BY SEAN SANBEG
SC Copy Editor
After six months of hockey, the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs finally kick off this week. Sixteen teams start the quest for the cup, but only one team can win it. The question is, which team will take it home this year? Can the Northeast Division Champion Boston Bruins repeat their cup victory from last season? Or will one of the high performing teams like the New York Rangers or Vancouver Canucks come in and claim the prize? With the first round starting, eight match ups start the fight for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Starting in the Eastern Conference, the first place New York Rangers take on the Ottawa Senators. The Senators took a few steps backwards as of late, losing their last three games of the season against the Carolina Hurricanes, Boston Bruins, and New Jersey Devils respectively. For a decent length of time, it looked like the Senators were locked into the seventh seed—putting them up against the Boston Bruins. But as it now stands, the recently struggling Senators have to take on a team with the lowest goals against total in the conference.
Because of the Senator’s series of losses to close the regular season, the Boston Bruins now have to compete against the Washington Capitals—a team that didn’t claim a playoff spot until the second to last game of the regular season. While this may seem like the Capitals might be an easy playoff opponent, consider the fact that they took the regular season series between the two teams, winning three of the four games played against the Bruins. However, the Bruins have six players with 20+ goals, which will create match-up problems for the Capitals.
The Florida Panthers get to take on the New Jersey Devils, a team in a lower seed but with more points. The Panthers may have claimed the third seed with their division win, but the Devils have proved time and again that they have the tools to win. More specifically, they have a trio of 30 goal scorers and a goaltender who has won the Stanley Cup three times. Jose Theodore and the Panthers will have to stop the likes of Peter Sykora, David Clarkson, and Ilya Kovalchuk.
After playing each other in six rivalry-filled games this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers square off again in the playoffs. Both teams put together impressive regular seasons, coming out with 108 points and 103 points respectively. And both teams are among the top six in the league. Unfortunately, one of these teams won’t make it past round one. The bitter rivalry, combined with the intensity of the playoffs, should provide plenty of entertainment for any hockey fan.
Moving into the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks won the Presidents’ Trophy for the second season in a row. They finished the regular season in strong fashion, but the Los Angeles Kings have one of the best goaltenders of the season. Jonathan Quick is a Vezina Trophy finalist with a league-leading 10 shut-outs. For the Kings to be successful against the high-caliber Canucks, they need Quick to continue his dominance in net and their forwards to support him by getting goals past Roberto Luongo.
The St. Louis Blues take on the seventh seed San Jose Sharks. The Blues dominated the regular season series, winning all three games, and have 13 points more than the Sharks. However, the Sharks have an impressive offense with three players scoring 30 goals this season. They also have Joe Thornton, one of the best centers in the National Hockey League. The Blues have been more than impressive this season. Their goaltending, powerful defense, and explosive offense earned them the number two seed in the Western Conference. This is a series worth keeping an eye on.
The Phoenix Coyotes are matched up against the Chicago Blackhawks in round one. The Blackhawks are no stranger to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, having won the cup two seasons ago. Much like the Devils/Panthers series from the East, the sixth seed Blackhawks have more points than the third seed Coyotes. The Coyotes have a noteworthy goaltender in Mike Smith, winning 38 games and earning eight shutouts. While the Coyotes might seem like a weak cup candidate, this could be the year they finally break through. But Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks aren’t going to make it easy.
On paper, the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings are pretty evenly matched. Both teams finished the regular season with 48 wins, but Nashville’s extra two overtime points gave them the leg up on the Red Wings. These teams split their season series, but the Predators won the two most recent meetings. This will be the third time the Predators face the Red Wings in the postseason. After losing the previous two postseason occasions, maybe this is the year the Predators steal some thunder from the booming Red Wings.
There will be speculation all week as to which teams will move on to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the only real, and fun, way to know is to just sit back and watch.
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