Yesterday, we previewed the West – click here to read that if you missed it. Today, we preview the Eastern conference, with a close look at the Pens and Flyers.
#1 NY Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa
Offense – New York scored 226 goals and converted 15.7% on the power play, while Ottawa scored 249 goals and were at 18.2% with the man advantage. Offense has been the only question mark for the Rangers in an otherwise stellar season – Gaborik has been great, and Richards and Callahan also had fine seasons, but after that there were no 20-goal scorers or consistent offensive threats. New York will need to find some secondary scoring to go deep in the playoffs. Ottawa has been an offensive powerhouse all season, finishing fourth in the league in scoring. The resurgence of Milan Michalek and the emergence of defenseman Erik Karlsson as a top scoring threat proved to be the perfect complements to the team’s main stars, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson. The acquisition of Kyle Turris was also a big help. Overall, while the Rangers have a star in Gaborik, there’s no question that Ottawa has the better offense. ADVANTAGE: SENATORS
Defense – New York allowed 187 goals and had the NHL’s fifth best penalty kill at 86.2%, while Ottawa allowed 240 goals (worst among playoff qualifiers) and had an 81.6% penalty kill. Defense has been the Rangers’ calling card all season – with very few exceptions they played tenacious, tight team defense all season – and they are very comfortable in low-scoring, tight-checking affairs. Their blue line is talented and deep, especially if Marc Staal returns to his 2011 form (he missed most of the season with a concussion). The Senators, on the other hand, have been involved in track meets all season – they allow 32 shots per game (only Carolina allowed more) and are the worst defensive team in the playoffs. Karlsson is a gifted playmaking defenseman, but he’s not the best in his own end…and Sergei Gonchar’s peak is several years behind him. Chris Phillips is a shutdown defenseman, and Filip Kuba has also had a strong year – aside from that, the blue line is suspect. ADVANTAGE: RANGERS, and it’s not close.
Goaltending – Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist (1.97 GAA, .930 save%) vs. the Senators’ Craig Anderson (2.83 GAA, .914 sv%). The difference in stats is stark, but Anderson plays behind a weak defense while Lundqvist plays behind one of the best defenses in hockey – the shot quality is as important as the shot total, and Anderson sees a LOT more quality shots than ‘King Henrik’ does. Now, I’m not saying that Anderson is as good as Lundqvist – he’s not, Henrik is one of the top goalies in the league and Anderson is merely above average – I’m just pointing out that Anderson is better than his stats would indicate. ADVANTAGE: RANGERS
Coaching/Intangibles/Injuries – NY’s John Tortorella is a fiery, in-your-face coach with a Cup win on his resume in Tampa. He’s likely to wear out his welcome eventually, but for now the team has 100% bought into his scheme. Paul MacLean was an assistant under Mike Babcock for years, but this season was his first as an NHL head coach – by any measure, the Senators overachieved, I (and many others) had them pegged as one of the five worst teams in preseason previews. The pressure is all on the Rangers as the #1 seed and playing in the Big Apple – they are expected to win this series handily, while the Sens are definitely playing with house money at this point. Both teams are as healthy as can be expected for this time of year.
Prediction – I think the Rangers definitely peaked too early, but they got a gift when the red-hot Capitals slid into the #7 seed ahead of the sputtering Senators. I think the Sens will win at least two games in this series, but the team defense and King Henrik will be the difference for New York. RANGERS IN SIX.
#2 Boston vs. #7 Washington
Offense – Boston scored 269 goals and recorded a 17.2% success rate on the powerplay. Washington scored 222 goals and had a 16.7% PP. Boston was #2 in the league in goals scored, trailing only Pittsburgh. The Bruins have enviable scoring depth – six 20-goal scorers, six 50-point scorers. Washington has only two 50-point scorers and three 20-goal scorers (although Nick Backstrom would have attained both marks had he not missed 40 games due to a concussion). Washington simply MUST get production from Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Semin to even have a chance in this series…the secondary scoring options are not that great for the Caps. Boston has a decisive advantage 5-on-5…they scored a league-leading 61 more goals than their opponents at even strength, while Washington scored and allowed exactly the same amount of even-strength goals. Ovechkin doesn’t play much defense, so the power play enhances his skill set – if the series is called tightly by the refs and each team gets a lot of power play time; that will help Washington. ADVANTAGE: BRUINS
Defense – Boston allowed 202 goals and killed 83.5% of opposing penalties. Washington allowed 230 goals and had an 81.6% PK. Note that while the Caps were actually OUTSCORED on the season, the Bruins outscored their opponents by the widest margin in the league – and a big part of that is their defensive corps. Zdeno Chara is most likely the top defenseman in the game today, and he has four excellent complementary blue liners in Corvo, Coychuk, Seidenberg, and Ference. Each of them can score a little, are very responsible in their own end, and durable. Washington, on the other hand, had problems on defense all year – John Carlson took a major step backward after a promising 2011, as did Jeff Schultz…while former 30-goal scorer Mike Green was all but invisible this year due to injury and ineffectiveness. Only the Blackhawks, Flyers, and Senators allowed more goals among playoff teams, and all of those teams were significantly better on offense. The Caps DESPERATELY need Wideman, Carlson, and Karl Alzner to step up in a big way to stay in this series. Compounding the problem is that the Caps’ top scoring forwards show varying levels of disinterest in playing defense, especially Semin and Ovechkin – which puts a TON of pressure on the defensemen. Washington is trying to play a more defensive style under Dale Hunter, but so far it’s decidedly a mixed bag. ADVANTAGE: BRUINS
