Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Few Notes on Round Two of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs

I am so excited as the NHL heads into the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. This year's match-ups are quite intriguing. There are two sets of Original Six match-ups, two California power houses, and rhyming teams.

Western Conference

1. Chicago Blackhawks v. 7. Detroit Red Wings
Here is the Original Six match-up for the Western Conference who are also division rivals. The Chicago Blackhawks dominated the league as not only won the President's Trophy but they also did not allow a single regulation loss in twenty-four games, a first in NHL history. They appear to be the team to beat in the West, and until the Pittsburgh Penguins had their trade deadline frenzy, most experts were already giving the Cup to Chicago. With the offensive power this team has coupled with Crawford's solid performances in net, they will be a very difficult team to beat. All I know is that Marian Hossa was probably praying for Detroit to win because he did not want to be seeing Raffi Torres of the San Jose Sharks, after what happened last year which also coincidentally was in round two...

Detroit has had its struggles throughout the season, and this team is not the usual stronghold that we are used to since the losses of Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom. However, what the Wings have going for them is that they still have the veterans like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Todd Bertuzzi to name a few who have the experience and talent to help this team win. And if goaltender Jimmy Howard can keep top form, the Wings will make the Blackhawks work to get those wins. Almost all the experts had the Anaheim Ducks wiping the floor with Detroit but when that didn't happen and Detroit won game seven at the Pond, Detroit has its mojo going while the Hawks have been sitting around for a week. Yes, mojo is the technical term.

I would also like to point out that these two teams will be seeing a lot less of each other with realignment in effect for next season. Chicago and Detroit will no longer be in the same division and will only meet twice in the regular season but do have potential for post-season match-ups. These two teams have a long history together, and as an NHL fan, it is bittersweet to see these two battle out far less during the season. I realize that the playoffs are what truly make a rivalry, but the regular season drama is also a lot of fun.

5. Los Angeles Kings v. 6. San Jose Sharks
Here is another pair of division rivals, but they will continue to remain in the same division even when realignment takes effect. What is interesting here is that California hockey is becoming an NHL power house. This year all three California teams (Anaheim Ducks also made the post-season) made the cut-off, which incidentally is the same number of Canadian teams that made it as well. However, as we enter round two, only one Canadian team, the Ottawa Senators remains.

These two teams last faced each other in the 2011 post-season in which the Sharks beat the Kings in four games to two in the first round. Both teams have changed remarkably since then, and notably Los Angeles has won the Stanley Cup. These two teams always battle it out, and I would not be surprised if this goes the full seven games. They are often split the season and go 3-3 in their series, but the playoffs are always different. San Jose is coming off a huge series in which they swept the Vancouver Canucks, but the Kings also won their last four games in their series against the St. Louis Blues. Both teams have excellent goaltenders. Antti Niemi of the Sharks has been superb and is a Vezina finalist this year, and Jonathan Quick was the Conn Smythe winner last year with the Kings. The Kings have had some offensive woes in their series against the Blues, but St. Louis is also a complete shut-down defense which may account for that. However, if the Kings cannot find their offensive swagger, the Sharks will easily defeat them. I fully expect Kyle Clifford of the Kings throw-down with Raffi Torres of the Sharks during this series and will be completely disappointed if this does not happen.

Eastern Conference

1. Pittsburgh Penguins v. 7. Ottawa Senators
Just like the Western Conference, we see another one seed playing the seventh seed. This is the rhyming match-up. The Pens versus the Sens. I'm going to be brutally honest here. I am not a huge fan of the Senators, so I am not that familiar with the team. I think Pittsburgh will win this series, but I also believe that they have to win this series. After making the moves to acquire Jussi Jokinen of the Carolina Hurricanes, Douglas Murray of the San Jose Sharks, Brenden Morrow of the Dallas Stars, and Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames, the Pens absolutely have to make it to the finals in order to even begin to think that all that work at the trade deadline was worth it. I am pretty sure heads will roll in the Penguins organization if the Sens take them down. So, I'm sorry Canada, but this is probably not going to be your year... again...

However, the Penguins are going to have to work to beat the Senators. There has been some issue with goaltending as Marc-Andre Fleury has not been what he was when the Penguins last won the Cup in 2009. In fact, head coach Dan Bylsma pulled him in favor of Tomas Vokoun during the last series and is expected to start against Ottawa. However, Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson described how his complex approach to outwitting Vokoun, "You've almost got to make him think that you think that I think what he thinks." If he can do that, Alfie is the smartest hockey player out there, hands down. Despite my doubts in the talent of Senators goaltender Craig Anderson, he has been stellar. I always thought of him as an average goaltender, but something clicked for him when he was traded from the St. Louis Blues to the Ottawa Senators (oddly enough Brian Elliott who was the other player in that trade also went on to outplay his contract). When Anderson faced the New York Rangers in the playoffs last year, I thought he elevated his game because he was up against Henrik Lundqvist, last year's Vezina winner. It is almost like in tennis when you play someone who is better than you. You feed off of his or her level of play and begin to elevate your own game. So I thought Anderson was a bit of a flash in the pan, but he has been able to surprise. If he can continue to keep in his top form, despite Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, James Neal, and company, the Senators have more than a fighting chance.

4. Boston Bruins v. 6. New York Rangers
Here is the other Original Six match-up. I am not entirely sure what to expect. If the Rangers can carry the momentum from their series agains the Washington Capitals, this will probably be over pretty quickly. However, the Rangers sometimes seem to lose motivation when it counts the most and the Boston Bruins will capitalize, and this series could be going to a game seven. Both of these teams have had game sevens in their last series that took place Monday night (5/13), so neither team has the benefit of extra rest. However, the Boston Bruins will not be able to leave Toronto until Tuesday morning, so they have the slightest disadvantage of not being able to get back to work as quickly as the New York Rangers. I do not think that this is a huge problem in terms of preparation or any real disadvantage, but it could possibly be a mental block for the players. I believe this series will be physical and nasty. The Mighty Bs play a tough game, but head coach John Tortorella prides himself on making the Rangers a team of grinders, and no, he isn't making a lunch order. The Rangers have slightly more pressure to win because of the acquisitions of Rick Nash, Ryane Clowe, Derick Brassard, and Derek Dorsett. I cannot wait for this series to start! By the way, welcome back to the playoffs Rick Nash!