Sunday, May 13, 2012

2012 NHL Playoffs: In Which We Analyze The Finals Potential Of The Frozen Four

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If you picked the four teams poised to battle it out in this year's edition of the NHL Stanley Cup Conference Finals, you're a better man than me. Not even the pundiest of hockey pundits got this one right. It's been an awesomely odd playoff thus far that gave us several great moments: Giroux's 6 point game, top seeds and perennial contenders dropping like flies, and goaltending dominance by the expected and unexpected. With 2 rounds in the books, we move to the Cup Semis where childhood dreams will be made, or will bust like Fabian Brunnstrom.

Before I jump into this, I need to talk pools. I'm happy to say that thanks to fantastic seasons by Malkin, Giroux, and Spezza, I won my office pool. Brimming with confidence, I jumped into 2 playoff pools: one box and the other draft. My draft pool is already toast. I now have 0 players remaining after Nashville got turfed. My box pool? D.O.A. (calling my box team "Alexandre Daigle" didn't bring the mojo I was looking for!). My strategy for both teams was based on a tried and tested method: I predicted the final four and loaded up my team from those rosters. The teams in question were: Nashville and Vancouver in the West, Pittsburgh and Boston in the East. 3 of those were eliminated in the 1st round, 1 in the 2nd. Moral of this tragic pool story: anything can happen in the Playoffs, but go with your gut. Additionally, watch way more hockey next season.

Moving on to the analysis of the Frozen Four..

Eastern Conference

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New York Rangers (1)

How did they get to the Semis?

The hard way. The Eastern Conference kings of the hill needed 7 games in their first round matchups versus the Senators (8) and Capitals (7). Now that Washington has been dealt with, the Rangers are the shot blocking leaders with 267 in 14 games. Captain Callahan's crew are committed to team defence and, tell me if you've heard this before, defence wins championships. Lundqvist is the anchor on that front. Hank has been impossible to score against, allowing 2 or less in goals in 10 playoffs games. They  strike hard on offense. They collapse strategically on defence, creating a blueshirt wall of impenetrability.

Will the Rangers make it to the Cup Final?

No. Call me me what you want. But I've watched every Rangers game since the Playoffs kicked off and this team is beyond opportunistic. This luck is destined to run out. I could be dead wrong and I have been in the past. Studs like Richards and Gaborik need to step up their game against a tough Devils team. As King Henrik goes, so does this team. Up to this point, he's been going hard.

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New Jersey Devils (6)

How did they get to the Semis?

With focus. The Devils battled through their 1st round match up against the 3rd ranked Panthers, needing 7 games to take out the Cats. They took the lessons learned from that series into their rendez-vous with the truculent Flyers. The Devils beat Philly in 5 games for 2 reasons: a "never say quit" forecheck and discipline. The tireless, relentless pressure on the Philly defensemen paid out huge. Throw in effective and balanced line use by DeBoer for the full 60 (and some) and you have yourself fresh forwards for the entire game.

Will the Devils make it to the Cup Final?

Yes. If Mr. Brodeur keeps playing like he's in his mid-20s and the Devils keep their emotions in check like they did in the Flyers series, they will be tough to beat. And that Kovulchuk guy is pretty good.

Western Conference

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Phoenix Coyotes (3)

How did they get to the Semis?

Energetically. The Desert Dogs won their first playoff series since moving from Winnipeg in 1996 against a tough Blackhawks team. A balanced attack (13 players with at least 1 goal) and solid goaltending have brought them to round 2. Mike Smith has been lights out since the start of the tourney. He stonewalled the Preds during their battle for a Semi-Finals golden ticket after being discarded for much of his career. This is the "Year Of Redemption" for many Coyotes, with Smith leading the cast from the Island of Misfit Players.

Will the Coyotes make it to the Cup Final?

No. Something has to give. Guys like Vermette, Pyatt, and Smith are playing the best hockey of their lives right now. I don't see how this can continue, or imagine them playing at this high level up to the Cup Finals.

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Los Angeles Kings (8)

How did they get to the Semis?

Historically. The Kings are the only 8th seed in NHL history to take out the number 1st (Canucks) and 2nd (Blues) ranked teams in a playoff year in their own conference. The addition of Richards and Carter give them the leadership and scoring depth they desperately needed. And they have a dude called Quick between the pipes, who has been beyond incredible. The Kings are a testament to the compete level in the Western Conference. They are the lowest seed of the west coasters, but are much more dangerous than their ranking.

Will the Kings make it to the Cup Final?

Yes...and no. Team depth is key for this club. Sutter has come in and made this team a contender via some old school hockey. Even Penner has been nothing to pancake at. BUT an 8th seed has never won the Cup. You can be historical. You can also be a victim of it.

How do you think this will play out? Lay down your predictions in the comments.



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