2012 NHL Playoff Preview and Free Predictions – Conference Finals ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
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By UltimateCapper.com Contributing Writer, Mike Ivcic
The National Hockey League is down to its version of the “Final Four,” as the conference final matchups are now set. But again, before we delve into a breakdown of those two series, let’s look back quickly at how each team got here.
The New York Rangers outlasted the Washington Capitals last night, punching the final ticket to the conference finals. Like the Bruins series prior, the Caps once again played the most entertaining series of the entire round, but this time came up short on the road. Both teams were so evenly matched and played such similar styles that it should come as no surprise that the team that scored first won every single game. The Rangers will have to continue to do just that against New Jersey, because they’re simply not equipped to come from behind. Instead, their recipe is to get a lead and then allow Henrik Lundqvist to do his thing while blocking (or trying to block) just about every shot taken. The Caps-Rangers series was a clinic on shot-blocking, from both forwards and defensemen, and subsequently finding ways to score on the other end when it’s virtually impossible to get any puck through to the net. It may not be pretty â and no team has ever played a game 7 in the first and second rounds and gone on to win a Cup â but this Rangers team continues to find ways to win games, and they just might find a way to win 8 more.
I said in the second round preview that the Flyers were the worst team left defensively in the East, and sure enough it came back to haunt them. What amazed me about the entire series â and the point that no one in the national media is making â is how poorly the Flyers defense pass. The Devils forecheck was successful because Philly’s blueliners could not make a tape-to-tape pass to their forwards to beat the aggressive pressure and start the breakout. Couple that with the Flyers’ top two centers (Claude Giroux and Danny Briere) not being able to play defense well enough to bottle up New Jersey’s forwards, and the mismatch created a lopsided series. I’ll refrain from jumping on Ilya Bryzgalov too much â after all, it’s not as if Marty Brodeur crica 2000 was playing at the other end â but clearly this Devils team was better equipped at playing playoff hockey than Philadelphia.
One thing that does make my head hurt a bit is hearing the talk that the L.A. Kings are now the frontrunners to win the Stanley Cup. Look, I like the Kings as much as the next person (I said they were capable of beating the Canucks and picked them to beat the Blues), but let’s remember that this is the 8-seed in the West, and no 8-seed has ever won the Cup under the current format. Only the 2006 Edmonton Oilers even made the Finals as an 8-seed, so let’s hold off planning the Hollywood parade. They’re only halfway there. That said, the reasons that there’s suddenly no room on the Kings’ bandwagon â stingy goaltending, solid defense, great penalty killing, and key players coming up big in big spots â are all ingredients necessary to capture a Cup. They looked tremendous in quickly dispatching Vancouver and St. Louis, and no team as any seed has ever beaten the 1, 2, and 3-seeded teams in the same playoff year. But something tells me Phoenix will have a bit more fight than the Canucks and Blues.
Speaking of Phoenix, talk about rising from the ashes. Not too long ago, this franchise was all but gone from the desert, packed and ready to move to Kansas City or Hamilton or wherever â anywhere but Glendale, Arizona. Now, three years later, there’s talk of finally having stable ownership on the eve that the franchise advances to its first-ever conference finals â and that’s including the years in Winnipeg. Credit three key people for the on-ice success. First, head coach Dave Tippett has instilled the belief in this group that they can beat anybody, anywhere, anytime. It’s one thing to say it, but this team believes it, posting a 3-2 record on the road against Chicago and Nashville â two really tough buildings â during this postseason. Secondly, Shane Doan has emerged as a true leader, willing to slightly change his game from scoring sensation to a dirty-goal grinder to show everyone else what it means to buy into a system. And then, of course, there’s Mike Smith. How Tampa let this guy go in favor of a 40-year-old Dwayne Roloson is beyond me, but here in the desert fans are thrilled they have a 6-foot-6 netminder who can handle a puck and doesn’t understand the word pressure. This is the type of goalie that wins championships, and the Predators just could not find a way to solve him all series long.
And now, the picks:
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