With the World’s Most Dangerous Perfesser taking the Eastern Conference Preview over to the more genteel and respectable confines of Crooked Timber, I will use this venue for my half of our second annual playoff picks. I’ll be doing the Western Conference again. Last year I went a mediocre 2-2, and this year is even more problematic. The #8 seed is considerably more gifted than the iteration that was one goal away from the Stanley Cup two years ago, and yet they earned the bottom seed fair and square. But “how in the hell would I know?” isn’t a very fun answer, so I’ll try some actual predictions among these evenly matched series. To balance my prejudices, I’ll be including the picks of Big Media Brad Plumer, a fan of the
most odious franchise in professional sports not located in the South Bronx the scrappy and beloved Vancouver Canucks.
Detroit (#1) vs. Calgary (#8) I’m not sure one can make useful predictions about a team you’ve seen 70+ times and have a strong rooting interest in, and I’m as ambivalent as last year. The Flames will be a chic upset pick, I suspect, and obviously one can make an unusually strong case for a #8 seed. There are similar structural problems as the ones I noted in my lukewarm endorsement of the Wings last year; the Flames still play in a stronger division, although the gap has narrowed a bit, and as Klein and Reif pointed out, the Flames awful record in shootouts–meaningless once the playoffs beging–artificially lowered their point total. And in terms of their talent, they would seem to be able to compete with everybody. Very few 8 seeds have a goaltender who won the Vezina Trophy the prvious year and had 5 playoff shutouts the year before that, and while he wasn’t quote on his game early in the year he was brilliant down the stretch. The Phaneuf/Stuart/Hamrlik/Regehr defensive front line might be the best in the NHL except Anaheim, although the latter’s health is a concern. (Lidstrom is still better than any of those four, but especially with Kronwall apparently out the Wings have less behind him.) And add to that one of the best two-way forwards in the league and several potent weapons behind him (indeed, if you had told me the kind of years Langkow and Huselius would have, I would have pegged them for about 120 points.)
But. The disjuncture between the team on paper and the merely good performance cuts both ways; one can’t watch them much without an unshakable conviction that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. In particular, and unlike the ’04 team, they have a lot of the defensive breakdowns that will kill you against the Wings. It’s too early to say that Playfair isn’t a good coach, but the terrible road record and penalty killing that is exceptionally weak for the personnel are ominous signs. And even if Detroit isn’t quite as good as they look in the standings, they’re awfully good. Hasek, when healthy, is still great even at 42, they’re very deep up front, and I still wouldn’t write off the playoff potential of Datsyuk and Lang. I don’t think they’re a Stanley Cup team, and I don’t think we’ll see the kind of ghastly meltdown (at least Althouse went down mad) the Flames had in Game 7 last year, but I think the Red Wings will exploit enough mistakes to win. And, no, I don’t want to see Todd Bertuzzi in the second round–or, for that matter, anywhere but in prison–either. RED WINGS IN 7. PLUMER SEZ: WINGS IN 6.
Anaheim (#2) v. Minnesota (#7) In essence, this series comes down to one factor: the health of Niedermayer and Pronger. I think it’s unprecedented in my lifetime for a team to have two of three best defensemen in the league at the same time, and as their performance in the first half of the season demonstrated, they’re almost unbeatable if they’re both healthy. A big “if,” especially as the playoffs drag on, but I think they’ll handle the first round. As I’ve discussed before, few people respect Lemaire more than I (and, conversely, I will be rooting hard against Brian “why are we hiring this man? Did we run out of human beings?” Burke), and as usual he has a team that plays terrific defense but also has serious wheels, and I probably like the core up front a bit more, especially with Gaborik healthy. But it’s hard to win a series between two good defensive teams when you’re weaker on the blueline and in goal, and that’s the situation the Wild are in. Although Keith Carney has had a surprsingly good season, I think they’ll regret losing Mitchell before the series is over. DUCKS IN 6. PLUMER SEZ: WILD IN 7.
Vancouver (#3) v. Dallas (#6). The easiest one to pick for me, in that Dallas is a similar but (I think) crucially inferior team. This will be a low-scoring series, and since I’m a long-time believer that Luongo is an elite goaltender while Turco is nowhere near an elite goaltender, I think the choice is clear. The Canucks have an underrated defense (Mitchell, in particular, is a gem) which I think can handle the Stars transition game too. I don’t see them getting to the finals unless Naslund has a big comeback, but I see Dallas being disappointing again first. VANCOUVER in 5. PLUMER SEZ: Canucks in 6. (Homer!)
Nashville (#4) v. San Jose (#5) In the wake of the Forsberg trade, Nashville was a popular pick to win the Cup; now, most of the pundits I’ve seen aren’t even picking them to get out of the first round. I’d like to buck this consensus, because Nashville is so fun to watch. But I really don’t like this matchup. Like Detroit, they benefit from having three weak sisters in their division, an unlike Detroit their defense is pretty thin. Like Calgary, San Jose is a bit of a sleeping giant, a team that looks better on paper then they played–but at a higher level of accomplishment. Thornton/Marleau is an incredible 1-2 punch up the middle, and Cheechoo looked great down the stretch. A fully healthy Forsberg might push Nashville over the top, but he didn’t look anything like fully healthy to me. Both teams have weirdly unsettled (but not undesirable) situations in net, which makes things a little tougher. And one caveat is the same as last year’s: San Jose’s defense is also a bit shaky, and I continue to believe that Hannan is enormously overrated. I think they’ll stall if they move on because of that, but I don’t think it will stop them in round #1. His disappearing act against Edmonton last year nothwthstanding, I think Big Joe will carry them at least a round. But this is also my most ambivalent pick. Sharks in 7. Plumer sez: Pedators in 6.
As for the East. I agree with Michael only on 2: I’ll take Sabres in 5, Devils in 5. Rangers in 7, Senators in 6. It would be great for the Penguins to advance further, but I think they’re a year away. I would like to address an important question raised earlier by Michael, however: peppy, friendly penguin, or mean, scowling penguin?