The matchups are set, the schedule’s locked in, and the greatest time of the year is upon us-NHL playoffs season. Time to forget about Presidents’ trophies, Hart discussion, the Art Ross race, the Rocket Richard trophy. This time around, only one trophy matters. In this post I’ll be giving a run-down of the Eastern conference matchups, which are slated to start this Wednesday.
Washington (1) vs. Montreal (8)
First up are the home-town Caps, who will be tangling with the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. All things considered, the Canadiens may be a little bit better than the 8-seed indicates, as they’ve been wrought with injuries to important players for most of the season. The Caps and Habs split the series, going into OT in 3 out of 4 games. This Habs team is suffering from an affliction known as “Even Strength AIDS”, as they have the worst 5-on-5 goals ratio out of teams in the playoffs, good for 22nd in the league.
Their power play, however, is another story. The Habs score at a 21% clip with the man-advantage, which checks in at 2nd in the league. The key to this series is special teams. Halak could stand on his head and steal a game or two, but that can be said about any goaltender in the playoffs. The Caps staying out of the box/killing off penalties when they don’t will make the difference between this series going four games or six. That being said, the Caps will be too much too handle 5 on 5, the Habs defense is very slow, and their corps of forwards are very small, so they likely won’t be able to keep up with a large, physical Caps team for a 7-game series.
Verdict: Caps in 5
New Jersey (2) vs. Philadelphia (7)
After pulling out a shootout win against the Rangers on the final day of the season, the Flyers are in the playoffs as the 7th seed, and draw Jersey in the first round. The Flyers have a lot of talent on their team up front, and a solid bunch of defensemen as well. Jeff Carter is back from a foot injury, which should give them a boost, and their special teams play is very good (PP is 3rd, PK is 11th). That being said, their goaltender is Brian Boucher. I repeat, Brian Boucher. I don’t want to sound like a broken record but special teams will play an important role in this series. I have a hard time believing that Boucher will be able to hold it together for a 7-game series.
The Devils have a very solid overall team, and with the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk, should be able to generate some offense despite their late-season power play troubles. Philly took the season series over New Jersey, losing only 1 game out of 6, which should give Devils fans some pause, but how that will impact their play in the postseason remains to be seen. Honestly, this is a wildcard series. The Flyers were among the Stanley Cup favorites coming into the season, but injuries to their #1 and #2 goaltenders kind of put them on the backburner, and forced them to fight for their playoff lives. I could see them advancing in a 7-game series, but I don’t think that’s the most likely outcome.
Verdict: Devils in 6
Buffalo (3) vs. Boston (6)
If you’re looking for exciting, fire-wagon hockey, then you should probably look somewhere other than this series. In one corner you have the lock Vezina Trophy Winner (Ryan Miller), against a Boston team with the worst, I repeat, the worst goals per game in the NHL. Add in that the B’s #1 center (Marc Savard) is out for the duration, and you can only expect that average to go down. They also have 3 of their top-6 Dmen currently out, though they can still play a solid defensive system, that isn’t as reliant on personnel to stifle opposing offenses. Goaltender Tuuka Rask has been excellent all season, but their problem isn’t keeping pucks out of their net (2nd in goals against/game), it’s putting them in their opponent’s. It’s simple, either their terrible offense is going to have to start scoring some goals, or Rask is going to have to stand on his head for the entire series. I wouldn’t bet on either.
Verdict: Buffalo in 5
Pittsburgh (4) vs. Ottawa (5)
This is an interesting series, because it features the defending Stanley Cup champions in the 4 spot (same as the past 2 years that saw them reach the finals and lose only to win it the following year), playing the team they’ve faced 3 times in the past 4 years. Most of the pundits are predicting the Penguins to roll through the Sens in 4 or 5 games, but I’m not so sure they should be so confident about that. Ottawa’s a big, physical team, that has historically shut down Crosby with a duo of Phillips-Volchenkov. They have two offensive stars in Daniel Alfredsson (who’s also excellent defensively) and Jason Spezza (Kovalev’s out with an ACL injury), as well as some grit up front. The key to beating the Penguins is forcing their peripheral players to have to bear some of the load. Shutting down one of the two-headed monster (Crosby and Malkin), while limiting the other is enough to beat them. No other team is as reliant on 1 or 2 players as the Penguins are with Crosby and Malkin. Expect Phillips and Volchenkov to face Crosby every shift, with Malkin drawing a combination of Carkner, Sutton, and Karlsson. Solid play for Sens goaltender Brian Elliott is essential.
The key for the Penguins is goaltending. Fleury’s been decidedly mediocre all season long, and I wouldn’t be as confident as Pens fans seem to be that him/their team will just “turn it on” for the playoffs. The difference between this year and last year is that last year they were the hottest team in the NHL going into the playoffs. This year, if you remove their 9-1 start, they’re close to a .500 team. The defense hasn’t been tight, the PP is in the bottom half of the NHL, and Marc Andre Fleury has been a sieve at the most inopportune times. Add in that the Penguins couldn’t beat any of the top teams in the East with any sort of consistency and you have a formula for a first-round upset. It seems like most people are picking the Penguins based on their cup run last year. Let me spell it out for you: they are not a very good team.
Verdict: Ottawa in 7
I may do the Western Conference later today, not sure yet.