The BEST and most exciting post-season starts April 10th with the quest for the Stanley Cup. Here is my Eastern Conference playoff preview.
The Tampa Bay Lightning will be the clear favorite to win the Stanley Cup this year. Anything but a Stanley Cup will be a disappointment. The Lightning tied the 1995-1996 Detroit Red Wings for the most regular season wins with 62 and Nikita Kucherov should be close to a unanimous MVP leading the NHL in scoring with 128 points including 87 assists. Hard to find any real weaknesses with the Lightning with 3 deep scoring lines with Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point all scoring over 40 goals, the number one power play at 28.2%, and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy leading the league in wins with 39, a 2.40 GAA and .925 save percentage. The main worry for the Lightning would be injuries on the defensive side. They should have Dan Girardi back for the playoffs since being out on March 7th. An injury to Victor Hedman would be the biggest worry, especially if they get out of the 1st round and have Toronto or Boston on tap.
The Columbus Blue Jackets wrapped up the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference on Friday night beating the NY Rangers 3-2 in a shootout. The Blue Jackets had been dancing on the playoff bubble for most of the season but closed strong winning their last 7 of 8 and only giving up 14 goals in that span. They had a nice bounce back year from Cam Atkinson with 41 goals after tallying 24 from the previous season. Artemi Panarin had another solid year leading the Blue Jackets in scoring with 87 points and Pierre Luc-Dubois and Josh Anderson each had 27 goals. They were expecting more from Matt Duchene who only tallied 4 goals in 23 games after acquiring him from Ottawa in February. Sergei Bobrovsky has played his best in net down the stretch and the Blue Jackets are tied with Tampa Bay with the best penalty kill % at 85.0.
A lot of things will have to go right for Columbus to have a chance in this series. Bobrovsky will have to be at A+ level, Panarin and Duchene will have to produce, and staying out of the penalty box and continuing their effective power play kill will be essential. They were drubbed by the Lightning 3-0 in their 3 regular season match-ups being outscored 17-3. Columbus is playing their best hockey right now and can win 1 or 2 games in this series. You have to remember going back to last year they were up on the eventual Stanley Cup winning Washington Capitols 2-0 in the 1st round before losing that series. Tampa though is on a different level right now so picking the Lightning to go through.
Tampa Bay in 5 games
The Boston Bruins tied for the 2nd most points in the league with 107 and were one of the most consistent teams during the regular season with never having a losing streak of more than 3 games. Another banner year on the offensive side for the Bruins with Brad Marchand reaching the 100 point mark and David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron scoring 30+ goals with each of those players missing 20% of the season with injuries. Left Wing Jake DeBrusk emerged with 27 goals and Bruins also got another consistent season from David Krejci who tallied 20 goals. The Bruins power play was ranked 3rd best during the regular season at 25.9%. The Bruins got outstanding years in net from both Tuuka Rask and Jaroslav Halak each winning 20+ games and combining for 9 shutouts. Rask got off to a slow start during the regular but bounced back to regain the starting job and will be the starter for game 1.
If you believe in momentum going from the regular season to the playoffs you would not be very confident in the Toronto Maple Leafs now. They stumbled badly down the stretch losing 11 of their last 16 and only beat 1 playoff team during that stretch. One thing the Leafs do possess going into the playoffs is offensive firepower. 7 different Leafs registered 20+ goals led by John Tavares with 47 and Auston Matthews with 37 and Morgan Rielly led all defensemen in goals with 20. The big questions are on defense as goaltender Frederik Andersen slumped badly down the stretch and back-up goaltender Garret Sparks struggled as well.
On paper Toronto is more than capable of winning this series. But the playoff history for the Leafs against the Bruins has not been good losing the last 5 playoff series including last year to the Bruins in 7 games and blowing game 7 of the 2013 playoffs with a 4-1 lead in the third period. Boston beat the Leafs 3 out of 4 during the regular season. I'll go with the more consistent team and pick the Bruins
Boston in 6 games
The Washington Capitols again have to be considered a major threat to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. Alex Ovechkin showed no signs of age leading the league in goals scored with 51 and 6 other Capitol players chipped in with 20+ goals this season. John Carlson had another all star season ranking 4th in scoring for defensemen with 70 points and Braden Holtby in net had a consistent but unspectacular regular season. One concern on the defensive side is the Caps rank 2nd from the bottom in penalty kill % for all playoff teams and can't afford Tom Wilson going off the rails during the post season. Todd Reirden who was Barry Trotz assistant last year takes his turn behind the bench for his first playoff series.
The Carolina Hurricanes ended a 10 year playoff drought clinching a playoff spot Thursday night by beating the New Jersey Devils 3-1. Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen both had breakthrough seasons leading the Hurricanes in scoring with Aho tallying 30 goals and 83 points while Teravainen finished with 21 goals and 76 points. The Hurricanes had 13 different players with 10+ goals and have one of the more deeper scoring lines in the NHL. The goaltending tandem of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McIlhinney each won 20 games combining for 6 shutouts making them one of the best goaltending combos in the league.
The Caps last year overcame decades of playoff flame outs to finally win their first Stanley Cup and are more than capable of making another run. They dominated the regular season matchup against the Hurricanes winning all four games including back to back wins on March 26th and March 28th. Carolina is a very underrated team with a good mix of young talent and veterans and if they were in the Western Conference I would give them a shot of winning a series or two. I still have to go with the Caps to win a tightly contested series
Washington in 7 games
Make it 13 straight seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL playoffs. They had to overcome an early season slump of losing 9 out of 10 but bounced back to win 10 of out 11 toward the end of 2018 and played well enough down the stretch to get the 3rd spot in the Metropolitan Division. Going into the playoffs the Pens won't be considered a favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference but they still have enough front line talent to win a series or two. They still have close to the best front line scoring in the NHL with Sidney Crosby (35 goals, 65 assists), Phil Kessel (25 goals, 55 assists), Jake Guentzel (40 goals, 36 assists), and Evgeni Malkin (21 goals, 51 assists) and have the 5th best ranked power play (24.6%) going into the playoffs. Even though goaltender Matt Murray is only 25 years old he has won 2 Stanley Cups and is more than capable of rising up in the playoffs even with an inconsistent regular season. Injuries on the defensive side to Kris Letang who should play and Brian Dumoulin who is out are the biggest Pens concerns heading into the playoffs.
The NY Islanders exceeded all expectations this year to earn the 2nd spot in the Metropolitan Division and home ice in the 1st round of the playoffs. Not much was expected this year per losing John Tavares to free agency and bringing in new coach Barry Trotz. The big story for the Islanders has been the goaltending duo of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss who have BOTH put up Vezina type numbers with Lehner at 25 wins, 6 shutouts, 2.13 GAA, save % .930 and Greiss at 23 wins, 5 shutouts 2.28 GAA, save % .927. The Islanders big concern will be offensively as their leading scorer Mathew Barzal only had 62 points and the Islanders are the 2nd lowest team in goals per game heading into the playoffs.
This in my opinion is the best 1st round match up of the playoffs. The biggest x factor is that this playoff series for the Islanders will be played in Long Island and not Brooklyn which will give them a huge home ice boost. This is your skill on the Penguins side against the defensive/grind it out will of the Islanders. The Islanders won 2 out of 3 during the regular season but one odd note is that they have not played against each other since December 6th and only once since November 1st. Can Barry Trotz work his magic again? Can the Islander goalies continue their magnificent run? Can Sidney Crosby get hot in the playoffs and win Stanley Cup number 4? Most people will be picking Pittsburgh but I like the Islanders with their defensive style and playing in Long Island
Islanders in 7 games