NHL Playoffs - Handicapping the Eastern Conference
Late contenders, a definitive Original 6 flavor....and the team that no one wants to face
Strike shortened seasons are particularly difficult for your typical die-hard, face-painting, siren-helmeted, don't-even-ask-me-to-be-remotely-productive-during-a-Red-Wings-Playoff-Game hockey fan.
They do however make for some interesting playoff races and some even more intriguing plot twists. While some teams have sprinted to the finish line like Michael Grabner with his hair on fire, others have looked as wobbly as a Johnston & Murphy-shoed head coach navigating the journey across the ice to the locker room between periods. Teams that looked good early in the season suddenly resemble the dead catfish that's ceremoniously tossed on the ice in Nashville after a Predator Goal while teams that looked shaky or downright bad early in the season now resemble the girl responsible for removing the catfish from the ice surface.
As is always the case regardless of the sport in question, coming together and getting hot at exactly the right time is the key to a championship season. So while the highly-seeded and home-ice gifted Bruins, Canadiens and Senators cool off just as the Islanders, Capitals and Rangers head into the Post Season on a roll while perennial Cup Contenders like the Flyers and Devils suffer through a rare non-playoff campaign, the 1st Round promises to be chock full of highly unpredictable and drama-laden hockey.
Let's break down the field:
Pittsburgh Penguins - Despite Sidney Crosby's broken jaw as well as a few other key injuries to the likes of James Neil and Paul Martin, the one constant in the Eastern Conference this Season has been the Pittsburgh Penguins. Aided in large part by deadline deals that brought Brandon Morrow and Jerome Iginlia to the Igloo, the Pens have secured home ice for as long as they can survive the rigors of the NHL Playoff grind. Having recently rattled off victories in 22 of their last 25 games, the Pens have redemption on their minds, eagerly seeking payback for last season's meltdown at the hands of their bitter Keystone State Rival Philadelphia Flyers in Round 1 of the Playoffs.
Leading this charge will be Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who despite posting yet another solid regular season, undoubtedly still has the bitter taste of last year's debacle in his mouth, a Series in which the heavily favored Pens were eliminated in 6 games by the Flyers, lowlighted by Fleury suffering the rare indignity of the dreaded "double snowman" as the Flyers scored 8 goals in Game 2 AND 3. Look for the Flower to bounce back and with the assistance of his star-studded cast of teammates, this Penguin Team is certainly one of the favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference as Champions.
Boston Bruins - After a late season trip through the doldrums in which the Bruins posted a 1-5 record against what was largely a field of non-playoff contenders and league doormats, the Boston Bruins seem to be rounding into shape and back to playing Stanley Cup caliber hockey.
Questions remain regarding the Bruins ability to score (2.63 goals/game) and although the Bruins tend to excel in areas that championships teams historically do (2nd overall in the penalty kill at 88.2% and 3rd in goals allowed at 2.21/game) they lack the elite scorer who can make the key play and steal a pivotal game late. Although the deadline deal that brought Jaromir Jagr to the Steel City has given them a boost (9 points in 10 games) and they'll always have a chance as long as Tuukka Rask continues to play at Vezina Trophy Levels (2.00 G.A.A. and a .928 Save Pct.), savvy playoff veterans and a strong goalie in a playoff field loaded with strong goalies will not be enough for the Bruins to emerge from the East.
Washington Capitals - That star-spangled, red, white and blue blur you just saw was the Washington Capitals barreling towards the finish line of the NHL Regular Season. Winners of 10 of their last 11, the Caps appear poised to make a deep run into the playoffs led as always by the incomparable Alexander Ovechkin. Washington is all about special teams, as their deadly power play unit converts at a rate of just under 26%, good enough to lead the entire NHL. Their penalty kill on the other hand ranks among the League's worst (28th/77.6%) so when watching a Capitals Game, rest assured that the fun starts the moment the linesmen raises his arm to send one or more skaters off to the sin bin. This of course plays right into the hands of this explosive group, as their brand of hockey bucks the modern day trend of winning with defense and goal tending. Washington instead looks to push the tempo and race up and down the frozen sheet hoping to lure their opponent in the speed and skill game.
Over their last 10 victories the Caps have scored 4 or more goals in 7 of those contests and 5 or more in 5 of them. In a League loaded with 2-1 games, this team is a throwback to a more free-spirited brand of wide open hockey. The relatively unproven and unknown Braden Holtby is grinding his way through a rather mediocre season, as he is playing to the highest GAA (2.61) and the lowest Save Pct (.919) of his admittedly young career. Holtby has the talent and potential to do his share to push the Caps deep into the Playoffs, but with a field that includes the likes of Henrik Lundqvist, Craig Anderson, Marc-Andre Fleury and a rejuvenated Evgeni Nabokov, he will need to play at the very top of his game as the field narrows and this stakes increase. Having said that, Ovechkin's presence alone makes the Capitals a legit contender.
Montreal Canadiens - Given the state of affairs in Montreal over the last few weeks, it wouldn't seem entirely unreasonable to add Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" to the musical play list on the heels of both the Canadian and American National Anthem prior to the start of each home game. Losers of 6 of their last 8, Montreal heads into the Playoffs colder than a Zamboni's spare tire. After a surprisingly fast start, defense has become a major problem in Montreal, and with a lack of support in front of him Carey Price is the owner of the lowest Save Pct. (.904) of his solid NHL Career. The Habs lack a bonafide goal scorer, however they do rank 6th in the League in overall scoring, lighting the lamp an even 3 times per contest. But as their Penalty Kill flounders (25th overall) and their overall lack of defensive consistency continues to rear its head, this team will need a major turnaround to contend with the heavyweights in the Conference. I don't see it happening.
