This is part of a series of posts previewing each of the four quadrants of the 2014 NHL playoffs. Below are the four teams that comprise the NHL Metropolitan Division bracket. We open with a big-picture look at each team and then close with brief comments on each first-round series matchup individually.
1)Pittsburgh Penguins (51-24-7): Speaking of elite passers, does anyone move the puck better than the Penguins? Sidney Crosby led the league in assists, and Evgeni Malkin was in the league’s upper crust at the same. Defenseman Kris Letang, back from what was thought to be a season-ending injury is one of the top passers from the back end. And the Pens have players who can finish, with Chris Kunitz and James Neal joining Crosby as scorers.
Pittsburgh has been better defensively this season, though Marc-Andre Fleury still fails to inspire confidence as a goaltender. Another concern is that the Pens were mediocre at generating shots, surprising when you consider the passing talent on this team. The players are so skilled with the stick that they still finished in the top five in scoring goals anyway, but like with Boston’s defense, shot volume is something to keep an eye with the Pens offense.
2)New York Rangers (45-31-6): The Ranger offense has been great at getting shot opportunities, but lousy at converting them. That’s something they have to hope the acquisition of St. Louis can change, although he only scored one goal in the 19 games after coming from Tampa. Rick Nash is also a game-changing scorer.
What New York does have is a pretty good goalie in Henrik Lundqvist. It wasn’t a great year for him—he finished 15th in save percentage, but he still keyed a top-five defense and more importantly, Lundqvist has a demonstrated capacity to play at a significantly higher level. He’s never played at a high enough level in the playoffs to carry a team, but with a little help from Nash and St. Louis, the Rangers could make a deep run.
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3)Philadelphia Flyers (42-30-10): This is just a team I find it hard to take seriously when it comes to playoff hockey, and it’s because the goaltending has been such an issue for several years now. It’s no different this year, where Steve Mason and Ray Emery both provide mediocrity and the team defense in front of them is below average.
It’s unfortunate, because the offense is pretty good, and center Claude Giroux is as good as there is. Wayne Simmonds is a finisher, and the Flyers have a great fan base. But if they get on a run, they’re going to buck some serious history in the NHL when it comes to winning with goalie and defense problems.
4)Columbus Blue Jackets (43-32-7): Three signature players will have to carry Columbus. Ryan Johansen is one of the best scorers in the league, and defenseman James Wisniewski can pile up the assists. Both players languish amidst mediocrity, but their presence has enabled the Blue Jackets to play beyond their capacity on both ends of the ice. By that, I mean Columbus’ final rankings on both offense and defense outpaces their performance in the shot wars, a circumstance usually driven by star players.
And the third player that needs to put the team on his back is the most important. That would be goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. He ranked in the top 10 in save percentage this year and last year won the Vezina Trophy, the goaltender’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award. Bobrovsky is the kind of goalie who can win you a playoff series by himself.
Pittsburgh-Columbus: I think the Penguins are more suited to playoff hockey this season than they were a year ago, when they were much softer defensively and ultimately dismantled by the more physical Boston Bruins. But Pittsburgh is getting a bad matchup here in having to deal with Bobrovsky. They’re a (-260) betting favorite, and at minimum, I’d take a shot with Columbus at (+220). Even straight-up, I’ll pick an upset in a seven-game series.
NY Rangers-Philadelphia: Both teams are benefitting from the division-based format, since they’re #5 and #6 in the Eastern Conference overall. Under the old system, both would have been on the road to open series in Montreal and Tampa Bay respectively. New York is the (-140) favorite and I would jump on that. I’m picking the Rangers to sweep.
The winner of this bracket plays the winner of the NHL Atlantic Division bracket, which is headed up by Boston, the #1 seed in the East and the league overall. Read more about the NHL Atlantic Division bracket.