The most entertaining two weeks in sports has arrived! Who goes home and who stays alive?
Wow, did you read that bumper? I’m a poet and I don’t even know it.
Chara, put him down. What did we say about picking on people weaker than you? Plus, he’s so fragile.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The NHL has THE ABSOLUTE BEST opening round of any sport. I mean this post season has everything, great goals, unbelievable saves, huge hits, and even a very entertaining character actor portraying an effeminate tour guide with an affinity for pseudo fetish clubs featuring insane acts and lots of little people performing as human versions of various pieces of clothing and accessories………SPICY! Well, that whole last part may not be true, but it’s still pretty damn cool.
Detroit vs Boston
It’s an original six match up which we haven’t seen in the playoffs since the mid 50’s! The Bruins won the President’s Trophy, finishing with the leagues most points, while the Red Wings are competing in the playoffs for an incredible, 23rd consecutive season! If there is something longer than the Detroit streak, it has to belong to Chuck Norris. Ha-Ha……gross. Oh early internet humor, where would we be without All Your Base and Super Fly? Incidentally, the Wing’s streak is older than the internet itself. Suck it Al Gore!
It’s hard to find a sizeable crack in the shell of the Bruins. To describe them in just four words it would be…….yeah, like that. They rank in the top 3 in terms of goals per game, average goals allowed and power play percentage. Even their penalty kill, where they seem to “struggle” the most in terms of major categories, has them holding down an impressive 8th ranking. Patrice Bergeron might be the 2nd best two-way forward in the game, behind only Pavel Datsyuk, while Zedeno Chara is still a legitimate contender for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best D-man every year. Then there is goalie Tuukka Rask, who only leads the East in shut outs, save percentage and wins. So they’re scary in all three areas of the ice. Like I said, solid.
When one thinks of the Wings, one usually has an image of an older team full of future hall of fame players, that play a very controlled puck possession style. This year’s team is quite a bit different though. Due to a multitude of injuries, the Wings have had to rely on many players with little to no NHL experience. Even more surprising is just how well these players have handled their new roles. No more so than forward Gustav Nyquist, who has been arguably the hottest player in the league since the Olympic break, winning player of the week recognition twice and finishing the season with 16 points in his last 16 games. While the Wings still play a skilled possession game, their youth has reformed them into a dangerous combination of skill, strength and speed. Lots and lots of speed. A ludicrous amount of speed.
While this might not mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, the Wings did beat the Bruins in three of four meetings this season. Boston defeated Detroit 4-1 way back in October, but have since been outscored 12-5, with Rask taking all of the losses. Again, that was then and this is now. Still, does that mean that the Wings are the Kryptonite to the mighty Bruins.
Detroit has lost more games to injury this season than any other franchise. All year they ‘ve had players in and out of the lineup, including free agent acquisitions Daniel Alfredsson and Stephan Weiss, the latter of which is expected to be done for the season. But the losses most keenly felt have been to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Pavel returned last week, but hasn’t exactly returned to Dastyukian form just yet. Zetterberg had to leave the Olympic village after just one game to have back surgery, that has since sidelined him ever since. He is hopeful to return sometime in the series, but it doesn’t look as if it will be at least until game 3.
Has anyone else ever noticed how the Bruins have this habit of playing down to their opponents, specifically in the first round of the playoffs? It’s as if they hit themselves with the eerie glow of that handicap machine from the cheap, 80’s, sci-fi movie Arena. Did you ever see that? I wonder if that Armstrong took steroids like his great, great, great uncle Lance? Man I’ve asked a lot of questions to start off this segment. Anyways, a few seasons ago, it took Boston 7 games to dispatch a mediocre Montreal team, as series in which they also failed to score a power play goal. Last year they found themselves in a 3-1 hole to the Maple Leafs, only to fight back and find themselves trailing 4-1 in game 7 with under 5 minutes to play, yet still won! Fine job Toronto, give me some type of reaction. There you go. In both of those examples however, the Bruins not only survived, they got all the way to the finals. Still, I wouldn’t recommend giving the Wings such a cushion and I would also advise you to score a pp goal or two. You’re dealing with a team that has made the playoffs 23 straight years, not one that only got there because of a lock out.
