First Round Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference
Washington vs. NY Rangers:
Some would point to the Capitals goaltending situation as a weakness, but is it really? Yes, the Caps have used three goalies this season but it was due to injury and not to poor play. Another negative for many is their relative inexperience in goal but Michal Neuvirth has won the last two AHL championships while Sergei Varlamov played in last season's NHL playoffs. The Caps are set in goal and could conceivably win with either of the two aforementioned youngsters, born 35 days apart in 1988. Why? This team has been molded into a playoff team. Coach Bruce Boudreau convinced his stars, led by Alex Ovechkin, to sacrifice offense for the greater good - playoff glory. The team dropped from first in the league in scoring last season (3.62 goals per game) to 18th this season (2.68 goals per game) while embracing a tighter more defensive minded system and the results speak loudly - the Caps finished first in the Eastern Conference standings and they rose defensively in goals against per game from 16th last season (2.77) to fourth this season (2.33). They are ready for a protracted playoff run. Mike Green is symptom free and the Caps have sufficient depth on defense (nine were practicing with the team Monday morning, including Tom Poti) that they can win this series without Dennis Wideman, who continues to slowly recover from a leg hematoma and compartment syndrome. The in-season additions of top-six veteran forwards Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm allow the Caps to ice a formidable third line now, led by Brooks Laich and promising two-way rookie Marcus Johansson.
The Rangers would be far more fearsome if they had a healthy Ryan Callahan, who broke his ankle in the season's 80th game. The loss of Callahan is huge, for he and Brandon Dubinsky led the Rangers in scoring this season as the deadly duo on the second line. Expected first liners Marian Gaborik and Wojtek Wolski have had miserable seasons. Gaborik dropped from 42 goals in 76 games in 2009-10 to just 22 goals in 65 games this season. His 48 points represent his worst season since before the lockout - the 2003-04 season in which he scored 18 goals and 40 points in 65 games. Wolski had a measly 12 goals and 35 points this season, split between Phoenix and New York. This came after a 23-goal/65-point season in 2009-10. Unless these two aforementioned top line talents dramatically up their games, the Blue Shirts will be eliminated quickly.
Despite the Rangers having the great Henrik Lundqvist in nets and owning a 2-1-1 record against the Capitals this year, we like the Capitals to persevere in six games.
Philadelphia vs. Buffalo:
The Flyers' leader and best defenseman Chris Pronger last played a game March 8, a 4-1 victory over Edmonton. Since then the Flyers have won just six of 17 games (6-4-7). Pronger didn't practice Monday, though he did get in his off-ice work as well as attend the Flyers' special teams meeting. Another real concern for the Flyers faithful is the recent play of 22-year-old rookie netminder Sergei Bobrovsky. Bob, who's never played more than 45 games in a season at the pro level nor played a playoff game as a professional, has only four wins in 14 starts since Feb. 24. Moreover, Bob was pulled in his last start of the season after allowing three goals in the first 12:05 of play. Bob's already started 52 games this season - can he handle another 20+ playoff games? He may not get that chance.
The Sabres, meanwhile, have been playing playoff hockey essentially for the past two weeks as they labored hard to secure a playoff spot. They also have something else going for them, in that they have the best record in hockey since new owner Terry Pegula bought the team. Feb. 22, 2011, is a glorious day for Sabres fans everywhere and the immediate results - an incredible 16-4-4 record since then- bodes well for their series against Philadelphia. While the Sabres don't have the big name forwards that the Flyers (Richards, Briere, Carter, Giroux) do, they do have a host of top-six talent that can make timely contributions led by a pair of 30-goal scorers in Tomas Vanek and Drew Stafford (31 goals in just 62 games). Add vets like Jason Pominville and Brad Boyes as well as emerging youngsters Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe and there's enough firepower to win playoff games.
Finally, toss in the fact that Ryan Miller is one of the top five goalies in the league (Lundqvist, Luongo, Bryzgalov, Rinne), while Bobrovsky has never started a playoff game, and we like the Sabres to prevail in six games.
Boston vs. Montreal:
While each team has enjoyed outstanding goaltending this season, the disparity in team size is noticeable. Playoff hockey features far more contact than during the regular season. The Canadiens' smurf-like forwards (Gionta, Gomez, Cammalleri) will struggle to find room to score. Among the Habs' top six forwards, only two are six feet or taller and just two exceed 200 lbs. The Bruins are not only bigger than Montreal on their top two lines, they're more talented and they're more North American (which usually helps in the postseason). The B's ice five North Americans among their top six forwards, including power forwards Milan Lucic (6-3/230) and Nathan Horton (6-2/230) who combined for 56 goals. Montreal only scored 216 goals as a team in their entire 82-game season, the lowest total among all 16 playoff teams and the seventh worst overall in the league. Take that stat and add the fact that Tim Thomas had a .938 save percentage this season, the best ever over a full season by an NHL goalie, and you have compelling reasons to foresee trouble for the Canadiens. Their last two regular season meetings have been sound beatings by Boston over Montreal and we see no difference in the postseason. Boston in five.
Pittsburgh vs. Tampa Bay:
While the fan in me, the one who likes up tempo offensive hockey, would like to see the Tampa Bay prevail, the fact of the matter is that Pittsburgh has been playing playoff style hockey ever since Sid (Sidney Crosby) and Geno (Evgeni Malkin) went down with injuries. The Pens have a lot of gritty, two-way forwards while the Bolts have a bevy of offensively talented forwards. The biggest difference may be in goal, where Dwayne Roloson has been good since his trade to Tampa Bay (18-12-4 with a 2.56 GAA and .912 SV%), while Marc-Andre Fleury has been fantastic after a slow start that saw the Pens go 7-8-1 to start the season. Since that slow start Fleury's gone an amazing 35-14-5 with a 2.17 GAA and .924 save percentage. For the record Fleury is 2-2 vs. the Bolts this year with a 2.02 GAA and .922 SV % while Roloson is 1-1 with a 1.96 GAA and .946 SV %. Overall, despite the last sentence, the Penguins have the better goalie and the better overall team defense. The offseason additions of top-four D-men Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin have enabled the transformation from the team's run and gun style to playoff grind to be relatively seamless. Moreover, the majority of Penguin players know each other well after long playoff runs over two of the past three seasons. While the Lightning are preparing as if Crosby will play in the series we have our doubts. Even without Crosby we like the Penguins to take the series in seven games with an unsung hero like Tyler Kennedy or Max Talbot scoring the decisive goal.