April 24, 2008

Round Two: In The East

The battle continues! Pretty much the only thing all the pundits can agree upon is that the remaining four teams are going to have a rougher go of it than they did in the previous round.

Montreal vs. Philadelphia

Les Canadiens are once again facing a team they dominated during the regular series, going 4-0 against the Flyers: it seems likely that they have learned not to take that assumption with them into the playoffs, after Boston took them to the limit. And the Bruins were a team that would have been out of the playoffs had the regular season gone another two weeks...

Montreal has to use the biggest advantage they have, which corresponds nicely with Philadelphia's greatest weakness: speed. Montreal draws penalties by forcing opposing teams to try catching them, then runs the deadliest power play in the league to make them pay. They picked up 90 goals with the man advantage, more than a third of their total markers; the only reason their series against Boston went so long is the failure of what was their bread-and-butter play: they only managed 3 power play goals, looking like they were waiting for someone to score instead of working for the goal. That will have to change. They could be called the "sharks of the East" because if the Habs stop skating, they're dead in the water...

The Flyers surprised me in getting past Washington, and they'll surprise me again if they get any further these playoffs. The Capitals took advantage of their high-speed, high-impact game to tie a lumbering Philadelphia defense in knots, though Briere's wicked counterstrike ability did much the same to the Caps, resulting in 6 goals and 11 points for the quick center. The signing of Briere took a while to bear fruit, but the fans should be well pleased with him now. That new speed, combined with the newly acquired Prospal, is going to give the Canadiens second thoughts about when to bring their defense on the attack.

Which could be enough to make the Habs second-guess themselves. Their defense has acted as an effective second line this season, forcing opponents to spread themselves thinner while killing penalties or risk leaving forwards to play a cycle down low. The classic play against Montreal in recent years has been to hit their small forwards until they didn't want the puck any more; but with the emergence of Streit adding yet another weapon to an already dangerous blue line, that play no longer pays the dividends it once did. Four of their 19 goals came from the D, and that was enough to make the difference against Boston.

The Flyers defense has been less effective, netting only a single goal in their seven games against Washington, and are less involved in the attack over all. But Montreal doesn't attack the way Washington does, playing for puck control rather than turnovers - "Keep Away" rather than Take Away". This bodes well for the Flyers defense, who want to add another dimension to their attack: the only consistent play they had was "get it to a forward who gets a breakaway", and the more lively Hab defenders won't be as vulnerable to the stretch pass. Timonen is going to get another chance to prove himself, and he's being counted on to do just that.

But to do that, he'll have to get the puck past Carey Price, and anyone who gets tagged for five goals against twice and still has a series save percentage of .925 is someone to beware. He recovered beautifully after being unable to close out a 3-1 game advantage in two chances to shut out the Bruins in game seven, a magic number for all the great players: if you can't win game seven, your career will be a short one. Here Price has an advantage over Biron, with World Junior and AHL victories on his resume, both happening last year. Price understands the stakes he's playing for, and it doesn't faze him in the least.

Biron is playing for himself as much as for his team. This is his first playoff experience in the NHL, and like all goaltenders, the question mark will hang over his career until he proves himself in the second season. So far, he's acquitted himself well, stealing two wins (in game four and the all-important game seven). On the other hand, he was strictly average in the other five games of the series; so which Biron appears, and how much support he receives from team mates, will be pivotal.

Prediction: Montreal has learned it's lesson, and will play hard enough to win the series.

Pittsburgh vs Manhattan

Any time Petr Sykora is your leading playoff scorer, something has either gone horribly wrong or wonderfully right. In Pittsburgh's case, the fact that Sykora has three goals in their truncated series against Ottawa speaks volumes: while Crosby and Malkin were leading in points, goals came from all up and down the line-up with only three players who played all four games registering zero points for their efforts. War horse Roberts is clearly involved, stopping any of the stars on his team from having to retaliate against the agitators who target them by instigating himself (16 minutes in penalties), though his 42 year old body may not be able to take a long series. They simply destroyed whatever resistance the disheartened Senators could manage, picking up an average of 11 points per game while giving up a mere 5 goals against what was an otherwise potent offense. The Penguins like to control the puck, supporting each other in passing lanes and evading turnover situations until the opportunity to strike emerges.

The Rangers are not a high scoring team, despite the presence of one of the biggest offensive weapons in recent years. It's true Jagr is not the player he once was, but it would be foolish to ignore his presence. Part of the reason is the coach: Renney has long believed that defense wins championships, and the team has had enough success that they have decided to buy in to his scheme. The offensive strength of this team is that goals, though limited in number, can come from anywhere: Jagr has found his favorite center in rookie Brandon Dubinsky, freeing Gomez and Drury to create offense on their own lines, making for a line-matching coach's nightmare.

What Manhattan doesn't have is much punch from the defense, whose primary job is to push the puck to the forwards then stop the opposition from getting a breakaway. So long as the forwards come back in support, providing a target for the first pass, it works just fine. But don't expect a lot of points coming from the blue line. This plan also works well against a dump-and-chase team like the first-round opponent Devils; the Penguins, however, prefer to carry the puck at all times, and they can do it at speed.

In contrast, Pittsburgh has one of the highest-scoring defensemen over the past decade in Gonchar anchoring their line, and he has no fear of carrying the puck himself: the last time he had fewer than 54 points was in the 1998-99 season when he only played 53 games - and got 21 goals anyways. His shot is hard, though not exceptionally so, and it is accurate. This is less important than it would be on most teams, as the Penguin forwards know how to take advantage of any puck left lying in front of a net.

Acquiring 6' 8" Gill has made life far easier for Fleury, as well, whose incredible end to the season (1.50 goals against and .945 save percentage for March and April) has happened with Gill in the line up. Those numbers continued through the first round, with Fleury stopping 107 of 112 shots sent his way. He's received a lot of criticism for his play over the past two seasons, and has had people wondering if he was actually the saviour the was signed on to be. This was especially true with the brilliant play of Conklin, signed on when Fleury was injured and providing serious competition for the starter's role: it may have been enough to light a fire under the nominal starter, and Pittsburgh is finally seeing the full potential of the 2003 first overall draft pick.

For the Rangers, Lundqvist is a known commodity at this point. It seems strange to say that about a third-year player, but he's been the starter for Manhattan for all three of those years, and the team has changed their playing style to match what is now their most important player. After getting pummeled by New Jersey in 2006 - his first in the playoffs - he came back to star in 2007 and is proving just as strong this time out, though against a far weaker Devils team. The Rangers have also learned from the past, changing their dynamic from free-wheeling to defensively disciplined, and Lundqvist's numbers reflect that.

The question being, how much will that help against a Penguins team with more weapons than the Rangers defense will be able to stop?

The Penguins are going to the East Finals, and the Rangers are going home.


posted by Thursday at 2:35 pm


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