Wednesday, April 14, 2010

RTHF's Playoff Predictions: Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

Washington Capitals (1) vs. Montreal Canadiens (8) 

Records: Washington, 54-15-13 (121 pts); Montreal, 39-33-10 (88 pts) 
Season Series: Washington, 2-1-1; Montreal, 2-1-1 

Analysis: Washington rolled through the regular season like a freight train, scoring far more goals than any other team.  The numbers are staggering and almost 1984 Oilers-eqsue, at least as much as that can be true in this era: they were the only squad to top 300 goals (Vancouver finished a distant second at 272), they scored 25.1% of the time (!) on the power play, Ovechkin scored 50 goals (again) and was a frightening +45, two 40-goal scorers (Ovechkin and Semin), two 100-point scorers (Ovechkin and Backstrom), seven guys with 20 goals or more, and 12 (!!) players with 10 goals or more.  You get the point - the Caps like to score about as much as Tiger Woods. All that goal scoring came at a price though, as only Pittsburgh, Colorado, and Ottawa gave up more goals amongst playoff teams during the regular season. Goaltending has to be a concern heading into the second season; playoff starter Jose Theodore's 2.81 GAA is the worst of any starting playoff goaltender, and the Caps' style of play means the defense isn't exactly locking it down in front of him.

In the wake of a disastrous centennial season, the Montreal Canadiens blew it up over the summer.  Jacques Martin replaced Guy Carbonneau/Bob Gainey as coach.  GM Gainey then replaced half his blueline, bringing in Jaro Spacek, Hal Gill, and Paul Mara.  At forward, Gainey cornered the market on guys under 6 feet tall, trading for Scott Gomez (5'11") and signing Brian Gionta (5'7") and Mike Cammalleri (5'9").  As if that wasn't enough turnover, they lost stud defenseman Andrei Markov for a couple months to injury at the very beginning of the season. It wasn't surprising, then, that the Smurfs took all season to become a cohesive unit, but they did finally figure it out and had a nice run in March where they won seven of eight games. In net, Carey Price still doesn't have his head on straight, so Client Jaroslav Halak decided to steal his job.   

Who I'm rooting for: My goodness, do you really think I want to hear soccer chants all playoffs long?  Besides, I'm a big Ovechkin fan, so Washington it is. 

Who will win: The Caps will eventually be reminded that you don't win 6-3 in the playoffs.  Fortunately for them, they play a team ranked 26th in goalscoring in the first round.  So instead, they can get their playoff feet wet by winning 4-2 games against the Habs.  Caps in 5.
New Jersey Devils (2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (7)

Records: New Jersey, 48-27-7 (103 pts); Philadelphia, 41-35-6 (88 pts) 
Season Series: New Jersey, 1-4-1; Philadelphia, 5-1-0 

Analysis: Another ho-hum 100-point season for New Jersey, who never seems to get bored with success like the rest of us get bored by watching their games.  (Zing!)  The formula is always the same: one guy who scores goals (Zach Parise), a bunch of interchangeable parts who play solid defensive hockey, and Brodeur between the pipes to get pissy about the few goals that do get scored on him.  This year the formula is slightly different; they went out and got some guy named Kovalchuk.  He previously played for Atlanta so you may not have heard of him before, but he likes to score lots.

Philly, meanwhile, is lucky to have made it to the second season.  They were written off weeks ago when top goalscorer Jeff Carter, top goaltender Michael Leighton (wow, I actually did just write that) and about 15 other goalies went down with injuries.  They needed a shootout at the tail end of a home-and-home with the Rangers, who were clearly not interested in playoff hockey this year, to qualify.  (Don't get me started on the utter lameness of shootouts deciding a playoff position, but that's a rant for another time.)  Philly has a deep group of forwards in Carter, Mike Richards, Danny Briere, Scott "Fartsmell" Hartnell, and Simon Gagne, and on the backend, Chris "Elbows Out" Pronger is a force.  But many question if the Flyers can keep it together to make a run; there have been questions about locker room cohesiveness all season, with rumors of infidelity that involved Carter, Hartnell, and Hartnell's wife, and also suggestions that Pronger and Richards have butted heads about captain Richards' style of leadership. (Drama!) 

Who I'm rooting for: I hate New Jersey's trap-to-death style, but Philly is despicable and I am not capable of rooting for them.  So, go Devils... my good friend Cooper, who passed away nearly a year ago and was the biggest Devils fan I knew, would be proud. 

