NFC Playoff Prediction Picks for 2019-2020

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Well that was a fun offseason. Two NFC West teams had the top two picks in the 2019 Draft and it looks like they could have a better year, but they will have to contend with the other two teams, both of whom made the playoffs last year. The rest of the NFC looks to be more vulnerable than the NFC West, but nothing is guaranteed. It’s time for the six picks for who will make the playoffs this season, why they’ll be the ones to not just get in, but why they’re better than the rest of their division. So here goes.

NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles

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Let’s start with an easy one. The Washington Redskins are an absolute mess (with reports of almost 50 employees who’ve left since this was published) and the New York Giants are thin on both offense and defense, so that leaves the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles. Dallas however, has contract issues with key pieces on their offense, with Ezekiel Elliott, their franchise running-back looking more likely he’ll hold out for the season. Regardless if Elliott returns, defenses will know how to defend Amari Cooper more, even with Jason Witten coming out of retirement. As a matter of fact, Cooper is also in a standoff with both Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott.

The Eagles may have more stability with Nick Foles gone and Carson Wentz coming back to prove he really can play a full season. The defense was pretty good last year, even after tiring on long drives by Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense. Wentz will need to spread the ball around more, but the Eagles look to be in the best shape in this division.

NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

 

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Falcons’ pass-rusher Vic Beasley wishes he could’ve gotten a sack on Drew Brees on this play. This could be his last season in Atlanta

Word is that Atlanta may have issues retaining key pass rusher Vic Beasley for the 2020 season, but that will be after this year. As for the 2019 season, the Falcons are ready to make their mark in the South and have a great year. Last year the Falcons had bad luck with injuries, especially on the defensive side of the ball as they went 7-9. Quarterback Matt Ryan was the main reason for those seven wins, but one has to wonder how better they would’ve been if the defense was say, even 75% healthy.

The Falcons are a logical pick to win the NFC South because the other three teams don’t look as if they’re either strong enough or have answers to key questions or issues. Tampa Bay has a new coach and this will be Jameis Winston’s most important year, especially with a defense that is poor in defending and tackling. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton’s upper body injury will be tested early especially when he’s hit or tries to throw, and the Panthers failed to get a win after being demolished by Pittsburgh with Newton starting in the middle of last season. As for New Orleans, they sputtered offensively even before the controversial no-call in the conference championship game against the Los Angeles Rams. Drew Brees looked like he hit 40, and there could be a drop-off in defensive play for the Saints after being close to perfect last season. The Falcons have a fresh defense, a top tier quarterback and a head coach who’s more than ready to provide answers to questions asked. Expect them to stand out this season.

NFC North: Green Bay Packers

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Aaron Rodgers on the run against the Chicago Bears defense Week 1 of 2018. Green Bay’s comeback win against the Bears in Lambeau last year was one of their few highlights

There’s already anger and plenty of booing by Bears fans reading this expecting that their team should be first in a lot of predictions. Problem is, the Bears are vulnerable with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio leaving to become head coach in Denver, and there’s plenty of film on the Bears from last season for the league to break down and pick apart. The Bears had a shot last season and failed to win a playoff game. It’s understandable that almost all the key players had either not won or didn’t go to a playoff game before that, but it’s important to take away considering who’s in their division. While the Lions are already having issues in preseason, and Kirk Cousins is the classic choke that the Vikings are stuck paying, we should expect that the Green Bay Packers will use every bit of wiggle room that they can.

While both the Packers and Bears will be in the spotlight on September 5th, every  football fan who follows the game knows that it’s the second game, which will be in Lambeau Field, that could matter more. Green Bay hired an offensive head coach who is not like Mike McCarthy, meaning he will have a fresh scheme, play sheet, and better ideas on how to attack the Bears defense. The Packers defense will probably be refreshed since they’ve been more active with additions and made sure to tune up key positions. The Bears secondary looks less certain than even Green Bay’s weakest links. Also, the Packers don’t have to wonder if their kicker will hold them back, at least for now.

NFC West: Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers.

