(YouTube video courtesy user NHLVideo)
The NHL’s second season — or, the road to hoisting Lord Stanley’s mug — begins Wednesday evening with games in in Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Vancouver.
Here’s a look at how the Eastern Conference matchups may shake out.
#8 Ottawa Senators vs. #1 New York Rangers
This one should be a no-brainer: The Rangers, who were dominant through most of the regular season and fell just shy of the President’s Trophy for most points in the regular season; against the Senators, who struggled late, lost their last three and four of the last 10, and fell to the eighth seed. The New Yorkers are led on the ice by center Marian Gaborik, with a team leading 76 points on 41 goals (also tops on the team) and 35 assists; and right wing Brad Richards, who collected 66 points on 25 goals and a team-high 41 assists. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist posted a stingy 1.97 goals-against average. On the other side, Ottawa’s offense was spearheaded by center Jason Spezza’s 84 points (34 G/50 A), while defenseman Erik Karlsson (19 G/59 A) generated significant offense as well. It remains to be seen, though, whether goalie Craig Anderson is ready for prime time. Prediction: Rangers in 5.
#7 Washington Capitals vs. #2 Boston Bruins
As defending Stanley Cup champions, the Bruins very quietly went out on the ice this season and took care of business, winning the Northeast Division over Ottawa by 10 points. The Bruins feature four players with over 60 points: centers Tyler Seguin (29 G/38 A), Patrice Bergeron (22 G/42 A), and David Krejci (23 G/39 A); and left wing Milan Lucic (26 G/35 A). Two more players, left wing Brad Marchand and defenseman Zdeno Chara, each had over 50 points this season, which all adds up to a second in the league goals per game average of 3.2. The Capitals, after several dominant regular seasons only to disappear during the playoffs, this time around had stretches of season with significant struggle. Still, left wing Alexander Ovechkin remains a player to watch; he tallied a team high 65 points on 38 goals and 27 assists. The biggest question mark for the Caps will be in goal, where neither Tomas Vokoun nor Michal Neuvirth were particularly strong. Prediction: Bruins in 6.
#6 New Jersey Devils vs. #3 Florida Panthers
Florida is probably the weakest team in the Eastern Conference to have home-ice advantage; they scraped past the Capitals late in the season to claim the Southeast Division crown by two points. The Devils finished fourth in the crowded Atlantic Division, where four of the five teams finished with over 100 points. The Panthers are led on the ice by winger Tomas Fleischmann and his 61 points (27 G/34 A); however, goaltending duty will likely be divided by Scott Clemmensen and Jose Theodore. The Devils bring a wealth of experience at all areas, led by left wing Ilya Kovalchuk and center Patrik Elias; while in goal, the Devils have the most playoff-tested netminder in the playoffs in Martin Brodeur, who has been on three Stanley Cup winners in his career. Prediction: Devils in 6.
#5 Philadelphia Flyers vs. #4 Pittsburgh Penguins
This series will definitely be the one to watch, out of all eight first-round series in both conferences. There is no love lost between either of these Atlantic Division rivals, who were separated in the standings by just five points; viewers can e xpect to see lots of hard-hitting action. The Penguins bring to the table NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin, with 109 points (50 G/59 A), as well as left wing James Neal, who talled 81 points on 40 goals and 41 assists. Oh, and let’s not forget that Pittsburgh still has Sidney Crosby; despite missing long stretches of the season with concussion-related injuries and effects, “The Kid” still poses a major on-ice threat. The Flyers counter with center Claude Giroux, whose 93 points was not far behind Malkin for the league lead; also posting a strong contribution was former Penguin Jaromir Jagr. If there is a question mark anywhere on the ice in this series, it will be which Ilya Bryzgalov shows up in the Broad Streeters’ goal from night to night. Bryzgalov can be maddeningly inconsistent – brilliant one night, and a sieve the next. If the brilliant version of Philly’s lead goaltender shows up more often than not, it will be an interesting series; but even if not, it’ll still be compelling viewing. Prediction: Penguins in 7.