Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Klau Broz's NHL Playoff Predictions, Round 1, Eastern Conference

By Danny and Jason Klau

The match ups are set, sticks are taped up and the skates are sharpened. It’s Playoff season in the NHL, and for SportzBroz.com, that can only mean one thing: voluminous intelligence from the Klau Broz, Danny and Jason, as they predict the entire NHL Playoff bracket in competition from start to finish! It's their third year in a row competing to see whose hockey acumen is better equipped for NHL prediction glory. Let's dig our skates into the Eastern First Round!

1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 8 NY Islanders

Jklau: For a team that is perpetually expected to fail like the Islanders, making the playoffs is certainly a great accomplishment. A team of young guns like John Tavares with 28 goals and Matt Moulson, with 29 assists (no coincidence) and Kyle Okposo have brought the Isles back from the dead. Veterans Brad Boyes and Mark Streit on defense have been weapons. Michael Grabner may be the fastest skater in the league, and he will be dangerous. Even Lubomir Visnovsky decided to end his fit and come back to the NHL. He's been solid and will be counted on in the post season. In net, Evgeny Nabakov started the vast majority of the games. The lack of a reliable backup (cough Rick Dipietro in the minors cough) forced the Isles to play Nabby in 41 of the 48-game shortened season. He's been steady, and will continue to be relied upon. However, he faces a tough challenge in a seven game series against the Penguins.

The Pittsburgh Penguins did what their namesake could not, and have flown into this post season. They coasted through most of this season. Sidney Crosby was as good as ever, and may have been the league leader in points had he not taken that vicious slap shot to the dome. His situation isn't clear yet but he's back practicing. But what the Penguins lost in his production, key forwards like Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz have picked up the slack. Kris Letang gets the helpers from the blueline and Pascal Dupuis may benefit from his line ages, but he is still one of the most underrated players in the game. They have six players who put up 30 points, and that doesn't include a guy by the name of Jerome Iginla. He has 11 points in 13 games as a Penguin, and he's looking to win his first cup. Fluery is a good goalie, not dominant, but good. He's shown he can carry a playoff team, and he's shown he can go down hard with them. Whichever Fluery shows up will be key but I think Pittsburgh is too good to lose this series.

The Isles haven’t won a playoff series since 1993, and I don’t expect that to change. They will put up a fight, but don't expect the games to reflect the series score though. It will be a good series.

Pitt in 5.

DKlau: These two squads have developed a nice little grudge over the past couple of seasons. Most of which was fueled by the Islanders having nothing else to play for, so why not start a fight or two?  That wont be the case in this first round match up with the Islanders, who are making their first playoff appearance since 2007. They will be led by the young phenom Jonathan Tavares, who gets his first taste of NHL playoff action. In net for New York is 37 year old Evgeni Nabakov, who will have to continue his impressive run if the Isles stand a chance against the league's top scoring offense. It is unclear if that offense will be with top scorer Sidney Crosby, who, despite missing 12 games (25% of the season) still wound up 3rd in the league in points. Regardless, Pittsburgh have gotten significant contributions from Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, and Kris Letang, not to mention mid season acquisition Jerome Iginla - who is on a late career quest for that first elusive Stanley Cup.

The Isles might have enough fight in them to prove problematic for Pittsburgh, but the experience isn't there.

Pitt in 5.

2 Montreal Canadiens vs. 7 Ottawa Senators

JKlau: The Habs have turned things around in their organization. Gritty forward Brandon Prust might be part of a new identity, but they would be nowhere without their potent offense that had five players post 30 points, and another five more in the 20s. That list includes rookie standout Alex Galchenyuk.  Carey Price has shown some good stuff this year in net, but he's beatable. The Habs won their last two games to take the division title, but they struggled overall late in the season. It took a Bruins team to do even worse to hand them the division. They've had some frustrating losses, and some guys get suspended for some dirty plays. Overall, they seem to have lost their way. If they can find their game again, they will be dangerous. If not, it's series is ripe for an upset.

For the Senators, it's been a frustrating year. Injuries to goaltender Craig Anderson as well as star players Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza, as well as seeing key forward Milan Michalek go down with an injury that would have been enough to end most team's seasons, and it'd be understandable if this year didn't go their way. But the Sens battled hard to be a playoff team all year, and hung in there in a tough Northeast division. Now, Karlsson is back and in form, and there’s a chance Spezza might be back as well. Anderson is back and ready to prove he’s as good as he was to start the year. Now the Sens look like their old selves. They gave up the second fewest goals in the league and it’ll only get better. As an 8th seed last year, they came within a game of upsetting their #1 seed opponents. This year as a 7, I could see them pulling it off.