Goaltending – Boston will start Tim Thomas. The Caps seem likely to start rookie Braden Holtby (2.50 GAA, .922 save% in seven games), but Michael Neuvirth (2.82 GAA, .903 save%) will play if he gets healthy. Washington has had major goaltender issues much of the year – Thomas Vokoun was signed to be ‘the guy’, but he has a bad groin injury and probably is out until May. Neuvirth was the ‘heir apparent’, but he has played quite poorly at times and certainly has not established himself as the answer in net. Holtby has played well in limited action, but can he perform under the harsh light of the playoffs? Thomas proved last year that he can get it done, the big question is at his age – can he sustain his performance over a long playoff run? With excellent backup Tukka Rask out with an injury, Thomas HAS to play well for Boston to win. ADVANTAGE: BRUINS
Coaching/Intangibles/Injuries – Claude Julien took the Bruins all the way last spring, so his credentials are impeccable. Dale Hunter has tried to instill his brand of dirty tough play, and the results have been mixed…clearly, the Caps haven’t played tough enough defense, especially in light of their much weaker offense. Boston misses Nathan Horton, who is out with a concussion and isn’t expected back – with the return of Backstrom, the goalie injuries are Washington’s only injury issue right now. I’d say there’s more pressure on the Caps – they barely made the playoffs despite lofty expectations, and the Bruins are still basking in the glow of their Cup win…an upset loss here won’t cause a major roster upheaval for them, but it might for the Caps if they go down quickly.
Prediction – The Caps would have been better off losing the last game of the season to face the vulnerable Rangers, as opposed to the mighty Bruins. If Thomas shows his age and Ovechkin pours in six to eight goals, this could be a series…but the Caps need to get all the breaks and frankly play over their heads a bit to even stretch this to six or seven games. At even strength the Bruins will dominate, and the way officials are (not) calling penalties I foresee a LOT of 5-on-5 play in every series. BRUINS IN SIX.
#3 Florida vs. #6 New Jersey
Offense – Florida scored 203 goals (second worst among playoff teams) with an 18.5% power play; New Jersey scored 228 goals with a 17.2% power play. Florida had a very anemic offense – only three 20-goal scorers, only four 50-point scorers – and their fifth-highest scorer totaled only 33 points!! This is a 1-line scoring team for sure – Weiss, Versteeg, and Fleischmann are good, but if they get shut down it will be hard for Florida to score enough to win. New Jersey also isn’t that deep, but their top scorers are far superior to Florida’s – Ilya Kovalchuk recorded 37 goals and 83 points, and Zach Parise and David Clarkson also got to 30 goals. Patrik Elias and Peter Sykora provided some scoring depth, and with that scoring punch it’s clear that his isn’t the defense-oriented, trapping club of the 90’s. After those players, however, the scoring falls off dramatically for New Jersey – none of their defensemen really provide ANY offense – their top blue line scorer netted 18 points – and their third/fourth line forwards pretty much never score. So while both teams have scoring depth issues, New Jersey has much more skilled forwards on their top lines. ADVANTAGE: DEVILS
Defense – Florida allowed 227 goals and their penalty kill was 79.5%; New Jersey allowed 209 goals and had the NHL’s top penalty kill at 89.6%. Florida has some skilled defensemen in Brian Campbell and Jason Garrison, but neither is known for their shutdown abilities…Florida plays solid defense, but they give up a lot of chances and they are downright bad on the penalty kill. New Jersey’s defensemen are generally not huge hitters, but they make the smart, safe plays consistently and they are fairly deep on defense. That penalty kill percentage is amazing – almost 90%! Neither team is that great 5-on-5, but the Devils’ special teams in particular got them to the playoffs…and that starts with their penalty kill. ADVANTAGE: DEVILS
Goaltending – Jose Theodore (2.46 GAA, .917 save%) vs. Martin Brodeur (2.41 GAA, .908 save%). The Devils allowed few goals in spite of Brodeur, not because of him as in the past…that save percentage is among the lowest of his career, and the goals against average was the second-highest. He’s simply not the goalie he once was, and he rarely can ‘steal’ a game anymore. Theodore is what he is, an average to slightly above-average goalie, but at this point it’s clear to me that he’s better than Brodeur. ADVANTAGE: PANTHERS
Coaching/Intangibles/Injuries – Kevin Dineen is in his first year as an NHL coach, and he managed to guide Florida to their first playoff appearance in 10 years. Devils coach Peter DeBoer coached Florida for three seasons before coming to New Jersey, so one would expect he knows most of Florida’s personnel pretty well. Both teams are relatively healthy, and aside from DeBoer’s inside knowledge I don’t see a lot of intangibles benefitting either team.
