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KELLEY: Sens keep getting better

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Jim Kelley

 
   
 

No. 1 Ottawa vs. No. 2 New Jersey

The skinny: The soft sell here is that the chronically underachieving Ottawa have somehow managed to see their way through to the Eastern Conference finals where they will meet the big, bad, pressure-tested New Jersey who have a wealth of playoff experience and have gotten this far via superior goaltending, strong physical play and mental toughness. The reality: Give me a break. These are the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the conference (thank goodness for some normalcy somewhere in these playoffs) and lest anyone forget, the finished No. 1 in the regular season, not the . It should also be noted that the had, by far, the more difficult road to get to this point, having beaten a sometimes gritty New York team in the first round and a physical and, at times, tenacious Philadelphia in the second. Contrast that to the path the took, drawing the fast-fading Boston in the first round (the were fortunate just to hold on to a playoff berth and came to the series with no real defense, no No. 1 in goal and a weakened offense). The then drew the Tampa Bay , an assignment that if made strictly on points, would have gone to the . Tampa, however, won the less-than-formidable Southeast Division with fewer points than the earned finishing second to the in the Atlantic. Go figure. In any event, the have had the easier path and are certainly more rested, but in case anyone hasn't been looking at the numbers, these two teams couldn't be any closer without swapping spit. The have an 8-3 record in the playoffs, the are 8-2. The have in goal with his stellar 1.51 goals-against average, but the counter with who is in at 1.49. Both teams are stunningly healthy. On offense, the are perceived to be the weaker team, but while they've been averaging 2.70 goals per playoff games. The are in at 2.72. The two teams are remarkably close on special teams play (with Ottawa's power play hitting at 18.9 vs. New Jersey's 18.4 percent). The are perceived to be a bit tougher on defense, but the claim the have the tougher defense to play against. However, the numbers show that though the have played one more game, they've allowed just 17 goals in the playoffs, the , 16. Both teams are unbeaten when they score the first goal. What the need to do to win: Sounds simple to just say "score more goals," but it is the key. The have a balanced offense that produced six 20-plus scorers through the regular season. That could provide problems for the , who though boasting the league's best defense in the regular season, also had one of the weaker offenses among teams that made the playoffs. That wasn't a huge problem for the in the first two rounds because they faced what were pretty much one-line teams and shut them down with ease, but the roll four lines, three of them are pretty good scoring lines and the won't be able to put a checking unit on every one of them. The also have more individual talent than the , though if the playoffs have shown us anything so far, it's that individuals can be neutered in a playoff series. The do have game-breakers in the likes of , and the crafty and talented who started slowly but had a huge series against the . They also have , , and up front and , an offensive-minded defenseman and on the back line. Get goals out of these guys, a typically solid performance from a deep and physical (yet quick) defense and the usually steady goaltending from Lalime, a goalie who still feels he has much to prove to the hockey world, and the Senators should win. What the need to do to win: Manufacture offense. The didn't do a bang-up job of that in the first round, but they did find ways to get the line going a bit against Tampa Bay and that took tons of pressure off and supposed checking center . Gomez and have to keep that going in this round, and the will have to hope that aging scorer , a non-factor so far in the playoffs and through much of the regular season, can somehow find his once-formidable touch. Don't be shocked if coach Pat Burns looks to juice up his offense a bid more with risk-taking defenseman getting more ice time. He often gave way to a more defensive-minded defenseman in the playoffs so far, but then the didn't have to worry so much about scoring. Tverdovsky can be a risk defensively at times, but he can also score goals and get in deep behind the play, something the don't always defend well against. Offense aside, the best chance for a victory lies in defense, the scheming Burns (among the best at game-planning) and Brodeur. Brodeur is the first goalie in NHL history to have four 40-or-more win seasons. His save percentage is a stunning .941 and his focus and especially his puck-handling skills, are as good or better than any goalie in the game. He is the only goalie likely to break any of 's longevity records and he's mentally tough. That said, that mental toughness will be tested in this series. We told you earlier in the playoffs that Brodeur has been rocked by a marital scandal. Talk of it went away quickly (largely because of Burns' ability to provide masterful distractions in the Tampa series), but the story first broke in Brodeur's home province of Quebec and Ottawa is just across the river from Quebec. There will be a huge French-Canadian contingent covering this series so it's bound to be an issue again when the French-Canadian goalie heads up north. How Brodeur and his teammates handle it will go a long way in determining how focused he remains through this series. A little something you should know: center rocked the boat even before the series got under way, claiming owners of the bankrupt Ottawa franchise were "crooks." He also suggested they shouldn't have played after the club missed payroll earlier in the season. It's created a stir up north and even some demands for an apology. We here at FOXSports.com, however, think it's just the opening salvo in an off-ice game to deflect attention away from Brodeur's situation. Outlook: You could argue this is the best matchup in the playoffs, a sort of unofficial Stanley Cup, not unlike the Western Conference showdown last spring between the Detroit and Colorado . Both teams have tremendous assets and the do have an intangible in regards a lineup that has about 1,000 more games of playoff experience than the . We think the coaching here is a wash with both men equally talented, especially in regards to defensive planning. Still, this is likely to come down to goaltending and timely scoring, especially in odd-man situations, and for that we're going with the more talented . Jersey is good, and Ottawa has no answer for a player like defenseman and captain , a player who defines toughness in a league that is famous for it. Still, the appear to be one of those teams that are getting better as the playoffs roll along. They've faced the tougher obstacles and they've overcome them. We think they'll do it again. Prediction: Ottawa in seven games. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Bruins, Red Wings, Devils, Islanders, Senators, Flyers, Avalanche, Bryan Smolinski, Jamie Langenbrunner, Joe Nieuwendyk, Patrik Elias, John Madden, Todd White, Radek Bonk, Daniel Alfredsson, Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara, Martin Havlat

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