2011 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Playoff Preview
The NHL quarterfinals are upon us! The busiest playoff round is also, in my opinion, the most fun. And what's more fun than some fun predictions?
Feel free to argue, disagree, yell, scream or whatever you want to do to get your point across. After all, it's playoff hockey.
No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. No. 8 New York Rangers
Records: Washington–48-23-11 (107 points); New York–44-33-5 (93 points)
Season series: New York–3-1-0; Washington–1-2-1
Washington Offense vs. New York Defense
Washington: 224 GF (ninth in East); New York: 198 GA (third in East)
Washington’s offense consists of mainly their top line of Ovechkin-Semin-Backstrom. Although the line has compiled 204 points this year, They aren’t contributing as much as usual.
Granted, there is much more commitment to defense this year than in seasons past. But if you look at the Capitals’ depth, there isn’t much.
Just three players scored 20 goals, and just one other forward hit 45 points. Compare that to New York’s defense, which has been solid almost all season (just three full-time forwards had a negative plus/minus rating), and it’s tough to see the big three of Washington scoring numerous goals against the Rangers.
Advantage: New York
New York Offense vs. Washington Defense
Washington: 197 GA (second in East); New York: 233 GF (seventh in East)
The Rangers may not have a 55-point scorer, but they have five skaters with over 40 points and five 20-goal scorers.
True, they will be without Ryan Callahan, one of their best leaders and most productive all-around players. But all season, the Rangers have dealt with the naysayers and have refused to give up. Giving up won’t be the problem in this series, though.
The Capitals’ defense is the second-best in the Eastern Conference and they can now count on their forwards to play solidly on both ends of the ice. A healthy and rested Mike Green will help the Capitals shut down the Rangers, who, albeit with greater depth, will fail to score more than three goals per game.
Capitals fans might not want to hear it, but their goaltending, although solid, is not nearly as good as the Rangers. Braden Holtby had a great year but was recently sent down to the Hershey Bears.
Michal Neuvirth looks to be the playoff starter, and although he had a 2.45 goals against average this season, his save percentage was a so-so .914.
On the other side, Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best goalies in the world. With another 35-win season, a .923 save percentage and an incredible 11 shutouts (two of them against the Capitals), King Henrik can dominate the Capitals (and did, giving up just three goals in four starts against them this season).
Advantage: New York
Although Bruce Boudreau has something that John Tortorella doesn’t—a Jack Adams Trophy—Torts has something a bit better, a Stanley Cup ring.
In the four games the two teams faced off this year, Boudreau had trouble getting his top line off when Marc Staal and Dan Girardi came on the ice. Tortorella is a masterful bench boss and can match up against the best of them.
Advantage: New York
From a fellow writer: “The rangers style of play and their top players are more willing to do those things you need to do to win playoff hockey. Look at the top-three scorers on Washington: Ovechkin, Semin, and backstrom, two of which play on the same line, and have gotten shutdown by Staal and Girardi the entire season. Ovie hasn't scored a goal against the Rangers all season.
“On the Rangers’ side, you don't have distinguished stars (unless you count Gaborik), but their offensive players (Boyle, Dubinsky, and Stepan) are hard-working guys who play a grinding style of hockey that works in the playoffs. The Rangers block more shots than the Capitals realize, and will be able to stop Washington’s dynamic offense.”
Rangers in six
No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 7 Buffalo Sabres
Records: Philadelphia–47-23-12 (106 points); Buffalo–43-29-10 (96 points)
Season series: Philadelphia–2-1-1; Buffalo–2-2
Philadelphia Offense vs. Buffalo Defense
Philadelphia: 259 GF (first in East); Buffalo: 229 GA (eighth in East)
The Flyers lead the league with seven 20-goal scorers and nine 15-goal scorers. Nine players have 40 points and only two regulars have a negative plus/minus rating (and they’re both on the fourth line).
It is almost inarguable that the Flyers have the best offensive depth in the NHL, as long as they consistently show up during the series.
Buffalo Offense vs. Philadelphia Defense
Philadelphia: 223 GA (seventh in East); Buffalo: 245 GF (fourth in East)
The Sabres can match up fairly well with the Flyers’ offensive depth. Buffalo has six 40-point players, four 20-goal scorers and six 15-goal scorers.
However, every single full-time Flyers’ defenseman has a positive plus/minus rating this season, and that’s having played half the year without future Hall of Famer Chris Pronger.
Assuming Pronger is ready to play in the quarterfinal, he will give the Flyers a much-needed advantage, both physically and emotionally, over a Sabres offense that has struggled to reach its full potential since Daniel Briere and Chris Drury jumped ship.
Ryan Miller. ‘Nuff said.
Peter Laviolette has a Stanley Cup ring and has turned this Flyers organization around since showing up on the scene last season.
Lindy Ruff is the longest-tenured coach in the NHL but has yet to have significant playoff success. When Laviolette is in charge, it’s tough to find a harder-working team than the Flyers.
The biggest question mark in this series is not the Flyers’ goaltending, as people expect. It is, in fact, the Flyers’ heart and consistency.
If they come out playing like they did at the start of the season and around the All-Star break, they will beat the Sabres in five games—maybe even in a sweep.
But if they come out like they have the last month of the season, in which they struggled to clinch the Atlantic Division, there’s almost no chance of surviving. Give Peter Laviolette the benefit of the doubt, though. He’s done this before.
Philadelphia in six
No. 3 Boston Bruins vs. No. 6 Montreal Canadiens
Records: Boston–46-25-11 (103 points); Montreal–44-30-8 (96 points)
Season series: Montreal–4-2-0; Boston–2-3-1
Boston Offense vs. Montreal Defense
Boston: 246 GF (third in East); Montreal: 209 GA (fifth in East)
The Bruins have had great offensive depth for years. It doesn’t help that Marc Savard is injured again, but there are plenty of alternatives up front: David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron and more.
