2010-2011 NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Breakdown by Tony Cordeiro
1. Capitals vs 8. New York Rangers
The end of the 2010-2011 NHL season has the Washington Capitals in a familiar spot. That spot being the #1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Although they find themselves in a familiar place, it hasn't happened in familiar fashion. The team residing in our Nation's capital finds itself at the top of the food chain in a different type of manner. With the emergence of young defenseman John Carlson and the trade deadline additions of veteran Jason Arnott and defenseman Dennis Wideman i feel that the Capitals now have a little bit of the type of leadership that they had lacked in years past. During the "Ovechkin era" the Caps have relied on being a run and gun offensive juggernaut. This year they have seemed to pay more attention to the defensive part of the game. Their captain, Alex Ovechkin, prior to this season has averaged 53.8 goals per season. This year the "Ovie" checked in with only 32 goals in 79 games. Last season the Caps had 7 players with at least 20 goals and one guy with 19 goals. This season the Capitals have only 3 players with at least 20 goals (Ovechkin 32, Alex Semin 28, Mike Knuble 24). Last season the Capitals' powerplay clicked at a 25.2% clip compared to this years' 17.5%. Their penalty kill percentage last season was 78.8% compared to this years' percentage of 85.6%. The most telling statistic from last year to this year for the Caps is their goals against per game. Last season the Capitals gave up 2.77 goals per game versus this years' number of 2.33 goals per game. With the combination of injuries, most notably Mike Green, and change in philosophy the ways in D.C. have changed, but at the same time stayed the same seeing that they are the #1 seed again.
Once again the New York Rangers found themselves playing game #82 for all the marbles. After finishing the 2009-2010 season losing in a shootout on the last day of the year to the Philadelphia Flyers that sent them home for the summer, the "blueshirts" found themselves in a very similar position. That position? Having to win game 82 (parlayed with a Carolina loss) to get a postseason birth. This time around it worked. The Rangers come into the playoffs playing some pretty good hockey down the stretch winning 9 out of their last 13 games. With the Rangers' team leader in points being Brandon Dubinsky with 54 (24 goals 30 assists) it's no secret that in order for the Rangers to move forward in their quest to win the Cup for the first time since 1994 it's going to fall on the shoulders of the "king", Henrik Lundqvist. With that being said, the Rangers will need to get the production from Marian Gaborik that they had envisioned that they would before signing him to a pricey contract a few years ago. With an injury to a "heart and soul guy" like Ryan Callahan, Gaborik must finally show New York that he is worth his price tag. Although Lundqvist will be the main reason if the Rangers advance they MUST get a total team effort to win series'. Dubinsky and Gaborik are the obvious names up front for New York; however, there are a few guys "lying in the weeds" (Brian Boyle and Derek Stepan 21 goals each and Brandon Prust who chipped in with 13 goals and 29 points along with his sandpaper game) that have contributed nicely to keep the Rangers in the picture. Add veteran Chris Drury, who has a flare for the dramatics going all the way back to his little league days for Trumball, CT nevermind his huge play in big games in his college and NHL career. If they continue to have the years that they did, they will give the Rangers more balance which they will need. The big names on the blueline for the Rangers are veteran, and trade deadline acquisition, Brian McCabe and youngster Marc Staal. When you factor in the +20 rating and simple game of Mike Sauer and the shot blocking and defensive play of Dan Girardi you find a top 4 that can possibly get the job done.
Let's not forget that in 2008-2009 these two teams met in the first round. Even though the teams, roster wise, aren't the exact same as they were in 08-09 I'm sure the Rangers don't forget what they let slip away. What did they let slip away? They only had a 3-1 series lead that turned into a game 7 loss to be eliminated from Stanley Cup contention. Considering that, I remember that series well, (I picked New York to win that series in 7 games...i was being laughed at, btw) I ASSUME that "King Henri", and coach John Tortarella, and the rest of the guys that lost that series that are still with the Rangers remember it well too. This year I believe that the Caps have made strides at "putting a tent on their circus" and are playing the game the way that they haven't in the past. Considering that Washington knows what the word "defense" means makes them a little bit scarier than they have been the past couple of years. My question is, have they learned what the word "character" means yet? In this sport, in this league, CHARACTER is what wins. Washington has lacked it immensely the past couple of years, but I feel are starting to get it a bit more as they play a different style of game. I believe that they can get through a marginal New York Ranger product who will be without their inspirational leader in Ryan Callahan, but probably not much further than that. Give one game to the Rangers at home and give one game to the Rangers that Henrik Lundqvist will steal. Still have some growing up to do in D.C., but will have enough to win this series in 6 games.