Mike Babcock might arguably be the best coach in the NHL, and might assuredly be the best coach to never win the Jack Adams as coach of the year. Despite his coaching prowess, he’s normally dismissed in the voting due to the talent which plays for him. Had it not been for all of his skill this season though, the Wings playoff streak would have certainly come to an end. The job he’s done with a new generation of players has been incredible, especially getting these guys to replace some of the valuable veterans mentioned above. He even surpassed Jack Adams himself by becoming the winningest coach in Red Wing history. unfortunately he probably still won’t win the award this year, due to Patrick Roy.
This is one scary match up for the Bruins. The Wings are red hot, speedy, and finally beginning to get healthy. They’ve been in the Bruin’s shoes plenty of time over the last two decades, usually being the odds on favorite at the start of the post season, and having to worry about an upstart 8th seed. Given the Bruin’s pension for first round troubles, combined with the pressure of being the overall #1 seed, and you might just have an epic upset in the making. Still, despite my affinity for Detroit, it would be fool hearty to count out the NHL’s best team from the onset, especially considering they are about as healthy as any team could be heading into the playoffs. It wouldn’t surprise me if it goes the distance, but in the end I think Boston plays on. B’s in 7.
Montreal vs Tampa Bay
There was a strange consistency to the play of the Lightning this year. And yes, I’m aware that was a rather confusing back handed compliment. They’ve faced some tough issues this season, specifically with injuries to their best forward Steven Stamkos, and the personal contempt of their former leader Martin St. Louis. Montreal had some similar staying power. Despite most of the Canadian attention being spent on the collapse of the Leafs, the Canadiens had a nice regular season while mostly flying under the radar. They’ve quietly become a bit of a scary team, and not just because they’re from the streets of Montreal. Just like Dre.
Tampa has found some consistent scoring featuring, at one time at least, 5 guys who had at least 50 points or more. Perhaps even more impressive was that none of them were named Steven Stamkos………though one of them was named St. Louis. Had Stamkos not been sidelined by injury however, it most certainly would have been 6 players with 5o points or more. A nice surprise for the Bolts was the acquisition of free agent Valtteri Filppula. While many scoffed at the offer extended to Filppula by GM Steve Yzerman, Valtteri has made his boss look like a certified genius, finishing the regular season with 25 goals and 58 points, both career highs. But Val doesn’t deserve all of the surprise credit, much of the TB success also has to do with the scoring prowess of rookie of the year candidate Ondrej Palat, who has 23 goals and 36 assists. Between the three highlighted here plus a nice compliment of fast, gritty forwards, the Bolts have patched together 4 rather formidable lines.
Is it okay to say that Carey Price is an elite goaltender now? Seriously people, what more does this guy have to do? He was fantastic in the Olympics, especially during the 1-0 shut out of the U.S., and he finished the regular season with the lowest gaa and highest save % of his career. I know his numbers have taken a dive during the post season in recent years, but maybe now that he has a bit more support from the Montreal faithful, he can rise to the occasion and have a nice playoff run. Oh, by the way, that consistent play I mentioned above was mostly due to his awesomely consistent play……….just sayin’.
Tampa is one of the worst penalty kill teams heading into the playoffs this season, finishing the year with a rather sorry 80%. That’s even more concerning, when you consider that they took the 2nd most penalties of any Eastern Conference team heading to the playoffs. They also averaged just over 10 minutes in penalties per game. Finding yourself in the box not only helps to expose your weak pk, it keeps all of those streaking forwards from doing their job. About the only thing that can really save a ailing pk is an ailing pp……..oh, wait.
The Montreal power play might just be that helping hand that the struggling Tampa pk needs. Montreal finished the season with the lowest pp % of any team in the East and, considering all of those penalty minutes we just discussed TB takes, this is a area the Habs will want to improve upon, and quickly. I mean, I like PK Subban and he’s a wonderful weapon to have on the point, but it can’t be just him causing fits for the opposition.