Tough series to pick here but Ottawa is an exciting team.

Senators in 6 exciting games.

DKlau: Had he not been injured mid-season, Craig Anderson would be a clear cut pick for the Vezina Trophy.* He is back now and that could mean trouble for Northeast Division champs Montreal. Anderson led the league in both SV % and GAA. Also returning for Ottawa will be Erik "Wolverine" Karlsson, who was once thought to be a long shot to even play next season after Matt Cooke "accidentally" sliced through 70% of his Achilles.

None of this is good news for Montreal, who won their division despite a slow finish to the season. They were able to hold off division rivals Boston by winning the last two games of the regular season, but before that were in the midst of a 2-6 slump. Two of these teams' three meetings resulted in a shootout, with Montreal winning the only game decided in regulation. Montreal have a strong youth presence on the team which has gotten them this far, but Ottawa's players coming back from injury leave them at their full strength for the first time since early on.

Ottawa in 6.

*Author's note - I find it ridiculous that they are handing out awards for best performers during a strike-shortened season. Spare us, please.

3 Washington Capitals vs. 6 New York Rangers

JKlau: Well, there they are, at it again. It seems like these teams can’t play a postseason without running into each other. These playoff rivals have had some great moments in recent years. From sent off coach Bruce Boudreau inciting the “CAN YOU HEAR US” chants from Ranger fans before pulling off an improbable comeback in 2011, or the more recently sent off forward Marian Gaborik’s triple OT winner just last season. Now they meet again, and both teams come into the playoffs on a roll.

For the Rangers, winners of seven of their last nine, it has been an up and down season. They had high expectations after going to the conference finals as the #1 seed last year, and for a while, it looked like getting back to the playoffs was going to be tough enough. But as is the usual with the Rangers, Henrik Lundqvist kept them afloat. He followed up his Vezina winning season by leading the league in wins, and he’s poised to carry his hot play into the post season. Defensively, the Rangers have a very solid blueline. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh are world class defenders in their own right, and are a formidable foe to any top line. They will shadow the Ovechkin line, who they’ve done well against. Recently added young D-man Johnny Moore has been rock solid and Michael Del Zotto can provide the offense. The Rangers have really missed Marc Staal though, who inspired his brothers to wear the visor after taking a puck to the eye. Offensively, the Rangers really will need someone to step up. That someone is named Brad Richards. He’s got a six-game point streak going right now, scoring five goals and adding six assists during that span. However, not including the recent trend, he has struggled; including a six-game pointless streak in March and notching only two goals in the first 20 of the season. Rick Nash is only in his second career playoff appearance, and he’ll need to prove himself. Derek Stepan has been on fire recently, earning the NHL’s Third Star of the Month with 19 points in 14 April games. The Rangers will need more of that from him. If the Rangers can get those contributions, they can go far.

For the Capitals, the story always starts with Alex Ovechkin. He is a dominant athlete, plain and simple. However, that story doesn’t end with him. Mike Ribiero has had an amazing year and Niklas Backstrom tallied an amazing 40 assists on the season. Troy Brouwer is as good of a secondary scoring threat as you will find and defenseman Mike Green looks like his old self again, notching 14 of his 26 points on the Power Play. His presence will make it essential for the Rangers to stay out of the box, something they did very well this year. They tied for last in the league in penalty minutes, and they will need to keep up that discipline.

The Caps will also look for secondary guys like Jason Chimera, the speedster who has a history of performing well in the post season. They will also look to goalie Braden Holtby, who has only gotten better this year. He posted four shutouts in a shortened season, and is a very dependable goalie who has played very well in post season play.

I think this series, like any involving the Rangers, it's going to have more to do with the goals you keep off the scoreboard than the ones you put on. And for that reason I have to make my homer pick and go with the Rangers.

NY in 6 games.

DKlau: The Rangers were 2-0-1 against D.C. this season, but none of the match ups came after March, when both teams began hot streaks that would lead them into their current playoff form. New York's deadline acquisitions proved to spark the team, despite the departure of superstar Marian Gaborik. The play of Derrick Brassard has lifted the output seen from Brad Richards, who before the deal had been invisible on the Garden ice. Strong play from John Moore and Ryan Clowe, and the return of Mats Zuccarello helped lift the team into the playoffs, in addition to the high level play from captain Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan. New York will likely be without top defenseman Marc Staal, but his absence has been lessened by the consistent play from 6th defenseman Steve Eminger. Oh yeah, and there's that Henrik guy.

