Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Hey, they're giving out the Stanley Cup again!! Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

The NHL season ended last night, and while the Western Conference (which we'll get to at a different time) is littered with the usual suspects and little new blood, the Eastern Conference got turned all sorts of inside-out this year.

The season was entertaining. Scoring was up. Tempo was up. It turned back into, for the most part, a young man's game, with two rookies topping 100 points (one of them, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, became the youngest ever to score 100 points). Attendance was up, even in former NHL outposts like South Florida, Carolina, and Atlanta, where fans seemed to truly enjoy the up-tempo nature of the "new NHL". 18 of the NHL's 30 teams drew average crowds better than 90 percent of their arena capacity. 10 of those teams averaged either a sellout or an overflow crowd every night. Leaguewide attendance could end up being a record. We could find out that information from the NHL sometime today.

The shootout, which I was against at first, has been an absolute success. The players embraced it, with players on the Atlanta Thrashers even wearing their helmets backwards (like a rally cap in baseball) during their team's shootouts. Fans loved it. Do you think any arena around the league emptied before a shootout? And while I still don't like the idea of playoff spots being decided by something so gimmicky, we'd all better get used to it. There's no chance, at this point, that the shootout is going away. It went too well for the league to ditch it now.

Let's count down the eight playoff contenders in the East. The postseason starts Friday. When I post the West preview, we'll talk about one of the biggest playoff storylines this spring: officiating.

8. Montreal Canadiens (42-31-9, 93 points)

The Canadiens got everyone's attention by winning ten of twelve games on their way to the playoffs. However, Montreal had to back into the postseason after losing their last two home games, including blowing a 3-0 lead in their final game and losing to New Jersey. The Habs have quality goaltending, but can they play enough defense to spring an opening-round upset?

Why the Canadiens will go far: For Montreal, one of the major keys has been the power play. In the playoffs, every special-teams opportunity is important, and it's nice to have the fifth-ranked power play in the NHL on your side. Alexei Kovalev is absolutely explosive, and Michael Ryder had himself a nice 30-goal season. The Canadiens have strong goaltending, with Cristobal Huet leading the way with his .930 save percentage. The team hopes that, if Huet falters, David Aebischer will benefit from a change of scenery and play well for them after struggling in Colorado.

Why the Canadiens will go away: Blowing a 3-0 lead on home ice can never be acceptable, and in the case of the Montreal-Jersey game Tuesday night, it exposed the major weakness of the Canadiens: Defense. The Habs just don't play consistently well in their own zone, and they give up a lot of shots and scoring chances as a result. Huet and Aebischer are prone to slumps, and the offense doesn't have enough support for Kovalev. Saku Koivu has been slumping for some time, and the Habs aren't particularly deep up front.

Bottom line: The Canadiens are game, but they are overrun by Carolina's skill and depth in the first round. Montreal loses in six games.

7. Tampa Bay Lightning (43-33-6, 92 points)

The defending Cup champions are the eighth seed in this year's tournament. Tampa had some issues in goal this year, and the play up front was often inconsistent. With the run this team had in 2004, no one questions their ability to put it all back together in the playoffs this year. But it seems like too much to ask for this team to upend a team that they failed to beat in four tries during the regular season.

Why the Lightning will go far: I'm not a fan of using "experience" as an argument, but it's hard to argue against the idea that the Lightning will benefit at least a little bit from their status as the defending champion. And they still have much of that cast intact. Defensemen Dan Boyle, Pavel Kubina, and Darryl Sydor can play. And we all know the Lightning can score with the best of them, led by Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Ruslan Fedotenko.

Why the Lightning will go away: Goaltending. Sean Burke and John Grahame both showed flashes of solid play this season, but neither was nearly consistent enough to earn the job on a regular basis. The defense also had issues this season, allowing too many quality scoring chances in front of what was largely shaky goaltending. The Lightning were off-and-on all season, and now they have to hope that they can "flip the switch" in time for the second season. It's a lot to ask of anyone, even a reigning Stanley Cup champion.

Bottom line: The Lightning play better in their own zone, but a lack of timely scoring and spotty goaltending conspire to doom them in a five-game run against top-seeded Ottawa.

