By Matt Popchock
Before I delve into my Penguins-Lightning pick, I would be remiss, NHL junkie that I am, if I didn’t throw out some picks for the other first round matchups:
WESTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS:
(1) Vancouver vs. (8) Chicago – I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…the Hawks just aren’t the same team without the role players they lost in the off-season who played instrumental roles in their 2010 Cup run. It showed in the fact that they couldn’t win a playoff-spot-clinching game–at home–that meant nothing to rival Detroit. Roberto Luongo and his upgraded defensive corps will keep the rest of Chicago’s offense off the board, even if Kane and Toews team up for a big series, and the way the Canucks can score, the offensive contributions of Daniel and Henrik Sedin will not stand alone. Canucks in 7.
(2) San Jose vs. (7) Los Angeles – The Sharks are the Washington Capitals of the Western Conference, the team with the nastiest reputation of postseason choking, and Kings netminder Jonathan Quick is perfectly capable of stealing games. However, Quick may have to win this series by himself in order for L.A. to pull the upset, given the poor health of Justin Williams and top gun Anze Kopitar. Their defense may frustrate San Jose early on, but eventually Joe Pavelski will put the Sharks on his back like he did in last year’s playoffs, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see rookie Logan Couture get hot either. Sharks in 6.
(3) Detroit vs. (6) Phoenix – A year ago at this time, the Coyotes were the feel-good story of the NHL, and though they didn’t sneak up on anybody this year, they’ve proven they still have the team toughness, combined with the goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov, to change the course of franchise history. But to win their first playoff series since relocating to Phoenix, the Coyotes are going to have to get by one of the most business-like teams of this generation, and a team much healthier than it was last spring. Henrik Zetterberg will miss Game 1, but the Wings still have Pavel Datsyuk and enough other world-class talent up front to give them an edge. Red Wings in 6.
(4) Anaheim vs. (5) Nashville – The other team in the West trying to erase a playoff series victory drought is the Predators, who have matched up pretty well with the Ducks this season…so well, in fact, that, despite the fact Anaheim has a little more experience and also seems to be playing its best hockey at the right time, I was sorely tempted to flip a coin to pick this series. Nashville has a definite edge with Pekka Rinne, one of the most under-rated goaltenders in the NHL, but they don’t have Anaheim’s depth. Goal-scoring champ Corey Perry hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, and the Ducks’ power play will be enough to offset their disadvantage between the pipes. Ducks in 7.
EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS:
(1) Washington vs. (8) N.Y. Rangers – Another playoff collapse by Washington, not to mention another Game 7 disappearing act by “The Great 8″ wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest, but this year’s Capitals are a more well-rounded team. Bruce Boudreau has gotten his team to play a more responsible brand of hockey in its own zone even without top defenseman Mike Green being healthy. Washington has way more offensive ability with Backstrom, Semin, a well-rested Ovechkin and others, and though Henrik Lundqvist will toy with them, losing Ryan Callahan will prove a fatal blow to the Blueshirts. Capitals in 7.
(2) Philadelphia vs. (7) Buffalo – For much of the season, the Flyers played like the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, but that unofficial title is very much up for grabs, given the way Philly backed into the Atlantic Division title, whereas the Sabres have overcome the loss of Derek Roy and gotten hot when they absolute had to. The Flyers have great two-way players like Mike Richards, Claude Giroux, and Danny Briere, who will surely play with a purpose against his old employer. But the Buffalo, unlike the Flyers, has shown it can win without a ton of offense, and Ryan Miller is the kind of goaltender who can steal a series. Sabres in 7.
(3) Boston vs. (6) Montreal – No first round series will be as emotional as this one, and if I didn’t already have a dog in the fight, my eyes would be glued to B’s-Habs, because when it comes to the playoffs, it’s like the Yankees-Red Sox of hockey. Even without 2010 playoff hero Jaroslav Halak, Montreal can still count on Carey Price to play well, as well as contributions from proven performers Mike Cammalieri and Brian Gionta. But if sports is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, you have to give the edge to Tim Thomas, the top regular season goalie in the NHL, and led by Milan Lucic, the Bruins can use their physical ability to knock Montreal’s forwards off their game. Bruins in 7.
And now…drumroll please…
(4) Penguins vs. (5) Tampa Bay – If you take away two blowout wins by the Pens at CONSOL Energy Center, the Lightning played on pretty even terms with Pittsburgh during the regular season. On the other hand, if you take away a game in October that the Penguins let slip away, and the first period of another close loss in St. Pete Times Forum not long ago, you might not hear so many talking heads discussing how evenly matched these teams are.
Don’t ever sleep on the “big three” of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Vincent Lecavalier and Penguin-killer Martin St. Louis have valuable playoff experience, and young stud Steven Stamkos, though he’s been relatively quiet against the Pens this year, can come up with a big goal here or there. The Pens are going to have to find offense in a hurry in order to avoid the upset. James Neal and Alex Kovalev, since coming here, have done just about everything but score–outside of shootouts–and that needs to change for the Pens to be able to match Tampa’s firepower.
The one and only knock against the Penguins’ defense I have is its habit of falling asleep around the blue paint at times. Tampa Bay loves to go there for offense, and the Pens need to adjust. Ryan Malone, by the time this series is over, may go from being a guy Pittsburghers have loved to love to a guy they love to hate. Still, with Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, and Paul Martin, three of the top stay-at-home D-men in the league, I’ll take my chances with Malone and company. Even on the power play, which will be a big key for Tampa Bay, the Lightning have struggled against the top-notch penalty killing unit of the Pens.
That’s going to be a decided edge for the Penguins in this series. Defensively Tampa Bay has demonstrated weaknesses that the Pens, by and large, have not. Defense and attrition were major keys to the Penguins’ Cup run two seasons ago, and conversely, they were a big part of the Penguins’ undoing at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens last spring. This is a seasoned group that has played much more inspired hockey in front of Marc-Andre Fleury, and they’re going against a number of players, including Stamkos, who will be making their first foray into playoff hockey. The fact that Chicago abruptly went from a last-place team to a conference finalist three years ago is the exception, not the norm. Look at how Gretzky and Lemieux got knocked on their rear ends in the playoffs before their teams finally won.
That’s not to say Tampa can’t play “D.” They were the last pre-lockout team to hoist the Cup, and their much talked-about 1-3-1 trap is a throwback to the “dead puck” era, something that can give the Penguins fits. But the way you beat that trap is by getting the puck behind it, and having guys move their feet down low in the offensive zone. That is Dan Bylsma’s system, and as the Penguins have demonstrated, the system has a tendency to prevail, even without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Nikolai Khabibulin was an integral part of that ’04 Cup team in Tampa, and now they have another capable veteran goaltender who, though without a ring, came within a gnat’s eyelash of backstopping the upstart Edmonton Oilers to a championship in 2006. Dwayne Rolosson has given the Lightning a great deal of stability at his position, and he single-handedly won the most recent meeting between these teams. But he’s not playing at the level his counterpart, Marc-Andre Fleury, has played since the Two-Headed Monster went down. Fleury may not win MVP honors, but he has the look of a Hart Trophy nominee. In all probability, you won’t see the Flower that wilted in Game 7 at Mellon Arena last year.
In summary, give the Lightning the definite edge up front. But if the adage about defense winning championships is true, the Penguins’ defense, combined with continued stellar play from Fleury, will win them this series, and with Tyler Kennedy, Chris Kunitz, and Pascal Dupuis having career years–or approximately so–and guys like James Neal and Jordan Staal due for more offense, the Pens can scrape together enough goals to get by. PENGUINS IN 6.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)