With 10 40-point scorers, the Bruins can match up with any team. The Canadiens’ defense, on the other hand, has been solid all season, minus a few blowout losses (including two to the Bruins).
Last season, Hal Gill was the star of two consecutive series, shutting down three of the best players in the game en route to a Conference Final berth. But can Montreal’s blueline hold up against the Big, Bad Bruins?
Montreal Offense vs. Boston Defense
Boston: 195 GA (first in East); Montreal: 216 GF (12th in East)
Boston has some of the best defense in the league, but that can be more attributed to their goaltending than their defense. They do have one of the top blueliners in the world in Zdeno Chara and a great supporting cast in Tomas Kaberle.
However, their depth on the blueline gets shaky one you get down to the second pairing. Montreal’s offense wasn’t the best this year, but they have great depth— almost as much as they had last season.
Five 40-point scorers, nine 30-point scorers and nine players with at least 10 goals. It may come as a shock, but Montreal can take over these games.
Tim Thomas will most likely win his second Vezina Trophy this offseason (or so the buzz around NHL GMs goes).
He had a record first half, at one point having a save percentage over .950. He ended with a 2.00 GAA an a .938 save percentage. Carey Price, however, has played 15 more games and had a solid .923 save percentage and a 38-win season.
He has come up big all season for Montreal and has his confidence back now that the organization has given him confirmation that he is their goalie of the future and not Jaroslav Halak.
This one’s close, but you have to give the new guy the benefit of the doubt.
Claude Julien is one of those coaches that gets every ounce of effort from his players on an almost-nightly basis. However, Jacques Martin is a great coach and has kept the Canadiens relevant through a time when many thought their goaltending would not hold up enough.
Martin also took his team to the third round last season when no one gave them a chance. He has more playoff experience than Julien, and although he doesn’t have a Jack Adams Trophy under his belt, his team seems to respond to crunch time when it matters more (see: Boston Bruins collapse vs. Philadelphia Flyers).
This is going to be the closest series of the quarterfinal. This might be the biggest rivalry in the Eastern Conference right now, and it can only get worse (better, for the fans) with a tough playoff series.
No one gave the Canadiens a chance last year against the Penguins and Capitals. This year, they’re going to be given the chance against the Bruins.
Montreal in seven
No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning
Records: Pittsburgh–49-25-8 (106 points); Tampa Bay–46-25-11 (103 points)
Season series: Pittsburgh: 2-2; Tampa Bay: 2-2
Pittsburgh Offense vs. Tampa Bay Defense
Pittsburgh: 238 GF (fifth in East); Tampa Bay: 240 GA (11th in East)
Sidney Crosby was en route to one of the best NHL seasons in recent memory, while Evgeni Malkin was averaging close to a point per game, before both were knocked out.
Malkin will not be back, while there’s a chance Sidney Crosby could play in the first round. With or without them, Pittsburgh’s offense has been consistent all season and has matched up well against every other team.
Tampa Bay’s defense is extremely porous and could be torn apart by just one mistake.
Tampa Bay Offense vs. Pittsburgh Defense
Tampa Bay: 247 GF (second in East); Pittsburgh: 199 GA (fourth in East)
Tampa Bay has two of the best players in the league this season in Steven Stamkos and Martin St-Louis. After that, however, it drops off.
Almost one-third of Tampa’s goals this year were scored by that duo. Pittsburgh’s defense has been strong enough all season and has the ability to shut those two players down.
If Stamkos or St-Louis can’t get on the board in every game, the Lightning will have little to no chance to win. The only chance they have is if they can match their first line against Matt Niskanen and/or Deryk Engelland, both of whom were not completely solid in the defensive zone. But it is doubtful Dan Bylsma will allow that to happen.
Marc-Andre Fleury has won a Stanley Cup and has been to two Stanley Cup finals. He’s been strong between the pipes again for the Penguins and gave them the confidence to take chances in the offensive zone without fear of letting one up.
Dwayne Roloson looks to be the playoff starter for the Lightning, and although he’s had success in the past, at times he looked shaky this season in Tampa. The Lightning need him to come up big this series, but there is almost no chance he outshines Fleury.
Guy Boucher came flying onto the scene this season, surprising the hockey world by leading the Lightning to a fifth-place finish and challenging for the Southeast Division crown.
However, take into account the amount of talent he already had on his roster. On the other side of the equation, Dan Bylsma has been the best coach in the league all year— and that’s not debatable.
If he doesn’t win the Jack Adams Trophy, it will be a disgrace to the PHWA. Without two of the best players in the world, he was just one game away from stealing the Atlantic Division away from the Philadelphia Flyers. He can match up against any team and could outcoach Punch Imlach.
Pittsburgh has the clear advantage over Tampa Bay in this series, regardless whether or not Crosby is in the lineup. However, Tampa held their own throughout the season against the Penguins, and it is difficult not to expect them to do the same all series.
Nonetheless, the Penguins’ deep blueline and spectacular goaltending, which led them to a Stanley Cup just two years ago, will continue to lead them through the first round of the 2011 postseason.
Pittsburgh in six
Alan Bass, a writer for The Hockey News and THN.com, is the author of The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed The NHL Forever. He has worked for the Philadelphia Flyers' Fan Development department, going to schools throughout the tri-state area to teach about fitness and the importance of teamwork. He is the General Manager of the Muhlenberg College Division II hockey team as well. You can contact him at Alanbasswriting@aol.com.
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