Wednesday, April 14, 2010

2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Well-Established Favorites in East

No one is going to argue that the top four teams in the Eastern Conference have it easy. That's just stupid motivation for the teams in the bottom four.

Of course, that doesn't mean they would be wrong to say it.

Ottawa, Boston, Philadelphia, and Montreal are underwhelming entries in these playoffs. The Senators were impressive at times down the stretch, but the latter three spent large portions of the stretch run acting like teams that didn't want to make the playoffs.

Boston lost 1-0 at home to Florida, and also lost at home to Tampa Bay. Montreal lost at home to Carolina. Philadelphia was swept in a home-and-home series by Atlanta.

With that in mind, it's time for a peek at the eight-team field vying for a spot out of the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.

(Note: These rankings are based on what I feel is the probability of each team making a run at the Stanley Cup Finals. They are not to be considered a locked-in look at my first-round picks. Those are coming on FanHouse Wednesday, if I ever get the whole thing figured out.)

8. Montreal Canadiens
While the Canadiens earned their spot by not being quite as bad as the Rangers and Atlanta this season.


There is some spunk here. Tomas Plekanec leads the way offensively, with help from Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, and Scott Gomez. However, Cammalleri hasn't scored since Jan. 23, before he suffered a knee injury in Ottawa on Hockey Day in Canada.

Jaroslav Halak got hot in net at the right time, but with little offensive support at times, and with a nightmarish matchup in the first round, it's hard to imagine the Habs -- the eighth seed in the East for a second straight year -- lasting very long.

7. Philadelphia Flyers
A chic pick to win the Cup in the preseason, the Flyers have run into a few problems this year. Expensive defenseman Chris Pronger has started to show his age. The goaltending has been atrocious. They take dumb penalties.

Did I mention they don't have very good goaltending?

The Flyers are in trouble. They have to deal with a hard-working Devils team that scores more than they're given credit for. They have to beat a motivated Martin Brodeur, who's tired of hearing about how he's lost a step, even if he has.

Even if they can get by New Jersey, they're staring down the barrel in the second round, with Washington likely looming.

6. Ottawa Senators
Oddly, the Senators are the only team in the playoff field that is in the negative double digits in goal differential (minus-11). While Brian Elliott is capable of a great performance in goal, he's also been guilty of some real clunkers. With Pittsburgh as a first-round opponent, the Senators know they have to have Elliott on his game from the start.

Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza are among numerous Senators who have danced the playoff dance before, so experience isn't a huge problem. Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov give them a shutdown defensive pairing that will cause problems for Pittsburgh. They'll be forced to develop secondary scoring early on if Phillips and Volchenkov are at all effective.

That said, they have more of that than Ottawa does, and they have more talent and experience than the Sens, too.

5. Buffalo Sabres
This team isn't all about Ryan Miller, but the Sabres have issues nonetheless. They were outplayed more than a few times this season, largely because their effort was sometimes spotty in front of the All-World goalie.

This scares you, and while the Sabres can score goals, the prospect of playing a tough defensive opponent like Boston right out of the chute is somewhat problematic.

Reality is that the Sabres don't have a go-to offensive threat, the guy who makes it all go and can get a big goal when the team needs one most. The closest thing they have is Thomas Vanek, who had 28 this season but was largely disappointing in this regard. The power play needs to improve, too, and it's hard to imagine that happening when it didn't really click all season.

4. New Jersey Devils
It's hard to imagine anyone's last memory of Martin Brodeur as a playoff winner came all the way back in 2003, but the Devils have tasted very little success in the postseason since then.

This year, Brodeur needs to not have to carry the team to a bunch of 3-2 and 2-1 wins, because he's not that type of goalie anymore. Instead, Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise have to lift the offense to new heights, and the Devils can't be certain what they'll get out of Kovalchuk, who has exactly four playoff games (all losses) to his credit so far.

Brodeur will play well, but not well enough to get the Devils into the conference finals.

3. Boston Bruins
There are two angles with this team. First, you can look at their 82-game season as preparation for this type of hockey. The Bruins never developed into the kind of high-scoring, dangerous offense that finished first in the East last year. They spent much of this season in danger of missing the playoffs thanks to a team that couldn't score goals.

They still haven't resolved that issue, but the emergence of Tukka Rask as the No. 1 goalie solved the problem of the team not preventing enough goals to win anyway.

The second angle is that after playing grinder hockey for 82 games and fighting to make the playoffs, do the Bruins have enough left in the tank to scare Buffalo? Once that happens, can they hang in a best-of-seven with Washington?

2. Pittsburgh Penguins
Call me crazy, but the Penguins didn't frighten me to run the other way over the last month or so. Uneven hockey since the Olympics, but I see this team as being ready to fire it up now that it's playoff time.

After all, they've still got Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Sergei Gonchar, and Brooks Orpik. They still have Marc-Andre Fleury in net.

Adding Alexei Ponikarovsky and Jordan Leopold helped add some energy to the team, and they should be able to take some of the heat off the aforementioned group, one that has played a ton of games the last three years and need to be kept fresh.

1. Washington Capitals
They've been building to this moment, and it's time for the Capitals to cash in.

Yes, goaltending might be shaky with Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov, but there is little else to pick on with the Capitals. They've got the league's best player in Alex Ovechkin, best offensive defenseman (Mike Green), possibly the best defensive defenseman (Jeff Schultz, who is plus-50 entering the playoffs), and guys like Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin who keep getting better and better.

They've got grit, toughness, veteran leadership, and good coaching. It's going to take an upset to beat them in a best-of-seven, especially if the goaltending holds together like it did virtually all season.

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