Kings Send Jack Johnson to Columbus for Jeff Carter

With the NHL trade deadline fast approaching (Monday, February 27) the LA Kings and Columbus Blue Jackets pulled off the first significant trade — unless you consider New Jersey’s acquisition of Alexei Ponikarovsky: 10 points (4g-6a) in 13 games. Columbus acquired 25-year-old defenseman Jack Johnson and a conditional 1st round pick from Los Angeles for former 40-goal scorer Jeff Carter. Current King Mike Richards and Carter were traded exactly eight months ago from Philadelphia and will now reunite in Hollywood hoping to save the goal-starved Kings season.

Carter, 27, has struggled this season in Columbus (who hasn’t), but the previous three seasons he netted 46, 33 and 36 goals; once you score 40 goals in a season in this league, you are always expected to reach that plateau and are held to high expectations — making Carter’s 15 goals this season an aberration.

Johnson is a steady two-way defenseman that should help the Jackets improve on the back end, and I always believe a team should build its foundation from the goaltender out. With linchpins Fedor Tyutin and James Wisniewski already on the blueline in Ohio, Johnson will help solidify that group and also possibly provide some help for floundering goalie Steve Mason (who may also be traded by Monday).

So who’s next to be traded….Rick Nash? Derek Roy? Ales Hemsky? Luke Schenn? Someone unexpected perhaps?

Expect Detroit to make a move, seeing as they have a nice chunk of space to reach the salary cap thanks to Brian Rafalski’s retirement. Los Angeles could still make another move, or two, possibly shipping goalie Jonathan Bernier to a team where he can be a no. 1 starter.

What will Washington do as they sit on the outside of the playoff picture after entering the season as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup? Will the NY Rangers be tempted to add an impact player such as Nash despite their success and risk messing with the chemistry of mostly homegrown players on their roster?

By 3pm Monday afternoon, we will know which teams improved and which teams are giving up hope on winning the 2012 Stanley Cup.

Advertisements

Devils Thankful for Brodeur after Topping Columbus in OT

Devils 2           Columbus 1    — shootout

Over his 17-year NHL career, Martin Brodeur has given the New Jersey Devils franchise and its fans a lot of reasons to be thankful — three Stanley Cups, the most wins and shutouts in NHL history would be a good place to start. But on Wednesday night at Prudential Center, everyone was thankful that Brodeur was in net, stopping 35 of 36 Columbus Blue Jackets’ shots — and then two more in the shootout — as New Jersey rebounded from a tough loss in Florida on Monday night and skated to a 2-1 victory on Thanksgiving eve.

After a scoreless first period, Brodeur would make one of his biggest saves in the game when he stared down two Blue Jackets coming at him with no defenders of his to slow them down. On the play Vinny Prospal attempted to hit Rick Nash with a backhand pass across the mouth of the crease, but Brodeur alertly poked the puck away with his goal stick to avert what seemed to be a sure goal.

About forty-one seconds later Dainius Zubrus gave the Devils a 1-0 lead when he collected a loose rebound in the slot and swatted it past Jackets’ goalie Curtis Sanford for his seventh goal of the season. “Our defenseman got a shot on the net and Zubie was in the right spot and he got that second chance,” said Patrik Elias who now has 20 points in 20 games. “He’s been in those right spots lately.”

The score remained the same until Jared Boll tied it 6:01 into the third when Marc Methot’s long shot deflected off his skate and past Brodeur.Columbus seemed determined to score in the third period as they out-shot New Jersey 17-3 over the final twenty minutes, but other than Boll’s goal they were unable to solve Brodeur.

The Devils gave the Blue Jackets six power plays throughout the game and were able to kill them all off, something that has become the norm at home –New Jerseyhas yet to surrender a power play goal at the Rock this season (36-for-36) and ranks first in the NHL on the penalty kill (94%). “Some nights it’s all about luck,” said Elias of his team’s PK, “the puck is bouncing around there and they had a couple of great opportunities. Marty makes the save or it gets blocked; sometimes it’s not about X’s and O’s, you have to get lucky.”

