Eastern Conference Playoff Preview
While the majority of Leafs fans wrote the team off in the summer, it wasnâ€™t until the New Year that the teams first true season of rebuilding began the inevitable grind into early year golf tournaments.
As Leafs nation pencilled in dates for the draft and free agency into their diaries, both the Eastern and Western conferences were enjoying (or enduring), one of the most exciting playoff races in recent years.
Now with the inaugural 82 game prelude to long, hockey-free summers once more complete in Toronto itâ€™s time for us in blue and white to pin our colours to another clubâ€¦ you know, to keep it interesting.
Boston Bruins (1) vs Montreal Canadiens (8)
Preseason odds: Bruins 30/1 Canadiens 10/1
Last 10: Bruins 8-2-0, Canadiens 5-3-2
Season Series: Bruins win 5-0-1
The last time these two sides met in the regular season, April 9th, some 76 penalty minutes were assessed. It proved the pinnacle in an original six rivalry that revolved around a season long feud between Milan Lucic and Mike Komisarek and could be dated to last seasons post season when Montreal ousted the Bruins in the first round. With no love lost, the match up could play out as one of the most visceral in the first round.
Few expected the Bruins would even be in the chase for President Trophy honours, let alone fall a single point short and unlike the early season explosion of form the eventual trophy winning Sharks enjoyed, the Bruins ascension to first in the East was the product of consistency.
Much of the credit could be apportioned to the likes of Phil Kessel, Dennis Wideman and David Krejci who have enjoyed breakout years, a great rookie season for Blake Wheeler and solid Norris worthy D from Zdeno Chara. But the greatest asset the Bruins have enjoyed this season has been the stellar, Vezina shoe-in goaltending of the oft-overlooked Tim Thomas, who, on route to a league leading .933 save percentage and 2.10 GAA, won 36 games almost single-handedly securing top seeding. While many may have written off Thomas in past years, his idiosyncratic style has been both reliable and indomitable and will almost certainly continue into the summer.
With Marc Savard playing up to his playmaker billing and Milan Lucic and playoff warhorse Mark Recchi powering the leagues most noteworthy third and fourth lines, Boston may have looked unspectacular on paper, but the whole has proved greater than the sum of its parts.
For all the pomp and ceremony that surrounded the Canadiens centennial season, the talk of it being the Habs year was almost obliterated at the eleventh hour by the resurgent Florida Panthers. While the Floridians challenge was eventually scuppered, the season will perhaps best be remembered by the failure of its star players as much as their successes.
Alex Kovalev in particular has spent a year in the doghouse seeing his 84 point total of 07â€™-08â€™ collapse to a paltry team leading total of 65. Scratched from the team at one point, Kovalev was not the only Canadien to struggle. Carey Price has found it difficult to maintain form over the prototypically difficult sophomore year and in stretches has been outplayed by understudy Jaroslav Halak. Eventually scraping above .900 down from .920 last year, Price has seemingly managed to recover some of the old magic in the closing weeks of the season.
Another shortfall has been the engine room powerplay evidenced in the years following the lockout. Manned last year by rear gunner Mark Streit, his exit at the point left the Canadiens with an uncharacteristically weak PP worse still in the rare absence of Alexei Markov. Answered post deadline by Mathieu Schneider it could be argued the Habs have plugged many of the holes in their dam, whether this will be enough come Boston remains to be seen.
The Canadiens are perhaps the most fragile side in the playoff hunt. Dominated all year by a workmanlike Bruins side this should be relatively straightforward, rivalry or none. As a straight match up between Thomas and Price there is unlikely to be a contest and the same applies to roster depth. Bruins in five.
Washington Capitals (2) vs New York Rangers (7)
Preseason Odds: Capitals 18/1 Rangers 15/1
Last 10: Capitals: 6-2-2 Rangers: 5-4-1
Season Series: Washington Win 3-0-1
One of the purest forechecking offences faceoff against the might of playoff specialist John Tortorella and his Rangers team still trying to convert from the defence orientated game plan of Tom Renney. An intriguing match up that will test as much the Capitals defensive fortitude as the net minding of Henrik Lundqvist.
