Season Series: Tied 2-1-1
In most years, to win the Stanley Cup, you must defeat the defending champion (Penguins), but that’s not the case this year. Yeah, their in the playoffs, and they could contend for the Cup but Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals have shown the rest of the league this year, if you want to win the Stanley Cup, you’ve got to travel through the capital of America. Speaking of Ovechkin, he scored his 50th in the last game of the season to record 50 goals in four of his five NHL seasons thus far. Of course he leads the team but one man can’t do it all and the rest of the Capitals have been built around the most interesting player to watch in the NHL. Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green show up the the rink every night and give Washington the ability to put up 5 or 6 goals when Ovechkin is thrown in the mix. Between Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov, whichever goalie is playing better hockey come playoff time with ultimately get the nod but in the playoffs, goaltending is of the utmost importance and having two goalies who you can pick between can be extremely valuable. The Caps are quite healthy and recently got Milan Jurcina back from a sports hernia. The Capitals do have solid defence to help out in their own end but Washington relies solely on their ability to score and it scores on the stat-sheet. They are the only team in the NHL to top 300 goals (they finished the season with 318 goals) while the closest other teams both come from the West with Chigaco having 271 and Vancouver with 272. The Montreal Canadiens are simply no match for the Capitals and the Eastern Conference is not nearly as competitive as the Western Conference is. Ride the Caps through round one, and hope all plays out so at some point we get to see the Ovechkin-Crosby show.
The Montreal Canadiens or Canadiens de Montreal depending on where you are from, made a lot of changes in the off-season. They got rid of GM Bob Gainey, they parted ways with their most well known name in recent years Alexei Kovalev (who will miss the playoffs with the Sens) and picked up stars such as Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta from New Jersey as well as Michael Cammalleri from the Flames, while keeping young stars like Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn. It’s honestly hard to say if the Habs have improved or not from the off-season moves, in one sense they once again made the playoffs but didn’t improve on their 93 points they had last year (this year they finished with 89). They also downsized a lot and even though the ‘new NHL’ is a fast paced game that involves speed and skill and we’re seeing the ‘enforcer’ type player slowly becoming extinct, the Habs don’t have any players are skilled and big (i.e. Joe Thornton). Only six of their fifteen forwards are taller than six feet… just something to consider. Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price have been good but Montreal fans will have to wait a few more years for their coming-out party. With their speed, the Canadiens put together some decent winning streaks over the season (two of four games, one of six games), but at the same time had just as many, if not more losing streaks and they came primarily before Montreal went on their big winning streaks. Some may not find that concerning as it would seem the Habs come back from disappointment swinging like animal, but unfortunately it’s do or die in the playoffs and if you put together two or three losses in a row… the only swinging the Habs will be doing is with their 9-iron’s on the golf course.
TheCoach’s Pick: CAPITALS in FIVE
Season Series: Flyers 5-1-0
Having one of the most reliable goalies in the history of the NHL plays a huge factor not only in the ability in beating the other team but also it tends to lift up the confidence of the team playing in front of them. For years the New Jersey Devils have relied on Martin Brodeur to do what his does best – be a stonewall in the net and this year is no different. It allows teams to take chances which teams that don’t have a great goaltender can’t. With they being said, they obviously can’t be lazy and make mistakes but when have the New Jersey Devils ever been know as that kind of team. They may not be flashy, and they may not be more most interesting team to watch on television (see Indianapolis Colts) but no one can deny that year after year they have a solid hockey club that can contend for the Cup. In the last sixteen seasons (since the Wales Conference because the East), the Devils have been in the playoffs all but two years and have seen the Eastern Conference finals fives times and the stanley Cup finals four times (winning three of them – 1994-95′, 1999-00′, and 2002-03′). With that much experience, a solid core of players in Parise, Zajac, Langenbrunner, Elias, and most recently the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk to boast the offence… I expect the Devils to go quite far and possible even face off against Washington in the conference finals. The only thing to be of concern is the Devils started off the season much hotter than they finished it and if they want to contend for the conference championship, they need to find what they were doing early in the season, and do it again.
