Round 2 Preview: Eastern Conference
Washington (1) vs. Tampa Bay (5)
Season Series: Washington (4-1-1)
What we learned in Round 1
Washington: Yes they can… play defense that is, giving up the fewest goals of any first-round team (8 goals in five games). The Caps rolled into the playoffs as one of the lowest-scoring remaining teams, and they found just enough chinks in Henrik Lundqvist’s goaltending amour to eliminate the Rangers. This looks like a grittier, deeper team than Washington teams of previous seasons, especially on defense.
Tampa Bay: That Dwayne Roloson is the new Johnny Bower, putting together terrific seasons, and looking money in goal, at an advanced age. The Lightning were handily outshot in the first round, and Roloson is the main reason they’re still alive. It also looks like Vincent Lecavalier has returned to form as an impact NHL player.
Washington: Can they score enough goals to make it to the Conference Finals? Washington rolls into the second round as the lowest scoring team (13 goals), although Boston actually has a worse goals per game statistic. They won their first round with only one point (an assist) from star centre Niklas Backstrom. A similar performance would make advancing much more difficult this time.
Tampa Bay: Can Tampa’s defense handle the team speed of Washington? By far the Lightning’s biggest Achilles heel is the mobility of their defense. While Washington may not play a full-speed, attack-style of hockey anymore, their counter-attack quickness might cause nightmares for Tampa’s blueline.
Both Teams: How much of their success in round one is an illusion? Neither team played against an opponent with any kind of scoring depth. Washington clearly handled things easier than Tampa Bay, who needed seven games to put away a determined Penguins team. One of these franchises is likely an imposter as Cup challenger and it will be interesting to see which one it is. For the Capitals, this is probably their make-or-break playoff series as a group.
There’s no timetable as to when Washington’s Mike Knuble and Dennis Wideman will return to action. Mike Green is expected to play Game 1. The Lightning are relatively healthy.
Coaching: Even (Both coaches still have a lot to prove)
Goaltending: Tampa Bay (Roloson is in one of his zones)
Defense: Washington (Probably the biggest advantage one team has over another in this series)
Scoring: Tampa Bay (Each team has an elite core, but the Lightning’s secondary scoring came up big against Pittsburgh) Simon Gagne, Steve Downie, Sean Bergenheim and Teddy Purcell played very well)
Special Teams: Tampa Bay (Washington’s powerplay has been inconsistent all year, while the Lightning’s has been strong, and looked great in round one. Both teams kill penalties very well)
Prediction: Washington in 7
Philadelphia (2) vs. Boston (3)
Season series: Boston (3-0-1)
What we learned in Round 1
Philadelphia: That Danny Briere might just be the best playoff performer in the NHL since the lockout. His six goals lead the league right now (tied with the eliminated Teemu Selanne). We also learned that the Flyers continue to play the goalie guessing game, with all three of their rostered netminders seeing action. Only Brian Boucher (2.10 goals against average, .934 save percentage) could stop the puck in the first round, winning all four games for Philadelphia. We also learned what this team is like without Chris Pronger in the lineup. The verdict: they’re pretty average without him.
Boston: That you can win a seven game series without scoring a powerplay goal, although the Bruins are the first team in NHL history to do so. Clearly the Bruins don’t have a single natural scorer in their lineup.
Philadelphia: Until they win the Stanley Cup the most relevant question for the Flyers will always be about their goaltending. Another question that needs to be asked is how healthy Chris Pronger is. He looked much healthier in Game 7 (17 minutes of ice-time) than he did in Game 6 (4 minutes). The Bruins are going to play a physical series and will try and target the veteran defenseman. Usually Pronger thrives in these situations, but this time it might be different.
Boston: Where did all the scoring go? Boston was one of the best teams offensively in the regular season, combining average powerplay results with league-best 5-on-5 play. Milan Lucic (team lead in goals during the regular season) and Zdeno Chara are vital pieces of the Bruin attack. Both players underwhelmed in the first round, neither registering a goal. Speaking of underwhelming, how’s that Tomas Kaberle trade looking right now Bruins fans?
Both Teams: How much impact will last year’s playoff series, where the Flyers came back to win the series after losing the first three games, have on this year’s rematch? Boston’s win against Montreal was significant in that the Bruins franchise in recent history has struggled in clutch situations. Yet in the first round, Boston came back from a 2-0 series deficit, and won Game 7. This psychological momentum could disappear if the Flyers get an early series lead, or if they win the first game where they face elimination.
Jeff Carter, who led Philadelphia with 36 regular season goals, missed much of the first round with a knee injury. He is likely to return for the second round, although there are questions whether he’ll appear in Game 1.
Coaching: Philadelphia (Claude Julien prefers to impose his approach on the game, rather than adapt his team’s approach to the game that’s unfolding on the ice. This hasn’t always worked)
Goaltending: Boston (Clear advantage unless the Flyers continue to find short-term lightning-in-a-bottle between their three goalies)
Defense: Even (Philly’s blueline is far more mobile, but Boston’s is very strong defensively. Pronger can be a difference maker here if he’s healthy)
Scoring: Philadelphia (Clear advantage here until Boston finds a solution to its powerplay woes)
Special Teams: Even (Despite Boston’s woes, the Flyers haven’t exactly been shooting-the-lights-out on the powerplay either. Both teams struggled on the penalty kill in the first round as well. The regular season results for both teams are almost identical)
Boston in 6
NOW A WORD FOR THE DEARLY DEPARTED…
Buffalo Sabres: This is a team on the upswing, with several young offensive players making their playoff debuts against the Flyers. Rookies Marc-Andre Gragnani, Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe and Chris Butler all look like solid NHL contributors. With a new owner willing to spend money, one of the best coaches behind the bench (Lindy Ruff) and Ryan Miller in goal, it’s easy to see the Sabres becoming Cup challengers in a few seasons. They will need to get bigger though, particularly at the centre ice position.
Montreal Canadiens: Let’s give credit where credit is due – the Boston Bruins look awful offensively because Montreal played such a strong defensive game against them. Depth was the team’s Achilles heel this year. The injured Josh Gorges and Andrei Markov were never really replaced, and their loss was felt big-time in the post-season. Similarly, the Habs really need to find some secondary scoring, or another top-level centre to bump Scott Gomez down the pecking order. If GM Pierre Gauthier can find some offense, the Canadiens should return to the playoffs next year. If he can’t they will be in a dogfight for the playoffs.
New York Rangers: If only Henrik Lundqvist could score goals. A truly disappointing post-season from Marian Gaborik has some people wondering if he’s truly an impact, franchise forward. The Rangers will try and answer this question (all of the team’s offensive questions, really) in the off-season by acquiring potential UFA centre Brad Richards. That’s a lot of eggs in one basket. There are some good young two-way players throughout the lineup, but the team is short on top-level talent. Like Montreal, without an offensive influx the Rangers will have to fight for a post-season birth next year.
Pittsburgh Penguins: The trials and tribulations this team went through this season without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will only make the Penguins a more formidable opponent next year. Their defense is clearly improved with the additions of Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek and the emergence of Kris Letang. In fact, Letang easily replaced Sergei Gonchar, and could be in-line for Norris Trophy talk in future seasons. Marc-Andre Fleury had an MVP-like season in goal and should finally have put doubts about his play to rest. If Crosby and Malkin return healthy next year, and the Penguins can find another complimentary offensive piece in the off-season, the Penguins should be considered Eastern Conference favourites.