If the playoffs started today, there would probably be a good chance half the series went more than four games. While Philadelphia and Vancouver have been spent most of the season atop its respective conferences, neither is invincible and both have question marks.
1) Philadelphia vs 8) Buffalo
The Flyers spent Sunday getting pasted by the Rangers. This fourth no point game comes hot on the heels of losses to Buffalo, Ottawa and Toronto. Have the wheels come off, or is this just a minor bump in the road? Yesterday’s 7-0 loss to the Rangers was ugly, and worse than the other losses in the streak.
The Sabres have a new owner, and a new top line forward. Terry Pegula has taken the reigns and moved into the owners suite. Just after before the deadline they picked up Brad Boyes from St Louis. The former 40-goal scorer could be just what the doctor ordered with the porous defense, Thomas Vanek and company will need the help keeping the NHL’s ninth ranked offense alive in the post season.
The Flyers lead the season series 2-1, with the final game April 8. This could be a very meaningful game for the Sabres and completely meaningless for the Flyers. This one is likely to be more interesting than Flyers fans would like, they arguably have the deepest forward and defensive units in the league, on the other bench is a top 10 offense and the most talented goaltender on the planet.
2) Boston vs. 7) New York
The Bruins’ seven-game win streak was impressive for its consistency, and having six of them come on the road. A closer look reveals that only the Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vancouver Canucks are likely to be in the playoffs. With a goalie who can sleepwalk to his second Vezina in three years and has an outside shot for the Hart, there’s not much wrong with this team, except a middling powerplay.
The Rangers are also built around their world class goalie. Henrik Lundqvist is the type of goalie who can steal games and potentially series. Their defense is pretty mobile, and they have a defense second only to Boston in the conference, but their offense middle of the road material.
So far, the two clubs have squared off twice with each game ending three to two. The games were split down the middle as well. The big advantage for the Bruins is their offense, the two teams have nearly identical (and not great) power plays, and efficient penalty kills. This series would be won or lost at full strength.
3) Washington vs. 6) Montreal
The Capitals game has undergone a huge change in the last year. In years past they were a team that won games 6-4 and were happy. This season they are among the best defensive teams, with an unfortunate drop off in goal scoring. Much better structure to their game, can scoring be far behind?
The Canadiens have skated 13 defensemen so far this season. The injuries have steadily pulled them down the standings. If the Habs get healthy going into the playoffs, don’t be surprised if they exploit a defensively weak Lightning team without many large and aggressive forwards. Last year they did it twice to Pittsburgh and Washington.
If the two meet again this year in the playoffs, I wouldn’t bet on the same script at last year. The defense of the two is absolutely equal, with the Capitals having a slightly better PK.
4) Pittsburgh vs 5) Tampa Bay
The Penguins have so many injured players out its amazing they are in the playoff race at all. Not only have star players Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin miss a lot, but a number of other players have been or are on the shelf. Malkin is done for the year and even if Crosby laces them back up in their next game it’ll be weeks before he’s back to normal, if ever.
Lightning fans, and opponents are quite familiar with the one-two punch that is the Steven Stamkos-Martin St. Louis pairing. Not surprisingly on team that has former Vincent Lecavalier as it second line center, offense is the teams forte. Only the Vancouver Canucks have scored more goals with the man advantage. Dwayne Roloson isn’t precisely who most people would think of when hearing the word “rejuvenated” but that’s exactly what he’s done for the crease woes of this team.
The Penguins have exploited the weak defense of the Lightning in the season series and lead it 2-1 with the most recent meeting being an 8-1 blowout.
1) Vancouver vs. 8) Los Angeles
Since coming into the NHL, the Canucks have never won the Cup. This is by almost any standard the strongest team they have had. They’ve led the division, conference, and league for most of the year and are the best or among the elite in all meaningful stats.
The Kings have been quietly coasting through the season, and managed to stay under the radar almost all year. They emerged from stealth mode on deadline day to pluck Dustin Penner from the Oilers, on paper this move which saw no one go the other way makes them nearly as talented as the Canucks and Red Wings. It remains to be seen how well this will work on the ice as the Kings have just two goals in the two games since Penner arrived.
This could be the best opening round series if it happens. The Kings lead the season series this year, 2-1. Last years playoff series was one of the most high energy, hard hitting, and just flat out fun to watch series in a very long time. The playoff veteran Canucks eventually prevailed, but not without knowing they’d been in a fight.
2) Detroit vs. 7) Dallas
Despite being the oldest team in the NHL, the Red Wings have had a good ride at the top of their division for much of the season. While the Wings have a strong team overall, their penalty killing and defense are just average. The second period is hands down when they play their best hockey.
The Stars were once big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, and the top of the Pacific Division. Since the loss of Brad Richards to a concussion, the Stars luster has waned a little. Having won just one third of their games since February first, its hard to look at this team for a deep playoff run. Had they won their games against Edmonton, New Jersey and Columbus they’d enjoy a one point lead over the Sharks and the division lead.
The Stars have managed at least three goals in each of their three meetings so far this year. The Red Wings lost two of those games, and won by scoring seven goals in the third game.
3) San Jose vs. 6) Phoenix
Sharks fans are smiling again, the division lead they’ve come to expect has returned. A four point lead this late in the season might mean they hold onto it. With just one loss in their last six, they have knocked off Detroit twice, Pittsburgh, and Calgary. The Sharks right now are very, very quietly a pretty strong team.
The Coyotes have been up, down and everywhere in between. They held the division lead, and were far enough down the standings to be in double digits. They’ve been gifted with the emergence of Norris candidate Keith Yandle, and Ilya Bryzgalov has bounced back after a poor November to put together some solid numbers over the last few three months.
These two division rivals are sure to bring everything they have to each game in either the desert or the beach. To date the Sharks have won all three games of the series, the final three games all take place in the final two weeks of the series. As tight as the division is, and the west as a whole the three games could decide if both teams make the playoffs and a post season meeting would be gravy. Yandle, Shane and Rusty Klesla vs. Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Dany Heatley, sounds like a good night on the ice.
4) Chicago vs. 5) Calgary
The defending champions have had a transitional season that has occasionally been just plain ugly. For long stretches they were outside the playoff picture. But their power play is suddenly clicking along at the best pace in the NHL, and is just one reason that they are back in the thick of things. However, don’t overlook the emergence of Corey Crawford between the Chicago pipes.
The Devils have been stealing all the attention in the east, but the resurgence of the Flames has been no less impressive. Not only have they slipped into the top eight, but for doing it not with a coaching change while in the midst of ruinous injuries but with judicious line juggling and a change of attitude that saw the departure of a GM, not a coach or star player. Jarome Iginla proved he still has the touch by hitting the 30 goal mark for the tenth straight season, he’s only the tenth player to do so.
With the second and sixth best offenses, and the 13th and 15th ranked defenses, respectively, it’s hard to imagine this as anything less than an instant classic series if the teams go at it like they did in the regular season.