The East began the season looking like a very weak conference. Its teams seemed far inferior to those out west, and they didn’t help themselves by putting up a bad overall conference record against the Western Conference. However, with the second half of the season came some improved play by the East, and it was Boston that ended up winning the President’s Trophy as the team with the most points during the regular season. Unlike the Western Conference, I can only see two real Stanley Cup contenders in the Eastern Conference: Boston and Pittsburgh. I’m not saying no one else will have a shot, but I wouldn’t bet on anyone else to come out of the East.
So with that, here we go.
I think this is a great first round series. There’s nothing better than two Original Six teams squaring off against one another in the playoffs. For a while, it was looking like the Red Wings might miss the playoffs for the first time in 23 years, but as usual they found a way into the postseason with 93 points and as the East’s last wild card team. Detroit finished the season ranked sixteenth in both goals per game and goals-against per game, neither of which is good. Right now, they are battling some injuries to key players such as their captain Henrik Zetterberg, who isn’t expected back until possibly late in round one if not later than that. Pavel Datsyuk recently returned to the lineup after a knee injury, and his presence on the ice should be a big uplift for this Wings team. For them to have any chance in this series, they are going to need Datsyuk and Gustav Nyquist to come up big on the offensive end. Nyquist ended the regular season as arguably the hottest player in the league, and the Wings will need him to stay hot for this series. Defensively, Detroit has battled some injuries this year as well. Young replacements such as Ouellet, Sproul, and Lashoff will getting their first real taste of playoff hockey in the NHL. Their age and lack of experience could hurt them big time in this series against an elite and proven team like the Bruins. Jimmy Howard is going to have his hands full in net with a lack of defensive support in front of him, so he will need to be outstanding from the opening puck drop to the final whistle of each game. If the Wings want any chance, they are simply going to have to out-work and want this series more than Boston. They almost knocked off the Blackhawks last season using that same recipe.
The Bruins are coming in to this postseason playing the best hockey of any team in the entire NHL. I don’t think you can even begin to argue that any team had a better second half of the season than Boston. Not only did they win the President’s Trophy, but they finished the season third in goals per game, and second in GA/G. No other team in the league finished the season ranked in the top five in both categories. Their defense is arguably the best in the league (right up there with LA), and their goalie is most likely going to win this year’s Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie. Defense wins championships, and Boston has what may be the best defense you’ll find if you take their forwards into consideration. Zdeno Chara is always one of the top d-men in the league, and his partner Dougie Hamilton (when will he switch it to just “Doug?”) is becoming a rather strong defensemen as well at a young age. That brings me to my greatest concern with this team. The youthfulness of their defensive corps. Bartkowski, Hamilton, Krug, and Miller are all rather young, with Hamilton (20) and Krug (23) being the youngest. Both Hamilton and Krug saw action during the Bruins playoff run last year, but I still wonder whether they will crumble under immense pressure this time around. This Bruins team has very few weaknesses, but lack of experience from their young d-men is one of them.
I’m expecting the Bruins to keep on rolling and not have much of a problem on offense or in net this series. It’s their young defensemen that have me a little worried, especially if they advance deeper into the playoffs. Detroit will need to play their best hockey of the year to win this, which I wouldn’t necessarily put past them as long as they still have Mike Babcock behind their bench.
-Boston wins series, 4-2.
This is an interesting matchup in that I don’t think many people predicted the Lightning to end up with a 2-seed. More on that in a bit. Montreal enters these playoffs as the only representative from Canada. A lot of pressure on them to win right there alone. They finished out the regular season with 100 points, and ranked twenty first in goals per game, and eighth in GA/G. Goal scoring is their biggest weakness. Max Pacioretty led the team with 60 points (39G, 21A), followed by P.K. Subban with 53 points as a defenseman. If you look at their lineup, you would think that this is a deep team with a lot of scoring potential on all lines, especially now that they have Thomas Vanek on their top line. That just hasn’t been the case however, and they’ll need to start scoring with more frequency beginning now. On defense, Montreal’s top pairing of Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin will need to find a way to slow down Steven Stamkos. These two have been good all year, and they’ll need to be even better this series. P.K. Subban will need to step up his defensive game as well. This is an area in which he has been criticized throughout his career. Carey Price could have his work cut out for him in goal against the Lightning, so he’ll need to start playing like he did during the Olympics. However, he may be the least of my concerns with the Canadiens.
As for the Lightning, you have to give this team an awful lot of credit for playing as well as they did earlier this season when they were without Stamkos. The highest point total by any player on their roster this year was just 59, yet they still ranked ninth in goals per game. That is a testament to the balance in their lineup. The Lightning have been getting contributions from just about everyone in their lineup offensively, so it should be interesting to see how effective their depth players can be in this series. Valtteri Filppula has proven to be a much bigger signing than anyone thought he would be when he inked a deal with Tampa last off-season. He finished the season second on this team in points, with 25 goals and 33 assists. Defensively, the Lightning ranked eleventh in GA/G, thanks in large part to goaltender Ben Bishop. Bishop finished the year with the fourth most wins of any goalie and with a 2.23 GAA. Those are very solid numbers. Unfortunately, he has been ruled out for Game One of this series with an elbow injury. The extent and severity of his injury could determine just how far Tampa goes this postseason. Anders Lindback is going to have to step up big time in Bishop’s absence. The defensive corps for Tampa is a mix of experienced and inexperienced players. Guys like Matt Carle, Sami Salo and Victor Hedman are going to need to carry the young guys until they can get comfortable playing in a playoff atmosphere.