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Nick Vannett celebrates with the 12th Man after scoring a touchdown in the first half of the Seahawks’ win against the Kansas City Chiefs this past December

By far and away the best division in the NFC, every team here reached the Super Bowl within a ten year mark after the Los Angeles Rams won the conference last year. However, those Rams lost a good amount of their defense and offensive line this offseason while Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona all gained key pieces on both sides of the ball. Seattle by far and away is the best team to not just take the Rams head-on (they lost both games to L.A. by a combined seven points), but they have the advantage on their division rivals San Francisco (losing their first game to them last year after sweeping them four years straight in overtime and committing over 20 penalties) and Arizona (who have a rookie head coach and quarterback who has never played in the pacific northwest). Seattle’s defensive front will be their weakest link, especially in the first half of the year, but fortunately for them that should be the easiest part of their schedule. Most people know though Seattle likes to heat up in the second half of the year, especially with the offense on a roll and the defense gelling together. Not to mention, Seattle has one of the best home advantages in the 21st century.

The Los Angeles Rams should not be taken lightly even with Jared Goff struggling in the Super Bowl last year and Todd Gurley not fully healthy yet. Sean McVay is one of the top head coaches in the league, and the architect of the team, general manager Les Snead knows how to replace those lost spots. Every team they play this year though, especially their division, will be giving them their best every week, and while the Rams will probably make the playoffs, they will take more dents and not be like they were last year. That’s what happens to teams who lose the Super Bowl (unless you’re New England).

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The 49ers have a realistic possibility of making the playoffs in 2019 if Jimmy Garappolo can stay healthy (10 in white)

Finally, the San Francisco 49ers do deserve respect, especially if Nick Bosa and Jimmy Garappolo stay healthy year-round. Kyle Shanahan’s squad has shown they can hang against quality opponents (except for a few teams) and hang close most of those games. Injuries have been a big issue though during those two years, and it’s now or never for general manager John Lynch on down. Fortunately for San Francisco, there aren’t a lot of teams left in the NFC that make me wonder if they’ll get to the playoffs barring a certain number of issues arise elsewhere. A team that competes and plays hard in every game while keeping the score close usually finds a way to sneak into the playoffs, even if they struggle against two of their three division rivals.

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Colorado Avalanche: Are They More Than an Eighth Seed Success Story?

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News came out the middle of last week that Jared Bednar was re-signed by the Colorado Avalanche to a two year extension, as he’s led the club to two straight playoff appearances. Both of those playoff appearances for the Avs involved playing consistently around the end of the season and locking up the last playoff spot in the Western conference.

You read that right, the Colorado Avalanche have been the eighth seed two years in a row and have played as well if not better than most people expected; taking the Nashville Predators to a surprising six games in the first round in 2018, smashing the Calgary Flames in five games in round one earlier, and then lost a nail-biter to the San Jose Sharks in round two in a seven game series.

Before the two years of being in the playoffs, the Avalanche had two subpar seasons and one dreadful one. As with many teams who have multiple years of missing the playoffs, there were a good number of reasons why they couldn’t get back to being the best in their division during the 2013-2014 season. Goaltending had become an issue, star player Nathan McKinnon wasn’t the same player as when he first came into the league, and most notably, the team lacked good defensemen. Including this year’s draft, the Colorado Avalanche have drafted a total of 37 defensemen (they took zero in 2012 and then five in 2013). Compare that with 30 centers, 13 left and right wings (each), one forward and 14 goalies, per hockeyreference.com.

Ever since that dreadful 2016-2017 season, the Avs have turned things around, starting off with the hiring of Jared Bednar. A lot has come together since, with Nathan McKinnon fully back to his 2013 debut form being a big one. McKinnon proved he’s one of the best players in the league and single-handedly turned the tide in the first-round series against the Calgary Flames in the Saddledome by netting an OT winner in game two.

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Nathan McKinnon (right) swats a puck in during Game 4 against Martin Jones. The Avalanche shut out the Sharks 3-0 to even the series

The acquisition of German Stanley Cup Champion goaltender (although backup to Braden Holtby) Philipp Grubauer has been a breath of fresh air and a much needed body in net, which led to Colorado being fine with Semyon Varlamov’s departure to the New York Islanders. As noted by Joe Micheletti stated during game five of the Avalanche/Sharks series, “Grubauer’s best attribute is how he plays honestly and doesn’t seem to ‘cheat’ when he’s in net,” and “at times for Colorado playing defense, Grubauer took control and directed the defense on what to do, as if he could see every little thing that was going on.”

Roster depth has built up especially for the wings over the years, as team captain Gabriel Landeskog and J.T. Compher have anchored the first line. Colin Wilson, Matt Nieto and Mikko Rantanen are worthy backups behind both of them. As for center,  Tyson Jost is a complimentary backup to MacKinnon, though free agency did help Colorado build what could be a scary secondary line behind a fantastic group on the first. The Avalanche gained three quality players in Nazem Kadri (via trade), Joonas Donskoi and Andre Burakovsky (free agency), something that will give teams in the western conference headaches.

