Who Will Be the Beast of the East?

Who Will Be the Beast of the East?

Eastern Conference predictions

Round 1:

(1) Washington over (8) NY Rangers

(7) Buffalo over (2) Philadelphia

(3) Boston over (6) Montreal

(4) Pittsburgh over (5) Tampa Bay

Round 2:

(1) Washington over (7) Buffalo

(3) Boston over (4) Pittsburgh

Round 3:

(3) Boston over (1) Washington

Washington (1)      vs.    NY Rangers (8)

Last Cup Win: Washington (never), NY Rangers (1994)

Why the Capitals will win: They aren’t intimidated by the Rangers or their goaltender whom has been known to get in some of his opponents’ heads (see: New Jersey Devils). Washington is also one of the deepest teams in the league and they will wear their undermanned first round opponent down.

Why the Rangers will win: They spanked Washington twice this season (6-0, 7-0) and when they are on their game, the Blueshirts have all of the necessary components to go toe-to-toe with any team in the league; solid goaltending, timely scoring and team defense will lead New York to the upset win over the Caps.

Washington’s most important player: Tempted to say Alex Ovechkin, but it’s Mike Green; if he is healthy and has fresh legs he could bury the Rangers (a team that has taken a penalty or two) with his power play prowess.

New York’s most important player: The soul of the Rangers is Henrik Lundqvist, if he falters, they are cooked. He’s only won two playoff series in his career, but his league-leading 11 shutouts this season tell you that he is capable of shutting down any team in the NHL.

Washington’s biggest question mark: It has to be the goaltending, despite the fact that they won the East with three goaltenders — two of them rookies. Michal Neuvirth will get the nod to begin the series, and that’s probably the right call. He won back-to-back Calder Cups for the Hershey Bears and was victorious in 27 of his 48 starts with the Caps this season.

New York’s biggest question mark: Which version of Marian Gaborik will show up in this series? Will it be the same Gaborik that had only 48 points (22 goals) in 62 games this season or will he become the two-time 40-goal scorer that the Rangers are paying for?

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Washington (Jason Arnott, Mike Knuble), New York (Chris Drury, Ruslan Fedotenko)

PREDICTION: CAPITALS IN 6 — Gaborik and Lundqvist will show up and the Rangers will put up a fight, but Ovechkin will eliminate them with a hat trick in Game 6.

Philadelphia (2)     vs. Buffalo (7)

Last Cup Win: Philadelphia (1975), Buffalo (never)

Why the Flyers will win: Since the start of last season’s playoffs Philadelphia has probably been the best team in the NHL. With the talent on this roster they should walk all over the Sabres, but only if their power play finds itself. This season they ranked 19th in the NHL out of 30 teams, with a putrid 16.6%. Offensive juggernauts that were ranked ahead of them: Buffalo, Colorado, Atlanta, Minnesota and Ottawa.

Why the Sabres will win: They have Ryan Miller and the Flyers don’t; it’s as simple as that. He has won playoff series as the favorite and the underdog in his career, and Buffalo is the hottest team in the league heading into the playoffs. If Miller is at less than 100%, then the Sabres will be in trouble.

Philadelphia’s most important player: Chris Pronger’s presence alone will make a difference in the series, but only if he’s healthy enough to be there. His absence over the final weeks of the season is the reason the Flyers crashed and stumbled out of the East’s top spot.

Buffalo’s most important player: Aside from Miller, it’s Thomas Vanek who very quietly had a solid season — 73 points (32g-41a) in 80 games. If Drew Stafford can get into one of his hot streaks it will make a big difference in the series.

Philadelphia’s biggest question mark: As always since Ron Hextall left, it’s goaltending. Sergei Bobrovsky will start Game 1, but lurking behind him are somewhat proven veterans in Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher.

Buffalo’s biggest question mark: Can Tyler Myers and the Sabres’ defensive corps stop the flock of talented Flyers forwards is a good place to start; also how will smallish rookie Tyler Ennis (who had a real nice season) hold up in a seven-game series against the rugged Philadelphians?

