All season long, hockey writers and commentators have been bad-mouthing the East and praising the West. They've joked about how the battle for a playoff spot out West was so tight, while there are so many weak teams in the East. Now that the standings have been decided and we're faced with the top 8 on each side, the balance of power does not seem so slanted. The East boasts the President's Trophy and the reigning Cup Champs, plus 2 or 3 more teams that are legitimate Cup contenders. Just don't expect there to be much balance in Round 1. The top 4 teams have certainly risen to the top in the East, and it would be surprising to see many, if any upsets in Round 1. Here's a breakdown by series, along with our predictions.
Washington Capitals (1) -vs- Montreal Canadiens (8)
The Caps didn't find out who their opponent would be until the final hours of the regular season. But do they even care? They've been sitting around waiting to see who their first victim would be for a couple weeks. So it turns out Montreal drew the short straw.
It's not common for a President's Trophy winning team to have a goalie controversy heading into the postseason, but that is the reality for the Caps once again. After all, it was just a year ago that Theodore went into Round 1 as the starter, only to be replaced by Varlamov before the first week was over. Will history repeat itself? Theodore is on an amazing winning streak; however, it's not clear who Coach Bruce will turn to next week. Theodore clearly has more experience, and should he be the guy, will give the Caps adequate, but not spectacular help in net.
The story has been largely the same for Montreal. Up until the Olympic break, it looked as if Carey Price would be given first stab, if this team somehow managed to squeek into the playoffs. Squeek in they did, but they did so in large part due to the play of the other guy. Jaroslav Halak has been one of the top goalies in the game during and after the Olympics. He's now the default option in Montreal. However, he's going to have to be near perfect to keep his team in any game in Round 1.
This isn't even close. We're talking silly differences here. The Caps led the league with 318 goals for, while the Canadiens were near the bottom at 217. Do the math. That's more than 100 goals difference. That stat alone should be enough for you to pick the Caps in Round 1 in your office pool. We could go on and on about the depth in Washington versus the tininess of the Montreal forwards, but why bother? 101 goals different? Silly.
So maybe this Capitals team does have a weakness, but for it to be felt, the Canadiens are going to have a draw a ton of power plays. Montreal boasts one of the better squads in the league with the man advantage, and despite winning 15 games more than their opponent, the Caps surrendered 10 more goals over the season. Will it be enough to provide a slight glimmer of hope for fans north of the border? No, sir, it won't.
You'd be a fool to bet against the Caps in Round 1. Washington in 5.
New Jersey Devils (2) -vs- Philadelphia Flyers (7)
Of the four matchups in Round 1 in the East, this is the one with the best chance to go the distance, and possibly supply an upset. The Flyers are enough of a mystery to keep everyone guessing on what to expect out of this squad. They entered the season as the pick of many to win it, then fell into a dark tailspin, and finally emerged somewhere in the middle. Meanwhile, the Devils have done what they always do, and head into playoffs as a team nobody wants to bet against, but nobody wants to pick either.
Obviously this is where the two teams are in completely different leagues, as they have been for the past decade. On one side of the Jersey border, you have perhaps the greatest goalie to ever play the game. And it doesn't appear like he's slowing down. Brodeur once again led the league in wins and shutouts.
On the other side, you see a team settling for their 3rd or 4th choice in net. Boucher has had some moments of brilliance in his career, so don't go writing him off just yet. It is Boucher who holds the modern day record for longest shutout streak, spanning 5 games back in 2004. The problem is that was 6 years ago and he hasn't showed many glimpses of that behavior in the past half decade.
These teams actually match up pretty well when it comes to offense. They both feature some balanced scoring, and a couple of quality stars up front. New Jersey doesn't have to look to Parise to carry the entire load, as they did in 2009. With Kovalchuk and now Elias regaining his touch, they can spread the wealth around a little better. The Flyers have many weapons; however, consistency is the key. Richards, Carter, Gagne, and Briere can all be lethal at times. They also have some serious potential further down the lineup, if those guys can stay out of the box. The advantage here should go to the Flyers.
In terms of name recognition, the Flyers actually have the edge here; however, the numbers tell a different story. The Devils allowed a league low 190 goals on the season. Of course, you can refer back to the goaltending category to explain a good bit of that. They did that with a relatively unknown group of defenders. Their best defenseman, Paul Martin, missed the vast majority of the season, so imagine what they would have done had he been there. The Flyers were in the middle of the pack on goals surrendered, despite featuring some high-profile players like Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, and Braydon Coburn. If these guys can keep their heads on straight and contribute offensively, it could be the difference in the series.
Again, this is the toughest to call. Ultimately, Brodeur will outclass Boucher and be enough to take this series. Devils in 7.
Buffalo Sabres (3) -vs- Boston Bruins (6)
The temptation is to look at the Sabres as evidence of the weakness in the East. That would be a big mistake. The Sabres get little credit and recognition in the league, partially because of so many past let downs. This just might be the year they surprise and earn some respect. As for their opponent… they're just happy to be here.