After a scoreless overtime, Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise each scored on their shootout attempts, while Brodeur denied Nash and Mark Letestu — improving the Devils’ record to 5-1 in the tie-breaker. “It’s nice going second (in the shootout),” said Parise. “I can watch a little bit, I was able to watch when Kovy came in and watch the replay to see what their goalie was doing.”

The Devils captain was also very thankful that Brodeur was backstopping the team on this night as the team continues to pile up points early in the season. “He played very well, made great saves when we needed him to; we kind of got the play taken to us at certain points of this game,” explained Parise. “He’s a big reason why we got to overtime and the shootout.”

Game Notes: Adam Larsson assisted on Zubrus’ goal, giving him an assist in three consecutive games; Elias had the other assist and now has points in four straight games. Kovalchuk is 4-for-4 this season in shootouts; Columbus has never won a game in New Jersey (0-3-1). Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski led all skaters in ice-time with 28:56 while Kovalchuk led the Devils with 23:17. Parise led all players with seven shots on goal; Nash and Jeff Carter led Columbus with six apiece. Ex-Ranger defenseman Fedor Tyutin led all players with three blocked shots and New Jersey’s Anton Volchenkov led all players with three hits. New Jersey (11-8-1) is back in action on Friday afternoon when they play against the NY Islanders (5-10-4) and Columbus (5-13-3) is on the ice again also on Friday when they host Buffalo (12-8-1).

Dan’s Three Stars of the Game:

#1 – Martin Brodeur (NJ) – 35 saves, win (5)

#2 – Patrik Elias (NJ) – assist (12)

#3 – Curtis Sanford (Cbj) – 23 saves, ot loss (2)

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

Humble Kessel Key to Toronto’s Resurgence

It would be acceptable to suggest that Phil Kessel’s career would have been a success after he survived a bout with testicular cancer and returned to play in the NHL. But the soft-spoken Kessel forced Boston to trade him, inevitably to Toronto, has a burning desire to win the Stanley Cup and after the first month of this season the 24-year-old just may lead the Leafs to their first championship since 1967. “No hard feelings,” he said when asked if he was jealous. “They had a great year last year, I’m happy for them and hopefully one day we win one here (in Toronto).” Then he added with a grin, “Preferably this year.”

He currently leads the league in goals (10) and points (21), while helping Torontoto a hot start this season (9-4-1) good enough for second place in the Eastern Conference behind Pittsburgh. Brian Burke, the Leafs’ GM, paid a hefty ransom to acquire Kessel from Boston — sending two first round picks and a second round pick — and although the Bruins were able to obtain the uber-talented Tyler Seguin in the 2010 NHL draft (with the Maple Leafs second overall pick) and win a Stanley Cup last season, Toronto should be better in the long run if Kessel continues to evolve into a consistent sniper.

Drafted by Boston fifth overall in 2006, Kessel was two months into his NHL career when he was diagnosed with cancer. “By far, it was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” he admitted. “It made me stronger.” Remarkably, he missed only 11 regular season games and was back in the Bruins’ lineup by January of 2007. “Obviously it changes you,” he said. “You live life to its fullest and you never take anything for granted.” His final season (2008-09) in Beantown is where his talent really began to show as he netted 36 goals in 70 games, beginning a stretch of three consecutive 30-goal seasons.

In 2010 Kessel enjoyed one of the highlights of his career to date — representing the United States at the Winter Olympics, where the squad earned a silver medal after losing to Canada in overtime. “It was a great experience, I had a great time,” Kessel recalled with a smile. “It’s too bad we didn’t win that last game, but it was great to be a part of.”

Last season he was selected to play in his first All-Star game and this season his hot play in October earned him NHL player-of-the-month. “I’m playing with a good team here,” Kessel said, spurning the spotlight. “I have good linemates; we’ve been clicking really well this year so far. But it’s a long year; hopefully we can keep it up.”

It appears the sky is the limit for Kessel who has already appeared in 388 NHL games, scoring 266 points (138g-128a), and his continued development will most likely determine if Toronto ends the league’s longest championship drought.

