The Stanley Cup Playoffs are special because each of the 16 teams has a shot to get hot for two months and win the title. Optimism rules the day. Don't believe us? Here is a reason why each team in the Eastern Conference could be carrying the Cup around the ice in mid-June
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They possess the most complete first line -- Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak on the wings between Patrice Bergeron is a unit that will keep opposing coaches and defensemen up at night. Marchand, once mostly an agitator, joined the 100-point club this season with 36 goals and 64 assists. Pastrnak scored 38 goals and had 81 points despite missing 16 games. Bergeron scored 32 goals and finished with an NHL career-high 79 points in 65 games, but his offense is secondary to his defensive play. He might be the best 200-foot player in the NHL. With the luxury of this line, coach Bruce Cassidy will be able to dictate matchups whenever he wants.
Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Bruins clinch a playoff spot
The Storm Surge -- No, the wacky, sometimes criticized, postgame celebrations won't help them to the 16 wins needed to claim a championship. In fact, the Hurricanes, who made the playoffs for the first time since 2009, say the Surge won't happen in the postseason. But the chemistry and camaraderie fostered by the celebrations should help immensely during the next two months. A championship team is built on character and unity, and these Hurricanes, forging a new culture in Raleigh, have built both during an unforgettable season.
Columbus Blue Jackets
They're all-in -- Risk should be rewarded, and nobody took bigger risks this season than the Blue Jackets. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen saw a roster featuring unrestricted free agents in two key positions, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and top-line forward Artemi Panarin. Neither player would commit to a new contract, and each can leave as an unrestricted free agent on July 1. He eschewed the option of folding, which would have meant trading at least one of the two, if not both. Nor did he stand pat. Instead, Kekalainen pushed all his chips into the pot, trading for forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid. It's time for the players to repay that vote of confidence.
New York Islanders
Their coach won the championship last season -- It's not a stretch to say that Barry Trotz is the best coach in this season's playoffs. He is one of five to win the Cup, and the most recent after leading the Washington Capitals to the title last season. Trotz has instilled a team-first, structure-before-all mentality that has allowed the Islanders to survive the fact that they are one of two teams that qualified for the postseason without a 30-goal scorer (the Vegas Golden Knights are the other). Forward Anders Lee led the Islanders with 28 goals.
Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Islanders clinch a playoff spot
They have the best player -- Apologies to those who are making a run at the title, but Sidney Crosby remains the best player in the NHL and, unbelievably, he gets better when the games get bigger. He has won the Stanley Cup three times, the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP twice and owns various gold medals from other competitions that prove his big-game pedigree. Crosby is a more well-rounded player today than he was when the Penguins won it all two years ago, entering the Selke Trophy conversation as a favorite for the first time.
Tampa Bay Lightning
They are the best team -- Heck, they are one of the best teams of all time. The Lightning (62-16-4) tied the NHL record for wins set by the Detroit Red Wings 23 seasons ago. Their top scorer, forward Nikita Kucherov, had 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists) the most ever by a Russia-born player. Their goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, should be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy and their coach, Jon Cooper, is the longest-tenured in the NHL. Oh yeah, they made it to Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final and are a far better team this season.
Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Lightning clinch Presidents' Trophy
Toronto Maple Leafs
They're due -- It's said every season by fans of the Maple Leafs, but this might be the year that Toronto ends a championship drought that dates to 1967. They have seven players with at least 20 goals, including center John Tavares, who had 47 in his first season with the Maple Leafs, and defenseman Morgan Reilly, who is in the Norris Trophy conversation. Goalie Frederik Andersen has 36 wins, third in the NHL behind Vasilevskiy (39) and Bobrovsky (37).
They are the champs until proven otherwise -- Can the Capitals become the second straight team to defend its title? You bet they can follow in the footsteps of the Penguins, who won in 2016 and repeated in 2017. Why? Because they are following the same formula. Alex Ovechkin (NHL-best 51 goals) is the elite scorer, Braden Holtby is the clutch postseason goalie and John Carlson (70 points) is the game-breaking defenseman, roles filled by Crosby, Matt Murray and Kris Letang, respectively, for the Penguins. The lessons learned in last year's playoffs, especially in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Blue Jackets when they lost the first two games before winning the next four, will be invaluable this time around.
Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Capitals clinch a playoff spot
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