This series is a tough one to predict. For me, the outcome will be determined by Ben Bishop’s injury. If he only misses Game One, I think Tampa Bay can win this series. If Bishop is out for two, three, or more games, the Lightning may be in trouble. I’m going to assume the worst for Bishop and the Lightning, however.
-Montreal wins series, 4-2.
I love this matchup. Columbus comes into this series after a very successful season by their standards (93 points), and they are playing with a ton of confidence. You might not find another team in the NHL that works as hard as the Blue Jackets. This team goes all out every night and lays everything on the line. They make their opponents work for everything. They ranked twelfth is goals per game and thirteenth in goals against this season, neither of which is great or bad. Offensively, Ryan Johansen had a breakout year and led the team with 63 points (33G, 30A). He is the glue to this team’s offense, and hopefully for Columbus he continues playing well into this series. The depth of the Jackets at their forward positions is underrated. Guys like Dubinsky, Anisimov, and Letestu are very solid players who can make a difference on a nightly basis. On defense, Jack Johnson had a bit of a down season, but he is still a strong defenseman who can play some big minutes. Fedor Tyutin and James Wisniewski, the Jackets’ top d-pairing, will have their hands full against Pittsburgh, but their work ethic is what gives them a decent shot at slowing down the Penguins’ offense. Sergei Bobrovsky, last season’s Vezina winner, put together another good season this year with a record of 32-20-5 and a 2.38 GAA. He will need to be great this series. To me, he is one of two keys to this series, with the other being his opposing goalie.
The Penguins ended the regular season with 109 points, which was good for second in the East. The finished fifth in goals per game and tenth in GA/G. They have always been a high scoring team, and that was the case again this year. Their powerplay ranked first in the NHL, thanks to guys like Crosby, Kunitz, and Malkin. For them to win this series, they will need continued success with the man advantage. Their offensive game really needs no further explanation because I think we all know who we’re talking about there. On defense, the Penguins have one of the deeper defensive units in the game, led by their top pairing of Orpik and Martin. Kris Letang just returned after a long absence from the lineup due to a stroke that he suffered earlier this year. His presence on the back end is a huge boost for this team. Now we get to the good stuff: Marc-Andre Fleury. Since winning the Stanley Cup back in ’09, Fleury has been extremely inconsistent in the playoffs. Two years ago, he played horrible in a series against Philadelphia and the Penguins were eliminated earlier than most thought they would be. Last year, Fleury was yanked early in Pittsburgh’s series with the Islanders, and sat on the bench for the remainder of their playoff run. How he plays and deals with this year’s playoff pressure could decide just how far the Penguins will go. If he plays like he did this regular season, Pittsburgh should make it to at least the Conference Finals. If Fleury regresses back to the player he was a year ago, the Pens could be going home really early.
I am anxious for this series to begin because I think it could be one of the better series of the whole first round. Columbus’ work ethic against Pittsburgh’s skill and experience will be fun to watch. Keep an eye on Fleury early in Game One. If he gives up a quick one or two goals, the Penguins may be in trouble.
-Pittsburgh wins series, 4-3.
This has all the makings of a heated first round series. These two teams have never liked each other, and this year has been no different. The Flyers got off to a really slow start to the season, which led to head coach Peter Laviolette getting fired only a few games in. Since then, however, new head coach Peter Berube has turned the team back in the right direction. Philadelphia finished off their season with with 94 points, and team captain Claude Giroux is getting heavy consideration for this year’s Hart Trophy. He led the team with 86 points and was a huge reason for the Flyers’ turnaround back before the Olympic break. Philadelphia ranked eighth if goals per game this year, while finishing twentieth in goals-against per game. That last stat is something this team needs to get better heading into the playoffs. The Flyers defense isn’t necessarily bad, but they haven’t performed very well this season. The ageless Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn make up Philly’s top d-pairing, followed by Mark Streit and Nicklas Grossman, and Andrew MacDonald and Luke Schenn. On paper that looks good, but they just haven’t performed up to expectations this year on the back end. In goal, it’ll be Steve Mason for the Flyers. He had a decent year this year with a 33-18-7 record while averaging 2.50 goals-against per game. For the Flyers to win this series, they’ll need Mason and their defensemen to perform as well as they have all season.
The Rangers ended the regular season with 96 points, which is actually pretty good considering the start that they got off to back in October/November. They ranked eighteenth in goals per game this year, while ranking fourth in GA/G. They can thank Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan McDonagh for that. McDonagh put together a Norris Trophy-worthy campaign this season, and while he most likely won’t win the trophy, he’s bound to win one sooner or later in his career if he keeps progressing. McDonagh is coming off a recent upper body injury, and the Rangers will need him to be healthy if they want any success this postseason. The same can be said for Martin St. Louis who is also coming off an injury. For obvious reasons, New York needs St. Louis to be healthy and in the lineup for the playoffs. He is a world-class playmaker and goal-scorer, and they can’t afford to have him injured. The key for the Rangers in this series may be their third and especially fourth line. New York’s fourth line has come up big a number of times for them this season, and if they do so in the playoffs, that’ll be a huge plus for this team. I am not too worried about Henrik Lundqvist, as he has played in numerous playoff series and has always performed well.
This is bound to be a bruising series and one that will be very entertaining to watch. If I’m the Flyers, I am hoping and praying that Steve Mason doesn’t crumble under the pressure of playing in the postseason. Their team defense isn’t great, so they’ll need Mason to be very good. As for New York, if they get quality ice time and production from their depth players, they will have a good shot at advancing. This is a tough series to call, but in the end, I have to go with the better goalie.
-New York wins series, 4-3.