Fantasy final: Wings vs. Leafs
By CHRIS NICHOLS -- SLAM! Sports
I've got some bad news for playoff poolsters: the field of teams this year is so closely matched it's actually quite ridiculous. The good news (I'm a glass is half full kind of guy) is that picking the winners is going to be as hard for everyone else as it will be for you.
Yesterday we covered some basic playoff pool strategies; the most important of which is picking the four Conference Finalists and drafting the majority of your players from those teams. To cut to the chase, I'm picking the four Conference Finalists to be established teams: Detroit, Colorado, Philly and Toronto. Three of those teams could easily get knocked off in the first round, which gives you an idea of how amazingly tight the games should be this year.
My Cinderella choice for this spring: Calgary. The Flames could ride their hunger and great goaltending all the way; or at least deep into the playoffs. They have no playoff experience, but a great coach and a hot goalie on a good defensive team can make all the difference.
Let's run down each series and I'll give you the reasons why each team could win or lose, along with the best fantasy bets and a few sleepers for those deeper pools. You may or may not agree with my picks, but at least this way you can get a good idea of the players to take from the teams you think will make the final four.
DETROIT (1) VS. NASHVILLE (8)
DETROIT IN FIVE
Why Detroit should win:
With all of the injuries, we really have not seen the full Detroit Red Wings team in action this year. They are scary good and whether it's Manny Legace or Curtis Joseph in net, Detroit has enough scoring, defense and overall playoff savvy to get past an inexperienced Nashville team. A healthy Derian Hatcher should take this team deep into the playoffs and the scoring depth brought in with the Robert Lang trade should help swing games in favor of Detroit. While this is the safest pick of the first round, don't be lulled into thinking Nashville can't win - because they can. Detroit should win in five if they put the pedal to the metal, but any let up could turn this into a seven game series where one bounce could decide the outcome. The fact that Nashville took the season series speaks volumes about the way they match up against the Wings.
Brett Hull should be your first choice because he is about as clutch as you can get in the playoffs; notching 185 points in 190 post-season games. Nick Lidstrom is the best second pick, followed by Robert Lang and Brendan Shanahan.
Steve Yzerman doesn't play the front and center role like he used to, but he still has enough gas in the tank for one more tremendous playoff run. Veterans like Steve Thomas and Thomas Holmstrom will also find ways to get on the score sheet.
Why Nashville could pull an upset:
Tomas Vokoun. The Preds are capable of playing a tight enough defensive game and Vokoun is good enough to beat any team in this league in a seven game series if he gets hot. Nashville also has heart and they're hungry; something you can never discount in the playoffs.
Steve Sullivan is far and away the best pick if you like the Preds. Your next best options are the power play defensemen: Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky.
Sergei Zholtok was with the Wild in last year's run and Scott Hartnell is the kind of blood and guts player that could surprise.
SAN JOSE (2) VS. ST. LOUIS (7)
SAN JOSE IN SEVEN
Why San Jose should win:
The Sharks have demonstrated a more consistent commitment to team defense this season and if they can carry that over to the playoffs, they should be able to grind out a long series against a more talented St. Louis team. Evgeni Nabokov is far and away the best goalie in this series.
Vincent Damphousse gets a slight edge over the younger and more talented Patrick Marleau because of the experience Damphousse brings to the table. The Sharks do not have much depth in terms of stud scorers. Brad Stuart has taken his game to a new level this season and is also a pretty nice pick.
The playoffs are all about grit and a guy like Mike Ricci excels in these situations. I can't wait to see how young Jonathan Cheechoo does in the post-season. If the Sharks make a Cup run, he could be this year's Jamie Langenbrunner.
Why I would not be surprised to see St. Louis win:
Chris Osgood finished the season on an 8-3-1 roll and has looked more like the solid goalie he was in the first half. The offensive studs will have to step it up to put some pucks past Nabokov and the Blues will have to answer to the fact that they have neither Al MacInnis nor Barret Jackman on the blueline. The Blues take a lot of heat for having a high payroll with little results and that's certainly justified: this will be their chance to prove the critics wrong.
If you think St. Louis can upset San Jose, start with Doug Weight. Chris Pronger will be scoring a lot of power play points if the Blues win and would be the second best option. Keith Tkachuk and Pavol Demitra round out the top four.
Scott Mellanby and Brian Savage would benefit from skating with Weight. Petr Cajanek, if he centers Demitra and Tkachuk, could also be a nice pick.
