After an extremely exciting final push for the playoffs, the NHL season has concluded! The die is cast for opening round match-ups between the 16 teams that have made the grade, and both conferences have eight strong clubs seeded to vie for the greatest prize in all of sports.
Before we get into the specific match-ups in the Eastern Conference, I want to take this opportunity to toot the NHL’s horn for the excellent format of the regular season. When the post-lockout NHL and its salary cap promised parity in the league, they meant it and adjusted the schedule to give it to us fans in spades. The past two or three weeks of regular season hockey have been every bit as intense as the post-season product that the NHL hangs its hat on. Even non-hockey fans are quick to admit that the NHL playoffs are an amazing display of athletic competitionâ€”a long, grueling test of ability, stamina, and composure to earn the coveted and revered Stanley Cup. With so many teams so close in the standings, smartly scheduled to square off against division rivals in the closing weeks of the season, hockey fans got the wonderful playoff product a few weeks early this year â€”complete with suspense, sacrifice, go-for-broke action, and (for teams missing the cut) heartbreak. Bravo, NHL!
Now, to see which Eastern Conference "organ-eye-zations" are facing off in the first round of the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
â€¢ 1 Montreal Canadiens vs. 8 Boston Bruins
Winning hockey is back in Montreal, as the Canadiens posted 104 regular season points to earn a position perched at the top of the Eastern Conference, a position that affords them home ice advantage through the conference finals (should they remain in the hunt that long). Montreal brings a highly offensive team that scored more goals than any team in the entire league. They also bring the NHL’s best Power Play to the playoffs this year, and this squad is regularly described with an adjective that the team earns almost every seasonâ€”fast!
The Canadiens have a reputation for building skating teams, and this one is no different. Super-skilled star forward Alexei Kovalev leads a balanced offense with his 84 points, and is supported by a talented cast including captain Saku Koivu, Tomas Plekanec, and Andrei Kostitsyn. The Motreal defensive corps is also an offensive threat with both Mark Streit and Andre Markov collecting the third and fourth most points on the club from the blueline; the defense is also primed for a run at the Cup with playoff savvy veterans such as Patrice Brisebois and Roman Hamrlik, as well as youthful defensive stand-out Mike Komisarek.
In net, the Canadiens are betting the farm on the young but impressive Carey Price, who inherited the number one job after Montreal moved Cristobalt Huet to the Washington Capitals at the trade deadline. Price has looked the part since the move, but if you had to pick a weakness on this club, then it would have to be the unproven young keeper.
The Boston Bruins, once a stalwart of power in the NHL, are beginning to finally return to form after a trying decade. Since respectfully dealing Ray Bourque to the Colorado Avalanche to win his only Stanley Cup, the Bruins have been seemingly mired in a perpetual state of rebuilding nearly a decade. It seems all the tinkering is finally paying offâ€”this year’s Bruins team has overcome injuries to key players in order to claw their way into the postseason.
Veteran forward Marc Savard leads the Bruins offense into the postseason with his team-high 78 points, and the Bruins offense isn’t exactly filling the net regularly if Savard’s team-leading total is any indication. Marco Sturm leads the team in goals with 27, followed by Kobasew with 22, but these two are the only Bruins to crack the 20-goal mark this season. Without a doubt, the youthful Bruins have missed offense from 22-year old Patrice Bergeron, who has been out of action for 71 games running since suffering a major concussion and broken nose against Philadelphia in November. Offense aside, the Bruins have taken effective steps to beef up the physicality of their team in the past few years. Zdeno Chara, a literal monster at 6’9" (in shoes, not skates), 255 lbs., has a mean streak and is a huge (no pun intended) presence on the blueline. Mark Stuart and Aaron Ward are two other big boys that bring stability to the Boston defense, which has proven itself good enough to shut down opponents and earn the final spot in the east.