2. Philadelphia Flyers vs 7. Buffalo Sabres
After making a hell of a run in the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup playoffs the Flyers followed it up by winning the Atlantic Division and taking the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. With 6-7 players having 20+ goals and 1 player with 19 it's easy for me to say that the Flyers have the deepest group of forwards in the league. The forward group can do everything that is needed. They have great speed, skill, grit, leadership, high compete level and high hockey i.q. Not to mention that you can't put a price on experience, and almost all the guys were on last year's Cup runner up. Claude Giroux is as good a playmaker as anyone in the NHL, Jeff Carter has as good a shot and release as anyone in the NHL, Mike Richards is as good a captain as anyone in the NHL. If they aren't, they don't take a backseat to more than 3-5. Danny Briere is a battle-tested player that produces in big games. Scott Hartnell is as good a villian as Kenny "the rat" Linsman was. James Van-Riemsdyk is showing that he isn't just a young prospect, but a consistent contributor night in and night out. Ville Leino is a very crafty player with great hockey sense who was bred in the Detroit Red Wings system, where they learn to win and play in big games, and has tons of experience to go along with Philly's ride last year. Last, but not least, Kris Versteeg. All Versteeg did was play a big role in winning a Cup last year with the Chicago Blackhawks. They have ALL of the bases covered. On defense they aren't too far off. Led by Chris Pronger, Philadelphia's defensive corps is solid to say the least. Names like, Kimmo Timmonen, Andrei Meszaros, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn would make most opposing coaches and players lose sleep. The place where things go up in the air for the Flyers comes in the cage. Can rookie Sergei Bobrovsky keep the puck out of the net more often than not in his first NHL Playoff experience? Will Mt. Saint Charles' Brian Boucher be called upon to be the backbone of this Flyer powerhouse? Those are the only questions regarding the Flyers in my eyes.
The Buffalo Sabres are coming into the playoffs riding a hot streak. Over the last 21 games to finish the regular season the Sabres got at least 1 point in all but 4 games. Over the course of those final 21 games the Sabres found themselves pretty much fighting for their playoff lives. Also during that time Buffalo found themselves without their star, goalie Ryan Miller. Rookie goaltender Jonas Enroth played very well down the stretch to gather up the appropriate points it took to qualify for postseason play. The Sabres have shown great resolve to sew up that 7th seed in the East. With an injury to top 3 forward Derek Roy the Sabres have had some guys step up their play to make up for the big loss. The horse that is Tomas Vanek was found in the stable this year and is back to his normal form. After posting 53 points last year (28 goals 25 assists) he registered 73 points in this season's campaign (32 goals 41 assists). Drew Stafford, who last year struggled a bit (14 goals 20 assists 34 points) has contibuted nicely this year tickling the twine 31 times. Tim Connolly's numbers are down from last year, but he is a very good offensive talent especially on the powerplay. There have been 2 young players that have really propelled the Sabres with the loss of the production that usually comes from the injured Derek Roy. Those two players are, Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe. Both players are young and small in stature; however, the game that they bring to the rink is huge. In 64 games Gerbe, the former Boston College hero, had 16 goals and 15 assists for 31 points and was a +11. Scoring some very big goals down the stretch. Tyler Ennis potted 20 goals and 29 assists for 49 points while playing in all 82 games. Ennis is a very good playmaker and is dangerous on the powerplay. Jason Pominville has also been consistent down the stretch garnering 52 points in 73 games. Trade deadline addition Brad Boyes is another guy up front that has proven that he can produce points on a nightly basis and has seemed to fit in nicely with Buffalo. After winning the Calder Trophy, 6 foot 7 defenseman Tyler Myers had a tough start to the season. Although he got off to a rough start, he has found his game and is playing his best hockey heading into the playoffs. He will need to continue his solid play as of late, as i feel that the Buffalo defense is decent at best. Having to count on a young Chris Butler with little playoff experience to play is ok, but what will they get? Unknown=risky. Jordan Leopold is someone that has been around plenty of playoff runs so his experience will help. Rounding out the blueline for the Sabres is Shaone Morrisonn, Mark Mancari and Steve Montador. Probably not the trio of names that'll get you a Stanley Cup, but i guess that's why they play the games. The obvious strength for the Sabres is in goal and his name is Ryan Miller. Unless you live under a rock, Ryan Miller is a household name. The former Vezina winner is coming off of a season where injuries have lingered and it will be interesting to see how it may or may not affect his play.
