Tuesday April 12th, 2011

Alexander Ovechkin and the newly defense-minded Capitals will be tested by the never-say-die Rangers. (Ray Stubblebine/Reuters)

By Stu Hackel

The chase for the Stanley Cup begins on Wednesday and while there is often a clear-cut favorite -- or a few favorites -- this playoff field seems more wide-open than at any time in the last few seasons.

It's hard to say that any team this year can be considered the kind of pre-playoff Cup pick that, for example, the Red Wings or Penguins have been in recent springs. None of the 16 clubs come into the tournament without significant strengths or significant questions.

One of our late March posts focused specifically on goaltending for the teams in contention, and now we can take a little broader look at the matchups and offer some brief thoughts -- nothing too comprehensive here -- on how things might play out in the first round. Here's a look at the Eastern Conference. (CLICK HERE for some thoughts on the Western Conference first round.)

Capitals (1) vs. Rangers (8)

The big story lines here have to do with these teams' identities. The Rangers enjoy a reputation as one of the hardest-working and best shot-blocking clubs in the NHL, a never-say-die group that is excellent  at coming from behind in the third period. The Caps have tried to change their identity from a free-wheeling offensive juggernaut to a defensively responsible crew that is hard to play against, and they added some experienced guys at the deadline to help them do that, specifically Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm and Dennis Wideman (although only Sturm has played regularly since).

The Caps will be facing one of the NHL's best goalies in Henrik Lundqvist, who will be looking to duplicate what Jaroslav Halak did to Washington in the first round last season. The Rangers will be facing Michal Neuvirth, but he has zero NHL playoff experience. Semyon Varlamov, who has been Bruce Boudreau's go-to guy the last two years, could eventually get the call. And if both falter, there's Braden Holtby, currently in Hershey, who played rather well in his March stint with the Caps.

The Capitals had a great stretch run, going 16-3-1 in their last 20 games and passing the Flyers, who they had trailed by 12 points in late February. Their best offensive defenseman, Mike Green, was out of the lineup with a concussion for those 20 games. Coincidence? Hmmm.

Alex Ovechkin failed to score a single goal against the Rangers this season, notching only two assists, and he was minus-1 in those four games, but he had a very good stretch run (23 points in 17 games), as did Nicklas Backstrom, who had a subpar, injury-riddled season until the last 10 games, in which he produced nine points.

The Rangers won't have their spiritual leader, top line winger Ryan Callahan, although they did get captain Chris Drury back for the season finale. Drury's a great leader as well, if not as offensively productive as he once was.

Could this be an upset in the making? The Caps have been playoff underachievers. A lot depends on the Rangers' young defense and their overall ability to generate offense without Callahan, the play of enigmatic Marian Gaborik and, of course, Lundqvist -- plus the Caps' resolve to continue their patient, D-first style of play, wait for turnovers and pounce. In this battle of identities, that's how Washington can trap John Tortorella's "safe is death" Rangers.

Flyers (2) vs. Buffalo (7)

On paper, the Flyers appear to be much stronger than the Sabres. Just look at their centers (Mike Richards, Claude Giroux, Danny Briere and Blair Betts) compared to Buffalo's (Tim Connolly, Paul Gaustad, Brad Boyes and Matt Ellis). But Philly ended the season poorly at 9-11-5, picking up just 23 of a possible 50 points, and showed few clear signs that they were ready to pull out of their spiral (as we discussed last week). They were frequently outworked during this stretch, and in the critical areas of playoff hockey -- special teams and goaltending -- they were much less than great.

Not having Chris Pronger at 100 percent, or not having him at all, for much of the stretch has had big impact. It's unclear if he'll play during this round and no one can say what sort of shape he'll be in as he recovers from a broken hand. He routinely played 30 minutes per game last spring in all situations during the Flyers' run to the Cup final. Without him, they have to distribute his minutes to others who are not quite as dominant. Briere and Betts are now banged up as well.

The Sabres, on the other hand, had a strong second half: 28-11-6 since Jan. 1, and they did it without top line center Derek Roy, sprinting to a 9-1-2 finish. One unheralded factor was the important contributions from their younger players. Drew Stafford (31 goals), Tyler Ennis (20 goals), little Nathan Gerbe (16 goals), Tyler Myers (a better second half than his sophomore slump first), unsung blueliner Andrej Sekera (plus-11) and goalie Jhonas Enroth all became an important parts of the team and provided good depth to the Sabres' established players.

In goal, the Flyers will once again face their annual questions with Sergei Bobrovsky. Or Brian Boucher. Or Michael Leighton. The Sabres have Ryan Miller, with Enroth in reserve. Big edge to the Sabres there if Miller is healthy.

