04 May 2006

Wales Watching - 2006 Eastern playoffs - round 2 preview

We’re down to eight teams, as round two – the Conference semi-finals – begin tonight, and before taking a look forward we should look back at the first round to see what happened. I previewed the Eastern Conference in Wales Watching two weeks ago and from my point of view things turned out as expected….

BuffaloPhiladelphia. Sabres win in 6. My pick - Buffalo in 6.

I had this one right on but in truth, the Sabres could easily have swept this series. The Sabres took an early lead in every game – they dominated the games they won but games three and four in
Philadelphia they let slip away. Common reporting had Peter Forsberg taking over those games but in truth game four was the only one in which he brought his best game – he was largely ineffective for the rest of the series. The fleet Sabres followed the predicted script and thoroughly embarrassed the plodding Flyers; Robert Esche is taking some blame due to a barrage of goals but truth told, he was Philadelphia’s best player in many of the games – he had no chance on most of the goals, as the Sabres’ swarmed on him with countless odd man rushes. Philadelphia – once again – needs to rethink how they construct a team. And oh by the way, late word is that Forsberg might need surgery that will keep him from starting next season on time.

Ottawa - Tampa Bay. Senators win in 5. My pick - Ottawa in 4.

It was domination by the Senators, and their one loss was in my eyes more a case of them letting up their pressure in the Lightning zone. Martin Havlat was the star, scoring goals in every game en route to a 10 point opening round. 14 different Senators scored in the five games and Ray Emery rarely faltered as the East’s top team made short work of the defending champs. By the way: nice job by coach John Tortorella throwing soon-to-be-ex-Lightning goalie John Grahame under the bus.

CarolinaMontreal. Hurricanes win in 6. My pick - Carolina in 6

Two big stories in this one: Cam Ward and Saku Koivu. After two rough games the shaky Martin Gerber sat the rest of the way, giving the young Ward a chance to shine, which he did, helping the Canes win the final four games. The series may also have turned on the stick of Justin Williams; to be more precise, when Williams inadvertantly jammed his stick into
Montreal captain Saku Koivu's eye during the second period of game three, ending his season. Consider this: Montreal won the first two games, scoring 12 goals in the process. After Koivu left, the Habs scored just five goals over the next 13 periods.

New Jersey - New York Rangers. Devils win in 4. My pick - New Jersey in 5

While some risky (and perhaps illegal substance-ridden) prognosticators were taking the Rangers in seven games, most figured this one to be an easy one for the scorching Devils – winners of 11 straight coming in. Make it 15 now – we pegged Jaromir Jagr and Henrik Lundqvist as the keys for any chance of the Rangers winning. As you now know, Jagr left game one with an arm injury and either didn’t play again or was ineffective. Lundqvist was benched after a bad game one, perhaps a panic decision by coach Tom Renney, but it may not have mattered. The Devils’ big guns took care of business, led by Patrick Elias and his 11 points. Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta both contributed six points while Jamie Langenbrunner was huge with eight points. The Rangers’ lack of depth destroyed them.

I’ll just consider myself lucky that my Western predictions weren’t published...and without further ado, let’s look ahead to the second round:

Ottawa Senators (1) vs. Buffalo Sabres (4)

This should be a highly entertaining affair – to me, the two best teams remaining in the playoffs. We should see two teams with similar mentalities: run and gun. Both teams will feature multiple lines swarming through all three zones, reminding me of a quote a friend of mine once said: "forecheck, backcheck: paycheck" – this definitely applies to both Ottawa and Buffalo. After
Ottawa embarrassed the Sabres in Buffalo in November by the score of 10-4, the Sabres rattled off more wins than anyone in the league. Having said that, I think it's imperative that the Sabres take at least one of the first two games to reassert to themselves that they belong in this series.

The series will suffer from an odd schedule, thanks to hockey legend Dora the Explorer who will be starring in Ottawa this weekend, forcing game two to Monday night. Oddly enough, a concert in Buffalo next Friday will force back-to-back games next Wednesday and Thursday which should remind fans of the old divisional battles in the 80s – I’m looking forward to this one.

WHY BUFFALO SHOULD WIN - Despite being the underdog (although only finishing three points behind the Senators) Buffalo can win this series. They need to avoid the defensive mistakes that hurt them against Philadelphia in games three and four, where they succumbed to the temptation of chasing the puck carrier and getting themselves out of position – they need to continue their offensive game plan by relentlessly forechecking, which they executed to frightening perfection by the end of the series (Mike Grier's goal in game six was a result of linemates Chris Drury and Derek Roy forcing the Flyer defensemen to cough up the puck).

WHY BUFFALO SHOULD BE AFRAID - Early in the season the Sabres were completely psyched out by Ottawa - the low point being the aforementioned 10-4 pasting on home ice. Ottawa won the first five matchups between the two teams - and handily - until Buffalo took the final three, one each in regulation, overtime, and shootout. The memory of those games still remains with the Sabres as every time they face the Senators the local press can’t stop mentioning them.

