Wednesday, April 19, 2006


NHL Playoffs: Assessing the Eastern Conference

Now that the playoff matches are set, it's time to pull out the coins, Jedi powers, or Maggie the Monkey and make some predictions.

While Eric at OffWing opines that the 'New NHL' should lead to a more wide-open playoffs, I don't have the same confidence. Some of the late-season games I've watched on TV have had a lax level of officiating, and I fear that the crackdown is no longer. Teams like the Sabres could have their speedy advantage eliminated if we're back to the 'old' style of calling nothing other than a slash that severs an artery.

On the other hand, it would be easy for Count Gary Bettman to 'reset' the officiating and ensure his striped men begin the playoffs with a tough level of enforcement. We shall see...

Here's a look back and look forward at the Eastern Conference matchups in Round One.

Ottawa (1) vs. Tampa Bay (8)

This ought to be a great series as we have two very offensively-talented teams matching firepower and having the former Cup winners take on a team that is a favourite to become the new champions.

Ottawa: The Senators pretty much rolled over the East thanks to their incredibly talented offence headed by their superstars Dany Heatley (Who blossomed after leaving behind his demons in Atlanta), Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson. They suffered some injuries (notably Martin Havlat), but really didn't have a lot of trouble in their quest to take the #1 seed. The awesome play of rookie Andrej Meszaros, who I saw a lot of first-hand here in Vancouver when he was with the Giants, was a bit of an unexpected pleasure.

One aspect of their team that gets overlooked is the play of the supporting cast. Chris Neil, Chris Phillips (6 shorthanded points), Antoine Vermette (7 shorthanded points) Peter Schaefer (50 points), Patrick Eaves (20 goals), and Chris Kelly (6 shorthanded points) all contributed in a big way to the cause. The Sens are not just a one-line team.

Tampa Bay: Their fall into 8th place isn't entirely surprising to me. Their defence corps were always very shaky, and now Darryl Sydor is a year older and Jassen Cullimore wasn't there any more. The downgrade from Nik Khabibulin to Grahame/Burke in net was noticable, and their style of play was no longer quite an advantage as other teams starting playing the same style and adapted to the 'New NHL'. Another factor was the loss of Dave Andreychuk, who had been an effective defensive forward prior to this season. The lack of defensive acumen in the forward corps (Tim Taylor is also not as effective as he once was) didn't help the shaky defence and goaltending and the Bolts just had problems keeping the puck out of the net.

Speaking of goaltending, the Senators will have to rely on the inexperienced and volatile Ray Emery in goal for this series and Humpty Hasek is still out with a sore/pulled/whatever groin. While Grahame/Burke aren't any great shakes, they can be counted on to be cool and collected when the puck drops.

I expect a lot of goal scoring, but the Senators just have too much depth and the Bolts won't be able to stop the Senators attack.

Prediction: Ottawa in 5.

Carolina (2) vs. Montreal (7)

Carolina was a pleasant and unexpected surprising to finish #2 in the East after Eric Staal busted out in the biggest way with 100 points this season! Rod Brind'Amour found the fountain of youth and ended up playing more minutes than any other forward this season, as well as finishing with 70 points and likely a Selke Trophy. Carolina's free agent signings like Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman worked out perfectly, and new goaltender Martin Gerber solved a major goaltending question. With a good coach (Laviolette), the ability to throw out three good forward lines, and the stability that Gerber provides, the Canes are a legit threat. Of course, this is partially counting on Mark Recchi and Doug Weight rediscovering the offensive production they lost when they arrived in Raleigh.

Montreal somehow convinced the Avalanche to take an expensive Jose Theodore off of their hands and give them back a cheaper, better performing, goaltending in return (David Aebischer). This allowed Christobal Huet to take the reigns, and he helped carried the Habs into the playoffs and into the 7th slot where many expected they'd probably settle. If you look at the season as a whole, most players, with the exception of Richard Zednik (what the hell happened?) finished with seasons that were pretty much expected of them.

The Canes don't have a great defence corps, so Montreal matches up evenly in that regard. The Canes also have a very young Cam Ward as a backup, and his stats were/are atrocious. The Habs have Aebischer backing up Huet, so that's a clear advantage to them.

Where the series will be tilted with be the forwards and the offence. Montreal struggled to score goals most of the season, and finished with only 1 30-goal scorer (Michael Ryder). Saku Koivu has turned into more of a perimeter player than ever before and Mike Ribeiro is also quite soft. The Hurricanes can play better 'playoff-style' hockey than the Habs, in my opinion, so I see...

Prediction: Carolina in 6.

New Jersey (3) vs. New York Rangers (6)

(Edit: OK, so that's what happens when you write a preview over two days. The Devils did indeed win their division, so they are now technically the favourites.)

The 'Subway' series pits the surprising 'New' New York Rangers against the always dangerous and surging New Jersey Devils. This is a series where I'd hope both teams would beat each other into a bloody pulp so that the winner would be swept in Round Two. I won't be following this series with a whole lot of interest...*ahem*

The New York Ranger$ shed off Mark Messier and the mentality that high-priced superstars would lead them back to the playoffs. I, like many other pundits, felt that the Rangers were in for another long season and would finish somewhere in the sewer.

Thanks mostly to the resurgant Jaromir Jagr and the fine play of rookie netminder Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers defied the odds and almost won their division. Make no mistake about it, those 2 players are the prime reason why the Rangers were so good. Without their super play, the Rangers would have finished a lot lower in the standings. Jagr made his linemates (Straka and Nylander mostly) a lot better than they really are and Lundqvist saved their asses on many occassions. The Rangers defence is really quite weak. Tom Poti, Marek Malik (who is pretty solid), Darius Kasparaitis, Fedor Tyutin, Sandis Ozolinsh, Jason Strudwick, and Michal "How the hell did he finish with +35" Rozsival is nobodys idea of a dream defence. Of all the teams in the playoffs, the Rangers and the Lightning have the two worst defence corps.

