Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: Eastern Conference Round One Prognostos

There are seven other series in the first round of the Stanley Cup tournament. You already have our picks for the Caps/Rangers series. Now, for the others in the East…

Philadelphia (2nd seed, 47-23-12) vs. Buffalo (7th seed; 43-29-10)

Theme: Big, bad bullies versus the shifty shrimps with the great goalie.

Why Philly will win: Against a great goalie, it helps to be able to attack him with depth, not allowing him a breather of a shift. The Flyers might have the deepest set of skaters in the NHL, certainly in the East. Eighteen skaters with at least ten points, six with at least 20 goals. They can put a 20-goal guy on the third line (James van Riemsdyk, who has 21) and a ten goal guy on the fourth line (Andreas Nodl, who has 11).

Why Philly won’t win: A lot of attention is being paid to whether Chris Pronger will or won’t dress for this or that game in this series, and truth be told, the Flyers don’t seem the same without him in the lineup. They finished the season 6-4-4 after Pronger went out of the lineup with a broken right hand. It will be a factor and perhaps a force multiplier for a bigger problem. Sergei Bobrovsky has never started a playoff game in goal in North America. He gets the call to start the series. He did not end the season well, going 0-2-2 in his last five appearances with a 3.27 GAA and .892 save percentage.

Flyer on the hot seat: Mike Richards. With Chris Pronger out, Richards takes on a bigger leadership role (one that he might share with Pronger under normal circumstances, even though Richards wears the “C”). He struggled down the stretch, going 2-3-5, minus-3 in his last nine games (over which the Flyers were 3-4-2), and he has a total of four goals in his last 21 games.

Why Buffalo will win: Ryan Miller. The defending Vezina Trophy winner did not start the season well (3-5-2 in his first ten games), but he ended it well, going 5-1-1, 1.90, .937 and two shutouts over his last eight appearances.

Why Buffalo won’t win: Miller suffered an “upper body” injury against Toronto on March 29th and played only 51:48 in his next two appearances (he stopped 28 of 29 shots in doing it). If there is any lingering discomfort, the Flyers will only add to that discomfort with their ability to get production from anywhere in their lineup.

Sabre on the hot seat: Thomas Vanek. The Sabre left wing closed with a rush, going 9-12-21, plus-11 in his last 17 games. He is going to have to keep up that sort of pace to help offset the depth in scoring the Flyers can bring to the series.

Ryan Miller does a better job of holding off the Flyers than Sergei Bobrovsky (or Brian Boucher, who will get significant time in this series) does against Buffalo.

Buffalo in six.

Boston (3rd seed; 46-25-11) vs. Montreal (6th seed; 44-30-8)

Theme: A series that looks better on paper than it is likely to be.

Why Boston will win: Tim Thomas. The unconventional Thomas led the league in GAA (2.00), save percentage (.938) and pitched a shutout in almost one of every six starts he had this season (nine in 55 starts). He had a couple of hiccups down the stretch in allowing three goals to Toronto in a 4-3 Gimmick loss to Toronto and four goals in a 5-3 loss to the Rangers, but even with those bumps he was still 6-1-1 in his last eight appearances with a 1.49 GAA, .949 save percentage and two shutouts, one of them coming against the team he faces in this round.

Why Boston won’t win: Since Thomas got that shutout of Montreal (a 7-0 win on March 24th), the Bruins are 5-3-1, but they have some trouble finding the back of the net. In their last nine games of the season following that win Boston averaged 2.44 goals per game, and their power play was only 3-for-22 (13.6 percent).

Bruin on the hot seat: Nathan Horton. Horton had a solid year in his first season with the Bruins after spending six seasons with Florida. But this is his first NHL post season (his first post-season, in fact, since he was at Oshawa back in 2003). His 26-27-53, plus-29 level of performance during the regular season…does he have that in him with the lights shining a little brighter on him?

Why Montreal will win: The Canadiens seem to have righted a ship that was in danger of taking on too much water to make a splash in the playoffs. In late March they lost three consecutive games, each by shutout (to Boston, Buffalo, and the Caps), but the Habs finished up 4-1-1. Special teams improved down the stretch -- their power play came alive in the last ten days of the season, going 6-for-15 in the last five games (40.0 percent), and the penalty killers are 32-for-34 (94.1 percent) over their last nine games.

Why Montreal won’t win: If you look at those games down the stretch after they were shut out in three straight games, that 4-1-1 record was built on a pile of sand. Only one win came against a playoff team (a 2-1 overtime win over Chicago). They were 2-5-0 in their last seven games against playoff teams. And Carey Price has been like the little girl with the curl lately. When he’s good, he’s very good (he hasn’t allowed more than two goals in a win since December 16th, a total of 20 wins), but when he’s not, he’s bad (of his 19 losses in regulation over the same period he allowed more than three goals 11 times). That’s a hard formula to get to four wins in a seven-game series.

