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eastern conference playoffs

It’s playoff time, and rather than lead off with some clever transition from nothing, I’ll mention that I don’t need to do that and that you don’t need another vanilla, clichéd-up version of some dude picking all the favorites to win in 6 or 7 games and act like any value was added to your Stanley Cup playoff investment.
What we are going to do today is look at the “experts’ picks” from three of the most visible hockey media companies, compare their hunches to the series prices currently offered by the sportsbooks, and see if we can’t take a stab at predicting some things that won’t happen in the first round of the playoffs.
The three sources that I tallied to compile the 35 “experts’ picks” figures were NHL.com, espn.com (I know, I know), and Sportsnet.ca. The series price betting lines were taken from sportsbook.com.
Eastern Conference
#1 New York Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa Senators – For all the talk that I seem to be hearing amongst the hockey world about a lot of people picking Ottawa to win this series, it sure didn’t show up with regard to the experts. Of the 35 to vote, 33 took the Rangers to advance, making New York the most sure thing to win a round amongst all NHL teams. At -240, the Rangers are also the most expensive bet. No matter how we slice it, NYR is the most favored team of any in the first round of the playoffs.

I think that suits Ottawa just fine, what with their Roland Deschain attitude both in net and throughout the roster. Craig Anderson lives for big games, and is the kind of goalie that almost guarantees his team won’t get swept out of any series. Unfortunately, the flipside is a lack of consistency at mundane times, which leads to a lot of doubters. I am unsure if Ben Bishop is in the team’s plans as far as playing in this series, but I am confident that what won’t happen is Ottawa getting swept out by New York. Their offense is too dynamic at the top and Anderson is going to have at least a pseudo-Game 3 moment at some point.
Photo found here
Sir Craig Anderson, F.M. (Fuckin’ Man)