Itâ€™s impossible to speak of the Capitals without calculating the impact of Alex Ovechkin. A slow start and a trip to Russia to be with his ailing grandfather was followed by another explosive offensive year courting as much controversy along the way as always. Joined once more by an improved Alexander Semin adding playmaking to his sniping abilities, the Capitals have expanded their offensive depth to become a fully rounded attack with seasoned underlings such as Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann coming to the fore. Add in Nicklas Backstrom and the Capsâ€™ greatest concerns are evidenced at the rear as opposed to the attack.
Of course Mike Green has been awesome breaking the record for consecutive goal scoring games by a defenseman, eventually reaching 31 to keep inline with the third most potent attack in the league, as has the plus minus of Jeff Schultz. However defensive depth, mistakes and questionable goaltending in the form of Jose Theodore and his barely .900 numbers make the Caps prone to blowouts on offensively stunted nights.
New York Rangers
An explosive start straight out of Europe, 7-1-2, was followed by a progressively streaky, progressively weak season culminating in Tom Renneyâ€™s February dismissal. Playing out a defensive game reliant on likely Vezina nominee Henrik Lundqvist was necessitated by an underwhelming offence led by playmakers such as Drury and Gomez. What the Rangers desperately needed was the goal scoring qualities lost when Jagr left for Russia and Shanahan mulled retirement.
Enter Nikolai Zherdev pre season and Nikolai Antropov at the deadline. Streaky scorers for sure, but alongside perennial lesser star Markus Naslund, the three Europeans will be counted on for the meat of the Rangers offence, while the gutsy grinding wheelhouse featuring Korpikoski, Betts, Callahan and Dubinsky will have to deliver more so than most depth lines.
Other deadline acquisition Derek Morris could be key in gelling an altogether mediocre defence heavily relied upon all year and often times overwhelmed with the only exception being a fine penalty killing unit.
With Tortorella imploring the Rangers to press the puck in a do or die offensive game, Lundqvist is likely to be vital to the Rangers cause, however a lifetime record of 11-12 leaves as many questions about Lundqvistâ€™s playoff pedigree as the Rangers as a unit.
Two sides with catastrophic weaknesses could make for a close series. The Capâ€™s perhaps carry the burden of expectation more so than the Rangers and any problems with Ovechkin could be devastating to their chances. Meanwhile, the Rangers will need to grind out wins and exploit the weak defensive depth and goaltending of the Caps.
Still in his cup debut last year Ovechkin had no difficulties scoring with 9 points in 7 games and that form coupled with an improved team should be enough. Capitals in seven.
New Jersey Devils (3) vs Carolina Hurricanes (6)
Preseason Odds: Devils 20/1 Hurricanes 22-1
Last 10: Devils 4-5-1 Hurricanes 8-2-0
Season Series: Carolina Win 3-1-0
The immovable object comes up against the unstoppable force in what promises to be one of the matchups of the Conference Quarter Finals as Cam Ward and the hot Carolina Hurricanes blast into the playoffs with one of the best end of season records. In the meantime Martin Brodeurâ€™s ascension to winningest goaltender of all time has collided with so-so form following injury.
New Jerset Devils:
Most hoped that Kevin Weekes and Scott Clemmensen would just keep the ship steady, ripe for Brodeurâ€™s return following the first serious injury in the career of the future hall of famer. Instead they both exceeded expectations with Clemmensen taking top billing with a 25-13-1 record while backup Weekes managed a .920 save percentage. Subsequently the Devils were well on course for the postseason prior to the celebrations that heralded Brodeurâ€™s Hollywood year. In the aftermath the Devils have struggled to recapture the spirit they found in the number 1â€™s absence and enter the playoffs with losing form.
Traditionally a defensive team, the loss of Brodeur has allowed the light to shine on one of the finest top two lines in the game. Parise, Zajac, Langenbrunner, Elias, Rolston and Gionta. Each one is a bona fide game winner and blessed with a deep supporting cast that sees Jay Pandolfo struggle to make the ice.
