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NHL Playoff Predictions: Round Deux

LEN REDKOLES/GETTY IMAGES
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, left, shakes hands with Philadelphia's Claude Giroux after the Flyers clinched their first-round playoff series with a 5-1 victory in Game 6. Philadelphia next faces the New Jersey Devils in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

This just in: I should stick to my day job. That being reporting on sports, not predicting their outcomes — at least not in print.

The first round of NHL playoffs were not kind to me, or many so-called experts. If not for saving a little bit of face with the recent Game 7 results, I very well could have went 0-for-8 and looked a fool. Faced with that prospect, I probably would have thrown in the towel and shied away from the second round. However, buoyed by my late surge of success in correctly picking Washington, New Jersey and the New York Rangers as victors in the three series requiring a decisive game, I may as well try to ride that momentum. Or, let it ride, as the game goes in Las Vegas.

While I wound up 3-for-8 in the opening round, all three of those winners prevailed in one-goal games — two of them needing overtime, or double OT in the Devils’ case.

I went a shameful 0-for-4 in my West predictions, the conference I pay closest attention to throughout the regular season because of my boyhood allegiances to the now playoff-challenged Edmonton Oilers.

The four remaining teams —St. Louis, Phoenix, Nashville and Los Angeles — have never hoisted the Stanley Cup and are already in uncharted territory for the most part. Nevertheless, this round is about redemption so what better place to start than in the West . . .

St. Louis (2) vs. Los Angeles (8)

I never saw L.A.’s upset of Vancouver coming, nor did I foresee St. Louis being so savvy in ousting battle-tested San Jose. I expected — and wrongly predicted — the Canucks and Sharks to advance and be matched up in the second round. Now comes the challenge of righting that wrong in a matchup with many variables and few certainties. The Blues have home-ice advantage, a Cup-winning coach in Ken Hitchcock and depth throughout their lineup. But the Kings seemed to find their long-lost scoring touch and are backstopped by Vezina candidate Jonathan Quick. Comparing rosters, L.A. and St. Louis are, well, quite comparable, with a similar make-up that should make for an evenly matched, entertaining series. If the Kings can score a split in St. Louis, and especially if they steal the opener, I like their chances to pull off another improbable series win. What can I say, they won me over by beating a Canucks team built to contend.

Prediction: Los Angeles in six.

Phoenix (3) vs. Nashville (4)

I was very impressed with Nashville’s dismantling of Detroit, but less than impressed by Phoenix squeaking past Chicago. Goaltenders helped both the Coyotes and Predators get here, the only difference being Phoenix also had assistance from the opposing netminder. Without a couple soft overtime-winning goals yielded by Corey Crawford, the Blackhawks could — and perhaps should — be in this position. But I’ll digress, and give credit where it’s due when it comes to Coyotes ’keeper Mike Smith. He carried Phoenix, much like Pekke Rinne, another Vezina nominee, did Nashville. I have to give Rinne the edge this round and I much prefer his supporting cast on paper.

Prediction: Nashville in five.

Eastern Conference

New York Rangers (1) vs. Washington (7)

This series could really go either way, but I had a funny feeling about Washington before the playoffs and I still like the Capitals as a darkhorse. Again, goaltending will be a big factor with New York’s Henrik Lundqvist also in the Vezina running, while Washington’s Braden Holtby enjoyed a coming-out party against Boston — outduelling, and outlasting, last year’s Vezina and Conn Smythe winner, Tim Thomas. If Holtby’s heroics continue, the Capitals have enough offensive firepower to compete with any team and could actually overwhelm the Rangers.

Prediction: Washington in six.

Philadelphia (5) vs. New Jersey (6)

I’ve picked three underdogs thus far in the second round, perhaps influenced by the amount of first-round upsets. That trend stops here, though, as I think Philadelphia is a sure bet to beat New Jersey. The Devils struggled with the Panthers and will have their hands much fuller with a Flyers team that, at times, had its way with Cup-favourite Pittsburgh. Philadelphia is much deeper up front and should be able to expose an aging Martin Brodeur. So as long as Ilya Bryzgalov can provide adequate goaltending, the Flyers should breeze into the conference final.

