Eastern Conference Playoff Round Table Thunderdome

With the playoffs looming, and everyone making their final push, we thought it would be fun to put together a little round table with opinions from someone representing each of the potential playoff teams from our network of SB Nation sites.

Looking ahead at the playoffs, we thought it would be fun to put together a a wide range of perspectives and takes/opinions on how each team is playing headed into the playoffs and looking towards making a Cup run (with Mike's commentary in italics following each answer).

We've got a nice little group here and this should end up being a whole lot of fun.

I was familiar with most of the people involved in putting this together, but it's always good to meet some new people and add some fresh hockey talk, especially playoff hockey.

Welcome to Thunderdome.

So without further ado, introducing everyone:

  • Broad Street Hockey's biggest Steve Mason fan, the one and only Collin Mehalick, who has been a Flyers season ticket holder for 6 years.
  • Mike Murphy from Blueshirt Banter, who apparently has a freckle on his right big toe, considers himself a very amateur photographer, and is a contributor to a free, monthly, Rangers newsletter called Blueshirts Monthly. Who doesn't love a good newsletter?
  • Laura, from Eyes On the Prize, one of their contributing editors, who is allergic to bananas.
  • The Cannon's own Dan. P, who once finished an entire rec league hockey season with more 'accidental own goals' than actual goals scored. An impressive feat if you ask me.
  • Rob Parker, and Becca H. from Japers' Rink, their resident optimist and eternal pessimist, respectively, who agree on everything, always. Sounds like a good combination, and sounds like they fit it well in our nation's Capital.
  • representing us here at Pensburgh, Mike Darnay, who loves his two pugs and will fight forever that they're better than other dogs
  • Pension Plan Puppets' were unable to reach for comment given the state of their team, but we think we know them well enough to proxy their answers for all the questions
  • John Fontana, from Raw Charge, who has been blogging about the Lightning and the NHL for 10 years, with the last 5 spent with SB Nation at Raw Charge. He is a bit of a Beatles nut and general music fan, most notably classic rock.
  • representing Stanley Cup of Chowder, Sarah Connors, who, these days watches as much Formula 1 Racing as she does hockey, and her favorite team is Mercedes AMG Petronas
  • Kyle, from Winging It In Motown, who loves hockey, books, computers, Gustav Nyquist, and his awesome 10 month old Boston Terrier named Butters. How could you not love that dog?

Alright, everyone say hi, shake hands, bump fists, congregate around the punch table, all that fun stuff. Ready? Okay, let's dive right in.

1. If you had to pinpoint the biggest concern for your team heading down the stretch what would it be?

Collin: The biggest concern for the Flyers in these remaining eight games should be Kimmo Timonen's health. As you might have heard somewhere, once or twice over the past 150 days, the Flyers' backend is pretty "meh." They've played better as of late, but any team that ices all three of Schenn, MacDonald and Grossmann doesn't deserve to have nice things. Kimmo, who just this morning was pegged with an 'upper-body injury', is day-to-day and needs to be fully healthy before the playoffs begin. He's the team's stabilizing force, at even-strength and on the power play.

Remember how well the Flyers were playing in the 2008 playoffs, before Timonen developed a blood-clot and was forced to sit out the first four games of the Conference Finals vs. the Penguins (in which the team lost the series 4-1)? Yeah, that'll happen again if Timonen isn't 100%.

I *do* remember that series and how important it was that Timonen was a late injury right before the series started. It never really made sense to me until you pointed this out now how much of an impact he made, or didn't make.

Mike Murphy: Part of me wants to say the lapses in defensive coverage and another part of me wants to say the power play. The transition from Tortorella’s collapsing zone defense to Vigneault’s man defense has not been a smooth one for the Blueshirts. The amount of mistakes made in defensive coverage was a big part of the Rangers terrible start to the 2013-14 season. The team has improved of late, but every once in awhile a man will be left wide open and uncontested in prime real estate and that is something Rangers fans aren’t used to seeing. The power play might be the bigger problem though. At one point the Rangers’ power play was one of the team’s biggest weapons, but since the Olympic break the power play has been toothless. Alarmingly it hasn’t improved since the acquisition of power play wizard Martin St. Louis although it does look better. Unfortunately a nice-looking power play doesn’t always get pucks in the net. The Rangers are going to need a respectable power play down the stretch and in the playoffs, especially on home ice. Another serious concern with the team is its play at Madison Square Garden but after two huge wins at home Rangers fans are a little less concerned about that then they were a week or so ago.

