All eyes on Ovechkin, first-place Capitals, going into NHL playoffs
Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, right, of Russia, celebrates with teammate Nicklas Backstrom, of Sweden, after scoring his 50th goal of the season against the Atlanta Thrashers during the third period of an NHL hockey game Friday, April 9, 2010, in Washington. The Capitals won 5-2. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Luis M. Alvarez)
All eyes on Ovechkin, first-place Capitals, going into NHL playoffs
Now we will see if Alex Ovechkin can one-up rival Sidney Crosby by leading the powerhouse Washington Capitals to a Stanley Cup.
Crosby did it last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but this time the Capitals enter the NHL post-season with the 30-team league's best record of 121 points, scoring a whopping 318 goals in 82 games.
Ovechkin had 50 of them for his third straight 50-goal campaign, but thus far he has yet to lead the Caps beyond the second round. He has plenty of support, including 101-point man Nicklas Backstrom and 40-goal scorer Alexander Semin.
But it was only recently that Columbus Blue Jacket R.J. Umberger opined that the Capitals play the "wrong way" to succeed in the playoffs. That is, too much individual pay, not enough teamwork.
We'll get an idea in the opening round where they face an eight-place Montreal Canadiens side that is overmatched everywhere but in goal.
The Penguins will be up against the Ottawa Senators, while in the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks will play the Los Angeles Kings.
Here's a look at the eight first-round matchups.
Washington (1st) versus Montreal (8th)
The Capitals bring the most intimidating attack in hockey, but there are question marks. Do they have the goaltending to go far in Jose Theodore or Semyon Varlamov (or Michal Neuvirth)? And can they play the defensively tight team game that usually produces Cup winners?
It may not matter. They may simply fill the opposing teams' net with pucks, and what a show that would be for the fans. Ovechkin had 50 goals and 109 points, Backstrom had 33 goals and 101 points, while Semin had 40 goals and 84 points among their seven 20-plus goal scorers. Add roving rearguard Mike Green's 76 points and you have a dominating attack.
The Canadiens, meanwhile, labour to score, are undersized up front and showed a tendency down the stretch to become unglued under pressure. But they have goalies, Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price, who stop the puck. If they can hold Ovechkin to one goal in four games, as they did in going 2-1-1 against the Caps this season, anything is possible.
New Jersey (2nd) versus Philadelphia (7th)
Goaltending will be front and centre in this series because New Jersey has it in spades and Philadelphia does not. Martin Brodeur became the all-time leader in goaltending wins and shutouts this season and remains a force at 37, although it is hard to forget his Game 7 meltdown in the opening round last year against Carolina.
A string of injuries at that position has left the Flyers with veteran Brian Boucher in goal. While every game is an adventure with Boucher, he played well enough to beat the New York Rangers in a shootout on the final day of the regular season to get into the playoffs.
And Philadelphia has veteran Chris Pronger on defence behind a strong group of forwards, including recently returned sniper Jeff Carter, who are a match for the Devils' attack led by Zach Parise and Travis Zajac. Defensive guru Jacques Lemaire's coaching should also be a factor in the Devils' favour.
Buffalo (3rd) versus Boston (6th)
Coach Claude Julien may have worked a miracle this season by getting the Bruins into the playoffs despite an off-year by his Vezina Trophy goalie Tim Thomas (not to mention Norris Trophy defenceman Zdeno Chara) and a season-ending injury to star centre Marc Savard.
Now he'll need another to get past the Sabres with defencemen Andrew Ference (groin), Mark Stuart (broken finger) and Dennis Seidenberg (forearm surgery) all hurt as well. But the terrific play of young goalie Tuukka Rask lets Boston comes at least close to matching Buffalo's biggest strength, star goalie Ryan Miller.
The Sabres look to have rediscovered the fast-paced two-way game that made them a league power early in the decade, although they have a concern of their own with forward Tim Connolly on a sore foot. Coach Lindy Ruff must have been pleased to see gifted forward Thomas Vanek bust out with a four-goal game to end the regular season.
