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Round One Counterpoint: Eastern Conference
by Colin Van Osch (NHL)
Posted on April 29, 2009, 9:50 AM

Eastern Conference

Boston (1) vs Montreal (8):

If Boston is to win: Don't change a thing and try not to lose more than 30% of your roster to injuries. Tire out Montreals only legitimate line and then let your energy lines run wild. Simply put, I don't see Boston taking the Cup home, but I can't see any way that they can drop this series. They are simply too deep and too well rounded to lose this. They have consistency on their blueline, they have a strong first line and they have youth galore playing the 3rd line. There is no good matchups if you're defending the Bruins, if you're the Habs. The Bruins may have the big unknown in Playoff Tim Thomas, but all he needs to be is average.

If Montreal is to win: First, Carey Price will have to be what everyone one day expects him to be, instead of the 31st best goalie in the league in Save Percentage and GAA. Komisarek will have to get his game back to the point where he is hitting everything on the ice, every shift, and making sure they stay hit. Kovalev will have to find the game he finds some of the time but not all of the time. Koivu and Plekanec will have to exceed expectations. Schneider will have to be limited to Power Play only time. Markov will have to return before Game Three. The Kostitsyns will have to play like the Sedins. Maxim Lapierre will have to keep being the best player on the ice, and somehow convince the remaining 3rd and 4th liners that life is worth living. They will, however, have to sacrifice Ryan O'Byrne.

Then, the Habs have a chance of pulling it out. In Overtime. In Game 7.

Roundup: Obviously the anticipation here couldn't be any hotter. Canadiens are in their Centenniel, in case you weren't aware, and there is no one they hate more than the Bruins. It's Batman vs The Joker plus Superman vs Lex Luthor is a steel cage to the death levels of epic. Unfortunately, true believers, there is not going to be a magical ending to this series. I have a lot of criticisms about the Bruins. Tim Thomas is an unproven playoff goaltender. They put up miraculous numbers is a ferociously weak division. There is just no way that the Canadiens catch enough of the spirit that is flowing to even push Boston to the point of exhaustion. Boston goes into the 2nd round feeling fresh
- Boston in 5.


Counterpoint: Right, but who didnít see that coming? Iím disappointed and, frankly, embarrassed that the Habs had such a poor showing. There was all of around 11 minutes during the series where they looked like a team who could win a game, and even then, it was nothing to write home about.

Boston did what they needed to do to win this series: Be an NHL Calibur hockey team. I spent most of the 2nd and 3rd periods of this series in a blackout drunken stupor to try and wash away the dirty feelings, so letís just move on.

Washington (2) vs New York Rangers (7)

How can this series appear so bland on the surface?

Washington is not in a good way. They have exceptionally weak goaltending in Theodore. They do have a strong offensive group, but very little in the sense of defense (sorry, Mike Green fans. He's not a center!) and that is going to be bad news. New York, on the other hand, are underachieving at a pace that is so far beyond incredible that I refuse to acknowledge that they're going to continue their regular season trend and be pushovers.

The real story here is that there is no story. If you're a fan of the Capitals, you are literally begging that their offence is going to score 6 goals a game. It's not impossible, and it's how Fuhr used to do it, and things turned out pretty well for them. The Capitals have all the momentum going into this series, and that's going to be the thorn in the Rangers side. People are very excited to see the youth resurgence in the NHL, and whether they're from Washington or not, and no matter who NHL.com wants you to believe it is, the face of all that is the enthusiastic, charismatic, sometimes goofy Ovechkin. People who have no stock in this series are cheering the Caps simply because Ovy is good for the game. That enthusiasm translates into his play, and always has. Washington will get a lot from that. Also, on the flip side, they have one of the greatly overshadowed players in the NHL in Backstrom. If Ovechkin is this eras Gretzky, then Backstrom is his Kurri. He's the silent but deadly counterpart on the rush, and is much more of a weapon than anyone is giving him credit for.

