NHL Playoffs: Top Eastern Conference Storylines
Here are the shorelines to look out for in a first round where each team has a good chance to advance:
(1) Washington vs. (8) New York Rangers
Regular Season Winner: 3-1 Rangers
- Washington - LW Alex Ovechkin (32 G, 53 A), LW Alexander Semin (28 G, 25 A), C Nicklas Backstrom (18 G, 47 A)
- NY Rangers - C Brandon Dubinsky (24 G, 30 A), RW Marian Gaborik (22 G, 26 A)
Storyline: The Capitals claimed the Southeast Division title and a top three seed for the fourth consecutive season, but the team has not reached the Eastern Conference Finals since 1998. Ovechkin, who has 23 points in his last 17 games after struggling earlier in the season, and his squad will try to change that this postseason. They will first have to defeat a Rangers team that has had its number in the four regular season matchups.
New York defeated the Caps 6-0 in Washington on February 25, but now the Rangers are without 23-goal scorer Ryan Callahan, who is out with a fractured leg. Washington turned around from that embarrassing effort in February to finish its season with a record of 17-3-1. The question is, which Capitals team will show up this series? The one that has dominated the months of April and March and has a chance to overwhelm New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist, or the one that was looked downtrodden and humiliated by the Rangers in 7-0 and 6-0 shutout losses earlier this year?
(2) Philadelphia vs. (7) Buffalo
Regular Season: 2-2
- Philadelphia - C Jeff Carter (36 G, 30 A), C Danny Briere (34 G, 34 A), RW Claude Giroux (25 G, 51 A)
- Buffalo - LW Thomas Vanek (32 G, 41 A), RW Drew Stafford (31 G, 21 A)
Storyline: The Sabres are right along with the Capitals as a hot late season team, finishing with a record of 13-4-2. They'll go up against a Flyers team on the opposite end of the momentum spectrum, as Philly went 7-8-6 in their last 21 games.
The matchup to watch will be to see if Ryan Miller can shut down a deep Philadelphia offense. The Flyers boast eight players with 15 goals or more, the most of any team in the Eastern Conference. But the veteran Miller has led the team on its hot streak, with a 2.18 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in his last 21 appearances.
(3) Boston vs. (6) Montreal
Regular Season Winner: 4-2 Montreal
- Boston - LW Milan Lucic (30 G, 32 A), RW Nathan Horton (26, 27 assists)
- Montreal - RW Brian Gionta (29 G, 17 A), C Tomas Plekanec (22 goals, 35 assists)
Storyline: The two teams meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 33rd time in their venerable rivalry. There is no shortage of animosity between these two teams after the Zdeno Chara incident, which could make for a very physical series between the two Northeast Division teams.
But when the fisticuffs end, the focus will turn to the battle between the opposing goaltenders. Boston's Tim Thomas (.938) and Montreal's Carey Price (.923) had the two best save percentages among Eastern goaltenders with more than 25 starts. Thomas is surrounded by a strong defense that features Zdeno Chara and Andrew Ference, while Price is defended well by Roman Hamrlik, P.K. Subban, Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill. Expect a low-scoring series, where every goal counts even more.
Regular Season: 2-2
- Pittsburgh - C Sidney Crosby (32 G, 34 A), LW Chris Kunitz (23 G, 25 A), RW Tyler Kennedy (21 G, 24 A)
- Tampa Bay - C Steven Stamkos (45 G, 46 A), RW Martin St. Louis (31 G, 68 A)
Storyline: While the Penguins are focused on this first-round series, they're also keeping an eye on a possible return for Sidney Crosby, by far the league leader is goals per game (0.78) and points per game (1.61). "Sid" has been out with a concussion since January 5, coincidentally a game against Tampa Bay. If Crosby returns this series, it greatly improves Pittsburgh's chances.
With Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out, the offensive firepower belongs to Tampa Bay, which features the East's leading goal scorer in Stamkos and the conference's top assist man in St. Louis, each on separate lines. The pressure will be on Pittsburgh's top four defenders: Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek to shut down the Lightning's top two lines in front of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.