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Handicapping the First Round of the NHL Playoffs - Eastern Conference...By Hartley Henderson

Unlike most sports, the NHL provides the greatest potential for upsets. Major League Baseball and the NFL generally see the best teams win but in hockey surprises are always abound. The parity in the league as a result of the salary cap as well as the tendency for teams to be streaky ensures that a team will never be as good or as bad as they have played in the past. Consequently it's quite normal to see #8 teams defeat #1 teams since often the #1 teams enter the playoffs cold while the #8 teams enter with momentum.

In the playoffs #6 and #5 teams have been successful half the time the last 4 years.

The key to winning playoffs is clear. First a team has to come in with momentum. Teams that enter the playoffs on a long slump are almost always eliminated right away whereas hot teams (regardless of their ranking) usually carry the momentum into the playoffs. Furthermore, goaltending is paramount. While the San Jose Sharks entered the playoffs with the best record the last 2 years, Evgeni Nabokov struggled in net and the team consequently lost the first 2 rounds. On the other hand hot goaltending with lesser teams can move them a long way. Just like defense wins NFL playoff games, goaltending is key in hockey playoffs. Lastly one needs to look at head to head results. If a team is successful against another team it almost always shows in the playoffs.

One important thing to note is that unlike most other sports, home ice advantage means little. In basketball home court is worth around 6-8 points and in the NFL home field is generally worth 4-6 points. In hockey road teams win almost as much as home teams and in some cases teams actually perform better on the road. With that in mind here's the analysis of the 2010 first round playoffs.

Washington vs. Montreal

On paper this series looks like a blowout. Washington enters the playoffs with the best record in the league and only lost 1 game in regulation time in their last 10. The team has the best player in the league (Alexander Ovechkin) and a great supporting cast with Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and others. The one questionable spot for the Capitals is goaltending as Jose Theodore can be suspect in net. Mind you Semyon Varlamov if healthy is a solid backup.

Montreal enters the playoffs ice cold winning only 3 of the last 10 games, giving up a mammoth amount of goals over that period and showing real defensive problems. A solid start to the season is the only reason they were able to hold on to the last playoff spot. The return of Mike Cammalleri from injury is significant although the team lacks the offensive punch that Washington displays. Furthermore Montreal's goaltending is even more suspect than Washington's. Carey Price was supposed to be the next superstar but lacklustre play all year landed Jaroslav Halak the top job. Mind you Montreal still isn't sure if they'll play Halak or Price. While Halak has looked good much of the year and in fact helped Slovakia make it to the bronze medal playoff game at the Olympics, he tapered off of late and has no playoff experience.

The teams played each other 4 times this year with each team winning 2 games and no game being decided by more than 2 goals.

Prediction: The momentum heading into the playoff clearly favours Washington and unless Halak or Price can stand on their head look for Washington to win in 5 games.

New Jersey vs. Philadelphia :

New Jersey which was expected to struggle in 2009-2010 played solid all year winning the #2 spot while Philadelphia, which was expected to be among the best teams had to beat the NY Rangers in the final game to make it into the playoffs. Both teams struggled with injuries although New Jersey was hurt more as Patrik Elias missed much of the early season. New Jersey ended the year 5-2-3 in their last 10 while Philadelphia finished up 4-5-1 including the shootout winner to defeat the Rangers. On paper the teams match up quite well offensively. Philadelphia has Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, Daniel Briere and others while New Jersey has Elias, Zach Parise, Jamie Langenbrunner, Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk who was acquired at the trade deadline. The biggest difference between the teams is goaltending. Martin Brodeur, the best goalie for years, is playing for New Jersey while Philadelphia has alternated between Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton after Ray Emery was injured early in the year. Boucher is expected to start since Leighton has been injured himself. Mind you, while Brodeur has shown signs of brilliance this year he has struggled at other times. Prior to the Olympics Brodeur was letting in up to 4 goals per game and in fact played so poor in the Olympics he was pulled for Roberto Luongo.

The teams played 6 times in the 2009-2010 season and Philadelphia won 5 of the games by a combined 20-13 score. In the last game Brodeur was pulled as the Flyers won by a 5-1 margin.

