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March 25, 2019
First Round Preview: Wales Conference
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
BOSTON BRUINS (8) vs MONTREAL CANADIENS (1)
Key Matchup: The health of the series' top centers could tell the tale. Marc Savard, who led the Bruins in scoring with 78 points, has been out since March 22 with a broken bone in his back. Now, I've never had a broken bone in my back, but I'm gonna guess it's kind of painful. I mean, it's not like he stubbed a toe or something. He's got a broken bone. In his back. That can't be good.
Montreal's Steve Begin was the man who broke the bone, cross-checking Savard from behind. Afterwards, the Montreal center was seen wearing a T-shirt that read "Begin 3:16 - I Just Broke Your Back." Look for 'em over at shop.nhl.com. They're all the rage.
Savard has barely been able to skate since the injury, but I'd expect to see him at some point in the series. He's never played in he postseason. Nothing short of a broken back will keep him from... oh, that's right. Never mind.
The Bruins could get a huge emotional lift from the return of Patrice Bergeron. The 22-year-old pivot has been out since October recovering from a severe concussion. While doctors have cleared him to play, Bergeron has said he won't dress for Game One. But expect him back on the ice sooner rather than later. That said, I can't imagine he'll be too effective.
Saku Koivu could also miss the series. Montreal's captain fractured his foot blocking a shot on March 28, and he's been out ever since. Considering all Koivu's been through in his career, I find it hard to believe a broken foot will keep him out of the playoffs. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to see Montreal rest him until they absolutely need him.
Players to Watch: All eyes will be on Carey Price. The Habs have pretty good luck with rookie goaltenders come playoff time, but expecting a 20-year-old to carry the load might be a bit much. Then again, Price was 5-0-0 with a 2.17 goals-against and a .932 save percentage versus the Bears. Stephen Colbert considers him a personal hero.
For Boston, rookie David Krejci could be asked to pick up the scoring slack if Savard can't go. The Czech center put up three goals and nine points in the first five games after Savard's injury.
Prediction: Even without Koivu, the Habs simply have too much firepower for the B's. Alexei Kovalev (35), Tomas Plekanec (29), Christopher Higgins (27), and Andrei Kostitsyn (26) all scored at least 26 goals. Only Marco Sturm (27) and Chuck Kobasew (22) cracked 20 for the Bruins, and Kobasew will miss the series with a broken shinbone.
Kovalev and Kotsitsyn were particularly devastating against the Bruins in the regular season. Kovy had seven goals in eight games, while Kotsitsyn posted five goals and 11 points in seven contests. Sturm was the leading Boston scorer during the season series, collecting a whopping three goals in eight games.
No matter how much Claude Julien's troops try and clog up the neutral zone, Zdeno Chara has to leave the ice eventually. Timmy Thomas might be able to steal a game. Maybe.
Habs in five.
Key Matchup: Mike Fisher is one of the best defensive forwards in hockey. Watching him go head-to-head with Sidney Crosby will be... wait, Fisher's out with a knee injury. Hmm ha. Well, at least Ottawa can always roll Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, and Daniel Alfredsson and try to outscore... what's that? Oh yeah, that's right; Alfredsson is also going to miss the series with a knee injury. Good luck with all that.
At least with Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov, the Sens still have defensemen capable of keeping Crosby under wraps. It's just a good thing the Pens don't have a second line that can score. Yeah, that's probably not gonna work either then, huh?
Players to Watch: Kid Crosby is gonna show up. It's who he is, it's what he does. Evgeni Malkin still has something to prove. He was invisible last postseason, and there's still some question as to whether or not he can dominate with Crosby in the lineup. I think Malkin will come through like a champ, but until he does, there will always be that doubt.
And look out for Jordan Staal. The kid took a lot of grief from Yinzers this year because his numbers were down, but he's been playing great hockey. He could find his touch against the Sens.
This is also a big test for Marc-Andre Fleury. If he's a true franchise goalie, like I've always said he is, then now's the time he has to start proving it. And he will. I just wish he'd be doing it with yellow pads.
By the way, has anyone looked at Fleury's stats? After returning from his ankle injury, he allowed two goals or less in 12 of his 13 starts. He finished the season with a stellar 2.33 goals-against, which is positively miniscule for a Penguins netminder, and a spectacular .921 save percentage, which was the fourth-highest mark in the league.
The Senators need monumental efforts from Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley. So, yeah, that's not gonna happen. Alfredsson may be a weasel, but Spezza makes him look like General Patton.
Prediction: Some Pittsburgh fans were leery of seeing the Senators in the first round, but the injuries to Alfredsson and Fisher changed all that. The Sens, who went 17-21-4 over their final 42, are a dead team walking. Spezza and Heatley are pretenders, Martin Gerber and Ray Emery are terrible, and Bryan Murray is a clown. There are also some pretty bizarre rumors circulating about Spezza, Emery, and the chemistry in the Ottawa dressing room. Normally, LCS prides itself on its yellow journalism, but even I won't touch some the stories.
