NHL 2011-12 Eastern Conference Preview

MJ Kasprzak@BayAreaCheezhedSenior Writer IIOctober 7, 2011

NHL 2011-12 Eastern Conference Preview

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    Each year, the winner of the Eastern Conference is awarded the Prince of Wales Trophy.

    In my Western Conference preview, I pointed out that this used to be the best the teams out east could accomplish. From 1996-2002, the New Jersey Devils were the lone eastern team to win a Stanley Cup (2000).

    In the eight seasons since, the Prince of Wales Trophy has been a precursor to a Stanley Cup five times.

    One reason is the easier travel schedule: Eastern Conference teams are all within the same time zone, within an hour of nearly all their division rivals and no more than three hours away from anywhere they will have to travel to twice.

    The Dallas Stars are that far away from division rivals to which they will travel three times. The Western Conference also spans all four time zones, which becomes brutal in the playoffs.

    Vancouver traveled over 40 hours over the playoffs and played six games at least two time zones away by the time they played Boston in the finals. Conversely, the Bruins traveled under 20 hours and had no such games.

    That is one full day lost. That is why less travel is not just an advantage because of jet lag and the difficulty of adjusting your body clock to a different time. It also allows Eastern Conference teams an average of about two more practices a month during the regular season.

    This might not sound like a lot, but teams out west often can do no more than a skate-around or they will wear down, leading to injuries. Since they rarely hold 10 full practices each month, their eastern counterparts are getting about 25 percent more of them each year.

    Before the salary cap, the elite teams in the Western Conference had superior enough rosters to overcome this disadvantage. Now there is more parity, giving the east an advantage.

    But this season Winnipeg is in the Southeast Division. They will have the most brutal travel schedule but there will be a ripple effect throughout the entire conference. Teams in their own division will have to make that long jaunt three times each, and other teams only once.

    Will this level the playing field enough to open the door for the Western Conference, who have been competitive even while fighting the travel disadvantage?

    Before we know how much it will hurt the winner of that conference (see the link above), we need to know how the Eastern Conference will play out.

No. 1 Washington Capitals over No. 8 New York Rangers

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    The Washington Capitals are one of the teams whose travel will increase this year. With Winnipeg being about four hours further away than Atlanta, they will spend an extra day in flight there and back.

    Spread out over six months, this might cost them a total of three practices. Considering their offseason upgrades and the rest of their division having equal or more lost time, they are more than ever the team to beat.

    Their blue line was essentially upgraded from Scott Hannan to Roman Hamrlik. Hannan was a solid defender and is a better skater than Hamrlik. But he's nowhere near the shot-blocker and liability on the offensive end, whereas Hamrlik is a solid offensive contributor.

    They upgraded in net by trading Semyon Varlamov and signing Tomas Vokoun. They still have arguably the best one-two punch in forward lines in the league.

    That all spells top seed in the Eastern Conference and matches them up against the eighth seed. The New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs will be fighting for the last two spots and I have the Rangers sitting in the eighth chair when the music stops.

    New York upgraded by adding Brad Richards to their top line. They upgraded by waiving Sean Avery. They still have a top 10 goalie tandem anchored by Henrik Lundqvist.

    But they still are not strong enough on the blue line to handle the great forwards of Pittsburgh, New Jersey and, to a large extent, Philadelphia.

    They have no true No. 1 defenceman but do have two very good No. 2s in Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. If they were especially deep behind those two they could get a way with it, but they are not.

    If they cannot handle the Jersey and Philly forwards, they cannot handle Washington's. The Capitals struggle come playoff time but have never failed to win three games in the first round since starting their run of four straight division titles.

    They just beat New York last season and will have the edge again, needing no more than six games in 2012.

No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins over No. 7 Montreal Canadiens

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins came within a point of both passing the Philadelphia Flyers for the Atlantic Division title and the Washington Capitals for the top seed in the Eastern Conference last season. And they did it without their two best players, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, for half the season.

    Then they took the Tampa Bay Lightning to seven games in the first round after earning the fifth seed. The Lightning took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Other than the return of those two players (though Crosby is certainly no given), they are basically intact. If you can replace a Maxime Talbot with a Steve Sullivan, there is no negligible difference.

