The time of year that all of America has been so anxiously waiting for is finally here! After effortlessly overshadowing both MLB’s Opening Week and NCAA’s March Madness in the past few weeks, the NHL begins its long and grueling pursuit of the Stanley Cup.
Sarcasm aside, even if you don’t know the first thing about hockey, no one can deny that the Stanley Cup is the greatest single prize in all of sports. The Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy? Dumb name and it just looks retarded. The Lombardi trophy? Cool looking, but the size of my forearm. The World Series Trophy? Arguably the worst in all of sports. The Stanley Cup? FUCKING AWESOME – 3 feet high and 35 pounds of pure championship glory. Plus, name another championship trophy that you can chug beer and eat cereal out of? There are none.
There is nothing better than the Stanley Cup and no victory more indescribable to the sports’ athletes than those that chase it for their entire careers and finally win it.
Just writing this gives me chills…and gets me about 75%.
Here are my previews for the Eastern Conference quarterfinals the begin tonight. I will have the previews for Flyers-Sabres and Bruins-Canadiens tomorrow.
#1 Washington Capitals vs. #8 New York Rangers
Washington: One of the leading storylines going into the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs is whether this is the year for Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals. They have had all of the pieces in place for a few years now and, similar to this season, have shown that they can be dominant in the regular season. However despite its talent, this organization has failed to get past the second round for three straight years now, leaving many questioning whether their core players have the intestinal fortitude needed to make a legitimate run at the Cup. This season, the combination of a late surge by the Caps and a meandering Flyers team helped Washington grab the #1 seed and, quite frankly, their best-case scenario for a first round matchup against the New York Rangers. It’s no secret that Washington has a dynamic offense – three deep scoring lines – that combine strength and size in the front of the crease (Mike Knuble, Jason Arnott), and superstar playmakers in Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Niklas Backstrom. This squad can score at will when firing on all cylinders as it did in the last month of the season. However, they have shown spurts of inconsistent team defense that can quickly send head coach Bruce Boudreau into an F-bomb laden tirade. Add injuries to blueliners Dennis Wideman and Tom Poti, and this Washington team will need to rely on their gifted goal-scorers to help out in their own end and be positionally responsible in order to make a deep run in these playoffs. The good news for the Caps is that, even with a banged up blue line, they should be able to handle an anemic Rangers offense.
Key Player: D, Jon Carlson – Mike Green has missed the last 20 games due to a concussion and may return for Game 1, albeit at less than 100%. Throw in Wideman and Poti being out for the foreseen future, and Jon Carlson is going to need to quickly forget that he’s a rookie and help lead the Washington defense. He’s a gifted offensive defenseman with great skating ability and solid awareness in his own end. Carlson is also a threat from the point on the powerplay as well. He is going to need to step up at both ends of the ice to relieve the already huge pressure on this Washington forwards.
New York: I have to admit – I was mildly heartbroken that the Canes squandered the chance for me to watch the Rangers miss the playoffs on the last day of the season two years in a row. No matter, as the Rangers have a big task ahead of them to get past a red-hot Washington team. Correction – the Rangers and their spotty offense have a huge task ahead of them to get past a red-hot Washington team. Double correction – the Rangers and their spotty offense that is now without Ryan Callahan have an enormous task ahead of them to get past a red-hot Washington team. The Rangers’ world-class goal scorer Marian Gaborik needs to be the world-class goal scorer that he has shown flashes of the last couple of seasons. When he is on, there are few like him. The only problem is that he goes in and out of these periods of floating around and seeming lost out there. Gabby needs to bring his A game. But more importantly…(see below)
Key Player: G, Henrik Lundqvist – Plain and simple, if the blue shirts offense is struggling, Lundqvist will need to keep them in games. King Henrik needs to stand on his head to have a shot. But if any goalie in the league can do it, it’s Lundqvist.
Prediction: Despite being well over-matched, I do think Lundqvist is going to steal a couple games for the Rangers. However, Capitals in 6.
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning
Pittsburgh: It’s weird – I hate the Pens more than any other NHL team, but after seeing the face of the NHL, Sidney Crosby, as well as Evgeni Malkin go down to serious injuries, I almost felt bad them. Then five minutes passed and I was glad. With Malkin and Crosby still out going into this series against the Lightning, the Penguins have a totally different feel than they have in years past. Coach Dan Bylsma is one of the best in the league, transforming his team’s identity to a defense first mentality, allowing the Pens to win big games down the stretch without their most gifted offensive assets. This is a Penguins team that is comfortable with a 2-1 lead going into the third, and then absolutely suffocates the opponent rather than trying to pot an insurance goal. To add to this defensive scheme, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been one of the best all year, stealing games for the Pens on the regular. However, Pittsburgh is facing a Tampa Bay squad that is loaded with offensive talent. Pittsburgh is going to need to turn up the offense in order to win a few of the sure to be gun slinging wild west offensive affairs that this series will feature.
My concussion hurts! Wahhhh!
Key Player: C, Jordan Staal – At only 25 years old, Staal is one of the youngest seasoned veterans in the league. He entered the NHL at 18 years old and has had a career full of playoff games and a Stanley Cup ring. The offensive void left by Malkin and Crosby will be felt by the Pens for this series. Staal needs to emerge as the premiere offensive threat that he has shown in the past and use his snipe show snap shot to net a couple of genos in this series. The Penguins’ offense has enough supporting talent around him. It’s up to Staal to bring all of his talents to the table.
Tampa Bay: Although I think Guy Boucher is a great coach and, in my opinion, the deserved winner of the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year, I just can’t stand to look at him. It looks like he got the gnarliest fish hook from Captain Hook himself.
The Lightning’s offense is as fun to watch as any in the league. Steven Stamkos is one of the purest goal scorers I have seen in my lifetime. Martin St. Louis is a sneaky candidate for the Hart Trophy and is wowing everybody with a Renaissance year to end all Renaissance years (31G, 68A, 99PTS). Vinny Lecavalier has slipped a bit compared to years past, but is still a great power forward capable of highlight reel finishes. Best of all, they have Simon Gagne. The Lightning are front-heavy though. Their blue line is thin outside of Pavel Kubina and youngster Victor Hedman and can be exposed by the Penguins depth at forward. If their defense plays above their potential, Tampa Bay could be a huge problem for the Pens.
Key Players: G, Dwayne Roloson – He has proven in the past that he can win playoff games when he backstopped Edmonton to the Cup Finals in 2006, but many still question Roloson’s ability and durability. He’s 41 years old – that’s a red flag for any professional athlete, let alone an NHL goalie. Roloson knows that his offense will bring it in this series. Nevertheless, he will need to be on point to bail out the lapses that his defensemen will surely have.
Prediction: Although I hate the Pens more than any other NHL team, I have a really difficult time picking against them in this matchup. With or without Crosby and Malkin, the Pens have playoff experience and a much better goalie. Plus, I have a sneaking suspicion that Crosby will be back for round 2, giving his teammates even more motivation to take this one. Penguins in 7.
My picks out West:
Canucks in 7
Coyotes in 6
Sharks in 6
Ducks in 5