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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No Doubting Thomas as Bruins Bash Devils

Boston 4         Devils 1

Through the first four home games this season the New Jersey Devils have perfected only one thing — the art of losing. Saturday night at Prudential Center they dropped a bomb against the Boston Bruins, falling by a 4-1 score with all goals coming in the second period. Tim Thomas played a strong game in net for the Bruins, turning aside 31 of 32 Devils’ shots as he picked up his second win of the season. New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur also made 31 saves, but the four he surrendered in 16 second period Bruins’ shots were the difference in the game as his team fell to a disappointing 0-3-1 at home. “Timmy did good tonight; he challenged everything,” said Boston coach Claude Julien. “When he’s on top of his game, that’s what he does. He challenges (the shooters); he doesn’t over think, he just does the job. I thought he did a great job in close, they had some shots, some rebounds and he battled through those.”

In the final two minutes of the scoreless opening period the Devils had a 5-on-3 advantage, but were unable to capitalize as the road-weary Bruins began to find their game legs. “Yeah that could have been a turning point right there; the second call was a tough one on (Brad) Marchand, but you have to kill those off,” the ex-Devils coach said afterwards. “They have a couple of guys that can shoot from the back end: (Jason) Arnott and obviously (Ilya) Kovalchuk. We wanted to make sure that we took away those opportunities and make the big save when we needed it – our guys did a pretty good job of killing that. It seemed to give us some momentum heading into the second period.” Boston played their first two games this season in Prague, Czech Republic against the Phoenix Coyotes and won’t play their home opener until Thursday when they host Washington.

At the start of the second period New Jersey coach John MacLean altered his line combinations, switching Dainius Zubrus with Kovalchuk. Zubrus’ addition to the duo of Travis Zajac and Zach Parise paid almost immediate dividends as the trio accounted for the team’s only goal. On the scoring play Zubrus collected the rebound of Andy Greene’s point shot and flipped a backhanded shot past a lunging Thomas at 3:45. “The goal was a good shot on net, a battle in front of the net — I think Zach got a piece of it — and it popped out right to my backhand,” said Zubrus. “I saw Thomas was down and I tried to get it over the top of him and I was able to do that. It felt good obviously, because it gave our team some energy and we haven’t been scoring that much.”

Unfortunately Kovalchuk was relegated to the third line and managed only one shot on goal each period skating with David Clarkson and rookie center Jacob Josefson. “I thought Zubie and Travis and Zach worked really hard. They had a lot of chances and they battled the whole game. I thought that line was good,” said MacLean. “We had a couple of lines that battled the whole game and we had some passengers.”

The Devils lead lasted only 1:53 as the Bruins evened the score when rookie Jordan Caron netted his first career NHL goal by sliding a rebound past Brodeur, sparking his team’s goal explosion. Michael Ryder gave Boston the lead permanently when his slapper from the slot beat Brodeur’s glove hand at 10:44, followed by Shawn Thornton’s tally at 16:43 and Milan Lucic’s at 18:09. “It was frustrating,” admitted Zubrus. “I thought we had a decent start, we were playing okay and then it seemed every mistake that we made, they just…if you look at the goals that they got, it was something where we turned it over or lose a battle; a lot of the goals that we get scored on (lately), we have the puck on our stick and then we lose it.”

The Devils will have four days off before their next game and clearly have some things to work on if they are to get back to their winning ways. “We’ll take a break and then we’ll start working on things from the defensive zone out, work on some starts and stops, some battles,” said a surprised, but not shocked MacLean, “start winning some battles, and getting our mind focused (on playing 60 minutes).”

Game Notes: Nathan Horton’s assist on the fourth Boston goal was his 300th NHL point (145g-155a). Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara led all skaters in ice-time with 23:55 and Greene led New Jersey with 23:36; Arnott was a game-worst -3. Parise and Horton led all players with five shots on goal apiece; only two Bruins (Gregory Campbell and Blake Wheeler) failed to register a shot on goal. Both teams won 21 face-offs and both power plays were empty: NJ 0-4, BOS 0-3. New Jersey (1-4-1) is off until Thursday when they play at Montreal (3-1-1); Boston (2-1-0) will continue their early-season trek in Washington (4-1-0) on Tuesday night.

Dan’s Three Stars of the Game:

#1 – Tim Thomas (Bos) – 31 saves, win (2-0-0)

#2 – Michael Ryder (Bos) – gw goal (1)

#3 – Milan Lucic (Bos) – goal (2)

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