But, I also don’t believe Ottawa would go into New York and win a Game 7 against such a deep, physical team with the best goalie in the world. Game 7s are typically only lost at home by uber-talented, smooth skating offensive teams that get the yips when everything is on the line in front of their demanding fans. The Rangers are not this type of team. They are too physical and deep, and whedn the moment gets as big as it can get, I like teams that base their games around the simple things to be most likely to close out a home Game 7.
I want to put this out there right now: there is only 1 way that Ottawa can win this series, and it basically looks like the blueprint for any underdog in a seven-game series. The Sens must split the first two games, then bring it home and ambush the Rangers. If Ottawa can grab the coveted 3-1 lead, then I would expect they can close it out at home in Game 6. Let’s also point out that New York is not as seasoned as the stereotypical #1 seed, so there is always the possibility that MSG eats its young in Game 5 when the chips are down, whether the series be at 2-2 or 1-3 against the Rangers.
My ones of loyal readers know that I do not like picking “good” teams to get eliminated at home, but I’m struggling to pick against Ottawa winning two games in a series against a team that has truly no playoff success to speak of. I can’t deny that I feel the most likely (safe?) outcome is that the Rangers will do enough to take a 3-2 lead back to Ottawa and find a way to play a grinding, shutdown road game to knock the Sens out in 6.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 33-2 NYR; Series price NYR (-240) OTT (+190); What Won’t Happen: NYR in 4, OTT in 7.
#2 Boston Bruins vs. #7 Washington Capitals
This one smells like a rat. A cheese eater. Another member of that nation that Frank Costello so resented toward his end.
Let’s play a game called “go back twelve months.” It’s fun. You can often spot forests through trees. Here we go.
Twelve months ago, people were giving the Washington Capitals one last chance to make things right and get to the finals (or at least the conference finals). The Caps came into the playoffs on fire and grabbed another #1 seed. They would even go on to casually handle the New York Rangers in an albeit contested five-game series with playoff rookie Michal Neuvirth in nets. Washington then got swept by Tampa Bay, and all of us proverbial Ned Starks dropped our proverbial Ices through the necks of Alex Ovechkin, Bruce Boudreau and everyone involved with the Capitals’ organization.
We were pissed. Much like Mrs. Bobby Petrino, we all knew we were looking the other way on a team that had not under its current makeup seriously challenged for a spot in the eastern final. And don’t give me “’09 Game 7,” because I watched that damn game. I said “seriously.” But we went ahead and picked them anyway, and if we didn’t, it’s because we picked them to lose in the second round to Pittsburgh, who actually lost in the first round to Tampa Bay. Once the second round was set, everybody was back on the bandwagon and unafraid to admit it. We weren’t sure Washington was going to win it all, or even get past PHILADELPHIA in the east, but they were damn sure not losing to a division rival who plays in the state of Florida.
Then the Caps got swept, and we got embarrassed. “We’ll never back you again,” we said. And from the looks of it, we haven’t reneged on that promise yet.
Boston, meanwhile, was still having to deal with questions about their most recent playoff collapse — that of blowing 3-0 series and Game 7 leads at home to the Flyers. Boston squeaked past a Montreal team that most had pegged for what actually happened to them this season. The Bs entered the second round on the road at the team that had not only done them dirty the season before, but had led the eastern conference for much of the season. I don’t remember Boston being a consensus pick to beat Philadelphia, but maybe I have amnesia. Or maybe all the rest of you do. That’s why we’re playing this game.
Then Boston swept the Flyers en route to two more series that had to end with victories in deciding seventh games. Kudos to the champs, they earned it. But that’s what happened. Boston won a 16-team, 4-round tournament in which 3 of those 4 rounds saw them pushed to the brink, and that’s having the league leading Vezina-in-waiting goaltender backstopping every game. Tim Thomas is still there, but he’s only shining out the string with regard to that trophy.
So, what are the numbers, you ask? Of the 35 “experts,” 32 of them have picked the Bruins to defeat the Capitals. In other words, this is the second-most surefire bet in their eyes. I get that it’s a 2-7 matchup, but this 32-3 vote still raises my eyebrows. This whole thing stinks of revenge. If you don’t believe me and are countering with, “Yeah, but Boston will win this series and almost anyone would think so,” let me get to the rest of the tallies here in a minute. And remember, it’s the Washington Capitals here. Despite all of their transparent playoff problems, it never stopped the majority of people from picking them to win before. So, what’s changed so drastically? Our egos, maybe…
The betting line represents Boston as tied for the second biggest favorite, along with Vancouver, at -225.
I’m not going to pick Washington to win straight up, and I certainly have never liked some of their key players, but if you’re looking solely for value, the Caps on the money line has to be a candidate.
