Eastern Conference Semifinal Preview
After successfully predicting the winners of the four first-round matchups, I’m looking to continue my streak going forward to who will make the Eastern Conference Finals.
Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (7)
While Pittsburgh struggled a bit with the New York Islanders in the first round, the Senators made quick work of the second-seeded Montreal Canadiens, running them out in just five quick games. Although the Penguins had to labor a bit to knock off what should have been the easiest team in the playoffs, the Penguins are going to have to work even harder to knock out the seven seed. However, Pittsburgh did win all three games against Ottawa during the regular season, in somewhat convincing fashion. But, Ottawa was without defending Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, and the potential storyline lies around Jason Spezza. Spezza’s back was injured early in the season, and he has only played in five games this year. But, Spezza is reportedly trying to get back for this series. Not only could Ottawa use the skill back in their lineup, but the emotional bump that Spezza’s return would bring could push the Senators over the hump to the Eastern Conference Final. Pittsburgh, although they have been the top team in the Eastern Conference for practically all season, is having struggles themselves, which may open the door for Ottawa. Sidney Crosby’s health could be an issue, after recovering from a concussion and a broken jaw, one hit could be the difference for Crosby’s future in the playoffs. On the other end of the ice, Karlsson is back and he too is fragile. Recovering from a torn Achilles in what seemed like record time, but his play seemed to decline throughout the first round series, as expected. Home ice will be crucial in this series, as the Penguins won two of their three games on home ice last series, and the Senators won both of their games at home. But Ottawa also proved it can win at one of the toughest places to play in the league, as they took two of the three games in Montreal including the series-clincher. This series is going to be fast-paced, and highly exciting.
Key Matchup: Tomas Vokoun/Marc Andre Fleury vs. Craig Anderson
The two teams facing off are experiencing total opposite goaltending situations. On one hand, the Penguins are struggling between two goaltenders. Vokoun replaced Fleury as the starter in game five, after Fleury gave up 14 goals in just three games, reminiscent of Pittsburgh’s first round against the Flyers last year. Vokoun has just 13 games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs under his belt, and the aging veteran deserves the start. But, will Vokoun earn the start in round two, or will head coach Dan Bylsma turn back to Fleury, who had been a rock for the Pens all season long. It has been reported, though, that Vokoun will start. Just how long will he hold that starting position, though? On the other bench, Craig Anderson has been a brick wall for the Senators. He practically carried Ottawa into the second round. One just needs to look at his .950 Save Percentage in five games to understand how brilliant he’s been. He allowed only nine goals in five games on a wild 180 shots. Something also to note: none of the goals came in the third period, certainly a winning recipe. Ottawa will win if Anderson is a rock and Pittsburgh can’t find a winning goaltending formula.
My Pick: Pittsburgh Penguins (1) over Ottawa Senators (7) in six
Boston Bruins (4) vs. New York Rangers (6)
There are so many headlines surrounding this original six matchup, but none are getting more publicity than Boston’s improbable comeback in game seven against the Toronto Maple Leafs, in which they scored four unanswered goals to win in overtime. The Rangers won their own game seven, on the road in Washington, in convincing 5-0 fashion. They bring in just as much momentum to the series, which will feature a balanced attack from two teams, matched with loaded defensive units. The Rangers won two of the three regular season matchups, too. The forwards on both teams are extremely physical. David Krejci, who had 13 points in just the first round, and Milan Lucic lead Boston. Veteran trade deadline acquisition Jaromir Jagr cannot be forgotten either, and his return to New York is going to be another huge storyline leading into game one. For the Rangers, another trade deadline acquisition, Derek Brassard, has been huge with nine points in the first round. But scoring goals has been an issue for the New York Rangers’ offensive unit. While scoring a mere 11 goals in the first six games, the Rangers may have found a working formula, scoring five in the decisive game seven. However, the struggles are understandable, considering none have come from Rick Nash, the Rangers’ go-to scorer. The injury bug has hit the Rangers hard, as Ryan Clowe and Darroll Powe are suffering from “undisclosed injuries”. The Rangers’ most important injury comes on the blue line, as Marc Staal is suffering from an eye injury. Staal was injured when a puck deflected up into his face, and has been hurt with blurred vision since. Arguably New York’s most complete defenseman, Staal returned in game three, but sat out the rest of the series. New York, still, boasts a deep defensive core with top pair Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. Anton Stralman played what could be considered the best seven game stretch of his time with the Rangers in the first round, and the Rangers will look for a continuation of that in the first round. 6’9” captain Zdeno Chara, who played almost two full periods in game seven, will lead the Bruins. He also tallied eight points in the first round, which shows how complete his game is. The injury bug has hit the Bruins too, as Andrew Ference missed the final two games of the series. Wade Redden will also make his return to New York, and will surely hear a plethora of boos if he ever steps onto the ice. This matchup will be on Claude Julien and John Tortorella, whoever can outcoach the other will win the series.
Key Matchup: Tuukka Rask vs. Henrik Lundqvist
What a surprise, in the playoffs, it’s once again going to come down to goaltending. Like Craig Anderson, Lundqvist was the main reason the Rangers survived the first round, and is currently riding a 120-minute shutout streak into game one. Rask was not as impressive, and will be facing arguably a better offensive team in the New York Rangers. Against Toronto, Rask had a respectable 2.49 Goals Against Average, but compared to Lundqvist’s 1.65 GAA, Rask looks like an amateur. Lundqvist may not have a clear cut superstar to focus on, as he did with Alex Ovechkin, but he will have to be aware of all players on the ice, especially Chara. Chara’s skillset extends to the crease, where he screens goaltenders. It seems as if the only way to score on Lundqvist is by deflection or screen, and having a giant in front of the net is one way to do that. The Rangers will try and screen Rask with Brian Boyle, but the size isn’t comparable. Rask needs to be better to win, and Lundqvist needs to be the same to win.
My Pick: New York Rangers (6) over Boston Bruins (4) in Seven