In order for the Sabres to have a chance to win this series i think that they'll have to win the battle of special teams for sure, have their goalie steal them 1-2 games and "get the bonces". I guess that's a pretty easy hypothesis to come up with, but it really is that simple. I just think that they will have to go 3-0 in those categories, can't go 2-1. On the other hand, is the goaltending going to be an issue for Philadelphia? I don't care who says what, Philly's team is as strong as it's going to get from top to bottom (minus the net). If they get good goaltending this could be ugly. The depth of the Flyers is far too much for the Sabres to handle and Miller, in my opinion, probably isn't as healthy as he'd like to be. Add
those things together and, being generous to the Sabres, I like the Flyers in 6.
3. Boston Bruins vs 6. Montreal Canadiens
After one of the biggest collapses in the history of ALL SPORTS, blowing a 3-0 series lead along with a 3-0 lead in game 7, the Boston Bruins are eager to avenge the embarrassment that came along with their collapse. Over the summer the B's made a splash when they acquired Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell from the Florida Panthers for Dennis Wideman and a conditional pick. Along with the Florida deal the Bruins selected Tyler Seguin with the #2 pick in the draft via Toronto and Phil Kessel. Going into the season the Bruins and their fans were excited for the return of Marc Savard, especially when putting Horton along side of him. To start the season it was assumed that the goaltending was going to be in the hands of Tuukka Rask, or maybe splitting time with former Vezina trophy winner and Vermont Catamount Tim Thomas. Either way the job was most likely Rask's to lose. How soon did the Bruins forget that they had a Vezina winner in their lockeroom? Fast forward to today, April 13, 2011. Tim Thomas sets an NHL record for save percentage in a season with a .938 save percentage. The Bruins also made some noise at the trade deadline and snagged the highly touted Tomas Kaberle from the Toronto Maple Leafs. In a couple of lesser deals the B's ended up with Chris Kelley via Ottawa and Rich Peverly via Atlanta. After trade deadline day many people in the hockey world viewed the Bruins as a major contender to win the Cup with the thought of adding Kaberle as that "missing piece". To go along with that, Milan Lucic, after a down season, came out and scored 30 goals. Up front the Bruins are solid. With Patrice Bergeron's all around play, David Krecji's playmaking ability and Mark Recchi's leadership and playoff experience (Cup champ with Pittsburgh) the B's forwards round out to be more than capable. On the back end the Bruins, along with the addition of Kaberle, rely on their captain Zdeno Chara. Chara logs the most ice on the team and is counted on in all situations. Dennis Seidenberg is also a solid NHL defenseman that can move the puck well. The top 3 d-men for the B's are good, but i don't see much after that. If i had to say that the Bruins had a weakness I would say its depth at defense.
Unlike their counterpart, the Montreal Canadiens are coming off of an outstanding playoff season. Last year the Habs sent Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals home in the 1st round and followed that up by ousting the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2nd round before losing to the Flyers in the conference final. Over the summer the Canadiens decided that they were going to cut loose goaltender and playoff hero, Jaroslav Halak in favor of Carey Price. Many people questioned the decision, but after 82 games there is no questioning anymore. Price has been instrumental in the Canadiens' success and is by far their MVP. Finishing 2nd to the Bruins in the Northeast Division the Habs have battled through injury after injury this season. Most notably losing two of their top 4 defensemen in Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges. Through the injuries the Canadiens still found their way into the NHL playoffs. They found their way in mostly thanks to the play of Price. A big help for the Canadiens has been the addition of James Wisniewski, who in 43 games has collected 30 points. Getting Wisniewski via trade bolstered a depleted Montreal blueline, as well as, adding another bomb from the point on the powerplay. Another bomb i say? Yup, that other bomb belongs to PK Subban. The young Montreal defenseman has really come on since the first third of the season where he sometimes found himself out of the lineup as a healthy scratch. Staying on the blueline, another defenseman that deserves lots of credit is Acton, Massachusetts' Hal Gill. Gill has developed into one of the best shut down defensemen in the NHL (let us not forget that Jaromir Jagr said that Gill was the toughest d-man to play against). Winning the Cup with Pittsburgh in 2008-2009 and ousting Ovechkin and Crosby in the playoffs last year, Hal Gill has proven that he has what it takes to lead his team deep into the "second season". Rounding out the defensive top 4 for the Habs is former #1 overall pick Roman Hamrlik who contributed with 5-29-34, +6 and 192 blocked shots. With Price in the net and a very good top 4 defense the Canadiens have a good setup on the defensive side of the puck. Up front the balance is also good for the small but fast and skilled group. Led by captain Brian Gionta the Canadiens possess lots of speed and skill and playmaking ability. A major plus for the "bleu, blanc et rouge" is experience. Gionta, Scott Gomez, Gill and Travis Moen have all won Stanley Cups and most of the guys on the team were involved in last year's run to the conference final. Mike Cammalleri, Tomas Pleckanec and Andrei Kostitsyn are all very heady players and when given an inch will take a mile. Checkers like Moen, Jeff Halpern, Benoit Pouliout and Mathieu Darche can frustrate the Bruins and affect their game.
