The NHL playoffs get underway tonight as the chase for the Stanley Cup is on. Though both of the locals have been left off the dance card we thought we’d take a peek at the first-round match-ups and preview each of the four series in both conferences.
Some interesting pairings as familiar division foes face-off in two of the four series and the Penguins and Senators get together for the third time in four years.
We’ll start off with a look at the Eastern Conference today and tackle the West tomorrow.
Washington Capitals (54-15-13, 121 pts) vs Montreal Canadiens (39-33-10, 88 pts)
Perhaps the biggest mismatch the first round we’ll see, Les Habs will be hard pressed to win a game in this one. The Capitals were the first team since 2005-2006 to score more than 300 goals, had the best home record in the league, had seven players with 20 or more goals and the league’s leading scoring defenseman (Mike Green, 76 points). And, oh yeah, they have this guy named Alexander Ovechkin, the best player in the universe. Who seems to just will this team to win.
The only potential Achilles heel here is the Caps goaltending but Jose Theodore had a terrific regular season and last year’s playoff hero Semyon Varalamov is now healthy should Theodore falter.
For the Canadiens, their only hope is that rookie goaltender Jaroslav Halak plays out of his mind, which he has on occasion, and maybe they can steal one. Otherwise the Caps should have an easy time stopping the Habs popgun attack led by Tomas Plekanec (25-45-70), Scott Gomez (12-47-59) and Mike Cammalleri (26-24-50).
Capitals in four games.
New Jersey Devils (48-27-7, 103 pts) vs Philadelphia Flyers (41-35-6, 88 pts)
This one is a bit different as the Flyers come in with a ton of momentum after a SO win on last day of the season lifted them into the playoffs. Add the fact they had their way with the Devils during the regular season taking five of six and it’s clear to see this could be a long, nasty series between two familiar foes.
No team in the league has the kind of depth the Flyers do up front, though several players underachieved this season. Rolling out four solid lines can wear an opponent down in the playoffs and their size on D can be bruising as well, led by the mammoth Chris Pronger.
However, Marty Brodeur continues to defy logic as he’ll turn 38 in a couple of weeks but dazzled yet again this season. The addition of Ilya Kovalchuk added another element to the Devils attack and took some of the pressure off Zach Parise on offense.
This one will be tight and hotly contested but the Devils should prevail.
Devils in seven.
Buffalo Sabres (45-27-10, 110 pts) vs Boston Bruins (39-30-13, 91 pts)
The question here is, have the Bruins finally gotten it together with their late season push to get into the playoffs? This is an interesting match-up as one club (Buffalo) wasn’t expected to make the playoffs and comes in as the third seed, while the other (Boston) was expected to battle for first overall and barely gets in.
The injury bug bit the Bruins bad all year, knocking out several top players, but as they slowly started coming back the team began getting it together. The key for Boston will be getting some scoring up front as they come in as the lowest scoring team in the league. That’s not a promising prospect when you’re facing a goalie as tough as Buffalo’s Ryan Miller.
However, the Sabres don’t exactly light it up either and the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask comes in as a hot goalie as well with a GA under 2.00 on the season. The B’s took four of the six regular season games as well.
This figures to be a low scoring series and despite being clear underdogs the Bruins might actually be a bit more battle tested.
Bruins in 7
Pittsburgh Penguins (47-28-7, 101 pts) vs Ottawa Senators (44-32-6, 94 pts)
Oddly enough, this is the third time in four playoff years these two teams will meet, so this one might have a bit more of an edge than one would normally expect.
Expect one of the big story lines here to be the Senator’s nasty defenseman Anton Volchenkov taking runs at Sidney Crosby early and often. Getting the hot Crosby off his game will be mission one for the Senators.
The late-season injury to Alexei Kovalev ( MCL) takes a big weapon out of Ottawa’s offense. Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Speeza need to be great as good won’t get it done against the Cup champs.
The wildcard here will the play of Evgeni Malkin as injuries and illness limited Gino to sub-par regular season (28-49-77).
However, you just get the feeling the Pens coasted through the regular season and will flick the switch now that the calendar says April. Our guess is Sid, Gino and the boys can smell it once again and they’ll simply be too much for the Sens’ rookie netminder Brian Elliott.
Pens in six.