Sixteen teams looking for sixteen wins to get the toughest trophy in team sports. Starting in the East:
OTTAWA vs TAMPA BAY
Two years ago, if you were asked which of these teams was trying to repeat as champion, who would you have said?
Offense: Ottawa is simply awesome. Heatley finished with 50 goals (a team record), Spezza ended up second in the league in assists, Alfredsson got 103 points, and they have seven other players with 15 or more goals. That’s what happerns when you lead the league in scoring. Tampa’s had an up and down year, and actually ended up -8 in goal differential. Still, there are three thirty goal scorers and five more with 15+. Offence from the back is a strength with both of these teams, though several of Chara’s have been tip ins in front of the net on the power play. The guy’s six-nine; where would you put him? Add in Havlat coming back from injury, and Ottawa’s got it here.
Defense: Ottawa has arguably the best defensive corps in the league, with great size, loads of scoring, and a team +/- of +358. Tampa has a fine #1 in Dan Boyle, but he’d be strictly a second pairing in Ottawa.
Goaltending: Both Grahame and Burke can go on hot streaks and can steal games, with seven shutouts between them. Hasek, however, is a top-three goalie, and if he can’t play, Emery has a very respectable .902 save percentage. Ottawa wins again.
Injuries: Tampa sat Kubina and Prospal for their last game, but they’ll start the playoffs. For Ottawa, it’s the only one that matters: Hasek. No one knows if he’s healthy or not. Call it even.
Special Teams: Ottawa has a 20.8% power play, 84.7% penalty kill; Tampa has a 16.8% power play, 81.7% penalty kill. Big edge to Ottawa, especially when you add in an amazing 25 short handed goals!
Anything Else: Tampa’s built for offense, but Ottawa can play any game you like. Watch for Havlat.
Verdict: Tampa Bay may get hot, but unless they do they’re just a flash in the pan.
CAROLINA vs MONTREAL
Neither of these teams was supposed to be here, with a lot of people predicting Carolina to be at or near the bottom of the league.
Offense: Is a sophomore supposed to improve by 70 points in one year? Eric Staal did, and he’s got substantial back up with Williams, Stillman, Cole, Whitney, and the possibly the best defensive forward in the game in Brind’Amour (who should have been in the Olympics, damnit! Not that I’m bitter…). Kaberle is the only defenseman that contributes offensively, though. Montreal isn’t going to match up goal-for-goal, but they’ve got an interested Kovalev, a healthy Koivu, energetic Riberio and Ryder, and a surprising Higgins. But the team revolves around defenseman Markov. Point(s) to Carolina.
Defense: It’s easiest to defend when the other team never touches the puck, Carolina has discovered. It’s defense by committee here, and it works well enough to win games. Markov is the Canadiens’ bread and butter; Souray and Rivet can get their points, but Markov can control the play. Montreal just edges out Carolina, but it’s close.
Goaltending: Gerber can shut down games in the third period, relying on stopping one more shot than his opponent can; Montreal has yet to decide who is going to lead the way in the playoffs, but money says Huet, who has picked up an amazing 7 shutouts in just 33 games! Curiously, the Habs have two francophone goalies, neither of which is actually from Quebec. Close again, but as I’m not that familiar with Huet, I’m going with experience. Carolina.
Injuries: Injuries? What injuries? No one’s ever injured for the playoffs…
Special Teams: Carolina went 17.9% on the Power Play with an 81.8% penalty kill. Montreal has a 19.2% power play and 81.1% penalty kill. A little deceptive, as Carolina’s speed gets them on the power play more often, but that won’t make as much of a difference in a best-of-seven series. Montreal.
Anything Else: Neither team finished very well, but Carolina’s last game cost them the Eastern title, while Montreal is just happy to be here.
Verdict: Carolina’s biggest risk is overconfidence, but they have a massive amount of experience to temper the excitement. Carolina takes the series.
NEW JERSEY vs MANHATTAN
The very surprising Rangers are actually being led by Jaromir Jagr, while the Devils waited sixty games before reverting to form with an 11 game win streak to close the season.
