The NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs start tonight. To help give hockey fans a semblance of an actual preview, we turned to retired NHL veteran and current ESPN hockey analyst, Matthew Barnaby. We talked about the Blackhawks’ slim chance at a repeat, the Penguins handling Sidney Crosby with kid gloves and, of course, hot goaltenders.
SD: I was going to ask if you thought the Blackhawks were the best 8th seed since the lockout, but I see you picked against them.
Matthew Barnaby: Yeah, I picked against them only because they’re playing Vancouver. If you look at Vancouver, what they’ve done all year long, they’re the deepest team at all positions. Up front they have arguably the best 1-2 punch in the game in the Sedins. They score at will. They’re great defensively and they have a great goaltender. Chicago lost a lot of guys last year after their tough run. They lost Byfuglien, Eager, Versteeg, Niemi, Laad – Six pretty big guys in their cup run. They just haven’t been consistent all year long and they’re playing against the best team in the National Hockey League right now.
SD: If they can get past the Canucks, do you think they have a chance at a repeat?
MB: Yeah. If you look at that division, there’s a lot of deep teams and Chicago definitely can do it. I mean, they do have Toews and Kane are obviously world-class players. If you look at their defense Keith and Seabrook are both great shutdown players and they’ve got goaltender Corey Crawford. Yeah, I mean they could come out of the West. There’s so much parity in the West right now that you have to win a tough couple of rounds. They are a great 8-seed and I guarantee Vancouver isn’t excited to be playing them.
SD: The Predators handled the Ducks pretty well during the season. How do you see that series playing out?
MB: I think Nashville… I think this is the toughest one. We have a 4-5 seed. Anaheim has a huge line in Bobby Ryan, Gezlaf, and Corey Perry, to me, who is the MVP of the league this year. Nashville is a really well coached team without a lot of stars and a great goaltender. I picked Nashville solely on their goal tending. Pekka Rinne is awesome and they’re well coached. They had to play so hard to get into the Playoffs. Anaheim has been good, but they played so hard, I don’t know how much they have left for the playoffs.
SD: What do you think is more important, to have a hot team or a hot goaltender?
MB: I’ll take the goaltender. If you look at last year’s playoffs Montreal, who I don’t think was a very good team, had Jaroslav Halak. They beat Pittsburgh and Washington in back-to-back rounds only because he stood on his head. So, for me I’ll take a hot goaltender any day of the week. If you have a little scoring to add to it… If you look at Nashville, they have a hot goaltender and a lot of guys that can score the puck.
SD: Which rookie goaltender do you think is likely to carry their team the furthest?
MB: Wow. God, I think I have all the rookie goaltenders losing in the first round. I’m going to go with Neuvirth from Washington. Because I have Philadelphia losing in the first round. Neuvirth has show to me that he can be acrobatic. If you can play with Washington, you have to make acrobatic saves because they do give up a lot of scoring chances and he’s been pretty solid. You look at Washington versus New York, I don’t think they have a ton of scoring in New York. Even though they do have a more potent offense than Washington through the regular season. So I think Neuvirth with his ability to scramble will take his team the furthest.
SD: How big of an impact will a less-than-100% Chris Pronger have on the Flyers-Sabres series?
MB: Huge. They need him back desperately. I think if you’ve seen Philadelphia play in the last third to quarter of the season, they haven’t been the same team. Firstly because they had a lead in the division and they coasted through. With Chris Pronger going down he’s a nasty, nasty player to play against and playoff time is when he’s at his best. If he can play 25 minutes a night and makes it tough on opposing teams’ scorers, he’s huge. Otherwise, I don’t think they have a chance of winning the series.
SD: Out West, the teams at the top don’t have a great history of success in the playoffs. Do you think either team will choke?
MB: You know what? I had Detroit at the start of the year. I thought they were the deepest team, but right now, my pick to come out of the West would definitely be the Canucks or Sharks. I think the Canucks are the deepest team. They’ve been the most consistent. They don’t have a ton of injuries right now. Their goaltender is Roberto Luongo and if he can shake off those old playoff demons, I see the Canucks coming out of the West.
