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By UltimateCapper.com Contributing Writer, Mike Ivcic
After a lot of hard hitting, stingy goaltending (except for you, Marc-Andre Fleury), and thrilling overtime finishes, weâre now down to the final eight contenders to raise Lord Stanleyâs Cup. But before we get to previewing the upcoming series, a quick note on each conference as a whole:
The East saw a four very hard-fought series, where each went at least six games and three of the four went the distance. The single best series of the first round was Washington and Boston â and not just because Iâm a Capitals fan. It is the only series in NHL history that saw all seven games decided by one goal, and the back-and-forth, give-and-take from shift to shift, period to period, and game to game exemplified the beauty that is playoff hockey, and perhaps maybe the Capitals are poised to reverse their past playoff failures. Conversely, Philly and Pittsburgh engaged in a mid-1980âs style series that saw a total of 55 goals scored in the six games, including 8 goals by the Flyers twice and 10 by the Penguins in game four. The Flyers wonât be able to duplicate that offensive performance against any of the three remaining teams, so theyâll have to hope that Ilya Bryzgalov capable of playing better than he did in the first round. Heâs arguably the weakest goaltender remaining in the playoffs, and that isnât a recipe for success, as all Philadelphia fans know. As for the New York metropolitan area, both of their playoff participants earned wins in game 7 to continue on for another round â good news for the league and NBC considering what happened west of the Mississippi and north of the border.
Meanwhile, there may not have been a more stunning first round compilation in any conference ever than what just occurred in the West. Gone are Detroit, Chicago, San Jose, and Vancouver â only the four most successful Western Conference teams in the last four seasons, and the only teams that have represented the conference in the Stanley Cup Finals since Anaheim won it all in 2007. So as the guard changes, itâs clearly done so as a result of the goaltending. Mike Smith of Phoenix completely outplayed Corey Crawford of Chicago, especially considering the overtime goals scored on Crawford in games 3 and 4. The Blues duo of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak (who still makes this Caps fan cringe) kept the Sharksâ Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski pointless in their five games. Detroitâs Jimmy Howard simply wasnât up to the task of matching Nashvilleâs Pekka Rinne, who made the Red Wings potent offense look old and stale. And then thereâs L.A.âs Jonathan Quick, who outplayed the combination of Corey Schneider and Roberto Luongo for Vancouver and raised some serious questions about the latterâs tenure with the Canucks. All in all, if youâre looking for high-flying, big-time offense in the conference quarterfinals, you wonât find it here.
And now, the picks:
1) New York Rangers vs 7) Washington Capitals
In two of the past three seasons, the Capitals have eliminated the Rangers from the postseason, only to lose in the very next round themselves. Both of these teams went seven games in their first round series, too, so there really isnât an advantage here either way. Washington has become a much better defensive team, displaying the type of defensive zone presence that not only wins a series, but often times a championship. They also wonât be scared of the Madison Square Garden or of Henrik Lundqvist, whom they have beaten 8 out of 13 times in the postseason. The issue here is that New York has also become a much better defensive team, and finally got contributions from their blue liners as both goals in game 7 against Ottawa came from defensemen. The real X-factor will be which non-existent superstar plays better. Washingtonâs Alex Ovechkin and New Yorkâs Marian Gaborik were both bottled up in the first round â if either of them can break out and multiple goals in this series, their respective team will likely emerge. Now, I picked this matchup to happen, and I donât normally do this, but after watching the first round Iâm changing my original pick and going against my choice to win the Cup.
Pick: Washington 4, New York 3
5) Philadelphia Flyers vs 6) New Jersey Devils
The Flyers exploded offensively in round one, but as mentioned above will need a much better defensive performance to advance past round two. That said, Martin Brodeur isnât what he was from 1994-2004, when he was in the conversation for not just the Vezina Trophy, but usually the Hart Trophy too. Heâll have to play better than he did against Florida, and so, too, will the Devils penalty killers. Thereâs no bigger mismatch on paper heading into round two in any series than the Flyers power play against New Jerseyâs PK. Claude Giroux, Jaromir Jagr, Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, and Wayne Simmonds are all drooling as they watch tape of the Panthersâ power play simply annihilate the Devils on the man-advantage. But also drooling are Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuck, who wonât have to face Chris Pronger this year. There will be some goals scored in this series, and if the Flyers donât tighten up in their own zone and get better play from Bryzgalov, New Jersey could move on to the conference finals â but they wonât.
Pick: Philadelphia 4, New Jersey 2
2) St. Louis Blues vs 8) Los Angeles Kings
I did say in the first-round preview that I wouldnât be surprised to see the Kings advance, but in all fairness I picked both of these teams to bow out in the first round. Perhaps more surprising than Jonathan Quickâs emergence as a top-tier goaltender, though, is L.A.âs sudden discovery of offense. Dustin Brown was huge for the Kings, helping take some pressure (and focus) off of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, who then were able to find some more open ice in the later games. Winning three games in Vancouver was a huge confidence-builder, too, since the Blues have been virtually unbeatable all season in St. Louis. Regardless of the goaltender in net for the Blues, the Kings will have to continue to create offense as they did against the Canucks, because this is an opportunistic St. Louis club that has totally bought into Ken Hitchcockâs system. Remember, this guy went to back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Stars and built the Flyers team that lost to Chicago in 2010. Heâs a great coach, and as long as Andy McDonald continues to be the thorn in the side of the opponents, the Blues have a chance, but I like Hollywood here.
Pick: Los Angeles 4, St. Louis 2
3) Phoenix Coyotes vs 4) Nashville Predators
First team to score wins! Or at least thatâs how it will seem with Smith and Rinne manning the nets for Phoenix and Nashville, respectively. The Coyotes dominated the Blackhawks in the third period of game 6 after being outshot 29-9 through the first two periods, and thatâs how theyâve been all year long. As their GM Don Maloney said, this team is basically playing rope-a-dope. They lean so heavily on Smith and allow other teams to tire themselves out, then pounce in the third period. Nashville is not as good offensively as Phoenix, but what they lack in high-profile scorers they more than make up for in stud defensemen like Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. I picked this matchup to happen before the playoffs started, and when I did I took the Predators. I still expect to see that happen, but this Coyotes team has me thinking it will be a bit closer than I initially anticipated.
Pick: Nashville 4, Phoenix 3
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