, there isn’t a player in the NHL who wouldn’t trade the President’s Trophy (for most points in the regular season) for the Stanley Cup.
The Vancouver Canucks have that spot locked up, which no matter how you think of it, is the spot to be in. They’re season résumé is impeccable: they have a shot to have both the most goals scored and least allowed (yet to be accomplished in the modern era), sport the defending Hart Trophy winner Henrik and probable candidate Daniel Sedin, and a veteran goalie having a great season in Luongo. The team they may have to face in the first-round: defending champs Chicago, who earlier rode a hot streak into the playoff picture and have since idled. As any other year, the top seed is far from safe, and look for a team in the bottom half of the bracket to make the finals.
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Western Conference Pick: Anaheim Ducks – The recent surge of Corey Perry into the MVP race and the resulting success for the Ducks in sneaking into a lower playoff spot provides the perfect background for an upstart dark-horse team. Moreover, future Hall-of-Famer Teemu Selanne’s resurgence this season (with 76 points, the most since the Duck’s championship team in 2007) gives the Duck’s both a deep level of top-notch playmakers and a source for hardened experience.
Since the All-Star break, the Eastern Conference has become considerably more blurred. The Flyers and Capitals are neck-n-neck for the top seed, with Boston locking up at least the third seed. The biggest recent development has been the New York Ranger’s arrival in the bottom half of the bracket. Though they don’t carry quite the momentum some descriptions would have you believe, matching up with an exhausted Philly or Washington (both of whom are also in division title races) might be the ideal route further into the playoffs. For my part, I feel the top-half teams will mostly prevails in the East: Washington has a more severe defensive edge this year (generally advantageous in the playoffs), Boston has undoubtedly the best goaltender in Tim Thomas, and Pittsburgh may be poised to get Sidney Crosby back in time to make a serious difference.
Eastern Conference Pick: Boston Bruins – Not only has Thomas been the most consistent goaltender all year, but has two shutouts in the last two games and has pushed his goals-against-average to under 2.00. Since the lockout, hot goalies have been able to push solid teams into championship contention (from Cam Ward in 2006, to Jonas Hiller and Corey Price in 2009), and no team in the East seems in a particularly dominant position. Boston’s season (as in the year when they got top spot in the East) has been all about defense, and that’s not about to change.
Stanley Cup Champion: Boston Bruins – My selection of Anaheim mainly stems from their positioning in the West, but as happens often I feel they’ll simply run out of steam to either break through Boston’s defense or clamp down enough to make due with low scoring games. Either way, Boston should take this in 6.
By: Rob Underwood
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer
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