Eastern Conference Second-Round Previews
No. 1 New York Rangers vs. No. 7 Washington Capitals — In the closing days of the regular season, many thought these teams would be meeting in the first round. Now, just about two weeks later, they're facing off in the second round—the third time in the last four years that the Caps and Rangers have played each other in the postseason. In order for the Caps to earn a third consecutive series victory against the Rangers—and reach the conference finals for the first time since 1998 and only the third time in franchise history—they need to stick to the game plan: keeping the scores closer to 2-1 than 4-3 and milking Coach Dale Hunter's system for all it's worth.
That begins with playing stifling defense and keeping traffic away from rookie goalie Braden Holtby, who had a 2.00 GAA against the Boston Bruins. That also means that the Caps need to keep crashing the net and making difficulty for all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist (1.70 GAA), who is a finalist for the Vezina and Hart Trophies. Historically, Alex Semin and Alex Ovechkin do well against the Rangers. Semin, who scored three times against Boston, has notched eight goals against the Rangers in 12 playoff games. Ovechkin, meanwhile, scored twice against Boston and had three goals each against the Rangers in the two previous series.
The Rangers certainly have a lot working for them. While they don't boast anybody of the stature of Zdeno Chara, they do have an extremely solid set of defensemen and play Coach John Tortorella's system extremely well. Their offense averaged only two goals per game against Ottawa but managed to garner enough to advance past the Senators. If they want to eliminate the Caps, they'll have to increase that number, as they averaged a league-worst 1.6 goals per game in their five-game demise last spring. They'll also have to improve their power play, which only converted 5 percent of their opportunities against the Caps last spring and 15.6 percent against the Sens. The Caps' penalty kill was outstanding against the Bruins, keeping Boston off the board 91.3 percent of the time, good for second-best in the league.
This series will boil down to two factors: which team will be able to dictate the tempo (although they’re pretty evenly matched) and who will have the special-teams advantage. Prediction: Capitals in six games.
No. 5 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 6 New Jersey Devils – The Flyers have been sitting around for almost a week wondering who they’re going to play next, while the Devils are coming off a double-overtime, game seven thriller last night. The Flyers spent six games beating up the Pittsburgh Penguins on the scoreboard, in the penalty box and pretty much everywhere else. That won’t be the case against the Devils, who are far better defensively than the Pens and won't fall into the Flyers' traps.
Against the Pens, the Flyers averaged five goals per game and were an astounding 52.2 percent effective on the power play. The Devils, though, struggled on the PK against Florida, killing off just 66.7 percent of the power plays (last among teams still alive). The Flyers aren't much better at 69 percent, but the Devils' power play (20 percent) isn't as lethal as that of the Flyers. The speed of play also will slow down in this series, and the Flyers best not fall victim to the Devils' pacing if they would like to return to the Eastern Conference finals. The Devils allowed 2.43 goals per game against the Panthers.
The Flyers’ defense and goaltending were shaky against the Pens and while the Devils do not possess Pittsburgh’s offensive gifts, they’re no pushovers either. New Jersey averaged 2.57 goals per game during the playoffs (sixth in the NHL) and 2.63 goals per game during the regular season. Scoring across the board is way down, and this series will prove that.
If the Devils can slow down the Flyers, frustrate them a bit, and have some special teams success, they will pull off another upset. But here’s betting than Philly will do just enough to eliminate their Atlantic Division rivals. Prediction: Flyers in seven games.