This year’s NHL playoff match-ups are shaping up to be the tightest and closest in a very long time. Especially in the Western Conference. But let’s take a quick look at what is going on in the East and what we should expect first.
EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS
NEW YORK RANGERS (1) VS OTTAWA SENATORS (8)
The Ottawa Senators have been the surprise feel-good story of this year’s NHL season. They have a lot of young kids in the lineup who were are all expected to be great down the line but they blossomed this year way ahead of schedule. Their surprising play with the help of veteran leadership from the likes of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Chris Phillips and Craig Anderson has put them into a playoff spot pretty much all season.
Future multiple James Norris trophy winner Erik Karlsson is the most explosive offensive defencemen this year and he should be a key to setting up the powerplays against the Rangers. Combine that with Spezza, Alfredsson and Michalek and Ottawa’s offence seems pretty decent. Toughening them out will be Chris Neil and Mike Foligno. Players of their caliber are priceless in the playoffs.
The Rangers are a machine. There is no other way to put it. They were the toast of the East and were fighting for the #1 spot from the very beginning. They have one of the best goalies in the league, a well-rounded offence and having the most fights in the NHL. They are not just flash… They are flash and bang! Their one flaw is that the defence corps does allow a lot of shots and that forces Henrik Lundqvist to on top of his game all the time and he is. The man is huge, he covers a lot of the net and he has been spectacular.
The Rangers have been perennial playoff disappointments and everybody would love the Senators to be the Cinderella team this year including me. However, I just don’t think that the Senators are on the same planet in overall depth. Anderson will have to stand on his head in nets just to have a chance here. Even though Ottawa won 3 of 4 against them this year, I feel that this is the year that the Rangers do not disappoint. I hope I’m wrong.
Rangers in 5 games.
BOSTON BRUINS (2) VS WASHINGTON CAPITALS (7)
The Bruins have been plagued by inconsistency and controversy this year thanks largely in part to Tim Thomas. They started poorly at 3 and 7 and then tore it up with only one loss in November. Everything went great until January when they began to slump and they have turned it around in March again. But now that the playoffs have arrived it seems that they are once again for real.
They have begun playing 4 line hockey again and everyone is pitching in. Look for a big step up this year from players like Seguin, Thornton and Pouliot. Tim Thomas will have to be his acrobatic superstar self again and a strong defence unit led by captain Zdeno Chara will help out a lot.
The Capitals have sneaked into the playoffs and as powerful as their offence can be, it is also inconsistent. Alex Ovechkin will have the hardest challenge of his NHL career in playing the Bruins in the playoffs. He will see Chara at every turn in the offensive zone and in the neutral zone he will meet 2 way specialist Patrice Bergeron and super-pest Brad Marchand. The Caps will have to rely on their gritty and reliable 3rd and 4th liners to get a lot of the job done but I think that the Bruins counters are better.
No one evens knows who will be starting nets for the Caps. Neuvirth suffered a leg injury on Thursday and is listed as day-to-day. Thomas seems to be rested and playing pretty good. The Bruins are better on D and are deeper upfront. If they do not come out of this one, it would be nothing but a shock.
Bruins in 6 games
FLORIDA PANTHERS (3) VS NEW JERSEY DEVILS (6)
The panthers were able to fill their roster in the off-season by signing all sorts of players to help and fill the salary cap floor. But with only 4 players hitting the 50 point mark (one being a defenceman), they are clearly not deep or talented enough to make a run of this.
The Devils are hungry. Martin Brodeur has been absolutely awful in the teams last 6 playoff appearances and with this possibly being his last hurrah, look for him to shine in this round. They also boast 2 great offensive lines with the likes of Kovalchuk, Elias and Parise. Their defence corps is young but they have done the job this year. Like I said though, it all comes down to the greatest regular season goalie in NHL history in Martin Brodeur. He has to get his playoff GAA to about 2.00 and away from the 2.50 he has been averaging over his last few appearances in the post season. He had a very strong end to this year and look for that to continue.
Devils in 5 games.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (4) VS PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (5)
This is going to be the showcase match-up of the first round. These two teams absolutely hate each other and whichever one comes out of this round will be hurt. Their last 2 games against each other have involved fighting, lots of goals and coaches climbing benches trying to get at each other.
Pittsburgh is the odds on favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference this year. Crosby is healthy for now and Malkin is coming off what I think was his best season. Add James Neal’s career season to the mix and the Penguins have 3 super-weapons that will help fill out a very good 4 line team. Defence is on par as well with the likes of Kris Letang (42 points in just 51 games), Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik. Well rounded, explosive and playoff experienced.
The Flyers are still very much the Broad Street Bullies. Do not mistake their ability to score with the likes of Giroux, Briere, Simmonds and Jagr with weakness. King of the pests Scott Hartnell had 37 goals this year and is an expert of throwing people off their mental game. Timonen, Carle and Coburn are part of a big, hard-hitting core of defencemen that will make it a long series for Pittburgh’s big 2 and that will force a big performance from the secondary scorers. If the Pens can keep drawing penalties and avoid taking them, the powerplay can be the nail in the coffin for them.
Ultimately though, it will come down to the wildcard of goaltending. Fleury has a cup with the Penguins but his goals against average is floating just over 2.65 in the last 3 years of post-season play. On the other side of the equation is Ilya Bryzgalov. He had a horrible start to this season and only found his game very late but he has finally looked brilliant for the Flyers. He was signed to try and finally fill the desperate need for a winning goalie in Philly. Who is going to be better? That is really going to be a roll of the dice. This one will be the most exciting series of the 1st round and the winner will come out limping.
Penguins in 7 games.
I will post my Western Conference preview in a few days. Enjoy the Playoffs!