Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Updated: April 12, 5:46 PM ET
Leafs' Maurice breaks down first round
By David Amber
Special to ESPN.com
There are some big questions surrounding the East as we head into the postseason. Can the Thrashers win their first playoff series? Can Martin Brodeur lead the Devils past the Lightning on another Stanley Cup run? Will the Senators suffer another first-round playoff letdown?
To help provide some answers and analysis and predictions, we called on Toronto Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice, whose team fell just short of the conference's last playoff spot.
No. 1 Buffalo vs. No. 8 New York Islanders
|Paul Maurice and the Leafs missed a playoff spot by a point in 2006-07.|
• Sabres: Goaltending. Ryan Miller is totally underrated. He is really a fantastic goalie who should be mentioned with the league's best. I can see why he gets lost in the shuffle with all the team speed and the skill the Sabres have and their ability to score off the rush, but this guy is outstanding.
• Islanders: Confidence. They believe in themselves now. I think that fighting down the stretch helped build this team up. They aren't worried about facing Buffalo. Plus their offensive unit is solid; they have five forwards who can all score. They have some size and some grit, as well.
• Islanders: Handling Buffalo's speed. The defense, especially Sean Hill and Brendan Witt, played so many minutes and played so hard for the Isles down the stretch, they can't be fresh at this point. Buffalo has so much speed, so that may be a problem.
• Sabres: Looking past this round. That is the only weakness I can see. Buffalo may be looking at the playoffs as a potential two-month journey, while the Islanders may be looking at this as the most important 13 days of their lives. The Islanders have played some emotional hockey lately. They will be ready. Buffalo may not feel threatened enough. That's the only possible issue I see.
• Sabres: Maxim Afinogenov. He's back and he's healthy for the first time. He should have a lot of jump. He is so individually creative and able to expose one-on-one situations that he may be the difference for this team.
• Islanders: Trent Hunter. He's big, he's strong and he's the one guy up front who may be able to put some physical pressure on Buffalo's D.
• Buffalo. I hate doing this to teams, but I think Buffalo will win this series. I won't predict the number of games for any of the series -- I just think it's a respect thing. I'm actually thinking every series could go seven.
No. 2 New Jersey vs. No. 7 Tampa Bay
• Devils: Discipline. They are committed to their team defensive game. The Devils' ability to stay out of the penalty box will be critical. Again, it goes back to discipline, both team and individual. The refs always call the first round a little tighter and Tampa has some dominant offensive guys who can make you pay. So Jersey's discipline could be its greatest strength.
• Lightning: Power up front. They are the one team that was near the bottom of the league in save percentage, but still made the playoffs. That tells you how powerful their front end is.
• Devils: Firepower. If they get into a situation where they need to open up against Tampa, it may be a problem for them. Their entire success is based on playing their style of hockey, and if they are forced to open things up, if they fall behind, that could be trouble.
• Lightning: Goals against. They allowed 261 goals this season -- that's a lot. Still, they're fortunate they are playing a team that doesn't play a high-powered offensive game. Tampa needs to limit New Jersey offensively or it could run into trouble.
• Devils: John Madden. His ability to eliminate the other team's top players will be pivotal.
• Lightning: Vaclav Prospal. When he is on, they are always a dangerous team. He plays with some of that grit down low, and he needs to be an impact player in this series.
• Tampa Bay. I know most people are saying the Devils, but I think this is a matchup that favors the Lightning.
No. 3 Atlanta vs. No. 6 New York
• Thrashers: Shooters. They have two or three big guys who can really shoot the puck. They have Marian Hossa, who is so difficult to deal with on the power play and just an impossible matchup. Ilya Kovalchuk is much more flamboyant in his style and Keith Tkachuk is just a great, big, strong power forward, just like Brendan Shanahan.
• Rangers: Leadership. They are confident now. The big-market pressure is gone now that they have made the playoffs. They have some great experience with the Stanley Cups that Shanahan has earned.
• Thrashers: Team defense. Overall, it's not bad, but it's not great -- 245 goals against is not elite by any means.
• Rangers: None. I think they are a pretty solid hockey team. They have been good defensively and have scored enough, but not a blinding amount like Pittsburgh or Buffalo. There's not a huge weakness on this team. Their back end isn't as good as their front end; so in relative terms, I guess that is the area of concern. But neither of these teams really has a major glaring weakness.
• Thrashers: Kari Lehtonen. This series will come down to goaltending; whichever guy is better, his team will win. This is the time to see whether these goalies are good or whether they're great. Both goalies are quick for big men, they both play their angles well and make shooters try to beat them.
• Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist. He was there last year, but he is still in that proving-ground phase when he is trying to establish himself as a standout playoff goalie.
• Rangers. They are both big teams with solid goaltending and some decent scoring. I just like New York to pull this out based on its overall experience.
No. 4 Ottawa vs. No. 5 Pittsburgh
• Senators: Defense. They are big, strong and have endurance. With Wade Redden, Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov on their blue line, they are in as good shape as possible to handle Pittsburgh's offense.
• Penguins: Scoring. They get on the power play often and they score a lot. They find a way to take advantage of their opponents' mistakes and then they bury you.
• Senators: None. They are the second-best team in the East. In fact, I would say they are on par with Buffalo, but they're just different. I don't think they have a weakness in their lineup.
• Penguins: Inexperience. Still, it hasn't kept their best player [Sidney Crosby] from being the best player, so I don't know if it's a true factor.
• Senators: Mike Fisher. He is an all-around player and this is his time of year.
• Penguins: Gary Roberts. This is the reason he was brought in, for this exact scenario. Also, Marc-Andre Fleury. When he is confident, he is as good as anyone. He has taken some heat over the last three months, and that could be an issue.
• Ottawa. I think Pittsburgh will be the team to beat for the next five years, but not just yet. Pittsburgh plays a lot better defense than people give them credit for. Still, Ottawa is the more physical team and that might be their advantage. The Senators skate well enough to use their size. That's the combination that I think gives Ottawa the edge.
ESPN reporter David Amber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.