SD: Now onto the team that people always ask the most questions about. Do you think the Penguins can go far without Crosby?
MB: Um, no. The loss of Evgeni Malkin in the beginning of the year was bad. Now with the waiting game of Sidney Crosby, if they don’t get him back, I don’t think they’re strong enough up the middle to compete with everyone else in the Eastern Conference. Mainly Tampa Bay. If Sidney Crosby doesn’t come back I don’t see them beating Tamp Bay even though they’re better defensively and have a better goaltender, I just don’t think they’re strong enough up the middle and lack the scoring that they need without Sid in the lineup. I think he played 41 games and lead the league in scoring by 16 points so they don’t have a ton of scoring without him in the lineup.
SD: Do you think he’ll be back?
MB: *sigh* Wow. You know, I thought he was going to play game 1 just because the level he’s skating at right now he looks like he’s full speed and I’m very surprised he hasn’t been cleared for contact yet. The more its looking, the more I doubt it. If he’s skating at full speed I really don’t understand why he hasn’t been cleared for contact yet.
SD: Do you think if Malkin hadn’t been hurt that they would be pushing harder for Crosby to come back?
MB: No. I don’t. I know why they’re being cautious. If you look at Marc Savard’s career ending because he came back a little early. And other guys with subsequent concussions are easier to get the second time around. I don’t think that has anything to do with it. They talked to his parents. His agent. And I think there’s a lot of things behind the scenes and they’re just being overly-cautious. I mean, you can’t blame them. He’s the face of the NHL and really the face of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the next 15 years. I would be cautious too. I probably would have shut him down by now.
SD: How do you feel about the new concussion rules? Do you think any suspensions will affect the playoffs?
MB: I’m sure we’re going to have a suspension in the playoffs. It’s very tense and very fast. I love what the NHL is doing. They’re coming down hard on the malicious hits and the stupidity that’s out there. But we’re always going to have concussions. We’re always going to have guys hit. Guys are big, strong and fast and there’s only so much room on that ice. I think we will see suspensions because I think it’s an intense game and I hope that the NHL stays true to how they’ve been lately with policing the guys hard.
SD: If the ratings and viewership are big for the playoffs this year are you and Barry Melrose going to be pushing for ESPN to get into a bidding war for hockey?
MB: You know, I’m hearing a lot of different things behind the scenes. You know, I’m not really privy to any of that. Everyone is kind of in a waiting pattern. Let me say this – hockey has never been better. It’s never been more exciting. The youth in the game right now is incredible. We would love to have it as part of our network. We would love to be able to comment on it and have games and shows and I hope we get back to it in some capacity and I think it’s a good time to be a buyer.
SD: What do you think will be the biggest upset of the playoffs, if any?
MB: I’m going to go with Buffalo over Philly in the first round. It’s a 7 versus 2 match up. Philly’s not playing their best hockey. Buffalo is playing great, great hockey with a top-3 goaltender in my estimate in Ryan Miller so I’m going to go with Buffalo over Philadelphia in the first round.
SD: Who do you have coming out of the East and the West playing for the Cup?
MB: Vancouver coming out of the West obviously. In the Eastern Conference, I’m going to go with the Boston Bruins. I think there’s still some holes in Washington. Pittsburgh without Sidney Crosby, I don’t see them advancing. The Boston Bruins have a lot of depth and they score almost three goals a game. Best goaltender in the league this year in Tim Thomas who’s been very acrobatic and a shutdown D. Lead by Zdeno Chara who can beat you up physically and play the finesse game. So I have Boston coming out.
SD: Final question, if the Bruins or Canucks are eliminated in the first round, are you willing to take the blame?
MB: WOW! No! Never take the blame. That’s how I learned. It’s always someone else’s fault. If they don’t make it they don’t have anyone to blame but themselves. These two teams should do it. Boston matches Montreal all the way up and down the lineup and to me Vancouver is the deepest team. They have only themselves to blame.
[Images via Getty]