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Monday, April 7, 2008

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Playoff Breakdown

The regular season has come to a close in what feels like a blink of an eye. I can't believe this season is already over. It's fast approaching the worst time of year where there is no hockey being played.

It's the time of year when I get to put my thinking cap on and dust off the crystal ball and make some predictions about who's going far and who should start buffing the golf clubs.

But, before we get into the predictions let me boast a little here at Gopher's expense. As many on you might recall, he defeated me in our fantasy hockey league championship round last year and we had a rematch this season.

For the past two weeks I don't think I have trailed once and the lead has just grown and grown with every passing day. The final score of our battle this time around was 13-4 me, thus giving me the gold Yahoo Sports trophy to sit beside the two silver ones from the past two years.

When Gopher comes over in a few days, I'll be hoisting the miniature Stanley Cup and walking it around my basement while my girlfriend looks on and debates calling the authorities to come take me away and put me in a padded room.

Anyway, let's look at the Eastern Conference playoff scenarios.

#1 Montreal Canadiens vs. #8 Boston Bruins

Well, this will be yet another chapter in this historical rivalry that I didn't think could be any more heated.

Why Montreal Wins: Offensively this team is a much more deep team than the Bruins. Alexi Kovalev has been the player I loved while he was in Pittsburgh. He finished this season with 35 goals and 49 assists for 84 points. This wasn't a career high, but it's the first time he's cracked the 80-point mark since 1999-2000 when he had 95 points in Pittsburgh.

Centerman Tomas Plekanec and defenseman Mark Streit have turned into phenominal players and have been a big reason why the Habs won the regular season Eastern Conference title.

Plekanec was second on the team behing Kovy with 69 points and Streit was third with 62.

Why They Don't Win: Two things jump to mind. Captain Saku Koivu is most likely out for at least the first round. I question how far they can go without their inspirational leader.

Reason number 2 is Carey Price. I give this kid a lot of credit. Really, I do. For as much suspicion I had about him, he was one of the key reasons the Habs won the Conference and why I won my fantasy league, but that was the regular season. How this kid holds up in hostile playoff environments is going to determine just how far they go. I believe he's got all the goods and could easily get the job done, but inexperience shows this time of year.

As for the Bruins:

Why They Win: Hunger. Plain and simple and I'm not just talking about the team. Boston sports have been impressive this past year. The Patriots went undefeated (Super Bowl never happened, see archives for more on that), Red Sox won the World Series and the Celtics are well on their way to winning the NBA championship.

This town used to rally around the Bruins more than any other team, at least it was like that when I was growing up while the Pats, Celts and Sox all were bottom feeders. This town is hungry for its teams to finally do well after suffering for so long and you can bet the farm that the TD Banknorth Garden will be electric especially with an old foe in town. The Bruins will feed off that energy and be a very tough team to beat on home ice.

Gopher's take on that above reasoning: "T don't think hunger is the word. It's unparalleled manifest destiny of a city. I don't if there's a word for that... but thats what it is."

Why They Don't Win: Goaltending jumps off the page at me on this. Tim Thomas has shown moments of brilliance and others where he can't stop a beachball this season and Alex Auld has been right up there with him.

Thomas has played well in April, but the Bruins are 4-2-4 in their last 10 games heading into the playoffs and have shown a severe lack of offense in those games scoring 25 goals.

Bottom Line: The Canadiens are too deep and playing very well right now to be upset by Boston. Let's also not forget that they swept the season series. Habs win in 5.

#2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #7 Ottawa Senators

Well this is a rematch of last season's quarterfinals that the Senators easily won 4-1 en route to a Stanley Cup Finals berth.

Why Pittsburgh Wins: This team is entirely different than the one that got kicked around last year. They're added a lethal scoring threat in Marian Hossa, role player and penalty killing specialist Pascal Dupuis and the shot blocking big body of Hal Gill.

The Penguins now have two lines that can score with Sidney Crosby, Hossa and Dupuis as the new unit. Also, Petr Sykora, Evgeni Malkin and Ryan Malone carried this team while Sid was out with a high ankle sprain. Malone has thrived in leadership role that he was granted earlier this season and developed into the well rounded player who the Penguins have been banking on for years.

Why They Don't Win: Penalty killing is a problem that continues to haunt the Penguins. Their 80.5% kill rate is only better than two other playoff teams (Washington 80.5%, Boston 78.6%.)

The other thing that has me worried is how much did the Pens learn in that quick 5-game series against these same Ottawa Senators? I like to think that the adversity this team faced and overcame during the season has prepared them for what looms in the playoffs.

As for Ottawa:

Why They Win: They won the season series 3-1 against the Pens, but if you remember back to last year the Pens won the regular season series with Ottawa by the same margin and lost in 5 games.

Anyway, Ottawa has some scary talent in Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley and let's not forget that this team was the number one team in the Eastern Conference for the majority of the season.

Why They Don't Win: Where to begin with this one? How about in net? Martin Gerber and Ray Emery have quite possibly been the most inconsistent goalies in the history of the game this year. I had Emery on my fantasy team and lived through his ups and downs. Gerber is the clear guy for the playoffs, but how long will it last? He did get yanked in favor of Cam Ward a couple years ago and we all know how that turned out.

Side note: Speaking of the Hurricanes can I just point out the fact that I said in an earlier post that any playoff team would have beaten the Canes in the first round? Some of you called me nuts on that and claimed that they were better than I thought. I guess those people will never get the chance to prove me wrong unless it's on the golf course. Yes, I feel vindicated.