VANCOUVER (3) VS. CALGARY (6)
FLAMES IN SEVEN
Why Vancouver can win without Todd Bertuzzi:
Um, good question. Dan Cloutier still has to answer questions about his playoff stability. The good news for the Canucks is they have more scoring depth than ever and they have really stepped up their overall game of late. The Sedin twins will need to come up with some timely goals and new acquisitions Martin Rucinsky and Geoff Sanderson will have to prove they can be better playoff scorers. Between the questions about Cloutier and the whole Bertuzzi situation, the Canucks have an us-against-the-world mentality, which can absolutely play into their favor. Honestly, I think Cloutier is not anywhere near as bad as some people think. He would not likely be the reason Vancouver loses this series, if they do.
Markus Naslund is the obvious first pick here, with Ed Jovanovski coming in second because of the emphasis on power play points in the playoffs. Brendan Morrison is also a good playoff scorer and he doesn't get enough credit outside of Vancouver for his overall game.
Brent Sopel and Mattias Ohlund could step up and be the difference for the Canucks in this series. Don't discount a veteran like Trevor Linden either, even though he won't be counted on as much for offense.
Why Calgary is a good sleeper pick:
The Canucks are less intimidating to play against without Todd Bertuzzi and there is no getting around that fact. Rucinsky, Sanderson and the Sedin twins do not exactly put the fear of God into the opposition. Calgary could ride Miikka Kiprusoff to the Stanley Cup Finals if he gets on a roll. The Flames lack scoring depth, but so do a lot of teams. Just ask Minnesota and Anaheim what great goaltending and team defense can do. Darryl Sutter is a master at getting his team to commit to a defensive scheme and the playoffs are all about defense and timely scoring.
Jarome Iginla, Jarome Iginla and Jarome Iginla should be the first three picks if you like Calgary to go deep. Craig Conroy merits serious consideration and those are the only two guys you can count on for sure. The problem is that the opposition will put a blanket on them, so we'll have to see how well they can fight through the checking. The success of the Flames depends on it.
The Flames have several good candidates. Among them are Jordon Leopold (No playoff experience but can run the power play); Chris Simon (If he sticks with Iginla and Conroy he can muscle his way to some points; Shean Donovan (Has run hot and cold all season long) and Marcus Nilson (Cold lately, but has the ability to score).
COLORADO (4) VS. DALLAS (5)
AVS IN SEVEN
Why Colorado can win:
Similar to the 4 vs. 5 match-up in the East, this series could easily go either way. The Avs have a lot of scoring punch and have plenty of playoff experience. While David Aebischer is a playoff newbie as a starter, he has watched Patrick Roy in action enough to know what the pressure feels like. Having Tommy Salo as insurance is great for the Avs. Say what you will about Salo's poor playoff track record; he has never had this kind of offense in front of him before. In addition to solid goaltending, the Avs made several nice trades to get toughness like Bob Boughner and a few of the sleepers mentioned two paragraphs down.
Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic are 1 and 1A here. Take both if you think the Avs will win the Cup this year, because both guys are proven playoff studs (Each has averaged over a point-per-game in his playoff career). Rob Blake, Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay (Should be back for Game One) are also great picks, in that order. Paul Kariya is a great playoff scorer, but he's out indefinitely now with a sprained ankle. He has been so fragile this year anyway that he was not a safe pick. Teemu Selanne has the talent and could make everyone forget about his dismal season with a great playoff showing.
John-Michael Liles could be the sleeper pick of the playoffs if the Avs go deep. Matthew Barnaby and Chris Gratton could also be nice sources of scoring in deeper pools, since their grit will surely lead to some key goals for the Avs. If either guy skates with the big boys now that Kariya is out, obviously their value goes up a notch.
Why Dallas can eke out a win:
The Stars have been beyond hot in the second half of this season and they have the talent and experience to make a run. Marty Turco, despite having little playoff experience, is a fantastic goalie that can be counted on in the clutch.
He was horrible in the regular season, but Mike Modano is a go-to guy in the playoffs. He would be my first pick from Dallas without question. Sergei Zubov is a strong choice for points and Bill Guerin can step up to be a big performer as well. Heck, even Jason Arnott deserves some props for the season he's had and can be a decent producer.
Pierre Turgeon has won back a lot of the respect I'd lost for him with a great season. He has 91 points in 99 playoff games and that, combined with his recent great play, makes him a nice candidate if you think the Stars can beat the Avs. Brendan Morrow is all heart and was excellent last year. Jere Lehtinen is generally on the cusp of being a good or bad fantasy player and his value is tied to how he and Modano fare, assuming they play together. Lehtinen missed a few weeks with a back problem, but returned for the regular season finale and had two points.
