By Stu Hackel
If you're looking for Stanley Cup predictions, you've come to the wrong place. As we've previously written, predictions are a waste of time. However, we're willing to take some stabs at what is each playoff team about. What do they have to do to win? What must they avoid to prevent things from going south?
So here are the keys to the first round match-ups in the Eastern Conference. You can find the keys to the Western Conference here.
NEW YORK RANGERS (1) vs. OTTAWA SENATORS (8)
Rangers - Who they are and how they win: This team is all about character and sacrifice, starting with captain Ryan Callahan. The Rangers play with unmatched passion, and their shot-blocking and energy are exceptional. They don't lose a lot of races for the puck and they take hits to make plays. They roll four lines and have better team speed than some think, especially up front, which gives them a dangerous quick-strike offense. Some people believe New York is a one-line team, but it had decent secondary scoring this season and, because coach John Tortorella has juggled lines all year, he can probably correct any imbalance. Solid defensively, the Rangers keep opponents to the outside and have world-class goaltending with Henrik Lundqvist.
What could go wrong: . The Rangers' shot-blocking and physical sacrifice could lead to injuries and a depleted lineup. Lundqvist was not at his best in the late going and that would be problematic if it continues in the postseason. They also don't have a great power play and taking advantage of those opportunities in the postseason is crucial. The Rangers could get frustrated if their power play falters. The worst thing they could do is be overconfident or take Ottawa too lightly. The Senators are just as fast a team and they have played well against New York all season.
Senators - Who they are and how they win: This is a high-octane offensive team that does a very good job transitioning from defense to offense. The Senators can match the Rangers' speed and they play a good puck control game that begins with dynamic young blueliner Erik Karlsson. Jason Spezza and 39-year-old Daniel Alfredsson are the engines on the top two lines. Some have noted that they've mimicked the Red Wings style, no coincidence considering coach Paul MacLean was an assistant to Mike Babcock in both Detroit and Anaheim. Ottawa also has good character guys, many of them younger players who won the AHL title last season for Binghamton.
What could go wrong: Karlsson will be a target for the Rangers' forecheckers, who try to take him out of the game. If he breaks down under the physical challenge, that halts Ottawa's attack before it gets started. The Senators could fall prey to the offensive threat that New York can pose from the blueline, especially with Michael Del Zotto and Ryan McDonagh. If goalie Craig Anderson is not at his best, that could doom Ottawa as well. It would force the Senators to consider replacing him with big rookie Ben Bishop, who played well while Anderson was out injured, but has never been in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
BOSTON BRUINS (2) vs. WASHINGTON CAPITALS (7)
Bruins -- Who they are and how they win: When they are at their best, the B's do everything well. They are solid in all three zones. They have a four-line attack. They get to the opposition net well. they're physical, proficient at the shutdown game, clear the crease well, and don't give the opposition much offensively. When they do break down, Tim Thomas or Tuukka Rask are there to stop the shots. They've won together, have excellent team chemistry and obviously know how to play postseason hockey.
What could go wrong: If Thomas isn't as sharp as he has to be, especially with Rask coming off an injury, that would pose problems. Alex Ovechkin, who has excelled lately, could find a way to beat Zdeno Chara in their match-up and Nick Backstrom could find a way to top Patrice Bergeron in theirs. Johnny Boychuk who has been Chara's blueline partner most of the season, may not be 100 percent due to a knee injury. With injured Nathan Horton out and Mark Recchi retired, who will get the timely goals those two provided last spring?
Capitals -- Who they are and how they win: This is a group trying something different. No longer run and gun, they want to be a solid defensive team and there's no evidence they've really achieved that. Fortunately, Ovechkin has raised his level of play and Backstrom has returned from a concussion, which gives them superstar creativity up front. Potentially, Alexander Semin and Mike Green can give them more firepower. The Caps' under-the-radar strength has been in the character department with guys like Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera.
What could go wrong: Injuries in goal mean playoff virgin Braden Holtby will at least start the series, with Dany Sabourin backing him up, until Michal Neuvirth can recover from his lower body injury. Even if Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun return in time, goaltending has been spotty for the Caps all season. While they have good depth on defense, aging Roman Hamrlik, who was very good in the playoffs elsewhere in recent seasons, may run out of gas. The character players on each team should cancel each other out, but if the B's shutdown abilities consistently frustrate the Caps' top producers, that could be a big blow to Washington's chances.
