With another busy weekend of hockey in the books, the NHL playoff picture has begun to take shape. The jockeying will continue, of course, over the next two weeks, but it’s pretty safe to say there are five or six teams from each conference that have locked up a playoff spot. Down the stretch, most of the flip-flopping in the standings is likely to occur above that dividing line rather than across it, and thus the matchups you see today aren’t the ones you’ll get come April 6th. So hold off on teepee-ing your neighbor’s house because he’s a Flyers fan or toothpick-ing his yard because he roots for the Habs.
As for us, we’re going to be a little more impulsive, a tad more presumptuous. Here are the matchups in the East if the playoffs started today, along with some hasty analysis and, of course, some foolhardy predictions. Check back next Sunday for the most recent update.
Boston (A1) vs. Toronto (W2)
Season Series (Bruins lead 2-1-0)
11/9: Boston 3, Toronto 1
12/8: Boston 5, Toronto 2
1/14: Toronto 4, Boston 3
4/3: Boston at Toronto
Boston: David Krejci (16-44-60); Jarome Iginla (28-30-58); Milan Lucic (21-32-53)
Toronto: Phil Kessel (36-40-76); James van Reimsdyk (27-29-56); Nazem Kadri (18-29-47)
Boston: Tuukka Rask (32-14-4, 2.07 GAA, .929 SV%)
Toronto: Jonathan Bernier (25-16-7, 2.61, .925 SV%)
Oh, what a juicy matchup this would be. After memorably blowing that 4-1 third period lead against the Bruins in game seven of the ECQF a year ago, Toronto gets a shot at redemption. With Boston outcast Phil Kessel and summer acquisition Jonathan Bernier, the Leafs come back for round two, while the fans in Toronto convince themselves that this is what they wanted all along. (When, in fact, it is absolutely not.) Anyone who wants to face this Bruins team in the playoffs is either certifiably insane or a masochist. For the Leafs, the matchup looks particularly dreadful. Toronto has a hard time keeping the puck of their net as it is, and the big, bad Bruins are the highest-scoring team in the East. Most of that stems from the fact that the Leafs allow a ridiculous amount of shots per game (the most in the league, in fact), but it’s also due to the team’s blundering penalty kill, which checks in at 78.7 percent (28th overall). And guess what? The Bruins have one of the best power play units in the game. Yeesh. Poetic justice might sound appealing to fans in Toronto, but repeat after me: You do not want this.
Matchup to Watch:
Phil Kessel vs. Zdeno Chara: Toronto’s best forward will try to avoid being swallowed by the black hole known as Chara.
The sense of deja-vu in this rematch will extend no further than the jerseys. The Bruins are a better team heading into the playoffs than they were a year ago – which is a scary thought – and the Leafs play the wrong type of game to combat Boston’s intense, grind-you-down style of hockey. Toronto might grab a win at home, but it’s hard to see this series going further than that. Bruins in five.
Tampa Bay (A2) vs. Montreal (A3)
Season Series (Lightning lead 2-0-1)
11/12: Tampa Bay 2, Montreal 1 (SO)
12/28: Montreal 2, Tampa Bay 1 (SO)
2/1: Tampa Bay 2, Montreal 1 (OT)
4/1: Montreal at Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay: Valterri Filppula (24-29-53); Ondrej Palat (19-30-49); Tyler Johnson (22-24-46)
Montreal: Thomas Vanek (25-33-58); P.K. Subban (10-40-50); Max Pacioretty (31-18-49)
Tampa Bay: Ben Bishop (34-11-6, 2.17 GAA, .927 SV%)
Montreal: Carey Price (29-18-5, 2.40 GAA, .924 SV%)
Well if the regular season matchups are any indication, this would be a flat-out awesome series. In Tampa Bay, you have a team founded on size up front, an identity manifested in the big-boned likes of Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn and Teddy Purcell. In Montreal, you have just the opposite, where diminutive speedsters like Daniel Briere, Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta lead the attack. There’s not a whole lot of bad blood between these teams, but you can bet recent Lightning acquisition Ryan Callahan, who will treat this as a USA-Canada rematch for motivational purposes, will do his best to change that. The image of him barreling into P.K. Subban and Subban coming right back at him is enjoyable no matter how many times you replay it in your head. Also enjoyable is the thought of how fans in Montreal would react if their blue-blood Canadiens lost to a hockey team from…Tampa Bay. Oh, the horror!!
Matchup to Watch
Ben Bishop vs. Carey Price: two of the best young goaltenders in the NHL square off in a head-to-head duel.
Though the Canadiens are known for their band of small, fleet-footed forwards, the truth is the team has bulked up its offense in the past couple of years. Max Pacioretty (6’2) has emerged as a goal-scoring machine, Lars Eller (6’2) continues to impress in his second season and recently acquired Thomas Vanek (6’0) is probably the one forward on this team who can dazzle with the puck and ride every roller coaster at Six Flags. Against Tampa Bay, a team that likes to impose its will on the opposition, that will be the difference. Canadiens in six.
