NHL: Eastern Conference Playoff Preview
It’s time for the 2nd greatest happening in sport…after sudden death Dodgeball of course.
Lets take a look at the Eastern Conference!
1. Boston Bruins vs. 4. Detroit Red Wings
It is very easy to point out that the Boston Bruins are the team to beat heading into the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. For one, obviously winning the President’s Trophy for finishing with the most points in the NHL, but they have so many different ways they can beat you. In goal, Tuukka Rask is one of the league’s best and very likely will win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender during the regular season. On the back end Zdeno Chara not only provides excellent leadership as the clubs Captain, but very few, if any, defenseman in the league provide as much as he does on the ice. Whether it’s offensive, defensive, his amazing wing span or his physical play, the 37-year-old Slovak is still a tremendous force. Up-front the B’s have excellent depth all over the place, but especially down the middle with David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Carl Soderberg as their top 3 centers. The physical presence mixed with outstanding offensive ability from the likes of Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla, give the B’s an element that few teams, if any, can match.
As I’m typing this, it is very likely that a member of the Detroit Red Wings is getting injured. The Wings have dealt with an enormous amount of injuries, including pro-longed absences from both their Captain Henrik Zetterberg and fellow star Pavel Datsyuk. While Datsyuk is back, Zetterberg remains side-lined, although he has started skating again and it’s possible he’ll be able to play at some point during the first round. In their absence, many of the young Red Wing forwards stepped up, but no one more than the talented Swede, Gustav Nyquist. The youngster was among the league’s top goal scorers the final few months of the regular season. On the back end, the ever physical Niklas Kronwall led the way offensively, finishing the season with 41 assists and 49 points. The Wings are expected to be without defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, who has been out since mid-March, for the entire first round. In net, Jimmy Howard is capable of stealing games, but can he outplay his Bruins counterpart?
Prediction: With the Red Wings getting some health….they will make a series out of this. The Bruins will still hold on, but this one will go the distance…Bruins in 7.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. 3. Montréal Canadiens
The Tampa Bay Lightning have one of the best farm systems in the league right now and that began to show this season. During the absence of star center Steven Stamkos due to injury, young forwards such as Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson really stepped up. The acquisition of Ryan Callahan from the New York Rangers in the Martin St. Louis deal, has paid dividends not only on the ice, but the 29-year-old and former Rangers Captain has provided excellent leadership and locker room presence for the club. On the defensive side of things, former 2nd overall pick, Victor Hedman has finally broken out. The 23-year-old Swede was solid defensively and provided a ton of offense from the back end finishing the season with 13 goals and his 55 points ranked 5th most among NHL defensemen. In goal, Ben Bishop had a Vezina Trophy caliber season. The giant netminder, standing tall at 6’7” was spectacular, but unfortunately is currently suffering from an upper body injury and has been ruled out for game 1 of the series. In his place back up and fellow giant 6’6” Anders Lindback will get the call (at least for game 1). While Lindback struggled during the season, he played well in the final week of the regular season after Bishop went down with his injury.
The Montréal Canadiens have one of the hottest lines in the league, led by trade deadline acquisition Thomas Vanek. Alongside the 30-year-old Austrian, is left-wing Max Pacioretty, who finished 4th in the NHL in goals during the season with 39 and center David Desharnais. If this line can continue their outstanding output, then the Canadiens should be in good shape. The Canadiens are led on the back end by a pair of offensive-defenseman in reigning Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and veteran Andre Markov. The acquisition of defensive-defenseman Mike Weaver at the trade deadline has also paid nice dividends as the under-sized, yet extremely solid defenseman has helped shore up the Canadiens 3rd defensive pairing. In goal, 26-year-old Carey Price had a very good regular season overall as he finished with a career high .927 save percentage, as well as in International play backstopping Canada to Olympic Gold at the Sochi games.
