Connect with us

NHL

Eastern Conference 1st Round Playoff Preview

After 82 games and nearly six months, the regular season is over and the playoffs are here. The Eastern Conference saw a large shakeup in its postseason lineup compared to a season ago.

Five of the eight playoff teams in the East were not in the postseason tournament in 2016. Four of those new participants hail from the Atlantic Division, while only one of the four Metropolitan Division playoff teams is a newcomer. Despite some different blood in the postseason, the returning teams from the Metro (Washington, Pittsburgh, N.Y. Rangers), that are still considered among the favorites to make it out of the Eastern Conference.

In the first of two playoff previews, I’ll break down each of the four series and offer predictions on who I think will advance to the second round. Fasten your seat belts; the best time of the year for hockey fans has arrived.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS VS. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Regular Season Record:

Washington: 55-19-8, 118 points, Presidents’ Trophy Winner

Toronto: 40-27-15, 95 points, fourth place in the Atlantic Division, second wild card spot

Season Series:

Washington: 2-1-0

Toronto: 1-1-1

Team Stats:

Washington: 261 GF (3rd), 177 GA (1st), 23.1 PP% (T-3rd), 83.8 PK% (7th)

Toronto: 250 GF (5th), 234 GA (22nd), 23.8 PP% (2nd), 82.5 PK% (T-9th)

Advanced Stats: 

Washington: Shot Attempt% 51.81 (4th), 5-on-5 Sh% 9.2 (T-1st), 5-on-5 Sv% .937 (1st), Sh + Sv% 102.9 (1st)

Toronto: Shot Attempt% 50.43 (12th), 5-on-5 Sh% 8.3 (T-8th), 5-on-5 Sv% .923 (T-17th), Sh + Sv% 100.6 (12th)

Team Leaders (Goals-Assists-Points):

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom (23-63-86), Alex Ovechkin (33-36-69), Evgeny Kuznetsov (19-40-59)

Toronto: Auston Matthews (40-29-69), James van Riemsdyk (29-33-62), Mitch Marner (19-42-61)

The Road to the Playoffs

The Capitals dominated the regular season, finishing with the NHL’s best record en route to their second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy. Their route to the league’s best mark took a different turn than last year. They found themselves in fourth place in the division before winning 12 out of 15 games in January. They Caps finished the season 11-2-1 in their final 14 contests, in stark contrast to 2015-16 when they went 7-5-4 in their final 16 games. This team is loaded from top-to-bottom with star power as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov lead the way up front. While Washington scored plenty of goals, Braden Holtby posted another Vezina Trophy-caliber season playing behind a talented group of defensemen. This group of defenders only got stronger with the acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline. This team is built to win the Stanley Cup right now.

The Maple Leafs entered this season expecting to make progress in their rebuild. However, the Leafs finished ahead of schedule, making the playoffs for just the second time since 2004. Although rookies Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner were expected to be important contributors for a young team looking to find it’s way, nobody imagined the kind of impact they’d have so quickly. Matthews broke numerous Leafs records for first-year players, becoming the all-time leader in goals by an American-born rookie. Boosted by their rookies, as well as Frederik Andersen in net, the Leafs proved the doubters wrong this season, going 12-5-1 in their final 18 games, clinching the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference on the second-to-last day of the season.

Keys to the Series

Penalty Killing – Both teams own two of the four most potent power plays in the entire league, meaning this series could come down to the penalty killing unit that steps up. Both teams were also in the top 10 of the NHL in killing off the man-advantage. Slowing down the opposition’s potent power play, or staying out of the box entirely, should be a high priority in this series.

Depth Scoring – The Caps and Leafs boast tremendous depth in their forward groups, as Washington featured five players who scored 20 or more goals and one ending up with 19 (Kuznetsov). Toronto also saw five of their players tally 20 or more goals. In a series where the star players will get plenty of looks, the bottom six forwards on each team will need to contribute.

Experience vs. Youth – Although Washington’s playoff failures are well-documented, they are the more experienced group in this series, despite not having reached the Eastern Conference Finals since 1998. The Maple Leafs are young, but that youth has served them well this season, and they know they’re a huge underdog in this series. There’s not a great deal of pressure on them. The longer this series goes, the better the chance that doubt creeps into the minds of the heavily-favored Capitals.

X-Factor For Each Team

Washington: Evgeny Kuznetsov

The Caps’ leading scorer a season ago and third-leading scorer this season, Kuznetsov struggled mightily in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, finishing with just one goal and one assist in 12 games. Washington needed more offense from him in the postseason, and he failed to deliver, as the Caps lost the eventual Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in 6 games. He needs step up for Washington in this year’s postseason.