There will be a lot of questions over the third and fourth lines when next season begins and progresses, especially when it comes to certain opponents and important games late in the year, so it’s probable Bednar and his staff are planning with the rest of the team. Philipp Grubauer could also fall back to earth or not play at a Vezina-like level he had late last season, though if the depth of this roster can get it going, he shouldn’t have to. The Avalanche drafted the top defensemen Bowen Byram in the 2019 draft, but they did trade their best defensemen away to Toronto in the complicated Nazem Kadri trade, so again there must be cohesion and solid play from the defensemen, highlighted by the re-signed Nikita Zadorov.

Four of the remaining six teams in the central division added pieces to take a good shot at either making the playoffs or getting to the Stanley Cup Finals, with the St. Louis Blues (one of the two that didn’t) will have the same focused roster as they had when they won the Cup in June. Whoever wins the central could possibly be the favorite to go to/back to the Championship, and for the Colorado Avalanche to do that, they’ll have to rely on their stars, grow and develop the lines and role-players behind them, and get a monumental push from Coach Bednar, with some things falling in their favor. The Avs have proven they can handle not just an underdog role, but to build off of it and become a threat for upcoming seasons. Expect this team to make a resonating impact this year.

The NFL Super Bowl Champion of the Decade Is…

 

Before the name of the champion is revealed, I will break lines with objectivity and say thank you to everyone who voted on the poll conducted with the question asked who the best Super Bowl winner this decade was. Over 130 people submitted votes in, both in and out of the United States. Every team received at least five votes, and every Super Bowl winning team deserved to take home their titles, thus making this very hard to pick who’s the best.

Written below are two picks: the team with the most votes, and my pick. While the first one will have an in-depth description, my choice will be broken down as to why that team was the best in different categories.

The NFL Super Bowl Champion of the Decade according to the public is….The 2013-2014 Seattle Seahawks

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While I do have a good number of peers who are Seahawks fans, it was stunning to see how many people, from casual viewers to those who watch every game (taking the 12th Man fans out of it) vote for this team as the best. Simply put, the performance the Seahawks put on Denver throughout the four quarters of action have stuck in peoples’ minds over the five years since the game was played. With the best defense in the 2013-14 season, Seattle wound up being the #1 seed in the entire National Football Conference, besting it’s division rivals (the Arizona Cardinals were a surprising 10-6 while the San Francisco 49ers claimed the fifth seed in the NFC), the New Orleans Saints twice at home, and obliterating their former division rival Denver Broncos in the Championship game.

The year for Seattle was expectedly in their favor. Ranked at times from best overall by NFL.com, to second to third overall by Vegas before the 2013 season began. They played their best football in their most important games, especially defensively, making life miserable for offensive coaches, quarterbacks and offensive lines. A dual offensive threat in Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson made opposing defenses stressed and mentally drained, especially the more a game progressed (most notably overtime games against Houston and Tampa Bay). All three losses were by seven points or less, with all being determined in the fourth quarter, meaning Seattle, in every game that year, had a lead at some point.

The play now known as The Tip in the Conference Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers, ultimately giving Seattle the 2-1 series win during the season, tipped the division rivalry in Seattle’s favor, and would make them the NFC team to beat for over two years. In the Super Bowl, Denver looked helpless, especially after breaking record books and playing as the best offense of all time much of the season. As legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Doug Buffone said the morning after the game, “That defense was absolutely gorgeous.”

The Seahawks would score 12 seconds into both halves and Denver would score on just one drive. No other team in the NFL this decade (since the Saints played their regular season in 2009) was so utterly dominant from beginning to end in flaring fashion.

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The Author’s pick for Super Bowl Champion of the Decade: The 2013-2014 Seattle Seahawks

There are a lot of reasons why I picked the Seahawks, but bias was not one of them. The categories I used to determine this would be regular season grade, dominance in the game itself, low number or severity of injuries, and other factors that could throw an asterisk in. The Saints weren’t dominant the whole game against the Colts, as well as two of the Patriots’ wins (Seattle and Atlanta, though both were exciting). Green Bay, New York and Denver struggled during the regular season, though Green Bay and New York caught fire while Denver had to switch the offense up. The Eagles suffered a loss to their star quarterback Carson Wentz and relied on Nick Foles the rest of the way. That’s not to say Foles was still the chink in the armor, but recall the team looked vulnerable with Wentz gone especially at the time. Last but not least, the Ravens could possibly have had this spot, but the stadium lights shut off at the beginning of the third quarter, and the 49ers got back in the game and almost won, and this recent Patriots team won against a Rams team people cried shouldn’t be there, and over which Roger Goodell should’ve exercised his power to make the final minute/plus be replayed. This leaves Seattle as the only team that accomplished all four of these feats.

