Friday, April 30, 2010

Eastern Conference semifinals preview

I wonder what the odds were when the playoffs started that Boston would have home-ice advantage in the second round. I know I wouldn't have bet on it.

#4 Pittsburgh vs. #8 Montreal

Regular season head-to-head: Pittsburgh 3-1 (all in regulation)

How they got here: Pittsburgh eliminated Ottawa in six games. Montreal pulled off the upset of the century by defeating Washington in seven.

Power play: Pittsburgh: 17.2% (regular season, 19th best), 25.0 (playoffs, 4th best.) Montreal: 21.8% (regular season, 2nd), 20.0 (playoffs, 9th best)

Penalty killing: Pittsburgh: 84.1% (regular season, 9th best), 68.2 (playoffs, 2nd worst.) Montreal: 83.0% (regular season, 12th), 97.0 (playoffs, 2nd.)

Leaders: Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby five goals, nine assists, 14 points; Brooks Orpik 32 hits; Kris Letang 14 blocks. Montreal: Mike Cammalleri five goals, five assists, 10 points; Ryan O'Byrne 16 hits; Hal Gill 7,193 31 blocks.

Goalies: Pittsburgh: Marc-Andre Fleury (4-2, 2.75, .890, 0 shutouts); Montreal: Jaroslav Halak (4-3, 2.46, .939, 0 shutouts)

Outlook: The Penguins were weird. Good PK, bad PP in the regular season, bad PK, good PP in the playoffs. Granted, the penalty killing gave up a fluke goal and two 5-on-3 goals, but that's an area that needs to improve. As does Fleury and the defense in general, both of which were inconsistent in the first round. Crosby was shut down in Game 6 but was a force in the first five games and needs to continue that. Evgeni Malkin needs to wake up.

Montreal's team-wide commitment to blocking shots was incredible. The Penguins had a lot of shots blocked by Ottawa in the first round, but the Habs surpassed the Senators. At the risk of sounding like a Caps-hater and Pens-supporter (which I am), Pittsburgh plays a different style than Washington. Still, the Canadiens will find ways to clamp down on the Penguins and use the same formula they did against the Capitals: Get an early lead and pack it in in the defensive zone.

Special teams will be key, as I alluded to in the first paragraph. Probably the most stunning part of Montreal's upset is how the Canadiens allowed only one power play goal to the Capitals.

Prediction: Halak is in a zone. Fleury isn't. Maybe the Penguins' forecheck will wear down a smaller Montreal team eventually, but don't bet against the hot goalie (J-S Giguere, 2003 anyone?). Canadiens in six.

#6 Boston vs. #7 Philadelphia

Regular season head-to-head: Tied 2-1-1 (Flyers with one SO win; Bruins with one OT win)

How they got here: Boston sent Buffalo packing in six games. Philadelphia upset New Jersey in five.

Power play: Boston: 16.6% (regular season, 23rd), 27.3 (playoffs, 4th best.) Philadelphia: 21.4% (regular season, 3rd best), 27.6 (playoffs, 3rd best)

Penalty killing: Boston: 86.4% (regular season, 3rd), 100.0 (playoffs, 1st.) Philadelphia: 83.0% (regular season, 11th), 87.5 (playoffs, 4th best)

Leaders: Boston: Mark Recchi, David Krejci three goals; Recchi, Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Miroslav Satan five points; Matt Hunwick four assists; Vladimir Sobotka 30 hits; Johnny Boychuk 13 blocks. Philadelphia: Claude Giroux four goals; Mike Richards six assists, eight points; Chris Pronger 20 blocks; Daniel Carcillo, Ian Laperriere, Kimmo Timonen 11 hits.

Goalies: Boston: Tuukka Rask (4-2, 2.18, .927, 0 shutouts); Philadelphia: Brian Boucher (4-1, 1.59, .940, 1 shutout)

Outlook: I actually cringed when I saw Boston's playoff scoring leaders. That might be a good thing I guess, because the Bruins are getting production from multiple sources and if one person goes cold, it doesn't matter as much.

This is going to be a rough-and-tumble series that hopefully is more entertaining than the Winter Classic. It's hard to get less so.

Philadelphia will be without stars Jeff Carter (the real on-ice leader of that team) and Simon Gagne, along with rugged grinder Ian Laperriere, a talented penalty killer. That'll put more pressure on Giroux, Richards and Daniel Briere to score against a tough goalie and a staunch defensive team.

It sounds like the Bruins, at some point, will get Marc Savard back into the lineup but it'll be interesting to see what kind of conditioning he has after being out so long. He should still help the power play at least, and will become more dangerous once he gets his legs back. They'll still look to play low-scoring games and scratch out goals where they can.

Prediction: Boucher wasn't tested much against New Jersey, and Boston's offense isn't exactly the 2010 Capitals. But Rask is better and the Bruins' special teams will determine another series. Boston in six.

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