NHL Playoff Preview Round 1: Eastern Conference
by Mike Sawaryn(NHL)
Posted on April 21, 2006, 12:20 PM
We’re back with the Eastern Conference preview for Round 1 of the playoffs. Be sure to read the West preview as well of course!
#1 Ottawa vs. #8 Tampa Bay
Sawaryn: How far the champs have come down. Seeing them this year, it’s hard to believe they’re the defending champs. Ottawa obviously was dealt a blow with Hasek being unable to go, and that might catch up to them later on in the playoffs. This series though, they should be fine. Neither team has a solid #1 goalie right now, but Ottawa is just too damn deep to lost this one. Adding Havlat to an already potent offence will do nothing but help break through any goaltending problems they have with Emery. The defence for Ottawa is very solid too and it should be good enough to carry them through at least this series. The Sens did struggle down the stretch which may worry some people, but the way Tampa has played, they should get their confidence back pretty quick. Ottawa should make quick work of Tampa in this one, and hopefully doing that will give them more time to get healthy and more confidence heading into the next round. Sens in 4.
Davis: As the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Lightning were expected to do a lot more this season than barely qualify in 8th spot overall. With Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier as the top line, Tampa Bay should have been able to place a lot higher in the standings. So, what went wrong? The biggest question mark that the Lightning have is with Jon Grahame and Sean Burke in net. Both goaltenders are quality players, who have been playing more like third-string emergency goalies this season. Without quality goaltending, a team is not going to go very far.
Ottawa, on the other hand, was bitten by the injury bug in a big way when Dominic Hasek went down with a groin injury during the Olympic break. As of yet, Hasek has not returned to the line-up, leaving Ray Emery to hold down the fort. Through the stellar play of defencemen Andrej Mezsaros and Zdeno Chara, Emery was able to not only hold down the fort, but backstop the team to first place overall. However, Ottawa went on a massive losing streak at the end of the season, winning only 2 of their final 10 games to close the season.
The Lightning have the capability to pull off the upset in round 1, if Grahame and Burke can answer those question marks in net. If Hasek comes back early enough in this series, the Senators will have a definite advantage. The bigger if is on the Tampa side.
PREDICTION: Ottawa over Tampa in 5.
Ederer: If you like defense, do not watch this series. If you like high powered offense, set the VCR.
Ottawa has a 20 goal scorer on every line, they’ve got a healthy Martin Havlat, they’ve got two 100 point scorers, and they’re against a goalie who had a goals against over 3.00 and a save percentage under .900.
Conversely, the Lightning are, until further notice, going to be playing Ray Emery, who has been the man between the pipes for the Sens ever since Hasek went down at the Olympic break. Tampa has great offensive talent and possibly the most recognizable superstars outside of the Senators in the entire Eastern Conference, with Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and Brad Richards leading the charge. The Lightning are a season removed from a Stanley Cup win, and are looking to repeat as champs, this time in the role of underdog. However, they no longer have a lights-out goaltender, and have dipped significantly in team defense.
If the Senators go out of the playoffs (and yes, it is an if), they’ll do it sooner rather than later, as they’re going to pick up steam as players get more and more healthy, and Hasek returns to the goal. The fact of the matter is, Tampa will not have any answer for the Ottawa attack. It’s unfortunate for the East that the Sens couldn’t have hit a great defensive team first round, because that may have been the only chance of their elimination. As I see it, the Sens are the team to beat in this playoff run. And I don’t think that Tampa will be the team to beat them.
Pick: Senators in 6
#2 Carolina vs. #7 Montreal
Sawaryn: The Habs have one very good thing going for them, and that’s obviously their goaltending. However, with both men playing quite well, is there maybe a controversy looming? That could be a distraction. I had Montreal pegged as the potential “surprise” team this year, with Huet being so hot I thought there was a chance they could make an Anaheim or Calgary type run. But I think they would have been much better off against the Sens without Hasek. Carolina is just so deep on all fronts and they’re really looking like the favorites in the East. They were rolling along with the team they had to begin the year, and although Eric Cole had a pretty bad injury I think they more than filled it with Recci and Weight. Gerber has been about as solid as anyone else around and overall this Carolina team very well could be the team to beat in the East. I think Montreal will steal a game or two and make it a series, but Carolina should take this. Give me Carolina in 6.