Playing hockey with low electricity at MSG is a normal thing though, right? All joking aside, a power play that starts clicking plus a dialed in Henrik Lundqvist could make for tough sledding against the Rangers.

Laura: The concern for the Canadiens this year has mostly had to do with roster management. That is to say, they acquired the wrong players to address needs they didn't have, and the coaching has been baffling, to put it kindly. So they go into the playoffs with a less-than-optimal defensive corps and a coach nobody but Marc Bergevin seems to trust to manage his bench. Josh Gorges has been seen skating, but who knows if he'll be ready. So when you combine the injury to Gorges, the guys like Douglas Murray and Francis Boullion that get far too much ice time, and Michel Therrien's decision-making, it's a whole mess back there. Fortunately, behind that tire fire sits a man by the name of Carey Price, less commonly known as Jesus.

I still love Douglas Murray. Carey Price is ridiculous though. Can steal a series so easily.

Dan P: The biggest concern for the Blue Jackets is their schedule: including the past weekend, they're finishing with FIVE back-to-backs (thanks to the Dallas reschedule) in their last 14 games. They play seven games in the last 10 days of the season, including four games in five days to finish--with all four games being in different cities. With the Olympics, everyone's schedule is compressed, but the Jackets had a tough enough docket before the NHL plopped the Dallas make-up game right smack in the middle of it all.

Tough finish for sure, will be impressive if the Jackets can pull it out and grab a playoff spot.

Becca/Rob: Their struggles in the defensive zone. We all know the jokes about Alex Ovechkin and his "defense", and it’s true, he’s not going to be a Selke finalist any time soon - but the problem goes well beyond him, includes both forwards and defensemen, and has made this season a bit of an adventure for the netminders (who are so obviously not the problem with this team, although it’s hard to deny that Jaroslav Halak has given this team a boost). Get away from the turnovers and the boneheaded mistakes and the penchant for shooting themselves in the foot, and maybe the Caps are better than a bubble team…but then they wouldn’t be the Caps, and what fun would that be?

Shooting themselves in the foot is fun! But really, those things can be fixed and would make for a formidable opponent.

Mike D: I would point towards getting healthy players back from injury. The team is struggling right now, but adding their two best puck movers will certainly help and a majority of the issues can be helped a lot with Paul Martin and Kris Letang possibly being back soon. Prayer circle for Paul Martin meets every Thursday night at 8 p.m.

PPP:

Carlyle_baffled-2_medium 
(Credit: theScore)

John: The status of goalie Ben Bishop. It’s not catching major headlines in the press but Bishop, who has carried the Lightning this season and given them the opportunity to be successful, is playing while hurt and the club has a serious lack of faith in backup Anders Lindback. To see Tampa Bay playing Bishop so much while he is ailing and in obvious pain bothers me for the final stretch of the season, the playoffs, and for Bishop’s future.

One injured goalie, and another without much faith from management certainly seems by a 'live or die by the sword' mentality. Definitely worth being concerned over.

Sarah: Defensive depth. We know from last year that it only takes a few key injuries to limit your chances to do well in any given series - Bergeron vs. Chicago shows that pretty well. Boston's defense, even with the addition of Andrej Meszaros (who has not yet experienced a regulation or overtime loss with the Bruins yet!), isn't the deepest in the NHL right now.

Can we pass the mic back to Collin to see how he feels about Meszaros? All jokes aside, their depth may be an issue, but the Bruins are a freight train right now and I would not want to cross their path.

Kyle: The obvious choice here is injuries. It's no secret that Detroit's season has been a big fat injury-loaded catastrophe, to say the least. But I'd like to pick something else... Zone entries/exits. For some reason, this team has had the ugliest of times getting the puck out of their own zone and into the opposing one.. A lot of it has to do with the absence and healthy of Pavel Datsyuk, as he is a zone entry machine. But it seems like as of late the team just cycles the puck back into their own zone and it leads to either turnovers, or failed zone entries. It makes me want to swim with fire-breathing sharks or punch a nest of wasps.

Sharks and bees are terrifying, and so is Pavel Datsyuk.

2. Who would be the most favorable matchup for your team right now, and why?

Collin: Is there any possible way to manipulate the system, so that the Toronto Maple Leafs squeak into the playoffs and the Flyers get to face them? No? Ah, crap.

At this point, I think it's got to be the Penguins. There's about a ~3-9 percent chance that the Flyers would face Pittsburgh in the first round, so... let's hope it comes to that. Why the Penguins? 2012 and Marc-Andre Fleury and Malkin vs. Couturier and Crosby vs. Giroux and oh man, it needs to happen again.

