With the final playoff picture rounding into form and the postseason right around the corner, I wanted to give the links for all of the teams previewed in the Eastern Conference Playoff Preview. Take a look below at all of the previews (standings as of 4/8/10).
The Number One Seed: The Washington Capitals
The Number Three Seed: The Buffalo Sabres
The Number Four Seed: The Pittsburgh Penguins
The Number Five Seed: The Ottawa Senators
The Number Six Seed: The Montreal Canadiens
The Number Seven Seed: The Philadelphia Flyers
The Number Eight Seed: The Boston Bruins
In the continuing “Eastern Conference Playoff Preview” series, I’ll preview the Boston Bruins. The team, currently sitting eighth in the division, have continued to hold off the Atlanta Thrashers and the New York Rangers for the last spot in the playoffs. With injuries and a lack of scoring, the Bruins look to be one of the weakest playoff teams in the division.
One of the worst injuries for this team came when Marc Savard was concussed by Matt Cooke. Although he didn’t wow anyone with his offensive prowess, he still brought a gritty presence to the team. Without him, Boston has seemed to struggle without him. They shouldn’t have a problem scoring, with players like Patrice Bergeron, Marco Sturm, and surprise players like David Krejci. But the team ranks 30th in the league in scoring, with 182 goals scored this season. The team’s -33 plus/minus ranking isn’t great either. Both of those things show Boston’s lack of scoring depth. With the possibility of facing the Washington Capitals in the first round, that lack of scoring can really put the Bruins in a hole.
Zdeno Chara leads an average defensive squad for the Bruins. Chara leads all Bruins defenseman in goals, assists and points. He’s also the plus/minus leader. After Chara, there’s not much on the blue line. The defense, as a whole, ranks 30th in the league in goals against. A lack of scoring and a lack of defense? That doesn’t bode well for the playoffs.
Maybe one of the only bright spots for Boston is the emergence of goalie Tuukka Rask. The 6-3 Finn has solidified the number one position in Beantown, going 19-12-4 with a 1.99 goals against average. He’s far outplayed former Vezina winner Tim Thomas. His G.A.A. and save percentage (.930) are very, very good. If there’s one person keeping Boston afloat, it’s Rask. His play could lengthen a series. But without any solid scoring options or defensive play, it looks like it’ll all be on him to win them a series.
So, does Boston stand a chance in the playoffs? Like many of the lower seeds, they don’t look great. They lack a scoring offense, and the team’s defense isn’t that much better. The only bright spot, Rask, can’t steal them a playoff series. With Boston barely hanging on to the eighth seed, it might be a one-and-done year for the Bruins.
In the continuing “Eastern Conference Playoff Preview” series, I’ll take a look at the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens, who currently hold the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference, have overcome injuries and unsteady play from goalies Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak to qualify for the playoffs. But can they hold on to the seventh seed and make noise in the playoffs?
The Canadiens made a few big splashes this offseason, trading for center Scott Gomez and signing right-winger Brian Gionta. So far, Gionta has been the best signing. The former Devil has 25 goals and 17 assists in 56 games this season. Gomez has 12 goals and 44 assists this season. Health has been an issue the entire season, with several Montreal forwards missing time due to injury. Now, with the team holding on to the seventh spot, they’ll be without top powerplay scorer Glen Metropolit. Top-liners Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn have only played a combined 98 games this season. That health issue weakens this offensive corps. Not only that, but they’ve struggled to score all year. The team is tied for 23rd in the league in goals, and they rank 25th in assists and points. A fragile offensive corps plus a low-scoring team could spell trouble in the playoffs.
The Canadiens defense has underperformed as well. Andrei Markov has been the only bright spot on the blueline, tallying five goals and 25 assists. But the squad, as a whole, hasn’t stood out. They’re 16th in the league in goals against. After Markov, the team hasn’t received much offense from their defenders. The second line of Hal Gill and Josh Gorges have combined for a -5 rating. Jaroslav Spacek and Roman Hamrlik, the third pairing, have put up decent numbers. I wouldn’t consider the defense a plus or minus. They are, as the ranking shows, average.