WHY OTTAWA SHOULD WIN - Simply, this is the best team in the NHL. With superstars like Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, and Martin Havlat and a top four defence unrivaled by any other team (Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara, Chris Philips, Andrej Meszaros) that alone would be enough. But the players that fill in the rest of the lines are nearly all valuable players – Peter Schaefer, Mike Fisher, and Patrick Eaves are strong two-way players who can score if needed. The team has no weaknesses.

WHY OTTAWA SHOULD BE AFRAID - This Sabres team is not the same as the one the Senators torched early in the season. Buffalo now knows they are a good team, rather than hoping they were one earlier in the year. Plus, Ottawa is supposed to win the East this year – all the pressure remains on them. This could prove to be Ottawa’s nightmare matchup – they are superior to Buffalo, but perhaps only in that they’ve proven to be the better team for a longer time. If there’s any team that Ottawa would have wanted to avoid at this point, it would be the Sabres – nearly a mirror-image squad to theirs.

RANDOM USELESS BUT FUN PLAYOFF FACTS - The Sabres have won both previous playoff matchups vs. Ottawa – a 1997 seven game affair that ended on a Derek Plante overtime goal, and a 1999 sweep by Buffalo – one that marked the beginning of Ottawa’s souring on Alexei Yashin.

OUR PICK - While the Senators fans will be jazzed, there will be a sense of nervousness behind them. The Buffalo fans on the other hand will be wild - the trials (literally) and tribulations of the past five years that have led up to this breakout season have re-energized Western New York and the Niagara Peninsula and they feel that they have nothing to lose at this point. Home ice could be a factor in this series - I can see the Sabres taking two of the three at home but can they win two in Ottawa? They can…but I don't think they will. I've said it all year - Ottawa is the most talented and dangerous team in the league and barring injury they can only beat themselves. This remains their Cup for the taking. Ottawa in 7.


Carolina Hurricanes (2) vs. New Jersey Devils (3)

Finally, we have a test for the Devils. No disrespect meant to the Rangers but they put up nothing against New Jersey, who hasn’t lost since – get this – March 26th.
Carolina finally found themselves after the first 2 games in which Martin Gerber had a rough go and was replaced by Cam Ward. Ward is their guy now, clearly, as he was the victor in four tight wins against the Habs including two overtime games. New Jersey looks to continue their amazing run against the surprise team of the year.

CAROLINA SHOULD WIN - Carolina had a great offensive attack this year, with ten players scoring at least 44 points. Regular season team scoring leader Eric Staal ended up leading the team with eight points in the first round and Rod Brind’Amour continues to counter the aging process while being one of the very best all around forwards in the league – averaging an amazing 26 minutes over the six games against Montreal. Cam Ward immediately settled down a sketchy goaltending issue and the team gelled in front of him – combine stability in goal with a solid defensive squad and this is a complete team.

WHY CAROLINA SHOULD BE AFRAID - The Hurricanes didn’t score a ton against Montreal – their highest output in one game was five, and they lost that one. They bring one of the most diverse offenses in the league, and while I’d ordinarily expect their scoring to improve, Martin Brodeur isn’t the goalie you want to face to break a scoring slump. If the Carolina forwards can’t find the net, they won’t find much help from a defense that doesn’t press much.

WHY NEW JERSEY SHOULD WIN - Once again we can write “this is the hottest team in the league,” not having lost in six weeks. Their offense has not been held to less than three goals since March 21st, a stretch of 18 games. And while their top forwards can play with anyone, they got quality offence from the blueline from Brian Rafalski and Paul Martin against Montreal. Martin Brodeur recovered from a rough start to the season to work himself into the final three Vezina nominees. The Devils are more well-rounded than they have been in years.

WHY NEW JERSEY SHOULD BE AFRAID - Defence. Carolina’s offence is not like the Rangers’ – they will bring numerous talented forwards and the Devils’ defensive corps can be unspectacular – this isn’t the same intimidating two-way defence of the Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer days. They need to play smart positional hockey in their own zone, and this means their forwards need to think in all three zones.

RANDOM USELESS BUT FUN PLAYOFF FACTS - The New Jersey franchise’s first playoff appearance came in 1978 as the Colorado Rockies, losing to the Flyers in two games. They wouldn’t qualify for the playoffs again for ten years, when they were the Devils. Carolina’s franchise was born in the World Hockey Association in 1972 as the New England Whalers. They won the championship – the Avco Cup – in their first year.

OUR PICK - The easy pick would be to stick with the team that never loses anymore. The clever and trendy pick would be to go with the young upstart team with the rookie goalie. While Carolina has had a better season than anyone could have imagined, the Devils aren’t merely hot – they’ve been the best team in the league over the past few months consistently. With two lines of Gionta, Gomez, Zach Parise and Elias between Sergei Brylin and Langenbrunner, and the calming influence of the unspectacular but steady Brodeur, it looks from here like the Devils will move on. New Jersey in 6.

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