Well, after 1,230 games the curtain has finally closed on the 2009-10 NHL regular season, and what a season it was. There was no shortage of compelling drama down the stretch as multiple bubble teams struggled to capture a coveted playoff spot. As a result fans have been treated to close to a month of playoff intensity level hockey, with desperate teams clawing for valuable points down the stretch.
In the Eastern Conference the battles were particularly tight, with the Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers all scrapping it out until the final minutes of the regular season to determine who would make the playoffs and who wouldn't. In the case of the Rangers and Flyers the decision came after 65 minutes of tooth and nail hockey, and ultimately took a shootout to determine who would secure the final playoff berth. A terrible way to decide such an important game, but I digress.
With the match-ups now set for the playoffs it is time for the prognosticators to come out and try and predict the winners. I figured I might as well contribute my own two cents on the matter, and do my best to try and foretell the outcome of the series laid out before us. Here are my 2010 NHL playoff predictions for the Eastern Conference:
#1 - WASHINGTON CAPITALS vs #8 MONTREAL CANADIENS
This is the biggest mismatch of the first round of the playoffs in either conference. The Capitals have been the class of the league since opening night of the regular season, quickly surging to the top of the standings and remaining there. Their 121 points was a franchise record, and gave them a cushy 8 point margin of victory over the San Jose Sharks in the President's Trophy race.
The Canadiens, on the other hand, barely managed to limp into the playoffs. They needed only 2 points in their final three games. With a playoff berth on the line, and facing 3 non-playoff teams in the New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs the Habs should have cruised into the playoffs. Instead, they managed to secure the bare minimum they required - 2 of a possible 6 points - making their increasingly nervous fans wait on pins and needles right up until the dying moments of regulation of game 82 before finally claiming their spot. Because they stumbled so badly down the stretch they must face the juggernaut Capitals in the first round, instead of arguably easier match-ups against either the New Jersey Devils or the Buffalo Sabres.
As big a mismatch as this one is on paper, I think it will be an ever bigger mismatch on the ice. The capitals have an embarrassment of fire power in Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich. They rank first in the league in powerplay efficiency, third in penalty killing, and have one of the best coaches in the league in 2008 Jack Adams winner Bruce Boudreau.
The only place where the Capitals might have a weakness is on the back end. Their defensive core certainly wouldn't be the envy of the league and the tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Jose Theodore in net is a big question mark going into this year's playoffs.
However, Washington's forwards spend so much time with the puck, and Montreal's forwards are so challenged to score, any deficiencies Washington's back end might have will remain unexposed against the Habs. Mike Cammalleri, Andrei Kostitsyn have both been ice cold since returning from injury, and if they don't pick up their game the Capitals will have little trouble shutting down an anemic Habs offense that managed to score only 20 goals in their final 10 games.
It is obviously already abundantly clear who I'm picking to win this series. Habs fans should be thrilled if their team wins a single game in the series - something they've failed to do in the first round of the past two seasons. However, I do believe they can steal one game, simply because of the stellar play of Jaroslav Halak. Halak was brilliant down the stretch, and his crucial back to back shutouts over the Flyers and the Sabres is the reason Habs fans will get to watch their Canadiens in the playoffs at all. However, Halak's magic will only take them far enough to avoid the broom.
PREDICTION: Washington wins the series 4-1
#2 NEW JERSEY DEVILS vs #7 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
This one isn't quite the slam dunk that the Caps/Habs series is, but it is close. Once again the New Jersey Devils are a contender, thanks to great goaltending by Martin Brodeur, stellar team defense put in place by coach Jacques Lemaire, and a talented group of forwards that includes superstars Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Top to bottom the Devils are solid, and they will tough for any opponent to eliminate in a 7 game series.
The Flyers, on the other hand, are a bit of an enigma. On paper, this team looks too good to have needed a shootout win in game 82 of the regular season just to qualify for the playoffs. With a group of forwards including Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere, Simon Gagne and James Van Riemsdyk the offensive core of the Flyers is rock solid.
