Monday, April 23, 2012

NHL Playoffs – Who says the regular season means nothing?

As we sit here after a riveting weekend of hockey action, one that saw four of the eight series end, and the other four series having gone at least five games to date, there has been one clear as day trend in the results thus far – the regular season meetings in most of these series was a Nostradamusesque prediction of what we would see in the playoffs.  Let’s take a closer look series by series, you will be amazed by the findings.

Here are the four series that have ended, and the regular season record for each series:
#5 Flyers over #4 Penguins 4-2: Philadelphia won four of six vs. Pittsburgh
#4 Predators over #5 Red Wings 4-1: team’s split six meetings, but Nashville did win the last two
#8 Kings over #1 Canucks 4-1: team’s split four meetings, but LA has showed over last two seasons to have a firm grasp on controlling the robust Canucks offense (see prior preview article), which occurred once again in this series
#2 Blues over #7 Sharks 4-1: St. Louis was 4-0 vs. San Jose, dominating play only allowing 3 combined goals over four games.

For the series that have ended, the winner in the playoffs at worst split the regular season series with their opponent, twice won it outright.  Even the series that were tied, the team that won the playoff matchup clearly showed they had the edge between the teams during the regular season.

Now, let’s look closer at the four series that are still going, and what those regular season matchups showed:
#8 Senators up 3-2 on #1 Rangers:  Ottawa won 3 of 4 during regular season
#2 Bruins tied 3-3 with #7 Capitals: Washington won 3 of 4 during regular season
#3 Panthers up 3-2 on #6 Devils: team’s split four meetings
#3 Coyotes up 3-2 on #6 Blackhawks: Phoenix won 3 of 4 during regular season 

For the four series that are still undecided the team that won the regular season series is up in two, tied in another; and the one series that was tied during regular season, Washington vs. Boston, is heading to a Game Seven – the ultimate tiebreaker!

What does it all mean?  Typically most analysts say you can throw out the regular season when the playoffs come around as it is a different time of year.  It’s hard to judge during the regular season a team’s motivation on a game by game basis because there could be injuries, days rest, winning and losing streaks that play a part in the outcomes of those games.  It can be hard to quantify those variables, and the impact they play on the games.  But in the playoffs, most of those variables mentioned are evened out, and everyone is playing on a level playing field.  This year it is very clear we have seen the team who won the regular season series fare quite well in the playoffs, and it will be interesting to see if the Rangers, Bruins or Blackhawks can become the only team in the first round to win their series after losing the regular season series.  Of those three you have to think Boston has the best chance as they are heading to a Game 7 on their home ice, while both NY and CHI need to win on their opponents ice one more time, and another game on their ice to advance.

What do I expect to see in the four remaining series?

Senators vs. Rangers: the heat is getting real hot in NYC after a critical Game Five loss on their home ice for the #1 seed NY Rangers.  It seems NY has carried most of the play during this series, yet finds itself in an unthinkable 3-2 hole, facing elimination tonight in Ottawa.  This series really shows why the NHL playoffs can be so exciting – or frustrating – depending on which team you are rooting for.  Setting aside Game One where the Rangers turned it on about midway through the second and breezed to a 4-2 win, the Blue Shirts have only managed to score 5 goals in the last four games.  A lot of concern about the Rangers and their chances at hoisting their first Cup since 1994 was based on their offense (or lack thereof), especially their power play unit – if both had enough firepower to score critical goals at critical points in the playoffs.  So far it has proved to be a legitimate concern as their offensive stars, namely Gaborik, Richards, and Dubinsky have yet to score more than 1 goal in this series.  If it wasn’t for Brian Boyle and his 3 goals, especially his winner in Game Two, this series would likely be over already.  NY hopes that getting first line winger Carl Hagelin back from a 3 game suspension will be the infusion they need to get back to scoring more goals, and tying and ultimately winning this series.  Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson has played extremely well, matching save for save with Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist – can he continue playing at this high a level?  That question could very well be the determining factor on who goes on to win this series.  I still think the Rangers will get it done – they have not played 60 minutes of good hockey yet in this series – tonight will be that night – and Game 7 will be on the horizon on Wednesday.  I also look for Henrik Lundqvist to be an absolute stone wall over the last two games; almost single handedly willing his team to victory.

Bruins vs. Capitals: what a series this has been, with 3 OT games, and all 6 games decided by 1 goal.  How huge has Washington rookie third string goalie Braden Holtby been?  Amazing.  Facing the defending Stanley Cup champs, and his opposite number being the Conn Smythe winner from last year’s playoffs, he has matched him save for save, including picking up critical road wins in Games 2&5.  How will he fair on Wednesday, in a do or die, winner take all, Game 7 on the road?  That is the biggest question.  From experience alone, and from an offensive firepower perspective, you have to like Boston to win this game.  But, at the same time, it’s very likely to be a close, low scoring game – and one bounce here or there could be the game winner.  I am really looking forward to this game, as any Game 7 in the NHL is the best sporting event we can watch as a fan.

Panthers vs. Devils: Florida has played both their goalies in this series, and after five games I feel Theodore is the right answer in net for the final two games (if necessary).  Theodore has yielded 5 goals in three games, while Clemmensen has allowed more goals (7) in fewer games (2).  The Panthers must stick with the more experienced Theodore in my opinion moving forward, at least in this series, barring a disaster of a Game Six.  For the Devils, goaltending is also the biggest factor so far – Brodeur has not played consistently well, which has kind of been his MO over the last five or so seasons in the playoffs – as I outlined in the preview article.  Aside from his Game 4 shutout, he has allowed 13 goals in the other four games, over 3 goals per game – if that number does not drop dramatically to around 2 over the last two games, Florida will win this series.  And judging on his recent playoff performances, it’s hard to see him making that kind of jump.  With Florida currently up 3-2 I think they will go on and win this series.