Here’s what won’t happen: Caps’ goalie Braden Holtby will not get deer-faced and give up terrible goals to get the team eliminated. It’s funny, Neuvirth was a playoff rookie until he looked incredibly solid last year against the Rangers. Most people think Holtby is more talented than Neuvirth, and has been pretty good in limited big league action over the past two seasons. Yet, Holtby’s assumed status as fill-in starter is cited as a big reason why Washington will lose. Seriously? The Caps might lose because they are not as well set up to enjoy playoff success as the Bruins are, but it won’t be because Holtby shits the bed.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 32-3 BOS; Series price: BOS (-225) WSH (+188); What Won’t Happen: Caps lose because of Holtby.
#3 Florida Panthers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils
This one’s just comical. I understand it’s the Florida Panthers. I understand it’s the Southeast Division. I understand it’s a traditional power with the winningest goalie ever. But the degree to which the Panthers are being written off as glorified sparring partners for a team that has accomplished exactly nothing over the last four seasons can only be explained by the “name on the front” theory.
See, it doesn’t matter that the New Jersey Devils have won only two first round series (and zero beyond that) since the lockout, or that the Panthers have home ice in this series, or that until upgrading the size of his pads, Marty Brodeur looked like he might not be able to start in the ECHL. None of that matters, because this series is between the Florida Panthers and the New Jersey Devils.
Who cares that the best defenseman in the series is Florida’s Brian Campbell, or that six of the eight points that the Devils have on the Panthers this year are via the six extra shootout wins that New Jersey “earned,” or that, again, Florida has home ice in the series. None of that matters, because New Jersey is going to pound their asses and it’s unfair that all of us have to sit through such an undeserving playoff qualification (never mind that we love watching the Capitals… who lost the division to Florida…).
New Jersey ought to be the favorite, but the gap is too wide for a road favorite that led the league in shootout wins. If they play their cards right, the Devils will be lucky enough to bring a 3-2 lead home, where they would logically close it out. But this is far from a sure thing.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 30-5 NJD; Series price NJD (-210) FLA (+170); What Won’t Happen: Devils in 4, as projected by a few of the experts (including Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek, who I tend to agree with on most hockey arguments).
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers
It’s really too bad. This one could have been so badass. The league could have went and let everybody believe that this was a true grudge match, that no holds were going to be barred and that the face would have to go through hell to get past a very worthy adversary just to advance to the second round.
Then the league went and started fining anyone and everyone who used anything relating to Pittsburgh in a paragraph with anything relating to a putdown. You aren’t reading this for information on the league’s clear “no shit talk on the Pens” directive, so I won’t go into detail, but over the past few weeks no fewer than three fines have been levied at three separate entities who may have used words to call into question basic things like fairness, toughness or a propensity to bitch and moan.
Lots has been said recently on the matter, and I don’t have much to add except that the complaints by fans, coaches and all those around the game are very warranted and on point. Quite simply, the first rule of the NHL is that you do not talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins (unless it’s to select roster players as either award candidates or all-time great fodder). The second rule is that you do not, under any bleeping circumstances, talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The whole situation is pretty sad, and not the least of which for the Penguins themselves, who through league memos regarding unfair practices that they went on to use themselves, medical incompetence that was masked as the need to give special officiating for special players, and the public silence regarding these ridiculous, arbitrary and capricious fines that are getting levied against any and all dissenters, have adopted the roles of Craig Kilborn in Old School or Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers — men who have all the tools and do not need to win by cheating or having others cheat for them, yet go down that route nonetheless.
It’s embarrassing to the league, it’s embarrassing to the Pens and it makes a mockery of notions of justice. But, the rules are the rules, and the commissioner’s office makes the rules.
Of course, there’s no way that office would let an anti-shit-talking directive leak over into an on-ice anti-shit-officiating directive that would screw the Pens’ opponents. Not after losing Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs last year. Not a chance.
Don’t like the conspiracy theorist? Then don’t give him all the reason in the world to believe in the likelihood and practicality of the conspiracy.
Notice I haven’t even mentioned a player in this series yet. It’s because I don’t have to. Sorry Flyers fans, there’s no way you’re winning this series. I’m surprised the votes and line are as close as they are. The sad thing is, I think the Flyers actually match up alright with the Penguins. Oh well, what could have been…
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 27-8 PIT; Series price: PIT (-220) PHIL (+180); What Won’t Happen: Philadelphia winning the series… or the penalty minute battle… or the lowest fine competition…