Well, what can i say? Already a rivalry, well before this year, I guess I wouldn't be going out on a limb to say there has been some fuel added to that fire. With about 871 fights in a game at the Garden followed by the close decapitation of Max Paciorietty, it is safe to say that this series will be a war. Not in the sense that it will be bloody and fight filled. In the sense that these two teams would rather lose to the 28 others in the league than eachother. Looking at this series I feel that it will come down to emotion and discipline. Both teams have great goaltending. The Habs have more depth on defense, but the B's have more depth up front. Which team will be able to control their emotions and be more disciplined? Which team will determine what type of game is going to be played? If its a skating, puck moving game with not much physicality then the Habs will be in the favor. If the games are rough and physical then Boston shouldn't have a problem. Saying that, I, for some crazy reason, had the hockey gods on the side of a Max Paciorietty game 7 go ahead goal early in the 3rd period propelling the Canadiens to end the Bruins' season prematurely. Knowing that Pacioretty will not play in this series, make it even more rare and give the go ahead goal to "old friend" Hal Gill. Something inside tells me that the Canadiens win a great series in 7 games.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins vs 5. Tampa Bay Lightning
Ending the 2009-2010 season in a disappointing fashion the team from the steel city came into this season with a bitter taste in their mouth. The big story with the Penguins this season is the injuries to their "two-headed monster" Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Pens started the year slow losing 9 of their first 16 games, with that 16th game being the turnaround of their season. In the 16th game of the season the Penguins hosted the Boston Bruins and carried a 4-2 lead into the 3rd period. Thanks to some poor decision making and lack of attention to detail the Penguins went on to lose the game 7-4. After that game the Penguins went on to win 14 out of the next 15 games with the one loss coming in overtime. Heading into the Winter Classic the Penguins were cruising. There is where the Pittsburgh season took a turn, and a turn that was not the one they wanted. Towards the end of the 2nd period during the Winter Classic captain Sidney Crosby was blindsided behind the play by then Washington's David Steckel and has played about 3 periods since. Exactly 12 games after Crosby was sidelined with a concussion Evgeni Malkin's season came to and end with a play on the boards against Tyler Myers and the Buffalo Sabres. Injuries to Chris Kunitz, Brooks Orpik, Mark Letestu and some other small injuries, at the wrong time, to a few more players, the Penguins were missing 8-9 "regulars" on a given night. Regardless who they were trotting out there, every night they were getting points. After it was all said and done the Crosby and Malkin-less Penguins came in with 106 points (the 2nd most in franchise history/also tied with Philadelphia but lose tiebreaker). The main reason for the Penguin success falls in the hands of,"The Flower", Marc-Andre Fleury. Since Crosby's injury the Pens scored on average a little less than 2.5 goals a game as opposed to the 3 and change when he was in the lineup. Bottom line: they still won games all the way up to game 82. That was in large part to Fleury. The other part of the equation is obviously the team's agenda and system. Dan Bylsma should be a unanimous choice for coach of the year as he has kept his ,"thought-to-be", sinking ship afloat, and not only afloat, but sailing. The team approach of focusing on puck management, moving the puck forward and playing in the other team's zone is what everyone buys into and does. Kris Letang has emerged as a top defenseman in NHL and Brooks Orpik is as rugged a defenseman that checks into work everyday. They are complimented by 2 key additions that were made in the offseason by general manager Ray Shero via free agency. Defensemen Paul Martin from New Jersey and Zbynek Michalek from Phoenix. Both have played a major role with Michalek's ability to play solid defense while blocking a million shots and Martin's skating ability and powerplay help. Ben Lovejoy, and Deryk Engelland have also contributed nicely and round out the defense with Matt Niskanen. Matt Niskanen was acquired in a trade deadline deal that also came with the addition of James Neal. Alex Goligoski and a pick were shipped to Dallas in exchange. The Penguins also added Alex Kovalev in a trade with Ottawa. The group of forwards is keyed by Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy. Tyler Kennedy has accepted a bigger role very well scoring some big goals down the stretch. The remaining group, not including the acquirees in trades, includes Max Talbot, Craig Adams, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Conner, Mike Rupp, Arron Asham and Mark Letestu. All of which have been fantastic for Bylsma whether it was killing penalties, or winning faceoffs, or dropping the gloves, or scoring goals. The compete level of Pittsburgh seemed to be second to none on just about every night.