Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Quest for the Cup: The HoG's 2009 Quarter-Finals Preview

Words cannot describe how much I love these hockey-playoff features. I follow the season with a semi-close eye. I get geared up as winter's tapering off, and once the regular season ends, I'm stoked as all hell, especially when my team's in! Then, I pore over the matches, one round at a time, and bang my unskilled PhotoShop forehead on the jagged edges of a brick, and no one pays any mind. I suppose there's something human, something typical, something Murphy's Law in that the more time you spend on something, the less people notice. But what can you do? Give up? Not a chance in hell.

For the quarter-finals, and maybe even for all the rounds, we'll keep the picks/previews condensed to one post. That way, it's easier on everyone, and we can move closer to shoving the posts off of the page, and preparing our cushiony Wonder Bread for the biggest bukkake of the spring: the NFL Draft. Sounds pretty painless to me. Get your stick-and-puck goodies on the flip side of the skip.

Before we get started, I'll admit that I fudged some of these images, in that the home team/lower seed isn't on the right for all of them. Given that most folks never even made it past the link, let's just say I'll be damned if I was going to go back and re-create them. Wanna know the seeds, or who has the home-ice advantage? Read, slacker. Read.

The East

Your one and eight seeds represent the Atlantic Division. They also represent my favorite Canadian team in the Habs, and my pick to win it all in the Bruins. Now, this is a dangerous move, because Boston is historically, well, in recent decades anyway, one of the most choke-tastic post-season clubs in history. But they played some lights out hockey this season, a virtual stronghold on the Eastern Conference from November on. The Habs are celebrating their 100th season of play, and this is year 85 of the rivalry between the two, who met in this same round a year ago, a tilt in which Montreal won, four games to one. Montreal has one edge: their offensive production is more well-rounded. Boston, however, is tougher in every regard. They got 88 points from first-line center Marc Savard; their defense is one of (if not) the best in the league, and netminder Tim Thomas posted 36 wins in 54 games, a .933 save percentage. I won't guarantee a Boston championship, but I will guarantee that Montreal won't be in the semi-finals. They'll drop the puck at six Central tomorrow night in Boston.

The pick: Bruins in six.

If ever there was an example of a team's individuals playing above their ability via the amazing display of one man, it's the two-seed Washington Capitals. Alex Ovechkin (Editor's Note: Sidney who?) should be a unanimous vote for league MVP, as his 110-point season is above and beyond that of any other skater, and better than a lot of lines put together. The seventh-seeded Rangers showed fortuity and put together another good season, but I doubt they can hold up against Washington. The skinny is that the Caps are tougher on offense -- the Rangers' O is barely above mediocre -- they're more consistent in protecting their zone, and while Henrik Lundqvist got a few more wins in net than Washington's Jose Theodore, Lundqvist had only one backup, while Theodore had three, meaning that Lundqvist lost more. As it's been said, good goaltending starts with great defense. The puck drops tonight at six.

The pick: Washington wins in five.

The three-seed Devils really surprised me this year, and wound up running away with the Atlantic. Now, only seven points separates them from Pittsburgh and Philly, but they all but had it locked several weeks ago. They'll face off with the sixth-seed Carolina Hurricanes tonight at 6:30 in New Jersey, likely thinking they'll make easy work of Carolina. And they'll be wrong. It's true that the Devils have a new record-holder in Martin Brodeur, and it's true that they have more veteran leadership on their roster. They also have more age, which means less stamina, more gaps in their D, and less grit than Carolina. The Hurricane offense is well-rounded in the sense that the Washington O is, but the club as a whole has proven on many occasions in recent years, that they have what it takes to eliminate the weak, which is what, regardless of 106 points and a division title, the Devils will look like on the ice.

The pick: Carolina in six.