Coyotes vs. Blackhawks: it has been widely discussed how competitive this series has been, with the first give games going to OT.  Similar to the BOS/WAS series, all games thus far have obviously been decided by one goal, with Phoenix winning three of the five.  Phoenix has consistently put themselves in better position in these games often leading late, but they have allowed Chicago to score a number of late third period goals to force OT, and at times pull out the win.  What is odd about that is Chicago has dominated this series statistically, outshooting the Coyotes by 63 shots thru 5 games!  Typically that kind of number is a death blow to an opponent, and their chances at pulling out 4 wins in 7 games – but thus far, oddly enough, as mentioned above, Phoenix has consistently put themselves in better position late.  Heading into this series I pointed out I felt Phoenix goalie Mike Smith, and the Coyote defense would be the keys to winning this series – that has played out, as Mike Smith has played unbelievable, outplaying his fellow net-minder Corey Crawford easily, especially considering the amount of shots faced.  The biggest question is can he keep that up?  This series is very similar to NY/OTT in a lot of ways, with Chicago, like New York, seemingly carrying most of the play, yet Phoenix, like Ottawa, is often better positioned to win the game.  It’s hard to go against a goalie as hot as Mike Smith, so I feel Phoenix will win one of the last two and seal up their first playoff series win in their history.

Few thoughts on team’s that have already advanced:

#4 Philadelphia Flyers: in the end it took six games, which made this series look more competitive than it really was, but the Flyers took control of this series early and never relinquished hold.  I still have a lot of concerns about the goaltending for the Flyers, which is their question mark annually.  And feel when they face a team next round that is stronger defensively, more balanced, and has better goaltending, it will not work out as well as it did in the opening round for them.  But there is certainly something to be said about how impressive, and explosive they looked vs. Pitt.  A potentially bad matchup in the next round would be vs. the NY Rangers, whom they lost all 6 meetings to during the regular season, and the Blue Shirts pose a lot of the threats I mentioned that Philadelphia has to try and avoid – namely, strong blue line and great goaltending.  A potentially good matchup would be Florida or New Jersey, as neither of those teams has great goaltending, or the explosive front lines to go toe to toe with the Flyers.

# 8 Los Angeles Kings: LA surprisingly took early control of their series vs. President Cup champ Vancouver, and never allowed the Canucks to get back in the series, or to shift the game play towards a more up-tempo, open ice style they prefer.  LA picked up their first playoff series win in some 10 years, and they will be a force moving forward with a strong back line, and good goaltending.  LA will match up with STL next round for certain, as the Blues will be the highest remaining seed in the West, while LA is the lowest.  The season series was won by LA 3-1, in rather dominating fashion outscoring the Blues 9-3 in those games.  I definitely expect these games will be tight checking, grind-it-out type affairs – looking back on the last two games these teams played, the only times they met in calendar year 2012, St. Louis won 1-0 on Feb 3 on their home ice, while LA won 1-0 on Mar 22 on their home ice.  Expect more of the same, in what should be a very exciting series – one that will certainly advance a team we are not used to seeing to the Western Conference Finals – which is what makes hockey such a great sport – take notes Major League Baseball.

#2 St. Louis Blues: in what should not have been that big a surprise after dominating San Jose during the regular season, STL easily dispatched the Sharks 4-1 in a series that wasn’t all that close.  After San Jose won the opener of the series 3-2 in OT, the Blues ran off four straight wins, outscoring SJ 12-5 during that span.  St. Louis goaltending was stellar, holding San Jose to 2 goals or less in four of the five games.  In addition, the Blues special teams generated a huge edge as we expected going in, as their power play unit scored 6 goals, while their PK unit killed off 15 of 17 Shark PP’s.  Make no mistake about it, the Blues PP unit is absolutely critical to their ongoing potential success in the playoffs, as they are just not explosive enough 5 on 5 to win 8 more games in the Western Conference without continued success with that unit.  I am really looking forward to the next round matchup with LA, in what should be one of the better series we have in the Conference Semifinals.

#4 Nashville Predators: in surprising fashion, NAS took care of DET in 5 games – it wasn’t so much that Nashville won the series, it was the ease at which they accomplished the task, not allowing the potent Red Wing offense to score more than 2 goals in any game besides their Game Two 3-2 win.  The Western Conference is really shaping up to be a defensive battle, with the three teams that have advanced known for their defensive prowess – and when examining all 5 teams that could potentially reach the WC SF round, Nashville just might be the best all around club – especially considering experience, as outside a Chicago win they would also have that going for them after last season’s 2nd round run.  There is a lot of like about Nashville, as I fell in love with this team last year during the playoffs, and have really enjoyed watching them come together this year and build off that success, instead of going the other way in a tough Western Conference.  I feel either team that advances from the PHO/CHI series will be a good matchup for Nashville, but think they would even admit behind closed doors Phoenix would be their preferred opponent.  There is absolutely no reason to not call the Predators the favorite in the WC right now in my opinion, and the remainder of the playoffs with the three teams that we know have advanced should be a ton of fun out West.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Perspective: NHL playoffs