This series should be a sweep. But never underestimate the incompetence of Michel Therrien. His inability to match lines negates home-ice advantage, and I'm sure he'll have Crosby skating with Max Talbot and Jarkko Ruutu by the end of the second period of Game One. Yet even Therrien couldn't screw this up, right?
But here's the thing: if the Penguins win round one and get some momentum, who's gonna beat them? Winning the first series is always the hardest. If the Pens get through Ottawa, like they should, this could be the year.
The Penguins have all the pieces in place to win a Cup. They've got the two best centers in hockey, two powerful scoring lines, gritty role players, depth on defense, toughness, and solid to spectacular goaltending. The only thing they don't have is a coach. That worries me. But maybe this is when Therrien steps up and proves he's not a complete buffoon. I'll believe it when I see it.
Birds in five.
Key Matchup: I really don't see anyone along the Philly blue line capable of shutting down Alexander Ovechkin. I reckon the job will fall to Kimmo Timonen or Jason Smith.
Watch to see if the Flyers get Mike Richards' line on the ice as much as possible against Ovechkin. Richards and Ovechkin have a history. And much of it involves Richards beating him silly...
Players to Watch: Ovechkin will get his goals. Alexander Semin? I'm not so sure. Ovechkin alone won't be able to win the series. The Caps will need some scoring from the Semin line to advance. The good news is Semin has a goal in four of his last six. The bad news is he's streakier than Frank the Tank. It could be another six before he finds twine.
I have no doubts Richards will rise to the occasion. That kid was born for playoff hockey. But like the Caps, the Flyers will need someone to step up and deliver secondary scoring. Joffrey Lupul made a name for himself in the playoffs with the Ducks. If he gets hot, the Caps could be in trouble.
And don't forget about Vaclav Prospal. Yeah, I wish I could forget about him too, but he's been relatively hot lately, notching three goals and nine points in his last eight games. He's also real familiar with the Caps from his time with the Lightning, posting two goals and eight points in six games against them this season.
Prediction: This is a tough one. Washington seems the obvious choice. After all, the Caps have won seven straight and 11 of 12. But those numbers are more than a little misleading. Eight of those 11 wins came against Atlanta, Carolina, Florida, and Tampa Bay. In the previous 12, when they were actually playing NHL teams, the Caps were 5-5-2. Did they get better or did the competition get worse?
And even though the Flyers seemed to be stumbling to the finish line, they actually went 7-1-1 in their last nine. And when they needed to win in order to secure their playoff spot, they responded with back-to-back shutouts over the Devils and Penguins. That's quality.
Say what you will about the Flyers, they're a nasty team to play. Scott Hartnell, Steve Downie, and Riley Cote will stir things up. They're not scared to get chippy.
Both squads are weak along the blue line. There's talk Derian Hatcher might return from his leg injury, but it's unlikely he'll see action in the series. And even if he does, who cares? He's so bad, he's terrible.
Washington definitely has the edge in net with Cristobal Huet and Olaf Kolzig.
While the Caps may have the best goal-scorer in the world, the Flyers, assuming Daniel Briere returns from his knee injury, have superior scoring depth, with the likes of Richards, Briere, Lupul, Hartnell, Jeff Carter, Mike Knuble, R.J. Umberger, and even Scottie Upshall capable of putting the puck in the net.
I know everyone is all over the Caps, but I'm not buying what they're selling. This will be a good ol' fashioned Patrick Division war. I say Bobby Clarke's boys beat the Caps silly over a long series. They will flat out intimidate Semin and Nicklas Backstrom. Neither will be a factor.
Flyers in six.
Key Matchup: This series is all about the goaltenders. Martin Brodeur had a 1.95 goals-against average versus the Rangers this season, and he still went 1-4-3 against them. Hard to get happy after that one.
Who owns the Devils? Henrik Lundqvist owns the Devils. King Henrik was 7-0-1 against El Diablo, posting a ridiculous 1.09 goals-against and a completely absurd .956 save percentage.
Brodeur vs Lundqvist is the best goaltending rivalry in hockey. Enjoy.
Players to Watch: Obviously, considering Lundqvist's numbers, there weren't too many Devils who did much of anything against the Blueshirts. If you're looking for potential scorers, well, keep looking. The well is dry. But it's going to be fun watching David Clarkson run around belting dudes.
With just 25 goals and 58 points, Chris Drury had a disappointing regular season. But the Rangers didn't pay him for regular-season goals. This is Drury's time of year. He's like the Bizarro Joe Thornton.
Prediction: This is going to be another war of attrition. Expect plenty of extra hockey. I'd set the over-under on overtime games at three. Does it really matter who wins? The survivor will be an easy mark in round two.
Rangers in seven.