Davis: First of all, I’m a Montreal fan through and through. In my heart of hearts, I believe that the Habs are going to take the Stanley Cup each and every year that they make the playoffs. This season is no exception, especially with Cristobal Huet playing as brilliant as he has been. Add Saku Koivu, Christopher Higgins and Alexei Kovalev to the mix, and there is good reason to be optimistic for Canadiens’ fans.
Of course, the reason to be pessimistic is the fact that, during the regular season, the Hurricanes’ represented the Kryptonite to Montreal’s big red S. In 4 games, the Hurricanes out-scored Montreal 25-9, including a 5-1 victory on March 16th. The 1-2 punch of Justin Williams and Eric Staal each accounted for more points than anyone on the Montreal roster; and both had multi-point games the last time these 2 teams met.
While most teams have seen Huet in person and have some sort of a scouting report, Carolina has yet to meet Huet face to face. They have to rely on the scouting reports from other games, which may not be as effective as head-to-head encounters. While my head is telling me that this one will be short, ugly and result in Carolina going on, my heart is leading me elsewhere.
PREDICTION: Montreal over Carolina in 7 (double overtime).
Ederer: All personal bias aside, the Canadiens can legitimately win this series. It’s a small chance, but the chance does exist. If Cristobal Huet regains the form that he displayed in Mid March, the Habs will be the team that won 8 straight and beating the conference champion Senators along the way. If that teams shows up to play Carolina, the same team that was in front of the pack in the East to start the year, the Hurricanes will be upset. If Huet does falter, the Habs have a backup plan, in David Aebsicher, who got enough time to prove that he’s at least worthy of sharing the number one job with Huet.
At first I thought that the only reason that Aebischer was getting so much time was because Montreal General Manager Bob Gainey was preparing to play without Huet in 06-07, assuming that the unrestricted free agent would sign on with a new team for big money on the basis of his performance this season. While I still believe this may be true, I no longer think it’s entirely a bad thing, as Aebischer has shown that, if need be, he can lead the Habs.
They however are squaring off against a team that has been proving doubters wrong all year, in the Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina are in a strange position, as, for the first time all year, they are the favorites going into the series. It remains to be seen how they respond in this role, but with veteran leadership from people like Rod Brind’Amour, Mark Recchi, and Doug Weight, they should be fine. As an aside, 2005-2006 Stanley Cup Champion Cory Stillman most be laughing at all the detractors who said he made a terrible career move by leaving the Tampa Bay Lightning to join the Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes have a great home record, so it’s imperative that the Habs win one of two in Tarheelia. If they can do that, get superb goaltending from Huet, play excellently on the powerplay, and refrain from taking penalties that make me want to throw a brick through my television set, they’ll win. Essentially, they have to play perfectly.
It’s not a lack of faith (I called both upsets over Boston, actually), it’s a grasp of sense. The Habs are going down first round. It’ll be close, and they’ll make a great series of it, but it will not be close enough unfortunately.
Pick: Hurricanes in 7
#3 New Jersey vs. #6 New York Rangers
Sawaryn: Wow, talk about two teams going in different directions. Rangers have been free falling lately and the Devils have been flying up the standings. I remember seeing some stat about Brodeur, how he has 144 games of playoff experience while every other goaltender in the East has a combined 12 games or something like that. Unreal. At any other point in the year I’d take the Rangers, but now it’s up in the air. Hell, before last week I wouldn’t pick anyone but the Rangers winning the division, and they end up in 3rd. However, there is a good rivalry here which in any series will just make it even closer as both teams you know will be playing full out. I know Rifkin is going to hate me, but I can’t pick against Jersey here. The Devils aren’t as good a team as they’ve been in the past, but they’re in good position to win a round or maybe two. Devils in 6.
