Here are my previews for the last two Eastern Conference matchups that begin tonight (the first two are here), starting with the one that will consume my life for the next two weeks.
#2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. #7 Buffalo Sabres
As a Flyers fan, I wish this wasn’t one of the most intriguing matchups out of the East in the first round. Philadelphia coasted through the last two months of the regular season, looking like a team just waiting for the playoffs to start after absolutely steam-rolling the entire NHL from October through January. Whether they got complacent, cocky, or just too comfortable sitting in first place doesn’t matter at this point. They blew a huge Eastern Conference lead (and almost the Atlantic Division title) and now have to face one of the hottest teams coming into the playoffs in the Buffalo Sabres. But as we all know, the Stanley Cup Playoffs is a new season. Time to forget everything that happened in the months prior and win one game at a time.
It is no secret that offensively, this team is as deep as it gets. They have seven 20-goal scorers in their lineup (plus Ville Leino with 19G). They have by far the best center depth in the NHL with Claude Giroux, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Danny Briere rotating the job for the top three lines, and Blair Betts handling the checking duties on the fourth. These three lines are deadly when on and pose huge matchup problems for teams with lesser depth, such as the Buffalo Sabres. One key Flyers forward in this series is Danny Briere, who absolutely murders his former team; he has 19 pts in 14 career games against the Sabres, and 8 pts in 4 games against them this year.
On defense, the big story line is Chris Pronger’s wrist injury that has held him out of the lineup for the last month. He is officially out of the lineup for Game 1 and questionable for Game 2 (my guess is he returns for Game 3). But then again, this is the playoffs – misdirection and misleading the opponent in the media is seen everyday, especially with Pronger – so who really knows. There is no doubt that Pronger will be missed for his intangibles – his leadership, tenacity, and intimidation, especially in the playoffs, is unrivaled. But luckily for the Flyers, the have incredible defensive depth thanks to some key off season acquisitions by GM Paul Holmgren. Adrej Mezaros (8G, 24A, +30) has shown why he was such a valuable player in Otttawa and veteran Cup winner Sean O’Donnell brings some grit missed with absence of Pronger. A lot of the weight (and minutes) will be on the shoulders of Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, who have shown in the past that they play better with heavy work loads.
It wouldn’t be spring time in Philadelphia without the Flyers’ biggest question mark heading into the playoffs being their goaltending situation. Twentytwo year-old rookie Sergei Bobrovsky gets the nod as the starting goalie in Game 1. He posted 28 wins, a 2.59 GAA and a .915 SV% in his first campaign in the NHL – impressive by any standards. He is a butterfly goalie’s butterfly goalie, capabale of making jaw-dropping saves that make you almost shit your pants in amazement. In the second half of the season, however, he has shown spurts of inconsistency that have led to bad goals that also make you almost shit your pants, but in utter disgust. The question is which Bob will show up in the playoffs? Whichever one, he will be on a short leash with Brian Boucher and 2010 Stanley Cup Finals goalie Michael Leighton waiting in the wings.
- In Bob We Trust
Along with their team depth, I am confident that the experience these players gained in last year’s Cup Final run will serve the Flyers well heading into this series. Yes, last year was last year, but when questions are brought up surrounding this team’s need for urgency and a “playoff attitude”, these guys will tap into that experience from last season to get them mentally ready for the brawl that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Key Player: D, Braydon Coburn – With Pronger’s status up in the air, Braydon Coburn is going to need to be the Flyers’ answer to eliminating big Sabres’ forward Thomas Vanek (see below). Kimmo Timonen can shut down nearly any forward in the league with speed and great pursuit angles, but Vanek’s size in front of the net can pose a big problem for Timonen’s smaller build. Enter 6’5″, 227 lbs Braydon Coburn. One of the bright spots on this Flyers team in the last two months, Coburn elevated his game down the stretch, playing big, mean, strong, and most importantly, doing this consistently. Bottom line: If Coburn and the Flyers defense stop Vanek, they win this series.
