The Eastern Conference, much like the Western Conference, displayed a few entertaining battles. Unlike the wild wild west, three of the four series went to seven games with only my hometown New York Rangers taking a bow in less. Last night we saw both the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins eliminated even though they were very much in the game all night. Their heroics will not be forgotten but now it is time for the second round and for things to get a bit more serious.
Boston Bruins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
History could not have been written any better as the Bruins get the chance to exorcise their demons against the team that eliminated them last year. After holding a 3-0 series lead against the always dangerous Flyers, the Bruins and Tuukka Rask blew the lead and their season. Last season they were led by Marc Savard; this year they turned to new acquisition Nathan Horton to get the job done. Will that be enough to topple a strong Flyers team?
Claude Giroux led the Flyers in points during the first round but it was Daniel Briere who elevated his game to another level yet again. We spoke about Briere here, check it out. Both James van Riemsdyk and Ville Leino also scored very timely goals for the team with the former breaking out similarly to how Giroux did last season. In four games during the regular season against the Bruins, Mike Richards and van Riemsdyk both potted a goal and three points. Considering the type of season Tim Thomas had, it is pretty easy to see why nobody produced at a point-per-game clip.
Somehow the Bruins were able to slink their way into the second round. I say somehow because they received below-average offensive contributions from their top line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Horton, even with the latter leading the team in goals and scoring two game winners in OT. Their best line was actually their second unit of Mark Recchi, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. Furthermore, with the overwhelming production of Chris Kelly (3-3-6 in 7), the third line with Rich Peverley and Michael Ryder could prove to be even more important. During the regular season, the first and second lines produced equally against the Flyers with Krejci the top point getter. Interesting to see if that line can bounce back and help their team advance.
Chris Pronger is the key component to the Flyers D. After returning for Game 6, he was a vital part of their Game 7 victory. When on, he sets the tempo and can slow down the game. Expect the Bruins to chop at his hands and make sure every booming slapshot from the point hurts him. Outside of Pronger, the Flyers have turned to Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle and Andrej Meszaros to step up offensively. If he gets hurt, that likely once again becomes the game plan.
Similar to how the Flyers rely on Pronger, the Bruins turn to their own big man and captain Zdeno Chara. Capable of bone-crushing hits or equally bone-breaking slapshots, Chara will be the difference maker offensively in getting shots through to the net. The Bruins also hold Tomas Kaberle in their deck of cards, however he has not proven to be a difference maker in a Bruins sweater. In fact, Andrew Ference, Adam McQuaid and Dennis Seidenberg all outproduced Kaberle and Chara in the first round.
The Flyers set a record with three separate goalies starting in a seven-game series. Brian Boucher led the team to all four victories and is expected to begin this series between the pipes. During the regular season he held a 1-2-0 record with a 2.95 GAA and .917 SV% in three starts against the Bs.
Hart Trophy snub Thomas gets the call between the pipes for the Bruins and should continue to do so win or loss. After dropping the first two games at home, there was some speculation that Rask would get a turn in nets. If he did not get the call then, he certainly won’t know as the team won four in five games on the back of their strength — downright solid netminding from Thomas.
That’s how things look like in the Northeast. Let’s now look at the battle between two Southeast Divison rivals.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Washington Capitals
These two teams last faced each other in the playoffs back in 2003 but only Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis were around to hold fond memories of their victory. Currently both teams have newer identities with the Capitals fully adapted to their new, scaled-back system from Bruce Boudreau while the Lightning buy into new head coach Guy Boucher and his reliance on defensive responsibility and generating offense through it. Both teams are heavy on the offensive talent with blue lines who love to jump into the play. The two styles clashing could very well balance each other out as they did in their low-scoring meetings during the regular season.
Hart Trophy nominee St. Louis led the team in the first round and clearly led them to where they are now. His line with Steven Stamkos and a battle-tested Ryan Malone will prove to be incredibly important in getting the team on the board. The top line sets the tempo for Lecavalier’s line with Simon Gagne and Teddy Purcell. It also jump-starts the dangerous troika of Dominic Moore, Steve Downie and Sean Bergenheim. During the regular season, St. Louis and Bergenheim managed four points in six contests against the Caps which likely led to their 2-4 record against them. If that trend continues, it will be a short series.
After an almost first-round sweep, Alex Ovechkin re-established himself as the most dangerous man in hockey. Following a down year where he only posted 85 points, Ovechkin foiled the Rangers plan by making one of the better shutdown pairings in hockey simply look gassed. He led the Caps in points during the first round with six but Alexander Semin, Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, Jason Arnott and Jason Chimera all provided much-needed and timely scoring. Nicklas Backstrom tied Ovechkin in points against the Lightning during the regular season with 10 each. If Backstrom breaks out of his current slump, the Caps should have no problem rolling over the Lightning.
Unlike the other remaining three teams in the Eastern Conference, the Lightning lack a superstar defenseman on their blue line. Mid-season acquisition Eric Brewer led the team in points amonst d-men during the first round as Boucher seems to have taken a liking to his new toy. If for some reason the team moves Brewer off the top powerplay unit, they could easily use Marc-Andre Bergeron, Brett Clark, Pavel Kubina and Victor Hedman to fill in. There are options although none seem to immediately jump out at you when looking at the scoresheet. Then again, defensemen aren’t always supposed to.
After recovering from a variety of ailments, Mike Green showed up during the first round and reminded people why he was a first round pick and an elite offensive weapon from the blue line. Green reunited with longtime partner Jeff Schultz but actually looked like the second pairing to Karl Alzner and John Carlson. This strong top four combined with the veteran presence of Scott Hannan has the Caps again in very good shape.
Dwayne Roloson was simply lights out against the Caps during the regular season, posting a 2-1-1 record with a 1.22 GAA and .959 SV%. He made his impact with both of those victories coming by shutout. He found a way to do just that against the Pens and should be seen as just as dangerous against the Caps.
It looks like the Caps have finally found their guy in Michal Neuvirth. He posted an immaculate 1.38 GAA and .946 SV% over his five starts in the first round and brings a winning mentality which started with his Calder Cup victory last season. He played in two games against Tampa Bay, earning the win in one and serving mop-up duty in the second. He will be given every chance to bring the Caps into the second round.
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