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What went wrong – NHL playoff picks and first round recaps (Eastern Conference)

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With the second round of the NHL playoffs kicking off tonight, this seems like a pretty good time to make my picks for the second round.

But before I do, I’m going to take minute or two and go over my first round picks and why I was right or wrong, at least for the Eastern Conference (I’ll have my Western recap and picks up in the next little while).

What I predicted: Washington over Montreal

What actually happened: Montreal won in seven

Well, if I can be so bold, this was a massive upset. Going by point differential, the second biggest upset in playoffs ever. It’s certainly the biggest upset since Edmonton beat the Red Wings in 2006.

So, what happened? I took the Capitals because I bought into their hype. I still would, if the series were being played again starting tomorrow. By almost every stretch I can think of, the Capitals were the better team:

  • The Capitals had 54 wins and 121 points on the season; Montreal had 39 wins and 88 points.
  • The Capitals scored 318 goals to Montreal’s 217. Their goal differential was 85, Montreal’s was -6.
  • Washington’s SRS – a measure of strength and quality of wins –  was 0.90, Montreal’s was -0.14.
  • The Capitals had three players with 30 goals or more and four with 70+ points. Montreal didn’t have a single player who scored 30 goals and nobody with more then 70 points.

It wasn’t really hard to say to think that the Capitals were the better team. So, again, what happened?

Goaltending happened, especially for Montreal.

In the regular season, the Habs GAA was 2.57 and their Save percentage was .919. In the first round – against one of the best scoring teams in the NHL, no less – their GAA was 2.78, but their save percentage jumped to .931.

Jaroslav Halak made nearly 220 saves in the first round, far more then the number of shots both goalies for the Caps faced. He was more then impressive, he was stunning.

There was no better example of this then game six, when the Habs needed a win on home ice to force a game seven. He turned away over 50 shots in a 4-1 victory, stunning the Capitals. In a must-win game, Alexander Ovechkin was stopped eight times, Alexander Semin seven times, Joe Corvo ten times.

And remember, home ice was not friendly to the Habs in the playoffs. Games three and four, both played in Montreal, were blowout losses, 5-1 and 6-3, respectively.

Of course, it wasn’t just Halak who won the series. Washington did their part, too. Both goals in game seven for Montreal came off of bad defensive breaks for the Capitals. The first, a Montreal power play goal, came on a Marc-Andre Bergeron one-timer right after the puck was passed through Washington’s defenders – in a space right through three players.

The second was even weirder, coming from a long Montreal dump into the Capitals end and took a weird bounce from two players and ended up right on Domonic Moore’s stick, who scored stick-side and made it a 2-0 game. Again, this came off a defensive lapse on Washington – with three people in their own end, nobody was keeping a body on Moore; when the puck landed on his stick, he had a clear path to the net. It wasn’t Washington floating, but was something they should have avoided.

Those two goals were a microcosm of what went wrong for the Caps, especially in the later games: they spent so much time putting pressure on the offensive end, they were easily caught unguarded on breaks to the net on when shorthanded. It was an ugly, frustrating way for it to end for the President Trophy winners and it was one I certainly didn’t see coming.

What I predicted: New Jersey over Philadelphia

What happened: Philly won in five games

Another upset, although not one quite as staggering. The Devils had won 48 games, had 101 points and a SRS of 0.31; the Flyers only got into the playoffs on the last day of the season (thanks to a NY loss) and had 41 wins, 88 points and a SRS of 0.08, making them decidedly average.

So what happened this time? The first instinct is to say something along the lines of, “Oh Marty Brodeur is too old” or that he played too many minutes. Maybe if I were a lazier writer, I’d say the Flyers wanted it more or some other old warhorse cliche.

But honestly? I think was a fairly evenly matched series.

In the regular season, the Devils lost four games to the Flyers, three of them by just a goal. They only won once, a 4-1 victory in December. Same for the Flyers – only once did they beat the Devils by two or more goals.

So really, for two teams so far removed in the standings, you couldn’t have asked for a closer regular season series. It was a trend that repeated itself in the postseason. Two games were decided by a goal, and another was pretty close – two late goals by the Devils, including an empty netter, shoved it in their favor.

Still, in the final two games, the Devils were stymied by the Flyers and only scored once, losing 4-1 and 3-0. For a team that eight times in the first three games, it represents at least a dropoff and at worse, a major collapse. How much of this actually lies with their goaltending?

Well, it certainly played a big role: Brodeur’s GAA exploded from 2.24 in the regular season to 3.01 in the first round. His save percentage fell from .916 to .881. In both cases, they’re the worst in his career as a starting goaltender. But if Brodeur played such a role in the collapse, why did backup Yann Denis not play a single second in net?

I’d argue it was the Devils scoring that played as big a role in the collapse.

While the Devils were not a high-scoring team – with just 222 goals scored this season, they’re below the league average – in the last two games, they had a hell of a time scoring.

