Tuesday, April 13, 2010

First Round Preview

Time to start growing your playoff beard as the fight to win the greatest trophy in sports resumes. That's right, the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin tonight with first round action. Instead of the typical preview, I decided to rank the 16 most important players, one for each team, before giving my 1st round picks. This isn't necessarily the best players (I don't have Sidney Crosby), but the players who are the keys for teams if they want to advance a round or two. Let's get started.

16. Tomas Plekanec- Thought I'd go with Jaroslav Halak here, eh? Well while we all know that Halak has a tough chore facing him with the Caps snipers, the Habs need the Plekanec from October-December, not the one from January through the end of the season. He scored 46 points in his first 43 games, but only 24 in his last 39. The Montreal offense will go through him and a good Plekanec will help Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and the rest of Les Smufs.

15. Paul Stastny- One of the few Avs players with both playoff experience, while not being too old to impact the series (Adam Foote, we're looking at you). Stastny needs to show the pedigree of his family in this series. Plus, as the team's leading scorer this year, he can help make Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly's jobs easier.

14. Pekka Rinne- Our first goalie on this list as he will have to be as strong as ever to help the Predators upset Chicago. Nashville has little scoring, a solid defense and they need Rinne to reward Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and the rest of that blueline with a stellar performance. I.e. no more that two goals allowed a game.

13. Chris Pronger- Somebody needs to make Brian Boucher look good and that guy will have to be Pronger. He needs to show the Flyers why they paid him until he's 42. He truly can never do that, but if they can beat the Devils, it could lessen the sting of a bad year for him. Remember, he does show up for the playoffs (see Oilers, 2006 and Ducks, 2007).

12. Tuukka Rask- The feature of my first hockey-related article, (still among my favorites), Rask had better stats than his counterpart and American hero Ryan Miller, with a 1.97 GAA and a .931 save percentage. Now, he needs to enter the playoffs the way Simeon Varlamov did last year, with no fear of his first playoff run. Of course, it would help of the Bruins can score some goals.

11. Jonathan Quick- The taxi squad USA goaltender needs to shake off the struggles post-Olympics. He lost seven of his last 8 games, with the ninth game being his last win not involving a shootout. The Kings chance of winning in the first round come down to if Quick can play well or we might see Erik Ersberg before long.

10. Jason Spezza- The obvious choice for the Senators most important player as Ottawa goes as he goes. They can't have the Spezza from the beginning who couldn't score a goal in warmups. We know Daniel Alfredsson will show up (considering he was hurt the last time the Sens played in the playoffs), Spezza needs to step up, since Alex Kovalev is done for the year.

9. Shane Doan- The old veteran all the way back when the Coyotes made the playoffs regularly and even back to the days of the Winnipeg Jets, must lead by example if these Yotes have a chance against the Red Wings. Ilya Bryzgalov should play well, but Phoenix will need to get timely scoring, and Doan needs to prove that he is a leader in the mold of Jarome Iginla or Alfredsson.

8. Jimmy Howard- The Red Wings have given the keys to their playoff car to the Calder candidate and he needs to continue to play with the confidence that he showed throughout the season. Just remember, Mike Babcock would be hard pressed to leave Chris Osgood on the bench if Howard struggles, especially if the rest of the team continues their hot streak since the Olympics.

7. Evgeni Malkin- He proved last year that he can play through the entire playoffs. This year, he needs to return from injuries and give Pittsburgh's opponents someone else to worry about, aside from Crosby. Also, the added bonus of making them more formidable on the power play.

6. Thomas Vanek- Ryan Miller can handle the job in net. Vanek needs to recapture the scoring touch of last season after struggling for much of the year. He certainly appears to get out of the doldrums as he scored four goals Saturday against Ottawa. Him scoring only makes the Sabres more dangerous offensively and that much tougher to beat four times.

5. Roberto Luongo- The team Canada goaltender has struggled much of the season. Fortunately for Vancouver, the Sedin twins masked this problem by turning in their best years and the rest of the team followed suit. It seems like it should be easy for Bobby Lou to win, but last year proved he can turn into a sieve at any point. For someone considered among the best goalies in the world, he must show it this year.

4. Ilya Kovalchuk- The midseason acquisition for the Devils is only playing in his second playoff series and is in need for his first win. He was awful in his first go around, getting into more fights than goals. With big bucks awaiting him, this postseason could determine how much he'll end up getting and finally allows us to see him in the pressure spot. Plus, New Jersey hasn't made it past the second round since their last Cup in 2003, so they have pressure to do some damage for a change.

3. Marian Hossa- Two years in a row, Hossa's made the finals. Two years, he lost. Now he joined the team he last beat a year ago and needs to end this Cup jinx on a team that hasn't won a Cup in 49 years. Either Hossa's a reverse jinx or just some more bad vibes for the Blackhawks. Look out for any possible injuries.

2. Alex Ovechkin- Bad news Ovie, Sidney's ahead of you again. With the Cup win, the Rocket Richard trophy and his Gold Medal winning goal, he's starting to earn the hype he's received. Ovechkin has to now bring this Caps team, who can score with anyone and better, to at least the East finals. No excuses, this is the year we finally judge the Caps on their playoff record, not their regular season one. Speaking of that...

1. The entire San Jose Sharks- Yes, I cheated. Honestly, I can write a column on the 16 most important Sharks who need to step up for a playoff run. Evgeni Nabakov is a free agent and so is Patrick Marleau, both men need big postseasons. Meanwhile, Joe Thornton continues to be Tony Romo-like in the clutch, coming up small in the playoffs. He needs a year like A-Rod had in '09 to help the Sharks win. Lastly, Dany Heatley was picked up specifically to help in the playoffs. As wrong as it is to ask a former Senator for a dominating playoff performance, that's what the Sharks need from him. San Jose absolutely must reach the Western Finals at least, or the Stanley Cup Final if they don't face Chicago, or this team could face many changes next year.

My first round predictions: Caps in 4, Flyers in 7, Sabres in 6, Pens in 5, Sharks in 5, Hawks in 6, Canucks in 6, Wings in 5.

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