6. New York Rangers (44-26-12, 100 points)

It was simple for the Rangers with five games left. All they needed was one win. One.

They got none.

The Rangers ended up doing the impossible. They blew an insurmountable lead and lost the division title to New Jersey. In the process, the Rangers, on the last night of the season, fell from the third seed to the sixth seed.

Why the Rangers will go far: Henrik Lundqvist is one of the top goaltenders in the league. He sat out a few games down the stretch to rest a hip problem, but he's allegedly okay now. While the NHL may have changed a little bit, one thing hasn't changed. Goaltending will be huge in the playoffs. The Rangers have the goaltending to carry them on a long run, and they have some depth. Guys like Petr Prucha, Petr Sykora, and Jason Ward are solid third- and fourth-line players, and Sykora doesn't lack in experience. With a top-line scorer like Jaromir Jagr on the first line, the Rangers can certainly score goals. Jagr may have had his best season this year. The Rangers are good on special teams.

Why the Rangers will go away: They didn't play well down the stretch, and the Rangers are matched up with an opponent (New Jersey) who is on an 11-game winning streak, including a four-goal rally to win their season finale and clinch the Atlantic Division. The Rangers need to solidify their defensive play, as was evidenced by Ottawa's five-goal performance at the Garden on Tuesday night. The Rangers showed a ton of promise throughout the season, and now they need to cash in on it, and do it as the underdog.

Bottom line: The Rangers have a favorable matchup in New Jersey, a team they're familiar with and a team that doesn't have New York's depth. But the Devils have Martin Brodeur, and he will frustrate the Rangers out of the playoffs in seven games.

5. Philadelphia Flyers (45-26-11, 101 points)

Good news: Keith Primeau, the captain, has been practicing with the team after missing pretty much the whole season with concussion issues.

Bad news: Primeau is probably not going to play, though nothing in the playoffs can be ruled out. Coaches will hide everything they can hide, and there's no chance that Ken Hitchcock will say anything definitive about Primeau's status until he is absolutely certain that he can't use the information against someone.

If Primeau can play, look out. But I'm not counting on it.

Why the Flyers will go far: With how great Robert Esche was during Philly's 2004 Eastern Conference playoff run, it's not a stretch to suggest that he could do it again. If Peter Forsberg is healthy, he undoubtedly makes Philadelphia a better team. Guys like Simon Gagne, Mike Knuble, and Joni Pitkanen feed off of Forsberg, and the power play is better when Forsberg is around, too. Hitchcock is a savvy, experienced coach who has won the Stanley Cup, and there is no question that he can do it again.

Why the Flyers will go away: Esche has been inconsistent and banged-up this season, and he is looking over his shoulder at Antero Niittymaki, who led Finland to the Olympic silver medal in February. It sounds like Esche will start Game One in Buffalo on Saturday, but how long will he stay in net? Will the Flyers rotate goalies? Will Esche play himself out of the job? Can Forsberg stay in the lineup? If Forsberg is out, the Flyers probably will be, too. They'd better stay out of the box, too, as these Flyers rank a startling 27th in the NHL on the penalty kill.

Bottom line: While Philadelphia will keep things interesting, they don't have the defense or the consistent goaltending necessary to slow down Buffalo in the first round. Philadelphia will lose to the Sabres in six games.

4. New Jersey Devils (46-27-9, 101 points)

The Devils are an interesting case. They're the hottest team in the league, having won their last eleven (!) games. They have loads of playoff experience, and they have one of the best goaltenders of the last 20 years in Brodeur. The Devils looked shaky throughout much of the season, but they really picked it up down the stretch.

Why the Devils will go far: It starts with Brodeur. Not only can he be downright spectacular, but he's one of the most consistent goaltenders in the game. He knows what he has to do to help his team win, and this year, that's a little more than it used to be, because the Devils aren't as good defensively as they used to be. I remember watching Brian Gionta play at Boston College, and I never remember thinking that there would be a time where Gionta would get anywhere near 50 goals in a single NHL season. He set a franchise record this year with 48. Scott Gomez and Patrik Elias can score. Elias had 16 in just 38 games, a pace that would have seen him score 35 in a full season. Brian Rafalski leads the defensive corps, and while his offensive numbers suffered this year, his defense is still as good as it gets.

