19 April 2006

2006 Eastern Conference playoffs - round 1 preview

Wales Watching - SportsBlurb.com


After a nearly two year wait, we once again are about to witness the best sports tournament of the year – the NHL playoffs. Like most fans, I’m expecting this playoff season to be fantastic; having been starved for it after last year’s lockout killed the season. With so many quality teams in the playoffs (ten reached the 100 point mark), nearly every team can make a claim on having a chance at hoisting the most famous $50 gift in sports - Lord Stanley's Cup.

So many questions will be answered over the next two months: will the Cup return to Canada for the first time since 1993? Can the defending champs from Tampa Bay shake off a mediocre season and regain their form of 2004? Can Ottawa finally shake off recent playoff nightmares (especially now that their nemesis – Toronto – didn’t even qualify this year) and advance to the finals? Is New Jersey really as good as they’ve played over the past two months?

We’ll take a quick glance at each Eastern series below and try to answer some of these questions – of course predictions are mostly pure folly, since so many bizarre and unpredictable events happen over the course of a seven-game series, but we’ll give our best take on who you can expect to win in the first round – read on…

OTTAWA (1) vs. TAMPA BAY (8)

This is an intriguing 1-8 matchup - pitting a regular season force and popular favourite to at least reach the finals against the defending champions. On paper you could make the case for this being a close one…but it won’t be:

Why Ottawa should win the series: Simply, Ottawa is the most talented team in the league. When you can roll out Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza on your first line, Martin Havlat on your second, and Daniel Alfredsson on your third, you've got offensive depth. This is not to slight the other talented forwards on the Senators - those are merely the superstars. There are no fillers up front: Chris Kelly, Mike Fisher, Peter Schaefer, Patrick Eaves, Brian Smolinski... Did we forget the defence? With Zdeno Chara, Chris Phillips, Wade Redden, and super-rookie Andrej Meszaros nobody can better this top four. If they remain healthy, there’s no reason this team doesn’t win the East and finally advance to the finals.

Ottawa should be afraid: The only question mark I see at this point is potentially Ray Emery. Dominik Hasek and his Magic Groin at this point aren't expected to make an appearance in the first round at all. Emery has had a good season, but has had at least two bad stretches of play, the latest was virtually through the entire month of April.

Why Tampa Bay should win the series: Hey, these are the defending champs, aren't they? Vincent LeCavalier led the team with 35 goals, new addition Vaclav Prospal scored 80 points, and when your second line consists of Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, and Fredrick Modin, you have talent. They return most of their core that won it all two years ago, and a return to form could in theory spell disaster for the Senators.

Why Tampa Bay should be afraid: Lots of reasons - goaltending, for one. John Grahame? Sean Burke? Who is the answer? Grahame probably gives you higher highs but much lower lows. Also this team hasn’t been consistent all year; after a season-high five game win streak after Thanksgiving they promptly lost seven of their next nine. The aforementioned St. Louis hasn't been the same player he was last season when he took away the Hart trophy. Past success, be it individual or team, looks nice but has no bearing on present play - St. Louis needs to reestablish himself as one of the league's best players, and a big series against the conference's best would go a long way to doing just that.

Random useless but fun playoff facts: This is the first playoff meeting between the two 1992 expansion teams. The first incarnation of the Ottawa Senators won four Stanley Cups, their last in 1927, defeating the so-called “original six” member Boston Bruins (it was the Bruins’ third NHL season). Tampa Bay had only played in three playoff series before winning four in a row to win the Cup in 2004.

Our pick: Ottawa took all four meetings against the Bolts this year, outscoring them 16-6. The Lightning never got on track this year and needed up until the final weekend to clinch a playoff spot. This year's new boss will most definitely not be the same as the old boss - Ottawa in four.


I move for Carolina to bring back the colours of the Whalers - the Montreal Canadiens patented the cool red jerseys, they alone should be allowed to wear them in this series...

