First-round breakdown: Lightning vs. Senators
Oh, what story lines we have here. Two teams in varying states of disarray. Two teams trying to fulfill their respective destinies. And then there are the goaltending issues (boy, do we have issues here).
The defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning have struggled for much of the season to find a No. 1 goaltender on whom they can pin their hopes for a repeat. Both Sean Burke and John Grahame have shown in confined stretches of play that they both have what it takes. Unfortunately, those spurts have been followed like clockwork by periods of Junior B-like goaltending that has shattered the team's confidence, driven coach John Tortorella to the brink of spontaneous combustion and nearly cost the team a playoff berth.
Meanwhile, the Senators still don't know if, or when, goaltending shaman Dominik Hasek might emerge from his injury cocoon and rejoin the team. All the signs point to "not at all," which is bad news for an Ottawa team that looked ready to advance to its first Stanley Cup finals for most of the season.
"They haven't got all those points by accident," one scout told ESPN.com. Said another scout, "If they're healthy, I like them for sure to come out of the East because no one can match their defense."
And it's true. No other team will ice a big three as impressive as Zdeno Chara, Wade Redden and Chris Phillips. If they can stay healthy. Up front, the danger for the Senators has been their dependence on the big line: Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson. Although coach Bryan Murray has tinkered with the line at various points in the season, the return of Martin Havlat is a big boost to the Sens' chances.
"He's a huge, huge, huge player for that team because, all of a sudden, it gives them another line," one scout said.
Why the Lightning will win: Since the current playoff format began in 1998-99, the top two seeds in both conferences have never advanced beyond the first round in a single season. A top-two seed always falls. This season, it's the Senators' turn. It may not be pretty and it may take both Burke and Grahame to pull it off, but the Lightning will find enough mojo in the next two weeks to pull off the upset.
One scout said the Lightning have a very underrated defense (didn't we hear that during their march to the Cup?) led by Dan Boyle and including Pavel Kubina, Darryl Sydor, Cory Sarich and rookie Paul Ranger.
Up front, the Lightning have as much zip as any other team in the East (with the exception of Carolina), thanks to the presence of Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Fredrik Modin and Ruslan Fedotenko. Beyond their skills, all the big guns were part of the Cup-winning team in 2004. Beyond that, Modin was a significant part of the Swedes' gold-medal team in Torino. Lecavalier was the MVP of the World Cup of Hockey in 2004, and so on. All these players have found their production wanting this season, but all understand the rocky road means nothing.
"Their goaltending is obviously a question. Someone will have to step up," the scout said. "But if someone does, they're a force to be reckoned with."
Why the Senators will lose: The Senators have been hit by injuries to key players down the stretch, and even though Chara is back after a lingering hand injury, Phillips has not played in three weeks (knee) and Redden has been in and out of the lineup dealing with his mother's serious illness in Saskatchewan. Plus, there is the whole Hasek issue, and more important, the issues surrounding the suddenly enormous expectations on rookie netminder Ray Emery.
Before dusting the Rangers in their regular-season finale, the Senators had lost seven of nine and Emery was starting to show cracks in the veneer. Has the rookie been good? Yes. No question. Does the mentality in the dressing room change if Emery gets off the rails? Yes. How can it not?
Are the Lightning the kind of team to whom you want to reveal any weaknesses? No. Without Hasek in goal, the Senators give up the one significant edge they would have enjoyed over the Lightning. With Emery in net, it's a wash, with one important difference -- Burke and Grahame have both seen enough to know what it takes. Without Hasek, one scout told ESPN.com, the Senators suddenly become vulnerable if an opponent can shut down the big line. Well, Hasek doesn't appear to be in the equation, and the Lightning are as dangerous a No. 8 seed as you're likely to find.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in seven.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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NHL Playoffs: First Round
The matchups are set and the puck drops Friday. We're ready for the NHL playoffs, and Scott Burnside takes a look at each first-round series.
• Lightning vs. Senators
• Canadiens vs. Hurricanes
• Rangers vs. Devils
• Flyers vs. Sabres