Eastern Conference Playoff Preview: First Round Breakdown and Predictions
The most wonderful time of the year is finally back. NHL Playoffs begin on Wednesday night and the boys at Bench Life are pretty excited about it. If you haven’t already, join our NHL Playoff Bracket Challenge quickly for a chance to win some cash and a Bench Life Sports t-shirt. Now, without wasting anymore time let’s get into it.
Tampa Bay Lightning – 113 points (A1) vs. New Jersey Devils – 97 points (WC2)
Season Series: New Jersey 3-0-0; Tampa Bay 0-2-1
Tampa Bay has been at the top of the conference all season long, but the Devils have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL as of late. More specifically, Taylor Hall has made the Devils one of the hottest teams in the NHL lately. The former 1st overall draft pick in 2010 put together the best season of his career, finishing with 93 points and almost singlehandedly carrying the Devils to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.The issue is that after Hall, the scoring stops, and the combination of Schneider and Kinkaid aren’t exactly a guarantee to be solid in net. It looks like Kinkaid will be the starting, and it’s safe to say he deserves it.
As impressive as Hall’s season has been, there are a few players on Tampa Bay who have also been lighting up the league this year.
Kucherov was the Art Ross Trophy favourite pretty much all year long, but slowed down a bit towards the end of the season as Connor McDavid and Claude Giroux both passed him in points. Coming off a season where he was limited to just 17 games due to injury, Stamkos had his been season statistically since the 2011-12 season. Tampa was able to put the puck in the net almost at will, finishing 1st in the league with 296 goals scored, and Vasilevskiy looked like a Vezina nominee midway through the season.
Prediction: Lightning in 5 games
As good as the Devils needed to be down the stretch to get into the playoffs, they shouldn’t be much of a scare for the Lightning. Tampa Bay has the edge in forwards, defensemen, and between the pipes, and should be able to make relatively easy work of New Jersey. However, the Lightning haven’t been as dominant down the stretch, and Vasilevskiy has admitted to feeling fatigued lately. Despite this, the upset potential in this series is almost non-existent. Hall finally gets to play in the playoffs, but that experience will be short-lived.
Boston Bruins – 112 points (A2) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs – 105 points (A3)
Season Series: Boston 1-2-1; Toronto 3-1-0
While memories of 2013 are still fresh in everyone’s minds (including my own), we have to realize that both of these teams have a lot of new faces in their lineups. Now in case you haven’t figured it out yet, the Bruins are my team so I plan on saying as little about this series as possible for two reasons: 1) I can’t help but be biased and 2) I don’t want to jinx anything. The two teams are pretty evenly matched, and this is likely to be the most competitive series of the first round.
The difference between the two is that the Leafs scoring is spread throughout their lineup, while the Bruins 30-goal scorers are all on the top line. The Bruins have been dealing with some injury problems lately, but it seems like they are getting healthy at the right time. In our preseason rankings we expected these teams to be similar, but we had no idea just how good they would be. It’s a shame that the 4th and 7th place teams in the entire NHL have to play each other in the first round, but this broken playoff format could be a whole other article on its own.
Both teams have been revitalized by youth the last few seasons. We know what Matthews, Marner and Nylander mean to the Leafs, but the Bruins youngsters have also played a huge role in their performance this season. Danton Heinen and Jake DeBrusk combined for 90 points, while Charlie McAvoy put up 32 points while on the Bruins top pair alongside Zdeno Chara. And over the last few weeks of the season, rookie Ryan Donato made some noise registering 9 points in 12 games since joining the Bruins when his season at Harvard ended.
Prediction: Bruins in 6 games
Obviously I’m picking the Bruins. The biggest reason is because I believe that the depth on the blue line gives them an edge.
The Leafs and Bruins can both score, and both have goalies who are more than capable of stealing games. But playoff hockey is notably more physical, which is why I’m giving the edge to the Bruins. Also, I can’t wait to see how Twitter reacts each time Marchand scores this series. If you only watch one series this round, make sure it’s this one.
