NHL Playoffs First Round Preview- Eastern Conference

Posted: 04/15/2014 by levcohen in Hockey

I haven’t written much about hockey, because the regular season is so hectic and hard to follow. Now, though, the season is over, and the playoffs start tomorrow. There are a lot of great times to be a sports fan, but this time of year might rank number one. The baseball season still feels new and exciting, the NFL draft is coming up, and hockey and basketball are both in the playoffs. Even the MLS is in the middle of its season. It is a great time to be a sports fan. We’ll start with the East today, and move to the West tomorrow.

Eastern Conference:

New York Rangers (96 points) vs Philadelphia Flyers (94):
I have a feeling that this is going to be a great series for a couple of reasons. The first one is obvious: it’s New York against Philadelphia. These two teams are, as you would expect, rivals, and most of their games have been close. They ended up 2-2 against each other in the regular season, and there were three fights in those four games. The games have generally been very chippy. But another reason that these games should be fun is that it is a strength against strength series. The Rangers rely on their defense (193 goals allowed, fourth fewest in hockey) and on their goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, who is perhaps the best goalie in the NHL. The Flyers, on the other hand, are one of two teams in the playoffs who have a negative goal differential in 5 on 5 hockey. The rely on their power-play scoring, as they scored 58 power play goals, third most in all of hockey. Their goalie, unlike Lundqvist, isn’t exactly entering the playoffs on a hot streak. Steve Mason was benched for some of the Flyers’ biggest games at the end of the season, and now has an upper body injury. So the goalie advantage, which is usually so important in the playoffs, goes to the Rangers. In order to win the series, New York needs to neutralize Philadelphia’s tremendous offensive depth. No playoff team has more twenty goal scorers than the Flyers, who have seven, including Claude Giroux, one of the best players in hockey. So the Flyers should have the advantage offensively. But the Rangers have Lundqvist and the Flyers have Mason, so the Flyers, who gave up 13 goals in their last three games (really 12 and a shootout loss against the Hurricanes, but still), need to tame Martin St. Louis and the Rangers’ attack. The key to this series is penalties. If the refs swallow their whistles, as often happens in the playoffs, the Rangers will have the advantage, as the Flyers will be deprived of their greatest weapons. But if the Flyers get rolling offensively and on the power play, I don’t think New York has the offense to keep up. I’m going to pick the Rangers in 7, mainly because of Lundqvist and because the Rangers, at 85.3%, are the third best penalty killing team in hockey. It should be a great series.

Pittsburgh Penguins (109) vs Columbus Blue Jackets (93):
The Columbus Blue Jackets, led by goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, are a solid all-around team. They aren’t excellent on the power play (19.3%, 11th in the NHL), on the penalty kill (82.1%, 14th), or in terms of goal scoring (2.76 per game, 12th), but they are average to slightly above average everywhere. I don’t think that will be enough against the Penguins, though. Pittsburgh is ripe to be upset, as they slumped near the end of the season and have a huge question mark (Marc Andre-Fleury) between the pipes. With that said, they are still have some tremendous talent offensively. Sidney Crosby is the obvious one. The best player in hockey scored 104 points this year, best in hockey by a wide margin (Ryan Getzlaf is second with 87 points), and picked up 1.30 points per game. Second on the points per game list is another Penguin: Evgeni Malkin. Malkin, who had a foot injury and was limited to 60 games, picked up 72 points in those 60 games. Now, he says he will play in game one tomorrow night, and will obviously be welcomed back onto the ice. The Penguins firepower should just be too much for the Blue Jackets. They edged out the Capitals as the best power play team in hockey at 23.38%, and scored 65 power play goals. Can the Blue Jackets, who are middle of the pack on the PK, keep the Penguins at bay? I doubt it. I like the Penguins in 6, but I think that because of their goal tending and defensive issues, they have a chance to be upset in the second round against a better all around team like the Rangers. Crosby, James Neal, and Malkin are three of the best offensive and power play players in the NHL, and that should be the difference in a series against a solid team who might just be happy to be there.

Boston Bruins (117) vs Detroit Red Wings (93):
This is an absolute nightmare of a first round matchup for the Bruins, who have the most points and are the best all around team in hockey. After losing their two best players and slumping in the middle of the season, most people thought the Red Wings’ consecutive seasons in the playoffs streak would end at an impressive 22. But the young guys on the Wings stepped up, and they have now made the playoffs for 23 consecutive seasons. And now, Pavel Datsyuk is back and Henrik Zetterberg might return during this first round series. Now that the Red Wings are in the playoffs, it can be noted that the injuries to Datsyuk and Zetterberg could well have been a blessing in disguise, because the young guys have really stepped up: Gustav Nyquist, a 24 year old Swede in his second season, is averaging a point per game since the all star break, after averaging .73 points per game before the break. He’s also +12 since the break, after being +4 before it. Tomas Tatar, 23 and also in his second year, has also stepped up big time, as has Danny DeKeyser, a defender who is chipping in offensively (11 points in 23 games since the break, 12 in 42 before the break). So the Red Wings are now a deep team with experience and youth. They’ll be a tough out. The Bruins, who have a great goalie in Tuukka Rask, a deep defending core led by possible award-winning defenseman Zdeno Chara, and the deepest and perhaps most talented offense in the NHL. They are averaging 3.15 goals per game, third in the NHL, and allowing just 2.09, second in the NHL. Their goal differential, at +84, is by far the best in hockey. They also have experience, having made the Cup Final last year. Although it should be a great series, part of me is sad that this is a first round matchup, because I think these two teams could be the best in the East. I think the winner of this series is likely to win the East, and I think it will be the Bruins in 7. I wanted to pick the huge upset, but just couldn’t pull the trigger in the end.

Tampa Bay Lightning (101) vs Montreal Canadians (100):
Again, these are two teams that thrive in two very different areas. The Lightning, who have made huge improvements and ended the season on a four game win streak, are great at 5-on-5 hockey. Montreal, on the other hand, is the only non-Flyers team in the playoffs to allow more 5-on-5 goals than they have scored this season. They are great on the penalty kill (85.1%, fourth in the NHL), which could be absolutely vital against Steven Stamkos and the Lightning offense. The real calling card for the Canadians is their goalie, Carey Price, who won Olympic Gold behind the pipes for Canada, who has 34 wins in 59 starts and has bailed Montreal out when the rest of their team has been somewhat shaky. It can be argued that Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay’s shockingly good goalie, was even better this season, but Bishop is now out with an elbow injury, and I don’t think he will play in this series. Not all is lost, because backup goalie Anders Lindback has a .930 save percentage since returning from injury early in March. To put that in perspective, that would be tied with Tuukka Rask for tops in hockey over a full season. I think the Lightning, who have Stamkos back, are probably the better all around team, so the goalie matchup will be pivotal. Price is good enough to steal the series, but Lindback is probably also good enough to win his team the series, too. The other key battle is Stamkos against P.K. Subban of the Canadians. They might not match up head-to-head, but these are the two best players, with the possible exception of Price, in the series. The Lightning are the better full strength team, and also keep possession of the puck better, which is why I think the Lightning will win this series in 6 games.

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