The 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs are underway as of last Wednesday evening, and so far the games have been nothing short of spectacular shows on ice.
League defending champions the Boston Bruins opened up their Stanley Cup defense on Thursday against the No. 7-seeded Washington Capitals with a 2-1 overtime Game 1 win, courtesy of 31-year-old forward Chris Kelly, who fired a laser slap shot past Capitals goalie Braden Holtby just 78 seconds into the extra period. Boston grabbed the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed after finishing second in final NHL standings.
The Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers both earned No. 1 seeds going into this year’s playoff run after posting the league’s only records with over 50 wins — both had 51. The Canucks and Rangers can both attribute their successful regular seasons to forwards Henrik and Daniel Sedin and right winger Marian Gaborik, respectively, who combined for a total of 224 points.
This is the second consecutive season that the Canucks have taken the No. 1 seed. The team’s skates are certainly lined up for redemption after a disappointing seven-game series runner-up effort against the Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals. The loss led to a sizable riot, costing the city of Vancouver an estimated $5 million in damages.
It’s safe to say the team doesn’t like to lose.
Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin, the league’s top player and favorite to win this year’s Hart Memorial Trophy, enters the 2012 playoff race with Pittsburgh as the No. 4 seed from the Eastern Conference. The 25-year-old, four-time All-Star racked up a league-leading 109 points this season, despite playing in only 75 of 82 regular season games.
And finally, after winning the franchise’s first division championship ever — from the Southeast region over second-place Washington — the Florida Panthers ended a NHL-record 12-year drought of not making the playoffs.
Much of the team’s success can be credited to general manager Dale Tallon’s revamping of the team, which included new players, jerseys and the hiring of former Portland Pirates coach Kevin Dineen.
Here are my winning predictions for the Western Conference:
Despite the difference in seeded rank, I’m not at all surprised to see the No. 8 Los Angeles Kings take an early lead over the No. 1 Canucks with two straight 4-2 wins, simply because goalie Jonathan Quick knows how to win games in front of the net — he was this year’s league-leader in shutouts with 10.
Perhaps the reason the Canucks have fallen to such ruin is the loss of leading goal scorer Daniel Sedin, who hasn’t seen ice time in a game since a blow to the head with 10 games remaining in the regular season. This series is far from over, and, deep down inside, the Canucks know how embarrassing it would be to get sent home after a first-round matchup loss.
Even without Daniel Sedin, they should be able to pull it together for at least a first-round advancement. I predict the Canucks will take this in seven games.
The No. 2 St. Louis Blues showed dominance in Game 2 of their quarterfinal matchup against the No. 7 San Jose Sharks with a 3-0 shutout. St. Louis lost Game 1 in double overtime. Goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott have split time all season as the Blues’ man behind the mask, but Halak was called on to start both of the first two playoff games.
Both can do the job, as they have clearly shown throughout the regular season, giving the Blues the best goals against total in the entire league with just 165 all season.
Shutting out Sharks forward Joe Thornton is key, not just for his danger of scoring goals, but more so for breaking up the team’s origin of great plays — Thornton was third among the league’s top players in assists with 59. The Blues will take this one in six games.
The Coyotes-Blackhawks series will certainly be a hotly contested matchup after their first two games saw overtime periods. Chicago will look to alternate captain forwards and team-leading point scorers Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp for help to capture a series win.
Phoenix must rely on goalie Mike Smith, who has been fairly consistent all year and ranked third amongst goalies in saves and winning percentage during the regular season. This series will go six games, in favor of Chicago, who is the better team on paper. If it weren’t for the exceedingly talented Central region of the Western Conference, the No. 6 Blackhawks would probably be seeded higher than the No. 3 Coyotes.
The No. 4 Nashville Predators vs. No. 5 Detroit Red Wings matchup is undoubtedly the best the Western Conference has to offer. Two points separated the two teams in final Central region standings; however, they both managed to win 48 games each. After three straight score lines of 3-2 from this quarterfinal series, there’s no doubt this series is going seven games, barring a crucial injury to one of the team’s top players.
Nashville will look to 29-year-old Finnish goalie Pekka Rinne, who finished this season as the league’s top goalie after winning a league-best 43 games and racking up a league-leading 1,987 saves. Rinne is a favorite to win this year’s Vezina Trophy.
In front of the other net for Detroit, we find former University of Maine goalie Jimmy Howard, who also stands as one of the NHL’s best. Howard finished this season with 35 wins — good enough to rank him fifth in the league — and was also among the top 10 in league leaders for save percentage.
Notwithstanding, the talent of Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg and the Red Wing’s Central region-leading goals for a total of 248, Rinne will most likely be the reason why Nashville takes this series in seven games.
See the next issue of The Maine Campus for the breakdown of the Eastern Conference playoffs.