Toronto: Frederik Andersen

Much of the focus in Toronto has been on the team’s rookies, and rightfully so. Although veterans Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk also had tremendous seasons, the Leafs will go as far as Andersen takes them. His play was a big reason why Toronto made it into the playoffs. For the Leafs to have any sort of a chance at an upset, Andersen will need to be on his game throughout the series.

Final Summary

This is the ultimate David vs. Goliath match-up. Not much is expected from the Maple Leafs, while many people believe this is finally the year the Capitals get over the hump and make a legitimate run at a Stanley Cup championship. All of the pieces are there for the Caps. They’re equipped to win it all right now, while the Leafs are an emerging team featuring a group whose key players are seeing their first playoff action. While the Leafs will be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years, their youth won’t be able to slow down a team on a mission. With several players due to be restricted and unrestricted free agents, Washington knows this year is the one to make a run.

PREDICTION: Capitals in five games

 

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS VS. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Regular Season Record:

Pittsburgh: 50-21-11, 111 points, second place in the Metro Division

Columbus: 50-24-8, 108 points, third place in the Metro Division

Season Series:

Each team went 2-1-1 against the other

Team Stats:

Pittsburgh: 278 GF (1st), 229 GA (14th), 23.1 PP% (T-3rd), 79.8 PK% (T-19th)

Columbus: 247 GF (6th), 193 GA (2nd), 19.9 PP% (12th), 82.5 PK % (T-9th)

Advanced Stats:

Pittsburgh: Shot Attempt% 50.14 (16th), 5-on-5 Sh% 8.6 (5th), 5-on-5 Sv% .927 (T-7th), Sh + Sv% 101.2 (5th)

Columbus: Shot Attempt% 50.3 (14th), 5-on-5 Sh% 8.2 (T-10th), 5-on-5 Sv% .933 (T-2nd), Sh + Sv% 101.4 (T-3rd)

Team Leaders (Goals-Assists-Points):

Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby (44-45-89), Evgeni Malkin (33-39-72), Phil Kessel (23-47-70)

Columbus: Cam Atkinson (35-27-62), Alexander Wennberg (13-46-59), Brandon Saad (24-29-53)

The Road to the Playoffs

The defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins enter the postseason for the 11th straight time, the longest current stretch in the NHL. Pittsburgh held off the Blue Jackets for home ice in this series, going 13-7-3 in their last 23 games. They have been without star defenseman Kris Letang since February, and recently found out he will miss the entire postseason after undergoing neck surgery. The Pens’ depth on their blue line helped them make it through this stretch without Letang, and the recent returns of Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta to the blue line will help tremendously. As will the return of Evgeni Malkin, who will suit up for Game 1. And we haven’t even gotten to the league’s leading goal scorer, Sidney Crosby, or standout rookie netminder Matt Murray.

For much of this season, the Blue Jackets were the talk of the hockey world, ripping off an incredible 16-game winning streak from November through January, the second-longest streak in NHL history. The Jackets were one of only two teams (the other being Washington) that finished in the top six in the league in both goals scored and goals allowed. Sergei Bobrovsky had an amazing season that could easily end up with him walking away with the second Vezina Trophy of his career.

While Columbus has plenty of scoring depth and speed, they’re also a defensive team capable of grinding out tough victories, all hallmarks of head coach John Tortorella. However, the Jackets struggled down the stretch, so it’ll be interesting to see if they can put that behind them heading into what should be a tough, contentious series between two of the top four teams in the overall standings. Thanks to the league’s playoff format, one of them will bow out in this series.

Keys to the Series

Pittsburgh’s Speed vs. Columbus’s Physicality – This is not a knock against the Blue Jackets, nor am I saying they’re a slow team. They’ve got speed. But they don’t have Pittsburgh’s speed, and trying to match up with them in a run-and-gun style would be a bad idea. The Jackets will need to hammer the Penguins with their forecheck and not let up, while also finding a way to neutralize their speed and play responsible defensive hockey. The Penguins will look to open up the ice and come at Columbus in waves while trying to overwhelm them with their speed and skill. It’s a formula that brought them a championship a season ago.

Goaltending – Murray already has a Stanley Cup ring when he took over for an injured Marc-Andre Fleury at the tail end of the 2015-16 regular season. At the age of 22, he’s already a proven playoff performer. After being plagued by injuries the last few seasons, Bobrovsky stayed healthy this year and is having the best season of his career. However, his small sample size in the playoffs is not a good one. He’s just 2-6 in his career in the postseason with a 3.50 goals-against average and a save percentage of .890. Both team’s fortunes will hinge on which netminder steps up and delivers.