Meanwhile a stay at home cluster of Dâ€™s is complemented by an increasingly confident Johnny Oduya who demonstrates a flair for puck carrying unseen for years on the Devils blueline.
What has consistently killed the Devils is a leaky PK and an inconsistent work ethic, if the Devils show up they have a cup winning roster, if they donâ€™t, wellâ€¦
Why South East division teams collapse after cup runs is a mystery; that the Hurricanes are back so soon is a surprise. Thoroughly mediocre under Peter Laviolette, the return of Paul Maurice, Ron Francis and Erik Cole at the deadline has turned the old boys club back into real cup contention.
Headed up by rookie cup starlet Cam Ward, who contrary to belief never really lost his form in the purported sophomore dip, has been aided by the same kind of neatly balanced offence/defence game that served the southerners so well three seasons ago.
With three solid lines of scorers and competent transitional defensemen Joe Corvo and Joni Pitkanen the Hurricanes sport an efficient compact unit benefited by a hefty number of cup rings and experience.
Two utterly solid teams with great goaltending and relative scoring depth. It promises a reasonably equal match-up. Much has been made of the Hurricanes small D and there difficulties against physical sides, however with a mere 1448 team hits the Devils are one of the least physical teams in the league. Subsequently a surprise is on the cards to spoil Brodeurâ€™s year. Carolina in six.
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs Philadelphia Flyers (5)
Preseason Odds: Penguins 11/2 Flyers 15/1
Last 10: Penguins 7-2-1 Flyers 4-5-1
Season Series: Penguins win 4-2
In a replay of last seasons Eastern Conference Finals the Penguins come back from the brink to secure home ice and the Flyers rue a last day, come from behind defeat to the Rangers. Philadelphia will be looking to exercise the demons of last years disappointing showing in the penultimate round while the Penguins seek to galvanise the reputation garnered in last seasonâ€™s cup run.
There were many who regarded the Penguins as a potential dynasty in waiting last season. With years of rebuilding from the draft, the inevitable accumulation of young talent reached the first in what was expected to be many finals.
Fast forward eight months and Michel Terrien, hampered by injuries in the D and lacklustre displays by a battle worn Marc-Andre Fleury, was being relieved as coach to a two player team.
Enter Dan Bylsma who has made the Penguins a more accountable side, aided by the introductions of Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin alongside Sidney Crosby.
While the special teams have struggled to improve, the aggressive forecheck applied to the Penguins game has started to take affect in the top lines punch. Thereâ€™s still a question regarding the supporting castâ€™s goal scoring qualities with too many role players getting extended ice time but the game destroying tandem of Malkin and Crosby allows for holes in the team
For now the return of experienced Sergei Gonchar has strengthened the blueline and renewed Fleuryâ€™s confidence who is getting back to his best.
Little changed from last year and seemingly tinkered for the better, the Penguins enter the postseason with momentum and renewed expectation.
The Flyers have proved something of an enigma in recent years. Competent, grinding and unspectacular they work for their victories and overachieve with regular aplomb. Still, how they would have loved to have that home ice and register the first shorthand conceded free season since the Canadiens in the mid 70â€™s.
Lamenting aside, overachievement has been key in one of the most offensively balanced sides in the playoffs, after a disastrous start some unusual names have come to the fore posting unexpected numbers. 46 goals for Jeff Carter eclipsed his previous seasons best of 29; Gagne enjoyed his year back from injury with 74 points, Mike Richards once again improved on personal bests, Scott Hartnell became a surprising 30 goal scorer while Lupul and Knuble aided one of the strongest top six offences.
While depth could be cited as a problem the strength of the other two lines and their special teams has negated any concerns and the return from injury of Daniel Briere and immergence of Claude Giroux has made the unit all the more potent. Small wonder that they are the third strongest offence in the East.
Where the Flyers may struggle is in a lightweight defence backstopped by a streaky Martin Biron. The Flyers will need Biron to be on top form to overcome the Penguins.
If the Flyers had home ice this clash of the offences would have been closer. Instead the Flyers could suffer in a free scoring series, especially if Biron doesnâ€™t find the form of last year. Should be exciting but no upset. Pittsburgh in five.