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Pens set the pace

Crosby and his mates in Pittsburgh clear favourites in battle for Eastern Conference crown

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Contenders like the Boston Bruins and maybe-contenders like the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers won't like it -- and you know the non-contenders like the Philadelphia Flyers will just hate it -- but this spring's Stanley Cup playoffs in the Eastern Conference really are all about the Pittsburgh Penguins.

How the Penguins get going and keep going, if they do, will have a far-reaching effect on every corner of the East's playoffs.

The team's top player, Sidney Crosby, has been cleared for practice and many observers just think he'll find a way to participate in Wednesday's series-opener with the New York Islanders

And that's just going to make it harder for every other playoff team to reach the final prize.

 

Nobody's saying the Penguins are unbeatable, but like the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference, Pittsburgh's shadow is evident everywhere.

The Pens were as dominant at home (18 wins) as on the road. They had the most regulation and overtime wins in the NHL. They did not limp into the playoffs, winning eight of the last 10, even with a rash of big-name injuries.

But stats and paper claims usually have no bearing on the actual games and the next eight weeks are surely going to prove which team is most adept at surviving and winning in an intense, compressed format.

Just like the regular season.

On that note, does anyone care any longer that league commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr delayed the playoffs, which are starting three weeks later than normal?

They might even have done us all a favour, as first-round schedules reveal just what a drawn-out sham the league, in cahoots with television networks, has made the playoffs in recent seasons. Finally, thankfully, we're back to every other night, more or less, with three- and four-day breaks now rare and almost non-existent. Proving they're not needed.

Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs.

New York Islanders (8)

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Penguins prevailed 4-1.

WHY THE PENGUINS WILL WIN:

The East's best team is now healthy, or close to it until Crosby returns. Pity poor coach Dan Bylsma -- where to put all the pieces? Crosby has fit very well this season with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, leaving a real downgrade for a second line (laughter here; this trio is a No. 1 line in about 20 markets) with Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Jarome Iginla.

Pittsburgh's biggest worries would also seem to be containable. One is that the team has lost three straight playoff series. The other is related, that goalie Marc Andre Fleury can be so off and on. But in his case, his last playoff loss might have had something to do with playing the hated Flyers, who were dreadful also-rans this season.

WHY THE ISLES WILL WIN:

The "we-don't-get-no-respect" approach may only go so far for the Islanders, who are nevertheless deserving playoff entrants. They haven't been in since 2007 and haven't won a playoff series since 1993, the same spring that Teemu Selanne of the Jets was the unanimous selection as the Calder Trophy winner. Yes, that long ago.

Speed and a proficient leader, John Tavares, are the Isles' best chances to inflict damage on Pittsburgh. Tavares, no doubt, will receive attention but seems to have made another step in his career and can handle it. If New York's defence, with Manitoba product Travis Hamonic as an anchor, can have even middling success at keeping Pittsburgh's stars at bay, the Islanders can probably score enough goals.

Ed Tait picks: Penguins in six.

Gary Lawless picks: Penguins in five.

Tim Campbell picks: Penguins in five.

 

Montreal Canadiens (2) vs. Ottawa Senators (7)

HEAD-TO-HEAD: A perfect split; each team 2-1-1 with each side gaining a shootout decision.

WHY THE HABS WILL WIN:

The steady, balanced approach, applied with speed, has helped the Canadiens immensely as they came off the mat as the East's laughingstock franchise a year ago. The Habs had eight forwards record more than 25 points this season.

The fresh start of the playoffs will be welcomed, as Montreal was not strong in the late going at 4-6-0 in the last 10 and backing into the Northeast crown when Boston was even worse down the stretch. If Montreal's focus keeping track of Sens' defenceman Erik Karlsson is better than Ottawa's keeping track of P.K. Subban, you'd have to like Montreal a lot.

