With the Stanley Cup playoffs starting in a few days, the Eastern Conference bracket appears to be more wide-open now than in the last few seasons. It’s hard to say that any team can be considered a clear favorite, unlike previous couple of years when either the Penguins or Capitals seemed destined to advance before things began.
Of course, the Canadiens polished off both of those clubs last spring and not one of the eight teams in this year’s playdown comes into the tournament without significant strengths and questions.
Here’s a quick glimpse into the first round Eastern matchups and things to look for. But don’t look for any predictions from me. I’m a firm believer in what Toe Blake said long ago, “Predictions are for gypsies.”
Capitals (1) vs. Rangers (8)
The big story lines here have to do with these teams’ identities. The Caps have tried to change their team identity from a free-wheeling offensive juggernaut to defensively responsible team that is hard to play against, and they added some experienced guys at the deadline to help them do that. The Rangers enjoy the reputation as one of the hardest-working and best shot blocking clubs in the NHL, a never-say-die group who are excellent coming from behind in the third period.
The Caps will be facing one of the best goalies in the NHL in Henrik Lundqvist, who will be looking to duplicate what Jaroslav Halak did to Washington in the first round last season. The Rangers will be facing, well, who? It looks as if it could be Michal Neuvirth, but he has zero Stanley Cup experience. Semyon Varlamov who has been Bruce Boudreau’s go-to guy the last two years, could get the call, however. And if both falter, then there’s Braden Holtby, currently in Hershey, who played rather well in his March stint with the Caps.
The Capitals had a great stretch run, going 16-3-1 in their last 20 games and passing the Flyers who they trailed by 12 points in late February. Their best offensive defenceman, Mike Green was out of the lineup with a concussion for those 20 game. Coincidence? Hmmm.
Alex Ovechkin failed to score a single goal against the Rangers this season, notching only two assists and was a minus-1 in four games, but he had a very good stretch run (23 points in 17 games during that 20-game stretch — he missed three of those games), as did Nicklas Backstrom, who had a sub par, injury-riddled season until the last 10 games, in which he notched nine points.
The Rangers won’t have their spiritual leader, top line winger Ryan Callahan, although they did get their captain Chris Drury back for the season finale and he’s a great leader as well, if not as offensively productive as he once was.
The Caps have been playoff under-achievers. Could this be an upset in the making? A lot depends on the Rangers’ young defence and Lundqvist, plus the Caps’ resolve to continue their patient, D-first style of play, wait for turnovers and pounce. That’s how they can trap the John Tortorella “safe is death” Rangers.
Flyers (2) vs. Buffalo (7)
The Flyers had a poor end to the season and have shown no strong signs they’re ready to pull out of it (my SI.com blog post on them last week has some details on their poor last quarter of the season). They were frequently outworked in the last 25 games and in the critical areas of playoff hockey — special teams and goaltending — they were not great. Not having Chris Pronger at 100 percent, or at all, for much of this time has had big impact. It’s unclear if he’ll play this round or what sort of shape he’ll be in, as he recovers from a broken hand. He routinely played half a game last spring in the Flyers run to the Finals and without him, they have to distribute his minutes to others who are not quite as dominant.
The Sabres, on the other hand had a strong second half, 28-11-6 since Jan. 1 (without top line center Derek Roy) and 9-1-2 in the final 12 games. They got important contributions from some of their younger players down the stretch — Drew Stafford (31 goals), Tyler Ennis (20 goals), little Nathan Gerbe (16 goals), Tyler Myers (a better second half of the season than his sophomore slumping first), unheralded blueliner Andrej Sekera (plus-11) and goalie Jonas Enroth all became an important parts of the team and provided good depth to their established players.
In goal, the Flyers will once again face questions with Sergie Bobrovsky. Or Brian Boucher. Or Michael Leighton. The Sabres have Ryan Miller, with Enroth in reserve. Big edge to the Sabres there.
