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Eastern Conference of NHL Playoffs Expected to Produce Close Finishes

OPINION COLUMNIST

These National Hockey League playoff picks are dedicated to the MIT Men’s Hockey team, who had an excellent season finished with a heartbreaking overtime loss to Bryant College in the New England Collegiate Hockey Association playoff finals. Thanks for a great season, guys.

Five of these playoff matchups weren’t determined until the last day of the regular season since the playoff races were very close this year, notably in the Eastern Conference. Its going to make for a very exciting playoff run. Today I’ll pick the Eastern Conference; Friday I’ll go over the West.

Lightning (1) vs. Islanders (8)

This one should seem like no contest for the conference champion Lightning, who are not only one of the healthiest teams entering the playoffs but are one of the few to have playoff-experienced goaltending in Nikolai Khabibulin, who had his first series victory last year. The Lightning have a surprise Hart Trophy (MVP) candidate in the small but springy Martin St. Louis and at least two good scoring lines, plus a bolstered defense. Their greatest fear might be injury, as this team has lost very few games due to missing players. They might not be able to adapt to the loss of a key contributor like St. Louis during the grit of the playoffs.

The Islanders are making a playoff appearance for the third straight year, but they’ve also exited in the first round the last two times. Their starting goaltender, young Rick DiPietro, is unproven, but he could be the wildcard in the series. They can also field four good lines, though they tend to be weak down the left side.

However, this one will have to go towards home ice advantage, since the Islanders are particularly brutal on the road. Watch for Tampa Bay to get to a quick lead in the series and leave the Islanders in the dust. Tampa in five.

Bruins (2) vs. Canadiens (7)

A classic matchup, the season series between these two clubs proved to be tantalizingly close. Boston has redefined itself beyond the one-line club they’ve presented in past seasons. The top line of Joe Thornton, Mike Knuble and Glen Murray is devastating as ever, while the Bs have given themselves additional depth in the acquisitions of Michael Nylander and Travis Green, and the emergence of rookie forward Patrice Bergeron and defenseman Nick Boynton. Young goaltender Andrew Raycroft has shown ability and a steady hand and is a considerable improvement over last year’s unproven goalie. The difference maker has to be the addition of stud defenseman Sergei Gonchar, plucked from the struggling Capitals at the trade deadline, who has boosted the Bs abysmal power play.

The Canadiens, however, have flown under the radar all season. Troubled goaltender Jose Theodore was reborn with his victory in the first outdoor NHL game in November, and new general manager Bob Gainey picked up struggling sniper Alexei Kovalev from the New York Rangers. Their success will ultimately depend upon number one defenseman Sheldon Souray staying healthy, as well as rookies Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder keeping up their pace.

In their first round series two years ago, Montreal proved that they could easily be spoilers. I put my first upset pick here, because the Bruins can’t seem to get it done at home. Watch for Montreal to take the first game and the series in six.

Flyers (3) vs. Devils (6)

The key is goaltending. Pure and simple. Sean Burke and Robert Esche of the Devils are capable, yes, but when defense bogs the scoring down the outcome is going to come down to the red jersey in the blue paint. Martin Brodeur is the undisputed king of the net in this era; it’s no coincidence he’s led the Devils to three Stanley Cups while only 31 years old. Never a high scoring team, the Devils will rely upon the defensive sensibilities of captain Scott Niedermayer, the quick return to form of Brian Rafalski, and “the best defense is offense” thinking of top line Scott Gomez, Patrik Elias and Boston College product Brian Gionta.

The Flyers are facing a considerable injury crisis with the return of Jeremy Roenick and Keith Primeau from concussions and defenseman Eric Desjardins from a broken arm. Still, I hate the Flyers and fear their excellent coach Ken Hitchcock. I’m still upset about their victory over the Leafs last year, and had really hoped they'd face Ottawa in the first round so that whichever team won would be severely depleted due to injury. Oh well.

Goaltending is key. Jersey in six.

Maple Leafs (4) vs. Senators (5)

This grudge match comes back for another round. Before last year, the Leafs eliminated the Senators in three consecutive playoffs, and this year they are better armed than ever to make a deep run. Longtime Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch has stabilized the Toronto line along with the quiet signing of Calle Johansson. Joe Niewendyk has done more than play a sensible game; he’s also done wonders with Toronto’s younger players. In the net, Ed Belfour is one of the few experienced playoff goaltenders in the league today. However, few teams are as susceptible to injury as the Leafs, and if Belfour goes, look for them to tap young Mikael Tellqvist for the job.

Goaltending should be the least fear for the Senators, who have one of the best backups in the league in Martin Prusek. Top goalie Patrick Lalime may be out with a sprained knee, but if he returns, look for him to be there for them in the clutch (plus, with the adornment of Marvin the Martian on his mask, he’s got to be the coolest goalie in the league). Ottawa has rearmed as well, picking up solid defenseman Greg de Vries in addition to an already great defensive duo of Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden. Picking up sniper Peter Bondra from the Capitals wont hurt either.

This one’s going to go all the way to the wire. I’m looking forward to a tight-checking, responsible performance from both teams and some great attitudes in the crowds. Leafs in seven.