WOW. Is there a more appropriate word to describe the first six days of the 2012 NHL playoffs?  I am sure there is, but my limited vocabulary isn’t up to the task of defining that.  My time is better spent here offering my thoughts on how these days and games have gone vs. using the thesaurus on Microsoft Word to locate a better word, that’s for sure.  We have seen a little of everything thus far, but at the top of the list is two items: fights and OT.  Let’s start with OT, and the pure level of competition we have seen thus far.  I cannot recall any season of NHL playoffs starting off so competitive, keeping in mind as I mentioned in my last NHL blog posting I look forward and thoroughly enjoy this sports playoffs each season.  Let’s take a quick look at each series:
Eastern Conference
#1 NY Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa Senators: [road/underdog value, lean towards over].  On those two thoughts we stand PLUS, with the sides play of road/underdog @ +$145 on a 2-1 record, and the over “lean” stands at 1-1-1 for even units.  I have given out no plays in this series to clients so far.  What have we seen through three games?  Early in Game One Ottawa played well, forcing the Rangers into a more wide open, free flowing style of hockey – but towards the middle of the 2nd period the game switched over towards the Rangers style, of dumping, chasing, churning, and the Senators were overmatched coming out a 4-2 loser.  In Game Two Ottawa manned up, it got a little nasty because they knew they would have to play a lot tougher if they had a chance at winning this series, and they were somewhat successful using that strategy by pulling out a 3-2 win.  However, when you examine those goals, two of the three could be labeled somewhat fluky.  Last night we saw a tight affair in Game Three, with Henrik Lundqvist the clear difference maker posting a shutout including a handful of phenomenal saves, boosting the Rangers to the 1-0 win.  Although Ottawa is doing a decent job matching the intensity and style of play the Rangers are dictating, that is not the best formula for their potential success.  They need to find a better, healthier balance of disciplined toughness, while keeping the skating lanes open for their skill players to do what they do best.  The 3 game suspension of winger Carl Hagelin made a definite impact last night as rookie Chris Kreider just did not play well in his first NHL game – which does not project anything as far as how good a player he will become, he just is clearly not ready for this kind of hockey yet (cannot be blamed for that either), and I would be surprised if we did not see a lineup change for Game Four.  I continue to feel strongly the Rangers will win this series, and still believe it could happen in 5 as originally predicted. 
#2 Boston Bruins vs. #7 Washington Capitals: [no leans on sides or totals].  I have given out no plays in this series to clients so far.  What a grind it out affair the first two games of this series were, with a total of 4 goals scored.  Last night things opened up some, with Boston pulling out a nice 4-3 road win on Chara’s late tally.  This series has been tightly contested, lots of checking, fore checking, and limited open ice for the skill players on both teams, in particular Alex Ovechkin.  AO has been targeted each time he touches the puck, as the Bruins look to grind him down as the series progresses, thus limiting his impact in potentially key Games 6&7.  Both goaltenders have performed very well, as the Capitals appear to have potentially found a stud young net-minder with 22 year old Braden Holtby matching saves with 2011 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas. Even though the series sits at 2-1 Boston I get the feeling that Game One loss for Washington will turn out to be critical as they simply cannot get any better goaltending out of a rookie, and still find themselves in a hole through three games.  Heading into the series I had Boston in 6, and still feel that will happen.  The only real chance Washington has to push this series to 7 and possibly come out victorious is to generate much more offense, with Ovechkin needing to become the clear cut best player on the ice for either side.  I just do not see that happening consistently enough.
#3 Florida Panthers vs. #6 NJ Devils: [no side plays/leans, over].  Heading into this series I targeted the over as potential plays because both goaltenders were struggling – thus far through two games we had a push in Game One, and an over Sunday night, moving this play to +100.  I have given out one play to clients on this series so far, a Game Two winner on the Panthers.  This series is kind of the “forgotten series” of the first round, no question about it.  Each year in both NHL and NBA playoffs we have a series that just doesn’t generate the buzz and attention of their peers, and for 2012 this series fits that bill.  Both games for the most part have played out the same way, just flip-flopping teams.  In Game One NJ jumped out to a 3-0 lead, and held on to win 3-2.  Sunday night Florida jumped out to a 3-0 lead, and they went on to win 4-2 (how about that EN goal with 1 second remaining for all those who played the total!).  When watching the action a little closer its clear the Devils are the better team, as I projected in my initial write-up.  Historically Southeast Division teams are not up to par (sans Washington) once the playoffs begin, and it looks as though that is the case once again.  I expect NJ to take care of business here sooner than later, as originally I expected 5 games possibly 6, and still feel that will be the case.
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers: [road/underdog value, over].  As far as my projections go for this series, the underdog has won all 3 games for a HUGE PROFIT OF +$460, while the over has also gone 3-0 netting a cool +$300.  Thru three games my predictions have gone a ROBUST 6-0 in this series, cashing each side and total.  I am 0-1 in this series so far in client selections losing Game 3 play on Penguins.  But setting aside the gambling aspect for a moment, wow…what is going on with Pittsburgh?  I had Pens in 7 heading in, thinking this would be extremely competitive, with the key difference maker being between the pipes.  I pointed out how poor Fleury has performed recently in the playoffs, and didn’t think Bryzgalov had what it takes to get the job done for the Flyers in this kind of series.  To a certain degree both of those points have been correct, but I would have never thought the Flyers would be the more explosive team, seemingly scoring at will each and every time they needed a response to Penguin goal.  Call me crazy, but I do not think this series is over quite yet – why you may ask?  Well, we all know, goaltending is so critical to playoff success.  So with such poor goalies in net for both teams, offense is still going to win this series – and there are very few offenses as potent as Pitt’s can be when it is humming on all cylinders.  I expect the Pens to get their act together in Game Four, realize the style of hockey they are attempting to play over the last three games is out of their comfort zone, and start re-focusing on what they do best.  It is clearly a huge hill to climb, but I am currently projecting they will win the next two, setting up a potentially massive, critical Game 6 taking place in Philly on Sunday.