The "X-Factor" for Beantown is goaltender Tim Thomas. The Bruins had Thomas penciled in to back up acquisition Manny Fernandez, but injuries to Fernandez found Thomas fighting into the starting role, yet again. The book on Thomas is a story of intangibles and leadershipâ€”he’s made a career of winning starting spots from more acclaimed netminders, and plays an athletic brand of goaltending fueled by his competitive spirit. Thomas is a warrior that teams love to play for, and he’ll have to be a beast with a capital "B" to stop the Canadien onslaught.
J’s pick: Montreal in five games. Montreal has way too much offense against an incomplete and green Bruins roster that struggles to score. The Bruins will have to be very physical to slow down the Canadien forwards, and with physical play comes penalties. Penalties mean powerplays, and the Canadiens are the best in the business. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Montreal has won their last 11 games against the Bruinsâ€¦
I feel I’m doing Boston a favor by not picking a sweep. Sorry, Bostonâ€”waitâ€¦ sorry??? The hell with that! Go watch the Patriots, Celtics, and Red Sox!
â€¢ 2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 7 Ottawa Senators
My, how the mighty have fallen over the course of this season. Ottawa, a team overflowing with talent that is built to win a Cup NOW, looked like the team to beat before the season began and throughout much of the first half. You don’t even have to be a hockey nut to recognize some of the big names on this rosterâ€”Daniel Alfreddson, Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Wade Reddenâ€¦ the list goes on. This team is balanced through and throughâ€”a speedy, creative offense with plenty of depth (count â€˜emâ€”six players with 20+ goals/ 3 with 30+ goals!), as well as a solid defense corps comprised of both shut-down thumpers and offensive threats.
The biggest weakness for this team is a coin-flip between goaltending and injuries. The goaltending issue is a real shame, as their season-opening starter, Ray Emery, has the goods to be one of the brightest young netminders in the league. Emery proved his ability as he carried the Sens to their Cup Finals loss to Anaheim last year, but has erased the sweet taste of his success with his off-ice buffoonery and lack of commitment this year. That leaves the starting role to inconsistent netminder Martin Gerber. Gerber can play, but should not be starting for this team or any other, and is only in the position because Emery has been a club cancer all year long. The injury of note for the Senators is to their captain and consummate leader, Daniel Alfreddson. Borrowing an analogy from the RZA (those hip hop artists have wordplay to spare), "if the Senators form together like Voltron, Alfreddson is the head". Alfreddson is unlikely to be there in the opening round, and, facing the young Penguins, the flailing Senators are unlikely to be around after the opening round.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, if you haven’t heard, pack the dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Although you’re sure to know the former name, it’s really the latter that has carried this young club to the Atlantic Division crown and 2nd seed in the East. While the amazingly talented Crosby has missed a large chunk of games down the stretch due to am ankle injury, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins didn’t miss a beat as they chased down and passed the Devils to win the division. As Malkin’s game has matured to put his name in the Art Ross Trophy running along with Alex Ovechkin, the Penguins also added offensive force Marrian Hossa to an impressive cast of forwards that includes Jordan Staal, Petr Sykora, and the speedy Pascal Dupuis. With the return of Sid the Kid, this is an offense that gives opposing keepers nightmares.
The Pittsburgh defense is also much improved from a year ago as well. They’ve added the beef of Hal Gill from Toronto at the deadline, and Sergei Gonchar is a priceless blue-line threat and seasoned power play quarterback. Most importantly, Marc-Andre Fleury has begun to look like the stud he’s been billed as all of his career in the waning weeks of this season. A disgusting offense, balanced defense, and strong goaltending spell trouble for Ottawa in this opening round.
J’s pick: Pittsburgh in four. I consider this a very bold prediction, but I’m bolder than Doritos Nacho Cheesier flavor, so get your brooms out! Even with the second half slide, injuries, and goaltending situation, Ottawa is still loaded with talent and experience. What Ottawa is not (and Pittsburgh most certainly is) is hot. The Penguins are a young team hitting stride at the right time, and Ottawa is a strong team struggling at the worst time. It won’t take much for the soaring Pens to shatter the fragile confidence of the Senators in the first two games in Pittsburgh; from there, it should be a downhill coast into the 2nd round.