Washington are lead by none other than NHL leading scorer Alex Ovechkin, who will take home his third Richard Trophy. Washington also saw an increase in the output from right winger Troy Brouwer, who knows what it takes to succeed in the playoffs, having won the cup with Chicago in 2010. This marks his best offensive season since then and he will look to help a team that has been plagued with postseason failure despite consistent regular season success.  Braden Holtby will be the key to this match up. His success will determine how far the Capitals go. First team to win a road game wins.

Rangers in 7.

4 Boston Bruins vs. 5 Toronto Maple Leafs

JKlau: It was only a short while ago that the Boston Bruins were lifting the Stanley Cup. It’s been a bit longer for the Leafs (1967), who return to the playoffs for the first time since the last NHL lockout. They were the last remaining team in the league to have not played in the postseason.  But now they are back in, and ready for an exciting Original 6 showdown.

For the Bruins, it’s all about those low scoring games. In a defensive battle, the Bruins have the advantage. Tukka Rask is one of the best in the game in net, and what little gets through the tough defense of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenerg tends to be mopped up by the netminder. Offensively, the Bruins have talent. The addition of Jaromir Jagr is a huge one, and gives Beantown a much needed threat. Brad Marchand is good but if he’s your leading scorer (he was) it’s an issue worth addressing. Power Forward Milan Lucic is known for his toughness and will be a menace for Toronto. The Bruins will need some big games from him, as they have limped in to Playoffs. A division title was all but theirs, but a lackluster April saw them throw it away, and lose out on 2nd place in the east. They will have to regain their form if they want to advance in the Playoffs.

For the Leafs (or commonly known throughout the other Canadian provinces, the Laughs) this year is a big one for their organization. Just being in the post season is something Leafs fans have been waiting for, but don’t think for a second that they are going to settle for a first round ousting by their heated rivals. Offensively, Phil Kessel has shown what Toronto has hoped they would see from him since they gave up the second overall pick (to none other than Boston). They picked standout Tyler Seguin) for him just a few years ago. Joffrey Lupul has shown intense chemistry with guys like Kessel and Kadri, and had he not missed a lot of time with injuries, he would be among the top of the league in scoring. In only 16 games, he notched 18 points. After going pointless in his first three games, and getting hurt in the third, he scored in 11 of his 13 games after the injury, with a seven and a four game streak respectively. The Leafs have also been thrilled with young gun Nazem Kadri, the highly touted prospect who many NHL observers had figured to be a bust. Well, Nazem has proved the haters wrong, posting at nearly a point per game clip. In parts of three seasons (one with only a single game played) the 22-year-old has had trouble sticking with the club. Had he spent all that time developing in the minors, he may be a lock for Rookie of the Year. James Van Riemsdyk has also put up the offense since being traded from the Flyers. He was a former 2nd overall pick who is sprouting with the opportunity for more playing time.

On D, Dion Phanuef is a scary man to face, and great guy to have watching your back. In addition to blasting shots from the point, he can also blast unsuspecting forwards who don’t come though the neutral zone with their heads up. In net, James Reimer has emerged as the starter in Toronto. Amidst rumors of a possible trade for Roberto Luongo, Reimer kept his head high and didn’t let it get to him. He knew he was capable of being the starting goalie in Toronto and they made the right choice sticking with him. It’ll be his first chance to prove it in the playoffs. Playing in Toronto is always a pressure situation though, and he hasn’t shown any indication that the pressure gets to him.

The Bruins were potential cup favorites coming into this season, and with their experience, they are a tough team to really ever count out. But the Leafs have some major guns, and the Bruins D will have its work cut out for them. Maybe I’m way off, but I’m picking the Leafs to shock the hockey world and actually advance in a playoff series.

Toronto in 7.

DKlau: These two division rivals face off in a classic offense vs. defense battle. Toronto was the sixth highest scoring team in the league, Boston allowed the third fewest goals. Phill Kessel, Nazim Kadri, and James van Riemsdyk lead the way for the potent Maple Leaf attack. James Reimer will have to be solid in net if Toronto are to go far.

Boston have crawled into the playoffs, losing seven of nine and handing the division to Montreal. This does not bode well for a team that started the year very strong. While they still have home-ice advantage - which has been huge for them so far - their mediocre road performance could spell their demise.

Toronto in 6.