Western Conference
#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings: [no side plays, under].  The under was my target in this series prior to it commencing, and thus far it is 1-2 for -$160 (could easily be 1-1-1 as an EN goal in Game One moved that game from a push to a loss) as the juice on the under has been higher because of the action on that end, and Vegas is not going to move a total to 4.5.  I am 0-2 in this series losing Games 2&3 on Canucks.  Looking back on my breakdown of this series it was obvious LA had played extremely well vs. Vancouver over the last two years plus – and frankly that same story has continued as the Canucks had averaged only scoring 1.9 goals per game vs. LA over the last two years, and in this series they are averaging 1.3 goals scored – you are not going to beat many teams in the NHL scoring like that.  However, to a certain extent, it’s hard to get a grasp on just why Vancouver has struggled so much in this series, especially with two of three at home so far.  Yes, the loss of a Sedin twin hurts, but there is too much talent on this team to be struggling to the extent they are offensively vs. the Kings.  LA has a talented team as pointed out multiple times, but for some reason it didn’t seem to click until March – they were in fact one of the hottest teams in the league since then.  Looking forward in this series it doesn’t appear the Canucks have the juice in them to dig out of this hole, and this early round exit could really make that seat extra hot for Canucks head man Vignault.
#2 St. Louis Blues vs. #7 San Jose Sharks: [no side plays, under].  The under is 1-1-1 so far, even money.  I am 1-0 in client plays so far cashing Game 2 under.  Check out this one sentence I had in my preview: “Discipline, penalties, and special teams units will be absolutely critical in this series.”  How true has that been so far?  St. Louis is 5-13 on the PP, while only allowing 2 PP goals to SJ.  That is on the back of STL going 5-18 on the PP in the regular season meetings between the teams – the Blues have now gone 10-31 on the PP vs. the Sharks PK, 10 power play goals in 7 games!  San Jose had the 2nd worst PK unit based on % in the NHL on the season, and that has continued into the playoffs, blatantly costing them Game 3, which put them in a 2-1 hole after winning Game 1.  If San Jose can figure out the PK unit they could have a shot at going on to win this series.  But after seeing seven games between the teams this season where the Blues have had a clear advantage on special teams, it flat out appears unlikely they will.  I also believe targeting under plays moving forward will net positive units over the remainder of this series as SJ will do their best at tightening up either their PK unit, or taking penalties – and SJ has struggled to score on STL this year.
#3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #6 Chicago Blackhawks: [no side plays, lean over].  Thus far the over is 1-0-1 for a profit of $90.  Client plays are 1-1 in this series, losing Game One but winning Game Two, both plays on Chicago.  Here was my critical sentence about this series from my preview: “His play (PHO G Mike Smith), and the Coyote defense, will be the determining factor here.”  Looking back on that thought through only two games neither has played well for Phoenix, as they have allowed a massive 95 shots (CHI has outshot PHO 95-67) and Smith has allowed 6 goals, including in both games allowing the Blackhawks to tie the game in the final minute – PHO went on to win Game One in OT, but lost Game Two in OT.  This series so far has been very exciting, while also flying under the radar somewhat because of the late starts in the desert.  Judging on the way the first two games have played out, that we are now shifting to the Windy City for Games 3&4, and lastly the fact Phoenix has not won a series yet in their existence, I see no reason to change my original prediction of the Blackhawks winning this series in 6 – if anything I think it could go only 5.
#4 Nashville Predators vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings: [no side plays, under].  Through three games the under is 0-0-3, as all 3 games have pushed on the 5 goal number set by Vegas.  In addition, all three games have been 3-2 final scores, with Nashville winning two of the three to take their second lead in the series.  I have gone 2-0 in client plays this series, with side winner in each of the first two games.  In an odd statistical phenomenon, in Detroit’s win they had only 17 shots; in their two losses they had 37 & 43 shots – go figure.  In my preview I mentioned shots could be key in this series as Detroit seems to generate more, which obviously leads to more chances at scoring – which could be huge for the skill players the Wings possess.  Through three games Detroit is +23 in shots, and +2 in PP goals scored.  If both of those stats stay this way as the series plays out I still like Detroit to win and advance – my original selection was Detroit in 7, and still feel that will be the case although Nashville has certainly showed they are a legit contender.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

NHL Playoffs 2012 Preview – First Round

Another NHL regular season has gone by – one in which we once again profited massively for our clients finishing ranked #2 at our monitor – and we now head into the two plus month voyage known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Most of you are aware by now, but in case you aren’t – the hockey playoffs contain some of the most exciting, fantastic, edge-of-your-seat action of any of the major sports in America.  Yes, the regular season, similar to the NBA, can be a thud of sorts, stretching from October through April – but once mid April does arrive, the intensity is ratcheted up a notch, stars are born, and excitement fills the air.

I have a great analysis on how to handicap and bet money lines, and also how to lay wagers on series odd’s bets with proper hedging to lock in profits as a series progresses.  I will do my best to post that analysis by this weekend.

Today I will take a look at each first round series, breaking down some key aspects, and offering projections on who will win each series and the total lines.

Eastern Conference

#1 NY Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa Senators: in the interest of full disclosure, yes, I am a Rangers fan – but I am a professional as well, and can break their games and series down from a neutral fan’s perspective – after all, many people pay me to do that.  Right off the bat I feel the Rangers got a few breaks towards the end of the regular season, holding off Pittsburgh for the top seed in the East, and simultaneously avoiding a potential matchup with either Washington or Buffalo in the opening round.  I feel Buffalo was more dangerous than Ottawa simply because of Ryan Miller – he flat out did not have a solid year, which is why Buffalo wound up missing the playoffs – but if they did make it he is still one of the best net-minders in the game, and he would have played like he had something to prove not only because of the average regular season he produced, but because he would have been going head to head vs. Henrik Lundqvist, whom many feel is the best goalie in the game.  I also feel Washington would have been a tougher matchup for the Blue Shirts because of Alexander Ovechkin, who can take over a game and series quickly, and they also eliminated the Rangers in two of the last three seasons.  But alas, the way it played out, all the way down to the last game of the regular season, New York will face Ottawa – a team they did lose three of four to this regular season.  Looking back on those games, Ottawa outscored New York 14-8.  King Henrik started 3 of the 4 matchups, as did Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson - the lone game the back-up goalies started Ottawa prevailed 4-1, which was the last matchup between the teams on March 8 in Ottawa.  The Rangers limp into the playoffs losing 3 of their last 4, including being outscored 9-3 in their last two games, losses to Pittsburgh and Washington.  Ottawa also comes in losing 3 of their last 4, which caused them to drop from the 7 seed a week ago to the 8th and final spot.  This is the first series the Rangers have had home-ice since 1996, a whopping 16 years ago!  Neither team has enjoyed any recent playoff success as the Rangers have not advanced to the Conference SF round since 2008, while Ottawa last won a playoff series in 2007.  Ottawa has only won 2 playoff games since 2007, while the Rangers have won 8 during the same time period.  So playoff experience, either way, doesn’t seem to be impactful one way or another.  As far as total trends go, the o/u was 1-2-1, with the push involving an empty netter; however, with the totals in playoffs typically set at 5 vs. the usual regular season number of 5.5, that would have made the regular season series at 1-1-2, so not much trending there.  Also not many trends on the total going back over their last ten games in the series.  However, the Rangers have only gone under 5 in 2 of their last 10 – so you may find some value on over’s, especially considering many will play the under with the Rangers involved.  We have seen definite trending on the sides of this matchup as both the underdog and road team has won 9 of the last 10.  What does it all mean?  I really like the Rangers in this series, and although some experts have touted the Senators as decent challengers to the Broadway Blue Shirts, I just do not see it and think NY got a break not facing Buffalo or Washington.  Down the line the biggest potential matchup issue for the Rangers will be a team that has a great goalie as the Rangers can already struggle scoring at times, which the Senators do not possess.  With the massive edge between the pipes, and a hungry Rangers team that is seeking success in June, the focused Rangers realize that starts with winning early in April, and thus will handle Ottawa in 5 – realizing the earlier they can put this series behind them the better as they are not the deepest team around, and any additional rest they can achieve will help out come May.

