The first round of the NHL playoffs is at an end and the Eastern Conference semi-final matchups were decided following three very close game sevens. The seventh-seeded Washington Capitals ensured the Boston Bruins wouldn't repeat as Stanley Cup champions with a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 7 on Wednesday night. The East's top team, the New York Rangers, outlasted the upstart Ottawa Senators in another series that went the distance by a score of 2-1 in their deciding contest to advance into the second round, while the New Jersey Devils eliminated the Southeast Division-winning Florida Panthers in double overtime with a 3-2 decision in their Game 7 tilt. The Philadelphia Flyers have been waiting since last weekend after they dispatched the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins in what was an unpredictable and at times downright nasty six-game series.
The Capitals and the Flyers qualified for the second round a year ago before they were both unceremoniously swept from postseason contention by Tampa Bay and Boston, respectively. The Rangers will get a shot at redemption against Washington in Round Two after having been sent packing by the Capitals in the opening round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs in just five contests. The Flyers will host their Atlantic Division counterparts, the New Jersey Devils, in the East's other 2012 semifinal series. The Devils haven't made the second round since 2007 when they lost to Ottawa.
Upsets have been the name of the game during these playoffs so far and we wouldn’t be shocked if that trend continued. The Eastern Conference will begin the second round with the Capitals visiting the Rangers on Saturday afternoon and the Flyers will play host to the Devils in another matinee clash on Sunday. Click here for the full schedule: http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=629665
New York Rangers (1) vs. Washington Capitals (7)
The Rangers were pushed to the limit by the eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators in the first round of the NHL playoffs. They relied on blocked shots - where they led all opening-round teams with 155 - and solid goaltending from Vezina Trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist to come back from a 3-2 series deficit. New York and Ottawa were deadlocked in a low scoring affair that saw both teams combine for 27 goals, with the Rangers outscoring the Senators by a 14-13 margin.
Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan elevated their games when they had to and the two of them led the way for the team offensively with five and four points, respectively. The Rangers also received strong contributions from their blueline in the form of Anton Stralman, who had two goals and two assists, and Daniel Girardi, who picked up a goal and three helpers.
Washington relished their role as underdogs in the first round and followed the same blueprint the Rangers enjoyed to success in their matchup against Ottawa. The Capitals blocked 139 shots, which represented the second highest total behind the Rangers in the quarter-finals, and they rode the superb goaltending of rookie Braden Holtby to the post-season.
The usual suspects led the charge for the Capitals with Alex Ovechkin (two goals, three assists), Brooks Laich (one goal, three assists) and Nicklas Backstrom (one goal, three assists) figuring prominently on the scoresheet against the Bruins. However, they also got some bonus offense from their bottom-six forwards with Joel Ward chipping in three points, including the series-clinching marker in overtime in Game 7.
The Capitals play a defense-first style now under coach Dale Hunter, but they have eliminated the Rangers from the playoffs twice in the past three years. Both teams were nearly carbon copies of each other in round one except for the fact that Washington wasn't expected to win against Boston, while the Rangers barely scratched their way by the Senators. Lundqvist does hold the edge over Holtby in terms of experience and consistency, but it isn't far-fetched to believe that the Capitals keeper can out-duel another established NHL goalie after he bested two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas in the first round. Washington will look to frustrate the Rangers like they did to the Bruins' top players. New York's offense didn't look at all in sync against the Senators, while the Capitals' better players fought through a tight-checking Boston squad and shut down what was arguably a better offensive team. I like the Capitals to prolong their Cinderella run and upset the Rangers in six games.
Here are the projected lineups for each team, but as always they are subject to change.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Carl Hagelin - Brad Richards - Marian Gaborik
Chris Kreider - Derek Stepan - Ryan Callahan
Ruslan Fedotenko - Brandon Dubinsky - Brandon Prust
Artem Anisimov - John Mitchell - Mike Rupp
Ryan McDonagh - Daniel Girardi
Marc Staal - Anton Stralman
Michael Del Zotto - Stu Bickel
Derek Stepan began the playoffs without a point in the first five games, but he generated one goal and added three assists in the final two contests of the series to help the Rangers emerge victorious. Brad Richards had an off and on series against Ottawa; however, he earned four points over the last four games. Henrik Lundqvist was outstanding between the pipes with one shutout, a .945 save percentage and a 1.70 goals-against average in seven games.
