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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Breaking Down the Opening Round - Eastern Conference

Need some clarification for our (occasionally) ridiculous choices in our brackets?  Well, we'd hate to leave you hanging.  So, Weagz, Forsberg's Foot, and I want to give you a better sense of the matchups for this opening round and why we think they'll break the way we chose.  For this first installment, the Eastern Conference:

Forsberg's Foot "does" The Eastern Conference

#1 Washington Capitals (54-15-13) versus #8 Montreal Canadiens (39-33-10)

Washington is an easy team to peg; lots of offense and little defense.  They boast an incredible offense (goals for is top in the NHL by a large margin), have an offensively capable but otherwise ordinary defense, and poor goaltending (only Pittsburgh and Ottawa have given up more goals among Eastern Conference playoff teams). Their powerplay is ranked first in the league (25.2%; Montreal is 2nd at 21.8%), but their PK is ranked 25th (78.8%). Up front, guys like Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Semin will probably put up plenty of points in this series. Compared to the Caps of previous years, though, they'll get secondary scoring support from Mike Knuble (29G, 24A), Brooks Laich (25G, 34A), and Tomas Fleischmann (23G, 28A). Deadline acquisition Jason Chimera was a nice pickup and should provide another weapon. On the blueline, Mike Green, Joe Corvo, and Tom Poti provide plenty of puck moving and point-producing capabilities. Meanwhile, the rest of the defense ranges from average stay-at-home guys to plainly below mediocre bottom pairing guys. I have absolutely no faith that Theodore can make up for this team's defensive blunders, and young goalie Semyon Varlamov is unproven.

Montreal does not boast an offense that can stand up to the Caps' offense. They only scored 217 goals this year, which only beats Boston's total amongst Eastern playoff teams. They will have to rely on forwards like Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, and Brian Gionta to keep them in games. Their 2nd-ranked powerplay might help them in that regard. However, stopping Washington's offense is another matter. I would imagine that Andrei Markov or Jaroslav Spacek will have the honor of shadowing Mr. Ovechkin. Dominic Moore will likely also get the nod of leading his checking line out there to keep Washington's first line in check. On the whole, Montreal is a better defensive team than Washington is, but unfortunately, they aren't backed by a proven goalie. Jaroslave Halak has had a good year, but I don't think he's up for this challenge.

I'm going with Washington in 5.

#2 New Jersey Devils (48-27-7) versus #7 Philly (41-35-6)

The more things change the more they stay the same. It feels like the year 2000 all over again; the Flyers will be starting Brian Boucher in net against the New Jersey Devils. Fortunately, Eric Lindros and Scott Stevens won't be around to provide a memorable ending to this series.

New Jersey possesses one of the most balanced lineups in the league.  They have a balanced scoring attack embedded within a defensively sound system that is anchored by the Sister Banger. Zach Parise, Ilya
Kovalchuk, and Patrick Elias will lead the offensive attack and they'll be supported by good all-around players like Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner. The Devils also dress plenty of guys that provide good grit up front: David Clarkson, Dainus Zubrus, and Rob Niedermayer. While their defense, at least from a personnel standpoint, isn't incredible, they get the job done. Paul Martin, who missed most of the year with injury, should provide added scoring from the back end. Andy Greene quietly put together a very good breakout year (6G, 31A).

The Flyers came into this season with high expectations. Sadly, those expectations have not been met. Less than stellar production up front coupled with inconsistent defensive play (with the exception of Norris Trophy hopeful Chris Pronger) led to the club relying on a shootout victory to propel them into the playoffs. The biggest question mark surrounding this team, not surprisingly, is Brian Boucher. There is perhaps no greater mismatch (on paper anyway) than that of Boucher vs. Sister Banger. However, that only tells part of the story. The Flyers' success will depend on their effort which, frankly, has been poor this year. Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter, and Danny Briere will be asked to provide the bulk of scoring in this series. While their powerplay (ranked 3rd in the NHL) has been good for most of the year, it dried up quite a bit during the last few weeks of the season. Chris Pronger will get the pleasure of shadowing Parise, and if this defense
comes together like it is capable of doing, they might be able to keep New Jersey's production at a manageable rate.

While the Flyers handled the Devils in the season series, the mismatch in goal is too big to overlook. Unless Boucher puts together a magical run, I see New Jersey taking this series. Jersey in 7.

#3 Buffalo Sabres (45-27-10) versus #6 Boston Bruins (39-30-13)

The Sabres are another balanced team on paper. While their offense does not strike fear into the opposition, their 235 goals ranks 4th amongst Eastern conference playoff teams. Meanwhile, their very underrated defense is deep and productive. Having a 20-year-old rookie defenseman put up 48 points doesn't hurt, does it? The strength of this team, though, is between the pipes. I haven't been a big supporter of Ryan Miller over the years, but he promptly showed that my concerns were unfounded at the Olympics. Their 2nd-overall ranked penalty killing unit should help them out a lot in this series.

Boston has had a bit of a strange year. Their biggest problem has been that they can't score goals. Luckily, their 3rd-overall ranked penalty-killing unit, stout defense (only the Devils gave up fewer goals in the NHL), and emerging goalie Tuukka Rask kept them in the playoff hunt. Will this team be able to put up enough goals to win this series? I doubt it. The Bruins will miss Marc Savard and Dennis Seidenberg, and if they were going up against a team with a poor goalie between the pipes, I might be inclined to pick Boston. Their defense should keep them in this series. However, the combination of an impotent offense and rookie goalie is not a recipe for success in the playoffs.

Sabres in 7.

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins (47-28-7) versus #5 Ottawa Senators (44-32-6)

My favorite team in the entire world had a regular season filled with pretty average play. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has not had a good year, and super-talented forward Evgeni Malkin has watched his production fall slightly compared to previous years. And somehow, the Pens could only manage a #19 ranked powerplay unit. Despite that, this remains a very-talented club. Sidney Crosby has improved his goal-scoring ability immensely compared to last year, and while I'll be the first one to criticize Penguin Nation for putting average to above-average defenseman up on a pedestal, the blueline is a good and deep group.  Jordan Staal is an excellent defensive forward, and he will lead a checking line that is tough to play against. While the wingers on this team are not superb, they don't have to be, and if this team flips the "on" switch like they are capable of, Fleury doesn't have to be superb either.

Ottawa is a tough team to get a read on. On paper, they look like an average offensive team saddled with a mediocre blueline and unproven goaltending. Not exactly a recipe for success, now is it? Then again, I did not think that this team would even make the playoffs, so they must be doing something right. Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza will lead things up front, while tough as nails Anton Volchenkov and Chris Philips anchor the blueline. Youngster Brian Elliot gets the nod between the pipes. While he's shown an ability to get hot, the
playoffs can be a different animal. It should be interesting to see how he reacts.

I expect the Pens to flip on the switch and finish off Ottawa pretty easily here. Pittsburgh in 5.

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