Round 1 of the Stanley Cup tournament is over and it was pretty wild.
There were 16 overtime games – 12 of them won by the road teams – a load of upsets (L.A. over Vancouver in five, Washington over Boston in seven), the elimination of all the Canadian teams and the stunning revelation that there will be a new Stanley Cup champion this June.
Of course, in the end, New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella said it best right after his No. 1 seed in the East, snuck past the feisty Ottawa Senators in seven games: “We had to work very hard against a good team, but we’re really satisfied to have won Round 1. But we can’t forget that it was just Round 1. There is a long way to go.”
For the sake of argument, and as a justification, for taking the time to read this, we went 5-3 with our first round picks and are quite proud of that number. We picked the Rangers, Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Boston in the East and Phoenix, St. Louis, Vancouver and Nashville in the West. The Rangers, New Jersey, Phoenix, St. Louis and Nashville are moving in and my post-season fantasy pool that is loaded with Predators and Rangers is still in the hunt.
Let’s look at Round 2 and make another set of fearless predictions:
St. Louis Blues over Los Angeles Kings in seven games The Kings upset in the top-seeded and President’s Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks in five games in Round 1 and, of course, they did it with goaltending. Los Angeles still has the best goaltending in the West with Jonathan Quick in net, and that can be seen quite clearly through the Round 1 scores: 4-2, 4-2, 1-0, 1-3, 2-1. Of all the teams in the playoffs, L.A. was the only team that didn’t score 200 goals this past season, but my goodness, they stop the other team from scoring and that’s how they ousted Vancouver. In the playoffs, I’m a defense-first guy and in a grind-it-out series against a goalie that led the NHL in shutouts this season with 10, I’ll usually take the goalie. Defense trumps offense in the post-season. However, you can’t knock the defensive efforts of the Blues. During the season, St. Louis finished 49-22-11 as head coach Ken Hitchcock took over a struggling team and made them one of the best in the league. He did it by stopping other teams from scoring. In 2010-11, the Blues were 38-33-11 and in 11th place in the West. They gave up 234 goals last season. This year, as they finished second in the West and tied for second overall in the NHL, the Blues allowed only 165 goals, best in the NHL. They were a plus-45 as a team and Brian Elliot (or Jaroslav Halak) has been brilliant. This will be a dull, checking, trapping series and the Blues will eke out four 1-0 in overtime games. Or something like that.
Nashville Predators over Phoenix Coyotes in six games: You have to have young legs to grind out this two-month tournament successfully and Nashville is a younger and tougher team. Oh, the Coyotes are tough and they proved they could win in the playoffs with that 4-2 series victory over Chicago. And, as they proved in Round 1, the Coyotes play defense-first hockey and they have obviously bought into head coach Dave Tippett’s theory of defense first and ride unlikely superstar goalie Mike Smith (Isn’t it interesting that a guy named Mike Smith destroyed the Winnipeg Jets franchise and then a guy named Mike Smith got the Coyotes their first Stanley Cup series win?). Not even Jonathan Quick was better than Smith in Round 1. However, the Preds are not a fluke (and Phoenix could be). If you need more proof of Nashville’s supremacy, just look at special teams: The Preds were No. 1 in the NHL in power play efficiency at 21.6 percent, and their penalty-killing unit finished 10th (83.6), and was one of only three teams — Vancouver and Pittsburgh were the others — to finish in the Top 10 in both special teams categories. Goaltending and special teams can go a long way in the playoffs and with Pekka Rinne the Preds have both. This series won’t go the distance.
New York Rangers over Washington Capitals in six games: Both of these teams had a difficult time in Round 1. One was expected to have trouble but the other was expected to romp. Washington was everyone’s underdog against Boston, but young Braden Holtby became the first rookie goalie since Ken Dryden in 1971 to beat a defending Stanley Cup champion in the opening round of the next season’s tournament. Washington would not have beaten the Bruins without a great goaltender. Meanwhile, Henrik Lundqvist, arguably this year’s Vein Trophy winner, led the Rangers into the first place seed in the East and got them past an inspired Senators team in Round 1 by winning Game 7 2-1. This will be a great series for people who love goaltending match-ups. Holtby is the young kid trying to make a name for himself while Lundqvist might be the best in the game today. The spotlight will be on them, but I’m taking the proven commodity.
Philadelphia Flyers over New Jersey Devils in six games: The hottest team in hockey over the last 10 days of the regular season — with six wins in a row — takes on a team that was tougher, faster and more prepared than a Pittsburgh squad that many experts thought might goal all the way. Jersey is healthy, finally, and goalie Martin Brodeur is playing as well as he has in very illustrious career. And just before they took out Florida in seven games (with a double-overtime road win in Game 7) they went 7-2-1 in their last 10. It’s hard not to like the Devils chances, even if they have to start and finish on the road, however, the Flyers are a terrific hockey club right now. Even goofy Ilya Bryzgalov is good enough in net because the Claude Giroux-led Flyers seem to be scoring at will. Here’s my theory: defense-first teams tend to win in the playoffs, but I cheer for teams that are exciting and can score goals. The Flyers are exciting and can score goals. I’m going to ignore my own policy and take a team that scored 30 goals in six games in the first round.
(Listen to Scott Taylor every Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on NCI FM and Streetz 104.7 FM in Winnipeg and every Wednesday morning at 10:05 CST on The TEAM 1260 in Edmonton.)