Yesterday, I previewed the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Today, we’ll take a look at the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal matchups…
#1 New York Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa Senators
It’s fitting that these two teams would meet up in the first round. No one saw the Rangers taking the top seed in the East and not many were picking the Senators to make the playoffs. I sure had these two teams picked incorrectly. But that’s why we play the games, now isn’t it?
The story for New York this season has been the play of the team defense. Henrik Lundqvist has put in another Vezina caliber season behind a surprisingly elite group of defensemen led by Dan Girardi. His partner, Ryan McDonaugh, has had an outstanding season both offensively and defensively along with fellow youngster Michael Del Zotto. They’re not exactly the names we’re used to hearing when it comes to top defensemen, but they sure get the job done.
But what separates the Rangers from much of the league defensively is the way the entire team buys into the system of defense. The forwards play a key role in choking off any offensive attack from the opposition. They just clog everything up and don’t allow the time and space you typically need to get scoring chances. Ottawa’s 4th ranked offense will have something to say about that, though. As good as the Rangers’ defense is, I’m not buying that they’re going to be able to stifle the Senators’ offense. Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza have been doing their thing for too long to all of a sudden by shut down. Throw in Erik Karlsson and his phenomenal 78 point season, and you’ve got a team that could do some serious damage on the power play if given enough chances. The Rangers have a good penalty kill and don’t find themselves shorthanded that many times, but it’s going to be part of the game Ottawa will have to focus a lot of attention to. An abrasive player like Chris Neil is going to have to really get under the skin of players like Brandon Dubinsky and even Ryan Callahan in order to draw some penalties.
Fortunately for the Senators, as good as the Rangers’ defense is, their offense isn’t nearly as potent. They don’t have the relentless forecheck that we see from other teams but will sit back and wait for you to make a mistake and counterpunch. They may not get the most chances in the league, but they cash in when given the chance. Erik Karlsson’s been great for the Senators, but they can’t afford him to be coughing up the puck like he’s been guilty of this season. 84 on the year is quite a lot, and the Rangers definitely don’t need 84 chances to score with the likes of Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards patrolling the ice. Turnovers and chances will be inevitable, so Craig Anderson will have to stand tall when called upon. He’s no Lundqvist, but he’s no slouch ever. If he’s only asked to make the saves that he should, the Senators have a shot.
What has sort of held the Ottawa defense together this season has been the play of Filip Kuba, Karlsson’s defense partner. He’s been asked to hold down the fort while Karlsson goes on his offensive rover trips this season and will need to buckle down and be that much stouter for Ottawa this series. Kuba is my player to watch for the Sens. For the Rangers, I would keep an eye on Carl Hagelin. In 64 games this year, he’s potted 14 goals and 38 points. Not bad for the rookie most people likely never heard of prior to his call up.
My Prediction: Senators in 7. I know, I know, I’m probably the only person outside of Ottawa picking the Rangers to lose here. I’m just feeling the intangibles here. The Sens were 3-1 against the Rangers in the regular season and Lundqvist only had a save percentage of 0.905 against them. On top of that, no one really expected anything out of Ottawa this year, and being such heavy underdogs, they can play without the pressure that’s usually associated with playing in Canada. Also, the Rangers really haven’t had much playoff success at all since they won the Cup in 1994.
#2 Boston Bruins vs. #7 Washington Capitals
The Capitals don’t have the pressure of being the class of the conference this year. Ovechkin’s been finding his game again. With Michael Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun likely unable to play, it’s looking like Braden Holtby will be getting the start for the Caps, a goalie no one really has a book on yet. It looks like all of the ingredients for a nice upset in the first round…
Now that you’ve stopped sniffing glue, let’s take a serious look at this series. Holtby’s a good young goalie, but the Bruins have a pretty formidable offense with a whole lot of guys who can put the puck in the net even if Nathan Horton can’t play. They might have some trouble in the first game or two, but they should be able to figure him out after some time. And even in Holtby does play very well, he’ll likely be facing a barrage of shots as the Bruins have one of the best forechecks in the league. Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand will be wreaking havoc on Washington defensemen every game. Fortunately for the Caps, they do have a number of defensemen like John Carlson, Mike Green, and Dennis Wideman who can all move the puck ahead with the best of them. It will be imperative that Washington doesn’t dillydally in their own zone and that they get the puck out quickly and efficiently. If they don’t it won’t matter how well Holtby plays.
Alex Ovechkin had a slow start to his season to his season but was able to end up scratching out a respectable 38 goals on the year. It says something about a player when you consider 38 goals merely “respectable.” But fortunately for Alex, the return of Nicklas Backstrom could have big implications on the series. He’s only played a few games since returning from a major head injury, but he commands respect when he’s on the ice. He’ll create some welcome space for his teammates who don’t quite provide the same secondary scoring that the Bruins do, but Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich, and company can chip in goals here and there.
