Goaltending gap huge these playoffs

New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur is one of only three goalies in these playoffs with a...

New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur is one of only three goalies in these playoffs with a Stanley Cup on their resume. (QMI Agency file photo)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:57 PM ET

It took 1,230 games and, in the Eastern Conference, a shootout to decide who would get the last remaining playoff spot.

Now the two-month marathon starts its grind to the top of the mountain with no clear cut Stanley Cup favourites and every team facing the challenge of trying to mask and protect from being exploited some potential fatal flaw.

For most, it’s goaltending.

There are only three goaltenders invited to this post-season dance who can show up with Cup bling: New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur, Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury and Detroit’s Chris Osgood (and he’s lost the starter’s job in Motown).

The questions hang heavy in the crease.

Now we’re close to getting some answers.

Upsets are always the charm of the opening round, but this year, particularly in the East, the gap between top and bottom is tough to ignore.

But, hey, we can always hope...

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Washington Capitals (1) vs. Montreal Canadiens (8)

The first post-season meeting between these two franchises will feature two rocking buildings and a clash of styles in an offensive coach in the Caps’ Bruce Boudreau against a defensive mind in Montreal’s Jacques Martin. Lots of good story lines, too. The Caps’ Alex Ovechkin against friend Andrei Markov of the Habs - who should match up often - and the return of goaltender Jose Theodore to Montreal. The Canadiens will give the Caps a good run, but don’t have the horses on the backend to contain the Caps’ firepower. What’s the over-under on how many games before we see Carey Price in the Montreal net?

Washington in 6.

New Jersey Devils (2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (7)

It would be easy to give the nod to New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur over Philly’s Brian Boucher, the retread who’s had a good couple of weeks if not a good year, so we will. Boucher bested the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist Sunday in the shootout in a one-off deal, but it’s hard to see him beating the Devils four times in two weeks. The Devils don’t give up much and their lack of offensive depth might hurt them later, but they’ve got enough to take care of Philly.

Devils in 5.

Buffalo Sabres (3) vs. Boston Bruins (6)

Hmmm. The team that ranks last in the league in offence against a goaltender who will be a strong candidate to win the Vezina Trophy. That’s not a good combination. The Bruins have struggled to score goals all season - they’re still without top centre Marc Savard with a concussion - but they are second in the league in goals against. This shapes up as a grim defensive struggle with Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller and Boston rookie Tuukka Rask in starring roles. If there’s an upset, this is it. The Bruins will grind it out better than the Sabres.

Bruins in 6.

Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Ottawa Senators (5)

These teams meet for the third time in four years with the Penguins winning with a first-round sweep in 2008 after losing in the opening round to Ottawa in 2007. The big question in this series is which version of the inconsistent Senators will show up? Even the good bunch will have trouble against Sidney Crosby and the rest of the defending champs. Senators coach Cory Clouston, a strong in-game strategist, will give Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma, another “new school” guy, a run. The Senators will miss Alexei Kovalev (out for the season after knee surgery) in this series. Really.

Pittsburgh in 7.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

San Jose Sharks (1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (8)

After years of being a Cup pick by many and disappointing themselves and their loyal fans, the Sharks face tough questions again. Will the addition of Dany Heatley to their core group put them over the top? Is goaltender Evgeni Nabokov facing his final days in the Sharks net? Can Jumbo Joe Thornton be that and not Little Joe? The Avs, the NHL’s overachievers this season, were running on fumes at the end. They’re a good matchup to get the Sharks going.

San Jose in 5

Chicago Blackhawks (2) vs. Nashville Predators (7)

Predators coach Barry Trotz makes his group competitive every year, but the Preds don’t look to have the scoring (18th in the league) to put enough pressure on the ’Hawks’ suspect playoff goaltending. Nashville’s top offensive threat Patric Hornqvist is banged up and it’s a long drop from his 30 goals to Martin Erat’s 21, their only other 20-goal scorer. The ’Hawks are too deep, to fast, too everything. The Windy City just has too much for Music City.

Chicago in 6

Vancouver Canucks (3) vs. Los Angeles Kings (6)

I know, Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo hasn’t been great, but the bigger question is can the Kings find a way to limit the damage inflicted by the Sedin twins, who have matured into elite players, and the rest of the Canucks’ two strong lines? The Kings are a good, up-and-coming team under coach Terry Murray, but look like they need a little more ripening.

Vancouver in 5

Phoenix Coyotes (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5)

What an interesting matchup, the feel-good Coyotes, the story of the year in the NHL, against the defending Stanley Cup finalists, who overcame early-season injuries to become one of the best teams in the league after the Olympic break. The Coyotes are methodical and backed by Vezina and Hart candidate Ilya Bryzgalov in goal (third best team defence in the league). They’ve been playing playoff hockey all year. The Wings have seen it all before and have played well in the second half, but does their aging nucleus have another run in them and can rooke goaltender Jimmy Howard keep it up in the post-season? Maybe and no. The Coyotes will ride the whiteout for a while.

Coyotes in 7.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca


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