#2 Boston Bruins vs. #7 Washington Capitals: this series has the potential to be exciting as Washington has taken down Boston in 3 of the 4 meetings this year, all of which took place January 24th or later, including two matchups in the last month both of which were Washington wins.  The key to this series could be goaltending, with both teams currently suffering injuries to at least one of their net-minders.  Let’s start with the Capitals, who have the biggest injury issue related to goaltending as any team in the NHL playoffs.  Veteran starter Tomas Vokoun is out with a groin injury and his status remains unknown for the playoffs right now.  Backup Michal Neuvirth, who was last year’s playoff goalie for Washington, is also dealing with an injury and will be re-evaluated as the week progresses.  What does that leave Washington with?  Answer is Braden Holtby, a 22 year old rookie with no playoff experience.  What Holtby lacks in playoff experience he makes up for somewhat with a stellar early career record of 14-4-3, and is looked at as the goalie of the future for the Caps.  Perhaps this series is the start of a long career in net for Holtby with the Capitals, and perhaps he can flourish in this role over the long haul – but it appears overcoming the Bruins, who have a lot of firepower and experience, may be a lot to ask at this stage of his career.  The Bruins are not without goaltending issues of their own as Tukka Rask, their clear cut goalie of the future, has not played since March 3rd – he is expected to resume practice this week and potentially be available towards the end of this series, or for certain in the next series should Boston win.  Tim Thomas has been one of the better stories of the last few seasons, in particular the playoffs where he led Boston to the Stanley Cup last year at the ripe age of 37.  Although he has not been as consistent as Boston would have liked this year, he proved last year he can excel in May & June, and figures to be a solid option for the defending Cup champions this spring.  With the goaltending edge clearly in favor of Boston, let’s examine some of the other key areas of this series, starting with taking a closer look at the four regular season meetings.  Washington outscored Boston 13-12, picking up a pair of 1 goal wins in the team’s last two matchups.  Boston outshot the Caps in 3 of the 4 games – with the losing team having the shots edge in all four games.  Power play was not an impact at all in any of the four games, either from attempts or goals scored perspectives – in aggregate, the Capitals were 1-6, while Boston was 1-8.  Lastly, Washington does come into the playoffs on a roll of sorts – they had to in order to qualify – as they have won 4 of their last 5 including a shoot-out win over Boston, while the Bruins also come in winning 4 of 5, 7 of 9 & 9 of 12.  The Bruins have won their opening round series in each of the last 3 seasons, winning it all last year while Washington has won their opener 2 of the last 3 years, both times defeating the Rangers.  On the handicapping angles, the home/away & underdog/favorite splits are 5-5 over the last ten meetings.  Total wise, only 4 of the last 10 meetings have gone over 5 goals, with another game winding up at 5 exactly.  Not much there, but one thing to keep an eye on is how comfortable the Washington rookie goalie looks – if he starts looking a little shaky, the over may be solid plays [targeting the games in Boston primarily] especially considering Washington has an explosive offense, and Thomas hasn’t been quite as good this year as he creeps up there age wise.  What does it all mean?  Like Ottawa above, Washington has taken the season series from Boston this year – but I do not think that will matter much when the puck is dropped come Thursday.  Boston has a big edge in goal, especially considering a rookie will likely be playing for Washington, and they come into the playoffs peaking of sorts looking to advance deep and try to become the first team since the ’97-’98 Red Wings to win back to back Cups.  I am not sure that will happen this year, but I do think Boston will advance to the SF round in 6 games here.

#3 Florida Panthers vs. #6 NJ Devils: in what seems like an annual rite of passage in the Eastern Conference, any Southeast Division team not named the Washington Capitals appears to be an underdog in the QF round – and that holds true once again in 2012 as the Devils are the favorite in this series which commences on Friday.  Last year it was the Lightning, underdogs vs. Pittsburgh but did come out victorious in 7 games; in 2010 no team other than Washington made the playoffs; in 2009 the Hurricanes were underdogs vs. New Jersey, but won that series in 7 games; 2008 once again only Washington made the playoffs; 2007 both Atlanta (#3 seed) and Tampa Bay (#7 seed) made the playoffs only to win a combined 2 games between them in dropping both series.  You get the point – which is over the last 5 years we only had four instances of Southeast Division teams reaching the playoffs not named the Capitals, all four were underdogs, and only two won and both did so in 7 games.  Not only that, of the 16 teams that have advanced to the playoffs in both conferences, the only two teams with a negative goal differential are both SE division qualifiers, Florida -24 and Washington -8.  The Devils were one of the hottest clubs in hockey over the last two thirds of the season, ironically led by HC Pete DeBoer, who was an assistant with the Panthers for the previous 3 seasons.  The Devils are still led by G Martin Brodeur, who remains one of the better goalies in the game despite father time rapidly ticking.  Although his save percentage has dropped for 6 consecutive seasons, he is still playing at a relatively high level, and would love nothing more than to make one last run to his 4th Stanley Cup title, which would be his first in ten seasons.  Recently his playoff splits have not been very good, posting a 3+ GAA in two of his last three playoff appearances, as NJ has not won a playoff series with him in net since 2007, and they have not advanced to the Conference Finals since their last Cup win in 2003.  The 2012 Panthers make their first playoff appearance in 12 years and were clearly one of the surprise teams this year in hockey winning the SE division.  But when taking a look at their season results you may be wary of how they accomplished this – they were 17-5-1 in one goal games – which is good in that it shows the team plays well in tight games, but could also be looked at as poor as that shows there was little room between the team winning the division which they did, and potentially missing out on the playoffs if a few of those bounces didn’t go their way.  What is critical in this matchup is the fact New Jersey was 24-7-6 themselves in one goal games, and have consistently shown over the years they perform well in tight games – most of which is driven by past solid goaltending by Marty Brodeur.  Florida has a lot of questions at goaltender, with Jose Theodore likely to get the nod even though he has struggled recently in the playoffs.  Both teams are pretty even believe it or not as far as playoff experience goes, as neither team has made any significant noise in quite some time.  Statistically, in the team’s 4 games this year, there was only 1 combined power play goal, but NJ did have the edge shots wise in 3 of the 4 games and in aggregate.  With the recent playoff struggles of both goalies, the over appears to be a decent angle to pursue in these games.  As far as the series goes, I just have a hard time seeing Florida escaping with a win, based on goaltending and the fact SE division teams almost always struggle in the playoffs.  New Jersey and Brodeur will be extra hungry since they have not reached even the second round since 2007, and that will lead the Devils to a series win in 5 possibly 6 games.