In the regular season, Zach Parise scored 38 goals for the Devils. Travis Zajac scored 25 in 82 games. Combined, they scored just two goals in the first round. Indeed, the only Devil who scored with regularity was Ilya Kovalchuk, who had been brought on board in February. In five games, he scored two goals – one of only two Devils to score more then once. Only six players for New Jersey had two or more points.

For contrast, the Flyers had six players with two or more goals.

Credit has to be given to Flyers goalie Brian Boucher. One of the three goalies that got regular starts with the Flyers, he shined in the postseason. His GAA went from 2.76 to 1.59 in the first round; his save percentage went from .899 to .940. He even posted a shutout in the first round, something he only did once in the regular season. I certainly didn’t see him playing this well.

What I said: Boston over Buffalo

What happened: Boston won in six games

Here’s one I got right. At the start of the playoffs, I thought the Bruins were an underrated team and I didn’t like Buffalo a whole lot. Sure the Sabres had won their division, but head to head with Boston?

They had won four of their six meetings, one in overtime and another in a shootout. In a vaccum, that makes them the better team.

What I didn’t see was just how intense their matches would be. The Bruins racked up over 100 penalty minutes, with Chara alone getting 25. The Sabres had 112, with winger Patrick Kaleta getting 22. For contrast, the Devils had 88 penalty minutes, the Sharks 44. This was a rough series.

Plus, it was a close one, too: all but one of the games were close affairs and one – game four – went into a second overtime. That was a pretty good game.

For one thing, goaltending for both sides – Ryan Miller for Buffalo, Tuukka Rask for the Bruins – stayed about the same in the series.

Scoring was weird, too. Boston had their scoring more spread around – six players had four or more points, to Buffalo’s two – but the Sabres had the only blowout win in the series, a 4-1 victory in game five.

Thusly, back to game four, the second OT. I think it was that too many men penalty, the one where the Bruins scored on the ensuing power play, that really tipped this series. Before it, it was anybody’s series; Boston led 2-1, but all three games were close. The next game was a big win for the Sabres, but they lost another close one in game six. This is where a cliche comes in handy since I’m not sure why Boston won without resorting to one like “they wanted it more.” Three of their wins were by a goal; the one where they won by two was punctuated by an empty net goal.

The one thing I’ll take away from this series is that they could pull out big wins when they had to, just like the Canadiens did against Washington.

What I said: Pittsburgh over Ottawa

What happened: Pittsburgh won in six

My prediction here may have been a bit biased, since I can’t stand the Senators and I kind of have a soft spot for Crosby. But I also liked the offensive presence of

Still, it was another good, close series. Two went to overtime, including a three-OT game, and a couple other that were close.

But it was the one that wasn’t close that defined the series for me. Game four, a 7-4 win for the Penguins on the road. In a wild second period, there were eight goals scored. After 40 minutes, it was a 6-3 lead for the Penguins and I felt they were clearly in control of the series. Why?

Be exploding like that in a must-win road game, they showed that they can be maybe the best pure scoring team in the Eastern Conference. It was an outburst of offense that no other team, including two teams that finished higher then them in the standings, were able to accomplish. The Penguins may not be the best defensive team in the playoffs, but they can sure score like nobody else.

And after winning game four, the Penguins took a big 3-1 series lead. Ottawa had to fight tooth and nail to win game five. In game six, they were playing with an amazing amount of will – they were hitting hard and often, throwing themselves into hard checks along the boards. They wanted that win and were pushing themselves as hard as any team I’ve seen. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t have it in them; a game seven between the two teams would have been electric.

 Anyway, that’s enough recap. Here’s my Eastern Conference picks:

– I like the Bruins over the Flyers. The Bruins have solid goaltending in Rask and while their season series is 2-2, the Bruins have won the last two meetings. It’ll be a rough, series, though.

– I like Pittsburgh over Montreal, but with reservations. As shown against the Capitals, the Canadiens are on a roll and can shut down high scoring teams. But the Penguins have won three of the four games between the two this season. Given that, and how the Penguins have had a few days to rest after their series, I like them.

Third annual NHL Playoff picks – Eastern Conference

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It’s time for the second season to begin, so here’s some playoff picks for the NHL.

Boston over Montreal

Bob Gainey got the Habs under control late this season, when it looked like they had peaked early. Still, they’re a team that was a sleeper pick by some (myself included) to win the Cup in October; now they barely made the playoffs. Goalie Carey Price will have to be strong in net and a few Habs – Kovalev and Kostitsyn in particular – will have to play a lot better then they have throughout the season.

Boston, on the other hand, just missed winning the Presidents trophy, albeit in a weak division – the only other team from it are the Habs – but have looked great. Tim Thomas has stood out as one of the best goalies in the NHL and looks able to carry his team. And these Bruins faced a much better-playing Habs last year in the playoffs and took them to seven games. I expect this year, they won’t even have to go that far. I like the Bruins in five.

