For me there is almost no better time of year. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are beyond intense, and when there are intriguing match ups like there are this year, life is complete.
The Eastern Conference is always a top-heavy conference and this year is no exception to that trend. The Rangers, Penguins, Bruins and Flyers are the most dangerous teams in the East right now, and they will all be tough to beat. Unfortunately for the Penguins and Flyers they have to play each other in round 1, which is certainly the most entertaining matchup right out of the gate.
#1 New York Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa Senators
This year the Senators experienced a revival, Jason Spezza finished 4th in points in the entire NHL and young defenseman Erik Karlsson lead all defenseman in points. After two forgettable seasons, Spezza finally got back to playing like the player the Senators hoped he would be, and he has been a key factor for the Sens. The Rangers on the other hand, have been expected to perform well for years, and went out and improved their team this past summer by adding prize free agent Brad Richards. With the best goalie in the league in net for them, the Rangers are going to be a formidable opponent. They have great depth on offense and can score in a hurry. In my mind, I think the Senators will play them tough like they did in the regular season, but the playoffs are a whole different game and I think the Rangers will take care of them in 6 games.
#2 Boston Bruins vs. #7 Washington Capitals
The Capitals have been an under achieving team all year, and were not a lock to make the playoffs until two games before the season ended. Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin are the key center pieces to this offensive juggernaut, but Semin has a reputation of disappearing as soon as they enter the playoffs. Nick Backstrom’s health is going to be a question mark; he has only played four games since sustaining a concussion in January. The Bruins have to make sure they continue to have a well-balanced attack. They do not have a player with more than 67 points, but they are still averaging over three goals per game. If Tim Thomas plays like he did last year, they will take care of the Capitals. Bruins in 6.
#3 Florida Panthers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils
Florida’s new general manager Dale Tallon has done a phenomenal job turning this team around in such a short time period. He acquired a few of the players he had on the Blackhawks, and the massive cap space the Panthers had allowed them to make drastic improvements. Unfortunately for them, they also played in the weakest division in hockey, and benefitted from weak opponents. This team has a promising future with great young talent, but I do not see them being able to keep up their momentum into the playoffs. They average less than 2.5 goals per game and have a 79.5% penalty kill percentage, which is terrible. The Devils were led this year by Ilya Kovalchuk who lived up to his massive contract with 83 points and 37 goals. More importantly, the Devils won 48 games and played well down the stretch of the season. If Martin Brodeur can play like he did in the playoffs three years ago, this will be an easy series for the Devils. Devils in 5.
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers
This series is going to be an absolute bloodbath. In state rivals that are both heavily talented and hate each other; NBC is drooling. The Penguins Evgeni Malkin had a career year, finally reaching the 50 goal plateau and leading the league in points with 109. He is by far and away the MVP of the entire league this year. Sidney Crosby’s return only means more fire power for an extremely dangerous Pittsburgh offense, not to mention the fact that Marc-Andre Fleury had 42 wins and a 2.36 goals against average. With elite scoring and an elite, experienced goalie and defensive core, this team will be formidable. The Flyers reshaped their entire team to finally get a franchise goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov, and while he struggled throughout the year, he finally got it together towards the end of the year. This will be the Flyers biggest deficiency. They have an extremely talented group of forwards led by Claude Giroux (93 points this year), and a sturdy blue-line, but without elite goaltending, they will not have their work cut out for them to get past the Penguins. Penguins in 7.
#1 New York Rangers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils
The Rangers will keep their momentum going through this series, and the Devils lack of depth up front will be their downfall. If the Devils had more secondary scoring I think that they could take a run at the Rangers, but with Brodeur’s age, he won’t be able to stand on his head and steal a series for them. A healthy Rangers team spells doom for their inter-division rival. Rangers in 5.
#2 Boston Bruins vs. #4 Pittsburgh Penguins
The Bruins will have to find a second wind here, and this is usually where teams that won the cup in the previous year start to fade. The shortened off-season could be a factor for them, and the fact that the Penguins are healthy at this point will cause problems for the Bruins. The Penguins, especially Crosby are going to be extremely hungry for another shot at the cup, and provided Sidney can stay out of the quiet room, I think they will prevail in this series. Penguins in 6.
#1 New York Rangers vs. #4 Pittsburgh Penguins
Despite the Penguins being the #4 seed in the East, it is important to note that they only finished one point back of the Rangers and they had the same amount of wins. If the NHL seeded by points only, the Penguins would have taken the #2 seed; this is an elite team. That being said, I see a goaltending battle brewing in this series, and there is not a goalie in the league better than Henrik Lundqvist. With 8 shutouts, a 1.97 goals against average and a .930 save percentage, he has the capabilities to steal a series for the Rangers, and this is exactly what will happen here. Typically teams with the best secondary scoring and goaltending win the Cup, and King Henrik will lead the blue-shirts to the cup finals. Rangers in 7.
Stay tuned for the Western Conference tomorrow.