If the Bruins play the series as most people expect them to, expect all sorts of praise to be showered upon Tim Thomas. He’s one of the better goalies in the league without a doubt, but let’s not forget to give credit where it is due. The Bruins have a very solid defense playing in front of him. Like the Rangers, the forwards play a big role. Don’t expect to be getting wide open shots from the middle of the slot against the Bruins. If you’re going to try to get into the high chance areas, expect to pay a big price. Big man Zdeno Chara will make you earn your time and space and his teammates Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference, and underrated Johnny Boychuk play a good collective game.
My player to watch on the Bruins is Brad Marchand. He’s a talented player with a knack for getting his nose dirty. That could get him and his team into trouble. He’s been guilty of a few stupid, dirty plays this year that could wake up the Capitals. Remember, it was a cheap hit on Horton in the Cup Final last year that turned the series around the Bruins. On the other side, I’ll be looking at Nicklas Backstrom. Like I mentioned before, he’s coming back from an injury. If he can return to his previous form, that’s a huge shot in the arm for the Caps. If he’s still groggy, that’s a lot of offense they’ll need to replace.
My prediction: Big upset, right? Wrong! I’m going Bruins in 5. I’m not convinced that the Bruins are necessarily that good. I’m more convinced that the Capitals are just that lucky to be where they are. And the stat that sticks out the most to me? The Capitals have a 16-21-4 record on the road.
#3 Florida Panthers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils
Everyone seemed to want to get the Panthers this year. Could that have angered the hockey gods enough to make some fans go home very, very unhappy?
The Panthers benefitted from an absolutely terribly weak Southeast division to put up 94 points on the year—8 points behind their opening round opponent and one point less than the 8th seeded LA Kings in the Western Conference. They’ve got a -24 goal differential and have won 2 games in their last 10. And I’m not sure that it’s a good thing that it hasn’t yet been announced whether or not Florida will be rolling with Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen in Game 1. I mean, their goaltending and defense hasn’t been terrible, but meh…
That said, Martin Brodeur hasn’t been special at all this season. But he is Brodeur, so the fact that this could be his last playoffs could kick start him back up. And he could also fall flat on his face. He hasn’t made it out of the first round in the last three seasons and had goals against average’s above 3 in two of the three playoffs. Brodeur’s made a great career in frustrating opposing offenses, but the Panthers definitely have a chance if they fire the puck at Marty’s feet. He’ll give up rebounds or just simply give up really awkward looking goals.
Florida got some decent scoring from their top line of Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann, and Kris Versteeg. Defenseman Jason Garrison came out of nowhere and had a very productive season and Brian Campbell is seemingly having a renaissance in Florida, but that’s about it for their offense. And as good as their top line was, they really tailed off as the season came to an end. They really, really need scoring from Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, and Mikael Samuelsson.
In the past, getting some timely, consistent goals was enough to have a good chance at beating the Devils. That’s not true anymore. They’ve turned themselves from a poor offensive team into an average over the past several years. Ilya Kovalchuk has seemed to find his groove and Zach Parise is doing what Zach Parise does. Patrik Elias put up a surprising 78 point season and even more surprising was David Clarkson’s 30 goal campaign.
Penalty killing has been the Devils’ forte this season as they not only led the league in killing penalties, they also led the league with 15 shorthanded goals, thanks in large part to fine rookie Adam Henrique. But as the Devils have lived by the sword killing penalties, they’ve 12 times died by their opponents scoring while shorthanded this year. We can thank Ilya Kovalchuk’s masterful inability to play any sort of defense while manning the point on the power play and some passes that have inexplicably wound up right on the tape of a player on the other team. Shorthanded goals are huge momentum swingers in the regular season and a well-timed one in the playoffs has the potential to be able to turn a series around. Both teams have to be very careful and cannot afford to be sloppy at all while on the power play.
My player to watch on the Devils is Martin Brodeur. His poor play could be the crack in the door that the Panthers need to get into the series. If he establishes himself early on, he’ll put the Devils in a good spot. On the Panthers, my player to watch is Stephen Weiss. He’s been a Panther for awhile and this is his first chance at the playoffs. He’ll need to carry the offense on his back.
My prediction: Devils in 6. As much as I’d love for the Panthers to win (and that’s not out of the question), the Devils are just a better all around team.
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers
This is the series I’ve wanted to write about the most and of course the one that I’ll be writing last. Everyone is picking this series to go seven games and everyone expects this to be the best series. We’ve all seen the bad blood from a week and a half ago boil over. We know the history between the two teams. We know that as much as the players hate each other, the fans hate each other even more.