Why Carolina should win the series: They are a complete team. With balanced scoring (eight players with at least 44 points) and an up-tempo attack, they will work to put constant pressure on the Canadiens defence. Eric Staal emerged as a star, netting 45 goals and 100 points and being a force nearly every night. Rod Brind’Amour has always been one of the league’s most underrated stars – he has no flaws in his game at either end, and is one of the best faceoff men in the game. Ray Whitney, Cory Stillman, Doug Weight, and Justin Williams help to round out a tough-to-defend offence. Their defence is unspectacular yet steady and full of playoff experience led by veterans Glen Wesley, Bret Hedican, and Oleg Tverdovsky.

Why Carolina should be afraid: Recent goaltending issues should have them concerned. Martin Gerber has been good this year, and at times great...but of late, not so much – seven straight games with three or more goals allowed. He’s their number one but in a short series if he slips we could see Cam Ward. The Hurricanes as a whole have not played well over the past six weeks, winning nine of their final 21 games.

Why Montreal should win the series: Goaltending and power play. The highly unlikely emergence of Cristobal Huet was the reason the team surged in the second half and brought them to this point. He has slipped a bit in recent games and there is even discussion of David Aebischer taking over in net, but if Huet regains his March form he could easily frustrate the Hurricane attack and give the Canadiens enough confidence to win the series. Alexei Kovalev and Saku Koivu are their big names on offence and the keys to their top two lines, which also include Michael Ryder and impressive rookie Chris Higgins. Their power play was fifth overall in the NHL while Carolina was only 18th in penalty killing. Gaining the man-advantage will be crucial to Montreal’s success.

Why Montreal should be afraid: As great as Huet was this year, he’s unproven (as is every other Eastern goaltender starting round one, save Martin Brodeur) and has slumped recently. The Habs are a team that will occasionally wilt under pressure. Tuesday's home loss against the Devils was a stunner for them, even if it didn't mean anything in terms of their standings. One game shouldn't mean much in terms of predicting a team's future, but the manner in which they lost was troubling, especially giving up a crucial three-on-one with just over two minutes left, leading to the winning goal.

Random useless but fun playoff fact: Before 2002’s improbable run to the finals, the Carolina/Hartford franchise had only won one series in 10 appearances – their one victory in 1986 led them to a heartbreaking second-round loss to the eventual Cup winners - the Montreal Canadiens – on a game 7 overtime winner by rookie Claude Lemieux.

Our pick: Carolina has had a fantastic season, and although they've slipped of late their top-notch play all year earned them a spot against one of the East's lesser playoff opponents. Unless the Canadiens can get quick leads and stymie the Carolina offence, this goes to the ‘Canes. Carolina in 6.


Here is a classic case of two teams going in opposite directions even though they ended up merely one point apart at the end of the year. At least jet lag won't be an issue in this series…

Why New Jersey should win the series: They have been in another dimension over the past three weeks, winning 11 games in a row, including Tuesday night's incredible third period comeback over the Canadiens to clinch the Atlantic Division and the 3rd seed in the East. They also have Martin Brodeur – one of the sport’s all-time greats – peaking at the right time. Their top line is on fire - Patrick Elias, Scott Gomez, and Brian Gionta - who not only proved he belonged in the league, he set a team record in goals with 48 - good for sixth in the NHL.

Why New Jersey should be afraid: The defence is their biggest weakness, and fortunately Brodeur has covered up many of their mistakes. The offence is over-reliant on their top line and must get solid production out of others up front, such as Jamie Langenbrunner, John Madden, and Sergei Brylin. Rookie Zach Parise could emerge as a hero in the series.

Why New York should win the series: The best player on either team is Jaromir Jagr, who has gone through a rebirth this season which will almost certainly guarantee him at least a top three finish in the Hart balloting. For the first time in years he is using his size along with his speed and playing aggressive two-way hockey - he's a terror every shift he's out there. Rookie sensation "King" Henrik Lundqvist is back from being sidelined for seven games, and although he suffered a rough loss on Tuesday night, he's been a spectacular force for the Rangers all year. If they are to win this series, they cannot do it without top performances from these two players.