On defense they are anchored by former Norris and Hart trophy winning defenseman Chris Pronger. Pronger has plenty of help on the blueline from Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn and Ryan Parent. On paper their defensive core should stand up admirably against any group of blueliners in the league.
However, as always seems to be the case with the Flyers, it is their goaltending that is the biggest question mark. The Flyers raised eyebrows going into the season with the signing of Ray Emery. However, Flyers fans would be delighted to have the controversial tender between the pipes now. Instead, after injuries to both Emery and backup Michael Leighton, the Flyers playoff hopes rest on the narrow shoulders of journeyman Brian Boucher. Boucher has played decently in a rescue role with the Flyers, but it is unreasonable to expect him to out-duel NHL goaltending legend Martin Brodeur in a 7 game series.
All in all, I think we will see close games in the series, but the Devils specialize in tight games, and will come out victorious in all but one of them.
PREDICTION: New Jersey wins the series 4-1
#3 BUFFALO SABRES vs #6 BOSTON BRUINS
Of all the first round series in the Eastern Conference I believe this one will be the tightest. Since the days when they battled one another in the tightly contested Adams Division these two franchises have had a mutual loathing for one another, and that hate hasn't dissipated one iota over the years. Every inch of ice will be bitterly contested and there will be plenty of lumps and bumps dished out by the time the dust settles on this one.
The Buffalo Sabres are very much an "offense by committee" team, with their highest scorer - Derek Roy - finishing 32nd in league scoring with 69 points. Roy will be helped out by Tim Connolly, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, who netted 65, 62 and 53 points respectively this season. Vanek, in particular, will have to be a factor if the Sabres want to do damage in this year's playoffs. Though his numbers certainly do not justify his enormous $7 million per season contract Vanek has been hot to close out the season, scoring 5 goals in the team's final two games. However, he will likely cool down in a hurry if Bruins' coach Claude Julien decides to match hulking d-man Zdeno Chara against him.
On defense the Sabres are surprisingly led by a rookie. Tyler Myers, who towers nearly as tall as Chara, has played with a poise and an offensive flair belying his tender years. Myers, who finished 5th in team scoring with 48 points and was an impressive +13 in his inaugural campaign, is the odds-on favorite to win the Calder trophy. Look for Myers to play big minutes against Boston's top forwards.
Buffalo's biggest ace in the hole is, of course, goaltender Ryan Miller. Through the entire regular season, and the Olympics Miller has been the best tender in the game, routinely stealing games for the Sabres they had no business winning. Miller's dominant performance this season has made him a sure bet to nab the Vezina trophy, and even has his name being whispered in conversations for the Hart trophy. If Miller continues to play the way he has been then the chances of the Bruins are slim indeed.
The challenge in scoring on Ryan Miller is magnified even further by the fact that the Bruins are a team that has trouble scoring on anybody, let alone the Vezina favorite. With Phil Kessel gone to Toronto and Marc Savard out with a serious concussion, the Bruins have struggled to score for most of the season. Players like David Krejci, Blake Wheeler, Milan Lucic and Michael Ryder all had statistically inferior seasons to the one previous. As a result the Bruins finished dead last in goals for, netting only 206 the entire season.
On defense the Bruins have arguably the most dominant defenseman in the league in defending Norris trophy winner Zdeno Chara. Chara can eat up close to 30 minutes of ice time a game without flagging, and is a force at both ends of the ice, excelling as a shutdown man against the league's top forwards. However, some of that advantage may be nullified by the simple fact that Buffalo doesn't really have a particular star for Chara to match up against. Vanek is the most likely target, but Buffalo has done pretty well this season, despite the fact that Vanek hasn't exactly put up stellar numbers.
