Eastern Conference playoff match-ups and predictions
The NHL’s Eastern Conference final standings were a partial mystery until the end since so many seedings hinged on Sunday’s lone game, a division match-up between the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators. The Senators ended up winning in regulation, 4-2, meaning the Bruins lost out on the division championship and the second seed while the Ottawa Senators were able to hop into the seventh rather than the eighth seed.
With everything now decided, let’s talk predictions. Keep in mind, of course, that anything can happen in the playoffs, and we could be very wrong come Wednesday night.
No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 8 New York Islanders
The Penguins have an unparalleled offense in the NHL this season and also look to gain back key players — namely Sidney Crosby, who was running away with the regular season scoring title before an accidentally deflected puck broke his jaw. James Neal (concussion) returned to the lineup in the last game of the Penguins’ regular season Saturday. He found his legs quickly, netting a hat trick in the Penguins’ 8-3 win.
However, the Penguins struggled defensively at times, especially against teams beneath them in the standings. The Islanders are competent offensively and will probably challenge the Penguins with speed up front in the form of Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo, and John Tavares. They also have a competent goaltender in Evgeni Nabokov, who has frustrated the Penguins throughout his career. Still, the Penguins’ offense really sets them apart with the power to score at will. The Islanders might take at least one of these games, probably at home, but it won’t be enough to top the Penguins.
Prediction: Penguins in 5
No. 2 Montreal Canadiens vs. No. 7 Ottawa Senators
This will be a good Canadian matchup and a good Northeast Division hate-fest. The Canadiens are a team with a lot of young forwards and a lot of veterans on the back side, but they possess very few elite names and game-changing players.
Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban are their highest-scoring players and also the ones most likely to turn the tides in a series. The Senators have better goaltending than Montreal and a few tricks up their sleeve–like Erik Karlsson, who will be a godsend if he is fully recovered from his supposedly season-ending Achilles injury. Veteran presences like Sergei Gonchar and Daniel Alfredsson will also shore up the team mentality a bit. And if Chris Neil doesn’t enrage every Canadiens player to the point of self-combustion, it will be a miracle.
This series is closer than it looks on paper, and the way the Canadiens have been slipping towards the end of the season, I think the Senators are more likely to come out on top.
Prediction: Senators in 6
No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Rangers
The Caps and the Rangers both rolled into the postseason on pretty high notes. The Capitals are enjoying a resurgence as Alexander Ovechkin seems to have found his stride. Ovechkin has 32 goals in the regular season and will continue to be a threat in the postseason. High-flying offense has been the Caps’ bread and butter since the Ovechkin era began, and Ovechkin receives plenty of help from veteran Mike Ribiero as well as blue-line threats such as Mike Green and John Carlson.
Washington may have the best power-play percentage in the league, but the Rangers seem to know how to hold it at bay, and Washington’s penalty kill, conversely, has not been good at all.
The Rangers bring a lot of solid two-way players with them into the postseason, such as Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, and Ryan McDonagh. What New York lacks in firepower, it will make up for with defense. This series seems awfully close, but if the Rangers can contain the Capitals’ scoring lines with their superior defense, even for just a couple of games, they could pull it off. I can see a few games in this one going to overtime.
Prediction: Rangers in 7
No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs have not made the playoffs since before the last lockout, and this time around, they will take part in a Northeast Division grudge match. The Bruins have slipped, much like the Canadiens, towards the end of the season and aren’t showing many signs of breaking out of their end-of-season slump.
The Leafs are only doing a bit better. They have a more threatening offensive squad overall (Nazem Kadri in particular is having an amazing year), but the Bruins, provided they come into the series on the right foot, will have the advantage of their blue line and stronger two-way players. Phil Kessel is the Leafs’ leading scorer with 52 points, which is more than a point-per-game pace on the season, but he’s still a minus-3.
Unfortunately, the Bruins have been marred by inconsistent play this season, and they may have trouble scoring if they get themselves in a hole. Guys like Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand will need to be at their absolute best. This is also perhaps the most exciting goaltender duel of the playoffs, with Tuukka Rask and James Reimer both enjoying absolutely stellar seasons. The series may very well come down to goaltending–the kind of edge-of-your seat saves that you remember decades afterwards.
With the Bruins in a little bit of a tailspin, it’s hard to say who will come out on top, but I’m inclined to lean more towards the defensive squad led by Zdeno Chara than the one led by Dion Phaneuf.