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Breaking Down the NHL Eastern Conference Playoffs - Round One
Familiarity, notable absentees and a few long-awaited return appearances highlight the NHL's Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
As the Quarterfinal Round of the NHL Eastern Conference Playoffs kick off, we encounter a mix of the old, the new and the missing in action. While the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs make their long awaited return to the Final 8, perennial participants such as the Philadelphia Flyers and defending Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey Devils are left to shake off the ice shavings and figure out what went awry in a strike-shortened season while familiar playoff rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers sharpen their skate blades for what they hope is a journey that culminates in the hoisting of the most famous Trophy in all of sports.
Let's briefly examine the Round 1 Match-ups.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Islanders - Since the maiden drop of the puck on this the 2012-2103 NHL Season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have emerged as the Rolls Royce of the Eastern Conference. And although this should come as no surprise in light of the Penguins' loaded roster, only made stronger with the mid-season acquisitions of Brandon Morrow and Jerome Iginla, glancing in the rear-view mirror to find out that the habitually dismal New York Islanders suddenly ditched their old and battered Yugo to drive in fine style straight into the Post-Season had to qualify as a surprise of the highest magnitude. The Isles motor into the Post-Season on a high note, led by the rejuvenated Evgeni Nabokov and budding superstar John Tavares. The Pens anxiously await news on Sidney Crosby and his availability to lace 'em up on the heels of his broken jaw while Marc Andre Fleury looks to take the proverbial big eraser to last years' uncharacteristically dreadful playoff performance in which he was mugged by the underdog Flyers in a 6 game Round 1 onslaught. With or without Sid the Kid however, look for Fleury to regain his post-season mojo as the Pens advance in methodical business-like fashion. But don't be surprised if the Games in Uniondale are close. Penguins in 5.
Monteal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators - Although neither team comes into this sure to be intense All-Canadian Match-up playing their best hockey, the Senators are getting just a little bit healthier at just the right time. Both teams live and die on the blueline, however Ottawa holds the special teams edge by virtue of their number 1 ranked penalty killing unit. The decline in goaltender Carey Price's play down the stretch is cause for concern in Montreal, as many believe Price was recklessly over-used this season. In light of the fact that he appeared in 39 of the Habs' 41 games, that concern seems warranted. Craig Anderson on the other hand carries no such heavy burden, having played in a mere 24 games due to an injury sustained earlier in the year. Anderson made the most of his time defending the Ottawa twine however, posting a 1.69 GAA to go along with his stingy .941 Save Pct. Despite all of this, I expect the Canadiens to escape by the narrowest of margins given their home ice advantage and ability to generate a balanced offense. For those of you without a rooting interest this post-season, your focus should be squarely fixed on this match-up as it could very well be the most entertaining of the bunch. Canadiens in 7.
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs - In a match-up as old school as Rheingold Beer and egg omelettes still in possession of their yolks, two storied anchor franchises square off in a Series that promises to be wide open and hard fought. Both teams enter the playoffs after sleepwalking through the latter stages of the regular season, but it's the Bruins and their lackluster 2-7 finish that would appear to be most perplexing. Boston has what it takes to make a deep run into the Playoffs but they need to mend their sloppy and mistake-prone ways in a hurry as the Leafs have the ability to light the lamp in bunches while getting support down at the other end of the ice by one of the better young goalies that no one seems to know or talk about in the person of James Reimer. "Optimus Reim" posted a 2.46 GAA while pitching 4 shutouts on his way to a Regular Season total of 19 wins and a .924 Save Pct. Down at the other end of the frozen pond, Boston counters with Tuukka Rask, a more proven commodity in net who matched Reimer's 19 wins and played to a Save Pct. of .929 while allowing a paltry 2 goals per game for the Spoked-B. Look for the Bruins to rely on their grit and playoff experience as they tighten up their game and move on to the next round. Bruins in 6.
Washington Capitals vs. New York Rangers - If it's true that familiarity breeds contempt, these two teams must surely loathe each other with enough intensity to match Alec Baldwin's hatred for anyone in possession of a camera who has the unmitigated gall to point said camera in his general direction. Yes the Caps and Blueshirts face off for the 4th time in 5 years and if you're a fan of the subtle nuances of hockey such as match-ups and pairings, this Series is for you. Of course if you simply enjoy watching All-Universe hockey players such as Alexander Ovechkin and Rick Nash play, that's not a bad reason to lock in on this match-up either. Ovechkin eventually shook off a slow start that appeared to be the byproduct of laziness and downright apathy to round into the player that his talent dictates he should be, leading the League in scoring for the 3rd time in his brilliant career. The Rangers are of course faced with the dilemma of an injured Marc Staal, and Coach John Tortarella will undoubtedly contemplate splitting pairs on the blueline in an effort to blanket and subsequently frustrate the Great-8. On the topic of playing card references, while Henrik Lundqvist is the King, his young counterpart Braden Holtby is merely a Jack - a high value face card without question, but simply not of the same pedigree as the cooler than cool Vezina Trophy Winner. Edge to the Rangers between the scarlet pipes. Expect physical play, one goal games, drama and extremely hard-fought hockey between two teams that finished the regualr season on very high notes. And although neither team had a particularly tough schedule down the stretch, the Caps were the beneficiary of a slate dotted with the likes of League lollipops such as Florida and Carolina all season long while the Rangers traded wrist shots with the rugged Atlantic Division. Slighter than slight edge to the battle-tested Broadway Blueshirts here. Rangers in 7.