â€¢ 3 Washington Capitals vs. 6 Philadelphia Flyers
The Washington Ovechkinsâ€”pardon me, the Washington Capitals are this year’s "Cinderella Story.” After a dreadful, coach-firing start to the year, no one expected Washington to be even sniffing the playoffs this Spring. I suppose no one bothered to mention this to Alexander Ovechkin, the best player in the NHL since Mario Lemieux. Ovechkin, along with young offensive studs Alexandre Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, fought their way back into the hunt from being way out early. As Ovechkin piled on the goals and points, the Capitals brass saw an opportunity to take some deadline chances and the hit the chemistry jackpot.
Enter Cristobal Huet, former keeper of the Montreal Canadiens. Although Olaf Kolzig is still effective, the Caps brought Huet in for some healthy competition and he’s stolen the job in D.C. and proven he deserves it by winning nine straight games to finish the season. This late-season surge allowed the Caps to steal the Southeast division from the Carolina Hurricanes, who will be catching this years playoff action at the golf course club house after shooting 18 holes.
Let’s not forget Sergei Federov, either. This Russian veteran made his name as a two-way forward in the â€˜90’s Red Wing haydays, and his experience, vision, leadership, and unselfish play has taken the Capitals offense to a new level.
As for the Capitals "D", they’ve got the league’s goal-scoring leader for defensemen in 22-year old Mike Green. Tom Poti and Jeff Schultz provide steady, responsible play on the blueline for a defense corps that’s had an easy job late this season with the prolific Ovechkin and stingy Huet.
Which Philadelphia Flyers team is going to show up for the playoffs this year? Is it the squad that climbed to fight the Senators for the Conference lead by mid-season? Or will it be the team that dropped 10 straight games shortly after the All Star break and nearly missed the playoffs?
Despite their inconsistencies, Philadelphia is a club with a lot of offensive depth. The Flyers boast seven players with 20 or more goals, and one of these skaters, Joffrey Lupul, hit the 20-goal mark despite missing substantial time due to injury. Speaking of injuries, the Flyers would probably have an 8th 20-goal scorer in left wing Simon Gagne, who has missed the bulk of this season with concussion injuries. Led by two-way center Mike Richards, a complete skater and the new face of the franchise, the Flyers have a gritty group of forwards that can dish out hits as well as put up points. Jeff Carter finally emerged as a difference maker when Richards was hit with the injury bug, and players like Scott Hartnell, RJ Umberger, and Mike Knuble can all put the biscuit in the basket as well as throw the body.
Big name, off-season acquisition Danny Briere is a linchpin for the Flyers offense heading into the playoffs. His play, which was very erratic throughout the regular season, has improved down the stretch, and will have to be great in the playoffs if the Flyers seriously want to make any noise.
The Flyers Achilles Heel is definitely their defense corps. Despite the emergence of Braydon Coburn, Philly dresses a weak and unproven blueline on a regular basis. The youth of the defense is obvious as they regularly fail to clear and get trapped in their zone as teams cycle the puck. With the intimidating Derian Hatcher fighting to return mid-series from a broken leg suffered late in the season, the Flyers will need their defensemen to play beyond their years to hang with Ovechkin and the Capitals.
Starting in net for the Flyers (the first time they’ve had a clear #1 since Ron Hextall) is the enigmatic Martin Biron. Biron is entering the playoffs very hot, having pitched back-to-back shutouts to finish the season. However, Biron was far from steady throughout the season, and always seems like he’s one soft goal from falling apart.
J’s pick: Washington in 7. The Flyers ended the season hot, but the Capitals finished the season en fuego (take that, Micah!). Philly’s defense gets its hands full against clubs with mediocre offenses, so I don’t know how they plan on containing Ovechkin. Add the inconsistency and lack of playoff experience for Biron to the Capitals’ home-ice advantage, and sum is bad news for Philly.