Goalie Ben Bishop, has been another Lightning member who seemed to come out of nowhere and have a fantastic season. In his first season as a starter, Bishop amassed 37 wins, with an impressive .924 save %. unfortunately, Bishop hurt his elbow while doing a awkward swan dive for a floating puck, and has been out ever since. As of now he’s hoping to return at some point in the first round, just not for game 1. That means that the Bolts will turn to back up Anders Lindback, and his far less impressive .891 save % for at least the opening contest. Going back to Bishop for a second, so he got hurt during that, but not this? Well if anything, that small scrum might add a little more drama to this series.
Speaking of drama, that’s certainly something the Canadiens can do without. Last season Montreal was completely frustrated, bewildered, befuddled, and even kerbabbled by the Ottawa Senators and head coach Paul Maclean. What’s that spell check? You don’t recognize kerbabbled? It’s from the Grinch. That cute little Cindy Lou Who said it. Well cute before she started putting black tape on her boobs, and began singing about how much she wants end her own life. Yes, that used to be her. But back to the matter at hand, Montreal was ill prepared to deal with the physical play and trickery employed by the Sens and they quickly found themselves booking early tee times. Another distraction, at least according to ESPN, who doesn’t really know anything about hockey anyway, might be the fact that Montreal is the only Canadian based team to make the playoffs this season. Usually the hopes of Canada rest upon the shoulders of Vancouver, but that certainly isn’t happening this year. Now I’ll be the first to say that I think fans in Toronto and Ottawa might be die hard Bolt fans during this series, but that isn’t to say that some extra attention might be paid to Montreal given their singular representation. They didn’t exactly handle pressure so well last season, let’s hope they grew up a little bit in the past 12 months.
Tampa finished the regular season with just 1 more point than Montreal, and as such will take home ice advantage in the series. As that suggests, these teams were remarkably similar in terms of the regular seasons they’ve had. On the one hand, the Tampa scoring is hard to get past, but perhaps Price is good enough to keep them off the board. He did only allow 6 regulation goals against TB during the regular season, although he did take the loss in 3 of 4 contests. On the other hand, the goaltending issues of the Lightning might just be what Montreal needs to get a quick lead in the series and not look back. Even if Bishop is to return to the Tampa net, he has absolutely no play off experience under his belt, and will have to shake off the rust of nearly three weeks off. This is a tough one to call, but I believe in Price, and I think the Canadiens are due to break out of their first round disappointment at some point. Habs in 7.
“Oh bataille!” That’s French for, “oh snap”……..I think.
Columbus vs Pittsburgh
As much as I hate to give the Pens credit, they’ve put together a nice season, despite once again having to deal with injuries to Crosby and Malkin. With most people focusing on the Bruins and their possible march back to the finals, the Pens have amassed 109 points, comfortably finishing far ahead of their Metropolitan Division foes. Columbus is at the opposite end of that spectrum, finishing last in the Metro. Yet the Blue Jackets have shown tenacity down the stretch, landing just ahead of Detroit, and thus avoiding a death sentence at the hands of Boston.
Scoring hasn’t been much of a problem for Pittsburgh this season. They ended the season with a 3 goals per game average, good for 5th overall in the league, and the NHL’s best power play, rolling along at 23.4%. Crosby will once again be the fore runner for league MVP, finishing the season 1st in total points (104), 17 ahead of his closest competitor! Even more astonishing is how he finds time to put up those points while in between complaints to the officials. Oh come on, even Don Cherry thinks it’s so, not to mention several others in that clip. Okay Pitt fans, he’s still the best player in world. Happy? But even Crosby can’t do it all, and the Pens have seen nice production from their left wing trio of Kunitz, Neal and Jokinen, all of whom finished with 57 points or more. Oh, and how could I forget their other A1 center, Malkin? Hey he was mentioned in that clip too :-). I kid, but Malkin has once again had a productive season (23 g, 49 a) despite fighting off more injuries.