Prediction – New Jersey got the best seed of any Atlantic team, getting a chance to face a weak Florida team rather than the potent Senators, Penguins, or Flyers. I expect them to take full advantage of this – Florida was outscored by a whopping 24 goals, and they actually lost more games (counting OT/shootout losses) than they won on the year. They are to be commended for making the playoffs, but I think their great season ends here – Kovalchuk and company should make life miserable for Theodore. DEVILS IN FIVE.
#4 Pittsburgh vs. #5 Philadelphia
Offense – Pittsburgh scored 282 goals – easily tops in the NHL – and had a 19.7% power play. Philly scored 264 goals (third in the league) and also recorded a 19.7% power play. Talk about a marquee matchup…two of the top three offenses going at it in the first round! Both teams feature top-5 scorers (Malkin led the league with 109 points; Claude Giroux ended up third with 93); both have plenty of scoring depth, both have defensemen that can contribute offensively, especially on the power play (Timonen for the Flyers, Letang for the Pens); and both are quite adept at playing from behind. In fact, Philly and Pittsburgh were ranked #1 and #2 in wins after allowing the first goal! Neither team is afraid to trade scoring chances, and both prefer an up-tempo, aggressive style. I think it’s safe to say Pittsburgh has an advantage at center – with Crosby, Malkin, and Staal, they have the best trio of centers in the game and that creates matchup nightmares for the opposition. The Flyers counter with a pair of high-scoring, gritty wingers in Hartnell and Simmonds, and Matt Read scored 24 as well. Bottom line: both teams can fill the net; don’t look for any shutouts or 2-1 games in this series. With Crosby back and playing extremely well, however (37 points in only 22 games), I have to give Pittsburgh the edge. ADVANTAGE: PENGUINS
Defense – Pittsburgh allowed 221 goals and killed penalties at an 87.8% clip, third in the league. Philly allowed 232 goals and had an 81.8% penalty kill. The loss of Chris Pronger to a severe concussion REALLY hurt Philly’s defense – he was their captain, their rock, and they’ve struggled to replace him. Timonen and Carle are a good defense pair, and Coburn and Meszaros are solid as well, but there’s not a shut-down defenseman on their roster. Philly has played very solid defense at times, but they’ve also endured long stretches of rather loose play. Pittsburgh was a VERY tight team defensively…until they got healthy. Once Crosby came back, the team played run-and-gun hockey almost every night, trading scoring chances at every opportunity. Fleury’s play made that a winning strategy most nights, but in the playoffs Pittsburgh HAS to clamp down once again defensively or they will have problems. Kris Letang is a top 2-way defenseman, and Brooks Orpik still brings the big hits; but Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek were very inconsistent all season. They are the key to this series in my opinion…the Pens will score, I have no doubt, but Martin and Michalek will likely be assigned to the Hartnell/Giroux line and they have to contain that group. I think that Letang is the best defenseman in the series, but I like the consistency and depth of the Flyers group just a little more – in short, I don’t see an edge here. ADVANTAGE: EVEN.
Goaltending – Marc-Andre Fleury (2.36 GAA, .913 save%) vs. Ilya Bryzgalov (2.48 GAA, .909 save%). Bryzgalov was signed to FINALLY solidify the Flyers’ long-standing goalie issues – but for most of the season he was very unreliable. However, down the stretch he finally found his game, and seems to be in top form heading onto the postseason…given his struggles last April, however, he’s suspect until he shows otherwise. Backup Sergei Bobrovsky is capable if needed. Fleury had a much better year than those stats show – as mentioned above, he faced a TON of great scoring chances in March/April and had to play extremely well just to keep the opposition under four goals most nights. Fleury has won a Cup, he’s confident, and he shakes off adversity very quickly…as long as he isn’t overworked and stays healthy, he’s the pick here. ADVANTAGE: PENGUINS
Coaching/Intangibles/Injuries – Dan Bylsma is the defending Coach of the Year in the NHL, won a Cup in 2009, and shows no sign of losing the ‘pulse’ of the team – he should be the coach for years to come, and this is likely his most talented team yet. Peter Laviolette is a gruff, old-school coach – a tremendous fit in Philly – and the team seems to respond well to him also. Both teams are going to feel pressure in this series – if Pittsburgh bows out in Round 1, questions will start to be asked about the roster, especially on defense – while for the Flyers, they have not won a Cup in 35 years and if Bryzgalov is anything less than very good, the Philly fans will be all over him. Pronger and vanRiemsdyk are out for the Flyers, and those are big losses…the Pens are as healthy as they’ve been all season, and continuing that health will be a big key for them in the playoffs.
Prediction – This is NOT an ideal matchup for Pittsburgh – I’d much rather have seen the Rangers, Devils, or Caps – but frankly I think Pittsburgh is the conference favorite until proven otherwise, and while I expect a tough, intense series I think the skill of Pittsburgh will be too much in the end for Philly. Barring injury, PENGUINS IN SIX!
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.