â€¢ 4 New Jersey Devils vs. 5 NY Rangers
Strap your helmets up, kidsâ€¦ this one is going to be a battle! The N.J. Devils bring their usual to the table this yearâ€”a ton of experience, a selfless devotion to team hockey strategy, balance up front and on the blue line, andâ€¦ Martin Brodeur.
The name of the Devils’ game is responsible team hockey. Every skater, from the silky forwards like Patrick Elias and Zach Parise to the bruising grinders like Colin White, play an extremely patient brand of defensive hockey. Fans have cried for years about the Devils trap ruining the game, but the only reason the Devils system has been so effective is that #30 is always there to save the day when the trap does break down. The Devils have the goods up front to make opponents pay for every mistakeâ€”Patrick Elias, Dainus Zubrus, Zach Parise, and Brian Gionta can all pick a keeper clean like a chicken wing. The supporting cast provides depth in the stat sheet with blue-collar productivity thanks to deflections, tips, and reboundsâ€”all rewards of good positioning that result from total commitment to team hockey.
As always, the Devils defense is stifling and imposing behind their disciplined forwards. Paul Martin and John Oduya are at +20 and +27 for the season, respectively; the other blue-liners all play a physical brand of mistake-free Devils hockey. The names may change, but the Devils game remains the same. They’re coming to clog up breakout, own the boards, and block shots. Don’t cry about it, the only hope is to step up and outright beat them.
Of course, the secret ingredient to the Devils success is and has always been Martin Brodeur. The best goaltender to ever play the game always seems to be losing a step early on in the past few seasons, and then he flips a switch and turns back into the dominant brick wall we’ve all grown to hate over the past 15 or so seasons ("hate" if you’re not a Devils fan, that is). Brodeur has got it allâ€”positioning, reflexes, puckhandling, anticipation, athleticism, rebound control, competiveness, and experience (PLENTY of winning experience). Until Brodeur is riding a jazzy to the early bird special at Joe’s, he’ll be a huge factor in any playoff series he’s involved with.
Don’t look now, but the Rangers didn’t pluck half of the available big name free agents for nothing last summer. The Broadway Blueshirts are back as a factor in the Eastern Conference after being pre-season favorites turned trainwreck for a few consecutive seasons.
It’s been a bumpy, up and down season, for sure, but the Rangers are hitting their stride at the right time. Jaromir Jagr, whose stats have been well below his standards all season, decided to catch fire as the Rangers climbed the standings late, only losing home ice to Devils in a shoot-out that decided the last regular season game between these foes. Jagr isn’t alone either since the Rangers added playmaking Gomez and stone cold winner Chris Drury in the off-season. Let’s not forget the aging but effective sniper Brendan Shanahan and his fabulous one-timer or the uber-pest Sean Avery (whose presence in the lineup, despite unremarkable stats, seems to translate into wins for the Rangers).
Youngsters Fedor Tyutin and Marc Staal anchor the Rangers defense, a shaky group that could be the chink in the team’s armor. Michal Rovsival and Dan Girardi provide a little bit of blueline "O", and big body Marek Malik keeps the opposition’s forwards’ heads up.
Despite the offensive firepower, and there’s plenty on this club, the team MVP plays between the pipes. Henrik Lundqvist has solidified a reputation as one of the very best keepers in the game today, and his play throughout the season is a major reason the inconsistent Rangers are sitting pretty in the fifth seed. "King Henri" steals games for the Rangers, especially games at Madison Square Garden. Heâ€˜s carried a .912 Save Percentage through his 72 starts, and 10 shutouts lead the entire league. As long as Lundqvist is on his game, the Rangers will be a threat to any team they face in these playoffs.
J’s Pick: New York in 7. I’m not sure how many players will be healthy after this series, but I think that the Rangers are poised to upset Brodeur and the Devils in seven this year. The Devils looked very indifferent down the stretch run, while the Rangers were heating up. With Lundqvist being one of the only keepers in the league that can come close dueling heads up with Brodeur, it’s the Rangers warming, dynamic offense that will be the difference.