As you can probably tell by the discrepancy between lengths of posts dedicated to the two NHL conferences, I either a) don’t feel confident picking the east, b) don’t give much of a damn about the east, or c) both.  I feel like picking the top 4 seeds in the east is the easy way out, but it’s the way I see it going down so that’s what I’ve done.

Despite Tampa Bay’s offensive skill and surprising depth, their newfound solid goaltending from not just Dwayne Roloson, but shockingly also from Mike Smith, the fact that they are going up against a Pittsburgh team that will be without Evgeni Malkin and probably without Sidney Crosby for the entire series, and the fact that this Tampa offense is going after a goaltender in Marc Andre Fleury that I don’t really believe in, I’m still picking Pittsburgh to win this series because they look like a more playoff-ready team, and I don’t like Tampa Bay’s defensemen.  That series starts tonight at 7pm in Pittsburgh.  We’ll go Pittsburgh in 6 games.

Although the Chara / Pacioretty thing could give for pages and pages of analysis of the annual Boston v. Montreal playoff series, I just don’t feel like this one’s going to be as classic as some of the other ones in the past decade.  I think Boston is too big and physical for Montreal’s small forwards to fight through on a consistent enough basis to win four games.  Carey Price has been outstanding in net for the Habs, but it’s hard to say that you would give the goaltending edge to the team playing against the soon-to-be two-time Vezina winner, Michigan-born Tim Thomas.  So if I think that the B’s offense at least cancels with Montreal’s defense, the B’s goalie at least equals the Habs’ goalie, and Boston’s defense has a huge advantage over Montreal’s offense, then I’m going to pick Boston to win the series.  I think this one also gets wrapped up on the road in 6 games.

The trendy upset pick is without question Buffalo over Philadelphia.  While I understand why many pundits are going with that one, and I can’t say with total conviction that I don’t believe it will happen, I am certainly leaning toward Philadelphia in this one.  The argument for Buffalo is that the Sabres are trending upward, while Philly has been trending downward for some time now.  The Flyers once hot tandem of goalies (Bobrovsky and Boucher) has gone cold.  Chris Pronger is questionable to return from injury.  Like I said, I do understand the logic, but I’m still going with the playoff tested team that will have four of the seven games in its building.  Since I don’t want to predict that it will go seven games, I’ll continue the trend and go with Philly clinching in a Game 6 road victory at Buffalo.

The final eastern conference matchup is probably the one I’m most interested in watching.  It pits the top-seeded Washington Capitals against the only team that gained an imperative win over the weekend as far as playoff chasing went, the New York Rangers.  It has been argued that the Rangers are a nightmarish draw for Washington, as the Rangers not only took the Caps to seven games a couple years ago, but also have a strange penchant for beating them by 7 goals in hockey games.  Maybe it’s not as common as I think, but it seems that most times these teams play the final score sees New York with 6 or 7 goals.  This is obviously problematic, especially for a team with a trio of young goaltenders that have never really proven anything in the playoffs.  In fact, of the three (Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov, Braden Holtby), only Varlamov has any playoff experience, and that came over the past two seasons that saw Washington go seven games in all three of its playoff series.  All three were played in Washington, but following the victory over New York in 2009, Varlamov was beaten badly at home by the Penguins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup.  Then there was last year, where Varlamov played alright but was beaten by an unconscious Jaroslav Halak in the opposing crease.  For the third year in a row Washington will be starting the playoffs with a goalie other than Varlamov, as it has been confirmed that Michal Neuvirth will get the nod for Game 1 against the Rangers.  I personally would prefer Varlamov if I were the Caps, but I do actually like all three of their goalies.

Lastly, had Ryan Callahan not broken his leg blocking a shot a week ago, I really might take the Rangers to win four of these seven games, probably three of which by seven goals.  But Callahan is such an embodiment of the Rangers style of play that I feel that this is almost a “cut off the head and the body falls” situation.  I still like the Rangers’ young D men, and acknowledge that NYR has more guys like Callahan in Brandon Prust and Brian Boyle, along with some young and talented forwards like Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello to compliment scoring leaders Marian Gaborik and Vinny Prospal.  But in the end I just like what Washington has done to transform their game into a more defensive-minded style that is much more suited for playoff hockey.  The biggest thing that can stop them is if they go into “only move forward” mode like they did last year against Montreal.  What I mean is, other than Nicklas Backstrom, there was not a player on the Capitals that wanted to play a patient offensive game with any creativity.  Their shots were direct and easy for Halak to save.  If they only give Henrik Lundqvist one look, he will probably win at least a couple games on his own, and the Rangers would be at no disadvantage in this series.  But making predictions means taking a stand sometimes, and I’ve got to believe that part of Washington’s transformation includes a dedication to offensive patience and creativity amongst those forwards who have that ability.  Because the Rangers are such a bad home team, let’s go with Washington in 5 games, only dropping one of the first two.  There you have it, my eastern predictions, as bad as anyone else’s.

Playoffs start in 5 hours, cheers.