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

Sharks’ Comeback Bites Devils in Shootout

San Jose 4              Devils 3   — shootout

Over the past few seasons the New Jersey Devils and San Jose Sharks have played some wildly entertaining games and Friday night at the Prudential Center was no different, as the visiting Sharks rallied from two goals down and beat the Devils in a shootout after tying the game again with 33 seconds left in regulation. Johan Hedberg ended up as the hard-luck loser in this one as he was brilliant in goal for New Jersey, finishing with 37 saves. “I thought he was great,” said coach Peter DeBoer after the game, “he gave us a chance to win, to get a point.”

The Devils opened the scoring 13:53into the game when Patrik Elias scored off a perfect circle-to-circle pass from Ilya Kovalchuk, snapping a wrist shot top shelf past Sharks netminder Antti Niemi. The power play goal was the 92nd of Elias’ career, tying him with John MacLean for most in franchise history.

With 2:52left in the period, the Devils lost their second line center Jacob Josefson when he crashed hard into the boards behind the San Jose goal. The 20-year-old skated immediately to the bench and into the locker room with his right arm dangling; it was later announced he had a broken right clavicle.

Thirty-six seconds into the second period Zach Parise was awarded a penalty shot when Sharks defenseman Brent Burns pulled him down on a shorthanded breakaway. The Devils captain has become a master of sorts in penalty shots/shootout attempts lately and he continued that reputation as he increased the lead to 2-0, faking out Niemi with his forehand and slipping a backhand shot through the goalie’s five-hole.

Hedberg held the Sharks scoreless as long as he could with the shot total rising rapidly, but he was finally beaten 15:18into the second when Joe Thornton’s wrist shot slid into the net under the goalie’s pads. “I’m not sure how that went in,” Hedberg admitted, “it surprised me too; I don’t know why I didn’t stop that, I’m not sure actually.” Ryane Clowe completed the comeback and evened the score 1:03 later when the puck pin-balled off of his shin pad and found the back of the net.

San  Jose continued to outshoot the Devils but the game remained even until 13:18 had elapsed and David Clarkson scored his second goal in as many games, converting a beautiful spin-o-rama feed from Mattias Tedenby. “He made a great play to me in front,” said Clarkson, “I had enough time and found the back of the net.”

Victory for New Jersey seemed certain until the final minute when with their goalie pulled for an extra-attacker, the Sharks tied the game as Joe Pavelski wired a shot through a maze of players in front of the crease. Hedberg appeared to be interfered with on the play, and he tried to plead his case but the officials didn’t see it that way and the game was tied. “We were thirty seconds away from winning the game and we still had a chance in the shootout,” said Parise afterwards. “I think we know we have to be a lot better. It wasn’t our best game tonight and we know there are going to be more of those, but we definitely need to be better for tomorrow.”

The game remained 3-3 after a five-minute overtime, sending the outcome to be decided by a shootout. Kovalchuk scored first, beating Niemi with a rising backhand and Pavelski’s attempt went wide of Hedberg’s cage. Parise was denied on his attempt, evening the score between he and Niemi. “He made a good save on it,” said Parise. Niemi didn’t want to get burned on the same move as earlier and was ready. “You can’t really cheat too much,” said the Sharks’ goalkeeper. “You just have to try and wait him out.” Michal Handzus evened the tie breaker with a shot that hit the goalpost and then went in off Hedberg’s back.

Elias attempted a wrist shot through the goalie’s five-hole and was denied and Clowe won the game when he flipped a backhand over the Moose’s glove hand. “I’ve taken a few shootouts now over the years and that’s kind of my go-to move, I usually go backhand,” said Clowe. “It’s a little easier I guess when I face Eastern Conference goalies because they don’t get to see you as much. Hedberg’s kind of a smaller goalie and I have a long stick, long reach; I try to use that when I go to my backhand. I think he was over there, but I got it up over his pad.”

