As the hour draws closer and the puckheads continue to salivate over the tease that is the hockey preseason it is time to supplement the appetizers before the hockey fest begins.
Eastern Conference Preview:
I’ll start by predicting who I think will make it to the playoffs (in no particular order) then we’ll look at least briefly at where each team stands. So here are the top eight teams in no particular order:
Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers (Carolina Hurricanes?), New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, and the Washington Capitals.
The Pittsburgh Penguins should probably be the favorites going into the season because their team is a lot the same and they are the champs until someone else wins the title. They did lose Rob Scuderi but overall you have to like their chances to defend their conference title.
The New York Rangers lost Scott Gomez but have added Marian Gaborik who—if he can stay healthy—will add scoring power to a pretty solid but not spectacular line-up. The nice thing about the Rangers is that even if they do not score a ton of goals Henrik Lundqvist will keep them in most games, will steal a few, and will overall give them a chance to win most every contest they are involved in. Having a chance to win every game is not actually winning them however and that’s where Gaborik is going to be important for them. If Gaborik stays healthy he scores enough goals to get them enough points to get them into the playoffs. In the event that Gaborik does get hurt that will leave New York on the outside looking in and will open the door for the Carolina Hurricanes to sneak into a playoff spot. Carolina too is a solid team but Cam Ward cannot do it alone and they will not be able to rely on Jussi Jokkinen to play all year the way he did in the playoffs. But if any team should fall off at all (i.e. the Rangers) that opens the door for the Canes. Either way, neither team will be a serious Stanley Cup contender.
The New Jersey Devils are channeling their inner 1995 by bringing Jacques Lemaire back to captain the ship. Nothing has changed for the Devils since 1995 and as a result they can continue like a well-oiled machine with their new, old, coach. New Jersey is very much a system team so with Martin Brodeur playing behind that system you have to pencil them into the playoffs and as championship contenders. Some players have changed since last season’s first round exit to Carolina but it matters not as the methodical Devils will be back in the playoffs again.
In each of the last two years the Philadelphia Flyers have put very good teams on the ice but have run into a freight train headed to the finals in the form of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Flyers got tougher by adding veteran Chris Pronger but their folly has arguably been in goal and that is an issue that still has yet to be worked out. Philadelphia went across the pond to lure Ray Emery back to North America so the verdict is still out on whether the goaltending problem is fixed (one might argue that Emery’s attitude will cause more problems than it will solve). Bottom line, the Flyers talent will get them to the playoffs and at that point all they’ll need is solid (not spectacular) net play to put themselves in a position to win the Stanley Cup.
Boston’s future is bright because their talent level is a lot the same as last year. Phil Kessel was traded for some draft picks which speaks to how confident Boston is with their team from top to bottom. They still have Chara manning the blueline and they can score at the drop of a hat. There were a lot of questions about Tim Thomas last year and he’ll have to answer those same questions again this year. If Thomas is able to play consistently well the Bruins will learn from their experience last year and should be considered favorites to at least reach the east finals.
The key for the Buffalo Sabres is to stay healthy. Last season Buffalo was a clear playoff team until injuries struck them like a wrecking ball and their playoff hopes came crashing down. So if the Sabres’ stars stay healthy they will be a force, if they do not then Buffalo is not a force… it’s that simple.
The Washington Capitals can score like none other. In the offensive zone 5-on-5 and on the power play they are just about unstoppable. The Caps are greatly lacking defensively but certainly score enough to make up for that over the course of a long season. The biggest downfall of Washington last year was in net and that is their greatest unknown once again. Semyon Varlamov was certainly much better than anyone could have expected in the playoffs last season but is he the answer long term? There is no doubt that Varlamov has talent but he is still young and with being young come growing pains that every player experiences. If Varlamov grows quickly then there’s reason to believe the Caps can win it all, but if he doesn’t then it the fans in DC will be “rocking the red” to the second round of the playoffs and no further.
The Montreal Canadiens did three very good things in the offseason: let Kovalev go, picked up Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, and got rid of Kovalev (did I mention that already). Alexi Kovalev is a very talented player but he was too inconsistent and caused too much drama in a place that creates enough drama on its own. Gionta and Gomez provide stability as leaders on the ice and can put points on the scoreboard. Both players spent time in New Jersey so each know how to play a role to perfection. As long as Carey Price can keep his confidence up and the fans give this team a chance they can be very dangerous.