FLORIDA PANTHERS (3) vs. NEW JERSEY DEVILS (6)
Panthers -- Who they are and how they win: A team that gets little respect for what it accomplished this season with a bunch of cast-offs -- two-thirds of last season's roster was turned over -- the Panthers were quickly molded into a cohesive group by coach Kevin Dineen. GM Dale Tallon continued to add valuable pieces, like experienced shutdown center John Madden, during the season. They've got a number of players who have won at various levels during their careers, including the Stanley Cup. They play a four-line game, have lots of skill and are never outworked. Brian Campbell is their spark plug from the back end and he led the rebuilt defense corps along with Ed Jovanovski, who supplies great leadership. For most of the season, they've gotten good goaltending from veterans Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen.
What could go wrong: The Panthers seemed to stall as a club just before the finish line and if they have run out of gas, the Devils are the wrong team for them to be facing. If Theodore can't rebound from his late season slippage, Clemmensen goes in and he has virtually no Stanley Cup playoff experience. And the Panthers best scorers, like Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Steven Weiss, will have to continue to produce or Florida will have little chance of getting past New Jersey.
Devils -- Who they are and how they win: The hottest -- and perhaps most overlooked -- team coming into the playoffs, the Devils' identity has shifted in recent years from a stifling defensive club to one that relies on skill and the puck possession game. Few are better than Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise at that. Getting top center Travis Zajac back from injury has deepened their strength up front. The Devs' defense, led by shot-blocking warrior Anton Volchenkov, is underrated. New Jersey is outstanding on the penalty kill and led the NHL with 15 shorthanded goals. Plus, the Devils have a Hall of Fame goalie in Martin Brodeur and a more than capable backup in Johan Hedberg. Both know what the postseason is about.
What could go wrong: Brodeur, whose last few playoff trips haven't been dominant, could return to that form. Don't discount Dineen devising a plan to contain the Devils top forwards, with Madden (a three-time Cup champion) as the centerpiece). If the Devils' penalty killing falters against a Panthers team that has a strong power play and no shortage of offensive weapons, it could be fatal for their chances.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (4) vs. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (5)
Penguins -- Who they are and how they win: They're a slick, fast-moving, highly skilled team that can score from almost anywhere. No one in hockey can match their strength down the middle in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, and coach Dan Bylsma is expert at getting them on the ice at the right times. They have a strong transition game and a quick strike offense. They don't spend a lot of time in their own zone defending, although their backline corps is quite good. And, they have a strong physical dimension.
What could go wrong: If the Penguins become obsessed with the Flyers' physical style and get away from their game, or if they get frustrated in the event the Flyers are successful in shutting them down with their matchups, it could neutralize Pittsburgh's star players and be a deciding factor. Also, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has not been at the top of his game recently. If that continues, it could spell trouble.
Flyers - Who they are and how they win: This is a physical, grinding, smash-mouth club with very good speed. Their stars aren't wallflowers, either, and, led by Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds, Max Talbot and others, they'll push back when confronted. Coach Peter Laviolette is adept at matching his best checkers, both forwards and defenders, against the opposition's top skill players. After a shaky start to the season, they got excellent goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov down the stretch, at least until he broke his foot.
What could go wrong: They're not only missing their leader on defense, Chris Pronger (concussion), but Andrej Meszaros (back surgery). Nicklass Grossman (lower body) may not be 100 percent and that could cause problems. Up front, in addition to the long-term absence of James van Riemsdyk, Danny Briere may not be at top speed and that could hurt Philly's offensive depth. Bryzgalov has never been a postseason star and he's playing hurt. Even though they are a good matchup, the Penguins have so much firepower that the Flyers may not be deep enough to contain it.
Those are the keys in the East. The keys in the Western Conference are here.
Jason Lang is a young Canadian singer with a unique background (his father was the legendary New York folk and blues singer Dave Van Ronk, his mother the Canadian folk music icon Penny Lang) and great taste in music. Here's the original of that song.
B.B. did a masterful updated version of that song about a decade later but, alas, it isn't anywhere on YouTube. Too bad.
COMMENTING GUIDELINES: We encourage engaging, diverse and meaningful commentary and hope you will join the discussion. We also encourage, but do not require, that you use your real name. Please keep comments on-topic and relevant to the original post. To foster healthy discussion, we will review all comments BEFORE they are posted. We expect a basic level of civility toward each other and the subjects of this blog. Disagreements are fine, but mutual respect is a must. Comments will not be approved if they contain profanity (including the use of abbreviations and punctuation marks instead of letters); any abusive language or personal attacks including insults, name-calling, threats, harassment, libel and slander; hateful, racist, sexist, religious or ethnically offensive language; or efforts to promote commercial products or solicitations of any kind, including links that drive traffic to your own website. Flagrant or repeat offenders run the risk of being banned from commenting.