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New Jersey vs. Ottawa: MOP Squad on the NHL's Second Round
By BRIAN PIKE, MOP Squad Sports Hockey Editor
Apr 26, 2007 - 7:09:58 PM

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New Jersey Devils (2) vs. Ottawa Senators (4): Eastern Conference Semifinals

The Goods: Despite my upset prediction, New Jersey managed to dispatch Tampa Bay in six, overcoming some early jitters and some inspired play by the Lightning’s Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis (who, between them, had 11 of their team’s 14 first round goals). With five and six goals respectively, Brian Gionta and Zach Parise led the Devils, and the good news is that those guys don’t play on the same line, so they had two lines scoring against the Lightning. Gionta’s linemates Scott Gomez, nine points, and Patrik Elias, seven, were also productive, and top defenseman Brian Rafalski had another seven. And while Martin Brodeur looked, well, ordinary in the first three games, he really shut the door in the last two, both of which the Devils won despite being outshot a combined 65-40. In fact, the only sort of bad news from a Devils point of view is the fact that their checking line, so good against Jaromir Jagr and the Rangers last playoffs, wasn’t great against Tampa Bay’s big line; Sergei Brylin, John Madden and Jay Pandolfo were each –4 and combined had just one goal. Ottawa’s big line of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson, meanwhile, was good against Pittsburgh, but has lots of room for improvement, especially from Spezza and Heatley. The good news for the Senators is that they got goals from eight different forwards and points from 11. Their defense was very good, particularly the Chris Phillips-Anton Volchenkov pairing, who limited Sidney Crosby to just two goals and three points at even-strength. In five games, the Sens scored 17 goals to Pittsburgh’s 10 and were behind on the scoreboard for all of about two and a half periods throughout the entire series. Ray Emery was never asked to be great, as his defense only allowed an average of 22 shots per game to the Pens, but he didn’t disappoint either. He had to be better than Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, and he was. The balance in the Sens lineup was impressive, with just four players averaging more than 20 minutes per game (Alfredsson, Volchenkov, Phillips, and defenseman Wade Redden) and none averaged more than Volchenkov’s 21:15. Compare that to the eliminated Lightning, who had seven guys over 20 minutes, four of them averaging 25 or more, and they clearly ran out of gas against the Devils because of it. New Jersey’s power play fired at a 25% rate against Tampa Bay, good for second in the league, and they had the tenth ranked penalty kill at 84.6%. Ottawa’s penalty kill was ninth at 85.7% and the power play actually tied New Jersey for second at 25%, and scored at least one goal every game of the Pittsburgh series.

The Key: Timely goals. In all four of their wins against Pittsburgh, the Senators scored goals within the first three and a half minutes of either the first or second period; from that point on the Sens never trailed in any of those games. Good, playoff-hardened teams score timely goals, and scoring that early in a period is always a back-breaker. In New Jersey, meanwhile, the whole first round series turned on just one goal: Scott Gomez’s overtime winner in game four. That goal tied the series at two going back to New Jersey, and the Devils were never behind in either of game five or game six to close out the series. Overtime winners are obviously the timeliest of playoff goals. This series is unlikely to be very high scoring; in the regular season, New Jersey was fourth in the league in goals-against, while Ottawa was tenth. Ottawa’s going to be looking to score timely goals early, just as they did against Pittsburgh, to force the somewhat defense-oriented Devils to play from behind. The Devils, meanwhile, are going to be playing to keep thing even as long as possible, take whatever Ottawa gives them to get the lead later in games and then grind out the victory with stifling defense. It’ll be interesting to see which team is able to get those timely goals needed to make their strategy work.

New Jersey Wins If: Martin Brodeur is by far the best player on the ice. Many people are talking about the pressure Ray Emery’s going to face in the Ottawa goal, looking across the ice at such an accomplished veteran as Brodeur. But that implies that Brodeur has nothing to prove here. It could be argued that in the Devils two losses to Tampa Bay in the first round, Brodeur deserved the lion’s share of the blame. He allowed weak, bad-angle goals in both and was outplayed by Johan Holmqvist. Now, Brodeur’s regular season play has never been better; he won Vezina Trophies as the league’s best goalie in 2003 and 2004, tied his career-high for victories in 2005-06, and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo is his only competition for the Vezina this season, and Sidney Crosby may be the only thing keeping one of those two from winning league MVP. But he wasn’t all that good against Carolina in the second round last season and since Scott Stevens retired and Scott Niedermayer left for Anaheim people have wondered openly whether or not Brodeur and the Devils can have playoff success with the defensive style that served them so well in the past. At times the Devils defense has looked old, slow, and/or small, and probably isn’t as good as Ottawa’s top six. That means that the kind of defensive hockey the Devils are famous for only really works these days if Brodeur stands on his head, and while he handles pressure better than most, he’s only human and he looked it at times against the Lightning. If Emery is not as good as Brodeur in this series Ottawa can still win; on the other hand, if Brodeur isn’t as good as Emery the Devils will not win, and he probably has to be a lot better than Emery for them to make the third round. He can’t afford to be ordinary.

Ottawa Wins If: They get the same scoring from throughout their lineup against New Jersey that they did against Pittsburgh. Sure, the Sens got a lot of offense from Alfredsson in wins in games one and three and Heatley scored two game-winning goals, but it was when guys like Chris Kelly, Mike Comrie, Dean McAmmond and Chris Neil started getting points that the Penguins really couldn’t keep up. If the Spezza-Heatley-Alfredsson line can get at least a saw-off with the Gomez-Elias-Gionta line, a pretty good bet (especially if, as expected, Elias misses game one due to illness), Ottawa should be in good shape if the Fisher-Comrie-Schaefer line and the Vermette-Neil-Kelly line continue to produce, with maybe a few goals from the fourth line of McAmmond, Christophe Schubert and either Patrick Eaves or Oleg Saprykin necessary for them to win. When Ottawa moved Marian Hossa in 2005 and Marty Havlat last summer this is what they were trying to create: a team of four lines with talent and grit that can all produce. Combine that with a defense of six solid puck-movers and you’ve got a very formidable team when all guns are firing. The Devils are a team that matches up nicely against a squad that depends heavily on one scoring line, which is basically what Tampa Bay was. Against a three-line Carolina attack last season the Devils couldn’t keep up and there’s little reason to think that if Ottawa puts together a similar offense that they can do so this season either. Of course, getting three lines going at once is easier said than done; on paper Ottawa has the players to do it, and they were able to against a rather thin Penguins lineup, but against Brodeur and the Devils it won’t be easy.

Bottom Line: Ottawa should be able to pull this one off. Yes, the Devils managed to outlast Tampa Bay, but on the whole they didn’t look great doing it, while Ottawa seemed in control for very nearly the whole series against Pittsburgh. They looked like a playoff-toughened squad; New Jersey at times looked a bit out of sorts and didn’t have the same defensive dominance one might expect. Ottawa in five.

Copyright 2007 - MOP Squad Sports

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