Of course, once the puck drops and the regular season is wiped clean, it gives the Flyers a chance to turn the page. Their forwards are among most talented in the NHL, with great strength down the middle and firepower on the wings. Their defense corps, especially with a full-strength Pronger, is deep and effective. If they engage to the level they're capable of and have a dominant Pronger and all their centers in the lineup, the Flyers can grind down most teams -- including the smallish Sabres.

Without those elements, however, the Flyers could be vulnerable to an upset.

Bruins (3) vs. Canadiens (6)

This is potentially the most volatile pairing of the first round: two teams with a long, fierce rivalry that has once again taken an ugly turn this year. It also makes for potentially great hockey. Augmenting the animus is the fact that the Bruins and Habs play contrasting styles and that's probably the basis of how this one will be decided.

The teams played six times this season. In the four games the Canadiens won, their speed dominated Boston's physical play. In the two games Boston won, it was the other way around -- and the Habs' flaccid response in the last meeting, a 7-0 thrashing by the B's on March 24, with the specter of the Zdeno Chara-Max Pacioretty hit from earlier in the month hovering over the proceedings, left a bitter aftertaste in Montreal.

What that the Canadiens need to prevail is clear and the formula that Jacques Martin employed to upend the Caps and Pens last spring hasn't changed: great goaltending, strong special teams, disciplined play. He's also going to need some of his underachievers, specifically Scott Gomez and Benoit Pouliot, to turn it up a notch or two and get another big postseason from Mike Cammalleri, so that other playoff formula -- your best players have to be your best players -- can fully kick in, especially without Pacioretty's services.

The Bruins' deadline additions of Tomas Kaberle, Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly haven't exactly paid off handsomely, but they haven't really had to yet. If they can turn up now (Peverley had some impressive moments in recent games), it would add to depth that is already superior to Montreal's

More importantly, the Bruins may be heartened that they won that March 24 game without resorting to excessive goonery and allowed their considerable talents with the puck and body do the work. This is how they'll have to play if they want to advance. But it's very far from guaranteed that's how things will go down, especially if Montreal's speed, transition game, penalty killing, shotblocking and goaltending frustrate the Bruins.

Penguins (4) vs. Lightning (5)

Many observers are painting this matchup as the Pens' defense against the Bolts' offense. That's a bit of an oversimplification. Certainly the Lightning can light it up with Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, Ryan Malone (if he's healthy) and Simon Gagne in the lineup. And Penguins coach Dan Bylsma is given much credit for reconfiguring his club after Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin went down. It has relied on a strong defense corps and the excellent play of Marc-Andre Fleury to have an unexpectedly strong second half.

But let's look a bit deeper. Crosby played 41 games, a half-season, which is a convenient amount to use when drawing comparisons. The Pens scored 32 fewer goals (.78 per game) in the second half than in the first, but they allowed only five more, so they were about even there. And they followed their 55-point first half with 51 in the second. So they kept winning, but just not by as big a margin. Which means you can't entirely discount their ability to generate offense. One reason is that they have Kris Letang quarterbacking their rushes and power play. His 42 assists were second among Eastern Conference defenseman (one behind Kaberle). There are some considerable talents up front for the Pens, too. Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, James Neal (although he hasn't exactly torn it up since coming over from Dallas), Tyler Kennedy and Alex Kovalev all know where the net is. Of course, in Kovalev's case, his two goals and four assists in 19 games as a Penguin could indicate the end of his career is at hand.

But let's not get too carried away. No one is going to confuse these guys with the 1984 Oilers, and the Lightning are much stronger at forward. It's the Pens' ability to shut down teams with experienced checking forwards like Pascal Dupuis and Max Talbot that gives them a winning dimension up front.

On the other hand, if the Pens aren't the '84 Oilers, the Bolts aren't the '95 Devils. Tampa Bay's defense corps is nowhere near as strong as Pittsburgh's, which apart from Letang, also boasts Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, among others. And while goaltender Dwayne Roloson has had a number of great games this season, he's turned in some stinkers, too -- and he's 41 years old. Mike Smith behind him played well recently, but you have to give the edge in goal to the Pens.

The Lightning's record in March -- winning only one of 12 regulation games, and only one in a shootout, gaining seven of 24 points in total, spoiled a very good season. Things started to look bleak. And yet the Bolts managed to get themselves back on the rails and go into the playoffs by winning seven of eight, all in regulation, while allowing just 14 goals in that span.

Could Lightning coach Guy Boucher have been retooling his club down the stretch to surprise the NHL by playing more of a shutdown game? He's a great teacher, an excellent tactician, and he's not bereft of effective checking forwards (hello, Dominic Moore and Adam Hall). If the Lightning can bottle up the Pens (let's assume Crosby isn't in the picture), cut them down in the neutral zone and make them spend the series in their own zone, they could wear down Fleury and his defensemen.

Don't hand this series to the Penguins so quickly.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.