Why the Devils will go away: They're not particularly good defensively, and even with Brodeur playing as well as Brodeur plays, they give up more goals than we're used to seeing them give up. They're also not very deep, with Gionta and Gomez the only 30-goal scorers. In the "new NHL", it seems like Jersey will eventually have to find a lot more production out of their second and third lines.

Bottom line: Jersey has enough scoring and goaltending to get by the slumping Rangers, but it won't be easy. The Devils then would have to play Carolina, a team with too much speed and skill for New Jersey to handle effectively. Carolina eliminates the Devils in a seven-game conference semifinal series.

3. Ottawa Senators (52-21-9, 113 points)

The Senators signed Dominik Hasek in hopes that he was the missing piece to a Cup Finals run. Unfortunately for Ottawa, all Hasek has been lately is a missing piece. He hasn't played since February 11, leaving the goaltending duties to rookie Ray Emery.

That means that this year's Senators look a lot like previous Senator teams. Lots of skill. Lots of scoring. Okay defense. Shaky goaltending.

At least Ottawa fans should be used to this by now.

Why the Senators will go far: Outside of Hasek, they're healthy now. The Senators have talented defenseman Zdeno Chara back, with Chris Phillips possibly back in time for the playoff opener. Wade Redden is also a very good defenseman. Overall, the Sens are as talented and as deep defensively as they've ever been. Martin Havlat is back up front, and the top line of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, and Daniel Alfredsson is as good a line as you'll find in the NHL. If Hasek can go, the Senators suddenly become dangerously close to a complete team.

Why the Senators will go away: Hasek might play. Key word: "might". The Senators just don't know, and as long as he's a question mark, he's a distraction. Ottawa likes Emery, but he's not as good as Hasek, and he lacks the big-game experience. But Hasek's groin has been a problem for years, and the Senators have themselves to blame if Emery fails in the playoffs, because they should have had a better backup plan in place. If Havlat doesn't produce, it puts a lot of pressure on that top line to carry the Ottawa attack.

Bottom line: Ottawa can make a run, even without Hasek. But it would be a lot better for them if there was a decision made, one way or the other. Either way, the health of Chara, Phillips, and Havlat is huge for Ottawa. And they need to avoid the stigma of previous playoff troubles. Ottawa gets by Tampa Bay in a surprisingly easy five-game series, but Ottawa can't skate past Buffalo, as the Sabres use their superior goaltending to knock out the Senators in six games.

2. Carolina Hurricanes (52-22-8, 112 points)

The Hurricanes were the story of the league this season, shocking everyone by finishing in the top half of the East, and narrowly missing out on the top seed. The Hurricanes have good speed and skill up front, and their goaltending has been much better than what was expected when the season started, as Martin Gerber stepped up and had a fine season. Attendance shot up in Raleigh, as fans found out what a real hockey team looks like, and they liked it.

Why the Hurricanes will go far: Carolina has plenty of scoring. Eric Staal had a great season. Rod Brind'Amour found the fountain of youth. Cory Stillman continued to be a solid, steady veteran presence. Their defensemen are more the stay-at-home types, but they can jump into the play when needed. Bret Hedican, Glen Wesley, and Aaron Ward have been around the block, and Mike Commodore had a good season. Gerber got hot in the Olympics and carried Switzerland on a fun ride.

Why the Hurricanes will go away: Like the Rangers, the 'Canes didn't have the strongest finish. They weren't a real strong road team this year, either, playing much better in front of the home fans. The Hurricanes lost four of their last five, including two of their last three games at the RBC Center. The Hurricanes are skilled, but not particularly deep, and they're not the grittiest team in the conference. They'll have trouble against hot goaltenders because their offense is such a sparkplug for the entire team.

Bottom line: Every year, someone with a high seed gets bumped. In some years, more than one team gets bumped. This year, I don't think it's going to happen. I don't trust Tampa Bay or Montreal enough to pick them to pull off the upsets. Carolina wins over Montreal, but they need six games to get it done. That's followed up by an epic seven-game series win over a game New Jersey outfit that just doesn't have enough depth to hold up. Carolina loses the East finals in seven games to...

