Out of Town Notebook: Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

Finally. The real NHL season. Let’s take a look at what will happen over the next few weeks in Round One.

First, the Eastern Conference.

(1) Washington Capitals vs (8) New York Rangers

Season Series: Rangers (3-1)

Good or bad, it feels like the final chapter is about to be written for this group of players and coaches in Washington. The Capitals have used the 2010-2011 season to institute a defensive style they believe will help them win playoff games. If they aren’t successful this spring you can expect changes to be made, with Bruce Boudreau’s job likely in jeopardy. Yet, despite a slow start to the season, Washington has probably been the best team in the Eastern Conference since March 1st . For that matter, no team in the East has more wins against Conference opponents than the Capitals. They enter the playoffs relatively healthy.

If any team has backed into these playoffs it’s the New York Rangers, who needed help from the Tampa Bay Lightning to finally eliminate the Hurricanes on Saturday. It’s been an up and down season for the Rangers. While a young core has developed (Marc Staal, Brandon Dubinsky, Callahan, Michael Sauer, Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov), the team’s veterans have struggled. Marian Gaborik in particular has looked less threatening than in years past. They enter these playoffs without their second-leading goal-scorer, Ryan Callahan, who’s probably out for the rest of the year with a fractured leg. That being said, Chris Drury has returned to the lineup, and is known for being one of the great crunch-time players in the NHL. In contrast to the Capitals, the Rangers have the worst Conference record amongst all the Eastern playoff teams.

Match-up to watch: Henrik Lundqvist vs Alex Ovechkin

Ovechkin, long criticized for poor crunch-time performances (individual and team), has a lot to prove. A dominant performance against the Rangers would be a good start to fixing the lone blemish on his reputation. Conversely, Lundqvist is entering the playoffs having played his fewest games since 2005-06. One of the best goalies in the game, a rested King Henrik could prove deadly to Washington’s playoff hopes.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Rangers (slight edge given John Tortorella’s won a championship before)
Goaltending: Rangers (Lundqvist is one of the league’s best)
Defense: Capitals (Rangers defense is rather young; Caps d-corps is a big upgrade over last year’s)
Scoring: Capitals (unless Semin disappears again. If so, the edge goes to New York)
Special Teams: Even

Prediction: Washington in 6

(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs (7) Buffalo Sabres

Season Series: Tied (2-2)

Talk about a tale of two seasons – last year Philadelphia made the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. This year there wasn’t another team happier to see the back of game 82, as the Flyers went 3-4-3 in their last 10. Despite the struggles, the Flyers still finished the year as the only Eastern Conference team to average more than 3 goals-per-game. There’s no question this team can score – it’s on the defensive side of the ledger where real issues have emerged. Chris Pronger, the team’s best defenseman, is questionable for the first round. Meanwhile, the Flyers annual struggle in goal has continued, with last year’s playoff hero Michael Leighton recalled from the minors this week.

With a record of 15-4-4 since February 23rd, the Buffalo Sabres have peaked at the right time. Losing first-line centre Derek Roy to injury actually turned into a bit of a blessing. Rookies Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe have played well with additional responsibility, sparking a formally-dormant offense. Thomas Vanek has also been terrific in Roy’s absence, with 32 points in 31 games since the All-Star Break. He’ll play with Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville, giving Buffalo a solid, experienced top-line. Ryan Miller and Tyler Myers have rebounded from poor starts, and Miller should be healthy to carry the load in the first round. If not, Jhonas Enroth has been more than capable, having not lost in regulation so far in 2011.

Match-up to Watch: Tyler Myers vs. Claude Giroux

There are more famous forwards on the Flyers, but Claude Giroux has become the true offensive force, finishing the year as Philly’s top scorer. Meanwhile, Tyler Myers has already earned comparisons to a young Chris Pronger in his career. A strong, physical first-round effort against Giroux and the Flyers by Myers could swing the series Buffalo’s way.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even (two of the league’s best)
Goaltending: Buffalo (We could see three different Flyers goalies in this series)
Defense: Philadelphia (Especially if Pronger plays)
Scoring: Philadelphia (Best offense in the Eastern Conference)
Special Teams: Buffalo (clear advantage here based on regular season numbers)