Why New York should be afraid: Virtually the same reason - the Rangers aren't very deep offensively and rely far too much on the brilliance of Jagr to win – aside from his 54 goals, only three other Rangers (rookie Petr Prucha – 30, Michael Nylander – 23, Martin Straka - 22) had more than 16 goals. Also keep an eye on Lundqvist – if he’s not healthy, it’s all over - witness their recent slump with Kevin Weekes in goal.

Random useless but fun playoff facts: In three previous playoff meetings the Rangers have come away victorious each time – once in each round of the playoffs – the most memorable being the 1994 seven game double-overtime crusher…. “MATTEAU! MATTEAU! MATTEAU!”

Our pick: The Rangers have had a great year but bottomed out at a bad time; not only losing the division but having to face the league's hottest team with the only healthy veteran goalie in the conference. Even though the season series was tied at four, I'm thinking it's impossible not to think the Devils have an easy time in this series: New Jersey in 5.


It speaks volumes of the parity of the NHL this season when we have a first round matchup between two clubs who - based on their regular seasons - will treat anything less than at least a Conference Final appearance a complete disappointment…

Why Buffalo should win the series: This is the NHL's most offensively-balanced team. All year commentators have speculated on how the Sabres could possibly have succeeded without having a scorer in the top 50, 75, etc. Would you rather have two or three top players leading a bunch of question marks, or have eleven 40 point scorers, giving opponents nobody to key on? Daniel Briere is as talented a player as there is in the league at forward, one who would likely have been around 100 points had he stayed healthy all season. The Briere-J.P. Dumont combination is deadly and if rock-solid center Jochen Hecht returns, they form a potent top line. Maxim Afinogenov has been breathtaking over the past month, pairing up with center Tim Connolly to form a dazzling stickhandling line. Co-captain Chris Drury already has his name on the Cup and is known for his clutch play – he led the team with 30 goals. Jay McKee is one of the league's top defensive defenseman and the team anchor, leading the league in blocked shots.

Why Buffalo should be afraid:
Ryan Miller is a big playoff unknown. He’s had an outstanding rookie season, and after a late slump seems to have found his game, but what happens if the Flyers take a quick big lead in game 1 – how will he react? The Sabres had a great season but went through two or three slumps where their defensive play looked more like a high school gym class floor hockey game - not clearing the puck, terrible positioning, lack of physical play. It's not their norm, but it remains a possibility and if it happens at the worst possible time it could kill them.

Why Philadelphia should win the series: Their top line: Peter Forsberg, Simon Gagne, and Mike Knuble. Presuming they are healthy, the Sabres will have to contend with the size, speed, and skill of this line that can play with anyone. Forsberg is always in the discussion of best player on earth, and Gagne’s speed and deadly shot will have to be minimized by Buffalo if they are going to win. The Flyers have done a good job over the season developing young forwards such as former junior superstar rivals Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, and R.J. Umberger who also emerged with a 20 goal season.

Why Philadelphia should be afraid: Goaltending: Robert Esche has been named the game 1 starter but he will be on a short leash – don’t be surprised to see Antero Niittymaki before this series is up – interesting how many times over the past decade that goaltending has been a question mark for Philadelphia. Lack of defensive speed: the Flyers will simply not be able to keep up with Buffalo's small and quick forwards. Their defence must play steady positional hockey and not over-commit or they'll get burnt and likely take penalties, something they do not want to do against the league's third-best power play.

Random useless but fun playoff facts:
This will be the eighth playoff matchup between these old rivals, with the Flyers winning five including their first meeting in the 1975 Stanley Cup finals. Game 3 of that series was one of the most famous in history – “The Fog Game” - with Sabres’ forward Jim Lorentz swatting a bat out of mid-air in the old Aud in Buffalo, and Rene Robert scoring the overtime winner through a thick fog on Bernie Parent.

Our pick: The Flyers were about five minutes away from winning the division and facing the Rangers in round one until the Devils came back against Montreal on Tuesday. The Rangers would have been a much better matchup for them. Obviously someone has to lose this series and it's a shame they have to meet in the first round - this could easily have been a quality conference final. Sadly for the Flyers, it's not. Buffalo’s speed and talent give them the series in 6 games.

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