Prediction: Philadelphia in five.

And the new winner is . . .

Given my Stanley Cup prediction is totally scrapped after the first round, I’ll start from scratch there too. For the record, I had Pittsburgh beating Chicago in five games, with Chicago eliminating Vancouver in the West final and Pittsburgh getting by Washington in the East final. My lone survivor from that final four is Washington, but after watching Philadelphia torch Pittsburgh, I now have the Flyers as the team to beat. My new (and hopefully improved) prediction has Philadelphia defeating Nashville in seven games to end its 37-year Cup drought.

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NHL Playoff Predictions: Guesses and Gut Feelings

April 11, 2012 1 comment

SHAUN BEST/REUTERS
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby hoists the Stanley Cup after his team beat the Detroit Red Wings in Game 7 of the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Final.

It’s that time of the year again, when the real games begin. Yes, the NHL playoffs are upon us.

While my boyhood team, the Edmonton Oilers, had reason to celebrate on Tuesday — winning the NHL draft lottery for a third straight year — 16 teams enter the post-season with Stanley Cup aspirations. Some more realistic than others, of course, but when the puck drops, anything can happen.

Smart money is on certain clubs based on regular-season ranking, but upsets aren’t unprecedented and who doesn’t enjoy rooting for underdogs? With nothing to lose or gain — aside from eating crow or earning bragging rights — I’ll try my hand at the prediction game again.

May as well start in the Western Conference where much of the local and provincial interest lies. Here goes nothing . . .

Vancouver (1) vs. Los Angeles (8)

A rematch of a first-round series from two years ago that Vancouver won in six games, I’m anticipating a case of déjà vu here. Expect a low-scoring battle as Roberto Luongo and Jonathan Quick engage in a goaltender’s duel. I don’t see Cory Schneider factoring into the equation, at least not yet. I think the Canucks have more firepower, enough to overpower the Kings, especially if Daniel Sedin returns from his concussion to net a few goals.

Prediction: Vancouver in six.

St. Louis (2) vs. San Jose (7)

The Sharks are underdogs, but only on standing. On paper and on the ice, these two teams match up very evenly, and San Jose has playoff experience on its side. That could prove beneficial, but I have a feeling whoever wins Game 1 wins this series. If Jaroslav Halak can channel his past playoff heroics and outplay Antti Niemi, that might be the Blues’ best chance. I just think the Sharks have been here before and will find a way to prevail. Call it a hunch.

Prediction: San Jose in six.

Phoenix (3) vs. Chicago (6)

The Blackhawks are the lower seed but had the higher point total in the regular season. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews (concussion) is expected back and, despite a lengthy layoff, is likely to be an impact player in this series. The Coyotes overachieved in the eyes of most this season, and playoff success has never been their forte. The Hawks are deeper with more talent overall, so with any kind of respectable goaltending from Corey Crawford (and/or Ray Emery), they have to be considered favourites. I don’t even think it’s close.

Prediction: Chicago in five.

Nashville (4) vs. Detroit (5)

Flip a coin on this one. The experts are split and I have mixed emotions too. I know the Predators have loaded up for a playoff run, but they might have met their match in the first round. It’s hard to bet against battle-tested Detroit under any circumstances. The Red Wings’ core isn’t getting any younger, but, surprisingly, they aren’t getting any — or much — worse with age, either. Detroit might be a bit better up front; Nashville a bit better on the back end. In no scenario do I foresee a short series. Anything less than six games would be a shocking result to me. Heads or tails . . .

Prediction: Detroit in seven.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

N.Y. Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa (8)

The Senators are getting some love in mainstream media, maybe because they are Canada’s other team or because they won the season series 3-1. I’m not buying it. New York was a top team from start to finish and doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses for Ottawa to exploit. Stranger things have happened and who knows if the Sens can snatch a split of the first two games in the Big Apple, but I’m going with my gut — and the bookies — on this series.

