Once again the Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us. Leading up to the last day of the season, only one playoff matchup was carved in stone, as the parity in the NHL is as evident as its ever been.
The Boston Bruins look to become the first back-to-back champions since the Detroit Red Wings were able to accomplish the rare feat in the late 90s. Their road ahead is filled with difficult obstacles as there always are.
The 2011-12 season has blessed us hockey fans with many surprises along the way, most notably the St. Louis Blues. The Blues fired coach Davis Payne early in the season and replaced him with Ken Hitchcock which launched the club into the stratosphere finishing second in the Western Conference. They have sound goaltending, top-level young talent, and wily veterans who have been to the dance before, but will their lack of playoff experience sewer them down the stretch?
The Ottawa Senators bewildered most, spending almost the entire season sitting in a playoff spot in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. The Florida Panthers won their first ever Southeast Division title and have made the second season for the first time since the lockout. The only team not to make the playoffs in that stretch: the Toronto Maple Leafs…so sad.
And then there are the perennial contenders who will once again compete for the most coveted trophy in the sport. The Red Wings haven’t missed the playoffs since the 1989-90 season and have four rings since. And then there’s Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago — all teams that compete year in, year out — but who will be the team to drink out of Lord Stanley’s mug this year?
First, let’s take a look at some of the first round matchups in the Eastern Conference. Follow the link for the Round 1 Western Conference previews and predictions.
No. 1 New York Rangers vs. No. 8 Ottawa Senators
Don’t let the one/eight seed pairing fool you. Unlike most sports, seeding in the NHL playoffs means virtually nothing except home-ice advantage. The Sens have had their way with the Rangers this season, holding a 3-1 season series lead. They have also had immense success at Madison Square Garden since the lockout, boasting an 11-2-1 record.
Keeps to the New York Rangers’ Success:
The Rangers are going to need their best players to be their best players as cliche as that sounds. Henrik Lundqvist will be the catalyst for how far the Rangers can go in the playoffs. If he’s on, the Rangers will be tough to beat. They will also need their top forwards to produce. Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards will have to shoulder the load on a team where goal scoring isn’t exactly their fortay. The Rangers will also have to continue to block shots, which has been a large part of their success this season.
Keys to the Ottawa Senators’ Success:
Ottawa has one of the higher-scoring teams this season, both on the power play and at even strength. For them to be successful, they will need to get to Lundqvist early and shake his confidence. Scoring first will be key for the Sens since the Rangers have an .814 winning percentage when they score first. They don’t have a particularly stingy defence, so offensive production is the biggest key for their success.
Who Will Win and Why:
The Sens have overachieved throughout the regular season, but that will probably end in this series. New York is a better team in just about every major category. Although I wouldn’t expect the Rangers to break out the broom sticks, they should more than likely have what it takes to win those tight playoff games.
New York-Ottawa Prediction: RANGERS IN 6.
No. 2 Boston Bruins vs. No. 7 Washington Capitals
Both of these clubs have come into the playoffs riding a hot streak of sorts, but both teams have also had their ups and downs this season. The Bruins felt the Stanley Cup hangover and started the year 3-7. They also had another mini slump through February and mid-March. The Capitals have been one of the bigger disappointments this year spending the majority of the season on the outside looking in before stringing some wins together to clinch the seventh spot. They do hold the advantage over Bruins though, beating them in three of their four matchups.
Keys to the Boston Bruins’ Success:
The B’s need to play their style of game: up-tempo, fast paced and physical. If they are able to get under the skin of the Caps and force them to retaliate, it’s going to be hard for them not to win the series. The Caps goaltending situation is uncertain with injuries to Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun, so if Boston puts a lot of shots on inexperienced goalie Braden Holtby, they should have no issues with Washington and advancing to the second round. Balanced production has been key for them all season, and if that continues, look out for Boston.
Keys to the Washington Capitals’ Success:
The most important component to the Caps’ success is the play of the Alexes, Ovechkin, and Semin. Both players have had somewhat of a disappointing year but have picked it up down the stretch and are the biggest reason why Washington was able to secure a playoff spot. The Caps are 18-5-2- when Ovechkin scores a goal this season. He’s scored 11 goals in his past 13 games and appears to be returning to his MVP form. The Caps need to take a page out of the Carolina Hurricanes ‘book if they want to have a chance against Boston. The Canes were 4-0 against Boston this season by playing patient and disciplined hockey.