The Blue Jackets find themselves in the post season because of a total team effort, but if you had to single out one guy most responsible, it would have to be goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Once battered and left for dead by the heartless fans in Philly, Bobrovsky found solace in a smaller hockey market with much fewer expectations, and has thrived. He finished last season with an even 2.00 gaa and followed up that performance with a very solid 2.38 this year. He boasts a save % of .923 and is certainly being considered for goalie of the year honors for a second straight year. He’ll enter the playoffs on a four game winning streak, allowing only six goals in that span.
The Pens have enough to get past the first round without Malkin, but I wonder how far they can go beyond that. Currently Malkin is listed as questionable for game #1, and my thought is that Pitt won’t push him until he’s completely ready. That means you probably won’t see him until Columbus takes a game. Even when he returns, he’s been out since March 23 and will probably have to shake off at least some rust before he returns to form.
The Jackets don’t have any stat that just jumps out at you. In fact they are just slightly above the league average in just about every major category. That meh’ness, if that is even a word, also applies to their player totals. Their point leader Ryan Johansen, finished the year with 63 points, 41 behind the Penguins leader Crosby! In addition, 5 of their top 9 point leaders finished the year with an even of negative plus/minus. While there certainly is something to be said about a true team mentality where everyone contributes, there is no question that the star power heavily favors the Pens. That song is kinda catchy. Maybe the Jackets can find a whistle and warp their way to the second round.
Hey, hey, hey, M a F’er! How could I possibly talk about the Pens without mentioning Marc Andre Fleury. He is the true definition of an x factor. Sometimes making brilliant saves such as this, and other times allowing in goals such as this. Now I understand that all goalies give up bad goals from time to time, but few seem to play either as great or as poor as Fleury does, from game to game. If the good MAF shows up, this will be a quick series. If the bad MAF shows up, the Jackets might just have a chance.
Columbus is making a trip to the post season for just the 2nd time in franchise history. As mentioned, they lack star power and nobody will be expecting them to defeat the heavily favored Penguins. It’s that type of thinking that just might get the Jackets to play some inspired hockey and make life tough on Pittsburgh. If they’re gonna go into full underdog mode though, they definitely don’t want to draw inspiration from their one and only previous romp in the playoffs. That ended in four games and in rather embarrassing fashion. Instead, draw inspiration from one of the most uplifting sport movies of all time, as you fight the evil purple power.
Many people would love to see Crosby and the Pens out in the first round to an upstart Columbus team. If MAF can’t handle the pressure and the Jackets are able to get out of the starting blocks with some quick wins, who knows how the rest of the series will play out. I’m willing to give Columbus enough respect to say that this will at least be a series. It’s not as if they are a terrible team and have been playing playoff hockey for months just to reach the post season. In the end though, the Pens will prove to be just too much for the Jackets to handle. Pitt in 6.
And you thought signing Nathan Horton was a bad decision. That’s supposed to be a cannon, right?
Philadelphia vs New York
Two big, hard hitting rivals collide, in what might be the most physical series of the first round. The Rangers are not shy about throwing their weight around, while playing against Philly occasionally resembles a prison riot.
The Rangers sport the leagues 4th best gaa and 3rd best pk, thanks in large part to goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The Sochi silver medalist is the back stop for a defense that features a collection of big, tough, bruising blue liners, who can not only punish the opposition in the d-zone, but can also contribute offensively when needed. Or, at least when Ryan McDonagh is healthy. The Ranger leader in D points is currently nursing an arm injury, but is expected to be in the line up for the start of the series.
The Flyers don’t feature one 30 goal scorer on their team, but they’ve done a nice job of spreading the offense around amongst their top forwards. Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and Jakub Voracek have career highs in goals, while forward Matt Read has shown a return to form from his breakout rookie season, scoring 22 goals and finishing the year with 40 points. While the Rangers have an impressive D, the Flyers have certainly outmatched them in terms of scoring.