For that reason, I'm picking the New Jersey Devils to defeat the Rangers in this series.

The Devils are no longer your mother's Stanley Cup winning franchise, but they are red hot at the moment (unlike the Rangers), have a much better coach, and have the much better style suited to the playoffs. While the Rangers are heavily reliant on the Power Play, the Devils play a much more balanced style, plus have guys like John Madden who can shadow Jagr. Ever since Patrik Elias returned from Hep-A, this team has meant business and has been in playoff form for the past two months.

Prediction: New Jersey in 7.

Buffalo (4) vs. Philadelphia (5)

Buffalo was the epitome of the 'New NHL': A small team using their skill and speed to draw penalties and score goals on the Power Play. Maxim Afinogenov FINALLY busted out with a 73-point campaign, Daniel Briere continued his fine work, and Ales Kotalik and Tim Connolly finally showed turned promise into production.

After about 15 years, Ryan Miller was finally given the reigns and the #1 job and performed very well, finishing with a 91.4SV%. Martin Biron, now the backup, finished with a 90.5SV% and Buffalo has a great 1-2 punch in goal versus the crap that the Flyers have.

The Flyers? They suffered through a very turbulant campaign which saw them fight off major injury after major injury. Peter Forsberg (big surprise), Pitkanen, Kapanen, Handzus, Primeau, Johnsson, Desjardins, and Gagne all missed time with various bumps, bruises, and breaks.

Thanks to the non-Canucks like ability to draft and develop well, the Flyers managed to remain competitive due to the fine play of rookies and call-ups such as Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Fredrick Meyer IV, and RJ "Judas" Umberger.

The case against the Flyers? They are still very much an injured team (Handzus has one shoulder so badly damaged that he can't practice), their defence is incredibly slow, and the goaltenders suck. Buffalo could easily take advantage of the plodding ogres like Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje and then build a 4-0 lead on the Power Play.

Robert Esche (89.7% SV%) and Antero Niiiiittyyymaaaki (89.5SV%) form one of the worst netminding duos of any playoff-bound team. The Flyers have about as much confidence in their goaltending as Tom Benjamin does in Gary Bettman's ability to run the NHL.

Still, only a fool would ever bet against Peter Forsberg. Never, ever, bet against the greatest force of evil in the universe.

Prediction: Flyers in 6.


1) Ottawa won the conference on the last day of the season. They had some trouble.

2) NJ won the division and are the 3rd seed, while NY is the 6th seed.

Good picks
Woops! Thanks for the heads-up. Writing stuff over a night and a day sometimes screws things up.

As for the Sens, I wouldn't say that had much trouble, insomuch as the Canes were also very damn good. The Sens did have a little 'oopsy' streak at the end, but, overall, they pretty much kicked ass.

Then I'm a fool, because I don't see how the Flyers will do anything other than be steamrolled by the Sabres. Yes, the games will be tough, but there won't be many of them and Forsberg can't play 60 minutes of hockey.

1 line vs. 4 lines... I'll take 4 thanks.


p.s. I'm supposed to think my guys will win.
The Flyers have some pretty decent depth, in case ya forgot.

The Sabres defense also equals teh suck. Brian Campbell, Teppo Numminen, Tony Lydman? Forsberg doesn't need to play 60 minutes a game to get 5 points a night against that crud ;)

I'd like the Sabres to win, but I just don't see it happening.
Nice breakdown.

Im in general agreement. I think Jersey will get it done in less than 7, and Buffalo will be the ones winning in 6.

Flyer's D is too slow for the Sabres forwards, and ill take Miller/Biron over Esche/Nitti
Uh, west predictions?

I love your picks, and your analysis is really quite enjoyable to read.

Question: R.J. "Judas" Umberger?
Umberger - Drafted by the Canucks in the first round, he refused to sign when he got big $$$ in his eyes. Instead of signing with the Canucks, he left for the big $ the Flyers threw at him. Judas isn't the best nickname, but he's a traitor in one sense and another reason I hate that frickin team.
I'll second the "Judas" comments. He isn't liked all that much in Pittsburgh since signing with Philly for the money instead of going for the hometown team in Pittsburgh.
For the Flyers every player except Mike Knuble missed games this year to injury. Actually a couple of the callups like Umberger didn’t get injuried, Knuble is just the only Flyer to play in all 82 games.

Umberger’s rights were traded to the Rangers and the Rangers let him go. He was signed and played for the Phantoms (Flyers AHL team) last year. He was called up this year at the end of October when Primeau got head smacked. Looks like he is making 900k now, how much was he asking over there?
The difference between Philly and Buffalo is that the Flyers have one solid #1 line. Buffalo has, and has proven to have 4 solid lines. They may not be putting up the biggest numbers but each line is scoring and getting the job done. 58 shots on net Saturday and an 8-2 win tonight. The only reason they didn't put up the same number of goals in game 1 is because Esche was having the best game of his career.

Go ahead and count the Sabres out but I would be surprised if Philly ends up with 2 wins. Buffalo has already played both Philly's style of hockey (i.e. the Brian Campbell hit on Umberger) by outhitting Philly and played their own style tonight. They're too fast and Philly is too damn slow.

I think Forsberg only has a point or two and embarrased himself and his team tonight. Buffalo broke them down and dominated. Even Esche lost his cool. There's no class on that team.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?