Coaching – Tortorella and Pittsburgh head coach Steve Sullivan are friends off the ice and have worked together in the past on the coaching staffs in Tampa Bay, New York, and Vancouver. They even coached together for Team USA at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. However, they’ll be adversaries in this series. The chess match between these two in terms of line match-ups will be something to watch closely as the series drags on.

X-Factor For Each Team

Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby

How he handles Columbus center Brandon Dubinsky will go a long way towards determining the Penguins’ fate in this series. Crosby is a strong Hart Trophy candidate and has played some of the best hockey of his career this season. But Dubinsky has been his nemesis, proving to be one of the few players in the league that can get under Crosby’s skin. In 11 playoff games against Dubinsky, Crosby has yet to score. That will probably change, but the ongoing battle between those two will be fun to watch.

Columbus: Do they believe they can win?

The Blue Jackets’ regular season was the best in franchise history, one that saw them unexpectedly transform from an afterthought into a team that was in the running for the Presidents’ Trophy until the final few weeks of the season. However, they’re only making the third postseason appearance in franchise history. They’ve never won a playoff series. Columbus had a great season, but will the same swagger be there against a team accustomed to playoff hockey?

Final Summary

This has all the makings of a hard-fought, fast, physical, and contentious series that could go the distance. All of the ingredients are there for the Blue Jackets to make a long playoff run. They’ve got depth up front, a young, talented blue line led by Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, speed, skill, and great goaltending. But in the end, Pittsburgh’s experience, depth on their blue line, and waves of skill and speed up front will ultimately be just enough to get the defending champs into the second round of the postseason.

PREDICTION: Penguins in seven games

 

MONTREAL CANADIENS VS. NEW YORK RANGERS

Regular Season Record:

Montreal: 47-26-9, 103 points, Atlantic Division Champions

N.Y. Rangers: 48-28-6, 102 points, fourth in the Metro Division, first wild card spot

Season Series:

Montreal: 3-0-0

N.Y. Rangers: 0-2-1

Team Stats:

Montreal: 223 GF (15th), 198 GA (4th), 19.6 PP% (13th), 81.1 PK % (14th)

N.Y. Rangers: 253 GF (4th), 216 GA (T-12th), 20.2 PP% (T-10th), 79.8 PK % (T-19th)

Advanced Stats:

Montreal: Shot Attempt% 52.54 (3rd), 5-on-5 Sh% 7.6 (16th), 5-on-5 Sv% .933 (T-2nd), Sh + Sv% 100.8 (T-8th)

N.Y. Rangers: Shot Attempt% 47.94 (25th), 5-on-5 Sh% 8.8 (4th), 5-on-5 Sv% .923 (T-17th), Sh + Sv% 101.1 (6th)

Team Leaders (Goals-Assists-Points):

Montreal: Max Pacioretty (35-32-67), Alexander Radulov (18-36-54), Alex Galchenyuk (17-27-44)

N.Y. Rangers: Mats Zuccarello (15-44-59), J.T. Miller (22-34-56), Derek Stepan (17-38-55)

The Road to the Playoffs

The Canadiens got off to a red-hot start for the second straight season, only to fall into another midseason slump, losing 12 out of 18 games before firing head coach Michel Therrien. On February 14, they hired former Bruins head coach Claude Julien to call the shots behind their bench. The Habs proceeded to go 16-7-1 in their final 24 games, clinching the Atlantic Division with room to spare. Price endured a slump right around the time the Canadiens were going through theirs, and then he promptly returned to his All-Star form after Julien was hired. The offseason trade for Shea Weber and the signing of free agent forward Alexander Radulov have paid huge dividends this season.

Despite not having much star power up front, the Rangers were an offensive juggernaut, finishing in the top five in goal-scoring and overwhelming teams with their speed and depth. They had seven players record 40 or more points, and Rick Nash just missed the mark with 39. Although they’re not much in the way of a possession team, they had a very high shooting percentage this season. After looking a step slow in last season’s playoffs against Pittsburgh, they played a very fast game this season. However, they cooled off down the stretch, going 8-9-4 in their final 21 games. Henrik Lundqvist may not have put up his most impressive stats in New York’s crease this season, failing to record a save percentage of at least .920 for the first time since 2009, but his performance will go a long way in determining the Rangers’ playoff fate.

Keys to the Series

Price vs. Lundqvist – Two of the best goalies in the NHL over the last decade square off in this match-up, and needless to say, this is the biggest key in this series. Price is in his prime, and when he’s on his game, there are few goalies, if any, that can go toe-to-toe with him. Although Lundqvist is 35, he’s one of the few goaltenders in the world that can go save-for-save with Price. He may not have many years left, but he’s still got another playoff run or two in him before Father Time starts catching up. It might be stating the obvious, but the winner of this match-up will move on to the second round.