Toronto Maple Leafs - The Leafs last hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup during the Summer of Love. There really hasn't been all that much to love over the 45 years that followed for this history-drenched blue blood franchise. Making a return to the Playoffs for the 1st time since 2004 is a good and long-awaited step in the right direction for a rabid albeit exasperated and beleaguered fan base.
The Leafs can find the back of the net, there's no question about that (5th overall in the NHL in scoring at just over 3 goals/game). Couple that with a lock down penalty killing unit (3rd in the League) and a big young goaltender who appears ready to carry the load that accompanies a lengthy run for the Cup in James Reimer (2.46 G.A.A./Save Pct. of .923) and the Leafs would appear to at least on the surface to be a contender.
But their recent play on the ice tells a different story.
Over a 4 game stretch in which Toronto went 1-3, the Leafs were out-shot, out-hustled and simply out-played. Scoring chances have been somewhat hard to come by as of late and unless the Leafs can re-discover their rhythm they will have major difficulty advancing more than a Round into the Playoffs and even that might prove to be a daunting task. I'm afraid Leaf Nation will be forced to settle for incremental baby-steps and await next year to see if their club can rise to the next level.
New York Islanders - Perhaps the best story of the abbreviated NHL Season, the New York Islanders continue to prove the naysayers wrong as they gain momentum down the stretch despite a tough division, an aging goalie and a salary budget smaller than most New Yorkers allot for Starbucks. Led by budding superstar John Tavares and his 28 goals, the Islanders have shaken off a slow start and a severe case of the February blues to emerge as one of the hottest teams in all of hockey, and they've done so at precisely the right time. Despite a pair of tough 1 goal losses to New Jersey and Philadelphia in the waning moments of the season, the Isles have a knack for staying in hockey games even on those nights when they do not bring their A-Game to the rink, and despite their youth and relative inexperience, they manage to step-up and make the pivotal play when their more seasoned opponents wilt in the clutch.
Evegeni Nabokov has enjoyed a career revival along the way, posting a 23-11 Record between the pipes as this young Islander Team grows in confidence and experience every step of the way, galvanized by this veteran net minder who suddenly resembles the dominant lock down force he was when he once guarded the red stripe in San Jose as a member of the Sharks. Will Nabokov's heavy workload be his undoing as the grind of the NHL Playoffs kicks in? Only time will tell, but rest assured this Islander Team will be a nuisance for whichever high-seed draws them in Round 1. They are in fact the proverbial "team that no one wants to face" this post-season.
Cinderella, your chariot has arrived.
Ottawa Senators - After a season defined by streaks both hot and cold, the Ottawa Senators head into the Playoffs looking to build on last season's more than respectable post-season showing, one in which they extended the top-seeded New York Rangers to 7 games before bowing out. Their 9-14 Record on the Road however would indicate that they will have trouble escaping the 1st Round, as their seeding situation will force them to pack their bags for Games 1 and 2. Craig Anderson has certainly done the job and then some in net for Ottawa since assuming the starting job 22 games ago posting a 1.67 G.A.A. with a sparkling .941 Save Pct. The Sens enter the Post-Season as the tournament's most offensively-challenged team, scoring a measly 2.3 goals/game, good (or bad as the case may be) for 29th in the League. The lack of young play makers coupled with the inability to win consistently on foreign ice spells trouble for this Senators Team. A fairly quick exit from the Post Season would appear to be their fate.
New York Rangers - Saddled with the burden of high expectations on the heels of the off season acquisition of Rick Nash, the Broadway Blueshirts have developed a season long knack for doing things the hard way. An inability to score early coupled with the unfortunate eye injury suffered by Marc Staal have left the Rangers relying on Henrik Lundqvist to control their destiny on night in and night out basis. Luckily for them, the King resides on the League's shortlist of elite goaltenders and has managed to carry them to the Playoffs despite his teammates' patches of uneven and inconsistent play. Nash has without question lived up to the hype, and along the way the young Derek Stepan has quietly emerged as a star as well, leading the team with 42 points, and his 17 goals are a mere 2 lamp-lighters behind Nash's team leading 19. The Rangers have reason for optimism heading into the Playoffs for a number of reasons however. Deadline deals that have brought in the likes of Ryane Clow and Derick Brassard have given the Blueshirts grit and secondary scoring respectively, with Brassard tallying 4 goals in his last 5 games for the Rangers. Brad Richards has suddenly begun to tickle the twine after suffering through a disappointing campaign. And with the King minding the cage, you know you've got a money goaltender as your last line of defense.
Do the Rangers have a puncher's chance to win the East? Absolutely. But inconsistency of this nature doesn't typically go away overnight and usually proves to be fatal. The Rangers will win the Stanley Cup. In 2014. But until John Tortorella gets a full training camp under his belt in order to fully and correctly implement his complex defensive philosophy and All Star defensemen Marc Staal returns to patrol the blueline, the Rangers are merely a flashy, star-studded also-ran. Having said that, you simply cannot count them out.
Prediction: In the end I expect to see the deep and immensely talented Pittsburgh Penguins vanquish the Washington Capitals in 6 games and therefore earn a much-deserved trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Pittsburgh is the only team in the East that has played high quality, end-to-end hockey in every facet of the game over the course of this entire admittedly jumbled season, and their veteran leadership and star power (with or without Sid the Kid) is simply too much for anyone else in the Conference to overcome.