Eastern Conference Playoff Preview
The Eastern Conference was easily the closest and toughest conference this season with both the Metropolitan and the Atlantic producing strong contenders to make deep runs. There are teams like the Capitals, who took the league by storm and scored the most points in the NHL. Then there are also teams like the Detroit Red Wings, who came in last in the East and missed out on the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.
There have been many big trades, including Ben Bishop being sent to the Los Angeles Kings by the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens offseason blockbuster that brought Shea Weber in and sent P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators. The Metropolitan Division didn’t have any big blockbuster trades, but they were still active nearing the deadline.
From veteran teams still holding onto past successes, like the New York Rangers, and barely to the No. 1 Wild Card for the East; to young, and fresh teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, who look to keep building between the draft and their AHL squad. The East is a model of diversity.
The Atlantic Division was the last division to clinch its playoff bracket. Without a doubt, this is one of the closest divisions of the NHL. While the Pacific frequently provided high scoring match races, the Atlantic offered relatively low scoring, tough teams who do not go down without a fight.
The Metropolitan was a different story. The top three teams (Washington, Columbus, and Pittsburgh) all set the bar early in the season and didn’t let up. They dominated their division and the NHL. They were one of the first ones to clinch, with Washington leading the way.
The Eastern Conference looks like a solid contender to produce the Stanley Cup winner for the second straight year. As any hockey fan knows though, it’s anyone’s game until the final buzzer goes and the captain is handed the Cup.
Washington Capitals (55-19-8) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (40-27-15)
Season Series: Washington 2-1
The Washington Capitals are a dominating team. There’s no doubt about it. However, a couple of the Maple Leafs bouts with the Capitals were very close. Including the January 3rd match-up, where Washington won in overtime over the Leafs. If any team has kept it close, and given the Capitals a run for their money, it would have to be the Leafs.
The Capitals are a high-end offensive force with a solid blue line, which makes them an especially intimidating opponent for a young team like the Leafs. With forwards like Alex Ovechkin (33 G, 36 A - 69 P) going against Auston Matthews (40 G, 29 A - 69 P), the match-up appears pretty even, but further down the team stats, is where the Capitals have the upper hand. Washington has considerably more depth and their blue line is by far superior to anyone the Leafs can ice.
Washington has a +81 Goal Differential, while Toronto finished the year +9. Goaltending is pretty lopsided as well with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby on the Caps side against Frederik Andersen who may not be at full strength. Andersen suffered a head injury late in the season, but he is going to start Game 1. Could this be problematic for the Leafs? Who knows, but you better believe the Caps will be buzzing the crease early and often as they test the young netminder.
If Andersen does indeed go down, their back-up goalie is Curtis McElhinney, who has only played 14 games this year. McElhinney spent the last couple seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets before Toronto picked him up on waivers. While he might not be their first choice, he is a veteran netminder who has been around the league, but he still only has one game of playoff experience. So, Andersen is by far the better option with 28 playoff games under his belt (all with Anaheim).
The Toronto Maple Leafs will need to come out of the gate hot and steal a game, or this series will end quickly. The Capitals are going to look to put the Leafs on their heels and if they get the upper hand, the Leafs will have a steep uphill battle to even stay in the race.
Prediction: Capitals in five
Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (50-24-8)
Season Series: Draw 2-2
The reigning Stanley Cup Champions are once again fighting for another chance at that silver Cup, and they do have a decent chance if their cards are played right. But, a short summer and a long season have already stacked the deck against them, and they will have to overcome a young, strong Columbus Blue Jackets team. No team has repeated in the Salary Cap era, but that doesn’t mean the Pens can’t find a way.
Those ‘cards’ are going to be thrown against a brick wall, Sergei Bobrovsky. He leads the league in Goals Against Average (2.06), and Save Percentage (.932). This will probably be one of the best goaltending duels in the league; between Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury and Bobrovsky. Murray was the hero of the 2016 Cup run, Fleury in 2009, and Bobrovsky is looking to be cast as the hero this season. Unfortunately, Murray went down with an injury in the warm-ups of the first game.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have better offensive depth. With Sidney Crosby (44 G, 45 A), Evgeni Malkin (33 G, 39 A) and Phil Kessel (23 G, 47 A), Columbus will have their hands full. Columbus’ fighting chance is based on the production of their power threesome of Cam Atkinson (35 G, 27 A), Brandon Saad (24 G, 29, A) and Nick Foligno (26 G, 25 A).
The Pens do have a major hitch in their road back to the Cup, they have been absolutely decimated by injuries, especially on their blue line where they will be without Kris Letang. Trevor Daley has one game under his belt since returning from knee surgery, Evgeni Malkin is just returning from injury, and finally, Chris Kunitz and Carl Hagelin are expected to miss at least Game 1. If Hagelin and Kunitz are not available for any length of time, the Pens will certainly miss them.
The Blue Jackets strength is their defensive corps, young but impressive. Seth Jones came in last season to anchor their blue line, but 19-year-old Zach Werenski has been a big part of the narrative for the Jackets back end adding 11 goals and 36 assists on the season.
Both teams were close all season, with Pittsburgh overtaking Columbus by a mere three points and a series split. Both teams won once in a blowout, and once in overtime. This very well could the series to watch in the first round.
Prediction: Penguins in Six
Montreal Canadiens (47-26-9) vs. New York Rangers (48-28-6)
Season Series: Montreal 3-0
The New York Rangers come into the Playoffs as a Wild Card, but they only finished one point behind the Canadiens on the season with 102 points, they were simply in the most competitive division landing behind the Blue Jackets, Penguins and Capitals. So, this is not a team to sleep on coming out of the Wild Card. In fact, the Rangers were the most dominant road team in the NHL with a record 27 wins in hostile territory.
