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Eastern semifinalists right back at it today, Sunday

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It was John Tortorella -- whose press conferences are often measured by their brevity and F-bomb count -- who may have summed up the thinking of those squads left standing after the opening round of the NHL's Eastern Conference playoffs.

Not long after his New York Rangers had dispatched the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 Thursday night, Tortorella took to the podium at Madison Square Garden and actually smiled before saying:

"I'm very happy with the group. They should be proud of themselves for about an hour."

Such is life in the gruelling, exhausting marathon that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Rangers, New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals were all pushed to seventh games before advancing -- the Devils needing double-OT to eliminate Florida late Thursday -- but hardly lit up cigars to celebrate their success. Battered and bruised, they are right back to work this weekend as Round 2 opens today in New York and Sunday in Philadelphia.

Now, maybe it was the stress of the moment that kept Tortorella and his charges somewhat subdued. Game 7s can be hell on the nerves, after all. Or maybe it was the simple knowledge of this: It'll take eight more wins just to get to the Cup final and a full dozen more to be able to hoist the ol' mug over their heads in mid June.

In short, that's like finishing a particularly gruelling stretch of a race and then rounding a corner to see a nasty hill straight ahead.

"This was exhausting and I didn't even play," said Devils' head coach Peter DeBoer after Thursday's win. "It was a fitting end to the series. I'm glad we won it, but both teams battled for 7 1/2 games."

So now, factors that were key as the Stanley-Cup derby opened -- intangibles like depth, adaptability and resiliency -- are highlighted even further as the fighting for every inch of ice intensifies.

And just as important as the physical battle is the emotional one.

"To me, resilience is when you go down in the first period and you never quit," Flyers' forward Daniel Briere told The Philadephia Daily News this week. "That's something we've done all year. Sticking around. Finding ways, even when teams think they have you down and out."

Added teammate Braydon Coborn: "Playoffs are one big jumble of tests. A magnitude of tests. And you have to try to persevere through all those things. There's going to be ups and there's going to be downs. You just have to keep going. That's really the key. That's resilience. No matter what happens. There's going to be injuries, there's going to be things that go against you, that seem unfair. But for us as a team, and as individuals, you've got to just push forward."

The second round in the East will serve up some intriguing matchups, from the future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur duelling with Flyers' resident whack job Ilya Bryzgalov in what the media are calling the 'Turnpike Series' (the two teams are less than 100 miles apart) to the resurgent-but-still-dysfunctional Caps trying to solve the Rangers' King Henrik Lundqvist.

The Rangers, even with their first-round troubles against the Sens, were supposed to be here as the top seed in the East. And at the beginning of the season the Caps were picked by many to be here as well, although the road they took -- including firing Bruce Boudreau and replacing him with Dale Hunter -- wasn't without its potholes.

"We needed to win a series like this, this franchise needed it," Caps' GM George McPhee told The Washington Post after his squad eliminated Boston. "It's one of the most committed groups we've ever had," McPhee said. "They'll do anything to win. They're blocking shots, and they're taking hits and putting the puck in the right places. That's a real committed group. I love the way Dale's coaching them."

Buckle in and hang on, hockey fans, for if the opening round was a heckuva ride then this next chapter should be a dandy.

 

THE EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS

NEW YORK RANGERS vs. WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Game 1: Today in New York, 2 p.m., CBC, NBC

Head to head: The two clubs split the season series 2-2.

Why the Rangers will win: The Broadway Blueshirts followed their formula to success in Round 1, blocking shots in front of Henrik Lundqvist and limiting second and third chances in front of their Vezina-candidate netminder. But they were also able to advance without much offensive punch from their top line of Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin. The addition of collegian Chris Kreider has given some pop to a second line that features Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan. The Rangers special teams (7th on the penalty kill; 9th on the power play after the first round) will have to be significantly better against the Caps.

Why the Capitals will win: Something has happened to the Caps in recent weeks as they have morphed from a skilled-but-indifferent outfit into a crew that actually looks like it wants to cash in on all those unfulfilled expectations. Goaltender Braden Holtby has been a difference maker -- he had a .940 save percentage against the Bruins -- despite having made just 21 career appearances prior to the playoffs. But here's a telling stat that is astonishing and yet symbolic of the Caps' new-found commitment: Washington finished with 86 blocked shots against the Bruins -- almost 20 more than the Rangers. Their depth has been impressive, too, with 11 different forwards scoring against Boston and Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom combining for six goals and six assists.

Tim Campbell picks: New York in five.

Gary Lawless picks: New York in six.

Ed Tait picks: Washington in seven.


NEW JERSEY DEVILS vs. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Game 1: Sunday in Philadelphia, 2 p.m., CBC, NBC

Head to head: The Flyers went 3-2-1 against the Devils this season.

Why the Devils will win: The have stability in goal with Brodeur and the return of Winnipegger Travis Zajac -- 3G, 3A to lead the team -- has given Jersey more scoring to go along with the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, Adam Henrique, Petr Sykora and Zach Parise. This is a four-line hockey club and that depth served the Devils well in their opening-round marathon against Florida. Their penalty-kill unit was one of the best during the regular season, but was awful against the Panthers. There is enough offensive skill here to make the power play potentially deadly.

Why the Flyers will win: As goofy as he is, the Devils could not beat goalie Bryzgalov during the regular season as he posted two shutouts and a sparkling 0.29 goals-against average. But in taking down Pittsburgh in the opening round, some facets of the Flyers' game that have been critical in the playoffs were highlighted: they have a ton of offensive skill up front -- and few are arguing right now with Peter Laviolette's suggestion Claude Giroux (6G, 8A) is the 'best player in the world' -- that makes their power play absolutely dominant. Against the Pens the Flyers converted on 12 of 23 power plays, or 52.2 per cent. If the Flyers get even decent goaltending, which they did in Game 6, they have shown an ability to overcome soft goals. They are big, well-coached and skilled.

Tim Campbell picks: Philly in seven.

Gary Lawless picks: Philadelphia in six.

Ed Tait picks: Philadelphia in five.

 

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 C3

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