NHL's Eastern Conference: Who Is a Pretender and Who Is a Contender?
As we approach the playoffs, the Eastern powers either are fighting for a playoff berth, a division title, or just a better seeding. Each team has found their identity at this point and is building on it to make a run for the Cup. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are extremely unpredictable as evidenced by last year's Eastern Conference bracket, where #8 seeded Montreal knocked out Washington in the quarterfinals in a stunning upset and then as if that wasn't enough, went on to oust Pittsburgh in the semifinals before succumbing to Philadelphia in the Conference Finals.
That being said, it is a great time to see who is really a contender and who, like Washington last year, has a great record but has major flaws that will be exposed in the playoffs.
Let's start with the contenders:
Contender: The Balanced Attack of the New York Rangers
This may be a surprising choice to most people because the Rangers are barely clinging on to a playoff spot in the 7th seed. However, the Rangers present a balanced scoring attack with at least 5 players who will have 20 or more goals when the regular season is over. Ryan Callahan has missed a chunk of the season due to injury but has returned with great form, scoring 4 goals against the Flyers under the national spotlight.
A balanced scoring attack is a key ingredient for any Stanley Cup contender. Star forwards are generally shut down by a defensive duo throughout a series. We saw it last year when PK Subban and Hal Gill shut down Ovechkin and Crosby. Lack of secondary scoring cost those teams eventually. If Callahan is shut down, the Rangers have numerous options in Brian Boyle, Marian Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky, and Derek Stepan.
The Rangers in two occasions have absolutely embarassed Washington, and they have played solid hockey against the Bruins and Penguins. They have played well against the top teams in the NHL and have some big wins under their belt. Also, fiery and experienced coach John Tortorella will play a key role to keep his relatively young team focused throughout the playoffs, which requires plenty of mental toughness.
Most importantly, the Rangers have the goaltending and defense to get it done. Their shutdown tandem of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi can go up against the best players in the league. Henrik Lundqvist is no slouch either. His 9 shutouts and minuscule GAA are eye-popping stats and if he gets hot at the right time, he will be tough to score against. Couple this with the balanced scoring attack and experienced coaching, you have yourself a dark horse to be reckoned with.
Contender: Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins
The Bruins are the only professional sports team in Boston that has not won a championship in the 21st century. Heck, even the Red Sox won twice after not winning for 86 years and the Bruins still haven't raised any banners. Tim Thomas is looking to change that, and his band of Bruins mean business after blowing a 3-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last year.
Everyone knows about Tim Thomas' stellar numbers and his 1.97 GAA. He will definitely help them be a major force. But like the Rangers, this team has a balanced scoring attack with Milan Lucic (29 goals), Patrice Bergeron (21 goals), Brad Marchand (19 goals) and Nathan Horton (18 goals). The Bruins also have true grit. Guys like Zdeno Chara, Shawn Thornton, Adam McQuaid and Andrew Ference are guys who are willing to go through the grind to win the Cup. They also have a veteran presence in Mark Recchi in the locker room to help in times of crises.
However, one major flaw is their performance against Montreal. This season the Bruins have beaten the Canadiens only once in 5 games. In the playoffs, Montreal has been even more of a pest. Before the 2009 playoffs, the Bruins hadn't won a playoff series against the Canadiens since the 1992 season. Whatever it is, the Canadiens seem to have the Bruins number. If they can avoid Montreal somehow they should be fine with their stellar goaltending, balanced scoring, tough grit and experience.
Contender: The Pittsburgh Penguins (Maybe!!)
Saying Sidney Crosby is the most important player for the Penguins is an understatement. The way the Penguins have been playing though it doesn't seem like he is the most important aspect of the team. And he isn't. It's Dan Bylsma. The man has introduced a type of North-South hockey which other coaches are trying to implement after the Penguins won the cup in 2009. The Penguins organization is so shrewd and disciplined that despite all these injuries, they have been able to plug in seemingly anyone and still be competitive. No, they are not racking up wins like they used to with Crosby. But they have been playing with a lot of heart, sending games to overtime and picking up points. If Crosby can return in time for the playoffs, or at least by the semifinals, this team will regain even more life and play with such vigor that it would not surprise me if they win the whole thing.