The Philadelphia Flyers just squeaked into the playoffs with a win in the final game over the New York Rangers to get the #7 seed in the East and play against New Jersey. Without a doubt, the season-ending playoff-clinching victory will give the Flyers a boost but honestly, they have their hands full when the face off against the the Devils. The Flyers have relied all season long on the play Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere and newest addition and big-man on the blue-line Chris Pronger. Richards and Carter lead the way with 60+ points each while Pronger and Briere and in the mid-50′s but they are facing an extremely tough and skilled New Jersey Devils squad. Trying to put up those point averages when you are playing against Brodeur is hard enough but to have to do it for a possible seven-game seasons (especially after the Flyers greuling run to make the playoffs)… I don’t think Philadelphia stands much of a chance. One thing I will say is I am EXTREMELY happy that Philadelphia won over the Rangers because the last thing I wanted to see was Avery blanketing and pissing off Ovechkin… someone should punch Avery really, really hard in the face. Anyways, there is not much more to say about the Flyers. They did bring in Pronger to help out their defence and paired him up with Matt Carle and gave a decent second pairing of Kimmo Timonen and Lukas Krajicek. The problem lies in the Flyers goaltending, they also picked up Ray Emery and hoped he could get back to they way he once played helping the Senators go to the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately he got injured and Michael Leighton took over and well, the rest is history. The Devils will win, only because you can’t finish off the season having to play every game balls out and still be 100% for the playoffs. New Jersey is healthy other than Andrew Peters who is expected to be back and ready for the playoffs and I expect the Devils to coast through the Flyers.
TheCoach’s Pick: DEVILS in FIVE
Season Series: Boston 4-2-0
The Buffalo Sabres have the best goalie in the NHL with Ryan Miller between the pipes. He is a huge reason team USA beat Canada in round-robin play in the Olympics and also why the States were in the final (among other reasons). Miller is in the top three in the league for goals against average and save percentage. Some would say that Boston’s Tuukka Rask has played better this season than Miller but this isn’t the first year Miller has shown how great his is, while we’ve seen other keepers come and go through-out seasons. Other than Ryan Miller, the Sabres don’t have a huge name player like Washington, Pittsburgh or San Jose but they have a solid group of guys who play hard-nosed hockey, giving up their bodies up with hits, blocking shots and any things else their team calls on them for. No Sabre has over 25 goals or 65 points and Tim Connolly (battling lower body injury), Derek Roy and Jason Pominville lead the way (they have a combined for 195 points) but players like Thomas Vanek, Tyler Myers and Jochan Hecht (battling an upper body injury) help out to make the team a whole. Sometimes, it’s not about being the flashiest like Ovechkin or have the highest paid players but about working together as a team night-in-night-out, and out-working your opponent. Other than the Bruins and Devils, they have the lowest amount of goals scored against them in the Eastern Conference but have scored a lot more goals than both those teams. If all is clicking for the Buffalo with Miller between the pipes, the Sabres are going to be extremely hard to beat as they’ve shown all season long unlike teams like the Habs and Sens who have been hot and cold all season.
The Boston Bruins aren’t in the playoffs because of good offence. Nor are they in the playoffs because of good defence. The reason the Bruins barely squeaked into the playoffs is solely because of the play of their goalie Tuukka Rask. You know what, TheCoach is about to give a lesson to all minor hockey players. If you want to make it too the big leagues, watch the following video and do it yourself… it will make you a name and somebody will give you a chance. It worked for Tuukka…
All anger-management jokes aside, this dude has been throwing milk crates turning heads all season long with the best goals against average and save percentage in the entire league! The problem is, there is no one in front of him who can muster any offensive fire power to put Boston in a position to win big games. Patrice Bergeron is one talented-mofo and David Krejci is going to be a star in the league for years to come, but when a defensemen (Zdeno Chara) is your third leading point getter and your 4th is old enough to be Sidney Crosby’s father (Mark Recchi = 42 years old)… you are in trouble. Bergeron and Krejci are by far the most offensively skilled players on the Bruins roster but they have no one to play with. Hopefully their early 1st round pick (thanks to the Maple Leafs) will help but they’ll have to wait until 2010-11′ to see results from the draft. As for now, the Bruins aren’t going anywhere in the playoffs. When you just barely make the playoffs and have two teams from your division (Ottawa and Buffalo) ahead of you, you stand no chance… even if you’ve got the best goalie statistically in the league… Bruins fans heads will hurt more than Marc Savard’s.
