Stanley Cup Prediction by Neil Becker

 

While I enjoy watching hockey throughout the season, that enjoyment doesn’t compare to my favourite time of year, which … hands down … is the playoffs. Every night, from April right through June, I’ll be in my usual place, camped upstairs in my room, watching these NHL athletes compete for what I strongly believe is the toughest trophy of all sports … the Stanley Cup. After an 82 game season these teams will be under immense physical and mental pressure as they endure starting this week on what they hope will be a successful three month journey. The quest to hoist the Stanley Cup. When picking your playoff pool and deciding who will win the Stanley Cup, various questions come to mind for most hockey fans. Arguably the biggest question is whether or not the powerhouse Washington Capitals can finally win the big series. Over the past few seasons Washington has had a successful regular season, which has been followed by disappointment of an early playoff exit. Last year, after winning the Presidents’ Trophy, they shocked the hockey world by losing the opening round to the eighth seeded Montreal Canadiens. This year the Capitals were talking about winning the Stanley Cup in training camp, and even though they had a mediocre season, Washington, who has tremendous scoring depth, still finished first in the Eastern Conference with 107 points. Leading the team will be a well rested and strongly motivated Alex Ovechkin, who collected 32 goals and 85 points this past year. Look for his line, which includes Nicklas Backstrom (18 goals, 65 points) and Alex Semin (28 goals and 54 points) to dominate this spring. For the past two years this threesome have been going through a learning process …of learning about the tight checking that goes on in playoff hockey. Despite the scoring, there are still plenty of big question marks, starting with Mike Green’s health. Green, who quarterbacks the power-play and excels at moving the puck, has been on the injury reserved list since February, with a concussion. If he comes back for the series one has to wonder whether he will be a hundred percent and what his conditioning will be like after being off for more than a month. The second question is whether their goaltending is good enough.  More than likely coach, Bruce Boudreau, will go with Semyon Varlamov, who ended the season on a high note, by going 1-0-1 in his last two starts of the season, with a 1.92 GAA and a .932 save percentage. Varlamov, who went 11-9-5 with a 2.23 GAA in 27 games this year, has yet to prove himself as a playoff goalie. If he falters in Game 1 against the New York Rangers, then look for Boudreau to have a quick hook and replace him with Michal Neuvirth, who posted a nifty 2.45 GAA and a .914 Save Percentage in 48 games this year. The third and final question is how will the Capitals handle the pressure this time around? Last spring various players, such as Semin and Ovechkin, seemed nervous and played inconsistent. While it didn’t get much ink, the biggest move made at the NHL trade deadline might end up being when the Capitals acquired a proven veteran in forward, Jason Arnott, who has been through countless playoff wars and has a Stanley Cup on his resume. Arnott, who won the Stanley Cup in 2000 with the New Jersey Devils, brings the intangibles to what really is a young inexperienced Washington dressing room. I believe that Washington’s biggest competition for the Stanley Cup will emerge from the Western Conference … the Vancouver Canucks. Even though history shows that a lot of President Trophy winning teams have been eliminated early in the playoffs, I believe that the Canucks, who finished with a league leading 117 points, will be the exception. Heading into their first round match up against the Chicago Blackhawks many observers might be wondering if they can finally beat the Hawks in a playoff series. For the past two springs Vancouver has lost in seven games to Chicago, who of course went on to win the Stanley Cup last year. One has to wonder if perhaps losing two straight series against them will have any psychological effects. Also, while Vancouver has the best goalie in Roberto Luongo, a big question is whether he can finally prove himself in the playoffs. While he has proven himself in International hockey, Luongo, who posted a 2.11 GAA and a 38-15-7 regular season record, has been average … at best in … past playoff performances. A third concern is the huge loss of third line centerman, Manny Malhotra, who suffered a devastating eye injury in March. While he only scored 30 points Malhotra is valuable on the draws and is an elite defensive player that a team needs in order to win. The Stanley Cup finals I believe will pit one of the league’s best pure scorers, Ovechkin, against the best goalie, Luongo. Expect a long drawn out six or seven game series, followed by the gapless smile of Ovechkin lifting the Stanley Cup in triumph.

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