New York is at the tail end of an insanely disappointing regular season. They do have a number of positives going for them though:

- A marquee goaltender. There are really only 9 or 10 legitimate franchise goalies in the NHL (and don't be fooled, only one in the state of New York) and he is the goalie who can shut down the powerful Caps offence. He will need help from his own team, because you're not going to limit the Caps to 1 goal or less a game and he can't hold everything together every game.
- Sean Avery. Sorry. I love him. I think he is the greatest thing to happen to this team in a long time. Why? He's extremely talented. He's got a better attitude than people give him credit for. Most importantly? He draws attention to himself constantly when he is on the ice, and that opens up people elsewhere on the ice and draws penalties.
- Torts. You know it's true. He's about as likeable as a genital wart, but he will take everything the press gives him, flip them off and walk away. He is a smart coach and he has shown himself a good influence on that team.
- Something resembling a defense. Additionally, they have a Staal, which is always a good thing to have in the playoffs.

The real goal here is going to be getting New York on the board. They have the skills: Naslund, Drury, Gomez, Avery, Antropov and Zherdev look like a significant threat on paper. If they come alive at the same time, there's going to be trouble. If that time is early in the series, they have a real shot. If that time is in Game 3+, that would be apropos. You cannot keep a team like Washington off the scoreboard, even if you have Hennie in net. Which means you can't get by scoring 2 goals a game. Here's an easy way to gauge who wins this series, without having to watch it. If the goals averaged per game are more than 5, it was Washington. If it was less, it's New York. New York has a gigantic task ahead of them: Shut down the Capitals offence, while creating some of your own for the first time this season, and keep the enthusiasm that fun young team are going to exude at bay.

No deal. Washington didn't acknowledge their major weakness at the deadline and they don't have a hope of making the conference finals, but the Rangers need a legitimate miracle to shut down them down. Washington takes the series in 6


Counterpoint: I think we can all agree that this turned out as well as it could have. Avery being the old Sean but then not but then a little bit again. Torterella losing his mind in Game 5. The Var-LA-mov story. Washington coming back from down 3-1. This was a great series, much better than it appeared on paper.

Like the Ducks, the Capitals addressed their #1 concern immediately: Jose Theodore being a horrible goalie. After Game 1, the locker room gave Varly the vote of confidence. To recap, in case youíre interested in posing a defence for Theodore: Simeon Varlamov, a player who had played all of 5 games in the NHL, and none in the playoffs, was given the vote of confidence by the entire locker room over Jose Theodore.. Keep committing salary cap space to Canadiens castoffs though. Itís a solid strategy.

New York was a tale of two cities. For the first few games, it was the best of times. Dominant in Games 1 & 2, and passable in Games 3 & 4, only to collapse in Games 5 & 6. Antropov played extremely well, and his work alongside Avery was outstanding. Even Wade Redden brought himself somewhere near game form for a few games. And who can say enough about the kids on that team: Dubinsky, Betts and Callahan just rocked the party every time they were on the ice.

So where did it go wrong? Well, firstly, Henrik Lundqvist apparently cannot stop a shot that goes high glove side, which got exploited over and over again. The loss of Blair Betts for Game 7 was big, both morally and in the faceoff circle. While I hate to say it, the Game 4-6 drama definitely played itís part, from Game 4 ĎAvery doing everything he can to get Washinton back into the gameí to Game 5 ĎAvery is benched but Tortorella is throwing stuff at people in the crowdí to Game 6 ĎTortorella is suspendedí. All the while, the Rangers seemed to forget that they had a great chance to lock up a series and prove that acquiring every big name available can work if only you overpay them enough.

That being said, and all things being fair, New York did not deserve to lose Game 7. Games 5 and 6, yes. Probably by a lot more than they got beat by. Definitely not Game 7 though. The Semin goal was nothing short of a fluke, and looking at itís trajectory, Iím waiting for some Zapruder-esque film to emerge showing that there was a second shooter behind Paul Maraís bushy beard. For Fedorovís goal, well, it seems unfair that opposing teams are allowed to hang Kryptonite from the glove side of Hennieís net. Really, really unfair.

New York played better in Game 7 and should have won the series as a result of that one game. That doesnít forgive them for giving the Capitals 3 games to get back into the series. Capitals deserve it for not giving up, and New York deserves to be run through the mud for not keeping things together enough to beat a wounded team to death.

New Jersey (3) vs Carolina (6)

It's the second simplest series to review, next to Montreal and Boston. Really, it's quite simple:

To me, it doesn't matter that Carolina has the majority of their Stanley Cup winning team still on their roster. It doesn't matter that Cam Ward has found the game that made him a Conn Smythe trophy winner in 2004. It doesn't matter that Eric Staal has found his game now that Erik Cole is a Hurricane again. It does not matter than Carolina had a strong year and a good stretch run to get them into the playoffs. You do not bet against Martin Brodeur in the playoffs.