Marian Gaborik potted one goal and two assists in seven games against Ottawa. He sniped 41 markers in the regular season, but didn't find the back of the net after Game 1 in the series. Artem Anisimov collected three assists in the opening two games, but he didn't record a single point after that and ended up on the Rangers' fourth line when the series wrapped up. Brandon Dubinsky's lone point in seven playoff games came in Game 7 when he earned an assist on Girardi's game-winning tally.
Brian Boyle, who had three goals in five games, suffered a concussion following a hit from Ottawa's Chris Neil and didn't play in the final two games of the opening round. He is out indefinitely. Steve Eminger (ankle), Michael Sauer (concussion) and Mats Zuccarello (wrist) are the wounded Rangers. The only one that isn't out indefinitely is Eminger, who is listed as day-to-day.
Rangers' rookies Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider looked good in their first tastes of NHL post-season action. They both have speed to burn and play in the club's top-six forward group. Hagelin earned an assist over four games while being suspended for three, and Kreider had the game-winning goal in Game 6.
The Rangers scored five times on 32 opportunities with the man advantage and currently sit ninth on the power play going into Game 1 against the Capitals. The Blueshirts also posted an 84.6 success rate on the penalty kill for the seventh overall spot after Round One.
Alex Ovechkin - Brooks Laich - Troy Brouwer
Marcus Johansson - Nicklas Backstrom - Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks - Jay Beagle - Jason Chimera
Mike Knuble - Keith Aucoin - Joel Ward Karl Alzner - John Carlson
Roman Hamrlik - Mike Green
Dennis Wideman - Jeff Schultz
Joel Ward ended the series on a three-game point streak and he capped it off with the game-winning goal in overtime in Game 7. Braden Holtby was one of the stories of the opening round with a .940 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average despite facing more shots (248) than any netminder. Nicklas Backstrom had four points in six playoff contests after returning at the end of the regular season following a 40-game absence because of a concussion.
Dennis Wideman racked up 46 points from the back end during the regular season, but he had just one helper in seven playoffs games against Boston. He also recorded a minus-4 rating. Mathieu Perreault didn't have a point in the first four games of the series, so he was made a healthy scratch for the next three matches. Troy Brouwer netted two goals over seven contests despite playing on the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Brooks Laich.
Michal Neuvirth was able to return from a lower-body injury during the series, but he served as Holtby's backup once he was ready. John Erskine also got back into the lineup for three games from a lower-body ailment, but he switched places in the press box with Jeff Schultz for parts of the first round. Tomas Vokoun is still out indefinitely with a groin issue.
Alex Ovechkin faced a formidable five-man shutdown unit of the Bruins, but he still managed to post two goals and three assists in the series. It won't be easy against Daniel Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, but the Rangers' forwards lack the defensive acumen that Boston's possess so it could make for more favorable matchups.
The Capitals converted three times on 19 power-play attempts against Boston, to place themselves eighth overall going into Round Two, and they killed off 21 of the 23 shorthanded situations for a 91.3 success rate and the second-rated penalty kill in the post-season.
Washington's opening round series against the Bruins marked the first time in NHL history that every contest of a seven-game series was decided by one goal.
Philadelphia Flyers (5) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)
The Philadelphia/Pittsburgh series had onlookers on the edge of their seats. There was a story after every game because of the star power, the scoring, the nastiness, the comebacks and the questionable goaltending. The Flyers jumped out a to 3-0 lead before eliminating the Penguins in six games. Philadelphia displayed their resiliency throughout the series, but the defining reason for their success was the play of Claude Giroux, who took his game to another level. He amassed six goals and eight assists to lead all playoff scorers with 14 points after the first round.
The Flyers also received solid contributions from their remarkable rookie class of Sean Couturier, Matt Read and Brayden Schenn and from grizzled post-season veterans Daniel Briere and Jaromir Jagr. Ilya Bryzgalov appeared to be overwhelmed at times in the crease, but he saved his best performance for Game 6 in order to eliminate Pittsburgh.
The New Jersey Devils had a much tougher time with Florida than anticipated in a seven-game series full of momentum swings. However, they were able to battle back and win the final two games in extra time after falling behind 3-2. The Devils won Game 7 in double overtime to punch their ticket into the second round, but the Flyers will represent a much tougher challenge than the Panthers.
The Devils were led offensively in the first round by Travis Zajac, who had three goals and three assists in seven games, after missing the majority of the regular season due to an Achilles tendon injury. Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson notched five points apiece while putting up the second best point totals on the team. The fourth line of Stephen Gionta, Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter was a main source of offense for New Jersey as well, with a combined five goals and nine points.
