The Eastern Conference playoff quarterfinal matchups present some interesting games to watch. Each series promises to be a hard fought battle and the team with the most skill and resiliency will come out ahead.
Here’s a sneak peak at each matchup:
1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 8) New York Islanders: The Pittsburgh Penguins have been on autopilot for most of the season despite being without Sidney Crosby for the past 12 games. The veteran Penguins will take on an inexperienced Islanders team that is relying heavily on goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and young forward John Tavares. The Penguins who’ll be going for their 4th Cup, are loaded with experience and grit, and added more with the deadline acquisitions of Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow. Sidney Crosby is slated to miss game one, and it’s not sure exactly when he’ll return. Needless to say, there’s enough offence to go around. As for the Islanders, it’s all about their offence, hard work and good goaltending. John Tavares is growing into quite the offensive force, and is well supported by Matt Moulson and a fiesty, gritty group as well. This could be a fun series. Players to watch are James Neal and Chris Kunitz for Pittsburgh and Tavares, Moulson and Evgeni Nabokov. As good as Pittsburgh is, this Islanders team could give them fits. Prediction: Penguins in six.
2) Montreal Canadiens vs. 7) Ottawa Senators: This will be the only first round-all Canadian series amongst the 16 teams. Montreal who slipped down the stretch is still the favourite of this series, but by a slim margin. Goaltender Carey Price of the Canadiens hold the future of this Montreal club in his hands. In a turnaround season for Montreal they will need a collective effort from everyone to get past Ottawa. As for the Sens, they’ve battled adversity all season long with injuries to Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson. A number of younger players chipped in and helped overcome the challenges that Ottawa faced. Players to watch are rookies Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk of Montreal and Daniel Alfredsson, Cory Conacher and defencemen Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar for Ottawa. Prediction: Montreal in seven.
The Florida Panthers were reduced to the role of spoiler for other teams fighting for the playoffs weeks ago. Unfortunately for them (and fortunately for those wanting the Cats to finish with the worst record for draft pick purposes), they haven’t been relishing that role. Everyone of the teams the Panthers played during their current six game winning streak were in playoff position and all easily walked away with the two points. That all seemed like good news for Tuesday night’s opponent, the New York Rangers, as they needed two points to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As the evening unfolded, the Blue Shirts would only need a win to punch their ticket. That win will have to come another day as the Panthers gutted out a 3-2 win in front of a slanted New York crowd at the BB&T Cetner.
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FLORIDA PANTHERS: 13-24-6 (32 PTS.) vs. NEW JERSEY DEVILS: 16-17-10 (42 PTS.)
GAMEDAY SONG: Symptoms-Atlas Genius
The New Jersey Devils tonight’s opponent for the Florida Panthers were on one of the franchise’s worst losing streaks until they finally shutout the Philadelphia Flyers 3-0 on Thursday. The blanking of the Flyers was the 121st of his career for Devils netminder Martin Brodeur. The Devils had previously been 0-6-4 in the previous 10 games, and saw themselves drop from seventh to 12th in the Eastern Conference prior to the tilt against the Flyers. Prior to the start of Friday night’s games, the Devils had moved up to 11th behind Buffalo and Winnipeg, and have a game at hand, with five left on the schedule for them.
New Jersey who are a dead last in the league in scoring with only 99 goals on the year are looking for their first two game winning streak since March 21-23, and don’t have a winning streak longer than five games. If the Devils were to miss the playoffs it would be for only the second time in 13 seasons. From where they sit currently, they trail the New York Rangers by six points, so their work is cut out for them with little room for mistakes to be made. They’ll play the Rangers two more times before the season ends, with the final game coming on the last day of the season, meaning this could go down to the wire.
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For two periods, it looked like the Florida Panthers might be able to at least put a scare into the New York Rangers playoff hopes. Despite a 3-1 deficit (thanks to late second period goal from Mats Zuccarello), the Panthers were playing pretty well against a squad desperate for a win.
Then the third period happened….
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FLORIDA PANTHERS: 13-23-6 (32 PTS.) vs. NEW YORK RANGERS: 21-17-4 (46PTS.)
GAMEDAY SONG: The River Bruce Springsteen, live from New York
Tonight is game two of the four game road trip for the Florida Panthers, as they face off against the New York Rangers for the second of three games between the two clubs. The last time these two met, the Panthers handed the Rangers a 3-1 loss in Madison Sqaure Garden. A well played game by the Panthers that night, who did a terrific job of irritating the Rangers enough for Ranger forward Rick Nash to take out his frustrationwas with a high flying elbow to the head of Tomas Kopecky. That game and many other one’s like that have shown just how inconsistent this Ranger team has been throughout the season despite having roster that contains Nash, Brad Richards and Henrik Lundqvist.
The Rangers had gone 5-1-1 in their previous seven games before losing 3-2 to the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday. The Rangers had beaten the Flyers in 11 of the previous 12 games prior to that night. That game was preceeded by an emotional 1-0 overtime win against the New York Islanders on Saturday, however the emotion didn’t carry through. Currently the Blue shirts are tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference with the Winnipeg Jets with each team having 46 points. New York has the tie breaker with a game in hand. Captain Ryan Callahan describes their current state of mind:
“Every game is a playoff game, we know that,” captain Ryan Callahan said. “It’s so tight battling for that playoff spot. Every point is really important right now. We have to put this behind us, and we’ve got another huge game Thursday.”
