Wednesday, April 11, 2012

2012 NHL Playoffs Preview

Of the four major sports in the United States, the National Hockey League is the least popular. Although the NHL is the second-oldest league behind the MLB, it has faced its disadvantages through the years. Maybe it's the fact that the league’s roots came from Canada, or maybe it's the fact that they tried to do major expansion during the Great Depression. Some blame the recent lockout in the 2005 season. Others complain that you just can’t follow a small puck on TV. In the end, hockey is still the most exciting sport to watch live, yet the average American will never experience it.

The last time hockey was relevant was during the Mighty Ducks movies in the 90s, but most people that were born in the last two decades have never even seen any of these classics. Without youth interest, it is hard to continue to grow a fan base, especially in towns where hockey is rarely played like the southern and western parts of the United States. Unfortunately, hockey is an expensive sport. From finding ice time where few rinks are available to the pricey equipment needed by each player, the costs of having your child play hockey can easily cost a parent thousands of dollars.

Surprisingly enough, however, the NHL has been gaining popularity around the world due to its international appeal. Personally I have always found hockey to be the best team sport when it comes to the Olympics; not only is the quality of hockey fast-paced compared to other sports, but it is always very competitive. Usually you have one or two teams dominate, but with hockey many different nations have proven to have the ability to medal. It is also exciting to see the best of the NHL representing different countries, unlike with basketball in which most of the all-stars play for the United States.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the NHL playoffs is that every overtime is sudden death. On the baseball diamond, both teams receive a chance to bat. On the football field, both teams have a chance at a possession if the first team scores with a field goal. On the basketball court, overtime is simply five additional minutes on the clock. But in the hockey rink, every overtime game ends with a scoring goal, and no other sport in the big four can make that claim. In addition, there is only one championship trophy that is passed down every year to the winning team. You don't get to keep it unless you win it again, and that makes having the Stanley Cup that much more special.

Playoffs start this week, and there are many intriguing matchups in round one. If you don't already know, the NHL has a knack for playoff upsets -- we have regularly seen 7th and 8th seeds advance far into the playoffs, and taking a 3-0 series lead is no guarantee.

Here are some things to watch for in each of the eight matchups in round 1 of the 2012 NHL playoffs:

New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators

For the first time since Wayne Gretzky was a Ranger in the 90s, there are some high expectations in New York. Don’t let the 1 vs. 8 match up fool you; this series won't be easy for the Rangers with so many savvy veterans on the Ottawa Senators. These two teams rely heavily on their top scorers to get points on the board. While the Rangers defense is solid, all eyes will be on their star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to handle the pressure like he always does. The Rangers almost defeated the top-ranked Capitals last year due to Lundqvist, despite being outshot by 36 shots in the series.

Players to watch:

Milan Michalek led the Senators with 35 goals this past season. With little scoring from their bench, Michalek needs to step up to pull off this upset.

Brad Richards of the Rangers received a huge contract this past offseason, and there will be a ton of responsibility put on his shoulders. Richard hasn’t blown anyone away so far but has come through with timely goals all season long.

Prediction: Rangers in 6

Boston Bruins vs. Washington Capitals

This is one of the more appealing matchups in round 1 of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. The Bruins are the defending champs, and even with a subpar year for their star goaltender Tim Thomas, still had a solid regular season. On the other side you have the Washington Capitals, who in previous years have had the reputation of brilliant regular seasons followed by failures during the playoffs. This year the Capitals barely made it as the 7th seed, but the talent that made them the 1st seed last year is still there. Backstrom is now healthy, while Ovechkin is still the most productive player in the NHL today. For non-hockey fans, the best comparison I can make to Alex Ovechkin is Lebron James. With no expectations for the Capitals to win against the Bruins, will this finally be the year they live up to their talent?

Players to watch:

Tim Thomas for the Bruins; if he is on, there is no way the Bruins lose this series.

Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals; look for him to get physical and take plenty of quality shots on Thomas.

Prediction: Bruins in 7

Florida Panthers vs. New Jersey Devils

Florida might be the 3rd seed in this tournament, but that is a mere technicality since they won their weak division. The Panthers actually only own the 6th best record in the east, while the Devils own the 4th. In the end, the Devils are the better team and might even have underperformed with all the talent on their roster. You can’t think of Devils hockey without Patrik Elias and Martin Brodeur and the 5 rings between them. It is inspiring that Brodeur has been around since the 1995 Stanley Cup victory and remains just as productive 17 seasons later. The Devils will also look to Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise to provide plenty of offense. The Panthers have their hands full, and with a bunch of average joes, they will need to band together to pull off this upset.

