Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Playoff Competition, Sizing up the opposition

Montreal's streaking, 6 straight wins right now and are in excellent position to hold a playoff spot, with the sagging Rangers and everyone behind the Rangers being even worse for wear, so let's consider the competition.

Barring impossible collapses really, Washington is the No. 1 seed, Pittsburgh will likely claim 2nd with the Devils having a more up and down performance post-Olympics, but with the Sabres struggling, the Canadiens are within reach of the Division title, an automatic #3 seed and home-ice advantage for the start of the playoffs. But that's no guarantee, but let's consider all our opponents regardless, who knows what could happen in the final drive, I've ranked them by level of the threat I believe they pose to the Canadiens, with the Capitals and Penguins tied as the top threat.

1. Washington Capitals, the offensive juggernaut of the NHL.

- How they beat you: Scoring and size, they are going to be the first team in years to score over 300 goals in a season, they have 6 20-goal scorers right now, and could have as many as 4 30-goal scorers by the end of the season and a total of 8 20-goal scorers, not to mention Ovechkin's likely to go over 50 goals for a 4th time in his 5 NHL seasons. They also pack a large amount of size in their roster, they have only 3 forwards under 6'1", making a good number of them very hard to move and tough for smaller teams to play against. Playing that volume of scoring forwards and big players in general could severely tax the older players on the back end such as Spacek and Hamrlik, a 7-game series against such forces could quickly wear them out. If they get a chance to dicate the pace of the series by making it about offence, they will be nearly impossible to beat.

- How you beat them: Their defence has never been a vaunted part of their game, top prospects John Carlson and Karl Alzner are just that, prospects who are not truly ready for NHL action I believe. Mike Green may be the scoring sensation among all NHL defencemen, but he is hardly noted as being equally as good in his own end. Tom Poti is probably the most reliable D-man they have, but he is 1 in 6 on any given night. Jose Theodore has rarely performed in the playoffs and the health and ability of Semyon Varlamov to recover for the playoffs is questionable.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins, current Cup Champions:

- How they beat you: Two of the three best players in the world, Crosby and Malkin. They're elite players, young guys and they already have two Stanley Cup Finals under their belt. They have the best 3rd-line centre in the NHL in Jordan Staal, who makes 2nd line on a lot of NHL teams. They have great defensive depth with players like Brooks Orpik, Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang. Marc-Andre Fleury may be a bit overrated, but he has two Cup Final appearances himself and he's played very well in those series for the most part.

- How you beat them: A lack of scoring wingers has haunted the Penguins when they are blessed with their two superstars as centres. It has very much become the Crosby show for scoring in Pittsburgh this season, the acquisition of Ponikarovsky from Toronto indicated the organization was fearful about their depth in wingers. If Crosby can be frozen out, don't expect Kunitz and Guerin do much by themselves, nor Malkin with the who's who of nobodies he often has played with this season. The sometimes questionable play of Fleury could be an advantage, as is the simple fact that the Penguins power play has been impotent this season, while Montreal is 2nd-best in the NHL, often when they've been missing at least two Top 6 forwards. A strong power play and freezing out Crosby could make a series win possible.

3. Buffalo Sabres, home of the top Goalie in the NHL.

- How they beat you: RyanMiller, the best goalie in the NHL this season has the ability to win a series by himself. The Sabres possess a number of quick, mobile forwards that can be threatening and Thomas Vanek can be a 40-goal scorer on the right year, even if he has struggled this season. Their defence is generally well organized and rookie sensation Tyler Myers is looking like a future defensive superstar with his play this year. He and Miller could send Montreal off to the golf course.

- How you beat them: Miller will likely be a bit worn out from what will probably be over 70 games played in a compressed NHL schedule and a hard Olympics, if he does show fatigue, the Sabres MVP can be beaten to win the series for Montreal. Beyond Myers, who lacks playoff experience as well, the defence of the Sabres is not much to write home about and the Canadiens stack up better on depth at forward than the Sabres do. If the Canadiens test the depth of the Sabres roster, it's another way to beat them.

