Eastern Conference predictions

After 6 1/2 months, the real season gets underway on Wednesday. First to 16 wins it all ...

(1) Boston Bruins (52-19-10, 1st, Northeast) vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens (41-30-11, 2nd, Northeast)

2008-09 SERIES: Boston, 5-0-1

LEADERS: Boston - Zdeno Chara (6 GP, 3G, 3A), Marc Savard, (6 GP, 3 G); Tim Thomas (5 GP, 4-0-1, 2.12 GAA), Manny Fernandez (1 GP, 1-0-0, 1.00 GAA). Montreal – Andrei Kostitsyn (6 GP, 2G, 2A); Andrei Markov (5 GP, 4A) Carey Price (5 GP, 1-2-2, 3.46 GAA), Jaroslav Halak (1 GP, 0-1-0, 3.05 GAA).

THE PICK: Boston in 5. Someone is going to go home disappointed, and it will be the Canadiens as their centennial season will ends without their 24th Stanley Cup.

Boston, meanwhile, will be looking for its first playoff series win since 1999 and Stanley Cup since 1972.

The 32nd playoff meeting between these Original Six clubs has been a one-sided affair with Boston taking 24 of the previous 31 series. Simply put, the Eastern Conference champion Bruins have way too much firepower for the Canadiens, and especially goaltender Carey Price, who’s been very shaky since returning from an ankle injury in January.

Boston had a season-high 20-goal scorers in 2008-09, and the addition of Mark Recchi cannot be understated enough. Recchi has 47 goals and 70 assists in the postseason. Without him, Boston’s current career playoff scoring leader is Stephane Yelle with 11 goals and 20 assists.

The Canadiens hope Alex Kovalev will be able to continue his playoff mastery – he’s scored 42 goals with 53 assists in 112 games. Kovalev, the MVP of the All-Star game played this season in Montreal, was the Habs’ leading scorer for the second straight season with 26 goals and 39 assists.

What was supposed to be a celebratory season has hardly resembled that for the Canadiens. Among the lowlights were the alleged involvement of the Bros. Kostitsyn with an organized crime outfit, injuries to Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang, and the late-season firing of coach Guy Carbonneau. General manager Bob Gainey was 6-6-4 behind the bench, but Montreal is a fragile team heading into the playoffs.

(2) Washington Capitals (50-24-8, 1st, Southeast) vs. (7) New York Rangers (42-30-9, 4th, Atlantic)

2008-09 SERIES: Washington, 3-0-1

LEADERS: Washington – Alex Ovechkin (4 GP, 3G, 2A); Mike Green (3 GP, 3G); Niklas Backstrom (4 GP, 5A); Jose Theodore (3 GP, 2-0-1, 3.05 GAA) New York - Ryan Callahan (4 GP, 3G, 1A); Chris Drury, Brandon Dubinsky, Scott Gomez (4 GP, 3A); Henrik Lundqvist (3 GP, 1-1-1, 3.57 GAA).

THE PICK: Washington in 6. While the Rangers have the advantage in goal – I’ll take Henrik Lundqvist and his career-high 38 wins on his worst day over the Jose Theodore and backups Simeon Varlmov and Michael Neuvirth – the Capitals simply have the offensive weapons that will help them to their first playoff series win since 1998.

Start with Alex Ovechkin, the repeat Maurice Richard Trophy-winner with 56 goals, and Mike Green, the leader among all defensemen with 31 tallies. Add Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, and Washington has four players each averaging a point per game for the first time since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins (Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and Petr Nedved).

Though he’s now 39, don’t overlook Sergei Federov. In 169 playoff games, the 1993-94 Hart Trophy winner has 51 goals and 117 assists.

At some point years from now, New York will probably add Ovechkin and Green. For now, though, the Rangers head into the postseason without a 30-goal or 60-point scorer and will rely on Lundqvist and the NHL’s top penalty-killing unit.

Chris Drury and Scott Gomez have combined for 71 playoff goals in 231 games. Drury had 10 power-play goals and Gomez seven game-winners to lead the Rangers in those respective categories.

New York added Nik Antropov, Sean Avery and Derek Morris at the trade deadline, and they all seemed to thrive. Antropov had seven goals, Avery 12 points and Morris eight assists in helping the Rangers to an 11-6-1 mark.

The addition of Stanley Cup-winning coach John Tortorella on Feb. 23 to replace the fired Tom Renney resulted in the Rangers going 12-7-2 over the final quarter of the season. He’ll be staring daggers for much of this series.

