Let the Real Season Begin - NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Preview
#1 NY Rangers #8 Ottawa Senators
11-12 Record: 51-24-7 109pts 11-12 Record: 41-31-10 92pts
Season Series: Senators 3-1
Goals – Marion Gaborik – 41 Milan Michalek – 35
Assists – Brad Richards – 41 Erik Karlsson – 59
Points – Marion Gaborik – 76 Jason Spezza – 84
Goalie Comparisons (Record, SO, GAA, Save%)
Henrik Lundqvist (39-18-5, 8, 1.97, .930) Craig Anderson (33-22-6, 3, 2.84, .914)
The Rangers have been the class of the Eastern Conference all season long in earning the number one seed and falling 2 points short of the President’s Trophy (awarded to the team with the most points, i.e., best record) In an interesting matchup, they will be facing the Senators who are 1 of only 2 teams to beat the Rangers 3 times this year. The Senators who were leading the Northeast conference only a few weeks ago limp into the playoffs a little having won only 4 of their last 10 games.
The Rangers boast one of the league’s best snipers in Marion Gaborik and setup men in Brad Richards. The Rangers had the 11th ranked offense in the league and rely on balanced scoring up and down their lineup. The line combination of Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov may be difference in this series. As for the 4th ranked offense of Ottawa, they are led by the line of Milan Michalek, Jason Spezza and rookie Colin Greening. Spezza had a great year after 2 sub-par years by his standards. He led both teams with 4 goals and 6 points in the teams’ 4 meetings this year. Daniel Alfredsson, he of 27 goals this year, will be counted upon to have a big series for this team to move on. Secondary scoring is going to be HUGE in this series.
Edge: Rangers (barely)
Erik Karlsson of the Senators will be among the finalists for the Norris Trophy and had an astonishing 78 points from the blueline this year. He’s an unbelievable skater and playmaker and despite questions about his game in his own end, was +16 this year. The other Senators’ top defenseman, Sergei Gonchar, Filip Kuba, and Chris Phillips are all known as being offensive defenseman and part of the reason why the Sens allowed the 2nd most shots on goal this year. The Rangers boast a big, young D corps led by 21 year old Michael Del Zotto and 22 year old Ryan McDonagh. The return in the second half of the season of Marc Staal was huge and he will play a key part in shutting down this Ottawa team.
Edge: Even (for differing styles)
The Rangers have something a lot of teams don’t, and that’s an elite goaltender. Henrik Lundqvist is coming off a Vezina Trophy caliber season. He ranked 4th in wins (39), 4th in GAA (1.97) and 4th in save percentage (.930). He also had 8 shutouts on the year and was the key cog for a team that allowed the 3rd fewest goals this year. Craig Anderson on the other hand had a good year, but is as streaky as they come. He proved two years ago how he can be dominant as he nearly led the Avs to a first round upset of the Sharks almost single-handedly.
Edge: Rangers (big)
Ottawa had the 11th best power play (18.3%) and 15th ranked penalty kill (82.1%). The Rangers were 25th on the man advantage (15.9%) and 5th on the penalty kill (86.4%). It’s hard to believe with Gaborik and Richards that the Rangers had such struggles on the power play, but they were only 2 for 13 in 4 games against Ottawa this year. This is going to be the area where Karlsson and the Senators need to take advantage if they want to win this series.
Even though the Senators didn’t finish the season on a roll, they matchup well the Rangers as they showed this season. This series, like many playoff series before, will be decided by play between the pipes. Because of this, I predict King Henrik and the Rangers will eventually move on.
Prediction: Rangers in 6
#2 Boston Bruins #7 Washington Capitals
11-12 Record: 49-29-4 102pts 11-12 Record: 42-32-8 92pts
Season Series: Capitals 3-1
Goals – Tyler Seguin – 29 Alex Ovechkin – 38
Assists – Patrice Bergeron – 42 Dennis Wideman – 35
Points – Tyler Seguin – 67 Alex Ovechkin – 65
Goalie Comparisons (Record, SO, GAA, Save%)
Tim Thomas (35-19-6, 5, 2.36, .920) Tomas Vokoun (25-17-6, 4, 2.51, .917)
The defending cup winner Boston Bruins head into the playoffs playing solid hockey going 7-2-1 over their final 10 games, but feel a little unlucky the way the last day of the regular season shook out as they will take on the Capitals instead of an Ottawa team they were 5-1 against this year. The Capitals on the other hand fought their way into a playoff spot following a regular season that started with the biggest of expectations and included a coaching change in the middle of the year.
When it comes to dynamic talent in the NHL, Alex Ovechkin’s name has been on the list since he entered the league in 05-06. Even though he had by far his lowest point total for a season, he still managed 38 goals despite missing his playmaking center Niklas Backstrom for 40 games. The combination of Backstrom and Ovechkin leads a very balanced Caps forwards corps which include grinding forwards perfect for the playoffs like Jason Chimera, Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich and Matthieu Perreault. It will also be interesting to see which Alex Semin comes to play. He has world class talent, but can disappear at times. The Bruins are led by 20 year old, 2nd year center Tyler Seguin and the little ball of hate Brad Marchand (28 goals). Like the Capitals, the Bruins are deep up front with guys who have the ability to be game changers or step up with big goals. Look for Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron to wreak havoc on the Caps D. The absence of Nathan Horton is going to hurt.