This, above all positions, is the biggest sore spot in Montreal. Both Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak have played extensive minutes. It seems the Canadiens are torn between the two goalies. But the best option is clearly Halak. He leads the win total, 24 to 13. He’s allowed 15 less goals (94 to Price’s 109). His goals against average is better (2.43 to 2.77), and he also holds an edge in save percentage (.920 to .910). Price does have a better record against the playoff teams in the East, but he’s only two games above .500. Clearly, Halak should be the option the Canadiens turn to for their playoff run.
So, where do the Canadiens stand in the playoffs? They’re a fragile team. The forwards are injury-prone, and the defense is middle-of-the-road. Hell, the team doesn’t even know who will be their top goalie. As one of the lower seeds, I don’t have high expectations of the Canadiens. They may steal a series, but they seem to be another good candidate for a one-and-done run in this year’s postseason.
In the continuing “Eastern Conference Playoff Preview” series, I take a look at the Philadelphia Flyers. The Devils rival currently hold the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. But the team has gone through some adversity as of late, losing three goaltenders and their leading scorer, Jeff Carter. Can this team succeed in the playoffs without those integral pieces?
The Flyers have some solid, but not great, forwards on the team. With the injury to Jeff Carter, the team lost their leading scorer and one of their best goal scorers. One of the best forwards on the team is Mike Richards. The young captain has 28 goals and 30 assists through 76 games, and his play on the penalty kill and powerplay are stellar. He’s one of the better two-way forwards in the game today. After Richards, the Flyers have several role players. Simon Gagne, who could be a great goal scorer, has only played 52 games this season. The same can be said for Danny Briere. What I don’t like about the Flyers is the injury risk throughout all of their lines. Gagne usually has one major injury per year, and Briere hasn’t been fully healthy since signing with Philadelphia (8 years, $52 million with a no trade clause). Both of these guys can make plays and put the puck in the net. With one major weapon already down, another injury to a scoring forward would sink this team.
The Flyers first defensive pairing of Chris Pronger and Matt Carle are extremely good. Both defenseman combine for a plus/minus rating of 41. Pronger leads the team in assists, and has chipped in 10 goals during the season. But that has been one of the only bright spots for the Flyers defense this year. They rank near the middle of the pack in goals against, allowing 202 so far this season. They also rank 25th in shots against, with 2,184 shots taken against their goalies. Coming into the season, the team had high hopes for their defense. But so far those expectations haven’t been met, and they have underperformed this season.
Philadephia has dressed four goaltenders this season, and only one of them remains healthy today: Brian Boucher. The first starter, Ray Emery, was enjoying a great comeback season But an abdominal strain – and the resulting surgery from the injury – knocked him out for the season. Next came Michael Leighton, who looked terrible in Carolina. The Flyers got lucky again, as Leighton played exceptionally well with the team. But an ankle injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season. They even gave rookie John Backlund an opportunity, but he was injured during his first ever start. Now, their playoff chances rest on Brian Boucher, a goalie who has never started more than 45 games in a season. His career save percentage is under .900. Clearly, goalie is the weakest link of this team. The Flyers cannot depend on Boucher to bring win them a series. He’s the weakest goalie coming into the playoffs. This will, without a doubt, hold back Philadelphia in the playoffs this year.
So, where do the Flyers sit coming into the playoffs? They seem to be one of the weakest teams qualifying for the playoffs. They’re missing their leading scorer, and the defense has been underwhelming all season. Now, they need to depend on a career backup who has never played well in the N.H.L. The Flyers look like the surest bet to be a one and done in the playoffs this year.
In the continuing “Eastern Conference Playoff Preview” series, I’ll take a look at the Ottawa Senators, who currently hold the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Senators, who limped to a 36-35-11record in 2008-2009, have dramatically improved this season. The team, who sits at 41-30-5, have used young talent and rode goalie Brian Elliot to the fifth seed.