So, do you start the reigning Vezina Trophy winner that you just gave a huge contract extension to, or do you start the better goalie? It's going to be tough for Claude Julien to deny Tuukka Rask the crease when this series kicks off. He's been outstanding over the past couple of months, while his older counter-part has struggled mightily. Rask is obviously unproven in the playoffs, but he's shown no signs of cracking yet in his young career, so he'll get first go.
Meanwhile, the Sabres are blessed with this year's likely Vezina winner, or at a minimum, runner up to Brodeur. Miller was everything to team USA in the Olympics and means even more to the Sabres. Imagine this team without him. If he can keep up his level of play over the next two months, you can put his name on a short list of Conn Smythe candidates.
The Bruins have had a catastrophic season in terms of offense. Their 206 goals was worst in the league, including all 14 teams that didn't make the cut. The loss of Kessel and the injuries to Savard caused havoc up and down the lines in Boston. There just weren't enough guns to pick up the slack. Don't expect that to change once the games start to mean more, particularly against a guy like Miller in net. Few observers would be shocked to see 2 or 3 shutouts in Round 1.
The Sabres on the other hand are one of the highest scoring teams in the league over the past couple months. And more importantly, they're doing it across several lines. Their top gun, Tomas Vanek, has been out for a good bit of the past month, and yet the team keeps scoring. Now that he's back (see his 4 goal performance on Saturday), there's no need to worry about their ability to put the puck where it belongs.
It's often said that you can't win the Cup without a fast, puck-moving defenseman. If that's true (and it's not - see Carolina 2006), the Sabres may be in trouble. Rookie Tyler Myers is as close as it gets. But if you're counting on a giant rookie to pound bodies and lead the rush, you're expecting a little too much. Defensively, this squad is more than adequate to get past the Bruins. The true test will come in Round 2 when they'll likely be facing some much stronger scoring threats.
It's no surprise that a team coached by Julien would count their defensive system as a key strength. Zdeno Chara is still a monster on a blue line, while the rest of the squad covers their own end well. Like the Sabres, they lack a true offensive threat on the back end.
With these two teams both finishing in the top 4 in the NHL in goals against, don't expect many highlights. In what should be a fairly uneventful series, the Sabres will emerge in 6.
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) -vs- Ottawa Senators (5)
If you're looking for an entertaining series with some good recent history, you'll want to tune into this one. For the third time in four seasons, the Pens and Sens will do battle in Round 1, with plenty of offense to spare.
The Senators thought they had their guy in Pascal Leclaire at the start of the season. Through his injuries and inconsistent play, the door was opened for youngster Brian Elliot. Elliot has been very good for Ottawa and is the go-to guy in net.
Statistically, Elliot has an edge on Marc-Andre Fleury this season. He has him beat in every category but wins. However, when it comes to post-season experience and performance, there is no comparison. Fleury has forever silenced critics based on his play over the past two playoff runs. Just rewind the last 3 seconds of Game 7 against Detroit for a quick reminder. Both goalies in this series are capable of providing enough assistance to help their team get through round 1, but a slight edge has to go to Fleury.
It's no surprise to find that Pittsburgh outscored the Sens by 32 goals over the course of the regular season. No team on Earth can match the Pens down the middle. With Crosby, Malkin, Staal, and Talbot at the center position, the Pens are free to rotate wingers as they please and still have a scoring threat on the ice at all times. That fact alone makes them an easy choice as a favorite to repeat.
The Sens were dealt a tough blow with the loss of Kovalev. Though he ran cold for the past two months, the team was still banking on Kovalev being a 2nd line scoring threat. Now, the team is back in the same spot they've been in for years, putting all their hope in Spezza and Alfredsson's line. Mike Fischer and Milan Michalek can contribute offensively, but there's really no comparison here. The Pens will overpower the Senators when it comes to offense.
The defense for the Senators just isn't what it used to be. Gone are the likes of Chara and Redden. They still feature a great pair of shutdown blueliners in Volchenkov and Phillips, which is exactly what they'll need to give themselves a chance against the Pittsburgh attack. Recently, rookie Erik Karlsson has caught fire. He enters the playoffs having scored 12 points in the last 10 games. While they're not imposing, this squad is good enough to make this a great series.
The Pens lost a significant element of their Stanley Cup run last summer when Rob Scuderi went to the Kings. They've auditioned several replacement, but Pittsburgh fans are still wondering who's going to be there to block the shots when Fleury starts scrambling out of position. Kris Letang was supposed to step up this season after a terrific playoff run last year. So far, we're still waiting. However, the Sens still have to contend with Brooks Orpik on the back end, and the most valuable member of the Pittsburgh defense is still running the power play for one more playoff run. Sergei Gonchar is still one of the best in the game at running the power play and carrying the puck up ice. If Gonchar gets hurt, as he's prone to do, the Pens will stumble.
Set the DVR up for some memorable games over the next two weeks as the scores promise to be high in this one. In the end, the Pens will pick up where they left off last spring and win this series in 6.
Check back tomorrow for a preview of the Western Conference Round 1, along with our predictions for the Stanley Cup finals.