Way to the cup is through the East
What’s itchy, three weeks old and has bits of food in it?My playoff beard, of course.Welcome to Round 2, folks.While I was out of town for the first round, I let Sports Editor Chris Freud take care of the Eastern Conference, and I must give credit where it’s due – he did a good job. Sorry Chris, but that’s where your being in the right is over (more on that in a second).
So my beloved Buffalo Sabres moved through in what was billed as the least convincing 4-1 series win since goalies started wearing helmets. If they won the series with only one solid game, and the hockey media moved to the Sabres to DEFCON 1, everyone else needs to panic.New Jersey jumped on the Martin Brodeur train and rode to second round, Ottawa minced Pittsburgh and New York played the part of General Sherman in a Civil War Reenactment against Atlanta.Chris proffers that the best three teams still in the playoffs are in the West. This would happen if you don’t watch any Eastern Conference teams play, Chris. I’ll give him that the Sharks are one of top teams left, along with Anaheim, although the Sabres are the Presidents’ Trophy winner for a reason. They may be the “cream of the crop.” (I tease you – more on that later.)More on Chris being wrong now, though. My cell phone didn’t take a flight. While my phone is working, despite an “incident” in the first round, you could say it was the victim of a nasty sucker-punch by goon Ogie Oglethorp. OK fans, you’ve waited way too long for some real analysis of the East, so I take back the reigns and give you gold:New Jersey (2) vs. Ottawa (4)You can never tell which Senators will show up to play. After cruising to the second round last year, a team more skilled than this year’s Ottawa club fell in five to the Sabres. The problem is that Ottawa can suddenly transform into a Junior “A” team, and that’s when their self-fulfilling prophecy of tanking in the playoffs prompts Sens’ forward Chris Neil to put on a Bill Murray mask and punch Ned Ryerson.Aside from goal, the Sens outmatch the Devils line-for-line and overwhelmingly on defense. What will be key for the Sens is to not freak out if they fall behind early in games or the series.Martin Brodeur is unquestionably the most dominant playoff goalie still in the game. But the Devils need goals, especially against the high-scoring Sens. New Jersey survived with low goal output against a team without a goalie in the first round, but will have to get players like Scott Gomez and Patrick Elias to put the biscuit in the basket.The tipping point in this series will be turnovers and odd-man rushes. If Ottawa can limit mistakes and keep the Devils from springing two-on-one’s, they’ll be able to crack Brodeur eventually. The Devils are uber-disciplined (thanks to the micro managing of G.M. and sour-puss master Lou Lamoriello) and dominate within their system.Bottom line: Even with Brodeur, the Devils won’t be able to hold off the Sens. Look for New Jersey’s defense to leave Brodeur out to dry even more than usual and for Ottawa to score four or more goals when it wins.Sens in six.Sabres (1) vs. Rangers (6)If the Sabres didn’t have enough gas in their tanks to start the series (one Sabres defender said they played at only 70 percent against the Islanders), Rangers coach Tom Renney and forward Sean Avery just topped everyone off.Renney, who has been in the game long enough to know better, suggested the Sabres weren’t the “cream of the crop” in the conference. Now I don’t want to sound like too much of a Buffalo fan, but the Sabres won the conference and tied Detroit for the most points in the NHL.Avery, who acts like he’s better suited to play a tough guy on the Sopranos than lace up a pair of skates, said he’s focused all his energy on hurting the Sabres. He’s gotta catch them first.The Rangers’ top line racked up points against Atlanta, with Jaromir Jarg looking a bit like the Jagr of old. Henrik Lundqvist, the same goalie who led Sweden to a gold medal in the 2006 Torino Games, has been on fire for the last two months. New York has two good lines and a third decent one. Given space in the offensive zone, the Rangers can find the net.New York is vulnerable on defense, with a few guys who may resemble traffic cones more than NHL players.I’ll be short and sweet with the Sabres. Buffalo rolls four lines deep, and coach Lindy Ruff could soon be faced with the dilemma of which player he wants to sit when scorer and banger Paul Gaustad returns. Anyone can score, including the defensemen, who act as fourth and fifth forwards on rushes. The Sabres are lethal in transition and when cycling down low. Goalie Ryan Miller is stellar and can steal any game.If the Sabres use their speed and skill, the Rangers will need to play perfect hockey to have a chance in this one. Buffalo in six.Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 748-2935 or email@example.com.For continued coverage of the NHL playoffs, check out vaildaily.com/section/BLOG