Yesterday we took care of the Western Conference first round picks in the Stanley Cup tournament, now we take on the Eastern Conference prognostos. Pour a cup o’ coffee (or a mug of your favorite adult beverage) and join us to take a look…
Fearless: What Chicago is in the West, Pittsburgh is in the East. Among Eastern Conference teams the Penguins are first in wins, first in points, first in scoring offense, first in 5-on-5 play, first in winning percentage in one-goal games, first in total wins by two or more goals, and they are one of only three teams in the league that was not shutout this season (Chicago and Boston being the others). They had three 20-goal scorers (Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and Pascal Dupuis). They had two 50-point scorers (Sidney Crosby and Kunitz). They had three players finish better than plus-25. They are an offensive juggernaut. They were 23-4-0 over their last 27 games. And yet there is this. Since his star turn in the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is 12-14, 3.12, .880 in 26 post-season games. Not even the Penguins could score enough to cover up his problems in goal last spring against the Flyers. He has some proving to do.
Cheerless: John Tavares is on a lot of folks’ short lists for most valuable player. With 28 goals (third in the league) and having a hand in 47 of 135 goals the Islanders scored this year (35 percent), he certainly is the most valuable player on an up-and-coming club. But one wonders if midnight is closing in on him. He had a shooting percentage of 17.3 percent this season following years in which he had progressively worse percentages (12.9 in his rookie season followed by 11.9 and 10.8 percent) on progressively higher shot totals (186, 243, then 286 last season). He was on an 82-game pace of 277 shots this season. His history has not been better accuracy with higher volumes, although without it in this series, the Islanders don’t have a chance.
Peerless: Pittsburgh had little trouble with the Islanders this season. They lost to the Isles early on, 4-1, as part of the sleepwalking portion of the Penguins’ season (3-3-0 in their first six games), then swept the last four games by a combined 16-5 margin. More ominous for the Islanders, the Penguin penalty kill – ordinary at best this year at 79.6 percent – was 16-for-16 in those four games. Over the last three seasons the Penguins are 11-5-1 against New York. For the Islanders to pull off the upset Tavares has to play at an even higher level than that at which he played during the regular season, and Fleury’s playoff demons of recent years will have to make an appearance. Even if Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin miss any time in this series, we cannot see either of those things happening over the span of an entire series.
Pittsburgh in five
Fearless: It is hard to know what to make of Montreal. Are they the team that rocketed from dead last in the Eastern Conference last season to within three points of the top spot in the conference on April 6th? Or are they the team that went 2-6-0 over their next six games, giving up 32 goals in the process and having their goalie pulled three times? Or, have they shaken the cobwebs loose and put their playoff face on with two impressive road wins in Winnipeg and in Toronto to wrap up the regular season? Montreal can score – they finished tied with Washington for fourth place in scoring offense this season. But in a sense it is a bit of a fragile team, too. They were fine in blowout games, posting a 14-6 record in games decided by three or more goals (no team had more wins in such games). When the games were closer, though, the Canadiens were not as successful, going 15-13 (eight regulation losses, five in extra time) in games decided by one or two goals.
Cheerless: Your top center plays only five games all season. Your best defenseman – the one with the Norris Trophy – misses 31 games to a partially-severed Achilles tendon. No player had 15 goals for the season, no player had 30 points. Your leading scorer tied a career high in points – 29. Your second leading scorer is a 39-year old defenseman. How did you get here? By being really stingy (only 74 goals against at 5-on-5, fifth lowest in the league), really responsible (only one shorthanded goal scored against), and getting really good goaltending (Craig Anderson led all qualifying goalies by a wide margin in goals against average (1.69) and save percentage (.941)). Ottawa held a third of their opponents to fewer than two goals and 30 of them to fewer than three. Arenas save on their electricity bills when the Senators are in the house. Not many red lights going on.
Peerless: Momentum is a fickle thing. Having it is good, and having it usually means you keep it. That is, until you don’t, and then it is awfully hard to get back. And therein lies the caution for Montreal. It has been a while since these two teams met, and despite the difference in their seedings, Ottawa is 12-9-0 since they last saw the Canadiens on March 13th, and Montreal is 11-9-1 since they last saw the Senators. Ottawa is 5-5-0 against playoff teams over that time, Montreal is 5-5-0 against playoff teams over the same span of time. This series is going to come down to which goaltender is more consistent over longer stretches of play. Carey Price has allowed fewer than two goals in three of his last 15 appearances, but he has allowed four or more goals four times in those same 15 appearances. Hint: it’s not him.
Ottawa in six
Fearless: These two teams have…
Peerless: Hey! We’ll cover this one later.
Fearless: Boston really has mastered this whole “fast start” thing. Last year they were 28-11-1 in their first 40 games before going 21-18-3 in their last 42 contests. This year they were 19-4-3 in their first 26 games, and then they went 9-10-3 in their last 22 games. One is left wondering if some of that Montreal thing rubbed off on the Bruins. The problem has not been defense – the Bruins allowed 2.32 goals per game over their last 22 contests. The problem has been scoring. Only five times in 22 games did Boston score more than twice, and six times they were held to a single goal on their way to averaging 2.23 goals per game over those 22 games. They were also 3-5-2 against playoff teams over that span. If you dressed this team up in the colors of, say, the Buffalo Sabres (6-3-1 in games against their last ten opponents that made the post-season) would they look as intimidating?
Cheerless: I looked it up. The Toronto Maple Leafs started in the NHL in 1917. That’s so long ago that the team didn’t even have a name. They also won the Stanley Cup that first year, something they haven’t done since 1967. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2004, when Nazem Kadri was still in bantam-level hockey. Guess you can forgive Toronto fans for having this “never been here before” sort of enthusiasm, especially when the longest the Leafs had gone without making the playoffs before this seven-year streak was two years in a row dating back to 1928, when they had the last of a three-year streak. There has to be an awful lot of pressure on guys who now are the hopes and dreams of every blue-and-white bleeding Leafs fan in Canada. And it is not as if they are coming into this soiree with their best bib and tucker on. They were 2-4-0 in their last six games of the regular season, and if playoff teams are the ruler you want to measure them against, they were 1-3-0 against those teams in that stretch. You get the feeling they are not quite ready for this.
Peerless: As it turns out, this is the only “Original Six” duel in the first round. But this will be the first time the teams have met in the post season since 1974 in a series that the Bruins swept in four games on their way to the Stanley Cup finals. The teams last met this season in a home-and-home set in late March, the Leafs winning one and taking the Bruins to the freestyle competition in the other before losing. Their numbers are not altogether different at a high level – Boston has the better defense, the Leafs score more. Boston is better at 5-on-5, the Leafs better on the power play. Toronto, perhaps surprisingly, has a slightly better penalty kill. But in as close to the vest as post season games are played, having the puck might matter here. Boston has a big advantage in shot differential per game (plus-3.8 to minus-6.0 for Toronto), and the underlying possession numbers do not favor the Leafs. Cheerless is right, the Leafs are not quite ready for this, but Boston is not playing well enough to make this an unduly short series, either.
Boston in six
And there you have it, seven of the eight first round playoff series with the only prognostications you will ever need (as if one “needs” prognostications). When we get around to it, we will have the eighth and last, but certainly not least, series – the Caps and New York Rangers.