NHL Playoffs Preview: Eastern Conference, Round One

C KSenior Analyst IApril 15, 2009

PITTSBURGH - MAY 18:  Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins charges goaltender Martin Biron #43 of the Philadelphia Flyers in front of Jeff Carter #17 during game five of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Mellon Arena on May 18, 2008 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Penguins won the game 6-0 and win the series 4-1 to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

It's the best playoff system in all of sports. It's the NHL playoffs.

Nothing beats the heart-pounding pressure felt every second in an NHL playoff game. It's as if the playoffs are literally a second season in hockey.

You can win ten in a row going into the playoffs and get swept in the first round. Streaks end when you get to the playoffs. The best teams win, and the worst teams lose.

If you can't play well in the neutral zone, you're going to get beat. If you defense is not up-to-par with the rest of the league, you're going to get beat. If your goaltending is not the most consistent part of your game, you're going to get beat.

In other sports, if a team is playing lousy coming into the playoffs, they usually don't stand a chance. If a team is on a hot streak in other sports, they usually have the upper-hand over their opponents.

Yet in hockey, it's a whole different ballgame, or "puckgame", for that matter.

Some teams are great playoff teams, some are not. Some coaching staffs can successfully out-plan an opposing staff for four to seven games, some cannot.

This season's playoffs will be no different. The Western Conference seems to have more balance, while the Eastern Conference appears to have clearer favorites.

Personally, I'm an Eastern Conference guy. Being a big-time Philadelphia Flyers fan, I can easily say I am more educated with the Eastern Conference over the Western Conference.

So here it is. My NHL playoffs preview, Eastern Conference style.

(1) Boston Bruins v. (8) Montreal Canadiens

Last season, the Bruins and Canadiens faced off in the first round just as they will this season. Yet, last year, the Bruins were the eight seed and the Habs were the one seed. The tables sure have turned, haven't they?

Although I do not forsee Boston to be a real powerhouse past the first round, I do believe they will advance past the Canadiens, and quite easily at that. The Canadiens failed to achieve consistency at all this season, and barely reached the postseason by winning a tiebreak over the Florida Panthers.

Carey Price, the Habs' goaltender, has been a big part of the Canadiens' inconsistencies over the last month. If the Canadiens have any chance in this series, it will be on Price's shoulders as he will need to out-duel the Bruins' breakout goaltender in Tim Thomas.

Prediction: Bruins in five.

(2) Washington Capitals v. (7) New York Rangers

As inconsistent as the Canadiens were, the Rangers have been even worse. The Rangers have the talent to be a top seeded team, yet they never put it together to make a well-rounded playoff team.

Henrik Lundqvist will have to be the key to stopping Alex the Great and company. Out of the Rangers' top players in Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Markus Naslund, and Nikolai Zherdev, nobody was able to score more than 24 goals and account for more than 58 points.

The Rangers ranked 28th in goals forced this season, while the Caps ranked third. That's quite a difference.

If the Rangers have any chance to beat the Capitals, it will have to be with their defense and their goaltending. Yet, as I see it, inconsistent teams don't go anywhere in the playoffs, especially when you go up against the best player in hockey.

Prediction: Capitals in four.

(3) New Jersey Devils v. (6) Carolina Hurricans

I'm not a big fan of the Hurricanes. Sure, their 10-1-2 record in March and their 9-game winning streak late in the season is impressive. Yet, as I foreshadowed above, streaks end when the playoffs begin.

The playoffs are a whole new ballgame. You play a team four to seven games in a row. When that happens, you get a coaching staff that plans for you and only you. You have to be the better team and prove you can out-coach the opposing staff.

I'm not ready to say the 'Canes can do that yet, just because I don't think one and a half months make a hockey team.

The Hurricans were not inconsistent, but their success in March does not make them a great team. I need to see more great play before I can determine the Hurricanes a big threat.

Then you have the Devils, who have been playing poorly of late. Yet, my theory that streaks end when the playoffs start comes into play here again. Beating the consistent Devils will be tough.

Martin Brodeur is a great playoff goaltender, and the consistent offense and defense of the Devils makes them a tough team to beat four games out of seven.

Prediction: Devils in six.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins v. (5) Philadelphia Flyers

I am absolutely loving this matchup.There is not a group of teams in the Eastern Conference that match-up better and bring the storyline to the table like these foes do.

The Flyers finished fifth in goals forced, while the Penguins finished sixth. The Flyers finished 16th in goals against, while the Penguins finished 17th. The Flyers finished 14th in shots on goal, while the Penguins finished 18th. It is as close as it can possibly be between these interstate rivals.

The Flyers are the only team in the league to have six 25-goal scorers with Mike Richards, Scott Hartnell, Joffrey Lupul, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, and Mike Knuble. The Penguins own the best trio of centers in the league with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal.

The Flyers' defense has not been hit by the injury bug like the Penguins' defenders have, yet after the Flyers' first two defensive lines, Randy Jones and Andrew Alberts leave the Flyers questioning their ability to put out three consistent defensive duos.

As I just mentioned, the Penguins suffered many injuries to their defense that derailed them for most of the season. Yet, their group has overcome most of their health issues. Now their problem is just being consistent on defense.

This is the only matchup in the East that I went back and forth on with the winner. At first, I went with the Flyers. Then, I changed to the Penguins and stuck with them for a few days. Finally, I decided on the team I have grown to know and love.

Prediction: Flyers in six

There you have it. It should be an entertaining first round in the Eastern Conference.

Just to finish this preview out, I will review my winners and give a quick look as to how far I see them advancing, along with a few little bets.

First round winners (Eastern Conference Quarterfinals): Bruins, Capitals, Devils, Flyers

Second round winners (Eastern Conference Semifinals): Capitals, Flyers

Third round winner (Eastern Conference Finals): Capitals

Alex Ovechkin goals: five

Tim Thomas shutouts: one

Zach Parise goals: two

Mike Richards assists: seven

Overtime games: four

Exciting playoff hockey games: Every single game!

Enjoy the postseason!


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