NHL playoffs: Youth in East, toughness out West | VailDaily.com

NHL playoffs: Youth in East, toughness out West

Ira Podell
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
Nick Wass/APWashington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, of Russia, celebrates after they defeated the Florida Panthers Saturday.

The beef and brawn reign in the West. Back East is where the kids skate and play with abandon.

Including, of course, Alex The Great, who is ready for his coming out party. That is, if he and the Washington Capitals have anything left after racing for weeks just to get into the playoffs.

No story down the stretch was more compelling than Alex Ovechkin’s brilliant play in helping the Capitals erase a dismal first half that cost a coach a job and left the club just a step above last place.

Now it’s time for his postseason debut, which will take place Friday night in the nation’s capital against the Philadelphia Flyers. Behind Ovechkin’s offense, Washington chased down the Carolina Hurricanes for the Southeast Division title with an 11-1 finish.

“You don’t want to think too much about it,” Flyers goalie Martin Biron said of the 22-year-old Ovechkin, who led the NHL with 65 goals and 112 points. “There’s other guys on that team that definitely have been assets and can play the game well with Ovechkin.

“They get great energy from him, and what they accomplished at the end of the season was tremendous. It’s a big challenge. We’ll welcome the challenge.”

Sidney Crosby, edged for rookie of the year honors by Ovechkin two seasons ago, has the Pittsburgh Penguins playing postseason hockey for a second straight year. The first-round opponent is the same as 2007, but this time the second-seeded Penguins expect to have a lot more to dish out to the reeling Ottawa Senators.

Sid the Kid captured the scoring title and MVP honors last year, but the now 20-year-old captain and the Penguins were gone in five games. The Senators then advanced to the Stanley Cup finals.

That run ended against the Anaheim Ducks, back to defend their title as the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. They could repeat, but there will be plenty of obstacles before they think about who will get out of the East.

The rough road will start with a matchup with the Dallas Stars, a championship-caliber club that stumbled to the regular-season finish line. After completing a big trade that brought high-scoring forward Brad Richards to Dallas from Tampa Bay, the Stars went 6-8-2.

The Ducks boast a bruising lineup featuring hulking defenseman Chris Pronger and hard-shooting blue liner Francois Beauchemin. Up front, Anaheim also has size and strength with Todd Bertuzzi, Ryan Getzlaf and Rob Niedermayer.

That group also has plenty of skill that is complemented by forward Teemu Selanne and defenseman Scott Niedermayer, who both cut short their early retirements to return midseason for a shot at another ring.

This could be the time the San Jose Sharks finally stand in someone’s way and claim the championship many predicted for them again and again.

“It’s very much talked about in our locker room,” said forward Jeremy Roenick, in his first season with the Sharks. “From what I understand, the confidence is much greater than it had been in the past. The guys just feel this is a much more all-around, well-rounded team, and we feel much better about ourselves going into the playoffs.”

And with so much attention placed on San Jose, Anaheim and Dallas, it is easy to overlook the Detroit Red Wings ” you know, the team with the best record in the NHL for the sixth time in 13 seasons.

With so many strong teams, there is widespread belief whoever survives in the West will roll over the East champion. Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock doesn’t buy it.

“One of the problems when you have so many good teams, that’s what is left of your team at the end of the three series that you have to play in isn’t much,” he said. “A lot of it depends on the damage that is done in some of these series.”

The Red Wings jumped to a huge lead and coasted to the finish with 115 points, seven more than the Sharks, who closed the regular season with an 18-2-2 spurt. Detroit will face Central Division foe Nashville in a best-of-seven series starting Thursday in Hockeytown.

Pittsburgh and No. 7 Ottawa will get things started Wednesday, along with the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers in a 4 vs. 5 Eastern Conference border battle; the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche in a 3 vs. 6 matchup in the West; and the Sharks hosting the Calgary Flames in a No. 2 against No. 7 series.

Joining Detroit and Nashville in Game 1 action on Thursday are the No. 8 Boston Bruins and No. 1 seed Montreal Canadiens, and Dallas and Anaheim.

The Canadiens were another surprise team as they edged the Penguins for the top spot in the East after missing the playoffs last year. They earned a choice matchup with the Bruins, who lost all eight regular-season meetings.

Montreal heads into the playoffs with rookie goalie Carey Price, who went 24-12-3 with a 2.56 goals-against average. That was good enough to convince the Canadiens they could trade No. 1 goalie Cristobal Huet, who helped backstop the Capitals’ climb once he arrived in Washington.

“Montreal has had a great year and they have a great young goaltender,” Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. “If he holds up, they are going to be extremely tough.”

While the good fortune of facing Boston dropped into the Canadiens’ hands, Senators coach Bryan Murray accused the Penguins of tanking their regular-season finale at Philadelphia to ensure a first-round set with Ottawa.

The Senators led the East until the end of February, then had to sweat out the tense final days to get into the tournament. They did so, but are short-handed as captain Daniel Alfredsson and fellow forward Mike Fisher are banged up and could miss most if not the entire series.

That makes this matchup that much more attractive to the Penguins.

“They wanted to play Ottawa,” said Murray, who doubles as Senators general manager. “That’s fine. It was fairly obvious from the drop of the puck.”

The Penguins held out Crosby for what they called precautionary reasons; he is still recovering from a high ankle sprain that forced him to miss more than one-third of the season.

“The physical nature of their game against the Flyers last Wednesday was certainly the first thing that I thought of,” Murray said. “In a seven-game series, if you don’t like the physical way that the Flyers played, it’s probably better to go elsewhere.

“They think that we’re a better team to play against at this moment, which is fine. It’s a challenge.”

Let the games begin.

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