Offense: It’s a time of small men, I suppose. Last year, Tampa was led by 5’8” Martin St. Louis; this year, the Devils have 5’7” Brian Gionta bringing 48 goals into the playoffs. New Jersey doesn’t bring a lot of goals, but they did end the season averaging four per game. The Rangers figured out how to get Jagr going – bring in people who speak his language. No, not figuratively: there are seven Czechs on the team besides Jagr, and they bring more than half the team’s goals, led by Jagr’s 54. Manhattan.
Defense: Manhattan doesn’t get much help from the blue line (only one player with 30 points), but they seem to score just fine anyways. And, of course, Malik has that deadly breakaway move… Rafalski is the Devil’s most active defenseman on the attack, but, like the Rangers, the team lacks a shot from the point. What the Devils can do is defend. New Jersey.
Goaltending: Lundqvist is competing with Calgary Defenseman Dion Phaneuf for third place in Calder voting this year, and he is the reigning Olympic Champion. But Brodeur has three rings and wants more. New Jersey… this year.
Injuries: Everyone’s back, everything’s fine. Really! Just ask them!
Special Teams: New Jersey was 17.7% on the power play, and 81.9% on the kill. Manhattan matches up with 18.8% on the power play and a 83.7% penalty kill. Coordination makes Manhattan better.
Anything Else: Elias missed more than half the season with a debilitating illness, and ended up fifth in Devil’s scoring. The Rangers slept their way into the playoffs, losing their last five games.
Verdict: I never bet against Brodeur in the playoffs.
BUFFALO vs PHILADELPHIA
Like Carolina, Buffalo wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the playoffs. Instead, they have a franchise best 52 win season.
Offense: Buffalo, being unable to afford big-name stars, has long been built on speed and team play. This suits the new NHL just fine, thank you very much! Forsberg, Philadelphia’s second leading scorer, finished 40th in the league: no one on Buffalo even managed that. They do, however, have 10 forwards with 16 or more goals, using a constant wave of attackers that can break teams trying to match lines. The Flyers use a more traditional “two scoring lines, checking line and *ahem* ‘energy’ line” approach, but that first line is a combined +77, and 100 goals. People have tried stopping Forsberg since he was in Pee Wee – no one’s managed it yet. Edge to Philly.
Defense: The Sabres will be leaning heavily on a young Campbell for points in the playoffs. I was a little disappointed to see the perpetually underrated Numminen got two goals to go with his 38 assists, but I have this thing for odd statistics… The Flyers are led by the very fast and skilled Pitkanen’s 13 goals and 46 points, but the rest of the defense, while big, is still awfully slow and may end up taking a slew of penalties against Buffalo’s “water bug” forwards. If they can avoid the obstruction fouls, Philadelphia has the size; Buffalo doesn’t.
Goaltending: Esche is getting the start for Philly, who are opting to go with experience between their two very closely matched net minders. Buffalo is starting their phenom Miller, who Team USA fans will recognize as “that goalie they wish they brought to the Olympics”. He’ll be there in 2010, and with good reason. Buffalo wins here.
Injuries: Philly is missing some big names: their captain (Primeau), their best defenseman (Johnsson), and one of their twin towers of defense (6’5” Therien). Buffalo admits to nothing.
Special Teams: Buffalo has a 21.2% power play success and 86.6% on the kill with 10 short handed goals, while the Flyers are at 18% power play and 79.1% penalty killing, but with 19 short handed markers. Edge to the everyone-does-everything Sabres.
Anything Else: This is going to be a coaching duel. How Hitchcock counters the constant press of Sabres will be as vital as what Ruff tries against the Forsberg/Gagne/Knuble line. Tie, until the games start.
Verdict: These two teams are polar opposites. They each have a game breaker, a playoff warhorse, and exciting rookies, and I think it’s all going to come down to the coaching. I expect a short series, but I can’t tell you which direction. On a coin flip, I’ll say the Flyers.
Hoo! That was tougher than I thought! Into the West tomorrow.