NHL Eastern Conference Playoffs: First Round Preview
A couple of days ago, you witnessed the unveiling of my first round preview for the Western Conference playoffs. Now you have the grand opportunity to indulge in my Eastern Conference preview. Enjoy.
(1) New York Rangers vs. (8) Ottawa Senators
The Rangers have looked like one of the NHL’s elite teams all season, and who could blame them? They have outstanding goaltending in Henrik Lundqvist, offensive firepower in Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan and a consistent blue line presence with Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. They are a solid team all around and have the “New York” aura around them.
The Senators, after missing the playoffs last year, are back and looking to play spoiler. Led by the always dangerous duo of Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa will always look to their mainstays to guide the team. Defensively, Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar hold down the fort while goalie Craig Anderson has had a decent season in net (2.84 GAA, .913 save percentage).
In order for the Senators to at least stay competitive, they will need superb play from Anderson and have a point-per-game pace from their gunners, Alfredsson and Spezza, along with Milan Michalek. And that is just not happening. The Rangers are too good on all three fronts and should pepper Anderson with enough shots from all angles to make his head spin.
Rangers in 5
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers
Boy, howdy. This one promises to be a doozy. Two rival teams that legitimately hate each other and have added fuel to the fire with a major brawl just days for the end of the regular season.
The Penguins are a team that has arguably, or definitely, the top duo in the league in terms of offense with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That should be enough to make the casual observer pick them. But they also have a solid defense, led by Zbynek Michalek and Kris Letang along with hard-hitter Brooks Orpik. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury provides a stable piece in net and most of the team was around for the 2009 Stanley Cup run. too.
Philadelphia has been one of the most loaded teams the past couple of seasons and are only two seasons removed from playing for the Cup. Offensively, they are as talented as anybody with Claude Giroux, Daniel Briere and the ageless wonder, Jaromir Jagr racking up the points. Defensively, they are without Chris Pronger, their captain who has been sidelined with multiple injuries this season and could be facing retirement due to the symptoms. However, they still have Kimmo Timmonen and Matt Carle patrolling the blue line and they will need to be good in order to protect their less-than-stellar goalie tandem of Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky.
Overall, this series could easily be the most entertaining of all the first round series just based on the talent, the rivalry and the bad blood these teams share. It is going to go the full length but the Penguins have the better goaltending and more of a workhorse attitude. That will be the tipping point.
Penguins in 7
(3) Florida Panthers vs. (6) New Jersey Devils
After a summer spent acquiring more well-known players and trying to rebuild their team, the Panthers went ahead and surprised everybody by claiming the Southeast Division championship. They didn’t blow anybody out of the water and are only the No. 3 seed because they won their division, much like the Coyotes in the Pacific. Their leading point scorer was Tomas Fleischmann with only 61 while their defense and goaltending was not up to par. Hell, they gave up 24 more goals than they scored. Thankfully for them, they played in one of the league’s weakest divisions.
The Devils are back in the playoffs after missing out on the party last season, despite a late-season push. They are led by the three headed monster of Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias and Zach Parise who had point totals of 83, 78 and 69, respectively. Those are impressive marks for a team that prides itself on defense first, flash later. Speaking of defense, they gave up 209 goals, third least amongst the East’s playoff teams (eight out of all playoff teams). Much of that is due to the always solid Martin Brodeur in goal, who should be a nightmare for opposing teams.
When all is said and done, the “lower-seeded” team should walk away with the series victory. The Panthers don’t have the weapons to put a scare into the Devils defense while New Jersey can counter with a tactical offense and great goaltending. I’d like to see the Panthers move forward (maybe even see a Coyotes/Panthers finals just to see if Canada would explode) but it’s not happening. Don’t get me wrong, Florida will play with pride and heart, but they won’t walk away from this one.
Devils in 6
(2) Boston Bruins vs. (7) Washington Capitals
The defending Stanley Cup champions Bruins are back and looking to be the first team to win back-to-back titles since the Red Wings did it in 1996-97 and 1997-98. They are a consistent bunch on offense with four players scoring at least 60 points and are stout defensively, giving up only 202 goals on the year, good enough for No. 5 amongst playoff teams. Tim Thomas is looking to defend his Conn Smythe trophy while back-up goalie Tuuka Rask would be a legitimate No. 1 on most teams in the league.
The Capitals have fallen off this year after being one of the top teams in the East the past few seasons. They have dealt with questions of toughness, coaching and mental strength this year and were on the cusp of nearly missing the post-season this year before a late-season charge. As always, they are led by superstar Alex Ovechkin, who put up a disappointing 65 points this year after getting more than 100 in three of his previous four seasons. They aren’t stellar defensively, allowing eight more goals than they scored and because of that, their goaltending is suspect.
Based on their late-season play, the Capitals should have enough momentum to give the Bruins a scare. But their inconsistent play defensively and between the pipes will be their downfall. Boston has enough in the tank to make another Cup run and should be moving onto the second round.
Bruins in 6