(3) New Jersey Devils (51-27-4, 1st, Atlantic) vs. (6) Carolina Hurricanes (45-30-7, 2nd, Southeast)

2008-09 SERIES: Carolina, 3-1-0

LEADERS: New Jersey – Patrik Elias (4 GP, 2G, 2A); Brian Rolston (4 GP, 4A); Martin Brodeur (2 GP 1-1-0, 2.03 GAA); Scott Clemmensen (1 GP, 0-1-0, 3.21 GAA). Carolina – Rod Brind’Amour (4 GP, 6A); Anton Babchuk (4 GP, 4G, 1A); Sergei Samsonov (4 GP, 3G, 1A); Cam Ward (3 GP, 3-0-0, 1.67 GAA); Michael Leighton (1 GP, 1-0-0, 3.05 GAA).

THE PICK: Carolina in 7. Sure, Martin Brodeur’s story this season was a feel-good one: Returning after missing 50 games with the first major injury of his career to break Patrick Roy’s all-tiime wins record and move two shutouts of Terry Sawchuk’s career mark.

But Brodeur has looked awfully mortal down the stretch. In seven losses since March 22, the three-time Stanley Cup winner has surrendered 26 goals for a 3.70 goals-against average. Despite all that, Brodeur is 95-74 with a 1.96 GAA and 22 shutouts in his postseason career, so you can’t discount him completely.

If Brodeur falters, Scott Clemmensen showed he’s more than up to the task. With Brodeur sidelined Clemmensen was 25-13-1 and became the only other goalie in franchise history with shutouts in consecutive games.

Zach Parise enjoyed a breakout season, leading New Jersey in almost every major category including 45 goals and 94 points. But he has only nine goals and nine assists in 25 playoff contests.

The Hurricanes also have a battle-ready goaltender in Cam Ward. The Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy winner himself, Ward was 17-4-2 with a 2.13 GAA since Feb. 19, and won a franchise-record nine straight starts over the last three weeks of 2008-09.

Carolina also has Eric Staal, a 40-goal scorer for the fifth straight season. How important was he to the ‘Canes’ furious drive to get into the playoffs for the first time since their championship season? He had 13 goals and 16 assists in the last 20 games, and Carolina was 22-3-2 when he scored a goal.

Something to keep in mind for overtime pools: Staal had eight game-winning goals.

The Devils and Hurricanes have meet three previous times in the playoffs, with the series winner appearing in the Eastern Conference final each time.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins (45-28-9, 2nd, Atlantic) vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers (44-26-11, 3rd, Atlantic)

2008-09 SERIES: Pittsburgh, 4-0-2

LEADERS: Pittsburgh – Sidney Crosby (6 GP, 4G, 5A); Evgeni Malkin (6 GP, 3G, 4A); Marc-Andre Fleury (5 GP, 3-1-0, 2.96 GAA). Philadelphia – Jeff Carter (6 GP, 3G, 5A); Mike Richards (6 GP, 2G, 5A); Kimmo Timonen (6 GP, 7A); Martin Biron (5 GP, 2-2-1, 3.37 GAA); Antero Niittymaki (1 GP, 0-0-1, 2.77 GAA).

THE PICK: Pittsburgh in 7. A rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference finals, this easily could be the best quarterfinal series this year.

The Keystone State rivals couldn’t be more evenly matched. Each team scored 264 goals this season, the Penguins allowed 239 – one more than the Flyers. Pittsburgh had 25 wins at home - one more than Philadelphia – and each team posted 20 road victories.

In Pittsburgh, the Penguins are powered by Art Ross Trophy winner Evegni Malkin (113 points) and Sidney Crosby (103). Philadelphia answers with a league-high six 25-goal scorers, including 46 from Jeff Carter with a league-leading 12 game-winners.

Add seven short-handed goals from captain Mike Richards and another 30-goal season from a finally healthy Simon Gagne, and the Flyers have the offensive weapons needed to match the Penguins.

The key, as always in the postseason, will be in goal – and that’s where Pittsburgh has the advantage with Marc-Andre Fleury over Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki.

Fleury was 9-1-2 with a 1.87 goals-against average in March, and 12-4-1 with a 2.71 GAA from Feb. 3-March 10. When giving up at least three goals, Biron was 11-16-3, while Niittymaki was 4-8-4.

Don’t miss any of these games.

NEXT: The Western Conference.

No comments: