ALL IN THE ATLANTIC DIVISION: Eastern Conference Playoff Preview
Hi kids, Fork here. As we did in the playoffs a couple years back, we're welcoming in our misguided Penguins fan JasonPie (it's pronounced P-A, you know, like Felix Pie, only an appreviation of the state of Pennsylvania, right? Ah, forget it.) to handle the Eastern Conference for us. Mainly since we've got enough other stuff to do, and Morph (our resident cheddar stacker) has sold us on how cost-effective outsourcing is ,so there's a whole world of hockey happening east of Detroit that we're going to let him handle.
And since you've all come to expect nothing but the highest level of integrity here, I ain't editing shit. So before you think we all just sit around fellating Dan Bylsma...anyway, take it away, Pie!
Three out of the four Eastern Conference playoff matchups feature an Atlantic Division team – and the reason it’s not four, is only because the Penguins and Flyers play each other in the first round. Atlantic division matchups are almost always memorable – even the naps you take during Devils games are especially invigorating.
Even more amazing is that all four Atlantic Division teams in the playoffs have as many points—or more—than any team from another division (New Jersey and Boston tied with 102 points, the Flyers, Penguins, and Rangers all had more). The burning question of the Eastern Conference playoffs is which Atlantic Division team will leave three whiners in their wake on the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. After the first round, the answer will only be: not Philly.
Here are the matchups:
(#4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (#5) Philadelphia Flyers
Somewhere Gary Bettman is thanking Zombie Jesus for this ratings bonanza. This series might do better than the Stanley Cup Finals. The two teams hate each other. The two cities hate each other. Carnage is guaranteed. There are two questions in this series: which team will first have a player bring a knife or gun on to the ice, and which team will win four games. Answers: Philly, Pittsburgh.
A week ago Sunday, Philadelphia made the same mistake when they lost game 6 to Pittsburgh in 2009: they pissed off the Penguins. Braydon Schenn’s cheap-shot cross-check from behind to Sidney Crosby was as unnecessarily stupid as Daniel Carcilo’s decision to fight Max Talbot with a 3-goal lead. Schenn showed the world that the Flyers’ MO is to play dirty and then hide behind a visor when it’s time to fight. Later that game Daniel Briere put together film that every eight-year-old should see when being lectured on why it’s important to skate with their head up. Peter Laviolette then went all Tony Soprano on the Penguins bench, because the Penguins had the audacity to put their fourth line on the ice down two, with less than thirty-seconds left…and play to the final whistle.
All of these events made it more likely that the Flyers will waste a roster spot by dressing Jody Shelley in the playoffs. (I feel bad for that guy – if you take one look at him you will too…the next drink he takes might kill his last brain cell.) And they certainly rallied the Penguins around their Captain.
Sidney Crosby has won scoring titles and a Stanley Cup at the expense of the Flyers. Invariably, every time the organist plays three chords and the crowd chants “Crosby sucks,” Crosby shoves a puck down all of their throats like a bad cheesesteak or a Nathan’s hotdog. Both teams have skill and grit. Claude Giroux and Scotty Hartnell are two forwards any NHL team would love to have on their roster. Jaromir Jagr might have the energy and desire to score if he can stay away from late-night blackjack sessions at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh. Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle are solid two-way defensemen. The Flyers have won five of six since the Consol Center opened in Pittsburgh, and the Penguins have rarely solved Sergei Bobrovsky.
But the Penguins won the last game in Pittsburgh to count, and Ilya Bryzgalov is likely to start for the Flyers (but not without controversy—and what would a postseason be without a Flyers goalie controversy?)
The Penguins simply have too much talent for the Flyers to overcome. Jagr is old; the Penguins’ horses are young. Kunitz-Malkin-Neal were the best line in the NHL since late January. Malkin will be the league MVP, and if he keeps his level of play up, could likely win another Conn Smythe. Sullivan-Crosby-Cooke is a second-line that almost any other team would covet as a second line. The third line of Kennedy-Staal-Dupuis is the best third line in the NHL – Jordan Staal would easily be a first or second line player on any other NHL team, and Pascal Dupuis has a seventeen-game point streak going into Game One. Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik are both better defensemen than anyone on the Flyers. Marc-Andre Fleury is the better netminder in the series.
If you want to look at the numbers—both teams were equally as good on the power-play (19.7%), and nearly as good in 5-on-5 play (Pittsburgh - 1.17, Philadelphia - 1.13). The Penguins were the third-best team at killing penalties (87.8%), while the Flyers were a pedestrian 17th (81.8%). This series will have a lot of whistles. If the Penguins can bait the Flyers into a few more—and a team with Dan Bylsma’s discipline (or if you’re a meathead inclined to believe Laviolette or Tortorella, Crosby’s and Malkin’s “whining”) should be able to do just that—you won’t be able to hear any whining over the roars/booos as the Penguins score on the power play.