Seattle did a lot of unique things that few teams this decade got to do or had resources for. They include;

  • great depth at defensive line: Coaches Pete Carroll and Dan Quinn wanted the defensive line to switch and substitute frequently, letting the older players like Chris Clemons get rested and refreshed for later on in games. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril weren’t even slated as starters. That should stand out to those who’ve watched them play. This idea not only worked, it gave the Seahawks the upper hand especially in close games (notably ones which went to overtime).

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  • Quality Opponents and a Deep Conference; as the National Football Conference was clearly the superior conference at the time. The NFC had created four of the past six super bowl winners. Seattle faced all but one of those winners at least once during the year. Then there was what a lot of people deemed the best division in the game, the NFC West, as the Arizona Cardinals just missed the playoffs and the NFC Championship winner and runner-up the two years prior was the San Francisco 49ers. The only out of conference challenge before the super bowl was the Indianapolis Colts.
  • Youth, which gave Seattle the cap room to sign guys like Cliff Avril and Percy Harvin. It’s also how they kept their core together even after. A team of hungry, young players wound up being a nightmare for the league. It was also the first team since the 1990 Buffalo Bills to have not one player go to a Super Bowl any years prior.
  • The better the opponent, the better they played. New Orleans felt that after Seattle was off its bye week, San Francisco felt that Week 2 and Denver got all of it in the title game. The bigger the test, the better the team played as a unit. While the divisional and conference playoff games were grinders, Seattle saved up what they had for the super bowl and didn’t leave a choice about who was the best team.
  • The Offensive backfield, preferably Michael Robinson and Marshawn Lynch. With an All-Pro fullback and a running back exceedingly hard to take down, it was excruciatingly difficult to stop Seattle’s run game. While Wilson was the dangerous one throwing accurate passes, Lynch was the opposite and relished bowling over half the opponent’s defense. With Robinson, it became an advantage the Seahawks hadn’t had in almost a decade. It made opponents forget that Wilson was accurate when he slung the ball downfield. It’s why Denver was caught off-guard when he started throwing the ball to begin Super Bowl play instead of handing the ball off to Lynch.

Seattle had a lot of other factors that helped, including playing home games in one of if not the loudest stadium in the NFL, great drafting and development and having an energetic and exciting head coach who knew how to keep players competing whether in practice or in games. The little things didn’t go unnoticed, and it’s why this team is historically special.

2019 Will be a Tumultuous Mess for the Golden State Warriors

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Game 5 of the NBA Finals was a gut-punch to the Warriors with Kevin Durant rupturing his Achilles, even with the sensational win to force a Game 6. Knowing Durant would be out for a year hurts the NBA almost as much as the Warriors and possibly a New York or Eastern Conference franchise. However, not only losing Game 6 by four points AND losing Klay Thompson to a torn ACL in his left leg during the game basically cut a set of legs out from under the team, their depth and firepower on the court; literally and figuratively.

The Golden State Warriors are in an awful situation entering the offseason. Many people thought the Warriors would win the title, lose Kevin Durant to free agency, but keep Klay and add a few more players on to short contracts, possibly staying as a waning contender in the Pacific Division and Western Conference crowns. A lot of people didn’t see as frightening a situation such as this though. These are the situations the Bay area franchise will now have to deal with:

  • the one that everyone knows to be fact at this point: moving from Oakland and Oracle Arena to San Francisco and a brand new stadium. Oakland fans are hurt by this, and the new home will be something the Warriors have to get used to fast.
  • Kevin Durant at the moment will have to decide if he can work with the Warriors on a sign-and-trade agreement, which would allow the Warriors to sign him for 5 years and $57 million more for a max deal. The Warriors would allow Durant to rest as they make sure everything’s paid for and he gets to choose where he’d want to be traded to in return for that team’s assets and picks. While it is a win-win, the Warriors won’t have him for this upcoming season, and will be without another star player.
  • Klay Thompson’s free agency offseason is going to be a mess. While there probably won’t be a sign-and-trade, the Warriors need their other star guard to get back onto the court, which won’t happen until the end of next year’s regular season (at the soonest, IF they make it that far into the race for the playoffs). Another issue which at may have been considered to some a solution would’ve been if Klay sat out for the year while the Warriors rebuild their depth, that way there’s a team when he comes back. Yet if the Warriors go forward with this sign-and-trade idea with Durant, then that is unlikely. Thompson will stay with the Warriors but it could be a what-if effect with the timing of the injuries to him and KD.

