While I think Vancouver/Chicago is the most compelling western series, and Detroit/Phoenix may be the toughest to call, I think this Nashville/Anaheim series has the potential to be the most rewarding first round hockey series to watch.
I’ve tried to put it off, but now it’s time to take a stand on the series that is nearest and dearest to my heart. The Red Wings won 4-3 Sunday afternoon at the United Center, and in doing so, set up a first round rematch with the Phoenix Coyotes. Hockey fans remember last year’s classic seven game series that lacked very many classic games. In fact, only Game 1 was decided by one goal, and only Game 3 was decided by 2 goals. There were four games that saw a winning margin of three goals, and of course Game 7 that saw the Red Wings win 6-1 in the desert and move onto the western semis. So while we have a tendency to romanticize a series that goes the distance, last year’s really wasn’t that riveting in terms of third period tension and consequence. Neither team got to test themselves in more than one nail-biter, and perhaps it showed in the following round when Detroit dropped all four of its losses to San Jose by one goal apiece. So what can we expect to see this time around from these two teams.
For one, we might be able to expect a lot of goals again. Phoenix came in at only 6th among these western playoff teams in goals scored, but that might be offset by Detroit’s conference worst 241 goals allowed (worst among playoff teams — no sense in evaluating teams already eliminated). Additionally, Phoenix has gotten some of its key offensive players back from injury; players like Martin Hanzal, Lauri Korpikoski, and Vernon Fiddler — all of them centers. Another player the Coyotes will be “getting back” is team captain Shane Doan. No, Doan isn’t coming off injury, but remember that Doan was injured early in that Detroit series last year, and was unable to return. Many pundits pointed out that had Doan not suffered the injury, Phoenix likely would have been the team moving on last year. At the other end, Detroit was one goal shy of the NHL lead, while Phoenix’s defense was just like its offense, 6th of 8.
The Detroit yin to this healthy yang for Phoenix has to be the recent injury to Wings center / left wing / Conn Smythe winner Henrik Zetterberg. Hank has been officially ruled out of Game 1 Wednesday night, but I have to think this leg injury could keep him out longer than just one game in this series. Obviously not having Zetterberg in the lineup hurts Detroit on both sides of the rink, but what’s worse is not having Zetterberg for these home games that the Wings are “supposed” to win. Detroit has always shown an ability to win road games and certainly coach Mike Babcock sets the tone for taking things one game at a time, but one has to wonder if these aging and defensively poor Red Wings can rely on coming back in a series against a team as physical and playoff-starved as the Coyotes.
Most people’s default solution to the Zetterberg injury is that Pavel Datsyuk must step his game up to compensate for Hank’s absence, in a role reversal of sorts from the two injury stints for Datsyuk during this regular season. But I don’t think that’s really the key. Datsyuk is brilliant nearly all the time, so there’s really not a whole lot of room for improvement to his game. What’s more important is that the other forwards on the team must play more disciplined and not turn the puck over. Additionally, defensemen like Jonathan Ericsson have to take the training wheels off and start playing up to potential. Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski cannot play 40 minutes a game, so it’s the lesser lines that need to stand up and be accountable for their results. Outside of Brad Stuart and the aforementioned Lidstrom and Rafalski, I’m not sure the Red Wings have any healthy defensemen that would incite confidence in anyone other than their opponents. This is something that has to change, not only in Zetterberg’s absence, but also after his return if this team is to go any deeper than five games into the second round against San Jose. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.
I think this series will hinge upon the results of Games 3 and 4. I want to foresee the Red Wings holding serve at home to open the series, but I simply don’t. I think there is some danger that the Coyotes may snatch both games at The Joe, a la Vancouver in 2002. But like any sane person sitting on the fence, I’ll assume a 1-1 series by default. Therefore it will be on Detroit to impose its will and clean up its game when the series shifts to the desert and the Jobing.com Arena is in full white out mode. If Detroit is able to win one of those two games, I think we are looking at a seven game series, and one in which I will take the Red Wings to pull it out again. But if Phoenix is able to make its return trip to the Motor City with a series lead, I don’t think this Red Wings team is good enough defensively to come back and win three games in a row. On the same hand, I love the physicality of this Phoenix team, as well as its rock solid starter in net, Russian olympian and playoff stud Ilya Bryzgalov.
So to review, if it’s 3-1 then I’ll take Phoenix in six. If it’s 2-2 I’ll take Detroit in seven. As I am a Red Wings fan, you can adjust for bias as you will. Puck drops in 26 hours, cheers.
The time has come for the NHL to drop the puck for the 2011 playoffs. Staged against the backdrop of springtime in North America, the playoffs have always conjured feelings of rebirth and instantaneous nostalgia that few other things on earth can. Looking at these playoff matchups and storylines should provide us all with even more of those personal struggles between wanting to stay in the moment and appreciate what we are witnessing, and the real-time tragedy of realizing that each passing second is one that we can never live again for the first time.