Prediction: Buffalo in 7

(3) Boston Bruins vs (6) Montreal Canadiens

Season Series: Montreal (4-2)

Given the drama that has involved these two teams this winter, it makes sense for the Bruins and the Habs to play in the first round. The 2010-11 campaign has seen the return of the Big Bad Bruins, who finished the year second in the league in fighting majors. Milan Lucic fulfilled his potential as the “next Cam Neely” with his first 30-goal season. Meanwhile, Brad Marchand eclipsed the hyped Tyler Seguin as the team’s best rookie, scoring 21-goals and playing every game with a physical edge. The Bruins can afford to play a physical style with likely Vezina candidate Tim Thomas in goal. Thomas finished the year with the highest single-season save percentage (.938) of all-time.

If the Bruins are big and bad, the Canadiens are the little engine that could. Just like the team that went to the Conference Finals last year, this Canadiens team may be small but it’s quick, with a strong hockey IQ. While the offense has been hard to come by, the emergence of goalie Carey Price has kept Montreal comfortably in a playoff spot for most of the year. However, he’s played more games than ever before – in fact, it’s more games in one season than any other goalie in Montreal history. P.K. Subban has had a flashy rookie season, but his high-risk, high-reward style seems in contrast with the way Jacques Martin prefers to have his team play. One thing to point out when it comes to these two teams – historically Montreal is 24-8 against Boston in the playoffs.

Match-up to Watch: Tim Thomas vs Carey Price

Given the defensive styles both teams employ, whoever wins the goaltending battle should win the series. Price has lost his last eight playoff decisions. Meanwhile, in losing to the Flyers in the second round last year, Boston became the first team in 35-years to do it after starting with three straight wins. However, Tim Thomas didn’t play in the 2009-10 post-season.

Quick Decisions:

Coach: Even (coaches so similar you could switch them between teams and no one would notice)
Goaltending: Even (Thomas has had a historic season, but Price has also been excellent)
Defense: Boston (if there’s an injury to one of Boston’s top-3 this changes to Montreal)
Scoring: Boston (deeper than they’ve been since the early 90s)
Special Teams: Montreal

Prediction: Boston in 5

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs (5) Tampa Bay Lightning

Season Series: Tied (2-2)

Without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin for most of the year, the Pittsburgh Penguins still won the most games in franchise history since 1995-96. They did it through defense, as the Penguins placed first overall in penalty killing, seventh overall in goals against, fifth overall in shots allowed this year. Alex Kovalev and James Neal have been disappointments, but Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy have picked up the scoring slack. Kennedy in particular has been surprisingly good, with 13 goals since the All-Star Break. The 2010-11 Penguins ice a better group of defensemen then either of their two most recent Cup Finals teams. And Marc-Andre Fleury has played himself into the Vezina discussion.

The Lightning have been near the top of the Conference all year, and the arrival of Dwyane Roloson has solidified their greatest weakness – goaltending. While Martin St. Louis has been the team’s most valuable forward, Steven Stamkos has disappeared after a lot of early-season hype. He has just three goals since March 1st. A couple of key veterans have picked up the slack though – Vincent Lecavalier is playing his best hockey in years, while Simon Gagne has found his game after a brutal first-half. Their strong play gives the Lightning two good offensive lines. The 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs represent the first test of coach Guy Boucher’s infamous 1-3-1 system, which attempts to outnumber the opposition in the defensive zone. While it’s hard to argue with a 100+ point season, Tampa Bay had one of the worst records in the league when leading or tied after two periods.

Match-up to Watch: Brooks Orpik vs. Martin St. Louis/Steven Stamkos

Orpik, the classic stay-at-home, punishing defenseman, can expect a lot of ice-time against the pairing of St. Louis and Stamkos. Keeping these two off the score sheet will be integral for the Penguins to go beyond the first round.

Quick Decisions:

Coach: Pittsburgh (Boucher hasn’t proven anything yet; Blysma should win the Adams)
Goaltending: Pittsburgh (Fleury has carried the team since Crosby went down)
Defense: Pittsburgh (Tampa’s defense is their biggest weakness)
Offense: Tampa Bay
Special Teams: Tampa Bay (top ten finishes on the penalty kill and the powerplay)

Prediction: Pittsburgh in 6

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