Well, it just wouldn't be awesome if we didn't have the ol' all-Pennsylvania series in the East. It's unfortuneate that it comes so early this year, especially for the defending Conference champion Penguins. This matchup between the four-seed igloo dwellars and the five-seed Broadstreet Bullies gets underway tonight at 6:30, and if the Lone Reader were still alive, he'd call shenanigans, but the Flyers showed us last spring that they their rebuilding mode was a success, and that they are some tough-ass crackers indeed (Note: No offense to any non-Caucasians on the roster.) If you look at last year, the edge goes to the Pens, since they took the eventual-champion Red Wings to the proverbial wire, but that run was like a Widespread Panic guitar solo: a load blown too quickly, and all at once. Marc Andre-Fleury managed 35 wins in net for Pittsburgh this year, and Philly goalie Martin Biron wasn't far behind with 29. And of course, no fool would over look the respective 113- and 103-point campaigns from Evgeni Malkin and Sid the Kid. The problem is that everyone else below those two had only half the numbers, while the Flyers spread it out considerably better. The Pittsburgh D looks tougher on paper, but it's a farce.

The pick: Philly advances in five.

The West

The West is a bit odd this post-season for a number of reasons. Hockey, like the other three major sports can flip flop in terms of who's a top dog in very little time. Anaheim is two years removed from their championship, and they enter as an eight seed. The Sharks, coming off of one of the best non-championship rounds of post-season hockey I've seen in years, were only a few pieces shy of putting together an honest-to-goodness run, and they appear to have done just that, having won themselves a little thing called the President's Trophy. Sure. It's easy to pick the two number-one seeds to go to the Finals, but that's what I said two months ago, and I'm sticking to it now. These two clubs look relatively equal on paper, but San Jose is far superior. When the puck drops tomorrow night at 9:30, that'll be victory one of four consecutive for J.R. and company.

The pick: The Sharks get the sweep.

And now a look into why else the West is weird. Four of five Central Division clubs are in. The Columbus Blue Jackets waited eight long years for a taste of playoff hockey, and when they finally get there, what do they get? The blasted Red Wings. An interesting bit about the Blue Jackets is that they clinched a spot some time ago, largely thanks to their goaltender Steve Mason. They watched, however, in the final two weeks of the season, division-rival St. Louis Blues not only squeak in by winning eight of their last 10, but catapult over them in the Central, largely thanks to their goaltender, Chris Mason, former Central goalie for the Nashville Predators. Speaking of Nashville, they faced Detroit in round one last year, and were clearly overmatched. While the Wings won't repeat their title of a year ago, they'll quickly dismiss Columbus from further play, as this tilt gets underway tomorrow night at six in the Motor City.

The pick: Red Wings in four.

Had the Blues not beaten Colorado 1-0 on Sunday, they'd be the eighth seed, facing the Sharks. In a way, I wish they'd lost, just to get the toughest test first. But they didn't, and instead they face Vancouver. On the other hand, the Blues have had putrid post-season luck against San Jose in the past. I'd like to say that this gives St. Louis the edge, in that they have momentum, youth, and their first playoff appearance since the lockout, but I'm afraid not. While Vancouver only netted four more regular-season wins than St. Louis, many feel that Canuck netminder Roberto Luongo is the best in hockey right now. I don't agree with that, but he is better than this Mason, and he's got a tighter trio of defensive pairings manning the zone in front of him. Add to that that the Blues are in fact a young squad, and quite frankly, overmatched. The puck drops tonight in Vancouver at nine o'clock. The Blues take one on the road, and one at home, but no more.

The pick: Vancouver in six.

Calgary-Chicago might be the toughest first-round match to pick out of the eight. This one gets underway tomorrow night at 7:30 in Chicago, and these clubs look mighty similar. Offensively, they both spread it around well, and defensively, they're mediocre at best, which is surprising for a Joel Quenneville-coached club. Chicago, while once a force in the league for many years, has been relatively awful up until the past two seasons, while Calgary has been in the post-season for six consecutive seasons now, including a Finals appearance in the 2003-04 campaign. Given that Chicago has only recently gotten on the right track, and Calgary netminder Mikka Kiprusoff posted a staggering 45 wins this season, I've got to give them the edge, but I'll take the liberty of saying it goes the distance.

The pick: Flames in seven.

Let the games begin, and of course, check back in in a couple weeks to see how my picks were, and how the picks for the semis look. Heh-heh. Semi.