The race to get into the Eastern Conference playoff field was absolutely wild this year, with four of the top nine teams in the conference limping to the finish line and praying they had enough to hold off the relentlessly charging Ottawa Senators, who closed the regular season on an absurd 21-3-3 tear. The Islanders, Red Wings and Penguins survived the scare; the Bruins did not, and their general manager, Peter Chiarelli, has been fired as a result.
And now, with the field finally set, it’s time for the greatest playoffs in North America to begin.
1 New York Rangers vs 4 Pittsburgh Penguins
With the way these two teams are trending, the Penguins look like they’re about to be steamrolled. Pittsburgh closed the season on a 4-10-2 skid, while New York has gone 41-12-3 since Dec. 8, allowing them to win the President’s Trophy. These teams met last year in the second round, where New York pulled itself out of a 3-1 series deficit to win Game 7 in Pittsburgh to clinch the series. Since then, New York has only gotten better, and Pittsburgh has regressed.
The Penguins have disappointed in five straight playoffs, and they enter this postseason without Kris Letang and with Evgeni Malkin trying to work his way back from injury. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist will always outclass Penguins net minder Marc-Andre Fleury, especially in the playoffs, when Fleury tends to lose composure along with the rest of his team. Fleury had an excellent regular season this year, but Lundqvist is just a better goalie, and the Rangers have depth the Penguins can’t hope to match.
The Rangers should quickly dispose of Pittsburgh: five games seems reasonable and a sweep isn’t out of the question.
2 Washington Capitals vs 3 New York Islanders
The Islanders needed this series to happen about two or three months ago, before they could only muster hockey .500 results, which has been the case since Feb. 14. They’ve forgotten how to win at home, so maybe it’s lucky they coughed up home ice advantage at the end of the season. John Tavares is a Hart Trophy-caliber player, and the Islanders group of defensemen is very good from top to bottom; acquiring Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy may have been the best moves of last offseason by any team. But while the Islanders have plenty of solid forwards who found regular season success this year, there aren’t many who fit the profile of dangerous playoff weapons. Outside of Tavares, only Anders Lee and Brock Nelson scored 20 goals (although Kyle Okposo would have gotten there if not for injury), and only Okposo and Ryan Strome eclipsed 50 points.
New York likely may not have the offensive firepower to compete with the Capitals, who have not only the NHL leader in goals scored with Alexander Ovechkin and a master assist distributor in Nicklas Backstrom, but a Vezina Trophy nomination-caliber goalie in Braden Holtby as well. Holtby went 41-20-10 with a .923 save percentage and 2.22 goals against average.
New York was third in the league in goals this year, but the Islanders haven’t been the same team over the last couple months, and are now the underdog in their series against the Capitals. Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak has gone on deep postseason runs before with the Montreal Canadiens, but Holtby seems to be the goalie more likely to have the hot hand this postseason. Capitals take the series in six or seven.
1 Montreal Canadiens vs 4 Ottawa Senators
This is the top series on upset alert this postseason. Why? The reasons to pick the Canadiens go as follows: 1. Carey Price. That’s it. Price should win not only the Vezina but also the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player this year. He’s more than capable of taking this series by himself, and could take more series alone later in the postseason if necessary.
But Ottawa has a mind-boggling amount of momentum on their side, from all over the depth chart, be it goalie Andrew Hammond, defenseman Erik Karlsson, or winger Mark Stone, who seems to be the only rookie in the NHL whose production is improving as the postseason approaches. Karlsson is better than Canadiens top defenseman P.K. Subban, but not enough so to swing too much favor in Ottawa’s direction.
Canadiens top scorer Max Pacioretty will miss Game 1 with injury, and if his game suffers as a result of that injury when he does end up playing, Montreal will be in trouble. Both teams are pretty poor possession-wise, and goaltending has been stellar on both sides, so the ability for any team to get pucks past brick walls Price and Hammond becomes crucial. Montreal is poor offensively. I still think they hang on by the skin of their teeth in seven games just by nature of Price being in net, but Ottawa will give them all they can handle, and a Senators series win would not be the least bit surprising.
2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs 3 Detroit Red Wings
Maybe the most one-sided series in the first round of this year’s playoffs. Tampa Bay has owned Detroit the last two years, going 4-1 against them in 2013-14 and 3-1 versus the 2014-15 Wings. Tampa Bay is loaded with depth: they have an entire line of players who’ve scored 63-72 points, and no one on that line is Steven Stamkos (who also happens to have 72 points). That “Triplets” line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov is deadly, and their presence has allowed Tampa Bay to score the most goals in the NHL.
Going up against the highest-scoring team in the league is the worst thing a team with a goalie controversy can ask for. Regular starter Jimmy Howard’s deficiencies were all-too frequently exposed this season, and now coach Mike Babcock has decided the team is better off starting 23-year-old Petr Mrazek in net. Mrazek has been solid overall, but his splits are extremely polarized: 1.94 GAA and .934 SV% in wins, 3.73 GAA and .871 SV% in losses. That’s a wider gap than should be expected from goalies, and facing the Lightning, it’s more likely we see the stats of the losing Mrazek, and maybe some starts thrown Howard’s way in desperation.
The Lightning should win in four or five games, and Detroit will face a difficult offseason full of rumors of Babcock’s departure.