Sunday, April 08, 2012

2012 Eastern Conference Match-Ups

The Eastern Conference champions, New York Rangers, will indeed have their hands full with the Ottawa Senators in their opening round encounter, starting on Thursday night.  The Rangers dropped their last couple of games, while the Senators dropped their last three games, but on either side, they knew they were in the playoffs and sort of rested their way through until the end of the regular season.

The Rangers strength has been a combination of their hard work in the defensive zone, which turns into their transitional offense.  The blueshirts don't really back down from very many players, but at the same time, they are very vulnerable to their own mistakes, due to being overly-exuberant on the ice.  A lot of those mistakes are left to be cleaned up by their number one goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, who is a leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy and may be a very popular choice in the playoff pool this year.  The Rangers will have to dig deep in these playoffs, if they are going to win it all and they will have their hands full with the Senators to start off with.

Pool injuries:  As of now, all of the players that are representing the Rangers on the playoff pool selection sheet are healthy, so they do not have much in the way of early concerns at this point.

The Ottawa Senators have been a very fast-paced team that takes advantages of other team's mistakes, which makes their match-up against the Rangers somewhat of a positive one.  The Senators have one of the top end scorers in the league, the NHL's best offensive defenseman and some very reasonable goaltending in Craig Anderson to help get them by.  The Senators have been thriving on some lowered expectations through the year, as they were thought to be in somewhat of a rebuilding phase, but with many of the right pieces already in place, they were able to make this year into somewhat of a successful one.

Pool injuries:  The Senators' X-factor player in Box 19, Chris Neil, did get the last game of the regular season off, due to an upper-body injury, which he suffered the game before, taking a hard tumble into the boards.  He is considered to be day-to-day, but the coaching staff don't appear to be too concerned that he'll miss any time from the line-up.

Is an upset possible?  I would have to say yes.  The Rangers are going to be a sexy pick in the Eastern Conference this year, they have the goaltending to do so, but if any of these games against the Senators turns into a track meet, it usually means that the Rangers are not playing as tightly as the coaching staff would want and the Senators are a team that can play an end-to-end style of game well.  This series can go any which way, very tight for four game, loosey-goosey for a few games, so I wouldn't count Ottawa out of this series right away.

A very interesting match-up in the two-seven slot in the East, as the defending Cup champion Bruins get Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, in what could be a hard-hitting, fast-paced series.  The Bruins didn't move to dominate the entire regular season schedule this season, while the Capitals were one of those teams, surprisingly on the verge of making the playoffs this year, but in either case, they're both ready to go for some post-season hockey and I think it matches up fairly well.

There really is no debating how nasty the Boston Bruins can be, as you look at the big games against the Sabres this year or even the Stanley Cup rematch against the Canucks and you can see that they have been on the line between hard-nosed and over-the-top, occasionally falling over that line in some games.  Their offense is very North-South, taking pucks to the net, they have some of the best defense in the league and they will be back-stopped again by Tim Thomas, last year's Conn Smythe Trophy winner.  Their own undoing may be what costs them losses this year and this first round match-up will need to see the Bruins behave themselves as best they can.

Pool injuries:  The only pool injury concern that the Bruins have at this point is the knee sprain of Box 23 defenseman Johnny Boychuk.  Boychuk missed out on the last couple of games for the Bruins, but with an extra few days off before the playoffs start, it sounds like he is expected to be in and ready to go for Game One.

The Capitals have been known for having one big enigma on their team, Alexander Semin.  Well, in the 2012 season, it looked as though his teammates took a page from that text book and all became somewhat of a puzzling team to watch.  Washington's offense is full of amazing talents, some of the best top six forwards in the game are on this team.  They have a very good quick-strike offense and a power play that should be good, but really wasn't this season.  If they can find some real leadership out of Ovechkin this year, they may have a shot at making some noise, but their opponent is going to be closing up space at every turn, so it won't be easy.

Pool injuries:  Goaltending is a real concern for the Capitals, as they were dealing with issues with Tomas Vokoun in the second half of the season, which gave the green light to Michal Neuvirth to be the Box 24 goaltender on the sheet.  As it turns out, Neuvirth is also dealing with a lower-body injury and the Capitals may have to run with Braden Holtby.  It may be wise to stay away from Neuvirth, unless otherwise mentioned.

Is an upset possible?  Looking at this series and the injuries to the Capitals goaltending, it does seem far less likely than some of the other opening round series, that an upset will occur.  The real factor being, the Washington goaltending, how it will live up to some of the banging and crashing that the Bruins are known for, as the Capitals will likely also fold under the enormous physical pressure that they will be under.  Boston is going to be popular and for good reason, I think.