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  • Lack of depth; the biggest issue and the one that could hurt this team the most is the depth the Warriors once had has evaporated in a five year span. With the possibilities of Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala retiring, Andrew Bogut, Jonas Jerebko, Quinn Cook, Jordan Bell and DeMarcus Cousins probably leaving due to them hitting free agency and Kevon Looney probably out for a year as well with multiple injuries suffered in the playoffs (he’s also an unrestricted free agent) the Warriors will have to rebuild from every possible position. The draft has passed and the added players for Golden State will help a little, but there will probably be two or maximum three starters returning and almost no possible backup unless there are players signed on smaller contracts. This will be a rough free-agent period for the Warriors as they’ll probably miss out on valuable players of every position.
  • Stephen Curry’s health, which may not sound like it could be a factor at first, but could be looming by mid-season. If Curry and Draymond Green are the only returning starters next season (and this is with rookies and almost an entirely new squad which may be subpar), there will be more pressure on Steph to score and be the offense more than he’s had to since the turn of last decade. He still is prone to injuring his legs, especially the ankles. Should the Warriors be out of contention by next year’s All-Star weekend break, it’d be best to deactivate Curry and Green for the remainder of the seasons, because the risks for both being injured with the workload put on them is greater than before.
  • Other issues that some people haven’t thought of before: both Matt Barnes’ and David West’s contracts remain on the books because they haven’t been renounced after going unsigned in 2018-19, per Hoopsrumors.com. This means they can’t be used in a sign-and-trade deal. Shaun Livingston’s salary of over $5 million as of right now (since it’s before June 30th before this was published) is non-guaranteed. However, it takes effect on the 30th fully guaranteed.

It’s entirely possible that Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and the remaining free agents and star players find some ground to work with and compromise in order to gain a fresh face or two and more depth. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston could postpone retirement another season because of how overwhelming these issues are to the franchise. Taking all of these what-if’s into account, the Golden State Warriors don’t have enough firepower as they did even before they won a championship and they most certainly have a lot of obstacles, new and old to face.

The 2019 Stanley Cup Finals

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Did anyone expect the 102nd Stanley Cup Final to be between what was then the last place team in the National Hockey League in early January and a second fiddle team in the Atlantic Division all season? Probably not, but it makes for a great story. The St. Louis Blues won their three previous series in a minimum of six games at least and went toe-to-toe with their rivals the Dallas Stars in probably the most physical and exhausting play before winning in double overtime. The Boston Bruins slugged it out with their Original Six rival Toronto Maple Leafs before cruising past the Columbus Blue Jackets and sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes. With the adversity, constant questioning and celebrations between both these two winning their conferences, what should we expect in the Championship Series?

#3 Boston Bruins v. #4 St. Louis Blues

These teams played only twice during the regular season; one game was a blowout and the other ended in a shootout. Suffice to say, anything could happen. This much is certain: the series will come down to which goaltender blinks first. Jordan Binnington doesn’t look like a rookie at all as he’s helped the Blues rack up wins on the road under his constant focus and poise. Jaden Schwartz has stayed consistent in every round and could win the Conn Smythe (awarded to the most valuable player in the Finals and playoffs) Trophy if the Blues win the Cup.

The Bruins have a veteran net-minder in Tuukka Rask, who has given Boston a number three ranking in GA (goals against), made sure Boston had a cushion in two elimination games against Toronto and slammed the door shut on any chance Columbus and Carolina had on advancing to the Finals. While many have criticized Rask for past playoff performances, he’s made sure the Bruins get to the Finals twice during his tenure. While Zdeno Chara has been injured, the depth the Bruins have has again shown up and their top players in Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak have gotten better as their postseason stretches on.

