That was easier than expected. All eight teams wrapped up clinching spots at the end of March. Columbus and Detroit had good runs until Boston and Washington went on winning streaks. Then the big name teams acquired at least one major player by the trade deadline.
Just because all eight spots closed early, doesn’t mean the playoffs will be easy. Far from it. The east is the deepest of the two conferences. The Sunshine State, Carolina and the New York Rangers have their hands full despite being favorites. It’s time to break down which four teams have the best chance of moving on to the second round.
#8 Washington Capitals v. #1 Florida Panthers
Nothing like starting off with the President’s Trophy winners. The Panthers have six scorers of 20+ goals in the regular season, one being a regular season MVP finalist. Florida lost less than five games since Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux was acquired at the trade deadline. Goaltenders Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight improved after last season’s humiliating first round loss to Tampa Bay. The unit is faster and more physical. They just need to win more series.
Washington and everyone else outside the Sunshine State are relieved Alex Ovechkin will return for the playoffs. If there’s any chance for the Capitals to win the series, the league’s third place all time goal scorer will be a major reason. Goalies Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov aren’t reliable and shouldn’t be trusted against the league’s best offense. The Capitals have to win high-scoring games early in the series, or else face early elimination.
Prediction: Panthers win series 4-1
#7 Boston Bruins v. #2 Carolina Hurricanes
Gone are the days where the Bruins could toy with the fledgling playoff Hurricanes. Carolina’s become a big bad while Boston’s aged. Frederik Anderson’s game seven pains against the Bruins should be exorcised with a more competent defense and reliable, physical playmakers on offense.
The Bruins roster is still top four on goals allowed while eight players scored double digit goals, but Carolina was not only the best team in goals against, they were the best penalty-killing team on the ice. The Hurricanes are loaded with playmakers and their main worry could be how fast they can get Boston out of the first round to rest up and deal with division rivals.
Prediction: Hurricanes win series 4-1
#4 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #3 Toronto Maples Leafs
Somewhere the hockey gods and goddesses are laughing themselves silly. Toronto finally shakes off playing an original six team in the first round of the playoffs and instead draw the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Leafs fans must be sick.
Yes, Toronto beat Tampa Bay in all but one meeting in the regular season. However the Lightning won a decisive regular season finale as if it were a playoff game. Despite some wear on the franchise stars, Tampa’s hungry for a three-peat and a dynasty, something not done since the early 1980s New York Islanders won four straight. This year’s Lightning team is just as talented if not nastier in attitude and physical play. Don’t expect the series to go all seven games.
Prediction: Lightning win series 4-1
#6 Pittsburgh Penguins v. #5 New York Rangers
If you had told any hockey fan or analyst this would be the most even and entertaining series of the four in the eastern conference at the beginning of the season, you’d be silenced or shoo’d away. This is the lone series out east where the predicted winner is a toss-up. Both Pittsburgh and New York have great coaches who dealt with roster issues mixed with up-and-down play throughout the season.
On paper the Rangers have more talent and depth. They’re number two in goals against and boast a 50+ goal scorer. The Penguins however hit their stride at the right time and played better than New York through major roster tooling and injuries. Both looked even in their nationally televised games against each other and won a good number in third periods. Blowouts will be rarer than in the other three.
The deciding factor is depth. New York adding Frank Vatrano (who’s been red-hot since he was traded for) ensures the series could be even after four games. Don’t be surprised if the Rangers tire Pittsburgh into a game seven.
Prediction: Rangers win series 4-3
Regular season playoff picks record: 6-2