This will be a competitive, hard-checking, slobberknocker of a series. But the Penguins will win in six, when Crosby shoves a hat-trick down the throats of everyone chanting “Crosby Sucks.” Because if you’re ignorant enough to throw batteries at Santa Claus, you’ll say anything, no matter how stupid it is.
(#1) New York Rangers vs. (#8) Ottawa Senators
This series will be decided in goal, before it’s decided anywhere else. The Rangers have MVP and Vezina candidate Henrik Lundqvist. Ottawa has Craig Anderson, or, if he fails, Alex Auld or Ben Bishop. Anderson and Auld could just as easily be one of the two white-guy jobber tag-teams who lost to Demolition or the Road Warriors on WWF’s Saturday Morning show when you were a kid. Goaltending matters a lot in the playoffs, which is why it doesn’t matter if the Senators took the season series 3-1.
The Rangers also have a great mix of talent and role-players with NHL playoff experience. Ruslan Fedostinko netted eight goals for the Penguins in 2009. No top line wants to look up and see Michael Rupp on the opposing checking line. Brad Richards is a great veteran leader who knows what it’s like to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup. And of course, Marian Gaborik is a threat to score every time he’s on the ice…and he has the skill of escaping a defender for just long enough to get open in prime shooting range.
So how can the Senators win? Two words: Power Play. The Senators have one of the best power play quarterbacks in the league in Sergei Gonchar. Jason Spezza is a fantastic playmaker, and Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek are excellent finishers. While Ottawa is an above average team five-on-five, they aren’t as good as the Rangers. Unless Ottawa can draw more penalties—and then convert on the power play—and get some fortunate bounces and unexpectedly great goaltending from whatever jabroni they put in net, there will be one less Canadian team around to win the Cup. New York in 5.
(#2) Boston Bruins vs. (#7) Washington Capitals
In the only upset of the first round (no—New Jersey over Florida doesn’t count, since Jersey had a lot more points), the defending Stanley Cup champs will be going home early. After suffering embarrassing first-round defeats, it’s time for the Capitals to give one back.
The Washington power-play underperformed this season (16.2%) as did most of its superstars. Alex Ovechkin never was in the conversation for any NHL award—and someone with his talent should be. Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Greene, Mike Knuble, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich all underperformed. But the Capitals scratched and clawed their way into the playoffs, and they have no pressure on them. Lots of skill, no pressure, and solid veteran goaltending in Tomas Vokun give the Capitals the best chance of pulling off a first-round “upset.”
So how can Boston win this series? By being the team they were during the regular season. Boston was the third-best team five-on-five with a 1.32 goals for to against ratio. But that begs a question – how could a team that good five-on-five not win the President’s Cup? The answer: mediocre special teams and inconsistent scoring. Tim Thomas posted solid, but not the Vezina-like numbers from a year ago. The Bruins had six 20-goal scorers, but none with more than 30. Without a go-to-scorer and a disadvantage in the special-teams battle, Boston will find itself looking at deficits on the scoreboard one game too many. Which is too bad, because Boston was unbeaten this season when leading after two.
Boston’s Cup run last season was also deceptively weak. They barely clawed by a Tampa Bay team that has regressed significantly this year (and that needed 7 games to claw past a depleted Pittsburgh team in last season’s playoffs). The Bruins needed 7 games to beat a soft and fragile Vancouver team. The Bruins didn’t get better in the off-season. All signs point to a loss in Washington in Game 6 to end the series.
(#3) Florida Panthers (seriously?) vs. (#6) New Jersey Devilzzzzzzzzz
Somewhere Gary Bettman is thanking Zombie Jesus that this ratings nightmare can be relegated to regional TV and NHL Center Ice in the first round. Seriously, will more than 50 people watch any of these games? I don’t know much about these two teams, except that Florida is the most undeserving #3 seed in the era of the Bettman Point, and New Jersey is the same stingy Devils they always have been.
New Jersey didn’t take penalties in the regular season when refs are inclined to call them. Florida will be lucky to get two power-play chances a game. Florida is a negative team 5-on-5 (0.88 goals for every one scored against). New Jersey is slightly less shitty 5-on-5 (0.93). Florida will take penalties, and Ilya Kovalchuck will score a few power play goals in the series. Zach Parise will make the case that he should get paid in the offseason, and the Devils will win three more 2-1 or 3-1 games than Florida will and take the series in 5 of the least memorable NHL games ever.