2012 NHL Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference

Here’s my preview of the playoff match-ups in the Eastern Conference.

If you want to check out my Western Conference preview from yesterday, you can view it here:

https://bsabrestalk.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/2012-nhl-playoff-preview-western-conference/

 

(1) New York Rangers vs. (8) Ottawa Senators (Sens won season series 3-1)

Key Players:

New York- Henrik Lundquist, Dan Girardi, Ryan Callahan, Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, Ryan McDonaugh, Marc Staal, Carl Hagelin, Derek Stepan

Ottawa- Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Erik Karlsson, Craig Anderson, Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips, Kyle Turris

 

Special Teams:

New York-PP (23rd), PK (5th)

Ottawa- PP (11th), PK (20th)

 

Pegged as a team that was would finish around the 4-5 range in the East, the Rangers have defied expectations and have planted themselves atop the conference this season. In fact, they were only two points away from winning the President’s Trophy. New York is essentially the St. Louis of the East, meaning that they are extremely committed to defense and forecheck like crazy. They don’t sport the same scoring depth as the Blues do though. Henrik Lundquist has been fantastic in goal as usual and will probably end up winning the Vezina trophy.  On defense, they sport a formidable top-4 of Staal-McDonaugh-Girardi-Del Zotto. The 3rd pairing is vulnerable, but won’t see much time.

Ottawa is quite familiar with defying expectations. Most pundits had the Sens being a lottery team this season. Instead, they’ve arrived ahead of schedule with their youth movement. Veteran forwards Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, and Milan Michalek are the go-to-guys up front. Erik Karlsson is a monster on offense from the blueline finishing up with 78 points in 81 games. Most of Ottawa’s defensemen are offensively-oriented, which has allowed them to run one of the top transition-games in the league. The caveat of course is that those guys can sometimes be pushed around a bit in their own zone. Craig Anderson has been a stabilizing presence in goal. One thing that should be noted is that Anderson is 6-0-0 at Madison Square Garden.

Another thing consider is that the refs will impact this series more than any other. I’m sure that the Rangers will want to bang and hold up the Sens as much as possible. Considering how inconsistent the officiating has been, how much they’re going to be allowed to get away is anyone’s guess.

 

Prediction: This will probably end up being the Rangers’ toughest game if they do advance. Ottawa’s transition game could cause a heavy forechecking team like New York major fits. Lundquist is certainly a much better goalie than Anderson, but the latter has experience in stealing games in the playoffs and has played great at MSG. I like Ottawa to win in 6.

 

(2) Boston Bruins vs. (7) Washington Capitals (Caps won season series 3-1)

Key Players:

Boston- Patrice Bergeron, Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Tyler Seguin, Johnny Boychuk, Brad Marchand

Washington- Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brayden Holtby, Mike Green, Alexander Semin, Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Dennis Wideman, Karl Alzner

 

Special Teams:

Boston- PP (15th), PK (11th)

Washington- PP (18th), PK (21st)

 

Boston’s a team that started slow this season, but then went on a torrid run and looked every bit like the team that beat-up teams on its way to the Stanley Cup last season. They cooled down a bit towards the last part of the season though and have a couple of key injuries. Forward, Nathan Horton won’t be available to them and Tuukka Rask might not be around for this series to backup Tim Thomas. Chara and Seidenberg form an extremely formidable shutdown duo on defense. The offense has been inconsistent, but they do have some good scoring punch with Bergeron, Seguin, Krejci, Lucic, and Marchand leading the way upfront. Thomas has been stingy in goal as usual and gives the Bruins a pretty big edge in the goaltending department in this series.

The Caps have had a pretty crazy season. They fired their coach part way through the season and their superstar captain was a no-show for most of the season. However, Ovechkin has been playing like the Ovechkin we’ve been used to watching of late and put his team back on the map. I’d like to say Dale Hunter played a big role as the benchboss in this turnaround, but then, I’d be lying. Washington has also gotten their star center, Backstrom back from injury which will give this spotty offense some much-needed punch. Braden Holtby will likely get the lion’s share of the games in the series with Michal Neuvirth down with a knee injury. On defense, they’re fairly spotty and are prone to turnovers when pressured. That’s a big problem against a team like Boston. One thing that needs to change if they’re to win is that they need to not sit back once they get a lead.

 

Prediction: I’ll give the Caps props for getting themselves back in the playoffs after some turmoil, but I don’t think they have enough on defense to win four games. They’ve also been a shoddy road team which doesn’t exactly help. Boston hasn’t exactly inspired much confidence down the stretch either, but they are the champs and their key guys know what it takes to win. Bruins in 5. 