Seriously. On the other side, it doesn't matter than New Jersey has a significantly better group of forwards than Carolina. It doesn't matter that their defensive style is designed specifically to frustrate teams like Carolina. It does not matter that New Jerseys system worked so well for their team that they could secure 1st place in a competitive division with an AHL quality goalie for the vast majority of the year. It doesn't matter that, on paper, the New Jersey Devils would have legitimately beaten this team nigh to death anyways.

Even when Carolina is coming in hard and the Devils have come in luke warm, you cannot discount Brodeur. Possibly the worst thing for any team facing the Devils now is that, unlike other years, Brodeur is very rested, having not played his traditional 60+ games this year. I'll give Carolina credit for playing better than the sum of it's parts, but beating the Devils? No chance.

In all seriousness, there is a lot of belief that the Hurricanes could sneak this out, since New Jersey is coming into the playoffs on a slide. Which is a legitimate concern, but all things considered, let's be reasonable. Carolina simply does not have the tools that New Jersey has. They don't have a goalie like Martin Brodeur. They don't have the same abundance of Selke candidates that New Jersey does. New Jersey is always a threat because they play their system to a T. They're always a threat because they have the ability to throw any line out to shut down their competition and several pure scorers in Elias and Parise. The Devils are a team that can legitimately hold you to less than 2 goals a game for an entire series. It won't be fun to watch all the time, but they win games. They win them against much better teams than Carolina pretty regularly. Carolina is a good team full of journeymen, blue collar players, and if they were in a position where they had gotten Washington, or Philedelphia, then I'd say to you that they had a significant chance of pulling the upset. The only weakness that the Devils have is that they don't have a legitimate offensive defenceman, but considering their style, I don't think they're really wanting for anything. It's going to be a tough, well played series. It's going to be a boring series. It's going to be a chess match. They're both pretty much the definition of 'no frills'. You just cannot take it away from Brodeur. Devils in 7.


Counterpoint:If you had asked me just yesterday, with 1 game left in the series, who I thought was least likely to collapse and give up 2 goals in the last 90 seconds to lose the most important game of the season, I would have said New Jersey. What a disappointing turn of events. Made all the worse since both goals were stoppable shots. Jokinens shot was preventable if Brodeur just keeps his stick on the ice like heís supposed to, and Staals goal is preventable if he performs the basic function of a goaltender. There is really no excuse for the game winner in this one. Brodeur is an elite goaltender and shots like that should not sneak past him.

If one good thing comes out of this, itís that Tim Gleason now has something to put on a highlight reel. Itís no silly Ovechkin deking, but Tim Gleason will take, literally, changing the entire course of the series with one play as a consolation.

Really, looking back, this series went exactly as Iíd anticipated. Good, grinding efforts, good goaltending on the whole, and a really hard working, no nonsense kind of series. The only thing I couldnít anticipate, and I donít think anyone could, was Brodeur giving up 2 marginally stoppable goals in the last 90 seconds to give the series away. I donít want to focus on the Jokinen goal too much, but there is a reason that you keep your stick down when going East-to-West. Thatís the reason. Right there. Itís just a small mistake, but so was Steve Smith in 1986. Itís a mistake you donít make, because youíve always been told not to make it. Disappointing, but good for Carolina, they will benefit more from coming out of this series than New Jersey will.

Pittsburgh (4) vs Philedelphia (5)

No secrets or surprises here. I love a lot of things about the Flyers. I think that Jeff Carter and Mike Richards coming out this year is amongst one of the better things that have happened to the franchise in a long, long while. I am pleasantly surprised that Simon Gagne managed to stay healthy during the season, and I think he is one of the great unheralded talents in the NHL. There are a lot of talks that are going to need to be held with this team before the next season starts, but for now, they have a solid top 2 lines, 2 decent young defensive prospects in Carle and Coburn (both, for the record, acquired for a song from teams who will be kicking themselves in 2 years) but no goaltending. When I say no secrets, I mean it is not a secret that I have zero faith in Martin Biron. I don't have faith in him backing up Nittimakki, who I don't have faith to back a high school team. Is there really a worse team they could be playing in the 1st round?