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Philadelphia (Nick Boynton, Sean O’Donnell, Pronger, Kris Versteeg), Buffalo (Rob Niedermayer)

PREDICTION: SABRES IN 7 — Miller shines as Buffalo wins a l-e-n-g-t-h-y Game 7 in Philadelphia.

Boston (3)       vs. Montreal (6)

Last Cup Win: Boston (1972), Montreal (1993)

Why the Bruins will win: Boston’s depth is only matched by Washington in the East as far as I’m concerned, especially when your top three centers are Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Rich Peverley. The addition of Tomas Kaberle really balanced out the defense in Beantown too.

Why the Canadiens will win: If I had to pick one team in the East that would give Boston the biggest challenge, I’d say Montreal. These two teams know each other inside and out with all of their legendary battles throughout time. Also how will Boston react after blowing a three games-to-none lead in last year’s East semi-finals.

Boston’s most important player: Tim Thomas is the easy choice here, if he continues playing the way he did during the season (35-11-9, 2.00 GAA, .938 save %, 9 shutouts), the Bruins should be able to choke-out the sometimes offensively challenged Habs.

Montreal’s most important player: Where were you this season Scott Gomez? Horrible season (7g-31a, minus-15 in 80 games) from one of the veterans on the Canadiens, but during last spring’s run to the East Finals he put up 14 points in 19 games. If he can get on that type of run it would be much appreciated in Montreal.

Boston’s biggest question mark: The Bruins had a great year, but after choking away last season’s opportunity to beat the Flyers in the semis, anything less than a trip to the East Finals would be a failure. It will be interesting to see how they react if they get Montreal into an elimination game.

Montreal’s biggest question mark: Last season’s dramatic run was led by goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who is now with the St. Louis Blues. Now it’s Carey Price’s turn and judging from the season he just had (38-28-6, 8 shutouts) he could be a difference maker, not only this season but for many, many more to come.

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Boston (Mark Recchi (2), Shawn Thornton), Montreal (Gomez (2), Brian Gionta, Travis Moen, Hal Gill, Brent Sopel)

PREDICTION: BRUINS IN 7 – Boston will bend, but won’t break as they hold off the Habs; Nathan Horton, playing in his first playoffs, will have a monster series.

Pittsburgh (4)                vs. Tampa Bay (5)

Last Cup Win: Pittsburgh (2009), Tampa Bay (2004)

Why the Penguins will win: They have an elite goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal will not only shut down Steven Stamkos, but he’ll also chip in a few big goals.

Why the Lightning will win: Without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, the Lightning can focus their attention on solid team defense and timely goals. Whether or not Stamkos and Simon Gagne can score multiple times will be determining factors in the series.

Pittsburgh’s most important player: It will be all of their penalty killers; they led the league killing off penalties at an 86.2% clip and if they can shut down Tampa’s powerful power play the series could be a quick one.

Tampa Bay’s most important player: If he becomes a playoff-beast once again, it will be the league’s second leading point getter Martin St. Louis (99 points). He’s a proven playoff performer (48 pts in 45 games) and if he gets hot the Pens will become postseason spectators.

Pittsburgh’s biggest question mark: If there is a small chance he can play, does Pittsburgh risk everything and put Crosby out there? If Crosby doesn’t play, who else besides Staal is going to contribute offensively?

Tampa Bay’s biggest question mark: In the 2006 playoffs, Dwayne Roloson led the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals and then blew out his knee in Game 1. That was the last time he played in a playoff game, so five years later it’s hard to tell what you are going to get from the veteran netminder.

Players with Stanley Cup Rings: Pittsburgh (Chris Kunitz (2), Craig Adams (2), Fleury, Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Alex Kovalev, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Tyler Kennedy, Michael Rupp, Max Talbot, Eric Godard), Tampa Bay (Vincent Lecavalier, St. Louis, Pavel Kubina)

PREDICTION: PENGUINS IN 7 — The Lightning prove to be a valiant opponent but Fleury will top Roloson in a wild Game 7

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

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Sabres Crush Devils 6-1 in Latest Home Debacle

Buffalo 6         Devils 1

Not only did the New Jersey Devils lose badly to the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night, but rookie coach John MacLean may have lost one of his superstars — making Ilya Kovalchuk and his $100 million dollar contract a healthy scratch. Kovalchuk was not made available to the media after the game, but MacLean was — and the only explanation for the odd move was, “I’m not going to get into it. That’s between him and I. That was my decision.”

