Here are my thoughts and predictions for each of the four Eastern Conference first round playoff series. Tomorrow, I’ll look at the West.
#1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #8 New York Islanders:
I really like the New York Islanders. Unfortunately, I don’t like them in this series. The Isles have made the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and they did it without hooking-and-crooking their way to the finish line. They earned it, losing only one game in regulation over their final 13 contests. In seeing the Isles three times in person this season, I was impressed with the job that head coach Jack Capuano has done in molding his team into a well-oiled machine. (So impressed that Capuano got my vote for Coach of the Year). They play a structured defensive game and don’t allow the opposition time and space. They have a quality goaltender in Evgeny Nabakov. They’ve got a good, young, enthusiastic core of players, led by John Tavares, who will earn consideration for the Hart Trophy this year as the league’s MVP. They’re very good on the road (14-6-4) and have an excellent road power play (fifth-best in the league). I really don’t care about the fact that this group has little or no playoff experience – the way they play breeds success in the postseason.
I like the Islanders so much that I would have picked the them in any other first round matchup. But not against the Penguins, who established themselves in the second half of the season as the one elite team in the Eastern Conference. They won 15 straight games. They’ve withstood injuries at points this year to their three best players – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang – and didn’t miss a beat. To the extent that GM Ray Shero felt he needed to upgrade this team, he added Brendan Morrow, Jarome Iginla, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen at or before the trade deadline. Those players assimilated nicely with the existing group of Penguins. Based on how they played in the regular season, at this moment I expect Pittsburgh to come out of the East. (That feeling could change, based on how things go in the postseason).
There’s one potential wildcard component for Pittsburgh – and that’s goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Like the rest of the Penguins, he had a very good regular season. Fleury was outstanding in the 2009 playoffs and a big reason why the Pens won the Stanley Cup that year. But it’s been a different story the last few years. The Penguins haven’t won a playoff series since the first round of 2010. Fleury was outplayed by Jaroslav Halak in a loss to Montreal in the second round of 2010 and Dwayne Roloson in the Lightning’s 2011 first-round victory over Pittsburgh. Last year, he was awful in a first-round loss to the Flyers. There’s no reason to expect that Fleury can’t keep his regular season form into the postseason, but if he struggles at any point, questions will arise. Still, the Penguins are the team to beat in the East and I think they’ll win this series. Prediction: Penguins in Six.
#2 Montreal Canadiens vs. #7 Ottawa Senators:
Four teams from the Northeast Division made the playoffs this year, but only the Senators enter the playoffs on a bit of a roll. Just a few weeks before the end of the regular season, Ottawa endured a five-game losing streak, but the Sens have righted the ship since. Getting back last year’s Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson has given Ottawa an enormous boost. Ottawa’s head coach Paul MacLean got plenty of votes for Coach of the Year after guiding the Sens back to the playoffs. He did it without Jason Spezza for all but the first five games, Karlsson for most of the season and goaltender Craig Anderson for over a month. Ottawa’s younger players got valuable postseason experience last year in the Sens’ seven-game series against the Rangers, which will help them this time around.
The Canadiens aren’t exactly firing on all cylinders right now. Montreal won the division on the strength of a 14-1-4 stretch in the middle of the season. Since then, though, Montreal has gone just 9-9-0. (Case in point: the Candiens swept the Lightning this year, but their weakest overall performance in the series came in the most recent matchup on April 18, a game Montreal won, 3-2, thanks only to an outstanding performance by goaltender Carey Price).
Between two teams trending in opposite directions – and given the fact that Karlsson, who is a difference-maker in all three zones, is back – I’m picking the Senators. Prediction: Ottawa in Six.
#3 Washington Capitals vs. #6 New York Rangers
This is one of the more intriguing matchups in the first round, because, unlike the Montreal-Ottawa series, both the Caps and Rangers are playing their best hockey entering the playoffs.