Prediction: New York in five.

Boston (2) vs. Washington (7)

The defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins won’t have an easy path to repeating. Don’t plan another parade in Beantown just yet. The Capitals aren’t burdened by expectations for a change and I fully expect Washington to embrace its underdog status. The Capitals have all the skill in the world, but their heart is often called into question. No better time than now for captain Alex Ovechkin and Co. to answer their critics. The goaltending matchup certainly favours Boston with reigning Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas pitted against playoff debutant Braden Holtby, but I’m sensing a coming-out party — for Holtby and the Caps.

Prediction: Washington in six.

Florida (3) vs. New Jersey (6)

Much like the Phoenix-Chicago pairing, Florida is ranked higher even though New Jersey produced more points this season. The Panthers are back in the playoff picture for the first time in a long time — like more than a decade — while the Devils are returning to the dance after a rare hiatus last spring. New Jersey appears to have the edge on paper, at least up front and in goal, plus many of its players are familiar with the post-season grind. Unless Florida wins the opener, I think the Panthers are about to be overwhelmed — much like they were back in 2000 when the Devils swept their first-round series. Dust off those brooms . . .

Prediction: New Jersey in four.

Pittsburgh (4) vs. Philadelphia (5)

This might be the most hyped series, and rightfully so. Two Cup contenders and bitter cross-state rivals facing off in the first round: It doesn’t get much better than that. Both teams have their go-to guys, but if I’m going to war and can only take one NHL roster, I’d hitch my wagon to Pittsburgh. No disrespect to Philly, I’d probably pick the Flyers over anybody else in the East, but the Penguins are legit. If Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang can stay healthy and Marc-Andre Fleury plays up to his potential, the Penguins could be unstoppable. Crosby could be rusty, or he could be fresh. That’s a matter of opinion, but as Sid showed at the Vancouver Olympics, he rises to the occasion. Given the elevated intensity here, I think Crosby emerges as the ultimate difference-maker.

Prediction: Pittsburgh in seven.

And the winner is . . .

I’ll take this one step — or three rounds — further and predict that Pittsburgh hoists hockey’s holy grail this June, defeating Chicago in five games for the Stanley Cup. Loathe it or love it, that prognostication also has Chicago beating Vancouver in the West final, while Pittsburgh knocks off Washington in the East final.

Larry Fisher is a sports reporter with a passion for hockey at all levels. Follow him on Twitter @LarryFisher_KDC or email larry.fisher@ok.bc.ca.

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Justin Schultz: From top NHL prospect to top free agent?

Photo courtesy UWBadgers.com
Justin Schultz, seen here unleashing a slapshot during NCAA action for the University of Wisconsin Badgers this season, is generating a lot of hype for his on-ice talents and off-ice contract situation.