Washington over New York

Yes, the Rangers look good. Even Avery. And Lundqvist looks good. But the Rangers haven’t endeared themselves to me, not yet. I don’t think they’re deep enough, I don’t know if they have enough experience and as a whole they look like a team in transition between leaders – in other words, they miss Jagr.

The Caps are great though. They can score in bunches and look to improve from last year, when they left the postseason early. Ovechkin will force Lundqvist to play great; nobody on the Rangers will push Theodore that hard. With him, they won’t go deep, but I think they can outscore the Rangers in seven games, which is what I think this series will go to.

Carolina over New Jersey

Martin Brodeur has had a great season, setting records and winning games. He’s bound to be feeling better then he has in any postseason in recent memory, as he’s played less games this year then he has in over a decade. And he’s part of a good Devils team, too, that can score.

But Carolina is peaking, as they say, at the right time. Cam Ward is hot, maybe the hottest goalie in the East, and I think that makes the Canes – excuse the cliche – a dark horse to go deep. It will be tough for them and I’m still not sold on their offense, but if Ward keeps playing at this clip, they have a good shot at beating the Devils, maybe in as little as five games.

Pittsburgh over Philadelphia

The Flyers are solid – not great, not bad – and they know the Penguins; one could say a rivalry has formed between the two teams, especially after last season’s meeting between the two. They’re about the same as the Penguins, in record and statistically – but they’re not as deep. After a handful of heavies, they drop off pretty quickly. But I like their tandem of goalies.

I do like the Penguins, though, who are about as good as last year, if a little more shallow. But Crosby and Malkin are still the best 1-2 punch any team in the East has and Fleury’s won 35 games; no easy feat in a tight division that sent three teams to the playoffs, with none seeded lower then fifth. They’ll have a tough time, I imagine, but this is a winnable series for the Pens. I like them in six.

Some thoughts on Ovechkin

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First of an irregular look at the NHL

On Janurary 16, 2006, Alexander Ovechkin was on a fast break, steaking down the ice in Phoenix. Taking the puck at mid ice, he tried to get past defenceman Paul Mara. He moved to make a deke, but Mara got his stick in the way; the two tied up as they moved further into Phoenix’s zone, and Ovechkin managed to fall on his back. With one hand on his stick, he managed – somehow – to side the puck towards the net and past a sprawling Brian Boucher.

It was unlike any other goal scored that day, year or era for the NHL; perhaps no other goal has been scored from that position, in that situation ever. It’s a snapshot at why Alexander Ovechkin is perhaps the best single individual player in the NHL.

Unlike some other greats, Ovechkin is exciting to watch. In a league that is over 75 years old, he is still finding new ways to do things – scoring, passing, celebrating, even wearing his equipment.

His skate laces are yellow; he wears a visor that’s sort of tinted – it’s smoked, as they say. He used to wear a mirrored one, but the NHL quickly outlawed it. He doesn’t tuck his jersey in, except on his back left side, where a pad juts up and over it.

These all seem symbolic of Ovechkin. They, like him, immediately stand out from the rest of the league. Since his rookie campaign in 2005-06, no player has made such an immediate impact on the league – not even fellow wunderkind Sidney Crosby. His league-high 65 goals last year were the most scored by a single player in over a decade.

He’s a vibrant player, one who wears his emotions on his sleeve. The way he streaks down, the way he shoots almost seem secondary, sometimes, to what he does afterward, when he jumps into the glass to celebrate.

That’s what he did on April 11, 2008, seconds after scoring his first NHL playoff goal. After forcing a Flyers pass towards their own net with his forechecking, he stole the puck from Ryan Parent, moved to his right while Flyers goalie Martin Biron slid on the ground, trying to stack his pads on Ovechkin – who waited for Biron to make his move, and then shot the puck over him. That goal put the Capitals up 5-4 with just under five minutes to play and capped a three goal comeback.

He responded like he usually does after a goal: he ran on the ice to the boards, jumped into the glass, then into the arms of his teammates, while the whole of the Verizon Centre crowd lost it.

On some players, celebrations like that would seem contrived or forced, but with Ovechkin, they seem natural; the man seems sometimes like a tightly-coiled ball of energy that explodes in front of the net.

In this way, he’s perfect for the new look NHL, a league that almost seems tailor-made for his skill set. Gone is the two-line pass, which gives him time to speed across. Clutching and grabbing are limited, which give him space to operate. Equipment on goaltenders has been limited in size, giving him room to shoot at. Perhaps more then anybody else, Ovechkin represents what’s right with the NHL at this point in time; he’s the speedy and exciting sniper who loves to score goals.

It can be argued that the NHL’s recent gains in attendance and rating are at least in part because of Ovechkin – Washignton’s ratings are up 140% this year – and that he could actually be saving the league from a neutral-zone trap-aided abyss.

In this way, he’s more then just important to the NHL. He’s essential to its success.

Written by M.

February 2, 2009 at 5:27 pm