Canadien on the hot seat: Scott Gomez. The Canadien center is the guy you remember in high school – quarterback of the football team, class president, prom king, valedictorian. Then you see him at the ten year reunion and ask, “dude, what happened? You let yourself go.” Gomez averaged 17-48-65 in six years with New Jersey (with a 33-goal year thrown in there) to start his career. This year, 7 goals and a minus-15 (worst plus-minus on the club). He hasn’t had a goal since February 5th, a 29-game drought. Even with that, he has it in him to perform at this level (he had 14 points in 19 playoff games last season), but he has to show it in this series.

It will be a competitive series, but frankly, neither team is playing well enough to go on a deep run. Thomas has more saves in him than does Price.

Boston in six

Pittsburgh (4th seed; 49-25-8) versus Tampa Bay (5th seed; 46-25-11)

Theme: Sidney, Sidney, wherefore art thou, Sidney?

Why Pittsburgh will win: There might not be a more resilient, nor a better coached team at the moment than the Penguins. Dan Bylsma has gotten just about everything he could out of a lineup lacking two of the top five talents in hockey (Yevgeni Malkin’s consistent application of that talent – or lack thereof – notwithstanding). It says a lot about Bylsma’s coaching that Sidney Crosby finished the season as the Penguins’ leading scorer by miles (66 points to Kris Letang’s 50), despite Crosby playing in only 41 games.

Why Pittsburgh won’t win: The object is getting to “four” first. And to do that a club needs some semblance of balance in scoring and defense. There are nights when one has to bail the other out. It is hard to see how an offense that lacks anything resembling a go-to guy (even Jordan Staal, who played in only 42 games, would not be a “60-point” player over a full season at his scoring pace) cobbles together four wins. No team in the first round puts more pressure on its defense and goaltending than do the Penguins.

Penguin on the hot seat: Chris Kunitz. Kunitz led all Penguins not named “Crosby” in goals (23), despite playing in only 66 games. He is probably the poster boy for the Penguins at the moment – a hard-working, tough as nails cuss who, if you are an opponent, hate to play against, and if you are a fan of the opposition, simply hate. But with all that grit, he produces…except lately. Kunitz finished the regular season with one goal in his last eight games, the wrong time to go cold on a team that has to squeeze goals from all over the lineup.

Why Tampa Bay will win: They average almost three goals a game, and their power play hummed along at more than 20 percent for the season. They are also coming into the tournament on a roll, having gone 7-1-0 to close the regular season. Their oft-maligned defense allowed only 14 goals in those eight games (four of them coming in their only loss, a 4-2 loss to Buffalo).

Why Tampa Bay will not win: Goaltending. Dwayne Roloson had respectable numbers with the Lightning (18-12-4, four shutouts, 2.56, .912), but his save percentage was actually better in the 20 games he played with the Islanders (.916) to start the season. He had a memorable playoff performance in 2006 with Edmonton, leading the oilers to the finals while compiling a 12-5, 2.33, .927 mark. But does he have that in him? The Tampa Bay offense carries their goaltending more than most teams competing for the Stanley Cup, which relieves some of the burden. The break Roloson gets is in the opponent for this round, who has to be on top of its game to cobble together goals in the absence of high-end offensive skill.

Lightning on the hot seat: Steven Stamkos. Has the third-year player run out of gas? On February 6th, Stamkos scored his 40th goal of the season in his 54th game, putting him on a pace for 61 for the season. He finished with five in his last 28 games (a 15-goal pace). If the early-season Stamkos shows up, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a counter-punch, unless Crosby returns and steps right into his mid-season form. If the late-season Stamkos is what the Lightning get, Pittsburgh can cobble together enough goals to win.

Tampa Bay looks a little bit too much like last year’s Caps to really make a dent in the playoffs, but Pittsburgh is just so dented all over the lineup. Before it’s over, this might be the most compelling series in the first round, a contest of wills – Tampa’s flash and youthful exuberance against Pittsburgh’s battle-tested and cobbled-together lineup. Bylsma would get our vote for the Jack Adams Award, but we have a hard time seeing how he gets his team to “four” in this one (unless there is a miracle involving the number “87”). Over the last decade or so, the first round in the East has almost always had a lower seeded team (or three) jump a higher seeded team. We have two in this year's edition, and this is the other one.

Tampa Bay in seven

And there you have it...Round One. As always, do not use these picks for cash wagering. Save your money for Powerball.

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