Another thing that won't help the Senators chances against Pittsburgh is that captain Daniel Alfredsson suffered a head and knee injury earlier this week and according to coach Brian Murray he could be out for weeks. Without him in the lineup, their role guys and lesser knowns are going to have to step it up.

Bottom Line: It's time for the Penguins to prove GM Ray Shero right in making the deal for Hossa and show they are a Stanley Cup contender. The time is now. Penguins win in 6.

#3 Washington Capitals vs. #6 Philadelphia Flyers

This should be one heck of a battle. The two teams split the season series 2-2 and no team won on home ice.

Why The Capitals Win: If this team keeps playing the way it has down the stretch to just make the playoffs, they are going to be a very difficult team to beat four times in seven games.

Cristobal Huet has been magnificent in net and Alexander Ovechkin won the scoring title (112) and goal scoring title (65). They have been red hot and I personally did not think they had it in them to catch the Hurricanes, but they proved me wrong.

Rookie Niklas Backstrom has been a force all season and the emergence of Mike Green on defense has given Alex a few more options while putting on his dazzling performances night in and night out.

Why They Don't Win: I know this may sound old hat by now, but lack of experience. How will Ovechkin react to playoff hockey? Should Huet falter, does Olaf Kolzig remember what playoff hockey even is? Can they possibly keep up this scorching hot streak for another two plus months?

There's a lot of question marks with this team and you also have to wonder how they match up against teams from other divisions as the Southeast is generally the weakest division in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire league.

Onto the Flyers:

Why They Win:They match up pretty well against the Capitals. They like to play a bruising style that could slow down the high flying Caps.

The Flyers earned the 6-seed by beating the Penguins on Sunday. A loss and they would've played the Penguins in the first round in what could have potentially been an unheard of nine straight games against the same team.

Pick your poison I guess for Philly who now gets Ovechkin instead of Sidney and Co.

Martin Biron has played well in his first full season with the Flyers going 29-20-9 with a 2.64 GAA and a .917 save percentage. I think his numbers would look better had they not suffered as many injuries as they did.

Why They Don't Win: The only team in the Eastern Conference playoffs with more goals allowed are the Ottawa Senators. Philly has allowed 233 on the year and scored 248. We know they are capable of scoring goals, but can their defense slow down Ovechkin?

Also, Daniel Briere suffered a knee injury in Game 81 on the year against the Penguins and did not suit up in the team's final game against the Penguins on April 6. They Flyers said that he was held out to let him rest up and he was fitted for a knee brace. If he cannot play or has to miss time due to his injury, this could spell the end for Philly.

Bottom Line:The Capitals are on fire right now and hot teams tend to do well in the playoffs. However, they do not have much experience and while there are many question marks about both squads, I see this going the distance with the Flyers moving on to the second round. Flyers win in 7.

#4 New Jersey Devils vs. #5 New York Rangers

A classic rivalry between division foes. The Rangers won the season series 7-1 with four games going to overtime or a shootout. The only Devils win came in their final meeting with home ice on the line on April 6 and it was in the shootout.

Why The Devils Win: Defense, defense defense. There's a saying that goes "Defense wins championships." The Devils took this saying and have taken it to levels not forseen by the author of the quote.

Their trap system has won them three Stanley Cups and numerous division titles and the like. Combine that with hall-of-fame goaltender Martin Brodeur and their boring style of play makes them a tough team to knock out.

They have the experience and grit that is so valuable at this time of year and could be poised to make another long playoff run.

Why They Don't Win: Utter lack of offense. Patrick Elias, Brian Gionta and Zach Parise are the only guys I'd be worried about if I'm the Rangers. Shut that line down, score three goals and the game is over. Sounds simple enough right?

Eventually the lack of scoring depth on this team will catch up to them and it will be good night. The first team that can get the Devils into an up tempo style of play and force them to actually play something that resembles hockey, will knock them out.

Onto the Rangers:

Why They Win: It finally looks as if the Rangers have worked out the early-midseason kinks and have started to gel. The offseason recruits of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez haven't exactly lived up to their $7+ million contracts, but Jaromir Jagr is on fire lately, scoring 5 goals over the last two weeks and netting 8 points.

We've also seen Henrik Lundqvist take control of a playoff series and has big a major reason why the Rangers are even in the playoffs in the first place. Lundqvist went 37-24-9 with 10 shutouts and a 2.24 GAA and .912 save percentage.

Why They Don't Win: What pops out at me the most is the defense. Marek Malik is one of the worst defensemen I've ever seen and when I heard rumors that GM Glenn Sather was looking for a top-4 d-man in return for Malik at the deadline, I needed a new pair of pants from laughing so hard.

He's one of those guys you love to play against because you know if you pressure him at all he'll screw up in some way that gives your team an edge. For example on April 6 against the Devils he crashed into Lundqvist as a shot was coming in. Lundqvist goes to protect himself and the Rangers playoff hopes and the puck goes right into the net.

Earlier this season in Boston in a tie game with 8 seconds left in the third period, Malik has it behind his net with no Bruin player pressuring him. Instead of sitting on it behind the net to get to overtime, he decides to fire a long outlet pass that gets picked off by a streaking Bruin who then gets two glorious chances on Lundqvist who once again had to bail out the Ranger defense.

Bottom Line: The Rangers are capable of slowing a game down and have proven that they can beat the Devils. They can also easily shut down the one scoring threat that the Devils have and come out on top in a long series. Rangers win in 6.

1 comment:

Apryl DeLancey said...

I can't believe the season is over either...great post, as usual