While the hockey-oriented eyes of the New York area are fixated on the Rangers/Senators series (apologies to the dozens of loyal Devils fans who were forced to pay $42 for tickets to Devils/Panthers), there are seven other intriguing series’ that will be taking place at the same time. And since you, the reader, are presumably not just a Rangers fan, but a hockey fan as well, you will be watching them. Thus, let’s preview each one.
(8) Los Angeles Kings vs. (1) Vancouver Canucks – Not content with waiting until the playoffs started to lose key games, the Kings dropped two to the San Jose Sharks last week that more than likely would have given them the Pacific division title, along with home ice in the first round. Instead, they dropped all the way to eighth and as a result, were rewarded with a meeting against the Presidents’ Trophy winning Canucks, a significantly more daunting task.
That task will mostly fall on the hands of goalie Jonathan Quick, Henrik Lundqvist’s biggest challenge to win the Vezina trophy. Without Quick’s outstanding play, the Kings don’t even sniff the playoffs, so if Los Angeles is to have a chance in this series, he’ll need to once again put the team on his back against the high-powered Canucks offense.
Los Angeles boasts a decent penalty kill (87%, good for fourth in the league) that may be able to contain Vancouver’s lethal power play (19.8%, also fourth), but it’s only a matter of time until the Canucks’ offense breaks out against the inconsistent Kings. Vancouver in 5
(7) San Jose Sharks vs. (2) St. Louis Blues
Speaking of teams who historically do not perform well in the playoffs….well, that could go for either team here. San Jose had an inconsistent season en route to beating out Los Angeles for seventh, and their reward is a Blues team that clinched the Central division with a week to go in the regular season.
St. Louis had an excellent regular season, thanks in part to their goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak (26-12-7, 1.97, .930) and Brian Elliott (23-10-4, 1.56, .940), along with a defensive-minded system put into place by head coach Ken Hitchcock upon his arrival in the Gateway City.
But will their regular season achievements carry over? This is a team that doesn’t have a wealth of playoff experience outside of Halak, Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott, and while obviously you can’t blame the current team, throughout their history, the Blues have struggled when the pressure was on (see their 1999-2000 season).
San Jose is a team with plenty of experience, but they have never been able to get past the Conference Finals despite being the top seed several times. Coming in as a low seed may play to their favor this time, and having a 21.1% PP (second in the NHL) can only help. This likely isn’t the year the Sharks take the next step, but a first round upset is possible. San Jose in 6
(6) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (3) Phoenix Coyotes
Despite preseason hype that centered more around San Jose and Los Angeles, the Coyotes survived to prevail as the unlikely winners of the Pacific division title.
The Blackhawks enter the playoffs with a ton of question marks – the health of Jonathan Toews, their goaltending, their rancid 78.1% PK – but they had their fair share of questions last year and came within a goal of upsetting Vancouver in round one. If they can go toe-to-toe with the Western Conference champions, there is no reason they should be intimidated by a Coyotes team that was knocked out in the first round the last two years.
Phoenix is a balanced team and they’ve received excellent goaltending this year from Mike Smith (38-10-10, 2.21, .930), but they lack the experience that Chicago boasts in the postseason and the Hawks still have a wealth of healthy offensive talent. Add on to the fact that this series will effectively play out entirely on home ice for the Blackhawks with a flood of transplanted Illinoisians invading Glendale for the “road” games, and this falls nicely into Chicago’s hands. Chicago in 5
(5) Detroit Red Wings vs. (4) Nashville Predators
This was a strange season for the Red Wings. It saw them set an NHL record with 23 consecutive home wins, but it also saw them hit by a wrath of injuries that claimed nearly every one of the team’s notable players at one point or another. Never doubt GM Ken Holland’s ability to keep the Wings competitive, but there is no doubt that this current group is starting to get rather long in the tooth.
The same can’t be said for Nashville, a relatively young team that annually flies under the radar for most of the season until the postseason before making life miserable for a more notable higher seed. This year was no different as Pekka Rinne had another outstanding campaign (43-18-8, 2.39, .920) to lead his team to home ice in the first round. Nashville also boasts the NHL’s top power play unit (21.6%) thanks in part to one of the league’s top defensive tandems of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber.
