- Will this be the scene come June?
“It is the reality of the sport. If your particular strength happens to be that you're really good offensively, and you come up against a hot goaltender and a team that is stout defensively, it might not matter that you were good on a nightly basis scoring goals. And that one particular opponent: you'll have to beat them four times.”
- NHL broadcaster Darren Eliot explaining the lack of success of Presidents' Trophy winners winning the Stanley Cup.
I’ve been watching the Eastern Conference this year to the point where I’ve only watched 3 West vs. West games all season (and one of them was in person) – Understanding the Eastern Conference isn’t brain surgery: There is one really good team (Boston) – 4 teams that are playing their best hockey right now (New York, Detroit, Columbus, Philadelphia) – 1 enigma (Pittsburgh) –1 schizophrenic (Montreal) and 1 team that has no chance (Tampa Bay).
There’s a few things you need to look for when predicting an Eastern Conference Champion: Champions, no matter the sport, oftentimes have these factors going for them prior to their respective playoffs…
1 - Did the team suffer a crushing defeat the prior season? It’s almost like a Rite-of-Passage – a team needs to suffer a stomach turning defeat before they can eventually win a championship.
The 2007 Penguins lost in 5 games to eventual Eastern Conference Champion Ottawa; the next season, the Penguins swept almost the same Ottawa team out of the playoffs in convincing fashion on their way to the Finals.
The 2008 Penguins lost in 6 games to Detroit, but there’s no doubt that painful defeat helped the Penguins immensely in the 2009 rematch.
The Bruins choked away a 3-0 series lead against the Flyers in 2010, losing in seven games. The next season, you guessed it: The Bruins won the Cup, sweeping the Flyers along the way.
All I’m saying is BEWARE of the team that has suffered a devastating defeat the previous season – that team has learned something along the way. When you walk into someone’s yard and see a “BEWARE OF DOG” sign on the front door - the owner is basically admitting, "I can't control this thing or what it does to you." Chances are you stop in your tracks and look around: Maybe look for a collar around a tree with no dog attached, look toward the bushes to avoid a possible ambush, give the porch a once-over before slowly tip toeing up to the door. With the taste of bitter defeat fresh on their tongue, these teams are often times the toughest of outs…so, BEWARE OF DOG.
2 - Is the team playing their best hockey of the season at the right time? Sure, the Penguins finished 51-24-7, but they also started 29-11-1, meaning from December 31, 2013, the Penguins record was a barely .500 (22-19 includes 6 OT Losses): The Rangers and Flyers had only three wins after ten games; however, both are double digits above .500 at this point in the season. Final record isn’t always indicative of how that particular team is playing now.
3 - Does this team have a great coach? During the course of a seven game series, a coach diagnosis an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and implements a game plan accordingly. Everyone wants to talk about Goaltending --- let me tell you something --- having an established goaltender is the most OVERRATED aspect when breaking down a playoff series...
Check this out: Since 2005, the coaching and goaltending matchups in the Stanley Cup Finals featured
Peter Laviolette vs. Craig McTavish Dwayne Roloson vs. Cam Ward
Randy Carlyle vs. Bryan Murray: J.S. Giguere vs. Ray Emery
Mike Babcock vs. Michel Therrien: Chris Osgood vs. Marc-Andre Fleury
Mike Babcock vs. Dan Bylsma: Chris Osgood vs. Marc Andre Fleury
Peter Laviolette vs. Joel Quennville: Michael Leighton vs. Antii Niemi/Corey Crawford
Claude Julien vs. Alain Vigneault: Tim Thomas vs. Roberto Luongo
Darryl Sutter vs. Peter Deboer: Martin Brodeur vs. Jonathon Quick
Claude Julien vs. Joel Quennville: Tuuka Rask vs. Corey Crawford.
Of the coaches on that list, Babcock, Therrien, Bylsma, Julien and Vigneault are all coaching teams in this year’s Eastern Conference Playoffs.
Aside from Craigh McTavish, there isn’t a below average coach anywhere on that list. Peter Deboer you ask? He had Adam Oates and living legend Larry Robinson at his side in 2012, so while he may be overseeing a crappy Devils team at the moment, Doboer had plenty of help that season.
The point I’m making is that a team can get to the Cup Finals with a mediocre goaltender, but not a mediocre coach: There is at least one stud coach in every Stanley Cup Final since 2005 (Laviolette 2006, Carlyle 2007, Babcock/Therrien (2008), Babcock (2009), Quennville/Laviolette (2010), Julien (2011), Sutter (2012), Julien/Quennville (2013). Furthermore, Bylsma and Vigneault, two guys I don’t yet consider studs, have both won the Jack Adams for Coach of the Year. The best of coaches usually don’t make one appearance and then disappear – those coaches get back, and they know what it takes to do so.