    One has to think the league's most dynamic duo (or even one of them) can make the difference of one regular season point and two playoff games if healthy.

    Meanwhile, the Montreal Canadiens also took the Bruins to seven games in the first round, but they got the break of Zdeno Chara not being healthy for the end of Game 1 and all of the second contest.

    They lost two-way defenceman Roman Hamrlik and unless Andrei Markov figures out how to stay healthy for a change, that will impact their blue line.

    Still, this team has talented forwards (expect Scott Gomez to play better in 2011-12) and Carey Price looks as though he has now settled in as an elite goaltender. They will have survived a great division and all of that will make them a tough playoff opponent. They might be able to push Pittsburgh to six games.

No. 3 Boston Bruins over No. 6 Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Dwayne Roloson does not lose come playoff time. But he will be 42 next week which means the Tampa Bay Lightning will suffer a dropoff in net play, whether from a diminished Rolo or more time from Mathieu Garon.

    Rolo can probably duplicate the 54 game load he played last season, but has to be better than 24-25-5 for this team to push for a division title. He gives the team an aging star on every unit: RW Martin St. Louis is 36 and D Mattias Ohlund 35.

    Because of this and their longer travel (only the Florida Panthers will travel more among the Eastern Conference teams), Tampa will drop a bit in the standings. But there is too much talent and grit for this team not to make the playoffs.

    Their blue line and goalies are in the top half of the league and their forwards easily top quarter even after losing Simon Gagne. They are well-coached.

    However, the Boston Bruins kept almost the exact same team together that won Lord Stanley's Cup last season.

    They are nowhere near as strong at forward, but have a younger and better goalie with a much better backup. They have the elite player on the blue line Tampa lacks and are about their equal otherwise.

    Sometimes there is a letdown for a team that won the year before, either from fatigue or complacency. But since Boston played just two more weeks than Tampa, the former should not be an issue.

    While they will not likely be as hungry as the Lightning, they will fight hard to not get knocked out in the first round of their title defence.

    Boston's biggest threat actually comes from the Buffalo Sabres in the regular season...more on that in the next slide. Once the playoffs come about, their experience last year will have them prepared for Tampa's exuberance. They should get by in about six games.

No. 5 Buffalo Sabres over No. 4 Philadelphia Flyers

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    The Philadelphia Flyers think they have finally gotten the elite goalie they have been missing since Ron Hextall stopped patrolling the net decades ago. What they got was a close facsimile.

    As mentioned on the Flyers slide of my article depicting what one player around the league would make the most impact on last year's playoff teams (and missed by every optimistic Flyers fan responding), Bryzgalov could be forgiven for going 3-8 in the playoffs against a better Detroit team.

    It is not that he lost, it is that he did not play well. He was pretty good but not great in 2010, but terrible in 2011. He also gave up three or more goals in nine of his last 10 games against the San Jose Sharks when even a .500 record in either season would have gotten the Coyotes the Pacific Division title.

    He is not at his best in the biggest games. He will look like a great trade through the regular season, backstopping a still solid group of skaters to perhaps the best record of any non-division winner in the league. He will also have a solid backup to keep him from being overworked.

    But come the playoffs, he will be matched up against an obviously superior Ryan Miller. That is when Philly will miss no longer having the absolute best skaters in the league.

    Because Philly has lost depth and their best defenceman is aging, Buffalo will be better on the blue line. The Sabres added minute muncher Christian Ehrhoff who, along with a developing Tyler Myers, will form a one-two punch on the blue line ranking in the top quarter of the league.

    It is additions like these that will allow the Sabres to give the Bruins a run for the division. It shows the franchise has a sense of urgency which will translate into hungry players on the ice. They have arguably the best coach in the game.

    But they are not as strong on the blue line as Boston. Even if Miller is better than Tim Thomas this season (likely at Thomas' age), the B's are better in net because Tuukka Rask is better than Jhonas Enroth. They may even be better at forward and I do not think the Bruins will lack that much hunger.

    Still, after adding players like Philly's Ville Leino, the Sabres may not be as strong at forward as the Flyers, even with their offseason losses. But that disadvantage will not be as significant as their advantage on the other two units. Buffalo wins in six or seven.