After trading Dany Heatley and fifth round draft pick to San Jose, it looked as if the Senators would remain in rebuilding mode. The team received Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo, and Cheechoo couldn’t even stick with the team. But the forwards have played well this season, putting away the doubts of many analysts. The team has four 20 goal scorers, with Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher and Jason Spezza leading the way. Michalek, who rounds out the first line with Alfredsson and Spezza, also has 20 goals. That’s a lot of firepower on the first line for the team. But behind the firepower, the forwards don’t do well defensively. They only have four forwards with a positive plus/minus number. That usually shows the forwards aren’t responsible defensively. Come playoff time, that can hurt the Senators. Two-way hockey grows in importance, because one defensive miscue can cost a team a game and potentially a series. While the forwards can score goals, they also don’t give much help defensively.
The Senators boast a deep and talented blue line. Chris Phillips leads all N.H.L. defenseman with eight goals, and Filip Kuba leads in all points with 28 points. But their offensive talent overshadows the weakness on the blue line. The Senators currently rank 18th in goals against average, and when you factor just 5-on-5 play, that number falls to 28th. That’s a big, ugly number for a playoff team. When facing high-powered offensive teams, that can be a deciding factor. Couple that with the lack of defensive help from the forwards, and the Ottawa defense has more cracks than it shows on the surface. They do own the seventh best penalty kill, which can cover some of those cracks. But the weak play during 5-on-5 will hamper them in any playoff series.
The Senators came into the season riding Pascal Leclaire, an average goalie at best. But since an injury sidelined Leclaire, Brian Elliot has emerged as the team’s number one goalie. He’s been a pleasant surprise for the Senators. The young goalie has a 27-17-3 record with five shutouts. He also has a 2.50 goals against average and a .911 save percentage. Those numbers may not knock you over, but he’s brought a stabilizing force in net. The disadvantage, however, is that Elliot is young and inexperienced. That could be a major factor come playoff time. But he’s stabilized a position that has been volatile for the past few seasons, and he’s one of the reasons the Senators sit in the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference.
Overall, the Ottawa Senators look to be a good, but not great, playoff team. They do have some scoring depth, including some serious offensive ability on the blue line. But they also have some glaring holes. The offense doesn’t seem to backcheck well or play solid defense, and their blueliners rank middle to bottom of the league in goals against. While the penalty kill is solid, these stats can not be ignored. While Elliot has been solid, he’s relatively unproven in the playoffs. We’ve seen several of these goalies succeed (Semyon Varlamov, for example), but it still needs to be a concern for the Senators. Ottawa is good, but not great.
In the continuing “Eastern Conference Playoff Preview” series, I’ll take a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins, who lead the Atlantic Division with 95 points. The defending champions have had an up and downseason, including dropping all six games to the Devils. Can the defending champions repeat their performance and hoist Lord Stanley again?
When healthy, the Penguins have arguably the best two lines in the N.H.L. The top two centers, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, consistently rank near the top of the league in scoring. As of today, Sidney Crosby leads the scoring race, tallying 47 goals. But it’s not only the top two lines who can score. Jordan Staal continues to improve year in and year out, and has 21 goals on the season. Deadline day acquisition Alex Ponikarovsky can move the puck and set up teammates, leading to his 29 assists. And he plays on the fourth line. This depth is one of the strengths of the Penguins. Good scorers, like Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin, fly under the radar because of their depth. I believe that, without a doubt, the Penguins arguably the best depth among their forwards, ranking with Washington atop the conference.
The blueline is where things get interesting. Sergei Gonchar, one of the Pittsburgh’s best defenseman, has only played in 57 games this season. Gonchar, who’s one of the leaders on the powerplay, has far underperformed the team’s expectations. After finishing sixth in goals against last season, they’re currently ranked in the 20th. Kris Letang has taken a backseat this year, and the rest of the defense is underwhelming. They also don’t have a big, physical presence on the blueline. The Penguins lack of depth could hurt them in the playoffs. They’re going to lean on their forwards to succeed, and this strategy isn’t the best.