The numbers don’t lie. The Sabres went 8-1-1 in their last 10 games (including an overtime win against the Flyers) and are smoking hot at the right time of year. Their roster will not wow you with depth on either end, but they play a great team game and are all-in on Head Coach Lindy Ruff’s system. The Sabres combine speed (Drew Stafford, Jason Pomminville, Tim Connolly) and physicality (Thomas Vanek, Brad Boyes, Paul Gaustad) to hit opponents with whichever style fits the flow of the game. The top line of Connolly-Vanek-Pominville along with a formidable second line have been clicking in the past month and will need to continue to do so to get past the Flyers in the opening round.
Defensive depth is Buffalo’s biggest weakness. 21 year-old man-child Tyler Myers (6’8″, 227lbs) is the star on the blueline, showing great poise, speed, and toughness at a young age. Watch out for this kid to be one of the elite defensemen in the league for a long time. Veteran Steve Montador has Cup Finals experience (Calgary, 2006) and Jordan Leopold has proven to be a nice addition for Buffalo. Outside of these three, the Sabres plug-and-play three defensemen have even less experience than the 21 year-old Myers and are mediocre at the NHL level. This poses a huge matchup problem for the Sabres who need to find a way to stop the three legitimate scoring lines that Philadelphia rolls.
Luckily, Ryan Miller is their goalie. This beloved American has been one of the elite goaltenders in the league for half a decade and is one of the first goalies I think of when I hear the phrase “stealing games”. He is a major wild card in this series though, having missed the last six games (minus two periods) with a collarbone injury. He is admittedly not at 100%. It is important for the Flyers to get all over him early and force him to prove that he is healthy enough to be the guy in net for the Sabres. If not, rookie Jhonas Enroth is a big drop-off.
Its Miller Time in Buffalo.
Key Player: C, Thomas Vanek – Vanek is the engine that makes this offense run. He’s not going to burn defensemen wide with speed, but he is very strong and plays way bigger than a guy who is 6’2″, 209 lbs. He is the integral component to a Sabres powerplay that ranked 9th in the league and operated at nearly 20% efficiency. The Austrian is a deadly force around the net and is a master of positioning himself in front of the netminder and in scoring areas. When it comes to loose pucks in the money area, few players in the league are better at finishing in tight spaces (32G, 41A, 73pts). He has a tough matchup against the bigger Flyers defensemen in Braydon Coburn and Andrej Mezaros, and an even tougher one when Chris Pronger returns to the lineup.Vanek needs to be all systems go for the Sabres in this series.
Prediction: I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Flyers drop one of the first two at home, but their depth will be too overwhelming for the Sabres’ 2 offensive lines and 1.5 defensive pairs to handle in a seven game series. Adding Chris Pronger back into the mix hopefully by Game 3, and it will be Flyers in 6. But for the record, I do have a man crush on Ryan Miller…
#3 Boston Bruins vs. #6 Montreal Canadiens
To me, this is the first round series in the East that is going to be the most fun matchup from both a style-of-play standpoint and a rivalry perspective. The two teams are polar opposites: the Bruins are physical grinders that win games by wearing opponents down; the Canadiens are fast and fluid skaters that win games by making you chase their speedsters up and down the ice all night. Besides world-class goaltending, the only thing these squads have in common is blood-boiling hatred for their opponent. These two Original Six teams have brewed contempt for one another for decades now, having rekindled this fire over the last five years or so. Their games are always heated, always physical, and down right nasty. Expect no different from this series. Throw in the Zdeno Chara hit that broke Max Pacioretty’s neck near to the point of severation a month ago (leading to a criminal investigation by the Montreal Police) and we have the fixings for quite the doozy of a series on our hands here.
Boston: This is a Boston team that relies on their physicality to command flow of the game. Led by one of the truest power forwards in the game, Milan Lucic (30G, 32A, 62pts, +28), the Bruins are deep down the middle with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, and rely on goal scoring produced by grinding it out along the wall and imposing their size on their opponent. Dump, chase, cycle, repeat is the name of the game for Boston’s offense and should prove to be an effective formula against a grossly undersized Montreal team. Particularly in a long playoff series, I see Boston’s physicality taking a serious toll on the Canadiens if they are unable to match the Bruins’ physical play.