It took the Caps about half the shortened season, but once they fully absorbed Head Coach Adam Oates’ system, they were virtually unbeatable. The turning point came in a two-game series sweep of then-division-leading Winnipeg at the MTS Centre in mid-March. Beginning with those two victories, the Caps went 15-2-2 to close out the regular season. Alex Ovechkin is scoring goals at a pace not seen in the last couple of years and goaltender Braden Holtby is playing like he did in the playoffs last year, when he almost got the Caps to the Eastern Conference Finals. And, not surprising given Oates’ expertise in coaching the power play, Washington owned the best power play percentage in the league (a whopping 26.8%). If the Caps can continue converting at such a torrid clip in the playoffs, their power play alone will win them more than a few postseason games.
For most of the year, the Rangers were an enigma. A team many predicted to win the Stanley Cup this season, New York struggled just to make the playoffs. The Rangers’ biggest problem was offense. That problem has become less of an issue since the trade deadline. In their first 35 games, the Rangers scored four or more goals only 10 times. After the trade of Marion Gaborik to Columbus and the additions of Ryane Clowe, Derrick Brassard and John Moore, the new-look Rangers netted four or more goals seven times in their last 13 games. They won five of their last six games to ensure a postseason berth.
Many of the faces have changed over the years, but the Capitals and Rangers will be seeing each other in the playoffs for the third straight year and the fourth time in the last five. The Caps won the first three of those four before the Rangers took last year’s matchup. You can’t go wrong picking either one of these clubs, but I’ll go with the Caps to win the final game on home ice. Prediction: Washington in Seven.
#4 Boston Bruins vs. #5 Toronto Maple Leafs:
Here are two teams struggling to find their way as the playoffs begin. When the Bruins visited the Lightning on February 21, they played one of the most impressive games I’d seen to that point in the season. The Bruins looked to be in playoff form. In starting the season with a 17-3-3 mark, clearly Boston was playing that way most nights. But something shifted for Boston at the half-way point of the season. Perhaps it was a more-condensed schedule (for most of the year, Boston had played the fewest number of games) or just that the Bruins had gotten off to such a great start that it became hard for the players to maintain that same high level. The Bruins went just 11-11-3 in their final 25 games and won only two of their last nine. Whatever the reason, I heard concern from the Boston media when the Lightning played the Bruins last week. The message was: if the Bruins don’t get their act together soon, it could be a very short postseason.
The Maple Leafs are in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Head Coach Randy Carlyle won a Stanley Cup as bench boss of Anaheim in 2007 and that Ducks team was a hard, physical team. The Leafs have the same sort of blueprint. They led the league in hits and fighting majors this year. Thanks to the emergence of Nazim Kadri and Joffrey Lupul’s return from injury, they can throw two dangerous lines at the opposition. But, like the Bruins, the Maple Leafs were not playing their best hockey as the playoffs approached. (This was another team the Bolts saw late in the season and Toronto’s disjointedness was on display in a 5-2 Lightning win). Here’s what I don’t like about the Leafs’ stat make-up. They recorded, on average, six fewer shots per game than they allowed. They also led the league in blocked shots and shooting percentage. What do these numbers tell us? That the opposition is putting more pressure on the Leafs than they are putting on the opposition. Also, that the Leafs were more efficient than the opponent in finishing the chances they themselves generated. It’s true that shots don’t always equate to scoring chances or tell you everything about flow-of-play. But Toronto got outshot in 36 of 48 games this year, so there’s a trend. If the Leafs are going to beat Boston, they’ll need to turn some of those numbers around.
Toronto has the advantage of having played a lighter schedule heading into the series. The Leafs enjoyed a few days off in Tampa before their April 24 game against the Lightning. The Bruins, due to make-up games against the Lightning and Senators, had to play three games in the last four days. That will benefit Toronto and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Leafs can steal one of the first two contest in Boston. But as the series goes on, look for the Bruins to find their stride. Prediction: Boston in Six.