2023 NHL Eastern Conference First Round Playoff Predictions

Thankfully the eastern conference playoff race wasn’t locked up a month in advance unlike last year’s. A few teams most audiences are used to seeing in the postseason didn’t make it and some unexpected teams made deeper runs than predicted. Regardless of who clinched and who missed out, the east is still the deepest of the two conferences. The big name teams also acquired at least one major player by the trade deadline. Boston, Carolina, Toronto and the New York Rangers have their hands full despite being first round favorites. It’s time to break down which four teams have the best chance of moving on to the second round.

#8 Florida Panthers v. #1 Boston Bruins

David Pasternak is just one of many issues the Florida Panthers will face all series.

Starting the predictions with the last two President’s Trophy winners is too good to pass up. While Florida was unpredictable most of the regular season, their resurgence with Alex Lyon in net the past month is enough to give any playoff team caution. Coach Paul Maurice finally has his team playing the style many predicted at the beginning of the season.

If this were against any other opponent the Panthers would surge into the second round with confidence. Unfortunately they drew the historically best Boston Bruins, a team with little to no weaknesses on any side of the puck. Whether it’s captain Patrice Bergeron on face-offs, Linus Ullmark in net or gritty play from Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk and Pavel Zacha, this team doesn’t know how to lose. This is the worst opponent Florida could draw in the first round.

Prediction: Bruins win series 4-1

#6 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #4 Toronto Maples Leafs

Good news for Toronto: no original six first round matchup. Bad news for Toronto: they draw the incumbent eastern conference champion Lightning…again

Somewhere the hockey gods and goddesses are laughing themselves silly. Toronto shook off playing an original six team in the first round of the playoffs and drew the three-time defending eastern conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning again. Leafs fans know how this roller coaster season ends.

There weren’t a lot of regular season meetings but when they did play each other, there was a lot of scoring and nasty physical play. Toronto’s young stars and core players are growing and maturing but that won’t be enough against the committed trio of Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, who are all having career years in scoring. While the Leafs have better defensemen depth, the deciding factor is who will hold up better in net each game. Andrei Vasilevskiy is still the best goaltender in any professional hockey league while Toronto’s Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray are inconsistent and have shown their weaknesses against playoff caliber teams. This year’s Lightning team is just as talented but meaner in attitude and physical play despite top line scoring production. We could have a seven game series depending on how locked in Tampa Bay is from the start.

Prediction: Lightning win series 4-3

#7 New York Islanders v. #2 Carolina Hurricanes

Shayne Gostisbehere (41, black) is one of the few Hurricanes who’s been consistent on offense. He might play a bigger role in Carolina advancing to round two than most think.

This is one of the few first round series where one would’ve thought at the beginning of the year the higher seed would crush the lower due to a deeper, more talented roster led by a coach who’s a former champion. This is what makes the NHL one of the best North American sports leagues. Thoughts are meaningless when games are played and this series highlights it.

The New York Islanders found a younger and refreshing version of Barry Trotz at head coach and scraped into the postseason due to a career year from Ilya Sorokin and a former captain in Bo Horvat (who’s had a career high in scoring this year before traded to Long Island). The return of Matt Barzal keeps this a contested series with no Max Pacioretty or Andrei Svechnikov for Carolina.

The Hurricanes are in the same position from previous playoff appearances; they can not afford to let a lesser, out-matched team stay alive and extend a series. Goaltender Frederik Andersen has a chance for a hefty contract extension after the season and must play for that option. Defensemen Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce should reinforce why they were the second best defensive unit in the league while Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Martin Necas and Jesper Fast have to elevate their offensive performances after sputtering the last month of the season. If Carolina can’t eliminate the Islanders early in the series, their second round opponent will capitalize.

Prediction: Hurricanes win series 4-3

#5 New York Rangers v. #3 New Jersey Devils

Fights and penalties in the Battle of the Hudson will play into both teams’ favor. Regardless of who wins, this rivalry will be televised next regular season.

If one was told at the beginning of the season we’d get a Battle of the Hudson, the common idea would be the New York Rangers would be the dominant high-seeded team while the New Jersey Devils barely scraped into the playoffs. How wrong we all would be and were.

New Jersey has been one of the funner, brighter and feel good stories of the year. Most people paying attention to the NHL are happy Lindy Ruff came back to coach, teach and raise a young roster on how to elevate their games to new levels. No one outside the Prudential Center thought the Devils could finish as a top four team in the east.

There’s one man who’s been in a similar scenario and did much better in Ruff’s position: Gerard Gallant. Unfortunately for the up-and-coming Devils he’s the head coach of their first round opponent the New York Rangers, located on the other side of the Hudson River. This will be a nasty, physical and mean series. New York faces more pressure due to offseason signings and mid-season trades, but they also play better defense and have a better goaltending tandem than their division rivals. Many teams struggled to contain Mika Zibanejad in previous postseason appearances. The Devils will have a young defensive core struggling to contain him in a best of seven series. The feel good story is great confidence to build on for next season and the rivalry will continue regardless of the final result.

Prediction: Rangers win series 4-1

2022 NHL Eastern conference playoff picks record: 5-3


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