TAMPA BAY (1) VS. NEW YORK ISLANDERS (8)
TAMPA IN FIVE
Why Tampa should come out on top:
The Lightning does not have a ton of playoff experience, but if they're smart they'll take out the Islanders quickly and rest up for the second round. The Isles won the season series but I really don't think that will matter in the playoffs. Either Nik Khabibulin or, if he falters, John Grahame, will be able to stop the New York attack and Tampa's offense should be able to outgun the Isles. The only way Tampa Bay loses this series is if its goaltending falls completely flat on its face.
Martin St. Louis has been a great playoff scorer in his limited time in the post-season and with his dream season this year, there is no reason to stop picking him first on this squad. Vincent Lecavalier and Dan Boyle are close to each other in second and third place. Cory Stillman is a decent depth pick and Brad Richards can score, although he sure didn't show it last year at this time.
Dave Andreychuk is a huge playoff performer and his 83 points in 139 games speak volumes in that department. His veteran leadership has been invaluable to building this team into a contender and he could be a really nice pickup in the late rounds of deep pools.
How the Islanders could win:
If Rick DiPietro plays as well as he has in his best streaks this season, The Isles have a chance. Consistency has really plagued this team for several years though and big questions remain about its ability to compete in the post-season.
Cliff Ronning, Mike Peca and even Alex Yashin probably have the most potential. I wouldn't gamble on Yashin myself, but he does have a good playoff track record. Adrian Aucoin is scoring a lot of goals from the blueline these days and is absolutely worthwhile if you think the Isles can get past the first round.
How about rookie Trent Hunter? He seems to be the type of player that could excel in the playoffs; even without experience.
BOSTON (2) VS. MONTREAL (7)
BOSTON IN SIX
Why Boston can win:
The Bruins have the second line scoring depth that they've lacked in recent years and now they have the best power play defenseman on the team since Ray Bourque left to win a Cup with the Avs. The problem for the Bruins is injuries, with Joe Thornton questionable and Sergei Samsonov a frequent injury risk. Still, if Glen Murray can rise above his 0.5 ppg playoff average and Michael Nylander can continue to chip in points, there is no reason to think the Bruins can't get past the Habs. Andrew Raycroft is a tremendous young goalie and his lack of playoff experience should not be cause for alarm.
Joe Thornton, assuming he's relatively healthy and playing, is obviously the top pick. Given Thornton's status, Sergei Gonchar might be the safest pick. If Joe Thornton gets going, Murray and Mike Knuble are decent picks.
Sergei Samsonov would not be considered a sleeper if he were playing with Thornton, but he's generally been put on the second line with a productive Nylander. These two will have to score if Boston wants to advance. Jiri Slegr could also turn into a decent late pick if he can get his power play game going with Gonchar on the point. Slegr's production has really dropped off lately with only one point in his final nine games.
Why Montreal could send Boston packing:
Quite simply - Jose Theodore. Theodore can be as dominant as any goalie in this league when he's on his game and overall he's played very well this year. Montreal's top scoring line of Yanic Perreault-Richard Zednik and Saku Koivu will have to be huge in this series.
The above-mentioned scoring line is your best trio of players. Don't forget that Sheldon Souray is back and he should be able to move that Montreal power play around.
The enigmatic Alex Kovalev has a huge upside and is a proven playoff scorer. Only three points in his last 11GP is a good indication that many poolsters will be taking a pass on this guy though.
PHILADELPHIA (3) VS. NEW JERSEY (6)
FLYERS IN SEVEN
Why Philly can shake their recent playoff curse:
Because they have a guy in net that nobody has any questions about. Hmm. No, that's not it. Seriously though, I don't think the Flyers' goaltending is as big a deal as it is being made out to be. He's given up some bad goals in the last week or two, but I'm still a pretty big supporter of Robert Esche. Philly's scoring depth is very nice and their power play can be lethal, which is important in the playoffs. Perhaps the biggest "X" factor for the Flyers is having a few years under Ken Hitchcock, who is a defensive genius. As far as I'm concerned, this guy is one of the top coaches in the game year in and year out.
Mark Recchi and Jeremy Roenick are two great playoff studs. If you think this is the year the Flyers take home Stanley, they are must-haves. Alex Zhamnov only has five points in 17 playoff games, but he's been red-hot and I've got to think he'll continue to score. He's tougher than I've given him credit for and I've been duly impressed with his play since joining the Flyers. Tony Amonte and John LeClair would be my next picks if you want to load up on Flyers.