With that said, it seems that Nashville should be favored to win. But their top offensive threats (Martin Erat, David Legwand and Mike Fisher) are not even as close to as terrifying as Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Valtteri Filppula and Johan Franzen. Not to mention the wealth of big-game experience held by the Wings. This one could go either way, but in the end, it’s hard to go against Detroit in the first round. Detroit in 7
(7) Washington Capitals vs. (2) Boston Bruins – You should never “pick” who you want to play in the playoffs. That said, there haven’t been many Rangers fans upset about not getting to play Washington in the first round. Despite an extremely inconsistent season, goaltending questions and a head coach (Dale Hunter) in which the jury is still out on, the Caps showed first-hand on Saturday night how frightening it still is when the puck is on the stick of players like Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Boston comes in to the playoffs in a similar spot to last year in terms of points and standing in the conference, but they also come in with a target on their back as the defending champs. Not to mention that Tim Thomas was never quite able to replicate his incredible 2010-11 campaign (although 35-19-1, 2.36, .920 is nothing to sneeze at). But they do boast Tyler Seguin, whose team-leading 67 points add a dimension that last season’s team lacked.
The key for the Capitals is to play the same way they did down the stretch, scoring big wins over Florida and the Rangers, and to capitalize on being the hunters rather than the hunted (similar to the Sharks). And to give President Obama glass seats directly behind Thomas for Game 3 and 4. The Caps pull a reversal of 2010. Washington in 7
(6) New Jersey Devils vs. (3) Florida Panthers – Have you ever wanted to attend an NHL playoff game that had the ambiance of a pre-season NBA game? Well, here’s your chance!
To be fair, we should congratulate the Panthers on finally snapping their 12-year playoff-less streak, and there’s no doubt that their fans will be fired up for postseason hockey to return to Sunrise.
But really, look at this matchup.
In fact, let’s not. The Devils play an unwatchable, ratings-nuking style of hockey, but they played the equivalent of postseason games all season in the best division in hockey. And Scott Clemmensen really doesn’t intimidate anyone. New Jersey in 5
(5) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (4) Pittsburgh Penguins – There will be blood. Case closed. If the Rangers advance to the semifinals and the seeds hold (which we don’t foresee, but nevertheless), there is an excellent possibility that whoever survives this series will be just thankful to have survived.
But in addition to the much-expected physicality, there’s plenty of offensive power on both sides. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were fifth and sixth in the NHL in power play % respectively. Philadelphia got 93 points from Claude Giroux and 37 goals from Scott Hartnell. And as for the Penguins, James Neal scored 40, Evgeni Malkin put home 50..and that Sidney Crosby guy only notched 37 points in 22 games.
These teams also do well in goal with Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury boasting a 42-17-4 record along with a 2.36 GAA and .910 save percentage while Philadelphia’s Ilya Bryzgalov, despite his inconsistencies, earned March Player of the Month awards while winning 33 times this year to go with a 2.48 GAA and .910 save percentage.
This could easily be the Eastern Conference Finals. Thankfully, one of these teams will be gone after the first round. Pittsburgh gets the nod based on offensive talent, experience, and uh, ability to be respected by the officials. Yeah, that’s it. Pittsburgh in 6
(8) Ottawa Senators vs. (1) New York Rangers – Over the last week, a few Rangers fans rued the draw of Ottawa in the first round, citing the Senators’ 3-1 regular season victory over the Rangers.
Well, if the regular season means anything during the playoffs, then why did the Rangers go 1-3 against Atlanta in 2007? Or 3-1 against Washington last year?
Ottawa is talented. Jason Spezza had a great comeback year with 84 points to place fourth in the NHL, Erik Karlsson’s 78 points will likely win him the Norris, Milan Michalek poured in 35 goals and Daniel Alfredsson’s 59 points showed he still has a bit left in the tank.
After that, there are a few nice depth players and some decent big-game history. But there is no dominant goalie, no bruising defenseman, no dominant special teams (PP was 18.1%, 11th in the NHL – behind Toronto and the Islanders – and PK was 20th in the league at 81.6% – 15 spots behind the Rangers, as well as eight non-playoff teams), no massive home-ice advantage and no coaching advantage. In fact, the Rangers boast a tremendous advantage in all of the above categories over the Senators.
The Rangers can’t take Ottawa for granted, and there’s no reason to believe they will. The way the team played in their final two games of the year left much to be desired, but to expect that to continue into the playoffs is highly unlikely.
The Senators had a very respectable season – especially since at the start of the year, many expected them to be the worst team in the NHL by a significant margin. So in that respect, they’ve already overachieved.
But the Rangers’ goal all season long has been the Stanley Cup. That isn’t going to be derailed in the first round. Rangers in 6