Parity runs deep in the East

In the last five seasons the Eastern Conference has produced five different Stanley Cup finalists – Pittsburgh, Ottawa, Carolina, Tampa Bay and New Jersey.

During the eight years between 1993-99, the East featured eight different finalists – Pittsburgh, Montreal, the New York Rangers, New Jersey, Florida, Philadelphia, Washington and Buffalo.

Only between 2000-02 did it get a little familiar with the Devils emerging twice and the Hurricanes once from the East. What does it all mean? If new blood is the trend, teams like the Bruins, Flyers, Canadiens, Rangers and Capitals all have to feel that it's at least their turn again.

Choosing a winner in this wide-open conference might not get any more scientific than that. A case can be made for most, if not every team in the field that there's a scenario to lead them to the 2009 Stanley Cup finals.

But first things first, and that means a glance at the opening round.


Talk all you want about Montreal's postseason domination of the Bruins, but that doesn't matter. All those numbers serve as something to talk about until the first puck is dropped. Once that happens, the Bruins should quickly remind everyone that they are vastly improved from last year's near-upset of the Canadiens in the opening round.

Boston dictates play as well as any team in the East, and that's the mark of what it takes to win the Cup. Detroit gets all the attention for being a puck-possessing team. Well, if you're faster than everybody, bigger than everybody and more skilled than everybody, you're going to have the puck more. That's been a mark of the Bruins much of the season.

Montreal's greatest asset last season was its team speed, but that hasn't been nearly as noticeable this season. Clearly, too, the Canadiens have lost a bit of their identity, and confidence has waned because of the uncertain way they play from one game to the next.

The focus on the postseason eventually comes down to goaltending. Clearly the honeymoon period for Carey Price is over, a very predictable outcome in Montreal. It's not that fans and media have given up on the 20-year-old, it's just there's no allowance for a bad stretch without scrutiny reaching a fever pitch. It happens to every goalie that has ever played in the expectation-rich environment.

At the other end, Tim Thomas can do no wrong, for now at least. He's always been a battler, not the most conforming goalie in the league. He just manages to get the job done, and he definitely breeds confidence in his teammates. That's really Thomas' biggest accomplishment: he has sold himself to the Bruins, who feel like they can make a mistake and he'll be there to cover it.

Physical play in the series will be dictated by Boston, but the Bruins may be content to just skate with the Canadiens, too. The onus is on Montreal for fast starts and Price will have to be excellent to give the eighth seed any chance of winning or even making it a long series.

Key player for Bruins: Zdeno Chara. He leads an underrated defense that will be looking to stifle a surprisingly average Montreal power play.

Key player for Canadiens: Alexei Kovalev. He can't disappear for a game or two, score five points in a home game, then retreat again.

Key stat for Bruins: Seven 20-goal scorers on the roster, tops in the league, suggests Boston can rely on secondary scoring if Montreal shuts down one line.

Key stat for Canadiens: Only three players with 16 or more goals, which means the Habs will be looking for a hero to emerge or there's going to be a lot of pressure on Kovalev (26 goals in the regular season), Andrei Kostitsyn (23) and Tomas Plekanec (20) to produce.

Prediction: Bruins in seven.


A marquee matchup for television – New York, New York vs. Alexander Ovechkin – might not translate into as great of a series on the ice. Washington might make this a quick series if the Caps display they have matured as a playoff team. And the Rangers have to show they can play the third period as well as the first and second, or they'll run out of gas late.

Ovechkin is no shrinking violet, so playing on the big stage of Madison Square Garden once the series shifts there for Games 3 and 4 could actually be disadvantageous for the Rangers, who might be a little banged up at the outset if they're missing Chris Drury. He's only one of the best clutch playoff performers in the league over the last 10 years.

Like the Boston-Montreal series, goaltending could go a long way in determining how competitive the series is. Henrik Lundqvist has the ability to steal games where Jose Theodore has been inconsistent. Theodore was fabulous for a round with Colorado last spring, but was terrible in the second round.

Washington is going to play up-tempo as much as possible, and new coach John Tortorella's system calls for the Rangers to go all out for as long as they can, even though that might play right into Washington's hands.

Key player for Capitals: Mike Green. Alexander Ovechkin is going to get his shots and his points, but Green has to be sharp, especially on the power play.

