NHL Playoff Preview: Sabres Looking To Strike

Bill Stoklosa

The NHL’s postseason is about to get underway this weekend and the action promises to be intense with some fantastic first round matchups. Here’s my humble opinion on how the first- round and Stanley Cup Finals will pan out.

In the Eastern Conference, the top-seeded Buffalo Sabres will battle the New York Islanders. New York’s rookie goalie Wade Dubielewicz has been spectacular down the stretch, but he has to be sweating bullets over facing the potent Sabres offense. Buffalo has four players with 30 or more goals in Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek. Plus, Buffalo has an All-Star goaltender in Ryan Miller and a core of solid defensemen led by All-Star Brian Campbell. The Islanders, meanwhile, have been playing great lately and forward Richard Park has been playing the best hockey of his career. However, the talent simply isn’t there to compete with Buffalo. Look for the Sabres to take the series in five games en route to hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup in June.

The second-seeded New Jersey Devils will play the Tampa Bay Lightning, winners of the 2004 Stanley Cup. New Jersey and Tampa Bay have contrasting styles: the Devils rely on the trap defense and steady goaltending from Martin Brodeur while the Lightning will go so far as their high scoring offense. New Jersey’s only weak link is its inability to score goals. They scored almost 100 goals less than first-place Buffalo and Zach Parise led the team with just 31 goals, a low number for a team leader. Despite Tampa’s potent scoring tandem of Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, New Jersey’s defense and goaltending should prove decisive and it will take the series in five games.

The three versus six matchup features the higher seeded Atlanta Thrashers against the New York Rangers. New York surged into the playoffs this year and is playing their best hockey of the season right now due in large part to goalie Henrik Lundqvist and centers Michael Nylander and Martin Straka. Special teams will be the difference in an otherwise evenly matched series. The Thrashers are inexplicably subpar on the power play despite having Slava Kozlov and Ilya Kovalchuk. The Thrashers have the worst power play of any playoff team and rank an abysmal 26th in the NHL on the penalty kill. On the other hand, New York has the second-best power play among Eastern Conference playoff teams and the third best penalty kill. That will be the difference in the series, as the Rangers will win in six.

The four vs. five match-up between the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins should be the most fun to watch because the two teams are so evenly matched. Obviously, the key for the Penguins is the NHL’s points leader Sidney Crosby. Not to be overlooked is the importance of rookies Evgeni Malkin (33 goals) and Jordan Staal (29 goals). The Senators have some offense of their own, led by Dany Heatley who scored 50 goals and 55 assists. The series should be exciting because it features the second and third highest scoring teams in the Eastern Conference. However, the difference will be in goal where Ottawa’s Ray Emery is just a tad better than Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury. The Senators should triumph in seven.

Out in the West, the top seed belongs to the Detroit Red Wings, led by the ageless goalie Dominik Hasek. He had eight shutouts this year and a goal against average just over two. Niklas Lidstrom continues to key a steady defensive unit in front of Hasek. If the Flames hope to pull off an upset, they will need goalie Miikka Kiprusoff to be his phenomenal self and forward Jarome Iginla to come up big. Kiprusoff’s goaltending should be enough to steal a few games, but Detroit has too much talent to be defeated and will win in six.

The battle between the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks and the seventh-seeded Minnesota Wild should be intriguing. The Ducks strength is their defense, which features two of the NHL’s best blue liners in Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. The Wild have fantastic youngster Niklas Backstrom in goal and he has a league best 1.97 goals against average and a fantastic .929 save percentage. He and a healthy Marian Gaborik, one of the league’s most talented players, should propel the Wild to victory in seven games.

The third-seeded Vancouver Canucks will do battle with the sixth-seeded Dallas Stars. The outcome of this series lies on the shoulders of Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo. He is the league’s best goalie and should be this season’s MVP. Luongo’s 47 wins and .921 save percentage are the reasons why the Canucks are in the playoffs. The Sedin twins both broke the eighty-point barrier this year and will provide enough offensive support for Roberto Luongo along with Markus Naslund. The Stars will be no push over because of net-minder Marty Turco and a solid group of defensemen led by Sergei Zubov. However, look for Luongo’s strong play to carry the Canucks past the Stars in six and all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals against Buffalo.

The final first round series is between the Nashville Predators and the San Jose Sharks. This is a rematch of a first round series from last year. Offense will be the name of the game with Nashville’s Peter Forsberg and Paul Kariya facing off against San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo. The series features the two highest scoring teams in the Western Conference playoffs. The Sharks won this match-up last year and had a 100-point season in the toughest division in hockey. They’ll win again this year in seven games.