There's a ~6-8 percent chance of the Flyers facing the Blue Jackets. Why not that match-up? CBJ is actually a pretty decent possession team (51.2% fenclose -- good for 11th in the league), and I just do not not not not not not not want to hear about Bobrovsky vs. Mason for a week and a half. "Hi! Welcome to the Narrative Cup Playoffs!*" Just gouge out my eyes and give me earplugs, if that's going to be the case. (*To be fair: this would also happen in a Flyers vs. Penguins rematch, so whatever.)

Nope. Penguins/Flyers? No. Nada. No way. Please, no. Negative. (If you can't tell, I don't want this to happen because the Flyers own permanent real estate in the Penguins heads).

Mike Murphy: Great question that I don’t think I have an answer to. Can I just say anyone but the Penguins or Bruins? If we can trust history I wouldn’t mind another postseason meet-up with the Capitals considering the Rangers recent success in the playoffs against Washington. A series against Philly would be a bloody struggle that I’d like to avoid but I think the Rangers could best them in a seven games series.

Yes. Flyers. Rangers. Please. It's all i ask.

Laura: There really isn't much of a chance that the Canadiens will face anyone other than the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the most favourable matchup would have been Boston, because it would have been the most fun to watch. The Habs have shown themselves to be not ready for prime time just yet (which is not to say that they are a bad team), so the best we can hope for is an entertaining seven game series, with the Habs only exiting in an overtime loss. I don't think any other series would have that to offer at this point.

Montreal-Boston please. Everyone wants it. Just let it happen.

Dan P: I think a matchup with either Philly or New York (if Columbus could somehow push their way back into one of the Metro spots) would be interesting, as the games have been good all season long (2-1-0 against Philly, 2-2-0 against NYR). Given their troubles scoring of late, there's probably no real "favorable" matchup for Columbus, however.

Honesty is the best policy. No playoff series is an 'easy win' in the current NHL though. The parity makes it great.

Becca/Rob: The 18th green, because it has no defense and is only a moderate offensive threat...…but if we’re talking about actual hockey teams, the Caps actually have matched up pretty well against the Bruins this year. Might be an interesting series should they squeak in as a wild card team.

Yes! Capitals golf jokes! Always the best! But oooooh boy, Capitals-Bruins would be a great matchup for ratings, I feel.

Mike Darnay: Not the Philadelphia Flyers. Most Penguins fans will likely agree with me when I say that I hope the Flyers and Rangers match up and beat one another up. A first round series vs. Detroit, Columbus, or Toronto would be much, much, much more favorable in terms of the mental aspect of the series than the Flyers or Rangers. Especially Columbus though, given that the Penguins swept the season series 5-0.

PPP:

20130131_pjc_sx9_096

(Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today)

John: I don’t like underestimating anyone but, if we went by season-series alone, it’s Detroit. The Lightning (who has a traditionally atrocious record against the Red Wings in their scant few meetings over the past 20 years) has four wins against the Wings this season (with a fifth game to be played Saturday). The first round matchup, though, looks like it’ll pit the Bolts against the Canadiens. That could get interesting.

Still weird to me that they are in the same division, but these type of matchups we see in the playoffs will likely become heavy playoff rivalries for years to come.

Sarah: You know, I don't really put much stock in "favorable matchups" after the few years the Bruins have had. I would have said Toronto last year, but it took the Bruins massive amounts of luck to force that game 7 OT. In 2009, I would have said Carolina, and they beat the Bruins in Game 7 OT. I guess as of right now, it's going to be whomever gets that second wild card spot, and maybe Columbus could be an okay matchup for Boston? But then again there's redemption hero Nathan Horton playing for CBJ, so I don't even know. Whomever it is, I'm sure we'll find some aspect of the matchup to panic and freak out about.

That's a really fair assessment regarding 'favorable matchups.' Diehard fans will ALWAYS find a way to undermine a matchup and make a team look lesser. I do this myself all the time. Maybe because of low expectations? Who knows.

Kyle: Pittsburgh. Not only because would it be great hockey, but I feel like both teams have had similar seasons as far as injuries go, so I think the narrative there is pretty fun. If we have Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk returning in time, I think those top-line match-ups would be one hell of a thing to watch. As a bubble team, there is no 'favorable' team to face as far as difficulty would go. Both Pittsburgh and Boston are extremely good hockey teams, so why not go for the one that I think will provide the best product?

Pens-Wings would be entertaining and also flashback and heartburn inducing. Maybe Marc-Andre Fleury could even trip and fall on his way to the ice at the Joe again!