WHY THE SENS WILL WIN:

Having arrived at the playoff dance at all says plenty about the Sens' will, their style and their coaching. And now with two key players healthy and returned in Karlsson and goalie Craig Anderson, a plucky, disciplined team appears all the more prepared for some success. Their style fits the playoffs -- don't forget that Ottawa unexpectedly but proficiently exposed the heavily favoured Rangers last spring to the point where the New Yorkers eventually became unnerved. One of Ottawa's edges may well be that Anderson and rookie Robin Lehner appear to be more reliable going into this post-season, as opposed to Montreal's Carey Price, who just posted a career-low save percentage.

Ed Tait picks: Canadiens in seven.

Gary Lawless picks: Canadiens in six.

Tim Campbell picks: Senators in seven.

 

Washington Capitals (3) vs. New York Rangers (6)

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Rangers held the edge, 2-1-0.

WHY THE CAPS WILL WIN:

Reprising last spring's second-round matchup, the Capitals will have all the motivation they need to maintain their second-half momentum. Washington was an impressive 15-2-2 but only clinched the Southeast Division crown in the second-last game, so bad was its start to the season.

Beyond red-hot Alex Ovechkin, who topped the NHL in goals (32) after deciding he could stomach the new CBA, the Caps have important weapons in reserve, including a fine season by centre Mike Ribeiro and cheeky lockout whip Troy Brouwer. Added bonuses for the Caps include deadline addition Martin Erat and actual production from former Jets winger Eric Fehr. Still, Washington will have to be extra diligent without Brooks Laich in the first round, and considering goalie Braden Holtby's tendency to give up odd goals this season.

WHY THE RANGERS WILL WIN:

The Rangers are unlikely to be intimidated by the Caps and their star power. not to mention that the Blueshirts did some fine playing of their own down the stretch, 10-3-1 in April to make sure they weren't usurped by the hopeful Jets. New York's deadline additions, a.k.a. Ryane Clowe and Derick Brassard, appear to have settled the team into better (coach) John Tortorella mode, assisting captain Ryan Callahan with the team's required determined style.

Reports are that defenceman Marc Staal, out since early March after talking a puck to the face, is ramping back up and might be ready and that will only help the Rangers. If New York can either stay disciplined or nullify Washington's top-shelf power play, they could find the path to the end of the playoffs somewhat more manageable than last year's, when the favourite's role was just too much to bear.

Ed Tait picks: Rangers in seven.

Gary Lawless picks: Capitals in seven.

Tim Campbell picks: Rangers in six.

 

Boston Bruins (4) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (5)

HEAD-TO-HEAD: boston 3-1-0

WHY THE BRUINS WILL WIN:

That 2011 Cup still looms large for the Bruins, keeping expectations high. And so they should be, with much the same team. That the Bruins know the style, the intensity, the discipline it takes to reach a victorious conclusion is their big edge in this series and ought to be an asset all the way through. Few doubt Boston's team toughness, but no doubt the Leafs will question. It almost seems odd to say, but the Bruins need to beware of being dragged to a game only on that level.

The Bruins hobbled to the finish, 2-5-2 in the last nine, earning wins only over lowly Tampa Bay and Florida. But the team had three games in four nights twice in the last nine days and after Wednesday's opener with Toronto, gets a breather with the next game not until Saturday.

WHY THE LEAFS WILL WIN:

Can James Reimer outplay Tuukka Rask? If you don't think that's a slam-dunk for Rask, you give the Leafs a chance. Toronto has some untested playoff participants like Nazem Kadri and Reimer, and others who haven't been to the party for a long time. Tough as they are, the Leafs will need some goals to win and you'd have to believe that coach Randy Carlyle, with a Cup on his resume, will not allow his testosterone-filled team to lose sight of it.

Toronto was erratic at different times of the season -- the evidence is in the number of broken fan ankles on and off the bandwagon -- but played the right way for the playoffs plenty enough under Carlyle to push into and remain in a playoff position all season long.

Another reason you could like the Leafs: Phil Kessel finds a way to repay the team that gave up on him in 2009.

Ed Tait picks: Bruins in six.

Gary Lawless picks: Bruins in seven.

Tim Campbell picks: Bruins in five.

 

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2013 0

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