Game Notes: Thornton (the Sharks captain) played in his 1000th NHL game, and had two points, giving him 42 points in 34 career games against New Jersey. Colin White played his first game against the team he spent the past 11 seasons with and the two-time Stanley Cup winner was applauded by the Devils fans when he was announced during pre-game in the San Jose starting lineup; he played 14:44, led all players with three hits, was minus-1 and had one shot on goal. Kovalchuk led all skaters in ice-time with 32:25 and Dan Boyle led the Sharks with 31:23. Pavelski, Boyle and Clowe led all players with six shots on goal, and Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov led all players with four blocked shots. New Jersey (3-1-1) is back in action Saturday night when they play at Pittsburgh (5-2-2) and San Jose (2-3-0) will also be in action that night when they play at Boston (3-4-0).

Dan’s Three Stars of the Game:

#1 – Joe Pavelski (SJ) – goal (3), assist (1)

#2 – Johan Hedberg (NJ) – 37 saves, OT loss (3-0-1)

#3 – David Clarkson (NJ) – goal (2), assist (1)

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

Three More Weeks Until Hockey is Back…

A lot has happened since the last time I wrote, so I will try to cover a variety of topics here:

Congrats to the Boston Bruins who won the Stanley Cup in a Game 7 @ Vancouver. Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron were off the charts in that series, and Tim Thomas’ performance was legendary. That Claude Julien guy that coaches the B’s is pretty good, it’d be nice if the Devils had a coach like that…

The Atlanta Thrashers (and their fugly uniforms) are gone and the Winnipeg Jets are back! It’s a shame they won’t be wearing the old uniforms, but a new beginning does deserve a new look and I think I like what I saw from the logo and the uniform scheme.

My sincere and deepest condolences to the families of all of the hockey players that passed away this summer. I am still trying to wrap my head around what happened in Russia with the plane crash and I still cannot erase the images of Pavol Demitra, Josef Vasicek and Alexander Vasyunov’s faces from my mind; hopefully they didn’t suffer. They will all be missed and never, ever forgotten.

So the Philadelphia Flyers brought in Ilya Bryzgalov to play goal this season, making him the 500th goalie they have employed since Martin Brodeur became a New Jersey Devil and the 1,000th netminder since they last won the Cup in 1975. They also traded their two best players — Jeff Carter and Mike Richards — in separate deals that did not bring back equal value and signed 39-year-old Jaromir Jagr. Good luck with that.

It seems certain that Sidney Crosby won’t be ready for the start of the season, but could suit up at some point in 2011-12. Concussions are a delicate issue and Crosby’s career could be derailed like Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya before him. Intentional head shots must be eliminated from the game, but certain players (ahem Criesby…) are also responsible for protecting themselves and need to stop admiring their passes.

Don’t be surprised if the New York Islanders (that’s right, I said it) make the playoffs this season. IF they can stay healthy! John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner and Matt Moulson seem primed to have big seasons and hopefully Evgeni Nabokov can add some stability to what has been a blue cross and blue shield crease the last few seasons.

The Rangers added the biggest fish in the free-agent pool in Brad Richards, but have we not learned anything over the past six seasons — the team that signs the top free agent never wins the Cup. They did make one right move this summer — naming Ryan Callahan their new captain.

The Devils had a semi-quiet offseason after selecting Adam Larsson with the 4th pick in the NHL Entry Draft. They were able to rid themselves of Colin White and Brian Rolston’s ridiculous contracts, and they were able to re-sign Andy Greene and Johan ‘Moose’ Hedberg. Both Bryce Salvador and Zach Parise have been cleared to start the season, but Travis Zajac may not be back until December after tearing his achilles tendon during an off-ice workout; Zajac’s team record consecutive games streak will end at 401. Cam Janssen is back with NJ and Petr Sykora could be too — he will be in training camp on a tryout basis. The new coach is Peter DeBoer who was fired from the Florida Panthers, the same DeBoer who helped the Cats reach 94 points a few years back — a remarkable feat in itself with the roster he was given. I predict Mattias Tedenby will net at least 20 goals this season and Jacob Josefson will have 30 assists as they help lead the Devs back to the playoffs after last season’s hiccup.

