BY LUKE FOX AND PATRICK HOFFMAN
EASTERN CONFERENCE – ROUND 1
Season series: Ottawa won 3-1-0
For Rangers to win: For the first time in a long time, the New York Rangers did not have to fight and crawl to get into the postseason. As such, the Blueshirts should be well-rested heading into their first-round match-up with an Ottawa Senators team that has lost its last three games. The Rangers will need to play tight defensively and block shots to hold down the likes of Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek, and Norris candidate Erik Karlsson, something they had trouble with in the regular season. New York will need timely scoring from Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan as well as great goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist, something they benefitted from all season long. If the Rangers get both this series, there should be no reason why they cannot move onto the second round.
For the Senators to win: Ottawa surprised us this season by getting into the postseason under new head coach Paul MacLean. Despite dropping from seventh to eighth, they actually match up better against the conference champ Rangers than they do the Bruins. The Sens work hard, boast offensive power, and receive good enough goaltending to win games. A rare team to win its season series against the Rangers, the Sens could have won all four meetings. That said, Ottawa will need to step it up in the postseason and be prepared to put the puck in the net to support netminder Craig Anderson, who has a stellar 6-0-0 record and two shutouts at Madison Square Garden.
Big question: With netminder Craig Anderson’s relative inexperience in the postseason, can he really outduel the potential Vezina Trophy winner Lundqvist?
Best bet: Rangers in six.
Season series: Washington won 2-1-1
For Bruins to win: Although the defending champs’ second half of the season wasn’t nearly as fierce as their first, they carry into the postseason a been-there-done-that strut and one of the best goalies in the game, when he wants to be. The rougher and tighter-checking the series, the better for the B’s, a deep team that can find scoring from a bevy of sources. An incredible six Bruins finished the season with at least 20 goals. The Capitals have the fewest road wins (16) of any playoff team, so as long as the Bruins take care of business in Beantown, they’ll be fine.
For Capitals to win: Some luck would help. But truthfully, the Caps could not have picked a better time for the playoffs to start. The inconsistent team has won four of its last five; Washington’s No. 1 centre, Niklas Backstrom, is now back from concussion and made the scoreboard for the first time since 2011 on Saturday; and Brooks “Mr. Guarantee” Laich scored agame-winning, playoff-clinching goal last week that gives the franchise a healthy dose of confidence when they need it most. The Caps must steal an early game in Boston to maintain their confidence; a soul-crushed Washington team will unravel quickly. Plus, with both Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokou injured, it will be up to 22-year-old Braden Holtby to hold things down in net for the Capitals. Tall order.
Big question: Can all of the Capitals offensive stars – Alex Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Alexander Semin – play their best hockey at the same time?
Best bet: Bruins in five.
Season series: Florida won 2-1-1
For the Panthers to win: This will be the Panthers’ first time in the postseason since they were swept by the Devils in 2000. The fist-time division champs were at their best this season when their top players contributed on a regular basis. Florida knows how to clamp down defensively when necessary, and benefits from strong goaltending from both starter Jose Theodore and frequent backup Scott Clemmensen. Down the stretch, however, the team failed to get consistent scoring and had trouble holding onto leads, a trend it must reverse. Simply put, the Panthers will need to play perfect hockey to beat the Devils.
For the Devils to win: After having missed the postseason last year, these Devils are hungry for playoff success and to get out of the first round, something they have not done since the 2006. The Devils need stars Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and Patrik Elias to continue supplying the consistent offense they did during the regular season, and rookie Adam Henrique, David Clarkson and Petr Sykora to produce secondary scoring. With a much younger defence in front of Martin Brodeur, the future Hall of Fame netminder will need to be at his sharpest to help the Devils advance.
Big question: Brodeur will be 40 years old by the time the Cup is handed out. Will this be his final postseason in the NHL?
Best bet: Devils in six.
Season series: Philadelphia won 4-2-0
For Penguins to win: Marc Andre-Fleury will need to play better. An odd thing to say about a goaltender who racked up a career-best 42 wins this season (second only to Pekka Rinne’s 43), but Fleury posted his worst goals-against average and save percentage against the Flyers. It is all but a given that Art Ross Trophy winner and 50-goal scorer Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby will put up points, but Pascal Dupuis (who brings in a 17-game scoring streak), James Neal, and Matt Cooke will also need to contribute. Centre Jordan Staal will be called upon to play a key role in shutting down Philly’s best players.
For Flyers to win: With all of the firepower on the Penguins’ bench, wild-card Ilya Brzgalov will need to play as well as he did in March (and it’s possible). Philly needs to get under the skin of Malkin and Crosby and suck them into penalties. Team MVP Claude Giroux and most-improved player Scott Hartnell should rise to the occasion, but inexperienced 20-goal scorers Wayne Simmonds and Matt Read will both have to excel under pressure if Philly is to come out victorious in this, the third series between these Pennsylvania rivals in the last five springs.
Big question: How much will the referees let them get away with? And which of these feisty teams can reign in the nastiness enough to win the special-teams battle?
Best bet: Penguins in seven.
Which Eastern Conference Round 1 series are you most looking forward to?