The biggest surprise for the Bruins comes in net. Nobody predicted that defending Vezina trophy winner Tim Thomas would be relegated to a back-up role this season, but that is exactly what has happened. Rookie Tuukka Rask has snatched the number one role on the strength of his incredible play this season. Rask's save percentage - .931 - is two points better than Ryan Miller's, and his 1.97 goals against is a full quarter of a goal better than Miller's. Rask led the league in both categories this season. If Rask can continue the same high level of play during the playoffs then he will effectively nullify the Sabres' supposed advantage in net.
Overall, evidence points to this being an incredibly low scoring series. Fans will have to be satisfied cheering for big hits and great saves rather than goals in this one. I'd be surprised to see any of the games decided by more than two goals. Though Boston will certainly be in every game, I think the slight edge the Sabres have on offense and the experience of Miller in net vs Rask as a rookie will ultimately be telling.
PREDICTION: Buffalo wins the series 4-2
#4 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS vs #5 OTTAWA SENATORS
Though not a traditional rivalry by any means, these two teams have been meeting regularly in the playoffs for the past half decade, so there is some built-in bad blood that may spill over before this series is said and done. With agitators like Matt Cooke and Jarkko Ruutu out there you know guys like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson will all have targets on their chest.
Though these two teams finished only 7 points apart in the standings, I believe Pittsburgh has to be considered the heavy favorite in this match-up. First, and most importantly, they are the defending Stanley Cup champions, and have been too the finals in each of the last two seasons. That experience will be a huge factor in Pittsburgh's playoff run this season.
Second, the Penguins have arguably the greatest player in the game today in Sidney Crosby. Crosby became the youngest player in NHL history to captain his team to a Stanley Cup last spring. This year he has scored an Olympic gold medal winning goal, and he has completely reinvented his game, switching it up from pure passer to one of the deadliest snipers in the game. He was so successful that he actually tied with Steven Stamkos in the race for the Rocket Richard trophy, beating out arch-rival Alexander Ovechkin by a single tally - a result no one ever would have predicted at the beginning of the season. Crosby comes into the playoffs on a hot streak, and he will be a handful for the Senators to contend with.
Crosby doesn't enjoy the offensive help that Ovechkin gets in Washington, but superstar forward Evgeni Malkin isn't too shabby. Malkin has had an off-year by his standards, but he won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP last spring. If he can regain that form the Penguins will be sitting pretty.
Ultimately it will be the play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury that determines the Pens' fate. Fleury, like Malkin is suffering from a bit of a Stanley Cup hangover, and hasn't seemed able to put together a consistent stretch to get his confidence back up to the level it was at last spring.
The Senators will be led by Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza once again, with third Musketeer Dany Heatley moved onto to greener pastures in San Jose. Jonathan Cheechoo, who came the other way in the Heatley deal has been a complete bust, scoring a measly 5 goals all season. However, Mike Fisher has had a bounceback year. The Senators' hopes took a devastating blow when it was learned that Alexei Kovalev's knee injury was actually a torn ACL and effectively ended the Russian star's 2009-10 season.
The picture isn't much brighter for the Sens on defense. Veteran Chris Phillips and shot-blocking specialist Anton Volchenkov will have to carry the load on a defensive core that is noticeably absent of stars. They will have to play a near perfect defensive game if they want to shut down Crosby and Malkin.
In net the Senators' fortunes rest on the shoulders of Brian Elliott. Elliott has been a pleasant surprise, and the young tender has impressed with 5 shutouts, and a respectable 2.57 goals against average. He will need to play at the absolute pinnacle of his game to give the Senators any shot at all in my opinion.
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh wins the series 4-1
As you can see I'm not predicting any upsets in the first round. Though in this age of parity it is common for lower seeded teams to advance in this case I think there is a distinct line between the 1 through 4 in the conference and 5 through 8. More compelling battles will come in round two and beyond when the Eastern superpowers start to clash.
Look for my Western Conference playoff predictions, coming tomorrow.