Same Year, Second Season
A quick run-down, East today, West tomorrow:
Buffalo vs. Long Island
In Goal: Ryan Miller (arguably the best goalie the U.S. has ever produced) or Wade Dubi... Dub... Dubble... You know, I'm gonna go with Buffalo on this one.
Up Front: The Sabres have scoring coming from everywhere, with four players having more than 30 goals. They love rolling four lines, and their speed is deadly. The Islanders made a fantastic pick-up in Ryan Smyth, instantly adding to their credibility. Under coach Nolan, this is a grinding bunch, who want to forecheck opposing defences into the ice. Miller can expect a lot of traffic.
On the Blue Line: Buffalo has a simple plan for their defense - get the puck, pass it to a forward. They do get their points, but they're almost entirely assists. The Islanders added Marc-Andre Bergeron when they got Smyth, and he's put up 21 points in those 23 games, adding a point shot that was sorely lacking. Not known for his defense, he's also a surprising +5. There aren't a lot of goals from the rest of the squad; though there is a lot of intimidation.
Special Teams: Neither team is great, but the Islanders have better results in power play and penalty kill (12th and 12th) than the Sabres (17th and 20th).
Other stuff: Two of the leagues best face-off men will be dueling this series. Buffalo's Drury and the Islander's Sillinger are tied with a 58.8 win percentage.
Buffalo wins if: They keep their feet moving and their lines churning over. Oh, and if they can avoid the corporal punishment that Long Island's defence loves to dish out.
Long Island wins if: Their defense can catch Buffalo's speedy forwards. This team can crash and bang with the best of them (D-men Hill and Witt and forward Trent Hunter have over 230 hits each this season), something the Sabres may not be able to handle for a long series.
Prediction: Buffalo Sabres.
New Jersey vs. Tampa Bay
In Goal: Another apparent mismatch, with the three-time cup winning veteran Martin Brodeur up against (probably) Johan Holmqvist, who has 52 NHL games to his credit. But his can be deceiving, as the Lightning tend to abandon their end of the ice in search of goals, and the Devils adhere to a strict defense-first policy. That being said, there is a reason New Jersey's goalie has Olympic and World Cup championships on his resume.
Up Front: Very disappointing seasons from Gomez and Gionta have peen partially countered by the emergence of Parise, but the Devils are looking for more from their money men. On the other side, Lecavalier was the league's leading scorer, and St. Louis' rebound from an off-season offset a slight drop in performance by Richards and Prospal. Tampa is relying on individual brilliance for goals, and they'll probably get it.
On the Blue Line: New Jersey has very little coming from the point. Their most dangerous threat is Brian Rafalski, and he doesn't make opposing goalies tremble. Dan Boyle, on the other hand, has one of the big shots in the league and isn't afraid to use it (over 200 times this season). Kuba is also a scorer, and that mixes up the Lightning's game enough to stretch opposing teams' defensive coverage.
Special Teams: Exactly what you'd expect:Tampa Bay is better on power plays (9th) than penalty killing (28th), and New Jersey leans the opposite way (16th and 4th). Lecavalier and St. Louis are leaned on heavily for their team, and for good reason: they each have 5 short handed goals.
Other Stuff: A portrait of opposites, this will put to the test the age-old sporting maxim "defense wins championships".
New Jersey wins if: Need I say it? Lecavalier stays boxed in by team defense. Oh, and if they remember to score the one or two goals Brodeur needs to win games.
Tampa Bay wins if: They can break through Brodeur and get scoring from anyone other than Lecavalier.
Prediction: New Jersey
Atlanta vs. Manhattan
In Goal: A Finn against a Swede, eh? Not the first time that's happened. In an case, Lehtonen has had a healthy year and shown his abilities in a fine second season. Lundqvist has been better, but this isn't a series that will come down to the goalies.
Up Front: The Thrashers boast two of the most exciting players in the league in Hossa and Kovalchuk, the dangerous Tkachuk, a great shut-down centre in Holik, and... Well, Kozlov can contribute too, but the rest are worker drones, though Belanger has taken to the change of scenery quite well and could surprise. The Rangers are simply deeper here: Jagr actually stepped into a leadership role last season, and that's carried through to this one, though having Shanahan as your wingman has got to help! Avery, much as I hate the player, is an effective agitator who can add some goals to the penalties he draws.
On the Blue Line: The Thrashers defense are all about clearing the front of the crease. Zhitnik adds a bit of firepower to a pop-gun offense, and Havelid blocked 225 shots this season, but the story here is the shovels the rest of the guys bring. The Rangers defense is deceptive: the first word that comes to mind is "plodding", but Rozeval has picked up a perfectly decent 40 points, and Malik is startlingly efficient at clearing the puck from his zone. Looking again, "solid" may be a better choice.
Special Teams: Atlanta hurts here, big time. They ended the season 23rd at the power play and 26th penalty killing, while Manhattan had the 8th best power play and 12th highest penalty kill.
Other Stuff: Atlanta's Andy Sutton may have to double as an enforcer this series: the Rangers
have three players with well over 100 minutes in penalties, the Thrashers have none with 90.
Atlanta wins if: Lehtonen plays an inspired series, and the Rangers get into penalty trouble.
Manhattan wins if: They keep their cool and play a controlled game.
Ottawa vs. Pittsburgh
In Goal: For the Senators, it's "The Enforcer" Ray Emery (30 minutes in penalties); for the Penguins it's Marc-Andre "The Future" Fleury. This match is a toss-up, with Emery having slightly better numbers more playoff experience, but also on a team notorious for crashing out in the playoffs, while Fleury comes in with a clean slate.
Up Front: Ottawa has arguably the most dangerous group of forwards in the league, right from 50-goal man Heatley to tough guy Neil who has 12 goals of his own. Pittsburgh is one of the teams that will argue, however: they may not have a 50-goal man, or even a 40-goal scorer, but they do have 12 players with 12 or more. They've got veterans who have been there, too, with Recchi (twice) and Roberts holding Stanley Cup rings, a feat only matched by Senators back-up goalie Martin Gerber.
On the Blue Line: It took a while for newcomers Preissing and Corvo to catch on, much like the rest of Ottawa at the start of the year, but the Senators defense no longer looks like it really, really wishes Chara was back; this is a deep, rock-solid bunch. Veteran Gonchar and sophmore Whitney have been a deadly 1-2 punch for Pittsburgh all year, making for a mean power play.
Special Teams: Ottawa was surprisingly indifferent at this, ranking 14th in the power play and 9th on the penalty kill, but with 17 short handed goals from all through the line-up. Pittsburgh, less surprisingly, ended the season 5th in power play percentage and 17th at the kill. And you can't mention special teams without the Penguins 14 short handed markers, a league leading 7 from rookie Jordan Staal.
Other Stuff: The first and second most accurate shooters this year are playing each other: Jordan Staal is first (22.1%) and Jason Spezza is second (21%).
Ottawa wins if: They focus on playing a complete game. They can out gun pittsburgh with their depth, and Emery is a slightly better goalie, they just need to keep their confidence.
Pittsburgh wins if: They win the first game, or are split after four, and the fear of failure hits the Senators.
The West tomorrow. I know, it's kinda cheating since I won't get to it until the first games are played: so call Rick Tocchet, already.