Mar 262011
 

[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]

With two weeks left until the end of the NHL regular season, it’s pretty easy for fans to get caught up in the race for the final playoff spots.

But those teams who scramble to the finish line rarely make it all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose in the West, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington in the East – these are your Stanley Cup favourites heading into the Spring.

Each of these teams has their strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s take a closer look.

Philadelphia Flyers

Strengths: Offensive depth – five 20-goal scorers, soon-to-be five players with 50-or-more points. A strong two-way defense that features two solid puckmovers (Andrej Meszaros, Braydon Coburn), two good puck movers (Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen) and one of the best of all-time (Chris Pronger). This is also an experienced team, similar in makeup to the roster that made it to the Finals last year. Peter Laviolette is a very good coach.

Weaknesses: For a team this offensively gifted, the powerplay has been awfully mediocre.

Question marks: The Flyers made the Stanley Cup Finals last year with questionable goaltending. Sergei Bobrovski enters the playoffs as the number one, but he’s unproven. Chris Pronger has had an injury-filled season. Healthy he’s their MVP, and has proven (as recently as last year) he can be a dominant player in the post-season.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 100-1

Boston Bruins

Strengths: Goaltending. Tim Thomas has had a wonderful season, and Tuukka Rask is a more-than-capable back-up. Like the Flyers, the Bruins also feature balanced scoring. They’re also the best team in the NHL at 5-on-5.

Weaknesses: It’s a good thing the Bruins have good goaltending, since they are second-worst in the league at giving up shots on goal. Without Zdeno Chara, this is a serviceable defense at best.

Question marks: None of the players the Bruins picked-up (Tomas Kaberle, Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly) have made much of an impact, although Kaberle has picked it up of late. The thing is the former Leaf blueliner’s post-season play has never earned rave reviews. This is also predominantly the same team that got upset by the Flyers last year.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 20-1

Washington Capitals

Strengths: With Crosby out, they have the most talented player in the game in Alex Ovechkin. They’ve played very well defensively in the regular season, and the blueline is much improved over the 2009-10 season. Their penalty killing is amongst the league’s best. Good team speed.

Weaknesses: Injuries have plagued the team’s best players (Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nik Backstrom, Alex Semin) for most of the season. This might be why scoring has been such a problem. Only the Los Angeles Kings and Montreal Canadiens are on pace to score fewer goals to reach the post-season than Washington. Low-scoring teams historically don’t do well in the playoffs.

Question marks: The Capitals might be the team with the most question marks on this list. Goaltending is a concern, with three youngsters (Michal Neuvirth, Sergei Varlamov, Braden Holtby) each looking like the answer for periods of time during the season. Perhaps the biggest question is the health of Alex Ovechkin. Without him dominating, this team won’t score enough. Finally, for a team that’s dedicated itself to the defensive side of the game, can this new approach translate into playoff victories, or is it true that a leopard can’t change its spots?

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 4-1

Vancouver Canucks

Strengths: The team’s top line. In fact, for two seasons now the Sedin line (the brothers and whomever they lineup with) has been probably the best line in the NHL. Canucks special teams have been truly special – there might not be another team that moves the puck on the powerplay as well as Vancouver. Roberto Luongo has had another strong season, and should enter the playoffs rested. The defense is incredibly deep, featuring a group that’s good, but not great, in all areas.

Weaknesses: This team is top-heavy. For all their success scoring, the Canucks might finish the season with only three 20-goal scorers on the roster (Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows). That’s the same number as the offensively challenged Capitals this season. Vancouver has also been home and cooled out as the top seed in the Western Conference for almost two months now, which rarely bodes well for playoff success.