The Devils’ players that did play in the 6-1 thrashing, didn’t show any signs of life after the first five minutes of the game and fell to a disappointing 0-4-1 at the Prudential Center this season. “Early on the Devils were the team that was rested and they came hard,” said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, “but we settled into an organized game and got the pucks where we needed them.”

When asked if he welcomed the team’s upcoming six-game road trip that begins Sunday night at MSG, New Jersey’s David Clarkson didn’t hold back, stating: “It couldn’t get any better. I think it’s an opportunity for us to get to know each other better; a chance to get on the road and do some team bonding, go out together. I think just a thing where you get to know everybody; that’s something that will help us out a lot.”

Miller was his usual stingy self in nets for the winners, turning aside 26 of the 27 shots he faced; his only error of the night was when his US Olympic teammate Zach Parise ended the netminder’s shutout bid with 8:35 left in the game. Offensively the Sabres seemed to score at will against Johan Hedberg, who was making his Devils debut — and it was an ugly one as he was pulled after surrendering four goals on 13 shots.

Even Martin Brodeur (who shutout the Sabres 1-0 last week) was unable to stop the barrage of goals and was touched up for two goals by Thomas Vanek. The Austrian sniper almost completed the hat trick, if not for Brodeur’s glove save with 2:27 left in the game. “Great save; great goaltender,” said Vanek afterwards. “I thought that was one of my better shots of the game — he just made an unbelievable save on it.”

Buffalo got goals from four different goal scorers — Drew Stafford 6:57 of the first period, Tyler Myers at 16:33, Tyler Ennis at 3:10 of the second and Patrick Kaleta at 8:17 — before Vanek netted his pair to seal the victory. “I don’t think I played as well as I did some of the other nights where I didn’t score,” said Vanek humbly, “but I got two tonight. Obviously I’ll take it and hopefully I can keep it going.”

Even his teammates had no clue that Kovalchuk wasn’t playing until they arrived in the late afternoon and they didn’t know why he wasn’t playing, but didn’t use it as an excuse for the dreadful performance. “I had no idea until I got here this afternoon, so I’m not sure what happened or what’s going on,” said Clarkson in the somber Devils locker room. “We’re all professionals no matter who’s in or who’s out; we just have to go out there and still play our game. Kovy’s obviously an unbelievable player and adds so much to this team, but we have to still go out there and play better than we did tonight.”

We may never get an explanation as to why Kovalchuk was scratched from the game (for the first time in his career), but MacLean may be playing with fire (and his job) if he decides to bench one of the league’s premier goal scorers on Sunday night against the rival-Rangers.

Game Notes: Kevin Boss from the New York football Giants, a frequent visitor at the Rock, was in attendance among the announced crowd of 14,228. Hedberg’s career record against Buffalo entering the game was 12-2-2. Five different Sabres had two-point nights: Jordan Leopold, Derek Roy, Rob Niedermayer, Mike Grier, Vanek and Ennis. Ex-Sabre Henrik Tallinder was a game-worst -3; Three Sabres (Leopold, Ennis and Steve Montador) were a +3. Leopold led all skaters in ice-time with 24:50 and Andy Greene led New Jersey with 23:08. Vanek led all players with seven shots on goal, while Clarkson led the Devils with six. Buffalo (3-5-1) is off until Tuesday when they play at Philadelphia (3-3-1) and New Jersey (2-5-1) next plays at the New York Rangers (3-2-1) Sunday night.

 

Dan’s Three Stars of the Game:

#1 – Thomas Vanek (Buf) – 2 goals (3)

#2 – Ryan Miller (Buf) – 26 saves, win (3-4-1)

#3 – Tyler Ennis (Buf) – goal (2), assist (5)

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.