Eastern Conference Playoff Preview: Second Round Breakdown and Predictions
While the winners in the West had a bit of a cakewalk to the second round, things weren’t so easy in the East. Tampa Bay took out the Devils in 5, but Taylor Hall did just about everything he could to give New Jersey a chance. The Capitals looked like they wouldn’t be able to lose in the second round this year after dropping the first two games of their series against the Blue Jackets, but after making the switch to Braden Holtby in net the Caps went on to win the next four games. The Penguins showed a glimpse of why they are the reigning back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions in their 6-game series win against the Flyers. The one thing we learned this series is that the Penguins can seemingly score at will, finding the back of the net 28 times in the series. Last but certainly not least, the Bruins and Leafs were the only series to go the distance and I was very happy with the ending.
Not quite a repeat of 2013, but the Bruins did what they had to do to take care of business against the Leafs.
Tampa Bay Lightning defeat New Jersey Devils in 5
Boston Bruins defeat Toronto Maple Leafs in 7
Washington Capitals defeat Columbus Blue Jackets in 6
Pittsburgh Penguins defeat Philadelphia Flyers in 6
Not trying to brag, but I had this almost perfect.
I had the winners, just missed the number of games for Boston and Pittsburgh, but still good enough to put me tied for 3rd place in our Bench Life Sports Bracket Challenge. When the Vegas-Boston Stanley Cup Final happens I’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.
Tampa Bay Lightning – 113 points (A1) vs. Boston Bruins – 112 points (A2)
Season Series: Boston 3-1-0; Tampa Bay 1-3-0
It’s unfortunate that the top teams in the Eastern Conference have to face off in the second round, but it means that we’re in for some good hockey starting on Saturday. Tampa Bay controlled the conference nearly all season long, but the Bruins made a late push for the top spot that came all the way down to the last game of the season. Not many people would’ve expected Boston to finish the season the season among the league’s best, but it’s definitely no fluke either. They finished 6th in league scoring with 270 goals, and 3rd in goals against with only 214.
Boston has been powered by their top line not only in their first round win against the Leafs, but all season long. The trio of Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak combined for 99 goals and 228 points in the regular season, followed up by 9 goals and 30 points in their series against the Leafs. They’ve been the key to success for the Bruins all year long, and they were the key to success in Game 1 against the Lightning.
Marchand chipped in with four points of his own (1 G, 3A), while Bergeron added three points (2 G, 1 A). Almost equally as important for the Bruins, deadline acquisition Rick Nash scored for the first time since Game 2 against the Leafs. While scoring hasn’t been much of a concern for Boston, the only real question mark about this team is in net. Rask was shaky at best in the potential series-clinching games against Toronto, including Game 7. His GAA and Sv% this postseason are the worst among the eight starting goalies still remaining, leaving many expecting more from the former Vezina Trophy winner.
While one elite goaltender has been struggling, another has been thriving under the pressure that comes along with a #1 seed. Prior to Game 1, Andrei Vasilevskiy had a 2.00 GAA and a .941 Sv%. With some strong play in net, the Lightning have had a bit more freedom in the attacking zone. Nikita Kucherov recorded 10 points in the first round, while Steven Stamkos added 6 points in the first 5 games of his playoff run. One advantage that the Lightning have in this series is their depth on the blue line.
Ryan McDonagh gives the Lightning basically a second top defense pairing, allowing them more favourable matchups for Victor Hedman. Both teams have elite scoring and goaltending, but for the Lightning their advantage in this series comes on defense.
Prediction: Bruins in 6 games
While a lot of people see Tampa as the favourite to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final, I think that the Bruins have shown throughout the season and in Game 1 that they are capable of beating this team. In Game 1 it seemed like everything was going right for the Bruins. The top line produced, Rick Nash kicked his scoring slump, and Jake DeBrusk continued to create chances in his already impressive playoff debut. Hopefully they’ve learned from the mistakes they made trying to close out the Leafs, and they can move forward to the Eastern Conference Final.
Washington Capitals – 105 points (M1) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins – 100 points (M2)
Season Series: Washington 2-2-0; Pittsburgh 2-2-0
It’s a rivalry that’s been existing since the early years of Sid the Kid vs. The Great 8, but the two teams have had very different levels of success over that time. While Crosby and the Pens have won 3 Stanley Cups, it’s become a pretty common joke that Ovechkin and the Capitals will never make it beyond the second round. Even though the Capitals won their division this year, we all know that the Penguins are a completely different team when April rolls around. Things didn’t exactly get off to the best start for Washington. After taking a 2-0 lead early in the third period, the Pens stormed back to steal the first game in Washington 3-2. While blowing a two goal lead is never great, it’s started to become a bit of a trend for the Capitals, who failed to hold on to multiple leads in their first round series against Columbus.
The good news for the Capitals is that their star players are producing, with Ovechkin leading the team with 10 points (6 G, 4A) through 7 games. It seems like the only real problem they had in the first round was in net, when they surprised many by annoucing Phillip Grubauer would be their starter. After struggling through his two starts, Grubauer was replaced by Holtby who has been stellar since. The bad news for the Capitals is that they’re not only in the second round, but also up against a team that has seemed to have their number time and time again.
The Penguins are a team that can seemingly coast through the regular season, and then switch to another gear come playoff time. Surprisingly, it’s not Crosby leading the team in scoring so far. Instead, it’s 23 year-old Jake Guentzel with 16 points through 7 games, including a 4-goal performance in Game 6 against the Flyers to clinch the series. The secondary scoring for the Penguins is showing up once again, and it’s a good thing for them because Evgeni Malkin has missed the last two games and is expected to miss Game 2 as well. It also helps that they have a goalie capable of making saves like this:
Murray has been great through 7 games, recording two shutouts along with his 2.17 GAA and .917 Sv%. It seems like any time the Penguins need a big save that Murray shows up and bails them out. It’s a pretty deadly combination, and it’s the reason why the Penguins are back-to-back champs.
Prediction: Penguins in 7
Even though on paper the Capitals might have an advantage, I don’t see this year being the year that they finally break their curse. The Penguins are too good the Capitals will always be the Capitals. Game 1 highlighted the main problem for this team, and their inability to hold on to a lead will come back to hurt them in this series. They’ll put up a good fight like they always do, but once again you can expect Sid to come out on top against Ovi.