Washington Capitals – 105 points (M1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets – 97 points (WC1)
Season Series: Washington 3-1-0; Columbus 1-3-0
At 32 years old, Alex Ovechkin shows no signs of slowing down. After a regular season where he found the back of the net 49 times for his 7th career Rocket Richard Trophy, Ovi has the Capitals in a familiar situation: 1st in the division. However, it seems like there is less talk about this team having Stanley Cup potential this season. Washington is known to choke in the playoffs every year, but without so much pressure on them could this be the season they finally make it out of the second round? They certainly have the talent to do so, but they’ve already made one decision that I just can’t figure out.
Braden Holtby has struggled by his standards this season, posting just a 2.99 GAA and .907 Sv%. However, he has a career 2.00 GAA and .932 Sv% come playoff time. It seems crazy to bench one of the best goalies in the NHL, but Trotz going with the hot hand in Grubauer to start the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets are still looking for their first postseason series win in now their fourth appearance. Despite their strong regular season last year, the Jackets were steamrolled by the Penguins in the first round. They find themselves in an equally difficult situation this time around, as the Capitals are looking to finally live up to their potential. While there are questions in net for Washington, there’s no doubt who will be starting for Columbus. Bobrovsky has been their guy all season long, and the success of this team depends on him more than anybody else. While he hasn’t matched his unreal form from last season, Officer Bob still had 37 wins with a 2.42 GAA and .921 Sv% with 5 shutouts. The issue for this team is their reliance on Artemi Panarin. In his first season with the Jackets, Panarin scored 82 points in 81 games to set a franchise record. The issue is that their next best scorer is defenseman Seth Jones. To get past the first round, the Blue Jackets need to find some scoring depth, and they need to find it fast.
Prediction: Capitals in 6 games
The Jackets are good, but the Capitals are better. They have more depth, more high end talent, and Ovechkin has to sense that his chance to lead a team to a Stanley Cup is starting to run out. I also don’t think that Grubauer plays this whole series. Holtby will find his way back between the pipes soon enough, and he’ll be the starter for the Capitals through the rest of their playoff run.
Pittsburgh Penguins – 100 points (M2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers – 98 points (M3)
Season Series: Pittsburgh 4-0-0; Philadelphia 0-2-2
It seems like any time the Penguins are in the playoffs that it’s impossible to count them out. The reigning back-to-back champs are poised to make another long run, but they have to get past their in-state rival first. There’s always some bad blood between these two teams, but check out what happened the last time these teams met in the playoffs.
The Penguins have put themselves in a position where they have to be considered a contender no matter where they finish in the standings. And when the player that is considered to be the best in the world isn’t even your leading scorer, you know that you have some talented players up front.
Life sure has gotten better for Phil the Thrill since leaving Toronto, and now he’s one of the best scorers in the NHL. The question for the Penguins is in net, as they now have to rely on Matt Murray the whole way for a chance to win. His stats fell off from where they were last season, putting up a 2.92 GAA and .907 Sv%, both well below his career average. However, Murray was limited after missing time due to injury and for family reasons.
The Flyers are built similarly to the Penguins. A pair of talented forwards in Giroux and Jakub Voracek, but also some questions in net. The Flyers were hoping that Brian Elliott would be the solution in net, but when they were hit with a string of injuries in goal they went out to trade for Petr Mrazek. Despite their efforts, it seems like there is no answer to the goaltending issue in Philly, with the best stats actually coming from Michal Neuvirth with his 2.60 GAA and .915 Sv%, neither of which stand out among the leagues best.
Prediction: Penguins in 7 games
I think this series will be a lot closer than most people think. Pittsburgh is good, and they become a completely different team in the playoffs, but they aren’t invincible. The Flyers are the underdogs, but with only 2 points separating these teams in the regular season are the Penguins really that much better? I think we’ll see a lot of close games, a little OT action, and hopefully even another line brawl. Giroux will try to will his way to the second round, but Sid the Kid (how much longer can we keep calling him that for?) and the Penguins will come out on top in this series. That trio of Crosby, Malkin and Kessel, especially on the powerplay, is too much for just about any team to handle. Take into account that the Flyers have the worst PK% of all teams in the playoffs, and you have a recipe for disaster in Philly.