Looking at the stats, these two teams are just about dead even. The Pens and Flyers ranked 1st and 2nd in goals per game and 5th and 6th on the powerplay, respectively. They’ve given up similar numbers of goals. The major difference is the penalty kill, which ranks 3rd for Pittsburgh and 17th for Philly, which has been spotty. Both teams have goalies that have looked absolutely unstoppable at times and not so good during others although Ilya Bryzgalov has been better down the stretch than Marc-Andre Fleury and likely won’t have to deal with any bears in the near future.
Everyone knows about it, Bryzgalov really struggled at times for the Flyers. He got some deserved blame but also a lot of flak for things he couldn’t control. The injury to Chris Pronger took the Flyers forever to overcome, but the defense has since buckled down thanks to the additions of Nik Grossmann and Pavel Kubina. They really struggled as a defensive unit and Bryz took a lot of unfair criticism for it. He was hung out to dry on numerous occasions. He couldn’t get any confidence and neither could his teammates.
Grossmann has been in the press box for the last few games, but it looks like he and Danny Briere should be ready to go. Briere has been the key to any success the Flyers have had in recent years in the playoffs as he’s able to switch it on to 11 once the playoffs start. If he can take the pressure off Claude Giroux and his line, the Flyers can assert their offensive depth on the Pens defense. As good as the Giroux line has been, waves and waves of attacking forwards have been the Flyers’ bread and butter. Their speed has been a big factor in their 4-2 record against the Pens this year. While Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang usually do alright against them, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek often tend to appear to be surprised by the speed of the rushes coming their way and allow a speedy forward like Matt Read to go wide on them. The Flyers have enough skill at forward to exploit the 2nd and 3rd defensive pairings of the Penguins even if they aren’t getting the matchups they’d really prefer if they had home ice. But even setting all of that aside, the Flyers will have offensive success if they simplify their game and just throw as many pucks to the net and crash, crash, crash.
Any time you have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup together, it spells trouble. Throw in James Neal and his 41 goals and Kris Letang, and you’ve not only got a force to be reckoned with at even strength, but a potentially lethal power play. Crosby’s always done damage against the Flyers and together with Malkin, the Flyers really just have to hope to limit the damage those two do. Shutting them down would be a miracle, but if the Penguins are going to beat you, make them do it with their secondary players, who are much more easily contained, but not if their top guns are running around wild.
Matchups will be immensely important for both teams. The Flyers will likely want to match Giroux up against Crosby, in a power versus power tug of war. That probably means that they’ll look to 19 year old Sean Couturier to play against Malkin. Scooter will get some help though, as the Flyers really need to get under Malkin’s skin to knock him off his game and get him to take some stupid penalties. Zac Rinaldo could have a big series playing the role of instigator.
Fleury needs to shake off the struggles he’s had recently and outduel Bryzgalov. Both goalies are going to have to stand tall and bail their teams out with some big saves, and if Fleury catches fire like he has in the past, it could spell big trouble for the Flyers.
Unlike the past few seasons, the Flyers have really enjoyed success against the Pens this year. They’ve finally lost their first ever game in the Consol Energy Center in what ended up being nothing more than an exhibition snoozefest and have been good on the road all year. Do those numbers get thrown out the window or do the trends stay true? Even if Pittsburgh comes out fast with a few goals early in Game 1, the Flyers have been coming back from multiple goal deficits for much of the last third of the season and winning those games. As a matter of fact, both teams have been very good at erasing deficits. So don’t expect the first goal to win every game.
Don’t be surprised to see an early fight or a big hit set the tone early in this series or be a major turning point at some juncture. This series is going to have physical, old school hockey. It’s going to be amazing.
For Philly, I have two players to watch, both being former Penguins. Max Talbot has surprised everyone with a 19 goal season and was a very important clutch performer in years past for the Penguins. He can stir the pot and will really look to get heavily involved as much as he can. The other is Jaromir Jagr, who has been pretty successful offensively against the Penguins this season and would love nothing more than to be one of the main reasons why his former team who turned him down this offseason is knocked out. Jordan Staal is the player on the Penguins to keep an eye on. He’ll have his hands full defending against a puck-hunting group of Flyers forwards. If matched up against Giroux and successful in that endeavor, the chances of a Penguins victory increase as you would obviously assume. If he can add some goals while doing it, the chances increase even more.
My prediction: Flyers in 7. If this were an 11 game series, I’d pick it to go 11. That’s how close these two teams are. But what tips the scale in favor of the Flyers for me is their comfort in playing on the road in Pittsburgh. What good is home ice advantage if it’s not an advantage?
So there you have it. Get your popcorn ready, the NHL playoffs are finally here. Here’s to good hockey, good beer, and good times as you watch your favorite team advance to the next round…unless you’re playing against my team of course!
Have fun and enjoy the ride.