Bill Streicher/Icon SMI)
The Southeast Division avoided sending just one team to the postseason when the Capitals outlasted the Sabres to earn a playoff berth. Washington also managed to leapfrog past Ottawa along the way, earning the seventh seed and a date with the defending champion Boston Bruins in Round 1 of the 2012 NHL Playoffs.
The Panthers nearly squandered their first division title, but a win in their season finale against the Carolina Hurricanes gave Florida the Southeast Division crown and home-ice advantage against New Jersey in their first-round match-up.
But while both teams know who they will face to open the playoffs, there are questions about whom they will have in net when their series open later in the week.
New Jersey Devils (6) vs. Florida Panthers (3)
Despite having eight fewer points than the Devils, Florida holds home ice in this first-round match-up after winning the Southeast Division.
Coach Kevin Dineen will need to decide who his starting goalie is for Game 1: struggling Jose Theodore, who was the team’s No. 1 for most of the season; or backup Scott Clemmensen, who earned the division-clinching win in the season’s final game against Carolina. The numbers would point to Clemmensen with his 4-0 career record against New Jersey, the team with which he spent the majority of his career before signing with the Panthers in 2009. Theodore, on the flip side, is 8-14-3 in his career against the Devils, and his struggles down the stretch — coupled with Clemmensen’s solid play and history of success against New Jersey — would lead one to believe the former Vezina and Hart winner could be behind Clemmensen for Game 1.
And while the Panthers’ organization has little playoff history of late, they do have players who know playoff success. Brian Campbell, John Madden and Kris Versteeg all won the Cup with Chicago in 2010. Versteeg has also been the Panthers’ best player against New Jersey this season with five goals and an assist in Florida’s slim 2-1-1 season series edge this year. Madden won the other two of his three Stanley Cups with the Devils during his 10-season stay there.
Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur anchored those Cup wins in New Jersey, and he has won more games in his career (37) against Florida than any other team. But Brodeur won just one game this season, going 1-2 against the Panthers in 2011-12. Sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, a former Southeast foe from his days with the Atlanta Thrashers, has a career-high in goals against Florida with 35 in 57 games. His 68 points in those games is second only to his success against Carolina, whom he has 70 points against in his 10-year career. This season, Kovalchuk has five points (three goals, two assists) in four games against Florida.
The series opens in Florida Friday, followed by Game 2 on Sunday. The teams will then play in New Jersey for Games 3 & 4 on April 19 and 21, respectively. The remainder of the games in the series, if necessary, will be determined later.
Washington Capitals (7) vs. Boston Bruins (2)
The Capitals defeated the Rangers in the season’s final game, moving into seventh place in the Eastern Conference and thus avoiding a Round 1 match-up with the Rangers. Instead, they get the Boston Bruins, a squad looking to become the first team to successfully defend their title since Detroit won twice in a row in 1997 and 1998.
Like the Panthers, the Capitals have question marks in net. Tomas Vokoun was already out with an injury, and now Michal Neuvirth is considered day-to-day after suffering a late-season malady. That leaves Braden Holtby as the likely Game 1 starter for Washington. Holtby has no career starts against the Bruins, with his only appearance against them being his NHL debut in relief of Neuvirth last season on Nov. 5, 2010. Holtby got his first career win that night, stopping all four shots he faced after Neuvirth allowed three goals on five shots in the third period. The Capitals scored twice after that, giving Holtby a 5-3 win.
The key to the series could be center Nicklas Backstrom, who missed half of the season and did not face the Bruins this year, but has 17 points in 16 career games against Boston. Captain Alexander Ovechkin did not score in three games against the Bruins this season, finishing with three assists, but has always produced in the postseason. In 37 career playoff games, Ovechkin has 50 points (25 goals, 25 assists) and has been a point-per-game player in all four postseasons he has participated.
Defenseman Dennis Wideman will look to continue his solid play against his former team (two goals and an assist this season), while Mathieu Perreult had three goals and an assist in four games against the Bruins this year. Keep an eye out for Brooks Laich (no points against Boston this season, but 10 goals in 28 career games against them) and Alexander Semin as well, as both could play a big role in the series outcome.
The Bruins’ playoff game plan starts and ends with two players: Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara. If Chara can neutralize Ovechkin and Thomas can come close to matching his Conn Smythe performance in 2011, the Bruins will be tough to beat. Agitator Brad Marchand thrived against the Capitals this season with three goals and two assists in five games, and two-way pivot Patrice Bergeron had five assists in the season series that Boston lost 1-2-1.
The series kicks off Thursday with Game 1 and then Saturday for Game 2, both in Boston. It then shifts to Washington for Games 3 and 4 on April 19 and 21, respectively, with the series remaining games to be determined, if necessary.