The Florida Panthers are back in the NHL playoffs this year and have home-ice advantage over the New Jersey Devils in their opening round playoff date, starting on Friday night.  The Panthers won the Southeast Division title, which earns them their home-ice advantage, but they finished 8 points behind the Devils in the standings, so they may not be the favourites in this series after all.  Nevertheless, playoff hockey in South Florida is welcomed news.

The Panthers are an interesting group of players, assembled from the previous regime, some big free agency signings and trades through the season, which has made for winning team in a surprisingly weak division this year.  Jose Theodore, one of those free agency signings, provided some very good goaltending for the team this season and will be leaned upon to do the same in the playoffs this year.  Against a fairly potent Devils offense, the Panthers defense will have to be at its best and Theodore will have to stand on his head to get through to the next round.

Pool injuries:  The 12 players that make up the Panthers team on the selection sheet go into the Spring Dance with a clean bill of health.  There are no concerns to speak of for the cats, so if you feel that Florida has a really good chance of making it through to the next round, you can feel free to pick anyone here.

The Devils may have been discounted a little for spending way too much money on a guy like Ilya Kovalchuk and having a number one goaltender that is getting up there in his years in Martin Brodeur, but this New Jersey team has done really well to show that they are in it for the long haul this year.  With a start against the Panthers, they should get a good test of their defense, including the league's best penalty kill in the regular season.  The Devils do have some scoring depth and some muscle to help them through the grind, which should outline a pretty good team for a playoff run.

Pool injuries:  Another one of those injuries that needed some rest before the playoffs, David Clarkson's lower-body injury is reportedly considered to be minor and he is expected to be ready for Game One of the playoffs.  Clarkson missed the last couple games of the regular season, but the Devils didn't have anywhere to go in the standings, so they could afford him getting healthy for Game One.

Is an upset possible?  By virtue of the Devils being the number six seed in this series by the division win for the Panthers, then yes, an upset is possible.  The Devils are the better team, but the NHL standings reward a division win with home-ice.  The Devils have a better assembled offense, the defense may be a bit of a wash and Brodeur should top Theodore in a goalie battle, so I think an upset is almost expected.

The four-five slot in the Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals is the marquee match-up of these playoffs.  The on-going war that is the Battle of Pennsylvania has reached a fever pitch and a possible seven-game series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers should have everyone's mouth watering for blood... and fisticuffs... and bruhahas... and shenanigans.  If you haven't seen the regular season lead-up to this series, you have probably been living under a rock and I will gladly take your $10 entry fee right now.

The Penguins come into this series as the team that didn't fare too well in the regular season series, but having won their last three games, including two against the Flyers, they are considered to be heavy favourites in these playoffs.  Having the regular season pool leader in scoring, another player who could have been the scoring leader, if it weren't for a major concussion (or two), a goalie that has already won a Cup with this team, they have a lot of weapons and they all seem to be ready to go for battle.  Marc-Andre Fleury has been great for the Penguins this year and he will have a tough test against these Flyers, who have been potent offensively this season, but he also has a lot of offensive help of his own, in case he has a rough game or two.

Pool injuries:  James Neal has been on the injury page for the last few games, but he is considered to be ready to go for Wednesday night's opener against the Flyers.  Neal was out with a lower-body injury, but it is nothing serious.  Box 22 defenseman Matt Niskanen, on the other hand, may not be ready for Game One with an upper-body injury, so that might be something to consider, if you were looking to use a Penguins player as some depth in this pool.  He's day-to-day, possibly questionable, at best, for Wednesday's game.

The Flyers are big, mean and they have some skilled players that can make your head spin.  They enjoy getting under your skin, playing playoff hockey all the time and they have a goaltender that has been getting hot at exactly the right time.  If anyone is going to make a serious run at the Penguins, it is going to be the Flyers.  They are going to make the pretty boys of Pittsburgh slog it out in the trenches, in deep in the corners, along the boards and in front of the net.  They have some good defensive depth and a few lines that can provide some instant offense, so they should match-up well.  If they can take time and space away from the top Penguins players, Ilya Bryzgalov should have an easier time in the net.

Pool injuries:  The Flyers don't have any major injuries to the players that are on the selection sheet, but that isn't to say that the team isn't missing players.  The Flyers would be much better off, if they were to have Chris Pronger dressed, but a major concussion has sidelined him for almost the entire season and there is no chance of him coming back before it is all said and done this season.  Claude Giroux was a healthy scratch for the team's last game for resting and precautionary reasons, but he'll be ready to go for Game One.

Is an upset possible?  Like I said earlier, if anyone is going to do it, it will be the Flyers.  Is it possible, sure.  The Flyers will have to push and grind down the superstars and like any of the stars in this league, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are vulnerable to that sort of thing.  It is going to be hard to bet against the Penguins and doing so is what you would call high risk to high reward.  There are going to be a lot of playoff pool teams going with the Penguins, but if they are upset and you have Flyers, you could moonwalk into some pool prize money.

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