|Connelly’s Top Ten: USA Women, Red Sox Bore Astros into Submission||Preparing for Another Year of Rebuilding for the Celtics||Red Sox Bullpen Sleeper: Matt Barnes||The Case For Trading Clay Buchholz|
The NHL’s second round of playoffs begin Thursday evening, as hockey’s version of the “Elite 8” take to the ice with visions of Stanley Cup glory dancing in their heads. The four second-round series have a lot to live up to, after the excitement and unpredictability that the league’s first round had to offer. You thought your NCAA March Madness bracket was busted early? Who had the Caps, Devils, and Sabres all being ousted this soon?
And so before we drop the puck on another round of exciting playoff hockey, let’s dive into each series and see what we’re in for…
In what will act as a rematch of this past January’s Winter Classic, Philly and the B’s face off in the most improbable of the second-round match-ups. Both teams looked like they were on life support at this time last month, squeaking their way into the bottom of the East’s playoff picture in the final week of the season. But. both teams took down division-winning teams with top-notch goalies in the first round, with the Flyers besting Martin Brodeur and the Devils in 5 games, while Boston topped Ryan Miller and the Sabres in 6.
Now, a bruised Broad Street Bullies squad comes into their second rounder with Boston, looking to overcome injuries to key players (Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, and Ian Laperrierre will all miss the series) and ride the wave of momentum that veteran journeyman goaltender Brian Boucher has helped create for the Flyers. On the flip side, Boston welcomes back one of their top forwards, as Marc Savard returns to the lineup after nearly two months away from game action, recovering from a concussion.
Physicality no doubt will reign supreme in this series, with both squads perfectly capable of bringing down the hammer when needed. Look for goaltending and special teams to play key roles in this series, as both Tuukka Rask and Boucher, who have enjoyed a successful start, are still relatively new to the playoff pressures that weigh heavier and heavier as teams go deeper and deeper. Also, both squads had potent power play units in their respective first round series. Whichever team can continue that trend will likely be the team to advance.
Prediction: With the B’s surprisingly earning home-ice advantage in this series, I think their relative health compared to that of Philly’s will help them gain the edge they’ll need to move on. Look for Boston to take this series in 6 games.
The defending champion Penguins will have a lot to handle in this series, as the surprising Canadiens are playing much better hockey than their eighth seeding would indicate. Winning three straight games over the Presidents’ Cup winning Capitals to advance was no easy feat. But can the Habs keep this momentum going against Sidney Crosby and the Pens, or will they just be too gassed to keep this roll going?
I think the key for Pittsburgh is going to be maintaining their home-ice advantage throughout this series. Both teams were able to earn three wins away from home in Round 1, so defending that home-ice advantage will be tough, but necessary. If Montreal has any chance in this series, they’re going to have to neutralize not only Sidney Crosby, but all of the Pens’ “Big Three” down the middle, with Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal in the mix as well. Crosby had 14 points in the six-game series with Ottawa. If that kind of production continues, the Habs will be headed home sooner rather than later.
Prediction: While the Canadiens are already playing with house money, I just don’t see them having enough to get by the reigning champs. Yes, Jaroslav Halak has been huge in Montreal’s victory, and yes, he is capable of stealing games for the Habs, but I just see too much offensive firepower on Pittsburgh’s roster not to believe they won’t completely roll over the Canadiens in this series. It’ll probably be the most entertaining series of the four, and definitely will be the loudest, but I see Pittsburgh advancing, knocking off Montreal in 5 games.
Detroit’s seven-game series win over fourth-seed Phoenix technically is the only upset from the Western Conference, but really, the Wings were expected to be here all along. Now, after a long, hard series with the Coyotes, they have to turn around quickly and face off with the West’s top dogs, the San Jose Sharks, less than 48 hours from advancing to the field of eight. On the other side of the ice, the Sharks look to wipe away their playoff stigma of the past, as most fans think of “chokers” when they hear about Joe Thornton and the Sharks. Could this finally be the year that San Jose finds a way to live up to the hype and hoist the Cup? You’re not going to find a believer here, but it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility.
This series will likely hinge on the play of San Jose’s top forward line, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley. The trio had their struggles in the opening round win over Colorado, with Joe Pavelski and the second line providing much of the offense that powered the series win for the Sharks. San Jose is going to need the top line to be at the top of their game if they hope to move on and beat these veteran Red Wings.
Prediction: Detroit knows how to win, they’ve been here before, and they hope to be here for a while longer. With the stellar play of rookie netminder Jimmy Howard, there’s no reason why the Wings can’t take care of business against a Sharks team that just doesn’t seem to have that playoff winning edge to them. Upset alert…I’m taking Detroit in 7 games.
In a rematch of their second-round playoff series a year ago, the Canucks and Blackhawks will reunite this time around, both with legitimate Cup hopes. It was a season ago when Chicago erupted for seven goals against Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo in Game 6 of their series, helping the ‘Hawks advance to the Conference Finals, and leaving Canuck fans thoroughly disappointed, especially with their franchise goalie.
Both squads had their early struggles in their respective opening round series, each falling behind 2-1 after three games. But both rebounded at the same time, winning their next three. If Chicago hopes to make quick work of the Canucks, they’ll have to keep the talented Sedin twins off the score sheet. Daniel and Henrik combined for 18 points in their series over the Kings, and if they can continue to put up production like that, Chicago’s goaltending weakness will be thoroughly exploited and they’ll be golfing sooner than they’d like to be. On the flip side, Vancouver’s Luongo has to put last season’s disappointment behind him and has to step up to be the elite goaltender he once was. Chicago is one of those teams that can roll out three ferocious forward lines, all with the ability to score at will, so if the Canucks hope to advance, they’ll have to do so with stellar play in net from Luongo.
Prediction: The Blackhawks are in full “Cup or bust” mode, with a cap-busting roster that will likely have to be rebuilt in the off-season. I just don’t see them “busting” quite yet. With a talented corps of forwards, strong defenseman, and a perfectly capable goaltending tandem of Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet, I’m seeing Chicago advance, I say in 6 games.