3. Make a prediction for an unsung hero to push your team into a playoff spot, or get them into the second round with a tremendous series?

Collin: Unsung hero? Giroux's been Hart-level ridiculous. Wayne Simmonds has already eclipsed his season-high point total. Couturier's had an incredible season on the penalty kill and third line with Matt Read. Jakub Voracek's right on pace to hit Eric's predicted point total. So... who's left?

I can't believe I'm about to say this, but: Steve Mason. We've gotten to the point where most of the fan-base expects those named above to positively contribute and/or be able to take over a series in the drop of a hat. And then there's Steve Mason. Our fan-base is ecstatic that Steve Mason's save percentage is three points higher than the league average. It's come to that.

Waaaaaaaay back in 2009, Steve Mason put up a save percentage of .878 in the only playoff series of his career -- a 4 game sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings. Things didn't, uh, look so good (to put it lightly), for him and the team. It'll be interesting to see how Mason holds his own against the likes of the Penguins or Rangers in about two weeks. If Mason can put together some games of .920+ hockey, the Flyers just might be okay.

If the Flyers need an unsung hero, there's no better person for that job than Steve Mason.

I told you guys he was a big Steve Mason fan!!! (But really, Mason could be the difference for them. They have played very solid hockey as of late.)

Mike Murphy: Right now the real concern for the Rangers is just making the playoffs. Mats Zuccarello, a pending RFA, has arguably been the team’s best forward this season. His play suffered after he sustained a broken hand in the Olympics representing Norway but Zuke has been a revelation in Vigneault’s system. He passes too often but he is the kind of guy you want to be moving the puck because he sees things that most players don’t see. If he gets fully healthy and starts making things happen on the power play again the Rangers could impress a lot of teams with their offensive depth.

Great choice. The guy is sneaky good. Complements the skill of other Rangers very well.

Laura: Rene Bourque... HA. It will probably be a hero who is already sung, like Carey Price or Max Pacioretty, but I wouldn't count out a strong showing by Daniel Briere, either.

Danny Briere Fist Pump dot GIF still haunts my dreams on a regular basis.

Dan P: It would be hard to call Sergei Bobrovsky an unsung hero, since they don't just pass out Vezina Trophies on the corner or anything. But, the Jackets will probably only go as far this season as Goalie Bob can carry them. If I were to answer the question as it was intended, I would say a guy like Boone Jenner could step up and be a big player in the playoffs, as he plays that relentless, physical game that gets under teams' skin during a playoff series, and he's shown flashes of offensive skill along the way, as well.

Boone Jenner is a fantastic player, and feels like the type that will be a pain the Penguins' ass for years to come. He also is not related to Bruce.

Becca/Rob: Joel Ward. He’s having a career year, is part of the team’s best and most consistent even-strength line and has already proven his ability to step up his game in the postseason. Plus he’s done the whole playoff-hero bit for the Caps once before.

I like the pick. Seems to make a play when the superstar players on the Caps roster are equalized by other top lines by opponents.

Mike Darnay: It has to be Marc-Andre Fleury. After his past two postseasons, he has a LOT of pressure on him to step up the plate, rise to the occasion, or whichever other cliche you would prefer to use. This postseason for MAF should determine a lot for his future and also the future for the organization and who it has between the pipes moving forward.

PPP:

20130121_jla_ss9_565

(Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA Today)

John: Citing answer #1 and Ben Bishop’s situation, I’d go with him persevering/overcoming and backstopping the Bolts into the second round. Another player who has been and could be an unsung hero is Valtteri Filppula; he’s been on fire since the beginning of March and has been an enabler on offense.

Both would make for a great story. We all know he isn't unsung, but God help whoever has to face a hot Steven Stamkos.

Sarah: Well, the Bruins are already in a playoff spot...I'm going to have to go with Carl Soderberg having a Krug-like playoffs this year. Torey Krug went from being a relative unknown to being a fan favorite last year after the series against the Rangers, and although Carl doesn't really have that "relative unknown" status right now, he could rocket into favorite status pretty quickly I think.

I could see this happening. Even aside from the fan favorite status, a very solid playoffs could take a player like Soderberg to being a national commodity for years to come.

Kyle: Jimmy Howard. He has had a pretty mediocre season compared to his past few with Detroit, but he is NOT a bad goalie. Jimmy literally shouldered this team into the playoffs last year and took them further than any analyst, fan, or person slated them to go. He's been much sharper lately.. Better late than never.

