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The NHL Playoff Primer: Part II – Eastern Conference

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Sidney Crosby (AP)

Sidney Crosby (AP)

Offense was a bit tough to come by last night – all three games would have finished 2-1 were it not for Anaheim’s empty netter – but with two ending in overtime, a pretty decent start to the NHL playoffs. On that note, if you’re not calling up your friends who may or may not know anything about hockey to participate in an overtime pool – pick one player on each team who you think will score, wager a small or large amount of money, food or booze with the winner taking all or the pot carrying over – you’re not truly enjoying hockey in May. Let’s hope the Eastern Conference can provide a few more goals while continuing to play to 60-minute stalemates.

If it’s scoring you want, the East’s 1-vs.-8 series should be a must-watch.

John Tavares (AP)

John Tavares (AP)

1. Pittsburgh vs. 8. New York Islanders

Odds of an upset: 10 percent

The Penguins will win if: Smallpox doesn’t surface for the first time in 36 years to wipe out their entire roster. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Paul Martin missed a combined 56 games due to injury, but all are ready to go for this series except Crosby – who won’t play in at least Game 1 as he continues to recover from a broken jaw. Missing the world’s best player would be a big deal for many teams, but with Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and trade deadline acquisitions Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow, the Penguins should have more than enough offensive firepower to get past the Islanders. It won’t be a walk in the park, though. The Isles went 11-2-4 over the season’s final month, have an MVP candidate in the superb John Tavares and are going to win plenty of postseason series in the coming years. But considering Pittsburgh went 23-3-0 against playoff teams, making it to the second round for the first time in two decades will likely have to wait. Unless …

The Islanders will win if: Marc-Andre Fleury forgets how to stop the puck. Pittsburgh’s Fleur de Filet has a Stanley Cup on his resume but was brutal in last season’s playoff loss to Philadelphia, giving up 26 goals in six games – albeit behind a rather porous defense. That shouldn’t be as much of a problem in 2013. Rugged defenseman Brooks Orpik’s status is up in the air but the Penguins have a lot of depth defensively. Pittsburgh’s goals-against average over the last 23 games – essentially half the season – was an East-best 1.91, and backup Tomas Vokoun is a much better insurance policy if Fleury struggles than Brent Johnson was a year ago. The Islanders’ best hope is to capitalize on the Penguins’ iffy penalty killing, but New York converted just 13.6 percent of its power-play chances over its final 23 games. It also went 0 for 16 in losing the final four games of the season series to the Pens after going 2 for 2 in a 4-1 victory at Pittsburgh on Jan. 29. It’s imperative for the Isles to win one of the first two games on the road to put some doubt in the mind of the Penguins – who after going all-in at the deadline will be feeling plenty of pressure – and at 14-6-4 away from Long Island, New York has the ability to do so.

The pick: Penguins in 5

Craig Anderson (Getty Images)

Craig Anderson (Getty Images)

2. Montreal vs. 7. Ottawa

Odds of an upset: 60 percent

The Canadiens will win if: The power play continues to click. But we’ll get to that. First, a public service announcement: Ohhhh, Canada! The NHL’s first playoff series involving a North-of-the-Border battle since Vancouver and Calgary met in the first round nine years ago should be a good one that divides Tim Hortons all along the Ottawa River. The bar arguments over a case of Labatt and a slice of tourtiere with a side of poutine will be legendary for as long as this series extends! And with that, I’m out of cultural Canadian references.  Montreal surprised everyone to win the Northeast Division after finishing with the East’s worst record last season, earning just 15 more points than it did in 34 fewer games in 2013. The Canadiens were awful a year ago because they couldn’t score, but that wasn’t a problem this season as they finished tied for the fourth-most goals in the league. Slowing Montreal down isn’t easy because they have plenty of depth up front. Eight players scored at least 10 goals and Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk chipped in a combined 17 more.  The Habs boast a top five power-play unit, and the strength of that group is on the back end. There are two defensemen in the NHL that have scored at least seven power-play goals, and Montreal has both of them – Andrei Markov (eight) and P.K. Subban (seven). Throw in the 34 combined man-advantage assists that duo boasts and it’s a pretty formidable unit. Those special teams aren’t so special when the situation is reversed, though. Montreal’s opponents scored 11 goals in 36 power-play chances as the Canadiens lost five of their final eight games, and considering this is one of the league’s most penalized teams, that could be a problem.

The Senators will win if: Craig Anderson steps up and steals it. Ottawa gave up the second-fewest goals in the league, and the catalyst to their stinginess is this journeyman netminder, who led the NHL with a 1.69 goals-against average. And it’s not like the Senators simply aren’t allowing the puck to get to the net – among the 16 playoff teams, they allow the third-most shots on goal. They also spend a lot of time killing penalties – more than Montreal and third in the NHL – but have the league’s best success rate at doing so. Ottawa’s magic number is three. The Sens are 18-2-1 if they score three goals and 7-15-5 otherwise, so give Anderson just a little bit of a cushion and he’s proven that he can shut an opponent down. Problem is, sometimes even two goals are a stretch for this bunch. Ottawa scored two or fewer in 10 of 13 games prior to its season-ending 4-2 win in Boston. The good news is defenseman Erik Karlsson is somehow back after missing only 10 weeks with a lacerated Achilles tendon, a timetable Kobe Bryant could only dream of equaling. The Senators score a quarter-goal a game more with the reigning Norris Trophy winner in the lineup, and in what should be a tight, low-scoring series, that could be enough to spring what would be a mild upset.