Prediction: Without Bishop, the Lightning will need Lindback to play the way he did during the season’s final week. Despite the question in net, the Lightning will move on…Lightning in 6.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 4. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Pittsburgh Penguins have the luxury of the two best players in the world, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. While Malkin was out due to injury the last few weeks of the season, he should be back for game 1 of the series. The Penguins have battled through injuries all season long and as long as their key guys are healthy, they are always going to be a threat. The return of star offensive-defenseman Kris Letang is huge. The 26-year-old missed 26 games after suffering a stroke, before returned to the Penguins lineup during the final week of the season. In addition to the offensive talented Letang, the Penguins defense core features one of the steadiest defenseman in the NHL, two-time Stanley Cup Champion Rob Scuderi. The 35-year-olds return to Pittsburgh after a very productive stint with the Los Angeles Kings will be a huge bonus in the playoffs. During Scuderi’s first stint with the Penguins, the veteran defenseman was absolutely vital in the Penguins Stanley Cup victory in 2009. His defensive play in the Stanley Cup Final that year against the Red Wings was as solid as they come. The Penguins have missed a player of his defensive presence since their 2009 cup winning team. Speaking of 2009, the Penguins haven’t had strong playoff goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury since that time. Can Fleury bounce back in post-season play? The 29-year-old once again was solid during the regular season, but the key is for him to maintain composure and confidence during the playoffs. If the Jackets can get to him early, then all bets are off.
The Columbus Blue Jackets entered this season as newcomers to the Eastern Conference. They were poised to make the playoffs after falling just short during the 2013 lockout shortened season. This will be just the 2nd playoff appearance for the Jackets, who are led up front by former 4th overall pick Ryan Johansen. The 2010 first rounder had a breakout season this year for the Jackets, finishing with 33 goals and 63 total points. The Jackets also possess some gritty, hard-nosed forwards who can chip in offensively like Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, RJ Umberger and rookie Boone Jenner. Both Foligno and Umberger are questionable for game 1 due to injury. Big free agent signee last off-season, winger Nathan Horton will be out of the series due to injury. On the defensive side of things, Jack Johnson (JMFJ) (yes you know what the MF stands for) leads the way. After being left off the U.S Olympic team, the 3rd overall pick in 2005 really turned it on both offensively and defensively for the Jackets. His continued strong play will be key for the Jackets to have a shot at upsetting the Penguins. In net, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky got off to a slow start during the season, but has been back to form since returning from injury in early January. He is more than capable of stealing games and the Jackets players feel extremely confident with Bobrovsky behind them.
Prediction: While this series has potential upset all over it (Penguins post-season issues, Fleury post-season issue, Blue Jackets play with a ton of energy, great goaltending in Bobrovsky) the Penguins will advance…just barely… Penguins in 7.
2. New York Rangers vs. 3 Philadelphia Flyers
The New York Rangers have been a team that on paper seems to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. In 2012 they advanced to the Eastern Conference Final, before falling to the New Jersey Devils. Last post-season, the Rangers fell in the 2nd round in 5 games to the Bruins, who of course would go on to be the eventual Eastern Conference Champion. The Blueshirts possess nice depth up-front and do have the star power. The key will be can Rick Nash produce at an elite level? Can Martin St. Louis return to his Lightning form? The Rangers secondary scoring is solid and led by Mats Zuccarelo and they also have one of the toughest 4th lines to play against in the NHL led by Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore. The Rangers back end is led by the talented Ryan McDonagh. The 24-year-old finished the season with 14 goals and 43 points, leading all Ranger defensemen in those categories. The solid and deep Rangers back end will be up for a very challenging task in round one. Of course in net, Henrik Lundquist (Hank) has been one of the leagues best for years. Can he finally lead the Rangers to the Promised Land?
After getting off to a terrible start, which included a coaching change, the Philadelphia Flyers played some very good hockey beginning in November. Up front, Captain Claude Giroux leads the way. The Flyers not only possess some crafty forwards, but like the Bruins, they have some very offensively gifted power forwards in Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell. Like the Rangers, the Flyers have a deep forward core which should make for an entertaining series. On the back end, while the Flyers don’t have that sexy number one defenseman, they do have some depth. Veteran Kimmo Timmonen leads the way with his solid two-way play. In net, Steve Mason regained his form that he showed during his rookie season with the Blue Jackets in 2008-09. Now while Mason’s play was a bit inconsistent down the stretch, as long as the 25-year-old netminder is healthy the Flyers should be ok in net. If Mason is out (currently he is battling an upper-body injury) then the Flyers will turn to veteran Ray Emery who has tons of experience, but again Mason’s health will be important for the club’s chances at advancing.
Prediction: The Rangers are a team who I feel do not have very many glaring holes. The Flyers have some more questions, but again they are an outstanding offensive team who has played solid defensively under head coach Craig Berube….I’m stalling here……..OK….Rangers move on….Rangers in 7.