Pittsburgh (4th) versus Ottawa (5th)
The Senators are back in the playoffs after a year off and who do they face? Pittsburgh, the same team they met in the opening round in 2007 and 2008. The first time, Ottawa won in five games and then went on to the Stanley Cup final, losing to Anaheim. A year later, the Pens swept the Sens and went to the final, losing to the Detroit.
Pittsburgh came back to take the Cup last spring and are bidding to be the first repeat champions since Detroit in 1997 and 1998. But while last year they went into the post-season on an 18-3-4 roll, this time they struggled down the stretch. The teams split their season series 2-2, each winning home and away once each. All the games were decided by three or more goals.
Evgeni Malkin had five goals in four games against the Sens, while Sidney Crosby was held to three assists. They are currently without winger Chris Kunitz and there is concern over a head injury suffered by pest Matt Cooke on Saturday. The Sens have lost winger Alex Kovalev to a torn ACL and defenceman Filip Kuba is out with a back injury. But this series could be decided in goal, where Marc-Andre Fleury gives Pittsburgh the edge over Brian Elliot.
San Jose (1st) versus Colorado (8th)
Given their history of regular season dominance and playoff disappointment, there are probably a lot of people betting on an upset by the plucky Avalanche. It will be up to the Sharks' big centre Joe Thornton and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov to shake off their history of poor showings in pressure games and prove their detractors wrong.
San Jose brings one of the scariest first lines in the league in Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau, plus plenty of secondary scoring, and they have talent on defence led by Dan Boyle and an experienced old star in Rob Blake.
That goes up against a Colorado side that most picked to be near the bottom of the conference and ended up as one of the surprise teams, thanks in large part to Craig Anderson's goaltending and the emergence of young talent like Matt Duchene and T. J. Galiardi, although both go in nursing upper body injuries. It's a tall task for Colorado, who seemed to fade late in the season, and the Sharks usually get through one round before disaster hits.
Chicago (2nd) versus Nashville (7th)
This could be the gifted young Blackhawks' year, but it starts against a tough opponent with a hot goalie in Pekka Rinne. Chicago looks to have everything except proven goaltending, which makes it an intriguing matchup, although Antti Niemi got the job done adequately down the stretch.
The Blackhawks won the season series 4-2-0, although the teams haven't played recently. Chicago has major depth up front, led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and an impressive defence led by Duncan Keith, even though they will miss injured rearguard Brian Campbell.
The Predators don't match up on attack, especially with scoring leader Patric Hornqvist a question mark for the opener with an injury. But they have stars on defence as well in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
Vancouver (3rd) versus Los Angeles (6th)
Henrik Sedin was the story for the Canucks this year, taking the Art Ross Trophy with a team record 112 points even though his linemate and twin brother Daniel missed part of the season with an injury. Now he'll have to lead the attack again against an L.A. club that is in the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
The Canucks were 3-1-0 against the Kings this season, but L.A. won their last meeting at home on April 1 8-3 on only 29 shots against Roberto Luongo. Still, the Canucks should have the goaltending edge, even if the Kings' Jonathan Quick was their star performer for most of the season.
And Vancouver is stronger on offence with the Sedins and tough winger Alex Burrows backed by pesky centre Ryan Kesler, while L.A. responds with 81-point man Anze Kopitar. The Kings have the gifted Drew Doughty as well as Jack Johnson on defence, and it is perhaps in the post-season that off-season pick-up Ryan Smyth will make his biggest impact on the wing.
Phoenix (4th) versus Detroit (5th)
The Coyotes are the feel-good story of the season. With the team up for sale and perhaps about to leave town, and with an apparent shortage of talent, most predicted a quiet, last-place finish. Who could imagine 50 wins and even a brief flirtation with first place in the conference for a team that missed the playoffs the last six seasons?
But coach Dave Tippett's tight defensive style, brilliant goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov and leadership of captain Shane Doan did it. Some good pickups, like Matthew Lombardi, and later in the season Wojtek Wolski and Lee Stempniak, also helped.
But now they're up against a formidable opponent in Detroit, which coasted through most of the season and caught fire at the end. Star defenceman Niklas Lidstrom has looked his old self of late, as have veteran scorers Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. And Jimmy Howard has given solid goaltending for a team that has probably far too much depth and playoff experience for the surprising Coyotes.