It’s that time of year again, folks. The clocks have been pushed forward, the temperatures are rising and the kids have just enjoyed another wonderful visit from the Easter Bunny. But most importantly, it’s time to kick off the most exciting two month event in all of sports: the NHL Playoffs.
With Saturday’s conclusion of the regular season and Sunday’s revelation of this year’s postseason match-ups and schedules, now is as good a time as any to make first round predictions. Wednesday, we will feature three of the Eastern Conference’s four series. Being that Biz Jacobs has already got you covered on the Bruins' series with the Capitals, I'll give you a rundown of the remainder of the East's playoff scene.
8) Ottawa Senators vs. 1) New York Rangers
Forwards– In years past, the Rangers were thought of as an offensively incapable bunch that could only reach victory through solid defense and world class goaltending. However, that image has been wiped clean this season through the addition of top-line pivot Brad Richards and the finally healthy Marian Gaborik. The Blueshirts have emerged as one of the league’s top offensive squads, posting a 2.71 goals per game average on the season, good for 11th in the NHL. However, an underrated Ottawa forward corps — led by Jason Spezzza and Milan Michalek — have brought the Sens the NHL’s fourth most potent offense this season.
Defense– Outside of Norris Trophy favorite Erik Karlsson, the Ottawa d-corps leave a lot to be desired. While Sergei Gonchar is capable of an occasional offensive spark, he’s never been known to handle himself well in his own zone. While Filip Kuba and Chris Phillips do provide the Sens with a solid defensive presence night in and night out, the Ottawa defense group simply can’t compare to the well-rounded Rangers’ blueline. With offensively explosive d-men like Michael Del Zotto and Ryan McDonagh to go along with shut-down rearguards Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, the Blueshirts back-end is one of the best in the league.
Advantage– New York
Goaltending– Despite Craig Anderson’s success in Ottawa over the past two seasons, I think it’s fairly obvious that the Rangers hold the edge here. Henrik Lundqvist can often steal a series on his own.
Advantage– New York
Intangibles– After besting the East’s number one squad on three of four occasions this season, the Sens may hold a bit of a mental edge on the Rangers heading into their series.
Prediction– The Sens will make this one a lot closer than many of the experts suggest, forcing the Blueshirts into a decisive seventh game at Madison Square Garden. However, the Rangers’ depth and collective toughness will simply be too much for the Senators. RANGERS IN 7
6) New Jersey Devils vs. 3) Florida Panthers
Forwards– Up front, the Devils posses far more offensive dynamic forwards than the Cats, with the likes of Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and long-time Devil Patrik Elias. The late-season addition of former Cup winner John Madden will undoubtedly help the Panthers in the experience department, but their lack of production from any offensive unit outside the top line will be the Cats’ eventual unraveling.
Advantage– New Jersey
Defense– Powered by two blueliners who are never shy about jumping into an offensive play in the form of Jason Garisson and Brian Campbell, the Cats’ defensive unit is solid all the way around. Both sides seem to be even in this category.
Goaltending– With the age of veteran ‘tender Martin Brodeur, this one’s a bit more of a toss up than many people think. I’d have to give the Devils the slight edge, just based on the fact that they have a capable backup, should anything happen to the 39-year-old Brodeur.
Advantage– New Jersey
Intangibles– The most interesting stat that I’ve come across here is that the Panthers have more players on their current roster (five) with a Stanley Cup ring than do the Devils (three). I don’t think many of us would have guessed that.
Prediction– Many pundits have New Jersey pulling off the upset here — if you even want to call it that — and rightfully so. After backing into the post-season, I don’t believe the Cats will be able to take down the Devils in round one. NEW JERSEY IN 6
5) Philadelphia Flyers vs. 4) Pittsburgh Penguins
Forwards– The Philly offense is deep, strong and fast, but the Crosby and Malkin factor — along with the emergence of James Neal – give the Pens a decisive advantage in this category.
Defense– If Kris Letang can return to the Norris-favorite form he enjoyed early in the season, the Pens will also hold the advantage on the back-end, but if he can’t, I’d have to give the Flyers the nod, simply because of their amazing defensive depth, in holding eight NHL-capable rearguards.
Goaltending– Without doubt this is the hardest category to predict of them all. Couple Marc-Andre Fluery’s recent struggles with the enigmatic nature of Ilya Bryzgalov and you’ve got a complete and total toss up when it comes to the netminders in this series. Assuming Bryzgalov can return to form, Philadelphia will hold the edge here.
Intangibles– With most of the roster still intact from the 2009 Stanley Cup winning season, the Pens hold a decisive intangible advantage over a rookie-filled Flyers’ lineup.
Prediction– In what will undoubtedly become one of the greatest postseason series in recent memory, these two cross-state rivals will lay it all on the line. In the end, I believe that the Flyers will outlast the Pens, stealing game seven on the ice of the CONSOL Energy Center. PHILADELPHIA IN 7
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