April 10, 2012

Five For Fighting | The NHL Playoffs: The Journey To Exit 16W

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As many children do for Christmas, for the past few weeks I have been counting down to the most magical time of the year: the NHL Playoffs. This is a time in hockey when the hits get a lot harder, the slap shots get a little sharper and the fans take everything to the next level — which Vancouver proved to everyone last year. Sixteen teams may begin the journey, but only one can take home Lord Stanley.

Recently, as the playoffs drew near, my friends and I have reignited our gentle — and sometimes not so gentle — banter over which of our teams will make it to the finals. Though I grew up in South Jersey, which is regarded as Flyers territory, I am most decidedly a Pittsburgh Penguins fan — much to the dislike of a few people I know. So, when it came out that the Pens were playing the Flyers in the first round, you better believe my friends smack talking to the next level. While I put up with more “Sidney Crybaby” chirps than I would have preferred, I wasn’t going to let a little friendly back-and-forth ruffle my feathers.

At the beginning of the year when it was clear that Penguins captain Sidney Crosby would not be in the starting lineup, I would have told you that the Pens would have never made it to where they are today — entering the playoffs seeded No. 4 in the Eastern conference. However, after trying to stage an epic return last fall and notching 12 points in eight games before going back on the injured list, it was clear to me that Crosby still had a little spark left in him and that his brief playing stint would not be the last we saw of him for the season. After what seemed like an eternity of “concussion-like symptoms,” the Kid has returned, proving once again that he is one of the premier players in the NHL. Although, he only played in only 22 games this season, Crosby has recorded eight goals and a whopping 29 assists, placing him ninth on the team for points (37). Just imagine if he had played the entire season. He probably would have scored around 138 points by now — solidifying the fact that Crosby is one of the best players (if not the best) the league has.

Not to be overlooked on the team are consistently reliable players, like center Evgeni Malkin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. When Crosby was side-lined for most of the season, Malkin carried the Penguins on his back at times. The alternate captain leads the team in points (109), goals (50), assists (59) and game-winning goals (9). One thing that he isn’t leading the team in, however, is penalty minutes — that is all James Neal. Arguably the Pens’ MVP for the season, Malkin needs to keep up his scoring efforts, even though Crosby is back. Whether he is on the first line with Crosby or leading the attack on the second, Malkin will need to put pressure on the Flyers’ defense, as well as goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. As a key player in Pittsburgh’s power play unit, Geno will need to maintain a high level of competition if the Penguins want to come out on top of the best-of-seven series.

On the other end of the ice, Fleury has been doing a solid job of anchoring the Pens’ defense. Boasting a 91.3 percent save average, the French Canadian is vastly underrated, in my opinion. Fleury has recorded 42 wins this season, including three shutouts, and stopped 1,768 shots fired off at him. While he is no Henrik Lundqvist — let’s face it, no one can beat King Henry at his game — Fleury is still a force to be reckoned with and I feel that will help the Penguins advance through the first few rounds. Other players like wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis will probably factor into Pittsburgh’s recipe for winning the series against the Broad Street Bullies and continuing down the road towards Lord Stanley. Not having James Neal does not seem to bode well for the Pens; however, Philadelphia is dealing with having key players, like Claude Giroux and Danny Briere, out as well.

I am not an expert when it comes to hockey, and will never claim to be one, but like many other fans, I have decided to throw my two cents in and give a few predictions for at least the first round of playoffs for the Eastern conference.

No. 1 New York Rangers vs. No. 8 Ottawa Senators

Just scraping into the playoffs, the Senators will have a lot to prove on the ice. Featuring players like Jason Spezza, Ottawa has the potential. However, when facing a brick wall like King Henrik in goal, the Senators may have finally met their match. This will most likely be a short series — no offense, Colin Greening ’10.

Prediction: Rangers in five games.

No. 2 Boston Bruins vs. No. 7 Washington Capitals

Boston enters this year’s playoffs as the reigning champions, after disposing of the Vancouver Canucks in seven games last time around. With that in mind, the Bruins have a crown — well, rather cup — to defend, and I don’t think that they are going to allow a big, bad Russian to get in their way. Alex Ovechkin may be “Alex the Great,” but I don’t think the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara will be very intimidated. Both teams have proved they can score, but only one has proved they can defend. Sorry, Alex. Summer vacation starts early for you — again.

Prediction: Bruins in five games.

No. 3 Florida Panthers vs. No. 6 New Jersey Devils

I feel like it was by sheer technicality that the Panthers were seeded as high as they were — their division is not much to speak of. The Panthers have Jose Theodore in net, but the Devils have Marty Brodeur. I’m not a huge fan of this series, since I haven’t really paid much attention to either team this season, so I’m out of things to say.

Prediction: Devils in six games

No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 5 Philadelphia Flyers

This will be the series to watch. With Bryzgalov and Fleury in net, I can only imagine what melee is going to happen on the ice in between. If the last two games between these arch rivals is any indication, there will be lots of blood, harsh words and penalty minutes thrown into the mix. I put my money on Fleury to be the more reliable goalie, and with the likes of Crosby and Malkin leading the attack, I don’t think that the Flyboys will have the power to shut down the Pens’ firestorm. Look for this series to get ugly — really fast.

Prediction: Penguins in seven game.

So, the Pens and Flyers face off tonight at 7:30 p.m. Feel free to come watch with me at Jack’s. I’ll be the shouting Pittsburgh fan in the corner.

Original Author: Lauren Ritter