The Philadelphia Flyers were a well-oiled machine offensively against the Penguins and they should make life as difficult for New Jersey veteran Martin Brodeur as they did for Marc-Andre Fleury. The Flyers also ripped apart Pittsburgh's penalty kill, which was the third best during the regular season, while New Jersey, which had the top-rated shorthanded squad in the regular season, was victimized time and again by the Panthers in the playoffs. The Flyers' blueline could get a lift in the second round as well with the possible returns of Nicklas Grossmann and Andrej Meszaros, and not having to go up against the fire power of the Penguins anymore should help them tighten up defensively. The Flyers appear to be positioned for a long post-season run if Bryzgalov can play steadily, and they should beat the Devils in six games.
Scott Hartnell - Claude Giroux - Jaromir Jagr
Brayden Schenn - Daniel Briere - Wayne Simmonds
Maxime Talbot - Sean Couturier - Jakub Voracek
James van Riemsdyk - Matt Read - Eric Wellwood
Nicklas Grossmann- Braydon Coburn
Matt Carle - Kimmo Timonen
Pavel Kubina - Erik Gustafsson
Claude Giroux enters the second round as the hottest player in the playoffs after he picked up six goals and eight helpers during a five-game point streak following a scoreless Game 1 match in Pittsburgh. Daniel Briere, who has established himself as a playoff specialist during his career, accounted for three goals and three assists during a four-game scoring streak to end the opening round. He also had two goals in Game 1. Jakub Voracek and Jaromir Jagr had seven points each in six games. Scott Hartnell earned a four-game scoring spree, with two goals and two assists, to close out the first round.
Ilya Bryzgalov enjoyed a solid outing in Game 6, but he finished the team's quarterfinal series with an .871 save percentage and a 3.89 goals-against average. He won't be facing the Penguins' high-octane offense anymore, but he still needs to be a lot better than what he showed if the Flyers want to be serious Cup contenders. Kimmo Timonen had two points in six games versus Pittsburgh after he generated 43 during the regular season. He also was credited with just four shots.
The Flyers got James van Riemsdyk back from a fractured foot in Game 5 and although he was used sparingly in two postseason contests, he should be better conditioned for Round Two thanks to the team's extended layoff. Philadelphia defensemen Nicklas Grossmann (concussion) and Andrej Meszaros (back) are also expected to be available to return versus the Devils. Meszaros still has to receive clearance for contact, but Grossmann appears to be on track to play in Game 1 on Saturday afternoon. Marc-Andre Bourdon didn't play after the first game of the series because of an upper-body injury and his return date is unclear.
Philadelphia will have to make some decisions on their blueline if Grossmann and Meszaros can resume action. Erik Gustafsson, Pavel Kubina and Andreas Lilja are candidates to find themselves on the outside looking in, should the team's defense corps get healthier.
The Flyers scored the most power-play goals in a playoff series in their franchise's history against the Penguins by netting 12 goals on 23 opportunities for an astounding 52.2 percent success rate. Their penalty kill surrendered nine goals on 29 chances and will need to improve in the second round.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Ilya Kovalchuk
Petr Sykora - Patrik Elias - Dainius Zubrus
Alexei Ponikarovsky - Adam Henrique - David Clarkson
Ryan Carter - Stephen Gionta - Steve Bernier
Andy Greene - Mark Fayne
Bryce Salvador - Marek Zidlicky
Anton Volchenkov - Peter Harrold
Travis Zajac has returned to form in the post-season for New Jersey with six points in seven games. He has produced two goals and three assists in his last five matches. David Clarkson is still looking for his first goal of the playoffs, but he has five assists and 18 penalty minutes in seven games. Zach Parise has notched two goals and two assists in his past five games and he leads all players with 32 shots in the post-season.
The second line of Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora and Dainius Zubrus didn't get much done offensively against the Panthers. Elias had two goals in the first three games of the series, but he didn't get a single point afterward. Zubrus generated only two points as well, while Sykora mustered an assist in seven contests.
Bryce Salvador received a slash to his hand in overtime during Game 7, but he did return to the match. Jacob Josefson is recovering from a fractured wrist and may start exercises after being fitted for a smaller cast earlier this week. Henrik Tallinder's status remains unchanged due to a blood clot in his leg and he probably won't play at all in the post-season.
Rookie defenseman Adam Larsson, as well as forwards Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen were healthy scratches for the entire opening round and will likely continue to serve as extras for the start of New Jersey's series against Philadelphia.
The Devils' power play clicked at a 20 percent success rate in Round 1, but their penalty kill was blitzed for nine goals when they were shorthanded 27 times. That's a problem that will have to correct itself in a hurry if New Jersey wants to avoid the same fate as the Penguins.