Eastern Playoff PreviewMonday, April 09, 2012
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Click here to read Ryan Dadoun's Western Conference preview.
The final playoff representatives of the Eastern Conference were decided in the last week of the regular season when the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals outlasted the second-half surge of the Buffalo Sabres, while dropping the Ottawa Senators to the eighth seed in the process.
Of the top eight teams in the East, two teams in particular are major surprises. The Panthers haven't been the in post-season since 2000 and they captured their first Southeast Division title in franchise history in 2011-12. General Manager Dale Tallon and coach Kevin Dineen deserve major kudos for turning the franchise around. The other shocker in the East is the upstart Ottawa Senators, who were also projected to occupy the bottom of the barrel in the NHL standings this year, but enjoyed an excellent year under new bench boss Paul MacLean and ended up with the final spot in the playoffs.
The Senators will face the Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers in the opening round, while the Southeast Division winning Panthers will host the New Jersey Devils. The Boston Bruins will kick off the defense of their Stanley Cup championship against the Washington Capitals in another quarter-final match-up, but the featured series of the first round in the East will see Atlantic Division rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers square off in what should be a bitter and very physical string of contests.
The schedule for the opening round can be viewed here:
New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8)
The Rangers were in position to claim the Presidents’ Trophy and home ice advantage throughout the playoffs, had they won their last regular season contest, but they dropped a 4-1 decision to the Capitals to record their third defeat in four matches to end the 2011-12 campaign. The Ottawa Senators, despite being a surprise success this year, also backed their way into the post-season with three straight defeats. Ottawa took three out of four games, head-to-head, against New York this year, which will probably give them some confidence going into game one.
The Senators also have some fire power with the likes of Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek and Erik Karlsson in the fold, which gives them an edge over the Rangers' top group of Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan. However, the Blueshirts play a much more defensively sound game led by Vezina Trophy favourite Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes. They finished the year ranked fourth in the league in blocked shots (1338) and have the most among any team competing in the playoffs. In addition to that, the Rangers play a physically imposing style that should force the Senators into mistakes. New York should emerge victorious in six games.
Even though lineups are subject to change on a game-to-game and shift-to-shift basis, below you'll find the projected starting combinations for each team.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Carl Hagelin - Brad Richards - Marian Gaborik Brandon Dubinsky - Derek Stepan - Ryan Callahan Artem Anisimov - Brian Boyle - Brandon Prust Michael Rupp - John Mitchell - Ruslan Fedotenko
Ryan McDonagh - Daniel Girardi Michael Del Zotto - Stu Bickel Marc Staal - Anton Stralman John Scott
Henrik Lundqvist Martin Biron
Marian Gaborik was held pointless in his last two games, but before that he recorded six goals and added four assists during a six-game scoring streak. Brad Richards has contributed nine points in his past eight contests. Rugged forward Brian Boyle will also enter the post-season on a high note with five markers and two helpers over his last nine contests. Brandon Dubinsky has had a difficult time generating offense all year, but he started to develop a bit of a rhythm down the stretch with eight points in his final 11 appearances of the regular season.
Rangers captain Ryan Callahan has tallied two goals and one assist in his past nine matches, while Derek Stepan has one goal and three helpers in his last 10 games. Rookie forward Carl Hagelin contributed only one assist in 10 contests to end the 2011-12 campaign.
Derek Stepan was fine to play in the team's regular-season finale Saturday despite receiving a knee-on-knee hit from Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik. He skated in all 82 games in 2011-12. However the Rangers are still waiting on injured blueliners Steve Eminger (ankle) and Michael Sauer (concussion). Eminger is considered day-to-day, while Sauer is out indefinitely. Mats Zuccarello is also out indefinitely after he sustained a fractured wrist on Mar. 23, but he is hoping to return at some point during the playoffs.
New York has utilized defensemen-by-trade John Scott and Stu Bickel on the back end and up front this season, so don't be surprised if they line up at both positions during the opening round.
The Rangers finished with the fifth best penalty kill unit at 86.2 percent, but their power play left a lot to be desired and ended up at 23rd overall.
Colin Greening - Jason Spezza - Milan Michalek Nick Foligno - Kyle Turris - Daniel Alfredsson Erik Condra - Zack Smith - Chris Neil Kaspars Daugavins - Jim O'Brien - Jesse Winchester Rob Klinkhammer - Zenon Konopka
Filip Kuba - Erik Karlsson Jared Cowen - Sergei Gonchar Chris Phillips - Matt Gilroy Matt Carkner
Craig Anderson Ben Bishop
Jason Spezza, who finished the year in fourth overall in scoring with 84 points, concluded the campaign with five markers and four assists in seven games. Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson also wrapped up the 2011-12 season on the right foot with five goals and four helpers in his last six contests. Erik Karlsson led all NHL defensemen in scoring with a whopping 78 points and he picked up six assists in the final seven games of the year. Milan Michalek had eight points in his past eight contests to record his second career 60-point season.
Colin Greening has found the back of the net one time in his last nine outings and has collected three assists during that span, while Nick Foligno has scored once in his past 12 games and has added five helpers. Sergei Gonchar has been shooting blanks offensively, with just two goals and four points over his past 13 matches.
Chris Neil didn't play in the Senators' final game of the regular season, due to an upper-body injury, after he crashed into boards headfirst during a shootout drill last Friday. However, he is expected to be fine to dress in Game 1 on Thursday night. Peter Regin, who hasn't played since Dec. 20, underwent shoulder surgery and he probably won't suit up again until next year.
The Senators have some extra bodies that could be inserted into the lineup versus the Rangers, with forwards Rob Klinkhammer and Zenon Konopka, defenseman Matt Carkner and goaltender Alexander Auld waiting in the rafters.
Ottawa's special teams probably won't overwhelm the Rangers after the club finished 11th with the man advantage and 20th on the penalty kill.