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Friday, June 21, 2024
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NHL Playoffs Preview

EASTERN CONFERENCE

The NHL's regular season has come to a close. There will be no more hockey until the fall for an unlucky 14 teams, but the real challenge is only beginning for the other 53 percent of the league. It's time to grow out those beards and stop doing laundry, because the NHL playoffs are here.

No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. No. 8 New York Rangers

The Capitals offense, once known as the most dangerous in the league, is not as explosive as it has been in the last few seasons. The team ranks in the bottom half of the league in goals for, with 219. That being said, Alex Ovechkin is still an offensive force to be reckoned with. The 25-year-old Russian is ranked third in the conference in points.

The biggest concern for the Caps going forward is injuries, especially to the defense. The team has already lost two of its top defenders (Mike Green and Tom Poti) for the season, and a third, Dennis Wideman, is expected to miss at least the first round of the playoffs with a lower-body injury.

The Rangers, like every low seed in the history of sports, don't appear to have much of a chance in the first round. The team is not very intimidating on the offensive side of the ice, sitting at No. 15 in goals for and No. 18 in power play percentage.

The team's strength is the play of its goaltender Henrick Lundqvist. As mediocre as the offense has been, the Rangers have been able to stay in contention because of a starting goalie that ranks third in the conference in goals against average and saves, even though he has faced the fifth most shots.

The depleted Washington defense and struggling offense will prove to be too much of a detriment going up against a Ranger squad that is all but at full strength. Get ready for a major upset in the first round of the playoffs.

Prediction: Rangers in seven

No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 7 Buffalo Sabres

The Flyers have not disappointed after going to the Stanley Cup Finals last season. The team was edged out of the No. 1 spot by one point after spending the majority of the season as the conference's top team.

Philadelphia has the most potent offense in the conference. The team is No. 1 in the conference and No. 2 in the league in goals for. This is mostly because the team is led by Claude Giroux, ranked third in the conference for assists, and Jeff Carter, ranked second in the conference for goals.

The team is amazing while at full strength, but the same cannot be said about special teams. The Flyers are No. 19 in the league in power play percentage and No. 15 in penalty kill. This may turn out to be a huge handicap going into the most physical hockey any of these teams will play all season.

Despite losing the team's points leader, Derek Roy, in December, the Sabres have been able to regroup and finish out the season still ranked fourth in the conference in offensive production. This is even more impressive when you take into account that the current points leader, Thomas Vanek, is only ranked No. 17 in the league in points. This means that the entire team finds a way to contribute to its success. On top of that, the team has finally found a viable backup for starting goalie Ryan Miller in Jhonas Enroth, something that the team has been in desperate need of for years.

The most glaring problem for the Sabres is their defensive play. Miller's stats for the year are all over the place. He ranks 18th among starting goalies in goals against average and 14th in save percentage. At the same time, he is sixth in the league in total saves. This is because last year's Vezina trophy winner has faced the sixth most shots of any goalie. If the Sabres' defense cannot find a way to stop opponents from firing on the net, the team will not be able to win in the playoffs.

Prediction: Flyers in five

No. 3 Boston Bruins vs. No. 6 Montreal Canadiens

The Northeast champion Bruins have secured their place as a major power in the conference because of their ability to all but shut down their opponent's offense. Tim Thomas leads the league in both goals against and save percentage. Their defense is all but impregnable. Thomas has only faced 1,811 shots, 10th lowest in the league. Zdeno Chara leads the league in plus/minus with 33.

Boston's biggest problem is its special teams. Its power play is 20th in the league with 16.1 percent efficiency. The team's penalty kill is a bit better, 15th best, but is still not very impressive for a team that prides itself on defense.

On top of the lack of performance with uneven lines, the Bruins are still without offensive leader Marc Savard, who was lost to a concussion earlier in the year. The team has been successful without him in since his injury, but you can never discount a loss that large.

Montreal owes all of its success to goaltender Carey Price. Price is ranked in the top five in the conference in both goals against average and save percentage even though he has faced the second-most shots in the league.

Even though Price is the only major individual player on the squad, the Habs' special teams have been very successful. They have the second-best power play in the conference, and the team's penalty kill is fourth.

For the most part, the Canadiens have not had much production throughout the year. The Habs are ranked 23rd in the league for goals for. Their scoring leader, Tomas Plekanec, is ranked 61st in the league with 57 points and a plus/minus of 8.

Montreal is not without good players. Michael Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, and Scott Gomez should not be taken lightly. If they can find their stride in the playoffs, the team can surprise everyone.

Prediction: Bruins in five

No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning

The Penguins have been battling injuries all season long. They have been without their biggest stars, Sidney Crosby and Evengi Malkin, since January. The team has seen a decrease in offensive production and finished the season ranked 14th in goals for. The defense picked up the slack from the slumping offense and the Pens were able to hold a 2.40 goals against average, which is fourth best in the East.

Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been good in goal for Pittsburgh this year, but his production is nothing fantastic. He is ranked in the top half of starting goalies for goals against and save percentage, but he has not faced the amount of shots that many of the other playoff goalies have.

Injuries will be the biggest concern for the Penguins as they go into the postseason. Malkin will not return, and head coach Dan Bylsma is not convinced that he will have team captain Crosby back at the beginning. Even if the Penguins do hold out until Crosby's return, there is no guarantee that he will be able to come right in and produce at the level they will need him to after being out for so long.

The Lightning have been one of the most exciting teams to watch this season. After years of being on the low end of the conference, the team's young talent has finally started to develop into major contributors.

Steven Stamkos has challenged the league's top talent in almost every category. He is second in the league in goals with 45, he is 19th in assists with 43, and his 91 total points is fifth in the league.

This would be amazing enough on its own, except that Tampa Bay is also the home of Martin St. Louis, whose 31 goals, 68 assists, and 99 total points have made him the one of the top two offensive players in the league.

Tampa Bay's biggest hole is right in front of the net, however. Starting goalie Dwayne Roloson is one of the worst goalies in the playoffs. His 2.59 goals against average and .914 save percentage puts him in the bottom of the league for starting goalie production. The 41-year-old Canadian will have to severely improve his game if the Lightning are going to be successful.

Prediction: Lightning in six

Email: sports@ubspectrum.com


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