Davis: The season series between these 2 teams was split down the middle, with each team winning 3 in regulation and one in a shootout. The race for the division title came down to the final game of the season, where the Rangers fell to Ottawa in a big way, while the Devils rebounded from a 2nd period deficit to beat Montreal and take the title.
Martin Brodeur has more wins in the playoffs than any of the other 7 starting goaltenders in the first round have even played in. That experience is a valuable asset for New Jersey; it was that big-game experience that led the Devils to 11-straight wins to round out the season. On the other side, Henrik Lundqvist had a spectacular rookie season for the Rangers, posting a .921 save percentage and a 2.24 goals against average en route to a 30-win season. However, with Lundqvist out due to injury, the Rangers lost out on the Atlantic Division title.
The Rangers also have a full ward of walking wounded, with Marek Malik, Martin Rucinsky, and Steve Rucchin joining Lundqvist on the sidelines. Despite the injuries, the Rangers still have good weapons, led by Jaromir Jagr, who posted team-highs in goals, assists, and power-play goals on the season. Countering Jagr will be the Devils’ top tandem of Gionta and Gomez. Gionta led the way for the Devils with 48 goals, while Gomez posted 51 assists. If the Rangers can get some of their infirmary patients back in this series, they will take this one handily. However, that’s almost too much to ask.
PREDICTION: New Jersey over New York in 6.
Ederer: I’ll paraphrase (or more accurately, blatantly steal) a line from TSN’s Dave Hodge and say that this series is a battle of momentum vs NOmentum.
Never in the history of the NHL has a team entered the playoffs as hot as the New Jersey Devils. They’ve rattled off 11 straight wins en-route to a meteoric rise to the top of the Atlantic division, unseating the team who was on top of that division for the majority of the season, the New York Rangers.
The Broadway Blueshirts come into the playoffs playing sub-.500 hockey in their last 10 games, having lost to the playoff bound Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers, and even the Devils along the way.
This series can be summed in two matchups for me. The main event is the battle between Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, and Rangers forward Jaromir Jagr. The league’s most proven goaltender faces the league’s most proven scorer, this is the Ali-Fraser or Hogan-Andre of goalie-skater matchups in the NHL. The more intriguing matchup however, is the under-card bout of Henrik Lundqvist vs the EGG line of the Devils: Patrick Elias, Brian Gionta, and Scott Gomez. We already know what Jagr and Brodeur have done and can do in the post season, as both players have Stanley Cup rings. What we don’t know is how Lundqvist will handle the NHL playoffs, or if Gionta and crew will be able to take their success into the post-season. We do know that Lundqvist backstopped Sweden to the gold medal in hockey at Torino, so he’s got a history of playing well in the crunch. The man who’d basically be a unanimous rookie of the year had it not been for three men named Crosby, Ovechkin and Phaneuf has built himself a reputation, and may very well be the next Ken Dryden or Pat Roy, the goalie who leads his lower seeded team to the Stanley Cup.
In order for him to do that however, he’ll have to stifle the offensive fury of the Devils, who have all of a sudden become more than simply adept in the other team’s zone. New Jersey comes in with way more confidence, boasting a high scorer in their own right in Gionta, and a man who finished 12th in points per game in Elias, averaging 1.18 points every time he steps on the ice. Having said that, Jagr finished second in points per game, with 1.5 markers every time he laces the skates.
This is an extremely hard one, but I can’t bring myself to pick against the hottest team in the history of pre-post season speculation. Jersey wins it in seven, and the Rangers are left to curse the fact that they drew such an excellent team.
Pick: Jersey in 7
#4 Buffalo vs. #5 Philadelphia
Sawaryn: Tough series to predict here. Buffalo has been one of the big surprises this year, but they’ve also been too inconsistent to know what you’re getting. And speaking of inconsistent, we’ve got Philly. Isn’t the question every year about the Flyers their goaltending? Nittymaki and Esche are both decent, but are they goalies that can take this team far? Same old stuff from them. Their goalies are “solid” but not enough to get them through a low scoring playoff series. Buffalo on the other hand doesn’t really have any superstar players at all, but they’ve got great depth at about every position. Really, both teams are hard to predict here. If they both really show up, this could be a great series. Or it could be a blowout for either of them. I’ll flip a coin and say....Sabres in 7.