New York’s speed vs. Montreal’s blue line – The Rangers don’t have a lot of star power up front, but guys like Nash, Chris Kreider, Michael Grabner, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan, and Mika Zibanejad provide plenty of speed and skill. They’re able to score off the rush or crash the net at will. Kreider is a known crease-crasher, and Canadiens fans haven’t forgotten how he crashed the net and took out Price in Game 1 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, knocking him out for the series as the Rangers went to the Stanley Cup Final. Weber is not only known for his hard shot from the point, but can play a physical game from the blue line as well. His presence could provide a deterrent in front of Price.

Secondary Scoring – The Canadiens have a notable lack of depth at the center position, especially after Alex Galchenyuk moved back to the wing. Radulov and Max Pacioretty have had excellent seasons, and Galchenyuk has produced when healthy. Paul Byron has had a breakout season with 22 goals, with his speed being a dangerous weapon for the Habs all year. However, they’re going to need something more from their bottom six forwards to give Price some much-needed goal support in what should be a tight series.

X-Factor For Each Team

Montreal: Shea Weber

Although Weber is an All-Star defenseman, many Montreal fans expressed their displeasure in trading the immensely popular P.K. Subban to Nashville in exchange for Weber. So far, the trade has worked out very well for the Canadiens. He scored 17 goals, a league-high 12 of them on the power play, while playing 25 minutes a night to go along with his usual brand of physical, feisty hockey. The Habs will need him more than ever to log big minutes and provide this team a spark while protecting Price.

N.Y. Rangers: Their blue line

If there’s one area where Montreal has a large edge, it’s on the blue line. This is New York’s biggest question mark heading into the postseason. Although Ryan McDonagh continues to hold down the fort on the back end, the Rangers aren’t getting any younger. Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, and Kevin Klein are all in their early-30’s, and entering the downswing of their careers. However, rookie Brady Skjei has acquitted himself very well on New York’s blue line this season. This defensive corps’ play in front of Lundqvist this series will go a long way in determining if the Rangers will get out of the first round.

Final Summary

The chess match between the Rangers’ speed and the Canadiens blue line will be very fun to watch. In the end, it’s going to come down to which team’s goaltender comes up with timely saves. In addition, each team’s defensive corps needs to limit quality chances in front. This series could have some long-term implications for both teams. A loss for Montreal would shed more light on their lack of depth at center. Montreal fans might question the Weber trade again. A loss for New York makes you wonder how many more years Lundqvist has left before their window closes. In the end, Montreal’s blue line depth wins out.

PREDICTION: Canadiens in six games.

 

OTTAWA SENATORS VS. BOSTON BRUINS

Regular Season Record:

Ottawa: 44-28-10, 98 points, second place in the Atlantic Division

Boston: 44-31-7, 95 points, third place in the Atlantic Division

Season Series:

Ottawa: 4-0-0

Boston: 0-3-1

Team Stats:

Ottawa: 206 GF (22nd), 210 GA (10th), 17.0 PP% (23rd), 79.7 PK % (22nd)

Boston: 232 GF (13th), 209 GA (9th), 21.7 PP% (7th), 85.7 PK % (1st)

Advanced Stats:

Ottawa: Shot Attempt% 48.57 (22nd), 5-on-5 Sh% 7.0 (T-22nd), 5-on-5 Sv% .926 (T-9th), Sh + Sv% 99.7 (18th)

Boston: Shot Attempt% 54.71 (2nd), 5-on-5 Sh% 6.8 (24th), 5-on-5 Sv% .914 (27th), Sh + Sv% 98.1 (29th)

Team Leaders (Goals-Assists-Points):

Ottawa: Erik Karlsson (17-54-71), Mike Hoffman (26-35-61), Kyle Turris (27-28-55)

Boston: Brad Marchand (39-46-85), David Pastrnak (34-36-70), David Krejci (23-31-54)

The Road to the Playoffs

Under new head coach Guy Boucher, the Senators rebounded and made the playoffs after missing out last season. Erik Karlsson was his usual stellar self on the blue line. Not only did he provide his usual offensive flair, but he stepped up his defensive play as well. He’ll probably be a finalist for the Norris Trophy again. Boucher has this team playing extremely well in its own end, but the goaltending of Craig Anderson and Mike Condon continues to impress. Anderson took some time off to be with his wife, who was battling cancer, but returned to help the Sens’ push for the playoffs.