The last time these two teams faced each other was the Eastern Conference Finals three years back. The Rangers won that battle, but the Habs were at a serious disadvantage as Carey Price went down with an injury in Game 1. Who knows what the final result might have been had Price been available. This year, the Canadiens are hoping for a little retribution. Price is back and healthy, and the team has a new coach at the helm. Claude Julien returned as bench boss after the mid-season ouster from the Boston Bruins replacing Michel Therrien. Therrien’s departure no doubt delighted the Habs faithful as they have been calling for his head for years.
The trade that brought Weber to Montreal was a tough one for Habs fans to swallow as P.K. Subban was such a huge part of the community and loved by the fanbase, leaving Weber some big shoes to fill. It’s likely he has a long way to go in terms of buffering the loss of Subban’s big personality and philanthropic ways, but his 17 goals and 42 points (22 on the power play) are certainly a huge asset on the ice for the Habs. There is no denying that the veteran defenseman is still one of the better blue liners in the league, and he has an absolute rocket of a slap shot.
The Rangers have some youth with Jimmy Vesey and Kevin Hayes among their forward ranks, but they are a veteran club with a Stanley Cup window that has been steadily closing as their star netminder Henrik Lundqvist is now 34. While he is still a strong presence between the pipes with a .910 Save Percentage and 2.74 Goals Against Average, he has not been nearly as dominant as he was the last time these two teams met in the playoffs. Lundqvist’s career numbers are .920 Save Percentage and 2.32 Goals Against Average. To beat the Habs he’s going to have to perform closer to that level. Injuries have also been an issue as a lengthy career is starting to catch up to King Henrik.
Unfortunately, backup Antti Raanta (.920 Save Percentage and 2.24 Goals Against Average) is coming off a knee injury and may not be available for Game 1, which only adds to the pressure.
The advantage in net goes to Price (.922 Save Percentage and 2.24 Goals Against Average) who is undoubtedly one of the top netminders in the league and has been for some time.
Both teams have a number of offensive weapons at their disposable. For New York, Chris Krieder (28 G, 25 A) and J.T. Miller (22 G, 34 A), Derek Stepan (17 G, 38 A)., and Michael Grabner (27 G, 13 A) have been leading the charge. For the Habs, it’s Max Pacioretty (35 G, 32 A), Alexander Radulov (18 G, 36 A), and Alex Galchenyuk (17 G, 27 A) that have consistently contributed to their offense. However, it was Paul Byron (22 G, 21 A) that seemed to come out of nowhere as he more than doubled last season’s output (11 G, 7 A). With what is likely to be a goalie battle, both teams are going to need their best offensive weapons to be active. Anything less and they are going to be hitting the links.
Prediction: Rangers win in Six
Ottawa Senators (44-28-10) vs. Boston Bruins (44-31-7)
Season Series: Ottawa 4-0
This could also be an interesting match-up since both teams are very close in rank and record but, Boston has had their ups and downs throughout the season, including a losing streak towards the end of the season that put their playoff berth in jeopardy. The Bruins can’t afford players like Brad Marchand being stupid, and taking penalties which have put him on speed dial of the phones of the NHL player safety committee.
Case in point, Brad Marchand is just returning from a suspension and the Bruins can not afford for him to have another lapse in judgment because he is their best scoring (39 G, 46 A) threat. Young forward David Pastrnak is another high-octane offensive player who in his third season has really caught fire (34 G, 36 A) doubling his career best.
Ottawa does enter the series with momentum, going 4-0 in the regular season. Not very many people would have counted on Ottawa being in the mix of potential playoff teams ahead of the season, but this year they were the silent killers of the Atlantic Division. While they didn’t catch Montreal, they were always in their peripheral vision.
The Bruins started to pick up play and find a rhythm after their new head coach, Bruce Cassidy, took over the bench for Claude Julien, who was dropped midseason after a rough patch and two seasons outside the playoffs. The Bruins are a veteran team with a ton of playoff experience among their core players making it difficult to count them out. Players like Tuukka Rask (.915 Save Percentage and 2.23 Goals Against Average), Patrice Bergeron (21 G, 32 A), and Zdeno Chara (10 G, 19 A) have been with this team since their Cup win and are eager to get back the Final. Unfortunately, they will kick off their series without David Krecji (34 G, 36 A), but hopefully, he will be available before the series is over. Over the Summer the Bruins also acquired another big forward who could contribute offensively in David Backes (formerly the captain of the St. Louis Blues).
For the Bruins, the time to win is now as their core stars are starting to show some age. So, one has to wonder how many deep runs are left in the tank. Rask seems to be on the other side of his best years, and Chara is certainly closer to retirement that Boston fans are ready to admit at the age of 39.
The Senators cannot be counted out as long as Erik Karlsson continues to be a strong defender on both ends (17 G, 54 A), and Craig Anderson (.926 Save Percentage and 2.28 Goals Against Average) can stay at the top of his game. Offensively, the Sens are not quite as explosive but they still get steady contributions from players like Kyle Turris (27 G, 28 A) and Mike Hoffman (26 G, 35 A), and they’ll need to dial it up if they hope to reach the second round.
This could be a very close Series with both teams fairly well matched.
While the Blue Jackets and Penguins may be the most interesting first round series to watch, this one is a close second. Both teams the underdog, and have a whole lot to prove.