What to watch for: Outside of which goaltender will win the stare-down, this matchup will resemble what most saw in the Dallas-St. Louis series: physicality, great coverage against offensive threats and for both teams to show off how deep their rosters are. While Dallas was a fantastic defensive team, Boston seemed more evenly balanced on both sides but made sure they could hit their opponents hard enough to knock them out of rhythm, something that frustrated the Maple Leafs and snuffed out Columbus. This could be hard to implement as St. Louis did the same thing to San Jose last round and pushed back hard against both Winnipeg and Dallas. One thing Dallas captain Jamie Benn did which helped Dallas take a game in St. Louis was to give his team an even four-on-four by snuffing out star player Vladimir Tarasenko. Dallas overwhelmed St. Louis and they scored three goals in the first period. Expect Boston to use a tactic like this if they get behind early.

Prediction: This may be the hardest prediction since the second round. Look for both teams to split the first four games, as that should give some clarity on how both will play each other. Both these teams want it badly, but St. Louis has the more meaningful chance since they haven’t been to the Cup Finals in decades and they’ve lost the times they went before. These Blues look more focused than previous years and they look to have shaken off those awful memories earlier in the decade. Blues win the 102nd Stanley Cup Finals 4-2 with Jaden Schwartz winning the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Conference Finals Prediction Record: 1-1

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NBA Eastern Conference Championship Playoff Prediction

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The second round of the NBA’s Eastern Conference playoffs were pretty polar. The Bucks dismantled the Celtics in five games (three of their five wins were decisive), whereas the Raptors had a dazzling last-second win over the 76ers in a full seven games. Although the Raptors had to beat the Sixers by winning that critical seventh game, they showed in most of the series why they were the second seed in the East. In the case of Milwaukee, they didn’t look too vulnerable against Boston as many predicted. The Bucks dropped a home game but laid waste to the Celtics in three of the next four. Will the Bucks trip up against Toronto and let the Raptors go to their first Championship ever or will they continue their steamroll to the Finals? Time to break down what could be a conference championship for the ages.

 

#1 Milwaukee Bucks v. #2 Toronto Raptors

The Bucks have a lot in their arsenal ranging from colossus Giannis Antetokounmpo and helpers Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez to bench depth in Ersan Ilyasova, Nikola Mirotic, Pau Gasol and Sterling Brown. The Bucks can do a lot of damage in a lot of ways: three-point shooting, power offense and heavy defense to name a few. Something that may help the Bucks could be the amount of rest they’ve had (they were the first team to advance to the next round in either Conference) in case this goes a full seven games.

The Raptors have a true star in Kawhi Leonard, as he gave the Raptors a shot of a lifetime to put the Sixers away in Toronto. He’s had plenty of help however with big men Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, as well as Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Danny Green (all except Ibaka are starters). Backups Jodie Meeks and Patrick McCaw can help open up the offense and help defensively if needed. Since Toronto went a full seven games against Philadelphia, they haven’t had as much rest and unfortunately for them, will not have home court advantage as the Bucks were the top seed in the East. Something they can feel good about is handling adversity (specifically last round against the 76ers), something Milwaukee has yet to face.

The biggest difference between these two teams is experience, especially for the star players on both teams. Giannis has yet to play this deep in the playoffs, whereas Kawhi was 2014 Finals MVP when he was with the Spurs. The Raptors have been to the Eastern Conference Finals before and are eager to break past this round and get to their first championship appearance. Even if the Bucks win this round, they’re going to take heavy fire from a veteran team that won’t back down.

Prediction: Raptors win series 4-3

Eastern Conference Second Round Predictions: 2-0

NBA Western Conference Championship Playoff Prediction

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Unlike in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, the Western Conference’s series went to a minimum of six games before we knew what team was the first to advance. The teams that are left have taken hits to their rosters but are still going strong thanks to the talented core that’s carried them. While the Golden State Warriors may be the favorite to go back with two of their stars returning in this series, the Portland Trailblazers will provide a challenge, even when Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins come back into the lineup. Will Portland have enough to take down the Warriors, or will the Warriors cruise to another Championship appearance?

#1 Golden State Warriors v. #3 Portland Trailblazers

The Warriors held off the Rockets in Game 6 with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala leading the way. While Stephen and Andre are playing hurt, Klay was able to step up when it mattered, and all four had a game to remember. Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins will come back as the series progresses, and if they can get back to how they played before Cousins went down in the first round, there’s no stopping them.

For the Trailblazers, they’ve stayed relatively healthy throughout the playoffs, losing only Rodney Hood in the Game Seven against Denver (Jusuf Nurkic was out before the playoffs started). While Enes Kanter has been banged up, like Iguodala and Curry for the Warriors, he has played quality minutes and is a difference maker on defense.