Ottawa is one of the stranger teams in this year’s playoffs. Among playoff teams, they control only 48.57% of the shot attempts, ranking only ahead of the Rangers in that category. In addition, the Sens have scored the fewest goals among playoff teams, while also owning the second-worst power play and penalty kill units among postseason qualifiers. They’re also the only playoff team with a negative goal differential (minus-4).

On the other hand, the Bruins were one of the best teams in the league in puck possession and generating shot attempts. However, they struggled to score goals until former head coach Claude Julien got fired. Bruce Cassidy took over as the interim head coach and Boston went 18-8-1 in its final 27 games. The Bruins scored four or more goals in 13 of Cassidy’s 27 games behind the bench. Conversely, Boston only tallied four or more goals in just 17 of 55 games under Julien.

Tuukka Rask was a workhorse in net for Boston this season, while Patrice Bergeron continued to be one of the best two-way players in hockey. In addition, David Pastrnak broke out with 34 goals and 70 points. Brad Marchand continued his ascent into the upper echelon of the top players in the game, setting career highs in goals, assists, and points. However, Marchand still has a tendency to get himself in trouble, as he was suspended for the final two games of the regular season for spearing Tampa Bay’s Jake Dotchin in the groin.

The Bruins are also expected to be without defensemen Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo for Game 1 of this series.

Keys to the Series

Control your emotions – Both teams possess a few guys known to stir the pot. Marchand transformed himself into one of the league’s premiere scorers. However, due to a couple of incidents this season, he’ll probably never shake his reputation as a player willing to cross the line. David Backes is a proven playoff performer who’s also not afraid to mix it up with the opposition. As for Ottawa, Chris Neil is always in the middle of scrums. Mark Boroweicki is a physical player known to draw the ire of the opposition. In addition, the Sens acquired noted agitator Alexandre Burrows from the Vancouver Canucks at the trade deadline. Of the four series in the Eastern Conference, this one has the potential for the most post-whistle shenanigans. Whoever keeps their cool will hold a distinct advantage in this series.

Tight-Checking vs. Puck Possession – When Boucher took over the job in Ottawa, his goal was to get a defensively-challenged group to play better in their own zone. So far, so good, as Ottawa has excelled in tight-checking close games. On the other hand, the Bruins were the second-best team in the NHL at controlling shot attempts for and against. It took them a while to start putting the puck in on a consistent basis, but once they did, they powered their way to their first playoff appearance in three years. The eventual winner of this series will be the one that can impose their will on the other.

Goaltending – Anderson missed a large portion of the season, but returned and has been rock solid once again. When he’s on his game, he’s capable of stealing a series. If Anderson, Condon has proven to be a very capable fill-in. On the other side, Rask has been a workhorse this season, making 65 appearances in Boston’s crease. There were some concerns about fatigue, but he has been fantastic for the Bruins down the stretch. A series that looks to be a tight-checking one will come down to goaltending.

X-Factor For Each Team

Boston: Brad Marchand

He signed an eight-year extension in September and has proven to be worth the money so far. It looked like he had left his past as an agitator, pest, and sometimes dirty player behind him. However, a slew foot on Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall in January and his recent incident with Dotchin have brought those old concerns back. He’s been fined or suspended seven times in his career. The benefit of the doubt is gone. The Bruins need him to focus on being a productive offensive player and stay away from the funny business. If he can do that, Boston had a great chance of winning this series.

Ottawa: Special Teams

The Senators were mediocre on the power play and killing penalties this season, ranking 23rd and 22nd in both categories, respectively. Conversely, the Bruins had the top-ranked penalty kill and were seventh-best on the power play. If the Sens can get a timely power play goal or a timely penalty kill when the situation calls for it, it’ll help them out tremendously.

Final Summary

This series has all the makings of one that will boil over with the most intensity. These teams have never met in the playoffs before, but you can bet they’ll despise each other when this one is over with. The Bruins are battling through injuries to Krug and Carlo, while the Sens have had to deal with Karlsson’s recent injury issues. Those three players are important to each team’s blue line, and if Karlsson misses any games, that would be a devastating blow for the Ottawa.

However, if he’s even close to 100%, he makes the Senators that much more potent. Boston has the edge up front in offensive ability, but they could easily find themselves in a tight-checking series against the Sens. Although I believe Anderson can steal a game or two for Ottawa, I expect the Bruins to break through with some timely scoring when they’ll need it the most. I think Boston wins this one, but it will be a grueling series.

PREDICTION: Bruins in seven games

Gators Dockside
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Buzz

Twitter

Enter The Scrum

Enter your email address to receive immediate updates from The Scrum Sports.

Gators Dockside
Anchor Head

More in NHL