Marc-Andre Fleury is one of the solid goaltenders in the N.H.L. In 62 games, Fleury is 35-19-6, with a 2.65 goals against average and a .906 save percentage. Fleury can always make the great save, and his presence in net brings a calming influence to the defensive zone. In the past few years, he’s began to deal with injuries. It seems that Fleury is good for at least one injury per season, which is an added worry in the playoffs. When healthy, Fleury can steal the Penguins a few games. But he needs to remain healthy to give the Penguins an added edge.
So, what can we expect from the Penguins come playoff time? The team is going to play hard, gritty hockey. They’re forwards are clearly the strength, but they do have questions along the blueline. They’ve also struggled against the top teams, losing all six games to the Devils and struggling against the Capitals. Not only that, but significant players have missed time with injury. But they are the defending champions, and the will still be champs until someone knocks them out of the playoffs. Even with their problems, Pittsburgh will be a tough opponent in any playoff series.
In the continuing “Eastern Conference Playoff Preview” series, I’ll take a look at the Buffalo Sabres, who lead the Northeast Division and sit third in the conference with 90 points. Buffalo, a team that has flown under the radar for most of the season, sport one of the game’s best goaltenders. But can they compete with the top teams in the conference? That question remains to be answered.
The top two lines for the Sabres are very, very good. The top line of Jason Pominville – Derek Roy – Jochen Hecht combine for 59 goals, 90 assists and a plus/minus rating of 34. The second line is even more formidable. Tim Connolly and Thomas Vanek control that line, with each player over 15 goals on the season. But, after those top two lines, the performance falls off a bit. Their third line only has one player with a positive plus/minus rating (Patrick Kaleta, 4), and the fourth line sports a combined -25 plus/minus rating. While the Sabres have plenty of goal scorers, they don’t have great two-way forwards. That weakness will hurt them, because good teams will take advantage of a weak backcheck or a defensive breakdown. The top two lines are scary good, but the Sabres lack of forward depth will be an issue come playoff time.
Tyler Myers highlights a relatively unknown defensive unit. Myers, a rookie, impressed several analysts with his solid play this season. The rookie has 42 points (10 G, 32 A) and a plus/minus rating of 12 for the season. While they don’t have many big-name defenseman, the Sabres have an experienced blue line. Four of their six blue-liners have playoff experience, which gives them an advantage. Myers, Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman can all contribute offensively, which is an added benefit. But there are cracks in the blue-line. The collective group has a great plus/minus rating (+21), with the third defensive pairing of Steve Montador and Craig Rivet checking in at a -10. The squad has also allowed goalie Ryan Miller to face 1,878 shots, which ranks 13th in the league. Overall, the blue line is a strength for the Sabres. Sure, they have their faults, but they play a solid, responsible game night in and night out.
Miller is one of the top five goalies in the N.H.L. today. His 2.20 goals against average ranks far below the league average. He’s also collected five shutouts on his way to a 37-15-8 record. Without Miller, the Sabres wouldn’t be in the third place. Miller can steal a game or even a series for this team. During the Olympics, the world found out what we already knew: Miller is a world-class goaltender. He’s also got the right attitude as a goalie. You never see Miller get too angry or too worked up during a game. That levelheaded attitude seems to calm the entire team, and he’s the true leader of the Sabres. He’s already set a career-high in wins, and his G.A.A. is the lowest in his career. Clearly, Buffalo’s goalie advantage ranks head and shoulders above some of the teams in the conference.
Overall, the Sabres are a good young team. They have world-class goaltending and a solid blue-line corps. But the weakness comes from the lack of forward depth. After the first two lines, the production and play drops sharply. There shouldn’t be great goal scorers on the third and fourth lines, but these forwards should at least sport solid plus/minus numbers. While it doesn’t show the entire story, the plus/minus rating of the third and fourth lines can spell trouble. If the Sabres have a problem backchecking or defensively, they will be ripe for the picking. But I’d expect this team to make it to the second round, but nothing more.