There are so many things to like about this new look Penguins team. The return of Alex Kovalev to Pittsburgh has invigorated his career and his dazzling stickhandling skills are reminding Penguin fans of the magic in the late 90s. The team is ranked first in penalty-killing which is a testament of how good their role players are. Max Talbot, Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, and Craig Adams were a part of the 2009 team and their grit and leadership will help the Penguins a lot. The Penguins have a shut down pair this year like they did in 2009 with Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill. This year it's Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin, who have both played exceptionally well. Couple that with Brooks Orpik, who will be back by the playoffs, and Kris Letang's breakout year, and you got yourself a contender.
This team certainly has the defense to win it. But do they have the scoring? Their goals per game has dropped significantly since Crosby's injury. It was hovering near 4 goals per game before the injury but now it is slightly above 2. This is why it will be difficult to win in the playoffs without Crosby. Pittsburgh has not faired well against Philadelphia and Washington this season, especially without Crosby. If he can return and provide a scoring punch against those teams, Pittsburgh can literally make the Cup through grit and experience. And really, it's never the star-studded teams that win, it's usually the team that is composed of players who are willing to muck and grind.
And now to the pretenders:
Pretender: The Negative Goal Differential of the Tampa Bay Lightning
There is no team more one-dimensional than the Tampa Bay Lightning. They have a put up a great record this season but have a negative goal differential. Steven Stamkos has been a wonderful story and it is nice to see him succeeding in the NHL with perhaps a 50-goal season. But after that they have two over-the-hill players in Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. They will be easy to shut down with one solid defensive tandem in the playoffs.
Their leaky defense, as evidenced by their negative goal differential, is a huge problem. It's definitely not a recipe for success. Simon Gagne has been a complete bust with his -19 and they don't know who their starting goaltender is. Dwayne Roloson has put up okay numbers ever since being acquired and he is definitely a leader in the locker room. But this team just has so many flaws, it will be very hard for them to do anything special in the playoffs. Also, this will be Stamkos's first trip to the playoffs and he will be asked to shoulder the team through the perils of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Sorry Steve, you'll have plenty of more chances. Just not this year!
Pretender: Washington Capitals
After posting 121 points in the regular season last year and getting bounced in the first round, the Capitals decided to play some defense. After having a difficult time adjusting, they finally found their way and have taken the Southeast division lead and may probably win it again. However, their defense is still not one of the more elite defenses in the league. It will be very difficult for them to stop a balanced attack like New York and as evidenced by the regular season, they have lost some ugly games to New York. Boston has not been a good matchup for them either.
Their scoring is down. They were a better offensive team last year. Their defense is not unbelievable and most importantly their goaltending is shoddy. Michal Neuvirth, Brian Holtby, and Simeon Varlamov have all struggled at different parts of this season. Many question Bruce Boudreau's leadership too. Does anyone honestly think their defense and goaltending can shut down a balanced attack like Boston or New York? They don't even know who their starting goaltender is!
Ovechkin's offensive struggles should also be noted. The team really needs Ovechkin to step up and be huge in the playoffs. The Capitals have gone through stretches of losing this year and have played some very inconsistent hockey. They were better last year and they didn't win. I don't think they will win this year either. Sorry Ovie, you are a solid goalie and a shutdown defenseman away!
Pretender: Your Defending Eastern Conference Champion Philadelphia Flyers
It's very hard to call the defending Eastern Conference champions, who currently have the best record in the East and have an experienced defending corps with a balanced scoring attack, a pretender. But I will anyway. This team has all the ingredients to win the Cup, except goaltending. The guy they relied on last year, Michael Leighton, is not even on the team anymore. It is apparent that Sergei Bobrovsky has taken over the starting role from veteran Brian Boucher but I don't think he has what it takes to succeed in the playoffs. He's a rookie and he's inexperienced. The playoffs are a completely different animal. Can he handle the pressures of Philadelphia? It will be very difficult and I doubt he can. He's a great young goaltender.
Another reason why I don't think Philly will repeat as Eastern champions is because of fatigue. They went all the way to the Finals last year and it was an emotional ride. Some say Pittsburgh fell to Montreal last year because of their back-to-back trips to the Finals and the fatigue of playing in so many games in a 3-year span.
Although I wouldn't be surprised if they actually win the Cup because of their solid forwards and stifling defense, I believe inexperience in goaltending will succumb the Flyers. They will probably bring in the more experienced Boucher if Bobrovsky struggles but even then, there are better goalies than this tandem. Buffalo with Miller, Pittsburgh with Fleury, Boston with Thomas, and New York with Lundqvist can all get hot any time and shut down Philadelphia in a series.