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NHL Playoff Preview- Eastern Conference

New York Rangers (1st) vs. Ottawa Senators (8th)

The New York Rangers just finished off their best season in years finishing on top of the Eastern Conference. Leading the way through the season was their ace starting goaltender Hendrik Lundqvist - possibly the best goalie in the world right now. He finished the season with an astonishing .930 Save Percentage and a miniscule 1.96 Goals Against Average. The Rangers have top end talent and a great mix of toughness and grit throughout their lineup.

On the other side of the table we have the Cinderella season of the Ottawa Senators. Most people, including myself, had the Senators looking closer to first overall draft pick than being in the playoffs. Led by a breakout season by sophomore sensation Erik Karlsson (19G, 59A, 78P), this young lineup fought every minute of every game and was among the top teams in 3rd period goals and comeback victories. Jason Spezza having a career year didn’t hurt, and neither did consistent goaltending from Craig Anderson.

The Sens played the Rangers tough all year. This youthful team was 3-1 against New York under the guidance of Coach Paul MacLean, a native of Antigonish, NS. However, on paper it would seem that the Sens just don’t match up to the Rangers in any category. While the Sens have some explosive offensive power in their top 2 lines, their depth is a big concern and could ultimately be their undoing this year. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do make an incredible upset. I think this series is going to be closer than the 1st vs 8th numbers suggest.

Prediction: Rangers win in 6

Boston Bruins (2nd) vs Washington Capitals (7th)

The defending Stanley Cup Champions have the task of dealing with one of the NHL’s biggest stars Alex Ovechkin. Although Ovechkin had a dismal season by his standards, he can still dazzle a crowd at any moment. The Capitals also will be getting one of their best offensive weapons back in Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom, the Capitals top Center, has missed 3 months of action but should not be taken lightly. Moreover, the Caps come into these Playoffs with no pressure to win. Perhaps not being in the spotlight will allow them to play their game and deal with the depth of the defending cup Champions.

Boston is possibly one of the deepest teams in the league. However they are missing a key component to their top line in Nathan Horton, who is suffering the side affects of his 2nd concussion in under 9 months. The bruising winger was a key component to the Bruins Stanley Cup run last year until he was caught with a late hit that resulted in his first NHL concussion. The Bruins aren’t without weapons however, with Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand having career highs in almost every category, and lets not forget about the unique mixture of size, toughness, and skill in Milan Lucic. Goaltending will be completely lopsided as well. Two-time Vezina winning, and last years Conn Smyth winner, Tim Thomas will be between the pipes for the Bruins, while the Caps have the young and unproven goalie Braden Holtby. Aside from the goalies, Idon’t think Washington has it in them to deal with the size and 4 great lines that Boston will throw at them over a 7 game series. This alone will contain Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin to a certain degree.

Prediction: Boston Bruins in 5 games

Florida Panthers (3rd) vs New Jersey Devils (6th)

The Florida Panthers were the top team in the worst division in hockey. The fact that they won the division guaranteed them a top 3 finish. A rule that will probably be looked at in the new CBA talks in the off season. They were able to string together a half decent team through free agency, bringing in players like Thomas Fleischman and Chris Versteeg. Both players flourished with top 6 minutes, but disappeared at times. Jose Theodore performed well enough between the pipes but has proven time and time again that he isn’t a top starting goalie in the NHL. Their depth is a problem, but they can move the puck up the ice well with offensively minded defensemen, like Brian Campbell.

Across the faceoff dot is an offensively gifted team that plays great team defense and has maybe arguably the best goalie of all time in Martin Brodeur. This star studded lineup is highlighteds by one of the games best pure goal scorers, Ilya Kovalchuk, who signed the richest contract in NHL history. But it doesn’t stop there, other talent like Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac and rookie Adam Henrique mean that Florida is going to have its hands full on every shift.

Prediction: New Jersey in 5 games

Penguins (4th) vs Flyers (5th)

This series is by far the most hyped of the opening round. Division rivals and original expansion cousins clash once again in the post season, and these teams absolutely hate one another. The Pittsburgh Penguins battled through many injuries again all season, and still ended up with the NHL’s most potent offense. What is amazing is that they did it while missing a key component for most of their season. Has anyone heard of Sidney Crosby? In Crosby’s absence Evgeni Malkin rose to the occasion, just like he did last time Crosby was out, and won another Art Ross trophy. However this year he was able to score 50 goals for the first time in his career. This veteran team still has a large amount of players from their Stanley Cup winning team, and is looking to bring that experience to the series.

Many thought the Flyers wouldn’t be here after trading cornerstones Jeff Carter and Mike Richards in the offseason after a disappointing sweep at the hands of the Bruins in round 2 of the 2011 playoffs. However, the youthful squad – who led the NHL in games played by rookies – has had some great success. Led by Claude Giroux’s career year and the emergence of goofy power forward Scott Hartnell, this Flyers team looks to stop their cross state rivals in their tracks, - like they did all season. The Flyers have a tough task as most professional writers and even Las Vegas has the Penguins to win the cup. This series will come down to depth of lines and goaltending. The Flyers possibly have better more depth with guys like Max Talbot, Sean Couturier and Matt Read, but no one knows which Ilya Bryzgalov will show up. Will he  be the NHL’s first star of March, or will he be the “no confidence, lost in the woods” Bryz from the first half of the season. One thing is for sure, this series has the makings of one for the record books.

Prediction: Flyers in 7

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