 

(3) Florida Panthers vs. (6) New Jersey Devils

Key Players:

Florida- Brian Campbell, Jose Theodore, Scott Clemmensen, Kris Versteeg, Steven Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann, Jason Garrison, Dmitri Kuilikov

New Jersey- Zach Parise, Martin Brodeur, Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, Adam Henrique

 

Special Teams:

Florida- PP (7th), PK (25th)

New Jersey- PP (14th), PK (1st)

 

This is probably the most surprising playoff team of the bunch. When this team was built over the summer, I thought they’d be awful. They had a decent-looking defense, but the forward group looked like random collection of players instead of something that could be formed into a cohesive unit and the goaltenders were borderline starters at best. Kevin Dineen deserves all the credit in the world for getting this much out of that group of players. Brian Campbell has been a rock on defense along with Kuilikov and they have the most unlikely top line ever in Fleischmann-Weiss-Versteeg. Jason Garrison has a cannon from the point and is the main weapon on their power play. The Panthers ran out of gas towards the end of the season and struggled to win games though. They basically survived on overtime/shootout losses down the stretch. Not sure who they’ll go with in goal, but I would think that they’d go with the hot-hand in Clemmensen.

In New Jersey, the Devils have been playing solid hockey. They go about three lines deep at forward with Parise, Kovalchuk, and Elias being the top dogs there. The blueline is this team’s biggest weakness. A group that consists of Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky, Andy Greene, Mark Fayne, Anton Volchenkov, Peter Harrold, Adam Larsson doesn’t exactly strike fear into the opposing team. The Devils’ low-chance system compensates for some of their defense’s short-comings though and Brodeur is still good enough to get the job done, even though he is showing his age a bit. Given the system that New Jersey runs and the large amounts of overtime games the Panthers played towards the end of the season, I wouldn’t be shocked to see a couple of overtime games during this series.

 

Prediction:  The Panthers have simply not been playing good hockey and essentially backed into a playoff spot. New Jersey is much deeper at forward and easily has an edge in goaltending. Florida’s power play will have to somehow get hot against the NHL’s top penalty-killing team for them to stand a chance in this series. Devils in 5. 

 

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers

Key Players:

Pittsburgh- Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, James Neal, Chris Kunitz

Philladelphia- Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen, Jaromir Jagr, Danny Briere, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Coburn, Ilya Brysgalov, Nicklas Grossman

 

Special Teams:

Pittsburgh- PP (5th), PK (3rd)

Philadelphia- PP (6th), PK (17th)

 

There’s not too much to say about the Penguins. They’ve got the best 1-2-3 punch of centers in hockey with Malkin-Crosby-Staal. Crosby’s missed a lot of games this season, but he’s healthy right now, showing no signs of rust, and looking like the Sidney Crosby we all know and well…we all know. Marc-Andre Fleury was looking spotty in the last few games of the season, but he’s got a very respectable 2.36 GAA and .913 save percentage on the season. The defense is where teams might be able to capitalize against the Pens. On paper, they’ve got a good looking top-4 that usually does a good job shutting down teams, but they haven’t been playing that well lately. If they don’t pick it up, they could be exposed by some of Philly’s dynamic talents.

Speaking of the Flyers, they’ve got a pretty good team themselves. Claude Giroux would probably be the top forward for either team in most series, but he’s relegated to 3rd behind Sid and Geno. Still, he along with Hartnell and Jagr form a very potent first line. Danny Briere has a history of being a clutch playoff performer, but he’s been unhealthy. They do expect him back and he’ll anchor the 2nd line with Schenn and Simmonds. The bottom-6 group could be the x-factor in this series. The Flyers have a better group of forwards in those spots than the Pens do in my opinion and might be able to do some damage against that 3rd pairing of Engelland-Niskanen that Pittsburgh throws out there. Nicklas Grossmann was banged up, but he’ll be back. Overall, the Flyers have a solid, unspectacular group on defense led by Kimmo Timonen. Brysgalov struggled mightily early on in the season, but has been much better lately. He did have a foot injury towards the end of the year that he’s since come back from. Obviously, the Flyers will need him to actually give his team good goaltending for them to have a chance.

 

Prediction: These teams have a fierce, bitter rivarly with one another which will certainly bring out the best and most physical play each team has to offer. Both teams are strong offensively, but have some question-marks on defense and goaltending. This should require all seven games. I’ll take the team with Crosby and Malkin. Penguins in 7. 

 

The NHL playoffs, aka, the greatest event in sports will kick off Wednesday night at 7:30 with the Pittsburgh-Philladelphia series. Grab a beer or four and enjoy!

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