1. Buffalo Sabres (52-24-6, 110 points)

Talk about teams that benefitted from the "new" NHL. Buffalo has certainly done that. While the Sabres don't strike fear into you when you look at the statistics, because they don't have that 100-point guy or 50-goal guy. Instead, the Sabres have a staggering eleven players who reached double-digits in goals. Six of the eleven finished with 20 or more goals. It's that balance, along with the goaltending of Ryan Miller (a Hobey Baker winner at Michigan State), that makes Buffalo such a tough out.

Why the Sabres will go far: Balance. Buffalo's top scorer is Maxim Afinogenov (73 points). He tied for 42nd in the league in scoring. Chris Drury hit the 30-goal mark. Daniel Briere and Ales Kotalik both hit 25 goals, as did rookie Thomas Vanek. J.P. Dumont also hit the 20-goal mark. Miller rebounded from an early injury to post outstanding numbers. On defense, the Sabres aren't outstanding, but they get in the way. Jay McKee led the league this year in shots blocked, which shows his willingness to pay the price, and his teammates share that work ethic. No team in the league can boast Buffalo's balance, and Miller gives the Sabres upside in goal that they haven't had in some time. (None of this is meant to forget about Martin Biron, who can also play. He won 21 games for the Sabres this season.)

Why the Sabres will go away: While Drury and Afinogenov are good, they're not good enough to carry this team. Who steps up and scores in the clutch? Can the Sabres play good-enough defense in front of Miller and/or Biron? They have some issues there, though they will benefit from a healthy Dmitri Kalinin. I don't know how Drury is -11 for the season, as he has really developed his defensive game.

Bottom line: This might not be the sexy pick in the East, but it's my pick. The Sabres are as good as anyone in the league, thanks to their balance and work ethic. They have enough depth to run the Flyers out in the first round, and they have enough skill and goaltending to deal with Ottawa and Carolina on their way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Who will the Sabres face off against for the right to lift the Cup? You'll just have to wait until tomorrow to find out.


Ottawa vs Tampa Bay
Game 1: Friday at Ottawa, 7pm ET (CBC)
Game 2: Sunday at Ottawa, 6pm ET (OLN)
Game 3: Tuesday at Tampa, 7pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 4: April 27 at Tampa, 7pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 5: April 29 at Ottawa, 7pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 6: May 1 at Tampa, 7pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 7: May 3 at Ottawa, 7pm ET (CBC)

Carolina vs Montreal
Game 1: Saturday at Carolina, 7pm ET (CBC, RDS)
Game 2: Monday at Carolina, 7pm ET (CBC, RDS)
Game 3: Wednesday at Montreal, 7pm ET (CBC, RDS)
Game 4: April 28 at Montreal, 7pm ET (CBC, RDS)
Game 5: April 30 at Carolina, 7:30pm ET (CBC, RDS)
Game 6: May 2 at Montreal, 7pm ET (CBC, RDS)
Game 7: May 4 at Carolina, 7pm ET (CBC, RDS)

New Jersey vs New York Rangers
Game 1: Saturday at New Jersey, 3pm ET (NBC, TSN)
Game 2: Monday at New Jersey, 7pm ET (OLN)
Game 3: Wednesday at New York, 7pm ET (OLN)
Game 4: April 29 at New York, 3pm ET (NBC, TSN)
Game 5: April 30 at New Jersey, 6pm ET (OLN, TSN)
Game 6: May 2 at New York, 7pm ET (OLN)
Game 7: May 4 at New Jersey, TBA (OLN)

Buffalo vs Philadelphia
Game 1: Saturday at Buffalo, 7pm ET (OLN, TSN)
Game 2: Monday at Buffalo, 7pm ET (TSN)
Game 3: Wednesday at Philadelphia, 7pm ET (TSN)
Game 4: April 28 at Philadelphia, 7pm ET (OLN, TSN)
Game 5: April 30 at Buffalo, 2pm ET (NBC, TSN)
Game 6: May 2 at Philadelphia, 7pm ET (TSN)
Game 7: May 4 at Buffalo, 7pm ET (TSN)

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