Question marks: Can Vancouver’s secondary scoring step up if other teams take liberties with the Sedin line and find a way to render it ineffective? Rightly or wrongly, Roberto Luongo still has a reputation for not being mentally tough enough to go far in the post-season. With Manny Malholtra out, there is a lot more pressure on Ryan Kesler to dominate the faceoff circle and play a shut-down role.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: (Given it could mean facing Chicago or Anaheim) 5-1

Detroit Red Wings

Strengths: This is an experienced, well-rounded team that rarely takes penalties nor loses focus. They have the best defenseman in the game (Nik Lidstrom) and probably the two best two-way players in the game (Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk), all having terrific seasons. This is another team with solid puck moving options on defense. They have arguably the league’s best coach (Mike Babcock) behind the bench.

Weaknesses: Jimmy Howard might have a new contract, but his rebound control isn’t very good. He’s definitely the weakest link on the team.

Question marks: For all the skill and speed the Red Wings have, they will have to prove they can win the trench battles required to go deep in the playoffs. Secondary scoring, particularly in a physical playoff series, is also something to wonder about.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 10-1

San Jose Sharks

Strengths: Maybe the strongest top-six offensively in the NHL, and certainly one of the best teams in the centre position. No team takes more shots than San Jose. Other than Vancouver no team is better in the faceoff circle.

Weaknesses: The defense has been a concern for most of the year, although it has improved steadily over the second half. While the team’s bottom-six forwards are full of grit and sandpaper, goals are hard to come by.

Question marks: Antti Niemi has been terrific for a few months, and has already won a Stanley Cup. Still, there are those who believe his unorthodox approach render him a liability. This post-season is his chance to prove he’s not a one-playoff wonder. Like Washington, the Sharks, particularly their top three players (Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley), face questions about being mentally tough enough for playoff success. Heatley in particular has lacked edge since putting on a Sharks uniform.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 20-1

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Damien Cox looked at the rebuilding jobs of eight NHL teams. Oiler fans won’t be happy.
  • Boston’s 7-0 win over Montreal was the highest-rated regular season game on NESN (New England Sports Channel) in 27-years. It’s also safe to say the Bruins have a pretty strong psychological advantage over the Canadiens right now.
  • With local talk that Canucks ownership is hoping to lure an NBA franchise to the Rogers Centre, interesting to read that Anaheim’s ownership is hoping to do the same thing.
  • Michael Grabner has scored more goals than any player acquired on waivers in the past 15 years. Between Grabner and Matt Moulson, the Islanders have their first pair of 30-goal scorers since 2001-02.
  • For those of you who missed it, here’s Ray Ferrero’s take on the Atlanta Thrashers situation.
  • With Justin Williams out of the Los Angeles lineup for the rest of the season, this could be the last, best chance for Oscar Moller to finally stick with the big club. His development has been a disappointment so far for the Kings.
  • Sad news out of Edmonton where anthem singer Paul Lorieau is retiring at the end of the season. Lorieau was the first anthem singer to invite the crowd to sing the national anthem, popularizing the move during the Oilers Cup run in 2006. He’s been the team’s anthem singer since 1981.
  • Too little, too late – Columbus players held a closed door meeting after the team’s loss to Phoenix earlier in the week. The Blue Jackets have only won two of their last 14 games.
  • The Ottawa Citizen takes a look at how their “departed” (Mike Fisher, Alex Kovalev, Chris Kelly etc) have fared since being traded.
  • From the department of weird stats: The Dallas Stars are 2-8-3 without Adam Burish in the lineup.
  • More evidence that Tomas Vokun won’t be a Florida Panther for much longer: he called out his teammates for a lack of effort this week.
  • With the playoffs out of reach, is it really that important for Zach Parise to return to the New Jersey lineup? Entering restricted free agency, perhaps Parise wants to prove he’s healthy. Much could be lost if his knee isn’t ready for NHL action.
  • The emergence of Brandon Prust for the New York Rangers makes one think Sean Avery is very expendable come this off-season.
  • Sidney Crosby is still progressing in his attempt to return to the Penguins lineup. As stated numerous times, expect him in the lineup during the first round of the playoffs.
  • Not a very bold prediction, but you have to expect Gary Bettman will announce the Coyotes are moving to Winnipeg the day after Phoenix is eliminated from the playoffs.
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