Boston begins defense of it’s Championship on opening night (October 6); the Rangers open in Sweden against the LA Kings the following day (October 7); the Islanders (vs. Florida) and Devils (vs. Philly) both begin their seasons on Saturday October 8; and the new Winnipeg/old Atlanta team makes it’s debut on Sunday October 9 vs. Montreal.

Rafalski and Weight Call it a Career

The NHL lost two veterans to retirement this week, Detroit defenseman Brian Rafalski (11 seasons) and New York Islanders center Doug Weight (19 seasons). Both American players had stellar careers, highlighted by winning every hockey player’s dream — the Stanley Cup.

Rafalski joined the New Jersey Devils in 1999-2000 as an undrafted free agent from the University of Wisconsin, whom the team’s scouts found playing over in Europe (for four years!). Perhaps his size (5’10”, 195 lbs.) was the reason he was overlooked by the other 29 NHL clubs, but he seamlessly fit in on the Devils’ blue line and partnered with legend Scott Stevens immediately and never looked back. As a 25-year-old rookie he helped guide New Jersey to a championship in 2000 and a return to the Finals in 2001. He was a major part of the Devils 2003 Cup win as well and also won silver medals with Team USA at the Olympics in 2002 and 2010. In 2007 he signed with the Red Wings as a free agent to be closer to his hometown of Dearborn, Michigan and the move paid off for both parties — Rafalski and Detroit hoisted the Cup in 2008 and made in back to the Finals in 2009. This past season he spent a lot of time playing hurt and missed a handful of games, which can be eye-opening for some athletes that the time has come to hang up the skates. “There wasn’t a day this year that I wasn’t on the training table,” he said at his retirement press conference, “That gets tiring.” He retired with one year ($6 million) left on his contract, citing that family is most important now, “What I’ll be doing first and foremost is serving my family; I’ll be definitely looking to help others. I don’t know what that’s going to entail yet, but that will be my focus.”

Rafalski’s career totals: (regular season) 79 goals, 438 assists, 515 points, plus-178, 833 games/(playoffs) 29 goals, 71 assists, 100 points, plus-42, 165 games/(olympics) 13 points in 17 games

Weight had a much different path to the NHL, he was drafted 34th overall by the New York Rangers in the 1990 NHL Draft out of Lake Superior State University and made his NHL debut in a 1990 playoff game with the Blueshirts. He played parts of two seasons with the Rangers before being traded to Edmonton in a deal that helped New York secure the 1994 Stanley Cup. A scoring dynamo with the Oilers, he was part of one of the most dynamic lines in hockey with Bill Guerin and Ryan Smyth; Weight never reached the Finals in Edmonton and was sent to St. Louis in another blockbuster deal prior to the 2001-02 season.  After two and a half seasons with the Blues he was traded to Carolina in 2006 and finally lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup after the Hurricanes’ amazing playoff run, topping the Edmonton Oilers in a thrilling seven-game series. The following summer he re-signed with the Blues and played another 111 games before being shipped to Anaheim at the trade deadline. Prior to the 2008-09 season he signed with the Islanders, a place he and his family now call home. He provided leadership and guidance for the young Isles and was almost like a father-figure for their players; he even had John Tavares live with his family during Tavares’ rookie season. A severe back injury limited his time to only 18 games this past season, but at the end of the season he resurfaced  behind the Isles’ bench as an assistant coach, a preview of things to come. In announcing his retirement on May 26, it was also announced that he is now an assistant coach and special assistant ‘to’ GM Garth Snow (sounds very much like Dwight Schrute’s job!).

Weight’s career totals: (regular season) 278 goals, 755 assists, 1,033  points, 80 power play goals, minus-58, 1,238 games/(playoffs) 23 goals, 49 assists, 72 points, minus-13, 97 games/(olympics) 8 points in 16 games

Are they both Hall-of-Famers? Is just one of them destined for the Hall or will neither make it? Hard to say, but I think Weight could make it. They both will surely make the USA Hockey Hall of Fame. I’d just like to add that I had the privilege of interviewing both players during their careers and they were both class acts who made my job fun and a lot easier.

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.