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers: without a doubt this is the best opening round series the Eastern Conference has to offer, and quite possibly the best in the NHL although there are a few out West that should also be highly entertaining.  The Keystone state rivalry, old Patrick Division rivals, current Atlantic Division rivals, lots of bad blood (see the 2nd to last regular season meeting between these two), two good hockey teams, and a pair of rabid fan bases load this one up to potentially be one of the most memorable QF matchups of the last decade.  Let’s start by looking at the playoff success each franchise has enjoyed of late: Philadelphia has advanced to the EC SF round 3 of the last 4 years (only missing in 2009), along with one Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2010, and one EC Final appearance vs. Pittsburgh in 2008.  The Penguins have also advanced to the EC SF round in 3 of the last 4 years (only missing last year), including two Stanley Cup Final appearances, along with one championship in 2009.  As you can see just from that data these are two Eastern Conference heavyweights as other than Boston last year these two clubs have represented the EC in the SC Finals each year since 2008.  Not only that, both teams put up 103 plus points, and the total of 211 points between the clubs is a record for total points between teams meeting in the first round of the playoffs.  Four of the five Atlantic Division teams put up 102 plus points, which by itself is amazing – those poor Islanders!  That division continues to be the best in hockey, which seems to be the case each season.  This season the teams met 6 times, with Philadelphia winning 4 of the 6, road/home split was 3-3, and O/U split was 3-2-1.  The winning team scored at least 3 goals in every game, and averaged 4.33 goals scored over the six games.  This is the only series in the EC where PP units had an impact as Philly scored one PP goal in each of the 6 meetings, and Pitt netted 3.  With the high powered Pens really coming into their own over the last third of the season, the question mark Philly has between the pipes, and the fact that the winning team averaged scoring over 4 goals a game during their regular season matchups, the Flyers figure to need their PP unit continuing to produce in this series to keep pace with the Pens.  On the season, Philly ranked #1 in the NHL with 66 PP goals, while Pitt was tied for 2nd at 57.  What could be key here as far as the PP units go is penalty killing, where there was a big gap between the two teams production – PHI was ranked 3rd worst in the NHL allowing 58 PP goals on the year, while PIT was 2nd best in the NHL allowing a paltry 33 AND they scored 11 SH goals, tied for 3rd best in the NHL!  I think a lot of those numbers can be traced back to goaltending, especially for Philadelphia as goaltending in any playoff series is extremely critical to team success – and a big reason around Philadelphia why they have not been able to hoist a Stanley Cup since 1975 despite quite often heading into the playoffs as one of the best teams in hockey.  The Flyers made a big splash this past offseason signing G Ilya Bryzgalov to a high dollar, long term deal believing he would be the answer they have so long sought at goalie.  It has not been smooth all season, and perhaps it hasn’t worked out as planned, but his numbers were decent posting a GAA of 2.48 with a save % of .909, and many fans and media pundits alike believe he did improve his play down the stretch.  But I have my doubts based on some of his comments during the season that when the lights are turned brightest, which they always are on Broad Street come spring, that he will be able to perform at a high enough level to push the Flyers into a deep 2012 playoff push.  On the other side is Marc-Andre Fluery, who has really come into his own the last few seasons.  This year he picked up his career high in wins at 42, posted his second straight GAA under 2.40, and posted his second straight save % over .912.  However, examining his postseason numbers yield a different story, one not as good as outside his 2008 playoff performance, over his postseason career, his numbers have been poor allowing 2.52 or more goals on average per game, and a save % at or below .908 including three of four  below .900.  Based on that goalie analysis, the meetings we have seen so far this season, and the strong PP performance both teams enjoyed in prior meetings this season, I feel the over is probably going to be a good play on most nights in this matchup.  As far as the series goes, I have a hard time seeing Philadelphia being able to escape with four wins in seven games between these teams, even though they got the better of Pitt during the regular season outscoring them 22-20.  These games will all be hotly contested, physical affairs, and I give the Penguins the edge and likely win based on goaltending, and home ice.  Pens in 7, but I also think there will be a lot of value on the underdogs in this series – Philadelphia was tied with Los Angeles for the 3rd least regulation road losses this season with 13 only trailing both #1 seeds NY Rangers & Vancouver Canucks who had 12, while the Pens went 22-15-4 themselves.  Remember, if you are not betting underdogs in NHL or MLB action, you will not win money over the course of the season – it will not happen period.

