Just as action within the NHL’s Western Conference playoffs has demonstrated so far, series performances of the Eastern Conference have displayed sensational hockey.
As I stated in Monday’s issue of The Maine Campus, the New York Rangers were issued one of the league’s two No. 1-seed rankings entering this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
After an impressive year that saw the team tie with Pittsburgh for the conference’s best record at 51 wins and also collect its first divisional title in eight years — despite ending its season on a two-game losing streak with losses against both the Penguins and the Washington Capitals — the Rangers bring a notably solid lineup to this year’s battle for the Stanley Cup.
In front of the net for the Rangers stands six-time team MVP Henrik Lundqvist, who, along with Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith, led all eligible NHL goalies in save percentage, stopping just over 90 percent of all shots.
On the offensive side, New York is led by 2012 All-Star Game MVP forward Marian Gaborik, who was the league’s third-best scorer with 41 goals, behind only Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh and Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay.
The No. 8 Senators finished the 2011-12 season with the NHL’s fourth-best overall goals per game average, scoring just under three per game.
Canadian forward Jason Spezza and 21-year-old defenseman Erik Karlsson are both coming off phenomenal seasons after combining for 162 points and representing the Ottawa Senators twice within the league’s top 10 assist leaders, with 50 and 59, respectively.
If the Rangers continue to let Ottawa out-shoot them in this first-round quarterfinal series, the two teams just might be playing a future Game 7. Putting shots on goal is key for New York because it is one statistic that sets them apart from any other team — during the regular season, the Rangers were the league’s best in winning percentage when out-shooting their opponents, winning just over 68 percent of the time. If shots on goal increase, I see the Rangers taking this series in six games.
As for the defending Stanley Cup champions and No. 2-seeded Bruins, the Capitals haven’t been the pushovers Boston might have wished for entering this year’s postseason. No. 7 Washington lost their starting goalie Tomas Vokoun to a groin injury in a game against Boston on March 29, and six days later, their backup Michal Neuvirth suffered an injury to his left leg, leaving the Capitals with their last resort: 22-year-old third-string goalie Braden Holtby, who posted a record of 10-2-2 in 14 games last year in his first NHL season. So far, Holtby has been respectably decent in net.
Despite his recent slide in overall dominance in the past couple of seasons, two-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin is still an obvious threat after finishing the regular season as the NHL’s fifth-best scorer, and for Boston to close out this series and move closer toward reclaiming their title, they need to shut Ovechkin out — especially on the Capitals’ power-play opportunities.
The key for Boston is to keep centers Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin, captain defender Zdeno Chara and forwards Chris Kelly and Brad Marchand on the ice as much as possible. All five players combined to be the top-five league leaders in plus-minus player goal differential, ranging in that order from +36 to +31.
Goalie Tim Thomas is coming off a phenomenal season in which he was awarded the Vezina Trophy, the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award and the Conn Smythe Trophy. The 38-year-old continued with a concrete season this year, ranking fifth among all goalies in wins.
In order to get past Washington, Boston will need to capitalize on their strongest areas of play. The Bruins had the highest winning percentage among all NHL teams during the regular season when scoring first with just over 81 percent, and they had an even higher league-leading winning percentage when leading after the first period with 92 percent. In games with a lead after two periods, the Bruins were undefeated.
I simply cannot see the Capitols getting past Boston, unless they can somehow begin to pour shots over Thomas — and even if this happens, the Bruins had the league’s highest winning percentage when being out-shot.
Thomas may be sidetracked from various Obama faces amidst Washington’s spirited crowd, but his team will pick up wherever he might leave off. This series will go five games with the Bruins moving on.
The Florida Panthers entered this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs after capturing the franchise’s first divisional title in its 19-year existence at the end of the regular season. With no skaters among the league’s top-30 in both goals and points, it’s interesting to ponder how Florida went 38-26 during the 2011-12 regular season.
Much of the No. 3 Panthers’ sudden success can probably be attributed to the overhauling of the team with a new general manager and head coach, which has certainly helped journeyman goalie Jose Theodore regain his form after the 35-year-old posted his best save percentage in eight years.
The New Jersey Devils, despite finishing 10 wins above the Panthers, were given the No. 6 seed after finishing fourth in the Atlantic division — by far the NHL’s best region, with four team’s finishing over 102 points.
Don’t expect Florida to capitalize on many power plays. The Devils have one of the league’s top defenses, allowing only 27 shots per game over the regular season, and had the league’s best penalty kill percentage of all teams with just under 90 percent.
With the formidable support that forward Ilya Kovalchuk consistently brings to the ice and 39-year-old veteran goalie Martin Brodeur’s 23 years of experience, the Devils should be able to dismount the Panthers from their statistically improbable rank and move on to the second round.
The Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series looked to be a heated matchup before the playoffs began, especially because of the teams’ rivalry and proximity in both actual location and Atlantic Division final standings, but it quickly became lopsided after No. 5 Philadelphia opened up with a barrage of offense, scoring 21 goals in the first three games.
The Penguins fired back in Game 4, scoring 10 goals en route to their first win of the series and extending their season, at least for another day.
One of the Flyers’ assumed main targets entering this series was shutting out Hart Memorial Trophy favorite Malkin, which they’ve done successfully — despite dishing out four assists, the league’s second-best scorer didn’t find the net in the first three games of the series before scoring two in the Game 4 rout.
Regardless, I don’t see the Penguins lasting another game.