After six months and 2,460 games played, the real season begins Wednesday night. The Eastern Conference presents a few marque matchups and a potential upset or two in the making.
(1) New York Rangers vs (8) Ottawa Senators — Ottawa won season series 3-1
No one saw this matchup coming. For weeks, the Senators were staring down the barrel of a gun focused on the Boston Bruins while the Rangers assumed a rematch with the Washington Capitals or inter-state rival Buffalo. But that’s why we play the games.
The Senators are relieved to not have to face the Bruins in the opening round, especially with the results it had against the Blueshirts this year. Offensively, both teams have star power. The Senators pack Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek up front and defensive scoring sensation Erik Karlsson, while the Rangers have Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards.
Defensively, the Rangers have the advantage, allowing the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference, while the Senators allowed 240 this season, the most of any playoff team. In net, there are few — if any — better than Henrik Lundqvist, though Ottawa’s Craig Anderson has played the Rangers tough his entire career.
The Rangers will have no problem winning this series if they stick to their game and establish their forecheck while staying out of the penalty box. If they don’t, the Senators can run away with the series by cashing in on turnovers and with the man advantage
(2) Boston Bruins vs (7) Washington Capitals
The general populous saw the Capitals making the playoffs. None thought it would be as a seven seed.
The Capitals are healthy and playing their best hockey of the season, with the three-headed monster of Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom playing solid. The Bruins, meanwhile, are still battling injuries throughout their lineup.
The key to this series is goaltending. At this team last year Tim Thomas established himself as a world-class caliber netminder en route to a Stanley Cup ring and a Conn Smythe Trophy. Against a team with as much offensive talent as the Capitals, he has to be at the top of his game. On the other end, the Capitals are going to rely on Brayden Holtby, who has played just 22 NHL games thanks to injuries to Thomas Vokoun and Michael Neuvirth. The Bruins smash mouth offense could be too much for Holtby, especially with a lackluster defense in front of him.
The Bruins have no trouble scoring, and expect them to create plenty of traffic in front of the young netminder. They have power both up front with Milan Lucic and Tyler Seguin and from the back end with guys like Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg.
With that said, don’t be surprised if the Caps steal this series from the defending champions. The Capitals have been playing playoff hockey for weeks now and come into the post-season red hot and confident.
(3) Florida Panthers vs (6) New Jersey Devils
You’d be hard pressed to find a less-qualified division champion than the Florida Panthers, who can attribute their “success” this season to the losers point, which they had a league-leading 18 of. If you break it down, this team was five games under .500.
New Jersey is rolling right now, winners of six straight and possessing one of the most dominant offensive players in the League in Ilya Kovalchuk, as well as Zach Parise and yes, David Clarkson, who had his first 30-goal campaign of his career.
The Panthers just don’t have what it takes to take on a team like the Devils, who have something to prove after missing the playoffs last season for the first time since the mid-1990s. Martin Brodeur, who, although not vintage Marty, has played very well in what could be his final post-season appearance.
Florida is going to have to capitalize at even strength against a so-so defensive group, as the Devils have the best penalty-kill in the NHL. That’s a tall task for a team that finish No. 27 in goals-per-game with 2.4 per.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs (5) Philadelphia Flyers
You’d be hard pressed to find a better opening round series over the past decade than this one, which has it all: star power, talent, storylines and of course, hatred. Boy do these two teams hate each other.
The Flyers are going to have to find a way to contain the deepest team in the NHL. That is going to fall on the shoulders of Ilya Bryzgalov, who on some nights looks unbeatable, and others like he’s there just to collect a paycheck. The Flyers are going to need him to stand tall against an offense that includes Sidney Crosby, Evegni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang and Jordan Staal, just to name the stars.
The Penguins are also going to have their hands full with the Flyers, who finished second in the NHL in goals-per-game, right behind the Penguins. The Flyers posses Claude Giroux, Jaromir Jagr and Scott Hartnell to comprise one of the most lethal top-lines in the NHL. Marc-Andre Fleury had a fantastic season, and has proven he is more than capable of stepping up his game come April.
Philadelphia has to stay out of the box against a powerplay like the Penguins. Although the Flyers have a top-10 powerplay of their own, they don’t boast a penalty kill like the Penguins, which ranked third in the league at 87.8 percent.
The Flyers are going to have to bang bodies and wear the Penguins, who have shown to be fragile at times, in order to win this series. The games are too important to get caught up in the post-whistle fisticuffs, so be ready for hard, clean hits both against the boards and especially open ice.