Key player for Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist. He might have to do it alone here. And he'll have to spearhead a great effort on the penalty kill in the series. The Rangers were No. 1 on the PK in the regular season and Lundqvist won a career-high 38 games.

Key stat for Capitals: 3-0-1 vs. Rangers in the regular season, including a rally from down 4-0 at MSG for a 5-4 victory. Washington knows it can beat New York.

Key stat for Rangers: No one scored 30 goals or 60 points and no defenseman scored double-figure goals. Where is the offense going to come from now?

Prediction: Capitals in five.


For a series that features a lot of red, they might want to add in a little black and blue, too. The team that gets physical in this series should be able to advance. That's a hint, Carolina, about what it's going to take to upset New Jersey.

The Devils are the sleeping giants in the East. They have the best goaltender in the game, hands down. And Martin Brodeur has two reasons to be even more motivated for success this spring. For one, he missed four months of the season to injury, so he should be as fresh as he's ever been for the two-month grind. Secondly, there's the notion that he hasn't played as well in the playoffs lately, and he'll be out to prove everyone he hasn't lost anything.

The other reason why New Jersey could emerge is the fact the Devils learned how to win without Brodeur, and they didn't let down once their future Hall-of-Fame goalie returned. This New Jersey squad, without suffocating individuals on defense like Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, is more of a team than in recent seasons.

The Hurricanes are no strangers to the postseason, as much of the nucleus of the recent Cup champions' roster remains intact. And while Carolina won't back down from the challenge, the onus will be on the Hurricanes to push the Devils into a game they're not comfortable playing. The trick is that's really not Carolina's M.O., but the Hurricanes will be committing suicide if they try to skate with the Devils without adding an edge to their game.

Key player for Devils: Zach Parise. His career-high 45 goals in just a third season caught everyone's attention, and he's going to be a target for Carolina.

Key player for Hurricanes: Ray Whitney. The crafty veteran forward always flies under the radar, but he can provide the team with timely goals, and is a wizard on the power play.

Key stat for Devils: 32-17-1. That's what they did without Brodeur in the lineup. Imagine how good they can be with him.

Key stat for Hurricanes: 13-1-2. That's what Carolina did during a 16-game stretch from March 3-April 7 to secure this opportunity. They just have to focus on playing now the way they did during the late-season run.

Prediction: Devils in six.


This is probably the most intriguing of the first-round matchups, not surprising for a battle of Nos. 4-5 seeds. The Penguins dominated the Flyers in the East Finals last season, rolling to a 3-0 lead before wrapping it up in five games. There was no denying Pittsburgh in the East last season. The Pens rolled through with only two losses in 16 games.

It's different this season. The Penguins may not be quite as confident and the Flyers are a better team overall. Both those statements need to be flushed out.

Pittsburgh has gone through an identity crisis this year, not really surprising because handing success as a young team can be as challenging as handling failure. The Pens stumbled for much of the season trying to recapture what went right last year, and when it looked like they might miss the playoffs a change was made behind the bench. That change included a different philosophy as new coach Dan Bylsma has more or less turned the Pens loose.

While Michel Therrien had made great strides in making Pittsburgh a defensively-sound team, some of the individual creativity got lost in the mix. Bylsma appears to have the Pens' full attention because he's letting them play the way they want. In other words, if Pittsburgh falls short of its goal it will be more on the players than anyone else.

The Flyers were not deep enough, especially on defense, last season to survive three rounds. They've shored up that problem. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are the game's two young stars that don't get enough credit. More importantly, they play a playoff style and will only get turned up a notch now.

This should be a terrific back-and-forth series. Pittsburgh has the high-end talent, but Philly has heart and determination.

Key player for Penguins: Sidney Crosby. He's been overshadowed by Evgeni Malkin during the regular season, but this is the time for the team's captain to provide leadership, scoring and whatever it takes to avoid early elimination.

Key player for Flyers: Simon Gagne wasn't part of the series between the two teams last year, but he's certainly back now and could be a real sleeper in this series.

Key stat for Penguins: 14-6, 1.97 goals-against average. Those were the numbers for Marc-Andre Fleury in last season's run to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Pens are going to need something close to that again, especially since Fleury might be left a bit more exposed in Bylsma's more open attack.

Key stat for Flyers: 16 short-handed goals. That's right, Pittsburgh, your power play has been warned.

Prediction: Flyers in six.