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Going 'undercover' to pick surprise playoff teams

by Kevin Weekes /
NHL Network analyst and former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes will be blogging for throughout the 2011-12 season. Look for "Weekes on the Web" video and text blog entries Tuesday through Friday on home page. You can also find an archive of Weekes on the Web here.

For my Opening Day blog, I went deep to name my "undercover" teams in each conference as the puck is about to drop on the regular season:

Eastern Conference

Buffalo is my undercover candidate in the Eastern Conference. Oh sure, you say, they spent all that money. But it is more than the money that new owner Terry Pegula has spent. I like the way this team was built this summer.

It is a high skills team that is good at transition, skating the puck or passing the puck out of the defensive zone. This team has a high level of hockey sense, especially adding Christian Ehrhoff to the blue line.

I think the Sabres still need a legitimate power forward to compete for a Cup, but they are more gritty now. There will be a willingness among the Sabres to play a physical game, particularly in the playoffs. When I talk about "gritty," I mean that willingness. There is not a lot of room on the ice to make plays in the postseason. That's why you see bottom-six forwards often succeed and raise their visibility among fans. Those third- and fourth-line guys are accustomed to making plays in traffic. Buffalo will be good in that respect this season.

And listen, Ryan Miller is the best in the business as a goalie. One important factor is he has a proven backup this season to keep him more rested for the playoff grind. Jhonas Enroth played some big games down the stretch for Buffalo last season. I like his game a lot.

The Sabres won't be undercover by April.

Western Conference

In the West, I'm going further off the grid. I like what St. Louis has assembled. They are my undercover team in the Western Conference. They have a ton of skill among the top-six forwards. Chris Stewart is going to be a star in this League; he will score 40 to 45 goals this year.

Add all-star David Backes and the Blues have a double threat at power forward. That will be a nightmare for opposing teams. I honestly think that was a big reason why Boston beat Vancouver for the Cup. The Canucks struggled to handle Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic on the same line. Add Jason Arnott for the Blues and those are some big bodies.

I like Alex Pietrangelo a lot. He is another player who is going to be a big star. St. Louis can make some big noise in the playoffs if Halak plays the way in goal that he did for Montreal during the 2009 postseason. If Halak plays that well, the Blues will be a scary team that no one in the West will want to face.
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