No. 1 Washington Capitals over No. 5 Buffalo Sabres

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    Bruce Boudreau did a great job turning around a Caps team that was not even in the playoff discussion when they entered the Winter Classic on New Year's Day of 2011. They finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference againย  and entered the playoffs hot.

    It looked like a team that had morphed into a good defensive squad was ready to take the next step. They came back from a three-goal deficit to beat the New York Rangers and finished them off in five games.

    Then they were completely lifeless against a Tampa squad they were hotter than and finished better despite having dug themselves a huge hole in the beginning of 2010-11.

    Any best-of-seven series against a division foe should have at least one of five games won by either team, even if they are obviously inferior. Washington could not win one against a team to which they were superior.

    Will beats skill. Buffalo is mentally tougher than Washington and will have survived arguably the toughest division in hockey and a first-round foe that will come in with more than 100 points in the standings.

    They are better coached and even better in net despite the Caps upgrade to Tomas Vokoun. But as hungry as the Sabres are, the Caps are downright desperate, so there will be no advantage in will.

    Buffalo will steal a game in this series because they know how to get more out of their talent. But Washington has much more talent.

    Buffalo got better on the blue line but they are still not as good as Washington. They got better among their forwards, but again are no match for the Caps there.

    Washington will show up better in the second round this season and win this one, but will likely need seven games.

No. 2: Pittsburgh Penguins over No. 3 Boston Bruins

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    Dan Bylsma did more with less than any coach in the NHL last season. That is why he won the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year.

    This year, he should have his guns back at centre, giving the Penguins easily the best unit in the Eastern Conference and probably the league. He has a very deep blue line and a Cup-winning goalie in Marc Andre Fleury.

    The Bruins have a better blue line and better netminding tandem. But unless the starting goalie gets hurt, the backup does not matter. The projected difference between an aging Thomas and a peaking Fleury is too minute to put stock in.

    That makes the Pens edge at forward more significant than the B's edge in net and on the blue line combined. Claude Julien is considered a great coach now, but would have been fired if the Bruins had lost to the Canadiens in the first round.

    Thus, he is not even Bylsma's equal, let alone good enough to coach a more tired, less hungry team past one with home ice advantage. He may get them three wins in this series, but no more.

No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins over No. 1 Washington Capitals

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    The Capitals are better than they were last season.

    I believe they have taken the lessons learned through playoff failure to heart and will apply them on the ice to even get to this series.

    They will play about the same number of games to get here as their foes and may have less playoff travel to compensate for a marginal increase in regular season travel.

    But they have not been this deep in the playoffs. Until you get to the conference finals, you do not know what it takes to win them.

    More importantly, they do not have better personnel. They are stronger on the blue line, but as good as their forwards are, the Pens are better. And as much as their goaltending improved, Tomas Vokoun is still not as good or experienced as Marc-Andre Fleury.

    Finally, the reality is that Dan Bylsma is a good playoff coach and Bruce Boudreau is not. (Yes, Ted Leonsis, can be good during the regular season and not the playoffs. Your comments only prove your team does not understand).

    If the coaches were switched, maybe this would be a toss-up. Right now, it spells Pittsburgh in six.

No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins over No. 2 San Jose Sharks

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    The Eastern Conference finals slide said, "Until you get to the conference finals, you do not know what it takes to win them."

    Both of these teams have been that deep at least twice in the last four seasons. But only Pittsburgh has been to the Stanley Cup Finals.

    Then again, that statement does not seem to be true of that round. The Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins have won consecutive Cups without having been to the finals as a team before.

    Still, it has to help Pittsburgh when facing the San Jose Sharks. Furthermore, even without the home ice advantage they are likely to have, the Penguins will have traveled about 20 fewer hours during the playoffs and about a week less during the regular season.

    While it could be said that the Sharks will be hungrier having not won the Cup recently, it could just as easily be said that simply reaching the Finals for the first time in franchise history would make the season a success. The same could not be said in Pittsburgh.

    That adds up to enough of an edge to make the difference in a matchup of the superior blue line vs. the superior forwards. If the Sharks had the edge in net or on the bench, that might tip the scales. But the reality is Pittsburgh is at least as good there. This will go six or seven, but the Pens win.

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