The Bruins are anchored by the biggest, strongest defenseman in the league in Zdeno Chara who averages 25 minutes of ice time per game, and boasts a 108 mph slap shot. The rest of their top 4 defense, Joe Corvo, Dennis Seidenberg, and Greg Zanon are all tough as nails but can chip in on offense when needed. The Capitals defense is more known for their offensive contributions than their stellar defensive zone play. Mike Green is one of the best offensive d-men in the game but was only able to play in 32 games this year. They have been led this year in his absence by former Bruin Dennis Wideman and 22 year old John Carlson who were a combined -23.
Edge: Bruins (big)
Tm Thomas had another fantastic year for the Bruins, as he chipped in with 35 wins, 5 shutouts, and a .920 save%. The Bruins were hurt at the end of the year by an injury to backup goalie Tuuka Rask who had a better GAA and save % than Thomas. As for the Capitals, it looks like they are going with rookie Braden Holtby as Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth mend groin and leg injuries. Holtby has gone 4-2-1 with a shutout, but it remains to be seen how he handles this stage.
Edge: Bruins (huge)
Neither group had a top ten power play. The Bruins were 15th clicking at 17%, and the Caps were surprisingly just 18th at 16.5%. The absence of Mike Green was a huge factor for this. The Capitals were also just 20th in the league on the penalty kill compared to the Bruins 11th ranked unit.
Edge: Bruins (slight)
Even with the loss of key components to their cup run last year (Nathan Horton, Mark Recchi, Michael Ryder), the Bruins still have enough to over come the Capitals. The Caps may be able to score goals, but I don’t think they can contain the Bruins defensively over the course of the series.
Prediction: Bruins in 6
#3 Florida Panthers #6 New Jersey Devils
11-12 Record: 38-26-18 94pts 11-12 Record: 48-28-6 102pts
Season Series: Tied 2-2
Goals – Tomas Fleischmann – 27 Ilya Kovalchuk – 37
Assists – Brian Campbell – 49 Patrik Elias – 52
Points – Tomas Fleischmann – 61 Ilya Kovalchuk – 83
Goalie Comparisons (Record, SO, GAA, Save%)
Jose Theodore (22-16-11, 3, 2.46, .917) Martin Brodeur (31-21-7, 3, 2.41, .908)
The Florida Panthers managed to win the Southeast division despite winning only 38 games and 2 of their last 10. GM Dale Tallon deserves a lot of respect for putting together a team on a shoestring budget that was able to win the division and make the playoffs for the first time in a decade. The Devils had a great year, if seemingly a little unexpected. A team which many thought would struggle to hold onto their playoff spot after a quick start, were the model of consistency all year.
The Panthers are led by their top line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg. Weiss is a lifelong Panther and after 637 regular season games will be making his first playoff appearance and should be amped. After battling blood clot issues last year, it was good to see Fleischmann play a full year with such a big impact. Outside of that line, that Panthers don’t possess a lot of firepower; Part of the reason why they were 27th in the league in scoring. If any team needs an unexpected performance, it’s Florida. The guy to look at may be Mikael Samuelsson.
New Jersey isn’t much better, but does possess depth outside of superstars Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise (31G, 69Pts) and veteran Patrik Elias. Ultimate grinder David Clarkson chipped in with 30 goals this year to go with his 138 PIMs, and rookie and Calder Trophy candidate Adam Henrique had 16G and 51pts. While it’s not epic, the Devils do have more scoring depth up front than the Panthers. Oh, and 213 of the Devils’ 228 goals were scored by forwards.
Edge: Devils (moderate)
If there is a hole in the Devils lineup it is on their blue line. The Devils are without their best defenseman, Henrik Tallinder, and their leading man in terms of time on ice is rookie Adam Larsson. Outside of Anton Volchenkov, none of these guys strike fear into the hearts of the opposition, and they don’t have a lot of firepower in the offensive zone. Mark Fayne led the D in goals with 4. The Panthers on the other hand have some solid talent on the back end. Brian Campbell was tied for 2nd in the league in points by defensemen, and Jason Garrison had a breakout year with 16 goals. Throw in Dmitry Kulikov and Ed Jovanovski and the Panthers have a formidable crew.
Edge: Panthers (considerable)
He may be 39 years old, but Martin Brodeur can still play. This was the 15th season Brodeur had more than 30 wins, and even without an outstanding defense in front of him, he led to the Devils to the 10th best goals against average in the league. Although there are times when he’s showed his age, he didn’t play in as many games as he has in years past in an attempt to keep him fresh for the playoffs. The Panthers are going to counter with.. Maybe Jose Theodore? Maybe Scott Clemmenson? Theodore hasn’t won in his last 7 starts, but Clemmenson has a whole 7 minutes of playoff experience. Either way, this could be the downfall of the Panthers against a formidable Devils offense.