Who will win: You do not beat New Jersey in the playoffs if you give up 3 or 4 goals a game, so it all depends on how long Brian Boucher wants to keep Philly in this series. Although Boucher has played well recently, the fact that every other goaltender seemed to get promoted over him tells me a lot.  New Jersey in 5.
Buffalo Sabres (3) vs. Boston Bruins (6)

Records: Buffalo, 45-27-10 (100 pts); Boston, 39-30-13 (91 pts) 
Season Series: Buffalo, 2-2-2; Boston, 4-2-0

Analysis: Buffalo returns to the playoffs after a two-year drought marked by unfulfilled promise, as the kids have finally grown out of the shadow of Danny Briere and Chris Drury.  Unlike past Sabres teams, this one is defined by balance; twelve players had ten goals or more, yet none cracked the 30-goal mark.  Ryan Miller is second in the NHL in both GAA (2.22) and save percentage (.929), and is the biggest reason the Sabres won the Northeast Division.  On the backend, Tyler Myers had a wonderful first season that will likely end with a Calder Trophy and is largely responsible for the career revival of Henrik Tallinder, who looked like his dominant self for the first time since 2005-06.  Toni Lydman and Steve Montador are solid as a #2 pairing, but after that the defense is shaky with Craig "Cement Skates" Rivet doing a nightly impression of a traffic cone and Andrej Sekera and Chris Butler fighting over the comfy seat in the pressbox.  Injuries were largely not a factor until the very end of the season, and although Tim Connolly and Jochen Hecht are banged up right now, they should return (I think) for the first round.  Drew Stafford has a concussion but may be available to be nailed to the bench in favor of exciting rookie Tyler Ennis at some point.

Boston finished first in the East last year but has been victimized by injuries this season.  Last year's leading point scorer Marc Savard only played in 41 games and human steamroller Milan Lucic only played 50.  The injuries to Savard and the loss of Phil Kessel badly hurt the Bruins offensively; the B's finished dead last in the NHL in goal scoring and had the worst power play percentage of any team that qualified for the postseason.  Let's put it this way: when Marco Sturm is your leading goalscorer, you've got problems.  And to make matters worse, last year's Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas had an awful season.  Lack of goalscoring plus bad goaltending is usually a less-than-ideal combination, so you could probably say that Boston would be nowhere near a playoff spot if not for Tuukka Rask (1.97 GAA, .931 SV%).

Who I'm rooting for: Durrr.  You do realize this is a Sabres blog, right?

Who will win: Many Sabres fans think Boston will be a pushover, but remember that the Bruins are only a year removed from being first in the East and have a good core of solid forwards that could remember how to score goals at any time.  Having said that, this series will be a clinic put on by the goaltenders who were 1-2 in both GAA and SV%.  Miller will outduel Rask and enough of the Sabres' top 6 forwards will show up to put Buffalo over the top.  First team to two wins every night.  Sabres in 6.
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Ottawa Senators (5)

Records: Pittsburgh, 47-28-7 (101 pts); Ottawa, 44-32-6 (94 pts) 
Season Series: Pittsburgh, 2-2-0; Ottawa, 2-2-0

Analysis:Pittsburgh is clearly a team that's bored of the regular season, and why wouldn't they be?  They're the defending Stanley Cup champions and have made two straight Cup finals appearances.  Sidney Crosby was already a great player, but progressed greatly as a goal scorer (leading the NHL in goals) and as a faceoff man this year; he must have gotten tired of the cries of "But Ovechkin is the best player in the NHL and Crosby isn't even the best player on his own team!"  Evgeni Malkin had a down year, scoring "only" 77 points due to injuries and slumps, and did not live up to the #3 pick I used on him in my fantasy draft.  Beyond these two the Pens have great balance, with 13 players scoring 10 or more goals (although two players, Ponikarovsky and Leopold, did most of that scoring while wearing another team's crest).  Marc-Andre Fleury is not a scary goaltender in the sense that a Martin Brodeur would be, but proved last year that he knows how to turn it on when he needs to. 

For the life of me, I can't figure out how Ottawa wins games. They're 15th in goals scored and 18th in goals allowed.  Their top goalscorer has just 25 goals and there don't seem to be any bonafide threats now that Dany Heatley is gone.  Brian Elliott led goaltenders with a 2.57 GAA, good for only 20th in the league.  Yet somehow they keep winning, finishing the regular season 7-2-1. Ottawa exceeds the professional douchebag quota by employing both Chris Neil and Jarko Ruutu; you'd think this would result in bad karma, but apparently not.

Who I'm rooting for: Can't the building just cave in?  Must I root for either team?  Pittsburgh, I guess, because I can't bring myself to root for a team with Chris Neil and Jarko Ruutu.

Who will win: It's interesting that none of the four games in the season series were decided by less than three goals - including a couple blowouts that went both ways (Ottawa beat the Pens 6-2, and Pittsburgh returned the favor by whipping Ottawa 8-2).  Also, the Sens are a very streaky team; before the Olympic break there was a streak of five straight losses followed directly by 11 straight wins, then in March and April there was another five game losing streak followed up by a six-game winning streak.  You don't have to be a rocket surgeon to realize that this combination is the type of thing that typically leads to a short series. Since Pittsburgh never seems to lose in the first round, and since it's foolish to deny the power of the lucky burrito, Penguins in 5.

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