Late March/early April is a hell of a time for a goalie to put together a hot streak.

4. What's your expectation for your team, ultimately?

Collin: It really depends on who the Flyers get matched up against. As it stands right now (based on their projected point total), there's a ~82-90 percent chance that the Flyers will face the Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (via Sports Club Stats.) The two teams are pretty much jostling for home-ice advantage at this point. If that's the case, and the Flyers have to face the Rangers, then gooooooooodbye season. I'd put down a lot of money on the Flyers getting knocked out in the first round. The Rangers are fifth in the league in fenclose, yet have the league's 26th-ranked team shooting percentage at 6.2 percent. They're a very, very dangerous team, and do I even need to mention Henrik Lundqvist? Well... I just did. I'm not excited about facing the Rangers whatsoever. Nope.

After the Rangers, the Flyers have ~3-9 percent chance of facing the Penguins and a ~6-8 percent chance of facing the Blue Jackets. I'd welcome any of those two match-ups. Depending on the draw and how the season played out, I'd be comfortable with a first or second round exit. But we'll see.

It looks like Collin would like the Flyers to play the Rangers about as much as I would like the Penguins to play the Flyers. Or get a root canal. I'm not sure which would be worse at this point.

Mike Murphy: Knocked out in the first or second round of the playoffs but if Hank gets hot the team might go deeper than that and he looks very sharp lately. However, even with a hot Lundqvist in net the offense and star players have been too inconsistent (and banged up) this season for the Rangers to really and truly make a push for the Cup. This might be the best Rangers team on paper since Jagr was a Ranger but there is a big difference between what is on paper and what happens out on the ice. If St. Louis, Nash, Stepan, and Richards can start producing consistently who knows how far this team will go but, realistically, I see them getting past the first round and then falling short against one of the East’s more lethal teams.

Best Rangers team on paper in many years is pretty telling, considering they've iced some very good hockey teams. If the Penguins and Rangers happen to meet up in the second round, what a series that could be.

Laura: A series win, and a second round exit. Or, because I will be away for the third round and won't be able to see it, the Habs meeting the Flyers in the ECF and exacting revenge for 2008 and 2010.

Canadiens beating the Bruins in the second round would be pretty cool, but revenge match ups are always fun too!

Dan P: I think the Jackets will nail down one of the Wild Card spots, and maybe win a game (two at the absolutely most) against Boston or Pittsburgh in the first round. That said, I can't see them making it to the second round without somehow getting one of the Metro spots and avoiding the Bruins or Pens in the first round.

Penguins-Blue Jackets would be a fun one for the fans, considering the geography between them and being able to make the trips for road games.

Becca/Rob: The Caps' Special: make a mad dash for one of the final playoff spots before flaming out in the first round.

If that were to happen against the Penguins, that would be *fun*

Mike Darnay: I.....have no idea. If they can get healthy and stay healthy, win a first round series and get some confidence, who knows. As assembled, this team would be a sleeper pick by many to be a first round exit. My official expectation: second round loss.

PPP:

20131231_jla_sl8_028

(Credit: Jerry Lai/USA Today)

John: Making the playoffs is great, and anything can happen in them, but a lot of people (Lightning bloggers and media types, as well as some fans) don’t expect them to go far; a round or two of playoff hockey. If they go further, it’s overachievement.

I like this perspective, despite the memories from 2011 still fresh in my mind ::shakes fist::

Sarah: Understandably after last year and this current run, I have incredibly high hopes for this team. Of course, now that I've said that, watch them get swept at some point a la the Penguins last year.

My god, what a storyline that would be. Penguins and Bruins. The teams that tore through the month of March in the past two years. The team that mis-managed Jarome Iginla and the team that he scored 30 goals for.

Kyle: I expect them to make the playoffs and I expect them to take on the "pesky' wildcard team who just won't go away. Even though this season has been riddled with injuries, bad bounces, awful officiating, and it's fair share of awful mistakes.. Detroit has something that not every team possesses and that is world-class coaching. It seems Babcock gets praised all around the country for what he does, and there's a reason for such things. He did it last year when Detroit was the underdog against Anaheim and Chicago.. He will do it again.

It's safe to say that 'Pesky Red Wings' are better than 'Pesky Sens', right everyone?

In conclusion, this was a whole lot of fun to put together, and really great to see such a wide array of opinions. It's funny/interesting to note the general low expectations for pretty much every team. I think that speaks more to the current state of the league than it does each team standing alone.

It will also be very interesting to look back at this in June and see where this all stacks up with how everything plays out.

Go hockey.

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