The backcourt matchups of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum v. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson will be exciting to watch. Beyond that, Portland have Kanter, Seth Curry and Al-Farouq Aminu, who are either their next highest scorers or their biggest threats offensively or defensively. The Warriors in contrast have Shaun Livingston, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Kevon Looney, and this is before factoring in how DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant will return this series, just not as soon as we thought.

Overall analysis: This looks to be a lopsided matchup, and not one that favors the Trailblazers. The Warriors have had more rest, more time to prepare and have the better depth. A lot of people will be focused on which backcourt does better, but it comes down to how well Portland can lock up Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. Once Durant and Cousins return, this will probably be a quick series.

Prediction: Warriors win series 4-1

NHL Western Conference Championship Playoff Prediction

The second round of the NHL playoffs were as exciting as could possibly be. Ben Bishop had over 50 saves before giving up the game winning goal to Patrick Maroon to close up the Blues and Stars series. The other series between the Colorado Avalanche and the San Jose Sharks came down to a full seven games before the Sharks won by one goal. The Sharks got healthier and stronger while the Blues were tested by their division rivals and made the changes necessary. These two teams will have another stellar conference championship series, with the winner probably taking possibly another seventh game. Time to predict who’ll possibly reach the Stanley Cup Finals from the Western Conference.

Western Semi-Conference Final Picks: 1-1

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The last game these teams played was back when Jake Allen started Saturday, March 9th. An overtime win for the Sharks with only 17 saves out of 19 attempts for Martin Jones can offer a glimpse of what we may see throughout the series. Three star players sat out that game: Vladimir Tarasenko for the Blues, and Evander Kane and Erik Karlsson for the Sharks.

The biggest difference for these two teams are the goaltenders. Martin Jones has been battered throughout the postseason and had a rough regular season before that. However, he’s shown up when it matters most, especially in the two Game Seven’s the Sharks have been in. This series may be played with who’s got the more talented and carefully used depth outside the net than the reverse. Both teams haven’t had a lot of time to prepare for the first two games (which will be played in the SAP Center in San Jose), which may affect how the Blues play. This is going to be important because star net-minder Jordan Binnington hasn’t been rested once yet throughout the playoffs, whereas Martin Jones was pulled three out of seven games in the first round. Joe Pavelski didn’t seem to miss a step in his return in Game Seven and star free-agent signee Erik Karlsson looks like himself for the first time in three months, which means the Sharks defense could get confident and aggressive.

If the St. Louis Blues don’t start off well the first two games, they’re going to have to find ways to climb back into the series. They were good with physicality against Dallas, they’ve proven they can win critical road games (they’ve won five combined in the first two rounds) and Craig Berube has done his magic with lineup changes. This is going to be a series worth watching.

Prediction: Sharks win series 4-3

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NHL Eastern Conference Championship Playoff Prediction

The second round for the Eastern Conference in the National Hockey League playoffs  didn’t have the upsets the first round did, but did have surprises and intensity. After playing the equivalent of three games in the first two, Boston took control after losing Game Three in Columbus, with their stars stepping up and suffocating Columbus’ offense in Games Five and Six. As for the Carolina Hurricanes, despite losing Petr Mrazek in Game Two, were aggressive and punished the Islanders every chance they got. They were able to get into Robin Lehner’s head in Game Four and scored three times before he was pulled midway into the second period, cementing a sweep. So which team will represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup? Time for the prediction.

 

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First Round Predictions in the East: 2-2

#3 Boston Bruins v. #7/WC1 Carolina Hurricanes

 

It’s fitting this is the matchup. While it’s not what anyone expected, both teams’ rosters are focused around being close on and off the ice. Both are physical and rely on defense. Both play with passion and know when to step their games up, especially in third periods. Tuukka Rask wants to start and win a Cup badly. The Canes haven’t gone nor been in a Conference Final since 2009, and they had some extra rest.

 

Two big things stand out in this matchup: Goaltending and home ice. Rask has gotten better especially in the later rounds of the first two series. It’s been the opposite for Carolina, where Mrazek was hurt in Game Two against the Isles. Curtis McElhinney, who’s 35 years old, played most of the second round and led the Canes to a sweep. Carolina’s defense helped McElhinney quite a bit, but he was fluid and flexible on the ice and showed up when it mattered most. As of when this post was published, NHL.com said Mrazek will probably start the first game in Boston.

