Out of Town Notebook: Eastern Conference Semifinals Playoff Preview
Photo credit: New York Times
Yesterday we looked at the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference now, shall we?
New York Rangers (1) vs. Washington Capitals (7)
Season Series: Tied 2-2
What we Learned About the Rangers:
It was more about what we were able to confirm than what we learned. Even with the addition of Brad Richards (who led the team in scoring in round one), this is a New York team built to keep goals out, not score them in bushels. Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin could add that offense in time, but right now their biggest contribution seems to be speed. Derek Stepan was arguably the team’s best forward in the first round. Henrik Lundqvist got out of the first round for the first time in four years and cemented his status as the game’s best. With the Bruins out of the playoffs the Rangers are now the best defensive team remaining in the East. Given they’re the top seed; given that defensive excellence; given Henrik Lundqvist; these Blueshirts enter this series as prohibitive favourites.
What we Learned about the Capitals:
A heck of a lot. For starters, we learned that coach Dale Hunter will play whoever he feels is going, meaning that stars Alex Ovechkin, Nik Backstrom and Alex Semin all saw reduced minutes at different times in the last series. We learned that the Capitals blueline is starting to really come of age, with Karl Alzner especially making a difference defensively. We learned that the Caps have become a patient team – they’ll wait for their opponent to make mistakes rather than push the tempo themselves. Oh, and we learned that the Caps have a pretty good third string goalie, especially when the entire team is going to great lengths to protect him. Look, this isn’t the Capitals team that captured our hearts years ago. But their round one performance certainly revealed this is a hockey club that, after years of disappointment, has improved character on its roster. Boston – the more talented, deeper team – trapped and passively played their way to a series loss. It’s quite possible the Rangers, with their similar style, who’ve lost to Washington in the last two playoffs, could do the same.
Coaching: Rangers. Tortorella has won a Cup and, well, I’ve got segments of 24/7 cued for whenever I need an inspirational speech. Hunter’s won a round but the jury is still out on him being a capable NHL bench boss.
Goaltending: Rangers. Yes Braden Holtby looked like Ken Dryden in round one. But Lundqvist is the best in the game. Best Washington can hope for here is a draw.
Defense: Rangers. It’s closer than expected based on Washington’s excellent performance against the Bruins. Both teams have strong defense cores, with the Caps a bit more dynamic along the blueline (Mike Green had a nice series against the Bruins). Ranger forwards execute the defensive system in their sleep, while the Caps still have a few players who freelance from time to time.
Offense: Even. Washington has more talented players but they don’t have much beyond their big three scorers. The Rangers have slightly more scoring on their second and third lines but Marian Gaborik – their strongest sniper – had a pedestrian first round. Expect a low scoring series.
Special Teams: Even. Both teams have the resources to be better in this area. Washington’s special teams were average in the regular season and slightly better in the first round. The Rangers powerplay has been frustrating for most of the year, but surprisingly their strong penalty kill was lit up a bit by the Senators.
Prediction: Capitals in 7.
Philadelphia Flyers (5) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)
Season Series: Philadelphia (3-2-1)
What we Learned About Philadelphia:
That they have probably the most offensive depth in the Eastern Conference. We also learned that their willingness to take risks often leaves goalie Ilya Bryzgalov hung out to dry. We learned that Braydon Coburn has taken another step and is a legitimate top-pairing defenseman. We learned that Danny Briere can still raise his game in the post-season and that Claude Giroux might be the best player in the league right now. We learned that Max Talbot has gotten better since leaving Pittsburgh.
What we Learned About New Jersey:
We learned maybe the biggest lesson of the first round – that Ilya Kovalchuk has become a more complete player and has grown into a leadership role. We learned that Martin Brodeur has some magic left (very solid in Game 7) but that his game can leave him at any given moment. The Devils also showed some weak defensive play that’s unlike the great Devils team of old. This is certainly the weakest blueline left in the playoffs and arguably the weakest goaltending left in the playoffs.
Coaching: Philadelphia (Peter DeBoer has done a very good job bringing speed and a more dynamic approach to the Devils. The Flyers Peter Laviolette though is an elite coach)
Goaltending: Flyers. Slight edge here. Bryzgalov isn’t as bad as his first round stats against the Penguins and Brodeur isn’t as good as his against the pop-gun Panthers. Bryzgalov’s numbers were slightly stronger in the regular season and have been stronger over the last few years.
Defense: Flyers. Another slight edge attributable to a stronger Flyers blueline. Nick Grossman has been a nice addition, while Matt Carle and Kimmo Timmonen are stronger than anything the Devils have on defense.
Offense: Flyers. It’s the Flyers top three lines versus the Devils’ top-two. That depth, and the ability of coach Laviolette to mix and match 10 forwards with offensive skill (list includes youngsters Matt Read, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn), give Philadelphia a definitive advantage here. The Devils still can’t get any offense from their blueline on a consistant basis.
Prediction: Flyers in 5.
And finally, a final word for the dearly departed:
Cause of Death: Self-asphyxiation – injuries robbed the team of offensive depth, and Claude Julien’s passive system didn’t generate enough opportunities for the team to score.
Prescription: Continue to search for a creative blueline to quarterback the powerplay. Explore another top-six forward to potentially replace Nathan Horton, whose future is cloudy due to concussion.
Cause of Death: Lack of talent
Prescription: Stay the course. This Panthers team as constructed is an interim measure while the team’s best young players develop at their own pace. Adding a Jonathan Huberdeau next year will only help this club.
Cause of Death: A lack of defense and goaltending.
Prescription: Find a stronger back-up goaltender to spell Marc-Andre Fleury when his game escapes him. Upgrade defensive depth, as Paul Martin struggled in the post-season and the third-pairing barely played.
Cause of Death: Lack of composure in Game 6.
Prescription: Stay the course. Composure comes with experience. The Senators shuffled all their young players into the lineup to get them playoff exposure. That should pay dividends next year.