Speaking of needing to be present and forget about tragedies past, let’s start in the west with the matchup between the current holders of the Presidents’ Trophy against the current holders of the Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks made it in by the skin of their teeth and the relentless effort Sunday night by a scorned Minnesota team, whose radio announcers kept italicizing the fact that the new Minnesota team (the Wild) was smashing the dreams of the old Minnesota team that skipped town in the ’90s (the Dallas Stars). While the backstory there is somewhat intriguing, the result of that game set up this first round series that couldn’t carry more intrigue heading into Game 1.
The Vancouver Canucks wrapped up the league’s best record some time ago, and have adopted that well-known attitude of Stanley Cup or bust that we have seen so many times over the years. And for good reason — the Canucks have never lifted the Cup. Outside of hitting the post behind Mike Richter with five minutes to go in Game 7 in 1994, they have never been close. But this lack of reaching the brink can be excused by the fact that Vancouver has never really been on the short list to win any season’s title. Sure, they’ve won some divisions and gotten some high seeds, but they’ve never had the complete team that they boast today. Much of this newfound status as favorites can be attributed to the growth and development of the Sedin twins, who have now each led the league in points one of the last two years, and may in fact end up taking home MVPs for each season as well (Daniel’s main competition for this season’s MVP appears to be Anaheim’s Corey Perry). Last season saw Daniel hurt for much of the time leading up to the playoffs, and despite Henrik leading the league in points, nobody really thought the 3rd-seeded Canucks should have defeated the #2 and Stanley Cup favorite Blackhawks. In seasons prior, the Sedins had not quite reached the level that they are at now, and so those disappointments can be understood. But not this year. There is not a team in hockey that the Canucks could go against where people will say, “Gee, I really don’t think Vancouver can match up with this opponent over seven games.” It’s not going to happen. The excuses will not be there this time. Vancouver has to achieve this spring, or face the wrath of a fan base desperate to see the dividends of a decade of investment, and so far, disappointment.
There are a lot of pundits out there calling for another series victory for Chicago over Vancouver, and claiming that this is the worst possible first round matchup for the top seeded Canucks. I completely disagree. I think this is a golden opportunity for the Canucks to turn around this apprehensive undertone that the fan base seems to carry around, always worried about who the next failure is going to come against. Some say the Blackhawks will be flying around, liberated by the relief of qualifying on the last day. I think they’re an 8 seed with a rookie goaltender. This is not to say Chicago is bad, but why shouldn’t Vancouver be the team flying around and playing with the focus of a team in the collective zone? They are essentially the younger brother who has spent the last two years getting beat up by the older sibling, but now wakes up and finds themselves actually bigger and stronger than the older one. They should feel like this is a golden opportunity to exact some payback on their scrawnier, vulnerable tormenter. And I think they will.
Another reason I like this matchup long-term for Vancouver is because many times a great team sets the tone for a Stanley Cup run by fighting through a tough first round series. Sure, sometimes there are teams that are just too good to be bothered by lower seeds, and end up running through their first one or two series en route to a Cup. But many times we see early tests for eventual champions. We saw it last year in the example that everyone is using this week, the one about the Predators blowing a Game 5 lead late in Chicago to Patrick Kane’s shorthanded tying goal. But this now clichéd example is proof positive that a first round slugfest can invigorate a squad. It can force them to get out of their own heads and leave them with no choice but to press onward. Not only did we see it with Chicago last year, but also with the team they beat in the finals, the Philadelphia Flyers. Sure, the Flyers mowed through New Jersey in the opening round, but their liberation came in the second round against the Boston Bruins, when they used two goalies and a lot of grit to wipe away that 0-3 hole they found themselves in with respect to both the series and Game 7 individually. Once that happened, there was no doubt in the locker room that they would handle Montreal. And although the Flyers did not win the Cup, they did dig themselves out of an 0-2 hole in the finals against the Blackhawks, although they ultimately dropped the next two games.
My point is, go big or go home. That sentiment perfectly applies to these 2011 Vancouver Canucks. Either they are going to beat the defending champs and their personal beaters early, or they will go home and fail in a huge way. But at least they won’t cruise through one or two easy matchups only to find themselves in the conference finals untested and increasingly nervous and unsure of their true quality. This draw allows the Canucks to forget about the talk, avenge the past, and just play hockey. I think the Canucks do just that, and I peg them for a series victory in either five or six games, depending upon whether they hold serve in the first two or not. If they do, I’ll give the Hawks the usual Game 3 coming home down 0-2 victory that many capable lower seeds win. If it heads to that Game 3 tied at 1, I still think the Canucks will be able to show their true quality and fight through a victory (or two) in Chicago, bring the pain at home in Game 5, and close out in 6 if necessary. Yes, the Hawks would host a Game 6, but let’s not pretend this Chicago team is world beaters at home this year. In fact, Chicago has a one game better differential on the road than at home this year, and remember they almost let the playoffs slip away Sunday afternoon by losing in regulation to the Red Wings at home.
Coming soon will be my analysis of the upcoming rematch between those Red Wings and the Phoenix Coyotes, as well as a much shorter piece on the unpredictable 4-5 matchup between Anaheim and Nashville, and a couple sentences on San Jose’s exhibition series with the beat up and offensively anemic Los Angeles Kings. Puck drops is 27 hours, cheers.