The Hurricanes have gone 5-0 at home in the playoffs, all of those wins coming against the top two teams in the Metropolitan division, the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders. The home crowd has had an impact but this is where the Hurricanes have played their best hockey. It’s quite possible they win all their home games against Boston and push this to seven. The Bruins played their cards right and did well on the road in the first two series, losing the first road game in both and then going 2-0 after. Carolina feels different than in both Toronto (a more confident and balanced team) and Columbus (first time the Jackets reached the second round in franchise history). If Rask gets hot after Game Three with a stellar game four, this series will make it easier to pick.

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Conference Final Prediction: Bruins win series 4-3

NHL Western Conference 2nd Round Playoff Picks

What an epic first round of NHL Playoffs! Both division winners in the West were knocked off in six games at most while only one second place team in each division made it to the second round (it took San Jose two wins in overtime and a full seven games to make it). The wildcard teams look the strongest, but their opponents will make their run harder. The St. Louis Blues continue their winning ways since Mike Yeo was fired, the Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon may be the best player in the whole conference and Ben Bishop could possibly win the Vezina Trophy (the award for the top goalie in the NHL) if he keeps this level of playing up. We’re in for a wild ride to say the least.

Time now for second round playoff predictions. Note here it’s possible a lot of analysts’ playoff picks are probably close to mine.

6859First Round picks record: 1-3

#3 San Jose Sharks v. #8/WC2 Colorado Avalanche

It’s a shock these two teams won because of the teams they played and how both series were turned upside down. After being shutout in the first game in Calgary, the Avs didn’t just beat the Flames, they walloped them after the second game. Nathan MacKinnon is back to the version of himself fans wanted him to be after his rookie season. He alone set the tone that first series, and Calgary simply gave up. Gabriel Landeskog, the actual captain and Mikko Rantanen stepped up and were dominant as could be. Last but not least, Avalanche goaltender Philipp Grubauer showed he’s a legitimate starter in the net and can come up big when it matters most. He was the only goalie in the first round who didn’t give up a penalty shot (a play after a serious penalty in which a player at mid-ice gets to try to shoot the puck into the net against the goaltender). If Colorado advances, it’s because these four will come up big again.

San Jose completed their comeback and most importantly Martin Jones got a good amount of confidence back. It was players like Tomas Hertl, Barclay Goodrow and Kevin Labanc who dug deep and got the Sharks out of the 3-1 hole they were in. It’ll get better for the team since San Jose had struggled with Vegas all season and was successful against the Avs the regular season, scoring a minimum of four goals in three games and winning all three. While the Avs will score as well, the Sharks have better depth and have to be relieved that this roster they’re facing isn’t as deep as Vegas’.

Prediction: Sharks win series 4-2.

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#5 St. Louis Blues v. #7/WC1 Dallas Stars

What a thrilling first round of hockey from both of these clubs! While St. Louis caught fire in early January and hadn’t let up going into the playoffs, the way they dominated the Jets, especially in Winnipeg, is something a lot of sports analysts and fans didn’t see coming. It’s impressive how the left and right wings (forwards) have broken through and given St. Louis a lot of goals (Jaden Schwartz has had four goals in four periods as the most prominent example) and the centers (Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn being the main ones) have made their impacts. This is impressive considering there were a few games net-minder Jordan Binnington was uncharacteristically off and deserved criticism. The Blues believe they truly can get into the Stanley Cup Finals and don’t show any signs of letting up.

It’s been a different story in Dallas, where the Stars have been around the playoff caliber teams in their division most of the regular season, but didn’t really stand out besides playing good defense. Well, the Stars made their mark by ousting the Nashville Predators in round one of the playoffs. Not only did they get into the second round, they looked in control after the first three games. Putting Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov and Tyler Seguin back into the starting lineup together seems like a good decision moving forward, unless the Blues find a way to jam them up in this next series. If the Stars can score three goals or more (they were 1-2 in the first round when scoring less than three), there’s a chance they could stretch the series and maybe advance. Ben Bishop was phenomenal in the final game with over 40 saves and yielding only one goal.

The thing to watch for in this series will be coaching, as it will show who can adapt better as the series goes along. Jim Montgomery is 3-1 since 2019 started against the Blues, and his squad has gotten better the more they’ve faced Craig Berube and Jordan Binnington. I look for Dallas to frustrate the Blues more and to take control beginning Game 3.

Prediction: Stars win series 4-2