4. New Jersey Devils, home of Montreal's sworn enemy.

- How they beat you: Heard of Martin Brodeur? Or Martin F. Brodeur as the Canadiens have known him, he has always played his best games against the Canadiens and it has cost the team many points over the years, keeping them out of playoffs and higher playoff seeds when they do qualify. If he puts on his usual terrifying ability to hold off the Canadiens shooters single-handedly, it could be a short series. Zach Parise showed his chops at the Olympics and could be the top threat for the Devils and Ilya Kovalchuk, while not very productive for the Devils considering his ability, if he raises his game for the playoffs, that's a 40-goal scorer and a 50-goal scorer both raising hell against the Canadiens. Jacques Lemaire's trap scheme in coaching has also greatly frustrated many teams over the years, slowing games down to a crawl and making the other team suffer for any mistake they made.

- How you beat them: Martin Brodeur has a spotty playoff record over the last few years, his tendency to play at least 70 games before the playoffs has often worn him down and left him far from his best when he is needed to be his best. Ilya Kovalchuk's lack of playoff experience and the apparent display that he is just not a player who can really work with Jacques Lemaire, which wouldn't be the first time an all-offence player didn't work with Lemaire. Their no-name defence, while well organized is still just that, no-name, if the Canadiens can strike with their top 6 forwards and the great speed and ability they have displayed this season, it could overwhelm them. The Canadiens can not let this be determined by the trap, they must force Lemaire to react to them.

5. Philidelphia Flyers

How they beat you: The Flyers are heavily invested in scoring and defence. Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere, Mike Richards, Kimmo Timmonen, Chris Pronger. All big threats and all capable of causing Montreal great trouble. They are physical and they don't back off, the Canadiens do not have a true enforcer to keep them honest, Ryan O'Byrne is still basically a rookie to me and Travis Moen is not in the weight class of their big bruisers. They can physically shove the Canadiens around the ice and are dirty enough to injure Canadiens players to give them the edge in the series. Size and physical forecheck will challenge Montreal's D.

How you beat them: Don't play their smash-and-grab game, roll the forward lines and challenge them every step of the way. If it becomes about goaltending, they are right fucked with their AHL-quality starter Mike Leighton injured and forced to use Brian Boucher as their starter again. This team can be frustrated by a fast, skilled team that doesn't want to get into their style of play, hence how the Penguins have ejected them from the playoffs for two years in a row. That and the Canadiens need to kick these hacks out of the playoffs if they face them, they're a bloody disgrace to the NHL. Detestable players and no character at all.

6. Ottawa Senators

How they beat you: No one expects much from the Ottawa Senators in the playoffs, so they will go in without being taken very seriously at first, as they are renowned playoff chokers. Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Alex Kovalev and Mike Fischer are their big guns and could cause trouble if they do go hot in the playoffs, coach Cory Clouston has had them all activated at once to cause great damage to the opposition. Kovalev may feel the need especially to outdo his old club and try to show them up, albeit he has a higher chance of being invisible with his enigmatic performances. If they are underestimated and their big players go big, it could be trouble.

How you beat them: Their forward depth is really not much to look at and Alfredsson, Spezza are general playoff underperformers, Fischer's been hot/cold all season and Kovalev is a pure enigma. Their goaltending is highly suspect, Brian Elliott or Pascal Leclaire? I don't think they present that much of a challenge to the Canadiens shooters. Ottawa's defensive depth has been laughable for years and have been lacking a true top-ranked defencemen since they foolishly let Zdeno Chara go.

7. Boston Bruins

How they beat you: Bruins are always a bitter rival of the Canadiens and they tend to play some of their best hockey against the Canadiens. Many of their forwards have underperformed compared to last season, but the playoffs could light a fire under them and get them going. Zdeno Chara has had an average season, but his play in the Olympics indicated he's still capable of playng like a Norris trophy defencemen. Tukka Rask has been a pleasant surprise for a Boston team that has seen Tim Thomas struggle, he could frustrate the Canadiens shooters and turn the series for the Bruins.

How you beat them: Marc Savard is done for the season, Milan Lucic is a shadow of his former self, Michael Ryder is back to his lazy ways and I'm pretty sure Mark Recchi voted for Trudeau when he first ran for office. Zdeno Chara has not been a major force for the Bruins this year and Dennis Wideman has been widely invisible this year. Tukka Rask has no playoff experience and the Canadiens are well-equipped to outskate the slower skaters on the Boston Bruins.

Those are our opponents, that's how I rank them in terms of threats to the team. With a full roster, a win is possible but I'd feel a lot better if the Canadiens caught the division title, broke a weaker team and had time to rest before going into a grinding series with a top team.

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