As for the rest of the conference there is very little to talk about. The New York Islanders are clearly rebuilding so the best anyone can hope from them is that John Tavares and company just improve from game to game. In my estimation the Islanders have far more problems off the ice (on the business end) than they do on it. The isles know they are rebuilding and are taking steps toward becoming a good team in time. This is in contrast to the Lightning, Thrashers, Senators, Maple Leafs, and Panthers.
Tampa has a lot of talent but did nothing with is last year and do not have a goaltender that can take them anywhere. Atlanta is just plain bad and probably will not improve very much in all likelihood. Ottawa keeps changing coaches, do not gel as a team, have lost one of their best players in Dany Heatley, and decided that adding Kovalev was the best way to stabilize/improve their team (very dumb). Toronto cannot decide whether they want to try to win now or build for the future. Last year they had enough talent to stay at the top of the non playoff teams for most of the year and this year they are in about the same spot. Lastly are the Florida Panthers who do not have a whole lot of talent (after having lost bouwmeester ) do not get much fan support which makes for a very bad situation.
So that’s the east in a nutshell (believe it or not). Tune in next time for the west preview as well as my Stanley Cup Finals pick and winner.
Round two of the playoffs has been the best round of the post-season by far to this point and the excitement continues to build. Let’s take a brief look at each series up to this point.
3. Washington Capitals VS 4. Pittsburgh Penguins
This has been the keynote series since the second round draw came out and it has not disappointed. Four of the five games have been decided by one goal and two were decided in overtime. The big stars Ovechkin and Crosby have stepped up to the plate and have excelled in the spotlight as all of North America looks on. There has also been plenty of drama to boot with both sides making complaints about the officiating at one point or another and Ovechkin hitting Sergei Gonchar knee-on-knee which has created plenty of controversy across the airwaves. The series has been the perfect showcase for the NHL as hardcore and casual fans alike tune in and are NOT disappointed. As of the writing of this article the Penguins have taken a 3-2 series lead after dropping the first to in Washington. Pittsburgh finally got some secondary scoring in game five and it proved to be the difference between the two teams as the big stars continue to cancel each other out. Penguin fans would love for this series to finish in six, but for the rest of the world how could this series culminate any better than if it comes down to game seven on Wednesday at Verizon Center?
1. Boston Bruins VS 6. Carolina Hurricanes
For many this has been the shocker of the three Conference Semi-finals as the high-powered Bruins were seemingly going to steam roll the Hurricanes right into the Conference finals. However, since the end of game one it has been all Carolina. Cam Ward, Eric Staal and Jussi Jokinen have been unbelievable leading the Canes to an unlikely 3-1 series lead. The difference in the series comes down to Carolina’s best players performing at the highest level while the Bruins have not been able to rely on their studs as much as they have all year. Zdano Chara in particular has not been the same since game one where he shut down Eric Staal. For the Bruins to get back into the series they have to better utilize their size to create offense and continue to put pressure on Cam Ward. Boston cannot win by simply getting frustrated when Ward plays well and by trying to fall back into their defensive style when they’re only up by one or when the game is tied, playing not to lose rather than to win. There is a lot of speed on the Canes and the Bruins need to neutralize that speed with some pace of their own. But don’t think this is a fluke because the Canes have plenty of talent and have been to the promised land before winning the Cup in 2006.
2. Detroit Red Wings VS 8. Anaheim Ducks
Jonas Hiller had been playing extremely well until Thursday night when he was pulled for veteran netminder J.S. Giguere. Overall the Ducks have played incredibly well making use of their size and skill to stick with the same attributes as Detroit. Much has been written about this series on sportsroids in recent days which you can see by clicking HERE. The only difference at this point is that whoever plays in net for Anaheim has to be almost flawless while the rest of the Ducks do what they’ve been doing all along. Detroit will probably end up winning this series but the Ducks have show a ton of grit which has made for a very entertaining and suspenseful series.
3. Vancouver Canucks VS 4. Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks have shown that they are not simply content with making it to the second round of the playoffs and that they feel they have a chance to go much further with their team’s make-up. With the stars that Chicago has there’s no reason to believe that they can’t get into the Conference Finals and maybe beyond that. The Canucks on the other hand have needed to rely way too much on Roberto Luongo to win games for them and they are playing on barrowed time if they keep that up. As this article is being written the Canucks have a 2-1 lead in the second period after finally getting a goal from Mats Sundin. Guys like Sundin, Kesler, the Sedin twins and Burrows have to play at the highest level possible every minute of every game in order for the Canucks to get beyond just round two. Luongo alone can only carry them but so far. Regardless of the outcome however the series has been quite entertaining (much like the other three) and perhaps they will treat us to a game seven which every fan loves.