2012 NHL Playoff Preview and Free Predictions Conference Finals

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2012 NHL Playoff Preview and Free Predictions – Conference Finals ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

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By UltimateCapper.com Contributing Writer, Mike Ivcic

The National Hockey League is down to its version of the “Final Four,” as the conference final matchups are now set. But again, before we delve into a breakdown of those two series, let’s look back quickly at how each team got here.

The New York Rangers outlasted the Washington Capitals last night, punching the final ticket to the conference finals. Like the Bruins series prior, the Caps once again played the most entertaining series of the entire round, but this time came up short on the road. Both teams were so evenly matched and played such similar styles that it should come as no surprise that the team that scored first won every single game. The Rangers will have to continue to do just that against New Jersey, because they’re simply not equipped to come from behind. Instead, their recipe is to get a lead and then allow Henrik Lundqvist to do his thing while blocking (or trying to block) just about every shot taken. The Caps-Rangers series was a clinic on shot-blocking, from both forwards and defensemen, and subsequently finding ways to score on the other end when it’s virtually impossible to get any puck through to the net. It may not be pretty – and no team has ever played a game 7 in the first and second rounds and gone on to win a Cup – but this Rangers team continues to find ways to win games, and they just might find a way to win 8 more.

I said in the second round preview that the Flyers were the worst team left defensively in the East, and sure enough it came back to haunt them. What amazed me about the entire series – and the point that no one in the national media is making – is how poorly the Flyers defense pass. The Devils forecheck was successful because Philly’s blueliners could not make a tape-to-tape pass to their forwards to beat the aggressive pressure and start the breakout. Couple that with the Flyers’ top two centers (Claude Giroux and Danny Briere) not being able to play defense well enough to bottle up New Jersey’s forwards, and the mismatch created a lopsided series. I’ll refrain from jumping on Ilya Bryzgalov too much – after all, it’s not as if Marty Brodeur crica 2000 was playing at the other end – but clearly this Devils team was better equipped at playing playoff hockey than Philadelphia.

One thing that does make my head hurt a bit is hearing the talk that the L.A. Kings are now the frontrunners to win the Stanley Cup. Look, I like the Kings as much as the next person (I said they were capable of beating the Canucks and picked them to beat the Blues), but let’s remember that this is the 8-seed in the West, and no 8-seed has ever won the Cup under the current format. Only the 2006 Edmonton Oilers even made the Finals as an 8-seed, so let’s hold off planning the Hollywood parade. They’re only halfway there. That said, the reasons that there’s suddenly no room on the Kings’ bandwagon – stingy goaltending, solid defense, great penalty killing, and key players coming up big in big spots – are all ingredients necessary to capture a Cup. They looked tremendous in quickly dispatching Vancouver and St. Louis, and no team as any seed has ever beaten the 1, 2, and 3-seeded teams in the same playoff year. But something tells me Phoenix will have a bit more fight than the Canucks and Blues.

Speaking of Phoenix, talk about rising from the ashes. Not too long ago, this franchise was all but gone from the desert, packed and ready to move to Kansas City or Hamilton or wherever – anywhere but Glendale, Arizona. Now, three years later, there’s talk of finally having stable ownership on the eve that the franchise advances to its first-ever conference finals – and that’s including the years in Winnipeg. Credit three key people for the on-ice success. First, head coach Dave Tippett has instilled the belief in this group that they can beat anybody, anywhere, anytime. It’s one thing to say it, but this team believes it, posting a 3-2 record on the road against Chicago and Nashville – two really tough buildings – during this postseason. Secondly, Shane Doan has emerged as a true leader, willing to slightly change his game from scoring sensation to a dirty-goal grinder to show everyone else what it means to buy into a system. And then, of course, there’s Mike Smith. How Tampa let this guy go in favor of a 40-year-old Dwayne Roloson is beyond me, but here in the desert fans are thrilled they have a 6-foot-6 netminder who can handle a puck and doesn’t understand the word pressure. This is the type of goalie that wins championships, and the Predators just could not find a way to solve him all series long.

And now, the picks:

Eastern Conference
1) New York Rangers vs 6) New Jersey Devils
It’s the NHL circa 1994 – Rangers and Devils, Martin Brodeur, Madison Square Garden, Eastern Conference finals. Sounds about right. A lot has changed since then, but the Devils goalie remains a constant – and while in 1994 he was just ahead of his prime, Brodeur is now just past his prime entering the 2012 series. Still, if these playoffs are, indeed, the final curtain for Brodeur (and there’s no indication it is, I’m just throwing it out there) it would certainly be a fitting capstone to a brilliant career if Marty was able to vindicate that ’94 loss in some small way. All of that said, this is a clear contrast of styles. Gone are the “trapping” Devils, content to bottle up opponents and let Brodeur and a goal or two win the game. New Jersey wants to pressure and create offensive chances for their talented forwards like Parise, Elias, Zajac, and top-gunner Kovalchuck. If this becomes a goal-scoring contest, the Rangers are in trouble. But if, like the Rangers want, this turns into a blue collar, grind-it-out series that ping-pongs from blue line to blue line with limited scoring chances, then New York will emerge. Whatever the case, despite the accolades offered to Brodeur it’s the Rangers who have the better goalie, and in cases where the series appears too close to call, it’s usually the better goalie that wins.
Pick: New York 4, New Jersey 3

Western Conference
3) Phoenix Coyotes vs 8) Los Angeles Kings
“First team to score wins!” That’s how I started my last preview between the Coyotes and Predators, and sure enough the team that scored first won all five games, including two shutouts. Somehow I see a similar series here, with the first goal being crucial. Phoenix has been playing a very passive game, letting Mike Smith do most of the work playing in their own zone before they take advantage of about five or six really good odd-man rushes and bury their chances. So far, it’s worked. Smith clearly outplayed Corey Crawford and Pekka Rinne, but Jonathan Quick will be a different story. The Kings do have more offensive firepower than the Predators, but the Coyotes handled the Blackhawks too. The difference will have to be how well L.A. capitalizes on their opportunities. Posts and blocked shots won’t cut it in this series, and Mike Richards probably isn’t going to score from the goal line. The key to beating Smith is to use the pass/shot, as Nashville did on their lone goal in game five – redirect a shot up after Smith has gone down. Jeff Carter is quite good at that, and the Kings will need production from him in this series. Meanwhile Quick will have to do what the other two goalies before him could not – make the big saves despite not seeing a lot of action and chances. That can often times be a tough task for a goalie, but if anyone is up to it, it’s America’s best hope at Olympic gold in two years – and when in doubt, go with the fellow countryman to get the job done.
Pick: Los Angeles 4, Phoenix 3


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