The Eastern Conference saw some jockeying for position on the final day of action Saturday, changing what looked to be set matchups prior. Washington’s move to seventh took away two very promising storylines and left us with what could be even more fun: a lot of unknowns. We also have Pittsburgh playing Philly, so that’s enough right there.
New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8)
It seemed for weeks like it was going to be the Rangers and the Capitals for the third time in four years prior to Saturday’s Caps win which saw them move into the seven seed instead. That also scuttled a good Northeast Division battle between Ottawa and Boston and gave us two new, but equally interesting, clashes in the first round. I really look at this series and believe it’s defined by goaltending, maybe more than any other in the first round.
Henrik Lundqvist is the best goaltender out East without peer this season, and he’ll be the reason why the Rangers win this one. New York is a good team buoyed to a top seed by their all world goaltending, in my eyes. Against a Pittsburgh, or maybe Boston, I think inferior depth will do them in over a span of seven games. However, against Ottawa, I think the Rangers win the depth contest and can match up pretty decently with high end players. On top of that, facing Lundqvist game after game should prove too much for this upstart Sens team. Over 62 games this year, Lundqvist’s even strength save percentage ended up being a stupid .933 to go along with his .930 overall number.
Had I written this midway through the season, I would have been extremely down on Ottawa’s situation between the pipes, but give Craig Anderson credit. He had to put together a stellar second half of the season to get his terrible numbers up, and they’re now respectable. He won’t be the reason why they lose by any stretch. If Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek don’t lead the way offensively, this could be over very quickly, but even a good series from these two won’t be enough against King Henrik. Rangers in 5.
Boston Bruins (2) vs. Washington Capitals (7)
Going into the final week of the season, I believed the Rangers would be facing a long series against the Caps. With Washington now set to face Boston, that assertion doesn’t change. For the first time in a long time, the Capitals are a healthy bunch after a disappointing regular season where they just barely held off a surging Buffalo team to get into the postseason. But with Nicklas Backstrom back in the lineup, everything changes for this team. He played in four games to finish the regular season after missing almost three months with a concussion, recording his first points in the season finale against the Rangers.
Having Backstrom in the lineup along with a healthy Mike Green gives Dale Hunter’s team the depth they’ve so desperately lacked all season. Alexander Ovechkin and Brooks Laich had down seasons overall, but both came to play down the stretch. The former scored 11 of his 38 goals in the final 13 games of the season when his team needed them most while Laich nailed his assignments in huge games against tough opposition down the stretch. But I just don’t see it being enough against the defending Cup champs.
Boston may have had their struggles since looking unbeatable in November and December, but truthfully, they’re still the defending champs. They’re also going up against a team that has forged a reputation of turtling come playoff time. The Bruins are the type of squad who will feast on that, and they’re also a team that is just better overall. Even with his struggles, I’ll take Tim Thomas over rookie Braden Holtby and the forward matchups should work in Boston’s favor over seven games. Matching Patrice Bergeron’s shutdown unit against one of Washington’s top lines isn’t a test they can’t handle leaving a pretty even matchup for the David Krejci/Milan Lucic line against either Ovechkin or Backstrom. It’ll be a good one, and a long grind, but the champs will be moving on. Bruins in 7.
Florida Panthers (3) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)
For the first time ever, the Panthers are Southeast Division champions adding another accomplishment to their first playoff berth since 2000 (!). Unfortunately, I just don’t see the feel good story lasting much longer than one round. Overall this is a fairly average team able to cobble together wins thanks to timely scoring, two very potent defensemen (Jason Garrison and Brian Campbell), and one extremely unheralded center (Marcel Goc). In fact, Goc might be Florida’s biggest key to success in this series.
The veteran pivot saw the toughest minutes in every sense of the word this year for the Panthers, starting almost 62% of the time in the defensive zone while still having a well-above-positve shot rate. His ability, along with strong linemates Sean Bergenheim and Mikael Samuelsson, to take on New Jersey’s toughest matchups head-to-head (ie. the Parise line) while continuing to eat extra defensive duty will go a long way in determining how much success Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss, and Tomas Fleischmann have offensively.
Overall, Devils Head Coach Peter DeBoer will be able to get his line of Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac their offensive time, though, and I just like New Jersey’s depth overall. Even if Goc et al do the job against Zajac’s trio, I’ll take Patrik Elias’s line with Petr Sykora and Dainus Zubrus over the Weiss unit over seven games. They all can still play and all did at a very high level this past season and most importantly, there’s a history of very strong postseason play there. Don’t forget Calder Trophy nominee Adam Henrique is centering the third line right now. The Devils are good, and better than the Panthers. Devils in 5.
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)
No, we likely won’t be seeing stick throwing and yelling matches involving members of the coaching staff in every game. But we’re in for an absolutely incredible series between these two bitter rivals, and I for one am jacked up to see it. This is a battle between the two highest scoring teams in the NHL, with the Penguins leading the way with their torrid final two months of the season. I feel bad for the Flyers, as a very good team has drawn a juggernaut opponent out of place in conference standings.
The Flyers, Senators, Bruins, and Capitals are all Eastern Conference examples (in different ways) of how one elite center is the most important position in hockey. The Penguins have three of them, and until they meet a team with at least two, I just don’t see them losing in a playoff series. Philly has Claude Giroux who fits the bill easily, but they don’t have another guy down the middle in the same league as Staal, Malkin, or Crosby. Making matters worse, the guy who could best matchup in that regard won’t be available to start the series, as Danny Briere remains on the shelf with a back contusion.
Philly is as deep a team you’re going to find in the 2012 postseason, even without Chris Pronger for most of the season. But I just can’t see them being able to contain what Pittsburgh will throw at them over seven games, even though I like their wingers more. Thanks in large part to their center ice prowess, the Penguins saw Pascal Dupuis score a point in each of Pittsburgh’s last 17 games while also seeing James Neal pot 40 after a career high of 27 prior. It’s why they’re the Cup favorites in my eyes and why they’ll win this series. Penguins in 6.