Pittsburgh. Blah blah blah Crosby. Blah blah Malkin. They had all the tools to succeed last year until they traded all their charector and grit to Atlanta for Hossa. This year, they made a bad deal for the long term to reacquire the grit they lost by picking up Chris Kunitz. Add in Craig Adams and Bill Guerin, and the Penguins really did do good to improve their team. Fleury is playing as good as he ever has and Crosby is showing a lot more leadership than he was at this point last year. Staal is really coming into his own. Tyler Kennedy is really becoming the kind of player every team looks for, a good, fast, gritty player who scores, draws penalties, kills penalties, the whole 9 yards on a fraction of a superstar salary. If you ignore the unforgivable sin that was trading a future #1 defenceman who signed a long term sweetheart deal with your team for a fraction of his worth. Max Talbot, one of the best grind players in the league, who must have really bought into the Red Wings ideology of building a dynasty through minor sacrifice as he signed an extention for considerably less than he could have, will factor in big in the corners and in front of the net.

Pittsburgh made a gigantic mistake last year before the deadline but had all the talent in the world. They are coming from a division that has tested them repeatedly. They overcame a huge mid-season meltdown to come raging back under Byslma. Coming up to the deadline last year, they had all the tools to take the Cup. I think they've improved their lot enough this time around to have another go at it. Certainly, they are powerful enough to take this series. Philedelphia has some undeniably great talent: Gagne, Richards, Carter. Briere is going to be a force if his groin holds up. Hartnell and Lupul will do their part. It's going to be a physical and punishing series, and Pittsburgh will be lucky to come out of it quickly.

Make no mistake on it, Pittsburgh will win this series, and are currently my odds-on favorites to take the Conference. This series is going to set the pace for the Penguins. If Pittsburgh can take it in 5 or less, barring a major injury, they will be well placed to barrel right through the remaining teams in the conference, unless they're unlucky enough to draw Boston in Round 2. My gut feeling was originally telling me it was going to be a long series. Now, I just think it's going to feel like a long series for the Penguins. They're going to be manhandled and crushed and busted every which way. There's just no reason to believe that they'll drop the ball enough to lose to Philly. They beat them last year when they were a worse team, and Philly has not gotten better in the last year. They gave up an energy player in Upshall to get another enforcer in Carcillo. They tried to make a great play at Kyle McLaren who would have provided the defensive depth they so critically need, but it got blocked due to a lingering wrist injury. Briere is a massive question mark but even if he stays healthy, he's going to be well protected and is probably going to see a lot of Brooks Orpik. Pittsburgh will win this series. If they're lucky, it'll be in 4, and if they're lucky, an underdog emerges in the East so they don't draw Boston in Round 2. Pittsburgh in 5.


Counterpoint: Really, neither team played a bad series. You can fault Philadelphia for giving up a 3 goal lead in Game 6, and yeah, thatís pretty inexcusable. Biron, for all of his faults (like not being an NHL caliber goaltender) held his own and did enough that he may even be signed to a contract this off-season. The defense didnít do a poor job of containing the Penguins for most of the series, and definitely played beyond their worth for most of it. I would like to have seen more out of Carter, but I didnít see anything damning out of him.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, really canít be complained about. I thought they looked a little tired and sloppy in Game 5 at home. The defense did a great job of containing Carter and Richards, and the stars on that team did their job. Malkin looked like he really had his working boots on in both ends, and Fleury keeps getting better and better to the point where he might actually reach that level Iíve heard heís been at for the better part of the last 5 years.

Thereís really nothing spectacular that happened in this series, or anything that set it apart from their constant regular season games. I didnít feel like I was watching playoff hockey on either end. Philadelphia could have used that to jump ahead of Pittsburgh, but they didnít. Pittsburgh didnít have to put out anything beyond what they did, so why should they? Itís not that the series wasnít exciting. Itís not that either team played poorly. Itís just that neither team, I felt, really stepped it up. Theyíre always good teams to watch, but comparing this to last years meeting, it was a by-the-numbers contest.

*****


And thatís it out of the East. I wasnít nearly as excited about the matchups in Round 1 as I am with Round 2, but Iím enthralled by the ĎBlue Collar, Lunchbox Workerí series that will be Boston vs Carolina, and the ĎSuperstars COLLIDE!í series that is Washington vs Pittsburgh. I plan on having Round 2 predictions up in the next 24, so show up, and let me tell you how you should feel about these seriesí.

For the record:

Colin Ė Round 1: 5-3
Maggie The Monkey Ė Round 1: 2-6

Eat it, monkey.





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