26 April 2007

Playoff preview: New Jersey Devils (2) vs. Ottawa Senators (5)

to be published at SportsBlurb.com


Thursday, April 26 7:00 p.m. Ottawa at New Jersey
Saturday, April 28
8:00 p.m. Ottawa at New Jersey VERSUS
Monday, April 30
7:00 p.m. New Jersey at Ottawa VERSUS
Wednesday, May
2 7:00 p.m. New Jersey at Ottawa VERSUS
*Saturday, May
5 8:00 p.m. Ottawa at New Jersey VERSUS
*Monday, May
7 7:00 p.m. New Jersey at Ottawa VERSUS
*Wednesday, May
9 7:00 p.m. Ottawa at New Jersey

Series overview:

Seen in simplistic terms, this looks to be a series between an offensive giant vs. a defensive one. These two teams finished one win and two points apart in the standings but their styles are very different – how will the always defensively-conscious New Jersey Devils stymie the dangerous offensive attack (288 goals, second in NHL) of the Ottawa Senators while scoring enough to win?

Why New Jersey should win the series:

Despite their meager goal-scoring totals for the season, New Jersey has more offensive talent than their overall statistics show. With six goals in as many games (and leading all playoff scorers), emerging star Zach Parise showed why he's a good bet to be a steady 30-40 goal scorer for years to come. Relative old hand Scott Gomez leads the league with nine points, and Brian Rafalski, Patrick Elias, and Brian Gionta all are in the top-10 in points. Their front-end talent forms a swarming threat to opposing defences. New Jersey's power play clicked at a 25% rate against Tampa Bay. There's always the Martin Brodeur factor, as he had one of the greatest seasons of his career, but he’ll have to improve on his play over the first round, as Ottawa sports a much deeper attack than he faced from the Lightning.

Why New Jersey should be afraid:

Brodeur did not have a consistent first-round series against Tampa Bay – yes, his overall numbers were good but games two and three were marked by shaky goals that kept the Lightning in the series much longer than New Jersey would have liked. Defensively this team will still have to answer questions – they consistently hold teams to low goal totals but they will need to play out of character and bring a much more physical style of play to neutralize the dangerous Ottawa offence. The Devils should be able to keep the odd-man rushes to a minimum but if the Senators can develop a cycle in the New Jersey zone, the Devils will not have the brawn to defend against it for long. Finally, despite the front-end talent of New Jersey, the fact remains that they (in)famously play a shutdown style of hockey; opportunistic to a fault. With the talent and discipline in place it makes for successful seasons but the big challenge will be if Ottawa takes early leads – will New Jersey have the skill and mindset to change their style of play, and open up the attack more than they’re comfortable with? And if so, beyond the few big guns they do have, who will provide scoring support? Their lack of scoring depth often doesn’t hurt them, but against a premier opponent like Ottawa it could prove fatal.

And finally this late info: Patrick Elias will miss at least game one because of what is being called a cold - obviously very bad news for New Jersey.

Why Ottawa should win the series:

The importance of Ottawa’s first round defeat of the Pittsburgh Penguins cannot be overstated. Through the past decade, the franchise has had great regular season success but has never matched expectations in the post-season; qualifying for the playoffs in each of the past ten seasons (including six 100+ point seasons) Ottawa had only won five of 14 playoff series and advanced to the conference finals once (losing to New Jersey in 2003). Combining that pressure and the public’s fascination with the sudden rise and stability of the Penguins, the Senators were in many ways an afterthought in the first round. After a convincing five game beating, the Senators served notice that they are still a premier team. Their top players are well-known: Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, and Captain Daniel Alfredsson, but general hockey fans may not be aware of the depth in this team - players like Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly make this team a true threat. Among Ottawa skaters, only Kelly (three) and Mike Comrie (two) had more than one even-strength goal against Pittsburgh. Finally, goalie Ray Emery took a beating last year for spotty play in the post-season – his play was poor, but he was an undeserved scapegoat. This season he emerged as the clear number one and should give his team confidence that he will back up the team after any breakdowns in front of him.

Why Ottawa should be afraid:

Having just complimented their lesser-known lights, their stars need to step up and play better to advance - Heatley and Spezza in particular. Each played more than 63 minutes of even-strength play during the Pittsburgh series and their line never scored a goal. It should go without saying that that performance won't be good enough to win against the tighter and more disciplined Devils. Despite the increased swagger the Sens should possess, there will still be talk about underachieving until they someday get to the Cup finals - only the team itself can quell such doubtless-annoying talk in the media and amongst the fans by winning, so in some ways the pressure remains.

Random useless but fun playoff facts:

Ottawa and New Jersey have met twice in the post-season, each team taking one series. The first meeting in 1998 saw the Senators pull a shocking first-round upset of the Devils – 14 wins separated the two in the standings but Ottawa prevailed in six low-scoring games. The 2003 meeting was in the conference finals where the Devils returned the favour in knocking off the President’s Trophy-winning Senators in a 3-2 seventh game.

My pick:

New Jersey had what could be called a typical year for them – top of the division, lowest goals-against in the conference, just (barely) enough offense to win. Ottawa hid under the radar for most of this season - they got off to a slow start, had goaltending troubles, adjusted to major off-season losses (most notably Zdeno Chara, Martin Havlat), but had a fantastic second-half.

Due much to the nature of the modern NHL, the overall parity has already given us a few match-ups in the early rounds that would have been worthy as Conference Finals, and this series could be another one. Nevertheless it looks from here that the Senators are just that much stronger in every zone. The Devils had difficulty with the rather one-dimensional Lightning while the Senators disposed of the Penguins with much more ease than many would have thought possible. The Devils had great success this season but don’t have the look of a tough playoff team. Whereas the Senators could have been accused of playing cautiously in the past, the early-season emergence of Ray Emery in part helped the team play with a confidence that could prove deadly to their opponents through the playoffs. Ottawa’s road to the Cup is proving to be very challenging which in the end could play to their benefit - it’s likely they’ll have to get through four 100+ point teams to win it all. Taking the Elias absence into account, the Senators will get at least one step further as they should defeat New Jersey in 5.

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