There’s one thing you can always count on, and that’s the Devils being a good penalty killing team. They had the leagues top PK unit killing 89.5% of shorthanded situations. Despite struggles to score 5 on 5, the Panthers have the 10th rated PP unit, but are only 25th on the kill. With the likes of Kovalchuk and Parise, the Panthers are going to have to stay out of the box.
On paper, the Devils seem to have a clear advantage, I don’t think you can count out the Panthers. They seem to keep proving everyone wrong. On the other hand, it’s the Panthers and Martin Brodeur.
Prediction: Devils in 6
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins #5 Philadelphia Flyers
11-12 Record: 51-25-6 108pts 11-12 Record: 47-26-9 103pts
Season Series: Flyers 4-2
Goals – Evgeni Malkin – 50 Scott Hartnell – 37
Assists – Evgeni Malkin – 59 Claude Giroux – 65
Points – Evgeni Malkin – 109 Claude Giroux – 93
Goalie Comparisons (Record, SO, GAA, Save%)
Marc-Andre Fleury (42-17-7, 3, 2.36, .913) Ilya Bryzgalov (33-16-7, 6, 2.48, .909)
If you’re not excited about this series you’re not a hockey fan. These are two of the best teams in the league and it’s kind of sad that only one of them will move along to the 2nd round. These two teams don’t like each other as evidenced by their brawl a couple weeks ago, and a series like this is sure to bring a ton of excitement and bad blood. There are a couple questions marks in this series, and they happen to surround the Flyers.
This series features some of the biggest names in the league. On the Penguins side you have the Art Ross trophy winner Evgeni Malkin who led the league with 109 points and superstar Sidney Crosby who is back (37 points in 22 games) after missing a significant part of the season with concussion symptoms from last year. That’s not all the Pens have to offer. The Pens were the highest scoring team in the league (282 goals) and had major contributions from James Neal who had a breakout year with 40 goals, 25 goals from Pascal Dupuis and Jordan Staal and another 26 from Chris Kunitz. They can come at you with any of their 3 top lines. The Flyers are led by 4th year forward Claude Giroux who netted 28 goals this year and whose 93 points ranked 3rd in the league. Like the Pens, the Flyers have several forwards who can score. Scott Hartnell led the team with 37, Wayne Simmonds had 28, rookie Matt Read had 24, and Jaromir Jagr came back to the NHL to ship in with 19. All part of a group who led the Flyers to the 3rd best offense in the league. All of these guys should be on display as there was no shortage of goals in the 6 games these 2 teams played this year. Malkin had 9 points in those games, and Giroux had 8. The Flyers are going to miss Danny Briere though as he tries to heal from a hit suffered in these teams’ April 1st game.
Edge: Penguins (very slight)
This is another area where injuries are definitely going to hurt the Flyers. There’s no Chris Pronger, and Andrej Meszaros is still out after back surgery. Luckily they should have Nicklas Grossman back to start the series. The Flyers also have solid two way defensemen in Kimmo Timmonen and Matt Carle and a tough guy in Braydon Coburn. The Penguins are led by the uber-talented Kris Letang on the back end who had 10 goals and 42 points. Their other key defensemen, Paul Martin, Brooks Oprik, and Matt Niskanen are going to have their hands full with the Flyers. They did allow 22 goals in the 6 games between the teams.
Edge: Flyers (slight)
Marc-Andre Fleury has won a Stanley Cup in 08-09, has won 35+ games the last 4 years but somehow does not get the credit he deserves. He may not be in the Vezina conversation, but he’s a more than capable keeper. He’s proven before that he can be a difference maker and is going to have to do it again for the Pens to advance. His counterpart will be Ilya Bryzgalov who finally showed in the last month why the Flyers brought him in during the off-season. While he’s had his ups and downs this year, he seems to be peeking at the right time. He’s the kind of goalie who can steal this series for the Flyers, but just as easily be replaced by Sergei Bobrovsky at any time. And coach Peter Laviolette will not be shy about doing so.
With offenses as potent as these, it’s no surprise that the Penguins had the 5th ranked PP (19.6%) and the Flyers had the 4th ranked unit (19.8%). The difference in this category, and possibly the series may be the fact that the Penguins had the 3rd ranked PK unit (87.8%) compared to the Flyers 16th (81.9%). Of course, the Flyers were 6-29 with the man advantage against Pittsburgh this year.
By all accounts, this series should be the best example of what playoff hockey is all about. A case can be made for both teams. The Penguins have better high-end talent, and the Flyers will possibly have 8 rookies in the starting lineup. The Flyers won 4 of the 6 meetings this year. This series can really go any way, and I can’t wait to see what happens.
Prediction: Penguins in 7 (only because I want to see 7 games)
Keep an eye out for my Western Conference preview on Tuesday night, and don't be afraid to watch as I will be doing everything I can to tweet during all the games. How do you find me? @StoneyinCO