Players to watch:

Stephen Weiss for the Panthers; after 10 long seasons, Weiss will finally taste playoff hockey.

This will be Ilya Kovalchuk’s first playoffs with the Devils after signing a contract worth $100 million, and fans are eager to see if Kovalchuk is worth the cash.

Prediction: Devils in 5

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

This is the most enticing series of round one. If you missed the brawl these two teams had, go and check out Andrew Leu’s round 5 of Sunday Night Fights. There is no love lost here with this interstate rivalry. Both teams are willing to do anything to win this series, so you can expect all the cheap shots, jawing, and playoff fights you can handle. Now that the Penguins seem to be healthy, many experts have been quick to jump on this bandwagon. The talent is there with Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, and Evgeni Malkin; the question is if this team will be able to maintain their health in a physical battle with the Flyers. Another interesting storyline is Jaromir Jagr playing against his old team, which has to hurt loyal Penguin fans.

Players to watch:

Sidney Crosby for the Penguins is still the man to watch. If he didn’t get hurt so much, Sid the Kid could put up historical numbers.

Ilya Bryzgalov of the Flyers; many people felt the Flyers overpaid for Ilya, but no one will care if he performs in the playoffs.

Prediction: Flyers in 7

Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings

Here is another 1st seed versus 8th seed matchup that will be a challenge. The President Cup winner Canucks have to be glad that they aren’t playing the always dangerous Blackhawks in the first round like last year, but the Kings arguably have the top goaltender in the league with Jonathan Quick. The guy at the other end is no slack either as Roberto Luongo is always mentioned in the group of top goaltenders in the league and usually comes through when his team needs him too. The Kings do not have much offensive firepower, so expect them to rely heavily on their goalie and defense to keep them in it.

Players to watch:

Keep an eye on Mike Richards of the Kings. He will be out there trying to prove the Flyers wrong for getting rid of him.

Sedin twins Henrik and Daniel are key cogs in the Canucks' offensive machine. Thankfully Daniel will return from injury just in time for the playoffs.

Prediction: Canucks in 6

St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks

Most would agree that the Blues have overachieved this regular season while the Sharks have underachieved. San Jose has been one of the most consistent teams in recent years with big wins against the Red Wings twice and always nearly making it to the finals the last two seasons. St. Louis has allowed the least amount of goals and shot attempts, but you have to wonder how things will play out with two evenly skilled goalies on the same squad. Also the Blues have been offensively challenged this year and will have trouble generating goals. Meanwhile the Sharks have tons of experience and should have the motivation back after lacking it all regular season long.

Players to watch:

Joe Thornton will be determined to get his chance at winning a Stanley Cup after witnessing his old team win it all last year.

David Perron returned midyear from an injury he received playing against the Sharks back in 2010. How sweet it would be for him to lead his team to a victory over the team that almost ended his career with a nasty concussion.

Prediction: Sharks in 7

Phoenix Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks

This is the same situation as the Devils and Panthers matchup in which the 6th seed (Blackhawks) has the better record, but the 3rd seed (Coyotes) won their division. The Blackhawks have talent but have faced health issues. With Jonathan Toews back just in time for the playoffs along with Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane, Chicago is going to try to push the tempo and turn this series into a high-scoring affair.

Players to watch:

Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks will be the key; he needs to prove he is healthy starting day one.

Old man Ray Whitney who turns 40 soon and has had a career year by collecting 77 points, which leads his team.

Prediction: Chicago in 6

Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Red Wings

This should be the most competitive series in the Western Conference. It has been well-documented that Nashville ownership tried to create their young franchise in the mold of Hockeytown Nation. Now it is finally time for the Predators to form their own identity and stop living in the shadows of other franchises. Detroit will always play solid hockey come playoff time, and the quality of players still exists with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. But the Predators come in with a very balanced and deep attack, with 10 different players scoring 10 more goals this season.

Players to watch:

Datsyuk of the Red Wings is the man to watch; look for him to dominate the faceoffs to establish possession early on.

Mike Fisher of the Predators is having a good year, and the fact that he is married to Carrie Underwood always makes him an interesting follow.

Prediction: Predators in 7

If you've been searching for an excuse to start watching hockey, now would be the time to tune in.

Photos courtesy of the NHL


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