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2007 where they lost in the 1st round to the New Jersey Devils. After showing signs last year of a team on the rise, rookie general manager, Steve Yzerman, rookie head coach, Guy Boucher, and brand new ownership are steering the Bolts in the right direction. With last year's co-Rocket Richard winning Steven Stamkos and career Lightning Marty St.Louis and Vinny Lecavalier, the Lightning are looking to show the league that they are not just a "1 and done" product. St. Louis had a fantastic year recording 99 points. He hit a little bit of a slow spell towards the end of the year, but he has recently RE-CONNECTED will Vinny Lecavalier. Vinny is playing great hockey, the best he has in years, heading into the playoffs. If he and St. Louis can play like the days of old and get Steven Stamkos to get back on track it could spell trouble for the Pens. With a top 6 forward group of the previously 3 mentioned, Simon Gagne, ex-pen and Pittsburgh native Ryan Malone, and the Tampa Bay version of Matt Cooke, Steve Downie, the Lightning are strong. Also chipping in with 51 points was former Univ.of Maine Blackbear Teddy Purcell. Grinder guys like Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim scored 18 and 14 goals respectively. On the back end the Lightning look get a collective effort from their top 6. Brett Clark is a steady defenseman with 9-22-31, +2, and 157 blocks. Veterans Pavel Kubina (79 games 23 points 115 blocks), Mattias Ohlund (135 hits which leads TB d-men and 136 blocks) and powerplay specialist Marc-Andre Bergeron will hope to provide leadership to their young defensemen Mike Lundin and Victor Hedman. Lundin has been very steady and the former #1 overall pick, Hedman seems to be maturing into the NHL game. In goal the Bolts are going with the spring chicken also known as, Dwayne Roloson. The Lightning got "Rolly" in a trade with the New York Islanders on New Year's Day and are looking for him to find that playoff magic he had as an Edmonton Oiler. The 41 year old Umass-Lowell product is looking to repeat his performance in the 06-07 playoff run that got the Oilers into the Stanley Cup Final.
Tampa Bay has the type of team that can score a lot of goals and have the personell to score on every powerplay. To go along with that they have very good playoff experience in goal and really don't have any liabilities on defense. One thing that Tampa also has is 9 1st timers when it comes to NHL playoff hockey. Will those 9 contributors be able to put the blinders on and not get caught up in the awe of playoff hockey? Time will tell. The Penguins will rely on their work ethic, experience and goaltender without the services of Malkin or Crosby. They are going to need James Neal to start finding the back of the net and contribute on the score sheet. Alex Kovalev is also going to need to make a difference, at the very least on the powerplay. Tyler Kennedy, Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz just need to continue what they have done and the role players as well. If the production from Staal, Kunitz and Kennedy continues and Neal and Kovalev can join in on the fun, the Pens should be ok. The Penguins had the best penalty kill in the league and are going to need that to continue if they want to move forward. The Lightning powerplay can be explosive at any time and Pittsburgh is going to want to limit their chances at even getting powerplay opportunities. This is good to be a highly contested series due to the strengths of each team. One team is offensive and the other defensive. It also could be who wins the battle of special teams. If the Pens' penalty kill can be what it was in the regular season you've got to like their chances. With Matt Cooke suspended for the series that could be a tough chore. I basically am going to go with intangibles on this one. The resiliance of the Penguins has been TREMENDOUS and their compete level is second to none. Most of the Pittsburgh lockeroom has won and lost in a Cup final and just know what it's about. Though Tampa has won a Cup, and guys from that team are still there, Tampa Bay still has 9 first timers and there is nothing like having playoff experience. My crystal ball has been showing me what may be the biggest intangible of all. That intangible being the Penguins' captain Sidney Crosby. Something has me believing that unless the Penguins are sweeping this series, which I do not believe they will, the one that we all know as "The Kid" may have something to say about it. The compete level and experience of Pittsburgh is too much. The Pens will move on in 7.