Of the last 6 Stanley Cup Finals – Mike Babcock, Claude Julien, and Joel Quennville, have all participated in more than 1 Finals; that’s 6 appearances combined in the last 6 seasons for those 3 gentlemen – those coaches basically have the cheat code to get to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The same can’t be said for the Goaltending: Stud goaltenders in the Cup Finals include J.S. Giguere in 2007, Thomas/Luongo in 2011, and Jonathon Quick in 2012 - Only Thomas and Brodeur have won Vezina Trophies. (Yes, I realize Brodeur is a stud, but he wasn’t at that point in his career).
Of the goaltenders, Corey Crawford, Chris Osgood, and Marc Andre Fleury are the only net minders to have made multiple Cup Finals appearances, but none of them are considered elite. Osgood has three Cups, but he wasn’t even one of the Top 10 players on those Red Wings Teams: Marc Andre Fleury hasn’t been decent in the playoffs in his past four attempts: Corey Crawford only played sparingly during Chicago’s first Cup Run, going 3-4 in the process.
So while great goaltending is necessary for playoff success, an established goaltender is NOT.
Here’s how I see the Eastern Conference playing out…
Sidney Crosby - 5 to 1
Henrik Lundqvist – 6 to 1
Tuuka Rask – 7 to 1
Claude Giroux – 10 to 1
Evgeni Malkin – 11 to 1
Patrice Bergeron – 18 to 1
Sergei Bobrovsky – 30 to 1
Field – 2.5 to 1
ATLANTIC DIVISION PLAYOFFS
Boston: Boston is 2nd in Goals Against Average, 3rd in scoring, 3rd on the Power Play and 8th on the Penalty Kill…which you can deduce puts them in the NHL’s top 10 in the four major statistical categories.
Everyone knows Boston has been the best team in the Eastern Conference thus far, but have they peaked too early? Remember, since 2005, only two #1 seeds have made it to the Cup Finals. Is Chara going to be gassed after playing deep into last years playoffs, playing in the Olympics, and now he’s being asked to piggy-back another Cup run? Does the free agency loss of Andrew Ference and injury to Dennis Seidenberg come back to bite them?
Montreal: The Habs have surrended 3 or more goals in 9 of their last 15 games – YIKES! That’s no fluke either, the Habs allowed 30 or more shots in 7 of their last 8 games –– Worse yet, the Power Play hasn’t scored in 3 weeks and that is typically an offensive life-saver for Therrien’s troops…I just can’t get a read on them – sometimes they lock it down, sometimes they give up 4 goals and allow a ton of chances. I’m not going to waste any more words on a team I don’t understand.
Tampa Bay: Tampa is 12th in Goals Against Average – 13th on the Power Play – 22nd on the Penalty Kill – Martin St. Louis is still their leading scorer even after being traded over a month ago – I wouldn’t give them the goaltending or coaching advantage over bracket-mates Montreal, Detroit, or Boston – and since March 3, the Lightning have been streaky: losing 5 in a row - then winning 5 in a row; losing two in a row, then winning two in a row. The Bolts have given up 30 or more shots in 8 of past 10 games --- there’s just nothing that this team does exceptionally well on either side of the ice and with Ben Bishop being ruled out of Game 1…I just can’t create a scenario where they beat Montreal then Boston/Detroit.
BEWARE OF DOG:
Detroit: Detroit scores 3 out of 3 in the introduction’s talking points: The Wings blew a 3-1 series lead to arch nemesis Chicago last season, then had to sit on their couches and watch the Blackhawks hoist the Cup - Detroit is playing their best hockey at this point in the season after starting 15-21 - And Detroit has the best coach in the world, Mike Babcock.
Detroit wasn’t even in the playoffs after the Olympics and then the Wings lost Datsyuk and Zetterberg for extended periods of time; so they obviously folded up the tents and gave up on the season, right?
Wrong. The strange thing is, the Wings actually played BETTER without Datsyuk and Zetterberg – the Wings locked it down defensively and just started outworking teams. Now you add two of the best 10 players in the world to a lineup that’s already playing great hockey and Detroit is dangerous.
Remember, as great as the Bruins have been since the end of the 2013 regular season, they were three goals down with ten minutes left to Toronto in Game 7 of Round 1 --- the Bruins are human – and Detroit is much faster than Boston. It’s a battle of Original 6 teams and these fan bases don’t take that lightly – Detroit is just too banged up to beat a team of Boston's caliber.
Atlantic Bracket Prediction: The Bruins have the most complete team, a Top 3 Coach, and all the pieces to make a deep run – The Bruins make it out of the Atlantic Bracket despite an early struggle with Detroit.
New York Rangers: The Rangers have given up 2 goals or less in 11 of their last 15 games - Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best Goaltenders in the world – and best yet, no one is giving them a chance.