Pittsburgh (M1) vs. Detroit (W1)
Season Series (Tied 1-0-1)
12/14: Pittsburgh 4, Detroit 1
3/20: Detroit 5, Pittsburgh 4 (OT)
4/9: Detroit at Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby (34-60-94); Evgeni Malkin (23-49-72); Chris Kunitz (32-30-60)
Detroit: Henrik Zetterberg (16-32-48); Niklas Kronwall (7-36-43); Daniel Alfredsson (17-25-42)
Pittsburgh: Marc-Andre Fleury (34-16-4, 2.36 GAA, .916 SV%)
Detroit: Jimmy Howard (17-16-10, 2.64 GAA, .913 SV%) with a possible side of Jonas Gustavsson (15-4-3, 2.55 GAA, .912 SV%)
Old foes meet again. After staging epic battle after epic battle in the late 1950’s, the Red Wings and Penguins collide again some sixty years later to pry open an old chest of enmity and strife. Wait, what? Well that’s what NBC might try to feed you if these two teams meet in early April, considering where the NHL stood five or six years ago. Detroit and Pittsburgh, remember, met in back-to-back Stanley Cup showdowns in 2008 and 2009, the Wings winning round one, the Penguins taking round two. They haven’t played many high-stakes games since – and none in the playoffs – but there are enough holdovers on each team for some lingering hostility to boil over. Still, these teams are not the same. The Wings have grown older and more vulnerable in the years since, while the Penguins haven’t seemed to age at all, partly because Sidney Crosby still hasn’t figured out the whole moustache thing. Where Detroit could run with Pittsburgh five years ago, they probably can’t keep up with them anymore, even with a healthy Pavel Datsyuk and a healthy Henrik Zetterberg. This is an intriguing matchup on the surface, but likely not much of a series.
Matchup to Watch
Henrik Zetterberg vs. Sidney Crosby: will Zetterberg shadow Crosby again the way he did five years ago in the Cup final?
One look at the stats says it all. The Penguins are the third highest-scoring team in the NHL, the Red Wings are the 18th. The Penguins allow the eighth fewest goals per game; the Red Wings are eight spots below them at 16th. The Penguins have the best power play in the league, the Red Wings, uhm, don’t. There are simply too many weapons on this Pittsburgh team for a squad as thin as Detroit to contain, and with Jimmy Howard struggling through a subpar season the Wings’ chances of stealing a series are basically zilch. But wait! The Penguins have Marc-Andre Fleury in net, who likes to make it very hard for his team to win in the playoffs. If he has the type of meltdown he had last year against the Islanders, don’t count out the veteran-heavy Red Wings. Penguins in six.
Philadelphia Flyers (M2) vs. New York Rangers (M3)
Season Series (Flyers lead 2-1-0)
10/24: Philadelphia 2, New York 1
1/12: New York 4, Philadelphia 1
3/1: Philadelphia 4, New York 2
3/26: Philadelphia at New York
Philadelphia: Claude Giroux (24-50-74); Wayne Simmonds (24-30-54); Jakub Voracek (19-33-52)
New York: Derek Stepan (15-35-50); Mats Zuccarello (15-34-49); Brad Richards (16-30-46)
Philadelphia: Steve Mason (30-16-6, 2.53 GAA, .916 SV%)
New York: Henrik Lundqvist (28-22-11, 2.42 GAA, SV% .919)
Hockey Gods, please make this happen. (As it stands now, this is actually the first-round series most likely to occur.) New York and Philadelphia have had some rousing get-togethers in the playoffs recently, but not on the ice. The Giants and Eagles sparred in the postseason in 2007 and 2009, the Yankees and Phillies met in the World Series in 2009, and the Knicks and 76ers…played a good game the other night. But you’d have to go all the way back to 1997 to name the last time the Rangers and Flyers squared off in the playoffs, which is a bummer for fans that like to watch two teams try to kill each other night after night. And if these longtime rivals collide this spring, expect exactly that. The Rangers might not hate any team more than the Flyers – a sentiment they share with about 13 other teams in the NHL – and the Flyers might not enjoy antagonizing any team more than the Rangers. This should be a doozy.
Matchup to Watch
Daniel Carcillo vs. Anyone in orange: the former Flyer is just what this series needs to go from unruly to flat-out anarchic.
Flip a coin. A pair of teams as evenly-matched as they come, the Rangers and Flyers could play each other 50 times and split 25 wins down the middle. And game 51, for tie-breaking purposes, would undoubtedly go to overtime (where Olli Jokinen would find a way to screw things up for the Blueshirts.) Point is, picking between these two teams is a total toss-up, for neither side has any glaring advantage in the personnel department. Except maybe between the pipes, where the Rangers own the battle-tested Henrik Lundqvist while the Flyers turn to the inexperienced Steve Mason. We’ll call that the difference. Rangers in seven.