On defense, everyone knows about Zdeno Chara, his monster shot from the point, insane strength, and freakishly long neck. Tomas Kaberle, acquired at the trade deadline from the Toronto Maple Leafs, is often overshadowed (literally) by Chara and could prove to be a series changer if he starts playing the game that has brought him into the “top defensemen conversations” he has been in for most of his career (see Key Player).
- Chara has a neck that can make a giraffe jealous!
In goal, the Bruins have my pick for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. Tim Thomas (another American might I add) posted a skinny 2.00 GAA and a ridiculous .938 SV% en route to 35 wins for the B’s in the regular season. This man is a gamer. He rises to the occassion when the pressure is on and simply never quits on a play, leading to many of those “Holy Shit!” saves you see in highlight reels.
Key Player: D, Tomas Kaberle – Now is the time for Kaberle to prove to the Bruins managament that he was worth the early round draft picks and a solid prospect. He is a deadly asset on the powerplay with a great nack for the offensive zone, knowing when to step up into the play and rip shots on goal. However, he hasn’t quite found all of his game since coming over to Boston. Perhaps being in the Stanley Cup Playoffs will rejuvenate Kaberle after becoming accustomed to playing golf in April year in and year out with the lousy and embarrassing Maple Leafs.
Montreal: The speedy Canadiens play a fluid finesse game that has defined this franchise since the days of the Original Six. Afterall, with a team as small as they are, they must rely on speed just to be able to escape the opponents looking to squash their pip-squeak forwards. Led by Mike Cammalleri (5’9″, 183lbs), Brian Gionta (5’7″, 174 lbs), Scott Gomez (5’11”, 195 lbs), and Tomas Plekanec (5’11”, 198 lbs), the Montreal attack is swift and works best in transition when they can catch the opposing defense flat-footed.
Losing Josh Gorges and Andre Markov early in the season was a big hit for the Canadiens. However, rookie P.K. Subban has filled the role nicely, teaming up with 6’7″ Hal Gill as Montreal’s shutdown duo. For the record, I can’t stand Subban as much as any defenseman in the East because he yaps way too much for a rookie. He needs to pay his dues and respect the game before he can run around acting afool.
- Subban running his mouth as usual.
Anyway, Carey Price is the Canadiens goalie. I have learned to love Price after last season’s Eastern Conference Finals where the Flyers lit him up in a 5-game series win when he let in soft goal after soft goal. However, this is not the Carey Price of last year. He led the league in wins this season with 28 (and 8 shutouts), and posted a 2.35GAA with a .923 SV%. He was by far and away the Canadiens MVP this season and will need to continue to do so if Montreal has a shot at going anywhere in these playoffs.
Key Player: C, Tomas Plekanec – Plekanec finished the season with a decent line (22G, 35A, 57pts), but is seen as somewhat of a dissappointed considering he scored only 3 goals in his final 22 games. If not for a sluggish finish, he could have easily eclipsed the 30 goal mark for the first time in his career. Plekanec has a great wrist shot and gets into open space very well, but needs to rediscover his scoring touch for the Canadiens to get through Tim Thomas and a stingy and physical Boston defense.
Prediction: This is going to be a great series with lots of fire and violence. But in the end I think Boston’s physicality will win over Montreal’s quickness. Plus, I gotta go with the American goalie over the dirty canuck. Boston in 7.
My picks out West:
Canucks in 7 (Canucks lead 1-0) – Other than playoff experience and a lot of pressure, Vancouver has no glaring weaknesses.
Coyotes in 6 (Red Wings lead 1-0) – No Zetterberg. No series victory for the Wings.
Sharks in 6 – They are hot right now.
Ducks in 5 (Predators lead 1-0) – I love Corey Perry.