The Blue Shirts have killed 40 of their last 43 penalties against although they are an anemic 5 for 49 on their power play since March 7. The Rangers are 10-5 in their last 15 games, 4 of those 5 losses came by 1 goal. There is little doubt in my mind that this team can play with anyone. The Rangers have only surrendered 16 goals in their last 10 games…16 GOALS!!! That’s it…there may not be anyone playing better than the Rangers right now.
Should I mention that the Rangers fired dictator-turned-psychopath John Tortarella and replaced him with the more offensively open-minded Alain Vigneault?
The Rangers lost in the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago and were beaten by a Boston team on a mission last year – Henrik Lundqvist is running out of chances, I expect him to turn in a virtuoso performance during this year’s playoffs.
The Rangers have suffered multiple devastating defeats the past two seasons; they are playing their best hockey right now; and I suspect this is the year Alain Vigneault establishes himself as one of elite coaches in the NHL.
Philadelphia: Philadelphia can pile up the points but rank 20th in the league in Goals Against Average. The Flyers have given up 3 goals or more in 7 of their last 12 games…OUCH. Not surprisingly, I don’t trust the Mason/Emery goaltending platoon for any extended period of time – and the Flyers haven’t beaten an Eastern Conference Playoff team besides Pittsburgh since March 1st. It will be interesting to watch the Rangers staunch Penalty Kill vs. Philadelphia’s lethal Power Play.
The one thing that is absolutely fabulous about the Flyers is their Power Play. I love watching Claude Giroux on the half-wall – He’s the best power play guy in the league – END OF STORY. Sure Ovechkin and Stamkos can rip one timers, but no one moves the puck on the left half wall like Giroux – he’s constantly putting defenders in Catch-22 situations and has turned Wayne Simmons into Phil Espisito – my hats off to Claude…
Pittsburgh: It’s never a good sign when the collective fan base desperately wants to avoid playing half of the Conference (Philadelphia, Detroit, and Boston).
I’ll save you the suspense fellow Yinzers, consider the following:
I wouldn’t trust Dan Bylsma with a butter knife –
There is no defensive-zone game plan unless prayer counts –
Bylsma has run Olli Maatta into the ground like an in season mare –
The Pens don’t finish checks with any consistency –
They can’t clear the front of their own net -
They don’t crash the front of the other teams net –
They are one-dimensional offensively 5 on 5 –
And if that’s not bad enough, they aren’t even playing their best hockey of the season right now - the Penguins have won only 7 games in regulation since March 1 – (Washington twice, Nashville, and Winnepeg are amongst those victims) –
They are 3-7 when scoring 2 goals or less since March 1 (playoff hockey tends to be low scoring)
…and they’ve blown more third period leads than any team in hockey…
…Other than that, I’d say they got a real good shot.
BEWARE OF THE DOG: Pittsburgh vs. Columbus Edition
Columbus: Columbus is 12th in scoring and 13th in Goals Against, so there is nothing special about this team 5 on 5 – Not to mention their 2nd leading scorer is a defensemen, which doesn’t bode well for a team facing a potent Penguins team in round 1. After starting the season 6-13, Columbus has rallied to peak at the right time – The Blue Jacket Power-Play is starting to heat up, going a white-hot 13 for 36 in their last 11 games after going on an 0 for 35 drought from March 6 – March 21.
Columbus is an incredibly hard working team, and although they have no stars, collectively this is a consistent team that does the little things right out of necessity. In their last 14 games, Columbus has only given up more than 2 goals a measly 4 times and Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is capable of stealing a series against a Penguins team that doesn’t manufacture a lot of traffic in front.
And while Columbus doesn’t score a ton, Pittsburgh lack of defensive scheme allows golden opportunities to even the most offensively inept of opponents, as I’ve written before.
The Jackets can absolutely shock the hockey world – if the Penguins defeat the Jackets, it will be, in my opinion, the best team the Penguins have beaten in the playoffs during the Dan Bylsma era, and the Pens would be doing it with Bylsma’s worst team. How does this series not go 7 Games?
The Jackets will outwork the Penguins, out defend the Penguins, out-physical the Penguins and most likely out-coach the Penguins …again, I wonder aloud, how does this series not go 7 games?
Finish reading then check out this article - the is something Cinderella-ish about the Jackets. http://msn.foxsports.com/ohio/story/blue-jackets-intense-playing-style-draws-raves-from-opponents-041214
And besides, how else would you expect Coach Disco to go out besides crashing this plane in the most inept way possible?
Just wait until the Penguins give up two short handed goals and the camera pans to the Penguins bench and there is Coach Disco the way every Penguin fan will remember him: Nice suit, matching tie, arms folded, bold question marks in his eyes, quick glance up to the scoreboard, lips remaining sealed the entire time, all the while the most obvious adjustments throwing him into mental paralysis…Beware of Dog Pittsburgh, Beware of Dog.
Eastern Conference Championship: New York Rangers over Boston Bruins in 6. These are the best two defensive teams in the Conference while both possessing enough scoring, coaching, and grit to rise above the fray in the East.