Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
Every season in the NHL, it seems as though there is an upset or two that comes completely out of left field. Last season it was the Montreal Canadiens stunning everyone and beating the vaunted Washington Capitals in seven games. In fact, all three division winners in the Eastern Conference last season were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. While having that many upsets isn’t a common occurrence, it still illustrates that there is always the chance of seeing a high seed get eliminated early on in the Cup playoffs.
This season has its fair share of intriguing story lines as well. With the Western Conference as closely bunched up as it is, it seems pretty likely that one of the top seeds will fall, and in the East, several of the top teams haven’t been playing up to snuff as of late.
Which ones are most likely to fall? Here are three that are likely in the biggest danger of getting their golf clubs out of storage a little earlier than they were anticipating:
Last season, the big obstacle that ended up derailing the Caps’ Cup dreams was Habs netminder Jaroslav Halak. While they won’t have to face him again this postseason, they are going to be dealing with another top-notch goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist. All he did this season was rack up an impressive 2.28 GAA, a .923% save percentage, and a league leading 11 shutouts. His Vezina-caliber season is a huge part of the reason that the Rangers were able to sneak into the playoffs, and he will pose a formidable challenge to the Capitals.
As if the play of Lundqvist wasn’t enough of an obstacle for Washington, they have to deal with their own play this season against the Rangers. As profiled on HBO’s 24/7, the Caps had an embarrassing night at Madison Square Garden in December, losing 7-0 and playing with so little passion that captain Alex Ovechkin ended up getting into a fight to try to spark the team. This loss was one of three that Washington had against the Blue Shirts this season, in which they were outscored 17-6 and really looked bad the final three contests.
One thing working in Washington’s favor is their hot play since that last 6-0 loss to the Rangers at the end of February. Over that stretch, they set a blistering pace on the way to a 16-3-1 mark to end the season, and they have gotten solid goaltending from just about everyone that they’ve thrown into the crease. That responsibility going into the playoffs will land on the shoulders of Michal Neuvirth, who appeared in 48 games for Washington and posted a 27-12-4 record. He had a respectable 2.45 GAA in those games, but even still it will be interesting to see how short a leash Boudreau has Neuvirth on with Semyon Varlamov lurking in the shadows.
With an uncertain goaltending situation, and with the Rangers’ track record against the Caps this season, this could be a series to watch for a potential upset. It would be hard to imagine Washington losing to an 8th seeded team two years in a row, but you never know with this team.
The Flyers were a team that struggled late in the season and are hoping that there isn’t a carryover into the playoffs. Widely regarded as one of the deepest teams on both sides of the puck, the team has been dealing with some injury issues, most notably with their defensive stalwart Chris Pronger. Add into the mix some difficulties on the offensive side of things, and you can easily see why this team went 6-7-6 to close out the season.
The big issue for Philly is their goaltending. Last season Michael Leighton grabbed the reins in the playoffs and helped the Flyers to a Stanley Cup Finals berth, but this season he was injury prone and ineffective, and was even sent to Adirondack because of his inability to stay in the lineup. Now, the Flyers will trust their fate in the young hands of Sergei Bobrovsky, who shined early in the season but has looked a lot more human as of late. With Pronger still dealing with injury, it’s going to be critical for the Flyers to get good play out of their netminder, and asking a rookie with no playoff experience to do that is usually a recipe for disaster.
The Sabres also pose a huge challenge because of their hot play to get into the playoffs. They have posted a 14-4-3 record since the beginning of March, and over those last six games they were without starting goaltender Ryan Miller for four of them. Even in Miller’s absence, Jhonas Enroth filled in beautifully, leading Buffalo to key victories over the Rangers, Lightning, and Hurricanes (all playoff teams). The Sabres also played great defense agaisnt Philadelphia on Friday, holding the Flyers to only 27 shots in a 4-3 overtime victory.
With Buffalo’s hot play recently, and with the Flyers’ stumbling finish, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see them fall. In fact, out of the eight members on ESPN.com’s panel, only two people picked the Flyers to win this series. Will Philadelphia reward Barry Melrose and Scott Burnside’s faith in them, or will the Sabres pick off the defending conference champions? It will be an interesting series to watch, to be sure.
Detroit Red Wings
Despite dethroning the Blackhawks in the Central Division, the Red Wings are still coming into the playoffs with a lot of question marks. Their offense is humming right along as the 2nd best unit in the game, scoring 3.1 goals per contest, but their defense has been suspect, with Nicklas Lidstrom posting a negative plus/minus for the first time in his career and the unit as a whole giving up 2.9 goals a game, good for 23rd in the NHL.
As if their defensive struggles weren’t concerning enough, there’s also the health of Henrik Zetterberg. Even though the Red Wings managed to defeat the Coyotes in last year’s playoffs without several key players, this season it might be a little bit more difficult to repeat the feat without Hank. He led the team in assists with 56, and without his ability to help the team on the power play, things could get a little hairy for the Wings.
The run the Coyotes have been on recently is also of concern to Detroit. In fact, it was a 5-4 shootout run that started Phoenix’s hot finish, as the Yotes came back from a 4-1 deficit with nine minutes left to deal the Wings a shocking defeat and end a five game losing streak. Since then, Phoenix has gone 8-3-3 and gotten some superb goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov, who has shown flashes of his Vezina-nominated form from a year ago.
Facing Ilya in the opposing crease is Jimmy Howard, who has been less than stellar this season. After a hot start, Howard has cooled off considerably, ending the season with a subpar 2.79 GAA and a save percentage of .908%. Even though Howard did pick up 37 wins this season, he hasn’t really shown an ability to stand on his head, and if the Coyotes can get some good shots at him, the Wings may find themselves in a track meet.
If Howard can’t stand tall, and if the team’s defense can’t keep players like Shane Doan and Keith Yandle in check, it could be another short postseason in Hockeytown.