** Previous pick was Sabres in SIX **
TheCoach’s Pick (updated): SABRES in SEVEN
Season Series: Tied 2-2
Most of the time to be the champs, you have to beat the champs and this is something that Ottawa Senators know. The Pittsburgh Penguins also know that the Washington Capitals are the team to beat this season as they have completely dominated the Eastern Conference. With that being said, if it weren’t for piss-poor goaltending throughout the season from Marc Andre-Fleury, the Penguins may have actually clinched their division and been playing a lower ranked team. In years past, the team has been lead by Crosby, but he has relied on his team-mates being more of a playmaker than a scorer. This year, he is the clear point leader on the team (20+ points ahead of Malkin) and has transformed himself into more of a scoring machine than anything (he finished off the season with 51 goals, and 109 points smashing his previous best of goals which was 39 in his rookie season). Also it put him ahead of Ovechkin and Stamos in goals and just behind Henrik Sedin in points. The critics can no longer bash Crosby for not putting the puck in the neat like his rival OV but if the Penguins want to repeat as champs, they can’t depend on the play of Sidney Crosby like they have all season. Malkin needs to get his ass in gear, Jordan Staal needs to step up to the plate as well as Gonchar and Guerin but it’s not just about the stars performing. Last year you saw that Max Talbot won the Stanley Cup in Game 7 for Pittsburgh with his two goals in the 2nd period. They’ll need more of that this year from the entire team to repeat. The good news is the Penguins are quite healthy as Chris Kunitz is the only recent player to be missing action (shoulder). Expect Crosby, Malkin and Staal to lead the way, but some other low-profile players will need to step up … and one not so low-profile player who needs to step up in the biggest of ways is Marc Andre-Fleury. It’s time to see if the defending champs still have the drive to win, or if they’re satisfied that they won last year (as too many teams fall victim too).
The Ottawa Senators started off extremely slow playing .500 hockey from September-December until they lost five straight from January 5th – January 12th then finished off the month with nine straight wins, and going 14-2 in the sixteen games prior to the Olympic Break. The break really hurt the Sens though as they returned to the ice in March and went 1-8 in their first nine games (before knocking off five six straight to get back into the playoff race and secure a playoff spot). The main concern for Ottawa is that they have been so inconsistent all season long that you really don’t know what to expec from them and if you pair them up against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they don’t stand that much of a chance in my mind. They have offensive talent coming out the wa-zoo with Alfredsson, Spezza, Fisher, Kovalev and even players like Milan Michalek, Chris Kelly and Filip Kuba contribute quite a bit. But Kovalev tore his ACL and is gonezo for the season and Kuba was injured late in the season and is rumoured to miss most of the playoffs. From the offensive aspect of the game, the Senators are a great team on paper, but when you move down the ice to the defence, not only are you moving back but also downhill. If you don’t believe me, after 80 regular season games, the Senators were the only squad to have clinched a playoff berth and have more goals scored against them, then they had had on their opponent. You can’t overly blame Chris Phillips, Erik Karlsson and the rest of the defence though because as you continue to move back, it just gets worse. The Senators starting goalie is Brian Elliott who has shown signs of greatness this season and is around middle of the pack as far as stats but at times, he’s also shown how mediocre he really is. With back-up Pascal Leclaire on the bench, you aren’t downgrading that much if you throw him in and that speaks volumes. One thing is certain, the Ottawa Senators are extremely weak in their own end and that is something you can’t have if you’re playing the Pittsburgh Penguins.
TheCoach’s Pick: PENGUINS in FIVE
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