Justin Schultz has a big decision to make – to sign or not to sign with the Anaheim Ducks? And if not, then where to sign after July 1st, when he’ll suddenly become one of the NHL’s most coveted free agents despite not even debuting yet.
The West Kelowna product and former Westside Warriors defenceman, who turns 22 on July 6, just finished his third NCAA season with the University of Wisconsin Badgers and now is expected to turn pro in the fall rather than return for his senior year. By all accounts, Schultz has outgrown the collegiate game, with some scouting reports suggesting he could step into the NHL as an immediate impact player – a puck-moving, power-play quarterback capable of challenging for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. That is, however, dependent on Schultz signing with the right team, of which he’ll have 30 to choose from should he not ink a deal with Anaheim between now and July 1.
Media speculation is rampant that Schultz will hold out for his pick of the litter and spurn the Ducks, who selected him in the second round (43rd overall) of the 2008 NHL draft. A loophole in the current collective bargaining agreement allows for that option, though most prospects come to terms on entry-level contracts with the teams that drafted them.
Blake Wheeler is among the exceptions, notoriously signing with Boston rather than Phoenix, which essentially wasted its fifth overall pick in 2004 on the former University of Minnesota Golden Gopher.
Anaheim still has a few months to negotiate with Schultz in hopes of avoiding a similar fate, though reports suggest if Schultz was interested in playing for the Ducks, he’d already be in their lineup.
Apparently Anaheim’s preference was to sign him as soon as Wisconsin’s season ended on March 11, with a playoff loss to the Denver Pioneers. Other NCAA prospects, such as forwards Jaden Schwartz (St. Louis Blues) and Reilly Smith (Dallas Stars), did exactly that this spring, but with the NHL season ending on Saturday and Schultz still on the sidelines, the rumour mill has him leaning toward free agency.
That might be in Schultz’s best interests, financially and from a hockey standpoint. Not that he couldn’t fit well in Anaheim, alongside blossoming blue-line talents Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa, two former first-rounders, but there may be better opportunities with other teams. The Edmonton Oilers, for example, would love to add an NHL-ready defence prospect to their youth movement led by forwards Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. At the other end of the spectrum, even the Vancouver Canucks would likely extend an offer to bring Schultz home to B.C., with a chance to play for a perennial contender.
For his part, Schultz has kept quiet about his future and intentions.
“In my heart I know I can play up there (in the NHL),” Schultz told htrnews.com, a Wisconsin-based news service, last Wednesday. “We just feel that it’s best just to focus on my school (work) and get this year done with.
“We feel it’s best to finish out the school year and then look at my options and then see what’s best for me.”
One thing is for certain: there will be no shortage of teams lining up for Schultz’s services should he be available on July 1.
On a recent TSN broadcast discussing this off-season’s most sought after free agents, hockey insider Bob McKenzie threw Schultz’s name into the mix, with the likes of New Jersey forward Zach Parise and Nashville defenceman Ryan Suter.
That’s heady company, no doubt.
So what has teams clamouring over Schultz?
Well, he’s only the NCAA’s leading scorer among defencemen for a second straight season, finishing 20th overall in 2011-12 with 16 goals and 44 points in 37 games. Seven of those goals were on the power play. In 2010-11, Schultz led Wisconsin in scoring with 18 goals and 47 points in 41 games, including nine power-play markers, to finish tied for 17th overall with the aforementioned Jaden Schwartz, formerly of Colorado College, who captained Canada at this year’s world juniors and recently scored in his NHL debut.
That season, as a sophomore, Schultz outscored two Wisconsin teammates that are now also enjoying stellar NHL rookie seasons in defenceman Jake Gardiner (Toronto Maple Leafs) and forward Craig Smith (Nashville Predators). In fact, Schultz’s emergence made Gardiner expendable, resulting in a trade from Anaheim to Toronto last summer.
Now, if there’s smoke where there’s fire, the Ducks could wind up burned by that gamble. Or, this could be much ado about nothing, and Schultz will end the delay by signing with Anaheim ahead of the July 1 deadline. However it plays out, Schultz will enter next season with lofty expectations thanks to this exposure and a dominant NCAA career that twice had him in the running for the Hobey Baker Award as U.S. college player of the year.
ICE CHIPS: Schultz was a potential Hobey Baker finalist again this season, but was eliminated last Thursday with the announcement of the top three candidates: Spencer Abbott, a senior forward from the University of Maine who promptly signed with Toronto on Friday; Jack Connolly, a senior free-agent forward from the University of Minnesota-Duluth; and Austin Smith, another senior forward from Colgate University who was drafted and signed by the Dallas Stars. . . . Smith, a Dallas native and no relation to Reilly Smith of Mimico, Ont., also has an Okanagan connection. Austin Smith played one season with the BCHL’s Penticton Vees, scoring 32 goals and 67 points in 60 regular-season games, then adding 11 goals and 22 points in 15 playoff games en route to winning the 2008 league championship.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter @LarryFisher_KDC. He can also be contacted via email at larry.fisher@ok.bc.ca

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