Eric Staal and Patrik Elias will be a the forefront of the Hurricanes-Devils first-round matchup. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The first round matchups are in and while I would like to make confident picks on the outcomes, I have a feeling this will be a playoff year of upheaval.
For instance, I have gone on record as saying the Chicago Blackhawks would be first round cannon fodder for a more experienced team – which is, in fact, any team in the West. But now, the Hawks have ended up against Calgary, a team Chicago goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin has owned during his career, posting a 22-5-2 all-time record against the Flames.
But for the life of me, there are two series in the first round I really can’t wrap my head around and both occur in the Eastern Conference: Washington-Rangers and New Jersey-Carolina. Two Southeast vs. Atlantic tilts, two battles that will be barnburners.
Perhaps it’s the contrasts that are weighing my head down.
In the Washington-New York series, you have the dynamic offensive attack of the Capitals, led by Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Mike Green. New York counters with the goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist and an overall team defense that can be staggering. To wit; Washington’s offense produced 272 goals in the regular season, second-best in the conference to Boston (274). The Rangers, on the other hand, gave up just 218 goals this year, good for third in the conference behind New Jersey (209) and, once again, Boston (196).
In lieu of these statistics, this is probably a good time to proclaim that past magic be damned, the Bruins are going to beat Montreal in the first round. Why? Because the Bruins are a much better team, they hate the Habs and only want to cause them pain and Montreal is missing its best defenseman in Andrei Markov. And how long do you think Mathieu Schneider’s miracle shoulder is going to hold up under the brutalizing forecheck of Milan Lucic?
But I digress. Caps and Rangers? I have no idea how this one turns out. If one team imposes its will early, it could be a five-game series.
With Carolina and New Jersey, it’s not so much a study in contrasts as it is a red-hot team that doesn’t get a lot of respect (Carolina) vs. an ice-cold team that does get a lot of respect (New Jersey).
This series is so even because of those little assumptions we all make when we’re lazy. You know, the ones that never come true. In net, for example, you have living legend Martin Brodeur of the Devils and streaky youngster Cam Ward of the Hurricanes. Ah, but which one owns a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP? That would be young master Ward, of course.
And while the Canes have been knocked as a soft team in the past – precisely not the type of squad you want to be if facing the Devils – the addition of physical forwards such as Scott Walker and Tuomo Ruutu since the team’s last playoff sojourn (which ended with a Stanley Cup) makes them a different team and a more dangerous one, at that.
Recently, the Devils looked like an unstoppable playoff-killing machine. Even with Brodeur on the shelf, New Jersey was getting mucho offense from Zach Parise’s line and Patrik Elias’ line, while a disrespected defense led by Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya proved GM Lou Lamoriello could still put together a pretty forceful back end, even if the names aren’t marquee.
As soon as Brodeur broke Patrick Roy’s wins record, however, the Devils went in the tank. New Jersey is 4-5-1 in its past 10 games, while the Canes won nine in a row before dropping the final two largely meaningless contests of the regular season.
And then a part of me says, yeah, but it’s New Jersey! So I am left in a quandary. Instinct vs. insight, I don’t know which way to turn. Guess I’ll just have to tune in and watch it all unfold.
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Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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