Who Will Win and Why:
Despite the slew of injuries plaguing the Bruins right now, they have far more depth and playoff experience. The Caps are also the worst road team in the playoffs, and with four games in Boston, it doesn’t look too promising. If the Caps had a healthy No. 1 goaltender, they would probably have a chance. But they don’t, so it’s going to be tough to dethrone the defending champs.
Boston-Washington Prediction: BRUINS IN 5.
No. 3 Florida Panthers vs. No. 6 New Jersey Devils
These two teams split the season series 2-2 this year, but I wouldn’t expect the series to be very close at all. New Jersey is by far the superior team in this matchup. They have more depth up front, the best penalty killing in the league and arguably the best goalie of all time, although past his prime. The Panthers have the worst goal differential of any playoff team in the league (-24), and they are very poor 5-on-5,which doesn’t bode well in their matchup against the Devils. New Jersey is one of the biggest sleepers in the East and has the potential to upset the top seeds.
Keys to the Florida Panthers’ Success:
Jose Theodore has had a ressurgence in Florida. For them to be successful, he needs to be at the top of his game, but the offence needs to give him more help. Theodore has eight loses this season where he’s allowed two goals or less. Florida has lived and died with their PP and will to have to find a way to crack the leagues best PK. They also need more balanced production than they’ve had all year in order to reduce the pressure on their top line.
Keys to the New Jersey Devils’ Success:
Martin Brodeur needs to continue his solid second half play. If he can do that, it’s going to be tough to beat New Jersey. If he doesn’t, the Devils weak defence might be exposed for what it is. The Panthers aren’t exactly the deepest team in the league, so if the Devils can shut down the top line of Weiss, Versteeg, and Fleischman, then they should have few issues seeing the second round.
Who Will Win and Why:
The Panthers have had issues with a lack of depth all season, combined with the Devils holding opponents to less than 28 shots per game — second best in the league — and New Jersey’s legendary net minder, it’s going to be tough for Florida to pull off the upset. The Panthers have been trending downward coming down the stretch, so all signs point to the Devils advancing to Round 2.
Florida-New Jersey Prediction: BREAK OUT THE BROOM STICKS. DEVILS IN 4.
No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 5 Philadelphia Flyers
Its unfortunate that we need to lose one of these teams in the first round, but this matchup may be one of the best EVER. The teams just plain don’t like each other, which goes beyond the players.Pens assistant coach Tony Granato and Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette stood on the boards yelling at one another for minutes as fights scattered the ice surface last week. The battle of Pennsylvania has never been more tense.
Philly leads the season series 4-2, but most of those games the Pens were without the league’s best player, Sidney Crosby. Both teams have firepower and are first and third in league scoring respectively, with the Pens holding the advantage.
Keys to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Success:
You can’t argue about the Penguins top skill. They have some of the best talent in the league. Top talent can only take you so far though. The Penguins will need their role players to contribute offensively and make an impact on the outcomes of the game in order for Pittsburgh to be able to beat Philly.
Keys to the Philadelphia Flyers’ Success:
Ilya Bryzgalov is the catalyst in this series for the Flyers. If he can play like he did in the second half of the season, they will have the ability to win this series. If he doesn’t play well, they have no chance at all. The Flyers need to take a page out of the Bruins’ book from last season’s playoffs and use their size and strength to intimidate the Penguins. If the pesky Flyers can get under the skin of the Pens and take them off their game, it will greatly improve their odds of winning the series.
Who Will Win and Why:
This series has all ingredients for a classic for the ages. Intense rivalry, bad blood, skilled players — you name it. The series couldn’t be more up in the air. I wish both teams could advance, but someone has to lose. What it’s going to come down to is the Pens have the best duo in the league in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Although Philly is a skilled team, they just don’t have the same high-end talent.
Pittsburgh-Philadelphia Prediction: PENGUINS IN 7.
For the Western Conference previews and predictions, click here.