Western Conference

#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings: the Canucks sit atop the WC for the second straight season, along with winning back to back President’s Cups for the first time in franchise history.  Over the last two seasons they have been the best team in hockey, but are still seeking their first Stanley Cup after losing in seven games to Boston last year.  This year it is clearly title or bust for Vancouver, and the journey begins Wednesday night when the Kings visit rowdy Rogers Arena.  Speaking of the Kings, they backed into the last playoff spot after losing three of four and five of eight to close their regular season.  Things never quite came together for the talented Kings this year, as interim HC John Stevens was replaced by veteran bench jockey Darryl Sutter in mid December.  Sutter has never been known for playoff success as 7 of his 10 playoff appearances have resulted in first round exits, twice he lost in the second round, and in 2004 he lost in the Stanley Cup final to Tampa Bay as HC of Calgary.  The seat is getting a little hotter for Canucks HC Alain Vigneault as he has coached the Canucks to 100+ point seasons in 5 of his 6 years behind the bench, but has lost in the 2nd round in 3 of 4 playoff appearances, the lone outlier being last season’s finals loss to Boston.  The Canucks enter this series red hot winning 8 of their last 9 games, and look to make quick work of a Kings team they are more talented than, despite the season series being split 2-2 between the clubs.  An interesting totals trend between the clubs 8 meetings over the last two years was none of them resulted in an over.  Five unders, and 3 pushes with all 3 pushes this season on 5 goal totals, the same total we will see in this series.  Based on that, the under appears to be a strong play between these two clubs.  What is also of note, Vancouver and their high powered offense that averaged 3.2 goals per game on the season has not scored more than 3 goals against LA in any of the 8 meetings over the last two seasons.  In fact, they have only averaged 1.9 goals scored in those matchups, almost 1.5 goals less per game than they average vs. the rest of the NHL.  Could that perhaps be a sign this series will be tougher than most typical 1 vs. 8 matchups?  A quick glance at the “experts predictions” on ESPN show 8 of the 12 selecting Vancouver to win the series, but 6 of the 8 believe it will go at least 7, and 7 of the 12 believe this series will go 7 games regardless of which team they selected to win.  For comparative purposes 11 of the 12 selected the #1 Eastern Conference seed NY Rangers to handle Ottawa, and only 3 of the 12 believe it will go 7 games (the one analyst who picked the Sens to win did so in 7 games).  This could be a tough matchup for the Canucks as judging on past action between the clubs LA forces Vancouver to play more of their style of hockey.  If the ‘Nucks are able to get the game more free-flowing and fast paced, LA will certainly be in trouble – which I feel will be the case more times than not especially at Rogers Arena.  The Canucks have too much firepower for the Kings over the course of the series, and because of that I do not see it going 7 games, possibly 6, probably 5 as LA just has never found their mojo this season for whatever reason.  

#2 St. Louis Blues vs. #7 San Jose Sharks: this year’s biggest surprise squad has to be the Blues, who have only qualified for the playoffs once since the ’04-’05 lockout, have not won one playoff game since 2004, and have not won a playoff series since 2002.  Kudos to the Blues for a great regular season, which was built on one of the best blue lines in hockey as they yielded an NHL low 165 goals on the year, 14 better than 2nd place LA, and 22 better than 3rd place NYR in that category.  In addition to a strong defense, home ice was a big advantage for St. Louis this season as they went a remarkable 30-6-5 at Scottrade Center – that mark was the best in the league since the ’09-’10 Capitals went 30-5-6.  Let’s hope for the Blues sake the playoff do not go as poor as they did for that Capitals team, who as the #1 seed in the East lost their opening round series to #8 Montreal in 7 games, in fact losing the deciding game on home ice!  What do the Blues get for such a great regular season?  The San Jose Sharks, far from a bargain.  San Jose is coming off back to back Western Conference Final appearances, and they have won at least one series in 6 of the past 7 seasons – only opening round loss was as the #1 seed in 2009 to Anaheim.  So right off the bat, we can see there is a HUGE edge as far as playoff experience goes to the Sharks side.  But, there are some areas St. Louis has a nice edge, and we can start with the four meetings between the teams this season, that the Blues swept by outscoring the Sharks 11-3!  The Sharks were only able to muster 3 total goals in 4 meetings this year, and what’s more they have only scored 1 goal over the last 180+ minutes of action between the teams.  A key driver of that regular season success for St. Louis was their power play that went 5-18 in aggregate, and was the obvious differentiator in at least two of the games – STL won the most recent meeting 3-1 and scored a pair of PP goals, and STL won a December 10th matchup 1-0 behind a PP goal.  What makes that point interesting is the fact that on the season San Jose was tied for 2nd in PP goals with 57, while St. Louis was middle of the pack tied for 16th with 45 – that definitely makes you wonder can the Blues PP success vs. SJ continue in this series?  As far as PK goes, SJ was one of the better teams in the league with their unit tying for 7th best in PP goals allowed, BUT they were 2nd worst in the NHL as far as PK % is measured checking in at 76.9%.  On the contrary was STL who ranked #7 in PK % @ 85.8.  If you have not noticed by those stats there was a big gap as far as times shorthanded goes, as the Blues were SH 57 more times than the Sharks were.  Discipline, penalties, and special teams units will be absolutely critical in this series.  What’s more as far as favoring SJ goes is the way the two teams closed out their seasons – STL did not play well, losing 4 of their last 5 and 8 of their last 12; SJ won their last 4 and 7 of their last 9.  Talent wise the Sharks are one of the better teams in the league, but this year they went through an extended funk of sorts from February to mid March where they lost 10 of 14 games, which obviously at the end of the day really impacted their seeding.  I want to feel good about the Blues, I want to see them have success this playoff season – I really enjoy their brand of hockey, their home ice at the Scotttrade Center is one of the best in the NHL when it really rocks – it’s just hard for me to get excited about this matchup for them.  Along with PIT/PHI & NAS/DET this will be one of the better first round series to watch, with lots of tight checking, physical play, and fun buildings.  I see this one going the distance, with under plays probably working out well over the course of the series, and think at the end of the day San Jose will find a way to win this series as they are perhaps peaking as we head into April,  whereas St. Louis may have peaked too early in the season.  Just like the 2010 Capitals, the Blues will lose Game 7 on their home ice after posting the best home record in the NHL this year.