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Before Dale Tallon became General Manager of the Florida Panthers in the summer of 2010 and built their prospect system to one of the most promising in the league, Jacob Markstrom stood out as the crown jewel in their system and the top goalie prospect in the NHL. Since arriving in the United States to play in the American Hockey League in 2010, the Panthers have taken their time in developing him, allowing him plenty of time to be the everyday starter for the San Antonio Rampage. If he performs in the NHL like he did in Thursday night’s 3-1 win over the New York Rangers, his AHL days will be over in a hurry. The 23 year-old Swede, playing against one of his heroes in Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist, stopped 44 of 45 shots including an 18-shot barrage in the third period for his second consecutive win and his third on the season.
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FLORIDA PANTHERS: 8-16-6 (22 PTS.) vs. NEW YORK RANGERS: 15-12-2 (32 PTS.)
GAMEDAY SONG: New York City Serenande (Musical perfection)
The Florida Panthers broke a six game losing skid Tuesday night with a rare victory in Raleigh, North Carolina against a Canes team that is slowly faltering of late. A solid performance by young netminder Jacob Markstrom who stopped 17 shots in the first period, as he flirted with his first NHL shutout, led Florida to victory. The Panthers defence tightened up the rest of the way, and held the Hurricanes to 17 shots over the final two frames, surrendering only a power play goal with under three minutes remaining in regulation en route to a 4-1 win. The Hurricanes may have been tired after playing and traveling the night before, but the Panthers were able to hang on long enough, and work together to “steal” one.
Tonight they’ll face a New York Ranger team that has grossly underacheived, but may also be playing with a heavy heart. It was learned on Wednesday that the long time General Manager of the Rangers, Glen Sather, would be undergoing prostate cancer surgery Thursday, and will be hospitalized for a few days, then will return to his normal duties.
This will be the second of five road games for the Panthers, and if solid efforts like Tuesday continue, the trip could have a positive outcome. The Panthers are currently 10 points out of the final spot in the east, and trail division leading Winnipeg by 14. For those that still have post season hopes, a significant winning streak keeps them alive, but reality should tell you that it’s not likely. The effort will have to be more consistent from everyone, and mistakes will have to be kept to a minimum. It’s a lot to ask of a team that has laundry list of injured players, many at key positions, but if handled right, adversity can make you stronger. Time will tell for this bunch.
“It hurts losing six in a row, but now we’ve got to take that one win, turn it into two and keep it rolling,” Shawn Matthias told the league’s official website. “We’ve got to have a good road trip here.”
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The NHL lockout is tough on everybody: the players, owners, and especially the employees and fans. The greed of some affects the lifestyle of many, and the sport of hockey suffers as a result. There’s no hiding the fact that this lockout is horrible.
But if you choose to demonize the owners and blame them for the entire situation, keep in mind that not all owners are created the same. Perhaps some of them are being victimized just the same as those being locked out of money. Most of these owners would actually rather accept the NHLPA offers than lose an entire season to a lockout.
Consider the Panthers’ majority owner, Cliff Viner. Look at all the momentum the Panthers have developed over last year. The team had one of its most successful seasons in its young history, and captured South Florida’s attention ad they made their way to a Southeast Division title. Sportswriters were talking about them, games were being sold out, the tiredness that usually accompanied conversations about the Panthers replaced with excitement. Why would it make any sense for Viner to surrender an entire year and ruin all the positive vibes? It doesn’t.
Also look at the San Jose Sharks’ ownership group, Stratton Sclavos and Kevin Compton. They get sellouts every night at HP Arena and their team is a perennial Stanley Cup contender. But their nucleus is aging: Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau would both lose a year from their careers, and the chase for the Cup would get that much more difficult for San Jose.
Most teams find themselves in a similar boat as these two teams: the possibility of profit and attention is too high to pass up.
So if there are owners who would want hockey to be played, it begs the question of which owners are not as eager. Since only Bill Daly and Gary Bettman are allowed to speak for the NHL and the owners, nobody can be totally sure. Good guesses can be hazarded that the big-market teams are participating in driving down negotiations. Maybe a team like the Rangers or Canadiens would seriously demand a buy-out clause for players, and a team like the Maple Leafs or Bruins would balk at higher revenue-sharing. These teams, since they are a few of the real power players within the NHL, probably have more say in negotiations than the Panthers and Sharks of the league. At least we assume this, since the positions taken by the NHL in meetings seems slanted more for the richest teams in the league to benefit than the ones with lower budgets.
Whatever the case, there needs to be a realization among the owners in general that there needs to be sacrifice on their part in order to make a deal work and end the lockout. Some owners already recognize this, but a few are still in denial.
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For the past couple of years there has been speculation that the Columbus Blue Jackets were interested in trading their best player, All-Star forward Rick Nash. The plan for the Blue Jackets was to trade Nash and in return, obtain enough pieces to help the team build and hope to become contenders. Many people were wondering just what the Blue Jackets could get for Nash. Since Columbus was dealing their star, they wanted a lot in return. For a while, there was talk that the Jackets wanted a top six forward, a top prospect, and a first round pick, which is certainly a hefty price to pay for just one player. Unfortunately for Columbus they were unable to move Nash and after continuously hearing from teams about Nash, general manager Scott Howson decided it would be best for the team to keep Nash.
Last season the New York Rangers were one of the best teams in the National Hockey League. After earning the number one seed going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, expectations were higher than ever in New York. After defeating the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs, the Rangers then shifted their attention to the Washington Capitals. Just like the first series, it took the Rangers seven games to close out the series and eliminate their opponent. The Rangers were in a spot that they haven’t been in in over a decade, the Eastern Conference Finals. Heading into the conference finals, the Rangers had to match up with the red hot New Jersey Devils. With two teams left, only one was able to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Just like in the 96-97 season, the Rangers were unable to secure a victory to reach the Finals.