The pick: Senators in 6

Alex Ovechkin and "Jaws" portrayer Richard Kiel (Getty Images)

Alex Ovechkin and “Jaws” portrayer Richard Kiel (Getty Images)

No. 3 Washington vs. No. 6 New York Rangers

Odds of an upset: 50 percent

The Capitals will win if: Their first two months were a mirage. First of all, you can basically throw any upset talk out the window here since these clubs are essentially equals. Washington finished with 57 points and a goal differential of plus-19, while the Rangers had 56 points and a plus-18 differential. The Caps were lousy for nearly two-thirds of the season, getting 25 points from their first 29 games, sitting nine points out of first place in the pathetic Southeast Division while owning the second-worst record in hockey. But Washington’s season turned on a dime. It earned 32 points in its last 19 games – six more than anyone else in that span – and that turnaround coincided with Alex Ovechkin turning from the ordinary Russian supervillain we’ve come to know and love into a goal-scoring megalomaniac who’s hell-bent on winning scoring titles and probably at some point playing Jaws in a modern reboot of The Spy Who Loved Me. Twelve goals on 120 shots in his first 29 games, 20 goals on 100 shots in his last 19. That, my friends, is a big difference. Jaws comes with friends, too. Troy Brouwer, who scored 18 goals in 82 games last season, had 19 in 47 this season – including six in his final eight contests. The Capitals have converted exactly one-third of their power-play chances since March 31, and if that continues, this team could be primed for a deep run. One little issue, though …

The Rangers will win if: Henrik Lundqvist is in Washington’s head. You may have heard of him: well-dressed Swedish dude who was named one of People’s 100 Most Beautiful People in 2006. Unfortunately for the Caps, he’s even better at goaltending than he is keeping his suave, Scandinavian skin blemish free. King Henrik helped the Rangers sneak past Washington in seven games in the second round last season and he played well against them again in 2013, giving him a nine-game stretch against New York in which he’s posted a 1.61 GAA. He’s also had Mr. Ovi’s number for a while now. Ovechkin has 9 goals in his last 24 games against the Rangers, including just two power-play tallies and zero multi-goal games. And for as well as Washington has played of late, New York had itself an amazing April, going 10-3-1 and outscoring opponents 51-27. This is a team that spends less time in the penalty box than anyone, which is as big a key to beating the Caps as anything. No team scored more than three goals in a game during last season’s playoff scrum between these two, and that’s just how Lundqvist and the Rangers like it.

The pick: Capitals in 7

Phil Kessel (Canadian Press)

Phil Kessel (Canadian Press)

No. 4 Boston vs. No. 5 Toronto

The Bruins will win if: Like Charlie Conway and company did in any number of confidence-deflating losses early in The Mighty Ducks, Toronto takes one look at the jersey of the team lining up across from it at center ice. Boston has won nine of the 10 games between these two over the last two seasons, though each of the four meetings in 2013 was decided by one goal until Tyler Seguin’s empty netter March 7. The Bruins, though, have been a pretty ordinary hockey team since St. Patrick’s Day – and that might even be generous. Boston went 9-10-3 over its last 22 games, giving away the Northeast Division in the process, and special teams were an especially big issue. Perhaps due to consuming too much Guinness on March 17 and the inevitable six-week hangover, the Bruins have converted just 10.9 percent of their power-play chances since while allowing opponents to find the back of the net 22.2 percent of the time. Boston’s offense has failed in general of late, scoring two goals or fewer in eight of its final nine games. The Bruins had to play the final six of those in a nine-day span due to the Marathon bombings, so wondering how much they have in the tank is a legitimate question. But any team as sound defensively as Boston that can roll out four solid lines – including a top two so good that 72-year-old-and-going-strong Jaromir Jagr is on the third unit – is a more-than-viable threat.

The Maple Leafs will win if: Phil Kessel produces. The Bruins’ former No. 1 pick turned trade bait for two first-round picks has put up impressive offensive numbers in four seasons in Toronto, but this is his first postseason rodeo since playing in Boston in 2009. Saying Kessel has disappeared when facing his former club would be an insult to David Copperfield. He’s scored three goals and is a minus-22 in 22 games against the Bruins, scoring once while a minus-15 in 10 the past two seasons. It’s not like much is going to change here. Gheorghe Muresan body double Zdeno Chara will still be shadowing Kessel wherever he goes on the ice, though if there’s a silver lining for the Leafs it’s that the former Norris Trophy winner hasn’t exactly looked like himself lately. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli went as far as to say Monday that Chara has “got to get his game back.” Tuukka Rask would certainly appreciate that as he plays in his first postseason since 2010 – which included a series he would certainly love to forget – but Toronto has a much-less experienced playoff goalie. James Reimer will take the ice for his first postseason game Wednesday night, and he’ll do it behind a defense that allows more shots than anyone in the NHL’s Chase for the Cup but Washington.

The pick: Bruins in 6


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