#3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #6 Chicago Blackhawks: like the Eastern Conference 3 vs. 6 matchup, the 6 seed is on paper the clear favorite as Chicago had more points than Phoenix during the regular season (101 vs. 97), but since Phoenix won their first ever Pacific division crown they earned the #3 seed.  What is interesting however is Phoenix beat Chicago in 3 of the 4 regular season games this year, outscoring Chicago 13-8.  The winning team in those games scored 3, 4, 4, 5 goals, so a higher scoring affair is quite possible in this series although 24 of the last 35 meetings have gone under – to a certain extent those numbers are useless, but using them only for the most recent matchups over last 2-3 years max can be somewhat helpful.  Both teams enter the series very hot, with CHI going 6-1-3 in their last ten, while PHO posted a 7-1-2 mark.  The Coyotes closed the regular season winning 5 straight, using dominating defense during that stretch to seal up the Pacific Division title only allowing 2 goals combined in those games.  However, prior to that run, the ‘Yotes lost 10 of 14, allowing a whopping 46 goals (3.2/game) in those games.  Which team will show up in this series is a big question mark for Phoenix, and their chances of knocking off the more talented and experienced Blackhawks.  Chicago has dealt with a ton of injuries this year, but was able to still secure their third 100+ point season in the last 4 years, and their 4th straight playoff appearance.  In those 4 appearances Chicago has only lost in the first round once, last season in 7 games as the #8 seed to the WC champion Canucks – in other words, they will be extra hungry and focused.  Two seasons ago Chicago won the Cup in six games over Philadelphia, and much of that team is still intact so another run towards a title is a real possibility.  But, to some extent, Chicago has vastly underachieved last year and this regular season, only being able to secure the #8 seed last year before suffering a first round exit; and only able to secure the #6 seed this year, granted the Central Division was much deeper and stronger in ’11-’12.  And as previously mentioned, some of those struggles (including a stretch where they lost 9 straight games in late January early February) can be correlated to their injuries – and that is still something we must keep an eye on as a pair of Centers are banged up in Toews & Bolland, along with LW Brunette and D Montador.  The first three are expected to play on Thursday, with Montador expected to be re-evaluated early next week.  Last offseason Phoenix upgraded their goaltending in their opinion by signing Mike Smith, who in turn had a career year, posting a 2.21 GAA along with a .930 save percentage.  His play, and the Coyote defense, will be the determining factor here.  Chicago will look to exploit that goaltending and defense as they check in with the 2nd most goals scored in the Western Conference, only 1 goal behind Vancouver on the season.  I have a hard time getting a solid feel for this series as on one hand Chicago is clearly the more talented team, but on the other hand Chicago never really found its groove this year.  It seems obvious Chicago is the pick here, especially considering Phoenix is 0-7 all time in playoff series, including losing to Central Division bully Detroit in each of the last two years.  But is it too obvious?  I say no, Chicago is finally getting back to full health, will be hungry, and they played in either the best or the second best division in hockey this year depending on who you talk to.  I will go with Chicago in 6, with some leans towards overs.

#4 Nashville Predators vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings: this behemoth of a series is the last of the trio I feel will be the best of the first round (along with PIT/PHI & STL/SJ), as these Central Division rivals lace ‘em up and face off starting tonight in Nashville.  We all know about the Red Wings, who have consistently been amongst the best teams in the sport over the last 25 years, including winning the Cup four times, but have they slipped some this year finishing in 3rd place in the newly robust Central?  Quick fact, this was the first year since 1991 that Detroit did not finish 1st or 2nd in their division!  How about the new juggernaut known as the Nashville Predators?  We got a little taste of what this team could become in last year’s playoffs, as they defeated the Ducks in the first round and gave the Canucks all they could handle in a 6 game loss in the 2nd round.  They proved last season’s success was not a fluke, posting 104 points (good for 5th in the NHL), second most in franchise history only behind the ’06-’07 Preds that posted 110 points.  But what has not followed prior regular season success was playoff success – before last season’s win over Anaheim Nashville had not won a playoff series in their history, never even forcing a game 7 in five prior series.  Can this year be different, more like last year than years past?  It could be, but it will be a tough hill to climb.  During the regular season the teams split 6 meetings, with each team winning once on the other team’s ice, and Nashville winning the last two meetings in March.  Four of the six meetings went under the total, one pushed – but what is interesting is the winning team scored 4 goals four times, 3 & 2 goals once – relatively high scoring.  What we can take away from that is some of the games were not close, and that is what we find looking closer as 3 of the 6 were 4-1 wins.  The under has been strong between these clubs as its 3-0-1 last four meetings, and 6-2-1 last 9 in Nashville.  Add that point into the fact when division rivals face off in the playoffs there is so much bad blood and intensity the games are typically lower scoring affairs, and the under seems like a strong play in this series.  Nashville comes into the playoffs playing better hockey than Detroit as they are 6-2 in their last 8, while Detroit is only 2-4 in their last 6 and 5-12 over their last 17.  Yikes.  Yes, injuries have played a big part in that, but that cannot be looked at as favorable for the Red Wings.  When looking at record splits the one thing that stands out is Detroit being under .500 on the road (they are only WC team under .500 on road, and only Washington joins them in that category out of the 16 playoff teams), which could be a big factor especially considering Nashville has the home ice, and that home ice edge is one of the best in the NHL.  Another point that really stands out is of the 12 experts on ESPN that are projecting winners of each playoff series, not one analyst is picking Detroit to win this series – really?  Hey, I see the numbers, I broke it all down, and although Nashville has some clear cut edges, nobody thinks big ole mighty Detroit has a shot?  Wow.  Don’t think for a second that won’t be motivation for the Wings.  I see a lot of low scoring hockey games in this series, very tightly contested, tempers high with a lot of short fuses.  As is often the case in the playoffs, especially a series between two teams this close in talent, and being divisional rivals, goaltending is huge.  Red Wings net minder Jimmy Howard has the experience and GAA on his side, while Predators goalie Rinne is one of the better young goalies in the NHL, and had a higher save % on the season vs. Howard.  Based on that we can determine Nashville gives up more shots than Detroit on the season to about the tune of 30-26 when these two goalies are in net.  More opportunities for the skill players of Detroit to find the back of the net is how I see that point.  Based on all of that, I am going to roll the dice some and go with the Red Wings to win this series, as they have not lost a first round series since 2006.  I think they are upset about coming in 3rd place during the regular season in the division they have owned over the last 25 years, and the fact many are picking Nashville to beat them.  I will go with Detroit in 7, winning the deciding game on Nashville’s home ice.