Of course, once the puck drops and the regular season is wiped clean, it gives the Flyers a chance to turn the page. Their forwards are among most talented in the NHL, with great strength down the middle and firepower on the wings. Their defence corps, especially with a full-strength Pronger, is deep and effective. If they engage to the level of which they’re capable and have a dominant Pronger in the lineup, they can grind most teams down.
Without those elements, they could be an upset victim.
Bruins (3) vs. Canadiens (6)
No one reading this blog is unaware of the fierce rivalry these teams have (and have had), nor the contrasting nature of the teams’ styles and personnel. Mike Boone’s fine thumbnail comparison on Sunday morning and Arpon Basu’s longer analysis frame the matchup well.
In the four games the Habs won, their speed dominated the Boston physical play. In the two Boston won, it was the other way around and Montreal’s flaccid response in the last meeting, with the spectre of the Chara-Pacioretty hit hovering over the proceedings, left a bitter aftertaste.
The elements that the Canadiens need to prevail are clear and the formula that Jacques Martin has employed for two seasons hasn’t changed: great goaltending, strong special teams, disciplined play. Some of the under-achievers (and you know who they are) will have to turn it up a notch so that other playoff formula — your best players have to be your best players — can fully kick in, especially without Pacioretty’s services.
The Bruins’ deadline additions of Tomas Kaberle, Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly haven’t exactly paid off handsomely, and they haven’t really had to yet. But they might turn up now (and Peverley had some impressive moments in recent games).
More importantly, the Bruins may be heartened that they won that Mar. 24 game without resorting to excessive goonery and allowed their considerable talents with the puck and body do the work. This is how they’ll have to play if they want to advance, but it’s very far from guaranteed that’s how things will go down, especially if Montreal’s speed, transistion game, penalty killing, shotblocking and goaltending frustrate them.
Penguins (4) vs. Lightning (5)
Many observers are painting this matchup as the defence of the Pens against the offense of the Bolts. But that’s a bit of an oversimplification.
Certainly the Lightning can light it up, with Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, Ryan Malone (if he’s healthy) and Simon Gagne in the lineup. And without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins have relied on a strong defence corps and the excellent play of Marc-Andre Fleury to have an unexpectedly strong second half.
Crosby played 41 games, a half-season. After he left the lineup, the Pens scored 32 fewer goals than in the first half (an average of .78 fewer goals per game). They also allowed five more goals, so they were about even there. And the followed up their 55 points in the first half with 51 in the second. So they kept winning, but just not by as big a margin as before.
Which means you can’t entirely discount the Pens’ ability to generate offense. They finished fifth in the East in goals scored, they have Kris Letang quarterbacking their rushes and the power play, and his 42 assists were second among Eastern Conference defenseman (one behind Kaberle). There are some considerable talents up front for the Pens, too. Jordan Staal, Chirs Kunitz, James Neal (although he hasn’t exactly torn it up since coming from Dallas), Tyler Kennedy and Alex Kovalev all know where the net is. Of course, in Kovalev’s case, his two goals and four assists in 19 Penguins games could indicate the end is at hand. (And yet….). Still, no one is going to confuse these guys with the 1984 Oilers.
No, Tampa Bay’s defence corps is nowhere near as strong as Pittsburgh’s, which apart from Letang, also boasts Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, among others. And while Dwayne Roloson in goal has had a number of great games this year, he’s had some stinkers, too, and he’s 41 years old. Mike Smith behind him played well recently.
The Lightning’s record in March (winning only one regulation game in 12 and only one other in a shootout, gaining seven of 24 points in total) spoiled a very good season prior to that. And yet the Bolts go into the playoffs winning seven of eight, all in regulation, and allowing just 14 goals in that span.
Could Lightning Coach Guy Boucher have been retooling his club down the stretch to surprise the NHL by playing more of a shutdown game? If the Lightning bottle up the Pens — and let’s assume Crosby isn’t in the picture — if they can make the Pens play the series in their own zone, they could wear down Fleury and his defencemen.
Don’t hand this series to the Penguins so quickly.