Tuesday, May 17, 2011

NHL Eastern and Western Conference Finals Predictions

The NHL Eastern Conference Finals will be headed by two fantastic goalies drinking from the fountain of youth. Both Tim Thomas (37 years old) and Dwayne Roloson (41) have  taken long, similar paths to  get to this point in  their respective careers. Thomas
(left) has reclaimed his stake as “the guy” in  Boston’s net and could ride that to a Stanley Cup. Or, will Roloson and Tampa Bay continue their miracle run and represent the East? Goalies will be in the spotlight in this series, but will they be the only ones that will shine? These are two of the highest-scoring teams in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Western Conference Finals pits the top two seeds head-to-head as the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks do battle. These two teams have never faced one another in the NHL playoffs, and both have struggled in recent years in the postseason despite phenomenal regular season success. San Jose won the President’s Trophy in 2008-09 with 117 points but were hastily ousted by the Anaheim Ducks in Round 1. Vancouver has been a top seed in the West in each of the past two seasons but have been eliminated in the Semis twice. This season though, they enter in as the President’s Trophy winners and the unquestioned #1 seed in the Western Conference. Common belief is that the winner of this series will win the Stanley Cup. Not so fast though as the East winner, whomever that may be, will surely have something to say about that. So how do these series shake out? Hit the jump to see:

Eastern Conference Finals: Tampa Bay Lightening vs. Boston Bruins
Thomas, a ninth round pick by the old Quebec Nordiques in the 1994 NHL Draft now has a suffocating defense surrounding him in Boston. The Flint, MI native led the NHL in Goals Against Average (GAA) at 2.00 and added 35 wins. Additionally, Thomas set a new NHL record with a .938 Save Percentage. Thomas’ resurgence as Boston’s start has made Bruin fans have a short-term memory of last season when they blew a 3-0 series lead with Tuukka Rask in net. This is the closest the Bruins have been to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1992 when they reached the conference finals. Boston’s defense, led by Zdeno Chara, has guided them through the first two rounds. Their timely scoring and punishing defense have put them in a position to succeed as they utterly dominated the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 2. Milan Lucic (62 points), David Krejci (62) and Patrice Bergeron (57) will have to pace the offense if they are to keep up with the Lightning. That is, of course, if Bergeron is able to play after suffering a mild concussion in Round 2 against Philadelphia. If Boston’s power play is able to get a jolt (2-for-37, 5.4%) it could be a quick series.

Roloson had a pedestrian year in Tampa Bay (24-25-5, 2.59 GAA), but has now done remarkable work in the spring (8-3, 2.01 GAA in playoffs). Roloson knows how to turn it up a notch in the playoffs, evidenced by his 6-0 career record in elimination games. For Tampa Bay, they are hoping to ride Roloson to their 2nd Cup in team history. Their other one came in a memorable seven-game series against the Calgary Flames in 2004. While goaltending may be the central focus of this series leading in, Tampa Bay’s offense is lethal and Boston’s defense can frustrate the opponent. For the Lightning, Martin St. Lois has 13 points and added another 99 in the regular season.  They also have scores like Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier among others. Tampa boasted ten scorers in double-digits for goals. While their defense remains suspect, the offense is explosive and potent. Tampa Bay went a lethal 12-for-45 (26.7%) on the power play so far in the playoffs and are tied with the San Jose Sharks in goals with 38. Additionally, Tampa has killed off an incredible 94.4% of their penalties.

One common theme that is being discussed is that both teams had had more than one week off since their last series. Beings that both Tampa Bay and Boston swept their series’ against Washington and Philadelphia respectively, they received long rests in between. The Bruins appear to be the deeper team and at least better equipped for the long run of this series and a potential Stanley Cup Finals appearance. The Western Conference will be very difficult to defeat in the Stanley Cup Finals, but Boston stands the better chance in my opinion. Boston’s overall depth and goaltending serves them well as they play a more defensive game and tend to use timely scoring to win.

Prediction: Bruins in 7.

Western Conference Finals: San Jose Sharks vs. Vancouver Canucks
Both teams’ struggles relate back to constant poor performances from top-flight scorers. Prior to this playoff, San Jose Captain Joe Thornton has had just 65 points in 91 career playoff games. Additionally, Patrick Marleau, another intricate piece of the San Jose core, has 82 points in 120 playoff games to date. This playoff in particular, Marleau has just 7 points in 14 games. Alas, San Jose’s signing of a money goaltender in Antti Niemi shows their commitment to changing their past playoff fortunes. Niemi, who led the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup last season, is now 23-12 with a 2.77 GAA in his young playoff career, his credentials are gaining momentum with each game.

On the Vancouver end, the Sedin brothers, Daniel and Henrik, have just 52 and 55 points respectively in their playoff careers. Each have played about 80 playoff games to boot. The main concern on everyone’s radar in terms of Vancouver tends to be all-world goaltender Roberto Luongo and his disappearances in the spring. Luongo, one of the best goaltenders in recent NHL history is still looking for necessary vindication that comes only through a Stanley Cup. Especially his being a representative of Canada, until his name is immortalized forever on that precious piece of metal, there will always be the question: “is he good enough?” Luongo has just 26-22 career playoff record in four trips to the post-season.

Both teams are hungry for playoff success and to put past post-season demons to rest once and for all. While it has become a goal for both teams as a whole, the individual ramifications are felt for many players as well. For Ryan Kesler, who leads all playoff scorers with 16 points, this is a chance to prove that he is an elite player in the NHL. Kesler topped the 40-goal plateau this past season and has continued his success in the playoffs thus far. Joe Thornton has played like “Big Joe” of the regular season in these playoffs with 13 points in 14 games, his best playoff performance ever. Notice the mentioning of these two stars consecutively as they have already butted heads feverishly in Game 1 and should continue to do so throughout the series.

Prediction: Canucks in 6.

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