Gritty guys excel when the going gets tough and nobody is grittier than Keith Primeau. Kim Johnsson does not have a good playoff record (Three points in 18GP), but that could change this year if the Flyers win a few rounds. Maybe rookie Joni Pitkanen will surprise some people too.
Why New Jersey is always a threat to win:
Martin Brodeur. The Devils are hurting with Scott Stevens' questionable status, but Martin Brodeur is a money goaltender if there ever was one. Combine his legendary status with the hot Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez and nobody could be too surprised if Jersey got past Philly.
The aforementioned Elias and Gomez are pretty good bets to score. Scott Niedermayer has generated Norris buzz and will absolutely get points. Brian Rafalski has returned from injury and is also a proven playoff scorer. Jamie Langenbrunner can no longer be considered a sleeper after last year's 11 playoff goals.
Brian Gionta generally skates with Elias and Gomez and he has had a few hot streaks in the second half. Guys like Jeff Friesen and John Madden have also proven they can be good in deeper pools.
TORONTO (4) VS. OTTAWA (5)
TORONTO IN SEVEN
Why Toronto may win:
In what is sure to be a hard-fought, tooth and nails series; Toronto has Ed Belfour. The veteran goaltender will likely be the difference here, despite the fact that both teams are stacked with talent on forward and defense. Brian Leetch's veteran presence on the power play and in general will also be a key for Toronto.
I would actually take Leetch over Mats Sundin, Alex Mogilny and Gary Roberts. Leetch has 89 points in 82 playoff games and has been a stud for Toronto since coming over from the Rangers. Bryan McCabe's already solid value goes up with Leetch on the team and Owen Nolan will certainly be missed.
It's hard to say that great veterans like Joe Nieuwendyk and Ron Francis are sleepers, but they will likely get overlooked in many pools. Both have been highly effective in the playoffs throughout their careers and could turn into solid choices if you think this is Toronto's year to win.
Why Ottawa could send Toronto packing:
Patrick Lalime and/ or Martin Prusek will have to be solid. Ottawa has enough scoring depth to allow maybe one mistake per game, but with Ed Belfour on the other end of the ice those mistakes will have to be greatly minimized. The 4th and 5th standings placement should give both Toronto and Ottawa pause to remember next year why those extra few points in the regular season are so important come playoff time. Having to match up against a powerful team in the first round is just not a good thing.
Daniel Alfredsson and Marian Hossa are certainly the first two picks on this squad. Wade Redden's value goes up slightly in the playoffs and guys like Martin Havlat and Peter Bondra have to score for the Sens to advance.
There are two guys that stand out here because of their linemates: Peter Schaefer (With Radek Bonk and Havlat) and Mike Fisher (Bondra and Alfie). Assuming these are the lines for the playoffs, each guy has excellent sleeper potential if Ottawa can get past Toronto. Jason Spezza might be a nice pick if he's healthy.
BEYOND THE FIRST ROUND
Having shown you my first round picks, here is how I see the rest of the playoffs breaking down:
If the first round goes as planned, the Conference Semi's will be DET vs. CAL and SAN vs. COL.
Detroit should have the experience to beat Calgary, but the Wings will have to stay healthy and figure out a way to beat Kipper.
Colorado should be able to squeeze out a win against a very good San Jose team, although I don't for a second sell short what San Jose has accomplished and can do.
Detroit vs. Colorado in the Conference Finals would see me give the edge to Detroit based on the Derian Hatcher factor. Goaltending is about equal and both teams can score. This series would likely go seven games.
In the East, TAM would meet TOR and BOS would match up against PHI. I like Toronto's experience to win out over Tampa's scoring and I'll take Ken Hitchcock against Boston any day of the week. A hot Khabi/ Grahame and/or Raycroft could obviously change all of that.
TOR vs. PHI in the Conference Finals would be a great series and the only way Philly wins is if they are getting fabulous goaltending from Esche. With the exception of some recent bad games, Esche has been outstanding this year. Do not discount the Flyers, but bet on Belfour.
A DET vs. TOR Stanley Cup would be an epic contest that is a toss-up in terms of a winner. As a former Western Canadian, I can't pick the Leafs to win the Cup. I just can't. As hard as it is to pick against Ed Belfour in a best of seven series vs. Manny Legace or Curtis Joseph... I'm going to do just that. Detroit will win the Stanley Cup.
In addition to analyzing fantasy hockey for us, Chris also writes a weekly column for ESPN's fantasy hockey section. He can also be found at Mckeenshockey.com, where his News & Notes section is featured seven days a week through the end of the playoffs.
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