Davis: With Philadelphia, you have a team that is far better with Peter Forsberg in the line-up than they are without him. Forsberg not only possesses great speed and fantastic puck-handling ability, but he also opens up the ice for other threats, like Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble. Without Forsberg, the opposition has a much easier time focusing on the main threats, limiting the effectiveness of the Flyers’ top lines. The good news for Philly is that Forsberg was in the line-up for the last game, and looked good in the win over the Islanders.
Ok, it’s time to be honest. I haven’t seen much of the Buffalo Sabres, nor have I heard much. Perhaps that’s because the Sabres didn’t make any significant headlines on their way to posting 52 wins and 110 points on the season. Perhaps it’s because their leading scorer, Maxim Afinogenov, posted a paltry 73 points on the season. Perhaps their hard-working, no-nonsense style of play fell under the radar of sportscasters, who focused on the flashy play of Jason Spezza rather than the forechecking of J.P. Dumont. Perhaps my ignorance of the Sabres prompted my brain to shut down when the name Ryan Miller was mentioned on SportsCentre. Or perhaps I didn’t see the Sabres as a legitimate contender for anything other than the U.S. Open golf tournament.
Keeping with the honest thing, I still don’t. The Sabres may be a hard-working, tough-checking bunch, but the Flyers have far more skill. Both teams have major question marks in net, but the Flyers have more experience in front of Esche and Niittymaki to take them through round 1.
PREDICTION: Philadelphia over Buffalo in 6.
Ederer: This one is interesting. It’s a matchup of the old NHL vs the new, with the smaller, faster, younger Sabres taking on the older, slower, but far bigger and more physical Flyers. Ironically, the person who may have the most interest vested in this series is the man who runs the show, Gary Bettman. Bettman has gone on record saying that if referees do not call the games the way they have in the season, they’ll be fired, which definitely works in the favour of the Buffalo Sabres, who are arguably the team that has been helped the most by the rule changes. The way Bettman was speaking, it would behoove the NHL to make life very difficult on the Philadelphia Flyers, as the last thing Bettman wants is the Flyers playing the style of game that led them to the Conference Finals a season ago.
Couple this with the suspect health of Peter Foresberg, and my general lack of confidence in Philadelphia’s goaltending, and the chances seem to be bleak for the Flyers. Philadelphia will have to make sure to play within the confines of the new structure; all while making sure their defense can keep up with the high flying Sabres, and their offense can go toe-to-toe with them on the scoreboard. I don’t think that the Flyers have a chance in this series if Foresberg isn’t healthy, and his dip in production at the end of the season suggests that he’s not. It’s merely speculation, but for the sake of the column, I’ll assume that Peter the Great is not healthy, and as such, the Flyers will go down first round. If Foresberg is 100% however, all bets are off.
Pick: Sabres in 6
Davis: Whatever the outcome, this will be one of the best first rounds in a long time. I can’t see any of the series going less than 5 games, which will make for some great drama and some great hockey. I could even see, in this round alone, about 5 games taking at least triple overtime to decide. Believe me, I’ll be watching every minute possible of each series, right down to the final goal. It will be fun, I guarantee it.
Sawaryn: I’ll have to agree with B-Diddy here, this should be a damn good round of hockey. We’ve been dying for playoff hockey for 2 years now and the wait should be well worth it looking at these matchups. I don’t know how it is in other hockey cities, but I wish everyone could experience the atmosphere around Edmonton this time of year, it’s just electric. Oh, and Go Oilers.
Thanks for reading these previews, hope you enjoyed them!
Mike Sawaryn (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Bob Davis (email@example.com)
Matt Ederer (firstname.lastname@example.org)