Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Eastern Conference Semi-final Preview

#1 Ottawa Senators vs. #4 Buffalo Sabres

How they got there:
Ottawa- defeated Tampa Bay 4-1. Buffalo- defeated Philadelphia 4-2.

The Skinny: After dispatching their spitting images the Tampa Bay Lightning handily, the Ottawa Senators get the chance to do it again, this time against the speedy Buffalo Sabres. There are, however, a few key differences in this series than in the Tampa Bay series: Buffalo has a proven star goaltender in Ryan Miller and is a bit more sound position-wise than the Lightning were; but conversely the Sabres don’t have an explosive game-breaker of the likes of Martin Havlat or Daniel Alfredsson. Other than that, Buffalo and Ottawa are essentially the same team- two fast, exciting teams that use speed, puck control and quickness to generate offence, with a defence that’s impenetrable in their own end and isn’t afraid to jump into the play.

Key Players: Buffalo- C Daniel Briere, G Ryan Miller, D Henrik Tallinder. Ottawa- RW Daniel Alfredsson, LW Martin Havlat, D Wade Redden

Buffalo’s Burning Question: They shut down Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne, but can they shut down the likes of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Havlat et all?

Ottawa’s Burning Question: Everyone makes a big deal about how the Senators can’t beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, however, the Sabres have beaten the Senators twice in the playoffs- a stirring seven-game series in 1997 and the four-game sweep in 1999. Can Ottawa overcome its demons and overwhelm the Sabres?

The Lowdown: Ottawa owned the Sabres in the regular season, but Buffalo proved they’re capable of playing with Ottawa by posting a 6-2 win in their last meeting. The Sabres also have a clear edge in goal with Miller proving himself in net while Ottawa’s Ray Emery- despite being good against Tampa Bay- hasn’t had much of a test. If Buffalo can get to Emery early and overwhelm the Senators with their speed, they might have a chance to win this series, and they’re proven playoff winners whereas the Senators still have a lot left to prove with all their previous early exits. However, the way Ottawa has been playing, that will be difficult, and given that talent-wise, Ottawa is pound for pound better than Buffalo, I really don’t think Buffalo can come out of this one (as much as that pains me to admit that). The Sabres won’t make it as laughable as the Lightning did since they’re pretty close to the Senators and do have Miller to rely on, but Alfredsson, Havlat, Spezza, Redden et all are simply too much for even the Sabres’ talented defence to handle.

The Verdict: Ottawa in seven.

#2 Carolina Hurricanes vs. #3 New Jersey Devils

How they got there:
Carolina- defeated Montreal 4-2. New Jersey- defeated NY Rangers 4-0.

The Skinny: The Devils have been off for over a week, the Hurricanes have been battling back from a 2-0 series deficit to hand the Montreal Canadiens a shocking early exit. A lot has been made of New Jersey’s 15-game winning streak since the end of March and of how the Devils completely dismantled the New York Rangers, but few seem to understand that the Rangers were effectively playing without Jaromir Jagr and thus couldn’t put out much of an effort. The Hurricanes have been riding the goaltending of Cam Ward past Montreal and have seemed to hit their groove, but their vaunted offence has hit a snag- they scored 15 goals in their six-game set, and only nine in their last four games. The Devils, meanwhile, are playing well behind the play of goaltender Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta, mixing their forwards’ explosiveness with sound defensive hockey to produce a well-rounded team that last lost 4-3 to the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 26. However, Carolina will be their first playoff test after the Rangers effectively wilted after Jagr was injured early in Game 1.

Key Players: Carolina- C Rod Brind’amour, G Cam Ward, D Bret Hedican, RW Eric Staal. New Jersey- LW Brian Gionta, RW Patrik Elias, G Martin Brodeur, D Brian Rafalski.

Carolina’s Burning Question: With their offence sputtering against Montreal- despite winning the last four games- can Carolina find their on switch and regain the explosiveness they’ll need to get past the New Jersey defence?

New Jersey’s Burning Question: They swept the Rangers- good. They weren’t much of a test, playing more like the Washington Capitals without Jagr than a Rangers team that effectively dominated the Atlantic Division in the regular season. Now, they have to face a Carolina team that’s also on top of its game and hot at the right moment. Can the Devils continue their hot streak and eliminate Carolina?

The Lowdown: There’s no reason why the Devils can’t continue their hot streak against Carolina. A lot will say about how this series will come down to Cam Ward vs. Martin Brodeur in net but this is really about the Hurricanes’ offence- they need to be better if they expect to beat New Jersey. Gionta, Elias and Scott Gomez are all going to be coming hard at their net and won’t be easy to contain, and while Bret Hedican, Aaron Ward et all were effective at neutralizing the likes of Richard Zednik and Alexei Kovalev, the Devils’ offence is a different beast altogether, and, as a whole, the Devils just play a lot more sound defensively than either the Hurricanes or the Canadiens do. It probably won’t be a sweep, but unless the Hurricanes rediscover their legs and their scoring touch- both of which won’t be easy against Brian Rafalski & Co. and Brodeur- they won’t be able to take more than one game in this series.

The Verdict: New Jersey in five.



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