Atlantic: Four division teams preparing for playoffs

By Ian Altenbaugh

 

Photo: Star forwards Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers will do battle in the first round of the 2012 NHL Playoffs (courtesy of

Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

Four of the five teams in the Atlantic Division made the 2012 NHL playoffs. The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins get started on Wednesday night, while the New York Rangers open on Thursday night and the New Jersey Devils begin on Friday.

Below is a quick preview of the playoff series' involving the four Atlantic teams.

Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)

At the best of times the Penguins and Flyers participate in ugly, penalty-filled, often high-scoring affairs. So there is never a need for either team to manufacture any hatred headed into a regular season matchup, let alone their first-round playoff series. What makes this season particularly dramatic, however, is the fact that both teams have already played the other twice in the first week of April, so there is already a great sense of familiarity between the two. Suffice to say, while the series will be filled with a lot of physical play, it will (hopefully) not be filled with the type of melodramatic sideshow antics that riddled the past the two teams' two most recent matches.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh match up very well against one another. Both teams are built similarly with deep, high-scoring offenses and mobile defenses that can get the puck up the ice. Because of injuries to Flyers defensemen Chris Pronger and Andrej Meszaros, as well as the injury to center Danny Briere, the Penguins will have an edge in terms of depth. What will be a bigger factor, though, is the play of Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. If he is hot, he could steal a series for the Flyers, blocking whatever shots come his way. If he is not on his game however, the Penguins high-octane offense could make it a very short series.

New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8)

While the Rangers in theory will get a favorable first-round matchup because of their first seed in the Eastern Conference, the Ottawa Senators, who owned the fourth best offense in the regular season, will not be the easiest opponent in the world. The Rangers will take full advantage of the fact they get to make the last change at home and will deploy their physical defensemen such as Dan Girardi and Marc Staal against Ottawa's top line of Colin Greening-Jason Spezza-Milan Michalek. Much of the Rangers success will be dependant on the play of their goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, and the team's ability to stay out of the penalty box. If the Blueshirts can keep a potent Ottawa power play off the ice and Lundqvist continues to be his brilliant self, then the Rangers should advance to the second round.

Florida Panthers (3) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

Although the Devils are ranked behind the Florida Panthers in the standings, because of division seeding the Devils are actually a significantly higher ranked team in terms of record, with 48 wins to the Panthers 38. Expect that disparity to play out as the series unfolds, as the Panthers, who own the fourth worst offense in the regular season, will be suffocated by the Devils defense. Neither team is particularly strong offensively, though the Devils' explosive first line of Parise-Zajac-Kovalchuk should have no problem against Panthers goalie Jose Theodore. Furthermore, the Devils experienced group of veterans should take full advantage of a Panthers team that is making its first playoff appearance in 12 years.

Atlantic Division Notes

New Jersey Devils – Martin Brodeur finished the season with a five-game win streak, a period in which he allowed only seven goals.

New York Islanders – With the fourth worst record in the NHL, the Isles will go into the NHL Draft Lottery tomorrow with a 10.7 percent chance of gaining the first pick in the 2012 Draft.

New York Rangers – Derek Stepan played in the Rangers 4-1 loss Saturday after absorbing a knee-to-knee hit from Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik two nights earlier. Stepan played in all 82 games this season.

Philadelphia Flyers – The Flyers will have a patchwork lineup headed into the playoffs, with forwards James vanRiemsdyk and Danny Briere and defenseman Andrej Meszaros, Niklass Grossman, and Chris Pronger all on the shelf with injury. Out of that group of walking wounded, Grossman is the mostly likely to return for the first round of the playoffs as he is now day-to-day.

Pittsburgh Penguins – Steve Sullivan, James Neal, and Matt Niskanen all missed the Penguins last regular season game on Saturday though all should be ready for the playoffs.