On paper the Rangers should have a pretty potent offense, but in practice, they’ve failed to put together a consistent offensive attack. Their leading scorer, Rick Nash, has 26 goals, but only 13 assists. They’re point leader, Mats Zuccarello, has only 19 goals, and one of their highest paid forwards, Brad Richards, has had the worst full 82 game season of his career, finishing with his fewest point total ever, and an abysmal -8 rating for the season. Somebody call Hitch, because these guys need some serious help scoring. Oh, I get it! It’s funny because he’s a fat white guy trying to dance. Oh Hollywood, you and your original comedy that hasn’t been mentioned by nearly ever African American comedian over that past 30 years.
If there is one factor that might help the somewhat struggling NY O, it might be the curiously bad 5 on 5 play of the Flyers. Philly has allowed more goals at even strength than any other playoff team and 20th overall in the league. They’ve also allowed more short handed goals than any of the other post season competitors. An curious set of stats when you consider that their pk is pretty decent. I guess it does explain why they have three players who are at least -13! One of which is Vincent Lecavalier? -16, holy hell! Say it isn’t so Vinny. Incidentally, what will it be like to be battling your old best buddy Martin St. Louis in the playoffs? Ahhh, I see, truly epic.
Speaking of St. Louis, how will he be able to help the Ranger cause during the post season. Since throwing his hissy fit and demanding a trade from Tampa Bay, his numbers haven’t exactly been overly impressive, recording 7 assists and just 1 goal in 19 games. Wait, 1 goal? That’s all he’s got is just 1 G.D. goal? You give it to him Harry Doyle. But in all seriousness, the Rangers traded away their captain and two draft picks to acquire St. Louis, in the hope that he would provide much more of an offensive spark. While he still might be getting comfortable with his new team, he has spent his entire career in sunny Tampa after all, time is running out for the 38 year old winger. Oh, and in case you would like to compare, Ryan Callahan has 11 points with his new club, 6 of which are goals.
How could one write a Flyer playoff preview without mentioning their goaltending? Ever since the days of Ron Hextall, the Philly faithful has made a habit out of taking young, bright eyed goalies, and sadistically exposing them to the horrors of the real world. Much like the drunk uncle at Christmas, who gleefully tells all of the little kids there really is no Santa Clause. Oh crap, I almost forgot how much Philly fans hate Santa Clause. Interestingly enough, Bobrovsky has found sanctuary with Mason’s old team in Columbus, while Mason has found a home with Bobrovsky’s old team in Philadelphia. Well, at least until the Flyers get bounced from the playoffs, then you might see Mason running like Rocky down the streets of downtown Philly. Only instead of being trailed by a mob of adoring children, he’ll be fleeing for his life from a pack of savage Flyer fans. Better eat those raw eggs Steve. It’s a shame too, because Mason has been solid this year, posting the 2nd lowest gaa of his career. It’s tough to explain that though, to a mass of cannibalistic humanity, shambling toward you like a bad scene from The Walking Dead.
This is going to be a very entreating series to watch, especially if you’re in the mood for some unadulterated violence and mayhem. And no, I’m not just referring to the ritualistic sacrifice of Steve Mason following the Ranger victory. In truth, these teams are very similar and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Philly topple New York and advance, especially if the Rangers struggle to score on Mason and begin to get frustrated as they’ve had a tendency to do in the past. In the end though, Lundqvist is the Ranger trump card that should keep them alive and spell the end of days for
Steve Mason the Flyers. NY in 7.
Well, that wraps up the Eastern Conference people. I’ll be back in a couple of days with my Western Conference predictions. Until then, enjoy the playoffs and, as always, you have been warmed.
(Note from the author: Sports incite great passion and emotion in all of us, which is why they are so popular the world over. I encourage you to share your opinions in the comments section, on Twitter or Facebook, but please do it responsibly. I have no agenda with Bench Warming other than to share my love of sports and perhaps get a few people to grin from time to time. Thank you for stopping by and I hope you enjoy reading this column as much as I enjoy writing it.)