Prediction: The first game will be a tell tale sign of how the series will go. If Brodeur is at the top of his game the Devils will win but if he struggles an upset is possible. Brodeur struggled against Philadelphia all year and my hunch is it will continue in the playoffs. Look for Philadelphia to pull off the upset in 6 or 7 games.

Pittsburgh vs. Ottawa

This series matches the 2009 Stanley Cup Champion vs. a team that has underperformed for the last few years. Most experts predicted Pittsburgh to return to the Stanley Cup in 2010 and while they have struggled at times, they played well when it counted. Ottawa was a surprise all year and somehow managed to win games in situations when it appeared they had no chance. While Pittsburgh has one of the best tandems in the sport with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, their offense drops off considerably after that. In fact Sergei Gonchar, a defenseman, is their 3rd leading scorer. The loss of Kunitz hurt the team although Bill Guerin and Jordan Staal can be game breakers.

Ottawa, like Pittsburgh, sees their offensive production stumble after Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza. When Spezza was injured Ottawa showed how vulnerable they were but when healthy he is among the best in the league. Ottawa also has useful offensive players in Mike Fisher, Alex Kovalev and Milan Michalek.

Where the teams clearly differ is in net. Marc Andre Fleury is a proven playoff performer for Pittsburgh while Brian Elliot is a sophomore with no playoff experience. Elliot has been a pleasant surprise considering he wasn't expected to play but was forced into the starting roll after Gerber left and Pascal Leclaire got injured. One thing that has been quite notable in almost every recent playoff series is that goaltenders with little experience tend to struggle come playoff time.

The teams played each other 4 times this year with each team winning twice. In fact, none of the games were close. Pittsburgh won 4-1 and 8-2 while Ottawa won 6-2 and 4-1. Ottawa enters the playoffs winning 7 of their last 10 games while Pittsburgh is just above .500 over the same period.

Prediction: Brian Elliot will face reality early as Pittsburgh comes out firing at home. If he can stand the pressure he can win, otherwise it could be a short series. Look for Pittsburgh to use their playoff experience and goaltending superiority to beat Ottawa in 5 games.

Buffalo vs. Boston

Buffalo is one of the most pleasant surprises of the season while Boston is one of the biggest disappointments. In all fairness, however, Boston did have injury troubles and Marc Savard will likely not play in the playoffs. This series is also of interest since it matches the United States 2 goaltenders from the Olympics with Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas although Boston has been using Tukka Rask who has been incredible with a goals against average under 2.0.

Miller won the outstanding player award in the Olympics and has been solid all year. He is without question the best goalie in the game today. Furthermore Buffalo which has had some injuries this year is healthy and Thomas Vanek has been among the best players of late. The team has a decent offense with Vanek, Derek Roy, Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville and their defense is solid.

Boston suffered a huge setback when Matt Cooke laid a vicious hit on Marc Savard ending his year. Savard was the heart and soul of the team and they have struggled mightily to score since. The team's offensive struggles are highlighted by the fact that their leading scorer only has 52 points and Marc Savard is among the team leaders despite only having played 1/2 season.

Boston actually has been better of late than Buffalo although it has been as a result of defense, not offense. The team has been able to limit other teams to 2 or fewer goals which have set them up to win and Buffalo is no powerhouse themselves. Both teams have been among the league leaders in fewest goals allowed but Boston's total of 206 goals scored is the 2nd worst in the league, only slightly ahead of Calgary which had 204. Head to head in 2009-2010 the teams played 6 times with Boston winning 4 of those games. The series not surprisingly was low scoring with the 6 games resulting in only 26 goals. The most goals scored by any team were 4 by Boston in their first meeting.

Prediction: This is unquestionably the closest series on paper and there is little to pick one team over the other. The one advantage Buffalo has over Boston is Miller has more experience than Rask although Tim Thomas is quite capable of taking over if Rask struggles. This series screams 7 games with at least 2 overtime games and very little scoring. If Rask can play like he has all year, I look for Boston to pull off the mild upset with a game 7 overtime win.

Hartley Henderson

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