Thursday, April 14, 2011

The 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Quarter-Finals Preview, Part II

National Hockey League playoff action kicked off last night with five games, each amazing in its own regard. Tonight, the three remaining series will get underway. Previews and predictions follow the jump, as do some stats and links of interest from the Tweeds. As for my predictions, on yesterday's games, well, if they were all decided on one game, I'd be 2-3. There's still plenty of hockey left in this first round for my horses to find their giddy-up, though, so I'll hold off on the face-palming. For now.

The Eastern Conference, tonight

In what could easily be called the biggest match of the first round, the third-seed Boston Bruins meet rival, six-seed Montreal Canadiens at 6 p.m. Central. Head Coach Claude Julien led his club to a Northeast Division-winning campaign, compiling 103 points (Montreal had 96), and saw the point production evenly distributed among his forwards. David Krejci led the way with 62 points, while defenseman Tomas Kaberle posted a four-goal, 43-assist season. In net for the Bs is Tim Thomas, who quietly put together a 2.00 goals-against average, and a .938 save percentage through 55 starts.

On the Habs side of things, Head Coach Jacques Martin has to be proud of a similarly even distribution in production from his club. Tomas Plekanec had a nice 22-goal, 35-assist season, while blue-liner James Wisniewski, despite having his face gashed open, amassed 51 points. Between the pipes for Montreal is Carey Price, who, through 70 starts, posted a 2.35 GAA, a .923 save percentage. The Canadiens have the edge in both the season series (4-2), and playoff history (24-8), although Boston made easy work of the Habs last post-season, eliminating them courtesy of a sweep. And, of course, I'd be remiss not mentioning a key aphrodisiac in this rivalry's spice cabinet.

The pick: Boston may have proved last season that they're beyond first-round chokes: Bs win in seven.

Thirty minutes after the action gets underway in Boston, the two-seed Philadelphia Flyers host the seven-seed Buffalo Sabres. Peter Laviolette's defending Eastern Conference champion Flyers saw his first three lines of forwards combine for an astronomical 480 points this season, while his defense held their own (Matt Carle alone tallied 40 points). Through 52 starts in net, Sergei Bobrovsky posted a 2.59 GAA, .915 save percentage, all while curiosity bubbled concerning his kinship to a certain animated-TV character.

While Philly took the Atlantic Division with 106 points, Buffalo was not too far behind in the Northeast, with 96 of their own. Head Coach Lindy Ruff -- the current third-longest-tenured coach in American professional sports, deserves credit for seeing his Sabres squad through several rebuilding phases, and now, courtesy of seasons like Thomas Vanek's (32 goals, 41 assists) and Tyler Myers' (37 points), looks to make another post-season push. The Sabres have none other than U.S. Olympic badass Ryan Miller (2.59 GAA, .916 save percentage) protecting the net, and will have his work cut out for him: Philadelphia took three of four against Buffalo during the regular season, and owns the playoff edge -- 5-3 -- against the Sabres as well.

The pick: Buffalo has made strides to their return of five-years-ago, 10-years-ago status, but the Flyers will be too much for them: Philly in six.

The Western Conference, tonight

The lone western series of the evening is an all-California dual. It gets going circa 9 p.m. Central, and features the two-seed San Jose Sharks against the seven-seed Los Angeles Kings. Bench boss Todd McLellan captained the Shark ship to a Pacific Division title, via 105 points, while Los Angeles was not far behind with 98. Leading the offensive charge for the Sharks is Patrick Marleau (37 goals, 36 assists), and Dan Boyle shores up the D with an impressive 50-point effort. Wielding the big stick and blocker pads for San Jose is Antti Niemi (2.38 GAA, .920 save percentage through 60 starts).

For the Kings, it's Terry Murray wearing the tie and carrying the grease board. His club was led by Anze Kopitar (73 points), and defenseman Jack Johnson (42 points). Jonathan Quick (2.24 GAA, .918 save percentage) roams the blue section of ice for L.A., and must be on point, given that San Jose took the season series at 3-1-2. This is the first post-season meeting for the two clubs, and if memory serves, the first time that four of five Pacific squads have qualified for tournament play, especially when one of them is not the Dallas Stars.

The pick: San Jose still has some playoff-choke kinks to work out of their skin: The Kings are this season's dark horse: L.A. in five.

NHLNewsNow's Twitter feed offers some insight into Philly/Buffalo.

Darren Pang tweets some interesting NHL television ratings spikes: "The top 5 NHL ratings growth on cable RSNs were: 1.St.Louis (+43%),Boston (+41%), 3Tampa Bay (+33%), 4. Dallas (+29%), 5. Nashville(+25%)."

Never a dull statistical moment from John Buccigross on Twitter:

* "Sabres: won last four games of regular season and 9-1-2 in last 12 games overall.

* "Sharks making seventh straight postseason appearance, the second-longest active streak in the NHL."

* "Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams hurt. Kopitar led the Kings in points with 73.. Williams was tied for second on the team with 57 points." (Editor's Note: So much for that dark horse thing.)

Here's your broadcast schedule. Take a look at who the computers think will compete for the Cup. And if you haven't had enough bracketology, here's one of the coolest ever. Enjoy the first round of the playoffs. Come back for more NHL nuggets as the semi-finals approach.