Unlike the muddled Western Conference, the Eastern Conference has been on a roll this season. A good number of us know how sensational the Tampa Bay Lightning have been, but the Boston Bruins, despite their injuries have had a phenomenal season. The Capitals look to be back in their postseason form from last year as well, and the Pittsburgh Penguins shouldn’t be looked down on and counted out, especially since Evgeni Malkin is finally back in the starting line up. So let’s get to JD’s predictions.
#1 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #8/WC2 Columbus Blue Jackets
I’ve written and talked about how impressive the Tampa Bay Lightning are in ALL of the NHL’s history, and their roster depth is the best in the league. I cannot see this team pulling 2009-10 Washington Capitals and being ousted in the first round. To put it this way: Tampa could go through the motions, and STILL skate the Jackets out of the building. There’s a major decisive factor in the series, and it doesn’t bode well for Columbus. The Russian phenom of the Blue Jackets, Sergei Bobrovsky, does not do well in the playoffs, giving up an average of 3-5 goals in every game he’s played in. Him playing almost every game to make sure the Jackets can get in might take it’s toll in the first round. At least the Blue Jackets were able to get there.
Prediction: Lightning sweep 4-0
#2 Washington Capitals v. #7/WC1 Carolina Hurricanes
Congratulations to the Carolina Hurricanes, who made the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, and have finally snapped the longest playoff drought in the NHL. The Canes have played like a team that loves and cares for each other in on and off the ice, and it’s a big reason they got into the playoffs. With players like Sebastian Aho, Dougie Hamilton and Petr Mrazek, the Canes caught fire in the second half of the season after trying to stay relevant before the All-Star game. Rod Brind’Amour is a candidate for coach of the year for sure, but this will be the biggest test of the year when it comes to series preparation.
Unfortunately for this band of merry men, they’ve drawn the defending Stanley Cup Champions in the first round. This series is reminiscent of last year’s first round matchup between Tampa Bay and New Jersey, where the Devils were a success story, but they faced a buzzsaw that is the Lightning. The same applies to the Hurricanes, and I expect Braden Holtby to be the first one to slam the door on their Cinderella season.
Prediction: Capitals win this round 4-1
#3 Boston Bruins v. #6 Toronto Maple Leafs
There’s a lot to say for both teams and where they’re headed. Bruce Cassidy again has navigated through a lineup that cannot stay healthy in the long-term, but the “next man up” mentality is strong in Boston for another year. It doesn’t matter who goes down; the Bruins just find ways to win, especially if it’s ugly.
There are more issues that will be addressed in this blog if the Bruins get further into the playoffs, but those issues won’t be looked at because of the team they’re playing: the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This was a first-round matchup last year that wasn’t going to give many people hype. The Bruins and Lightning were much closer to skill, so it wasn’t a surprise Boston won in six (remember, injuries is a factor). This time it looks like there’s a much bigger gap between Toronto and Boston. While Boston has moved a little further, Toronto has imploded in the past two months. Questions about goaltending are more frequent than in San Jose (and it’s a sieve for the Sharks), the defense has caved in and the offense, while gradually getting back into full-gear, has sputtered and is clearly not the same as it was in the first part of the season. It’s easy to understand the frustration of wanting to win a championship when the franchise hasn’t for over 50 years and the roster is pretty darn good, minus the goalie question. While it’s probable Babcock will neither be fired nor leave, this doesn’t help his case for staying much longer, especially with who’s been brought in under his watch.
Prediction: Bruins win series 4-1
#4 New York Islanders . #5 Pittsburgh Penguins
Did you know that the Islanders have given up the fewest goals all season (they’ve given up 191)? It’s impressive to see how well this team turned out during the season. Written off for dead after their captain John Tavares went to Toronto, their new and, yes, defending Stanley Cup Champion head coach Barry Trotz has pulled off probably his best year of his NHL coaching tenure. Unlike the Pens, this roster isn’t filled with big names, and like Carolina, they’ve played as a tight-knit group for almost the whole season.
The Penguins, as mentioned above will get Malkin, Sidney Crosby’s enforcer on ice, back in the starting lineup. The Pens have a fantastic roster, but they’ve been inconsistent for a while. Losing to a team like the Rangers when you want that home ice advantage for the number four seed on the last game of the regular season could possibly hurt. Matt Murray hasn’t been at his best during the latter half of the regular season, which is worrying because this is when he can get going and play like the two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie he is. While the Pens can’t be counted out with Mike Sullivan and the players he has on ice, it doesn’t seem like they have the motivation to go far in the playoffs, especially if this goes to a seven game series.
Upset pick in the NHL Eastern Conference 1st Round: Islanders win in 7, 4-3