NHL Playoffs 2012: Breaking Down the Eastern Conference 2nd-Round Matchups
Finally the second round is here! After waiting for three of four first-round series to play out the full seven games, Round 2 is set to begin. No time for a break. Get your hands off your knees, boys.
Take a sip of water, and get back after it. This is the NHL playoffs, where you skate an extra 20 minutes for overtime, not five. There's no easy way out of games with a shootout. The beard on your face serves as a fuel tank of awesomeness and as a badge of honor.
Three out of four teams went the distance and then some with a pair of overtime Game 7's. The Devils decided to show their fortitude by taking the Panthers into a second overtime before Adam Henrique's shot sent the Panthers out three minutes in to the second extra frame. Washington's Joel Ward eliminated the defending Cup champions Wednesday night, slipping his overtime rebound pass Tim Thomas.
So how are you feeling? A little tired? A bit spent emotionally? Staying up a little bit later than normal? Well, guess what? That was only the first round. That is why the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs eclipse every other professional sport's postseason.
That's why your mailman has been growing a beard for the past two weeks. That's why your DVR is filling up faster than normal, erasing all of your wife's Lifetime movies and your kids' Disney shows. The only thing bad about Round 2? Fewer games.
Well make some more room on that DVR, and keep an eye on your mailman's beard to see if his team is still alive. Round number two kicks off tonight. The well rested Predators head to the desert to take on the Coyotes to get things started 9 p.m. EST on NBC Sports/Versus. The Eastern Conference starts tomorrow afternoon as the Capitals head to New York. Sunday, the Flyers get to enjoy a home ice advantage for the second round as they host the Devils.
The second round in the NHL Playoffs looks particularly interesting this year. First, there will be two new finalists in this year's Stanley Cup Finals. Second, only three of the eight teams advancing are seeded higher than four. Third, of the eight remaining teams, only three (Rangers, Devils, Flyers) have ever won the Stanley Cup. This is parity at its finest folks. Every team remaining has a legitimate shot at the Cup.
All four remaining teams in the East are familiar with one another as old Patrick Division rivals, while three still meet with regularity in the Atlantic Division. Don't expect a drop off in the intensity at all, because these teams all hate one another. Both series have the potential to go seven games, and all four teams could represent the East well in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Here is my breakdown of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Washington Capitals vs New York Rangers
The most obvious advantage that the Rangers have over the Caps is in goal. Vezina Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist for the Rangers and veteran of 21 regular season games Braden Holtby of the Capitals.
Ask Tim Thomas how that advantage worked out for the Bruins in the first round. Whether the Caps have amped up their defensive accountability or Holtby is just that good, the goalie advantage for New York is out the door.
If anything, the younger Holtby may have the advantage of lowered expectations in this round as well. The Ranger's All-Star Lundqvist has yet to put a sustained playoff run on his impressive resume, and will be scrutinized again, unfairly or not, if the top-seeded Rangers don't make it to the Conference Finals.
The Capitals' poor regular season has been picked apart all year. They amended for most of that with their surprising first-round victory over Boston. We all had every reason to believe that the series opening overtime loss to the Bruins meant curtains for Washington.
However, the Capitals picked themselves up and had the Bruins on the ropes for the remainder of the series before finally finishing them off on Ward's OT winner in Game 7.
Relying on a hot, rookie goaltender typically isn't the formula to get you to the late rounds in the NHL, and the Caps will need their stars to be stars. Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom will most likely be thrilled to not see the monstrous Zdeno Chara on the ice for Round 2.
While the Rangers certainly aren't slouches on defense, they have nobody that punishes opposing forwards like Chara. That being said, the Capitals big three needs to score to drive Washington to the next round.
The Rangers have had an equally low scoring attack so far this postseason. Ottawa's Craig Anderson held the Rangers to 14 goals in those seven games. No player on the Rangers has really lit up the score sheet, but Brad Richards has picked his spots leading the team with five points.
Conspicuously absent in the playoffs so far has been Rangers' sniper Marian Gaborik. With 41 regular season goals, Gaborik has lit the lamp only once in the past seven games. He will need to be a factor if the Rangers hope to advance.
The Capitals and Rangers split their season series two games each. While the Caps were realigned in another division, there is still a fierce rivalry with all of the other teams in the Atlantic Division. The Capitals have owned the Rangers in recent playoff history, knocking the Rangers out in five games in last year's first round.
This will be the first time that the Capitals and Rangers will meet beyond the first round of the playoffs since 1994. The Rangers will be hoping for a familiar result, as that series victory helped them on their way to their legendary Stanley Cup run. While the drought between 1994 and 2012 is significantly smaller than the 54 years that ended in '94, the Rangers are hoping for a similar outcome.
I think they'll have to wait for another year though. I see the Caps riding their underdog wave for at least another round. They will find a little bit more offense than New York in this series. By no means will Ovechkin run wild, but he'll be more of a factor than he was against Boston. This is going to be a fantastic series.
Prediction: Washington in seven
New Jersey Devils vs Philadelphia Flyers
Chances are the next time Ilya Bryzgalov meet, it will be under decidedly less cordial terms. The Flyers' eccentric goalie put on his best show of the playoffs in the series-clinching Game 6. Kovalchuk's top line featuring Zach Parise and Travis Zajac combined for eight goals and seven assists against the Panthers in Round 1. They will both have to stay sharp if they want to keep an edge in Round 2.
The Flyers are big, fast and physical, and the opening series against Pittsburgh gave them the confidence that they can score. Playing against and dominating a star-studded team like the Penguins can give a team a ton of swagger moving forward. The Flyers are hoping to continue that momentum.
Looking to slow down the Philadelphia scoring machine will be 40-year-old Marty Brodeur. While every victory and accomplishment that Brodeur gets will add to his Hall of Fame resume, the Flyers certainly will look different than Brodeur's first-round opponent.
Philadelphia rolls three lines that love to attack and put pucks on net. If New Jersey wants to have a chance in this series, Brodeur will have to be on top of his game.
The "G-factor" is Claude Giroux. It has become fashionable to anoint Giroux the best player in the game right now, but it's probably true. He'll catch nobody by surprise in this series, and it will be interesting to see if he can continue his blistering scoring pace against the traditionally stingy Devil defense.
Philadelphia's power play was operating at a 52 percent clip in the first round against Pittsburgh. Matching up against the league's best (regular season) penalty killing unit could be a key in this series. The considerably less explosive Panthers lit up the Devils' unit, going eight for 26 (31 percent) with the man advantage, scoring almost half of their goals on the power play (8/17).
On paper, this could be a runaway series in favor of Philadelphia. They have been exceptional in every game they played except Game 4. The Devils, were inconsistent against a team that they should have finished well before Game 7.
I wouldn't look for the high scoring series that the Flyers had in the first round, but I don't think the Devils are as deep as the Flyers offensively. Again, Brodeur will have to be sharp just to keep this interesting.
Prediction: Flyers in six