NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference

The matchups are set, the skates are sharpened, and the teams are ready: The Stanley Cup playoffs are finally upon us, and the 4th String team is here to preview everything before the puck hits the ice. First up: the Eastern Conference.

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Above is the final playoff bracket for the 2017 Stanley Cup (NHL)

Washington Capitals vs Toronto Maple Leafs

Is this finally, finally, the Capitals’ year? Despite being consistently one of the best teams in the NHL in the Ovechkin era, the Capitals have not made it out of the second round of the playoffs since the turn of the millennium. Last year, the Capitals won the President’s trophy for having the best record in the NHL, but lost in the second round to eventual Stanley Cup Champions the Pittsburgh Penguins. This year, the Caps again earned the President’s trophy and hope to finally break the DC curse and clinch their first Stanley Cup. Alexander Ovechkin is starting to show signs of age, scoring 17 fewer goals than last year, but has compensated with 15 more assists to near his 2016 point totals. Centers TJ Oshie and Nicolas Backstrom have stepped up to compensate for Ovechkin’s lowered production this year, allowing the Caps to remain the best regular season team in the NHL. Washington Goalie Braden Holtby has also had a career year, leading the NHL in wins (42) and shutouts (9) while carrying a respectable .925 save percentage. Overall, the Caps enter this series heavy favorites but will still need to overcome the curse if they want to advance.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have made the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season, and only the second time since 05-06. The Maple Leafs made it only by the skin of their teeth though, edging out the Lightning and Islanders by only 1 point. Their reward for finally making the playoffs: playing the President’s trophy winners in the first round. Their team is also rattled by injuries recently, with Goalie Frederik Andersen and Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev questionable to start against the Capitals. Still, Maple Leaf fans should have reason to root for the improbable. Rookie Center Auston Matthews has had an amazing year, scoring 40 goals and 69 points for Toronto. As has another rookie Center, Mitch Marner, who scored 19 goals and 61 points this year. Goalie Frederik Andersen lead the league in playoff save percentage (.947) last year with the Anaheim Ducks, so he could be a force to be reckoned with if he returns from concussion protocol unscathed. Win or lose, Toronto fans should look forward to having spectacular rookies with playoff experience next year, possibly ushering in a new, brighter era of Maple Leafs hockey.

Game 1 will be played on Thursday, April 13th at 7:00 pm in Washington.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus Blue Jackets

The Metropolitan Division is far and away the best in the NHL, with all 4 of the top teams scoring above 100 points this season (the rest of the NHL has 5 teams above 100). Since this division is so stacked, it’s only natural that it’s first round matchups would be the best by far.  To give you an idea how good this series would be: if teams were seeded 1-8 by conference, Pittsburgh and Columbus would be #2 and #3, respectively. This year, the Penguins enter the playoffs marred by injuries, but, led by always-dominant Sidney Crosby, this team is still tough to beat. Crosby lead the league in goals with 44 and has 45 assists to boot. Sophomore Goalie Matt Murray has had a phenomenal year, averaging a .923 save percentage and earning 32 wins throughout the season. Improvements from players like Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl along with the addition of Jake Guentzel has allowed the team to compete despite their injuries. The Penguins should also have star player Evgeni Malkin back from injury at some point in the series, though he likely will not be able to play in the first game. Either way, they Penguins still have the tools to make another run at Lord Stanley’s Cup despite their war-weary roster.

The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, are having the best year of their 16-year history, making the playoffs for only the third time in team history. The Blue Jackets have also never won a playoff series in team history, both other times they lost in the first round (they have also only won 2 of 10 playoff games played). Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is unequivocally the best in the league, with a monstrous .933 save percentage and only 2.06 goals against average.  Bobrovsky leads the league in Goalie Point Share, a measure of how many wins are a result of the goalie’s extraordinary effort, with 14.9, and has a crazy 33.4 Goals Saved Above Average. Right Winger Cam Atkinson is having the best year of his career, leading all Blue Jackets with 35 goals and 62 points. 22 year old Center Alexander Wennberg has 46 assists in just his 3rd year in the league while Left Winger Brandon Saad continues to put up good numbers for Columbus. Overall, this matchup is easily one of the best in the first round, so keep an eye on it as the series plays out.

Game 1 will be played Wednesday, April 13th at 7:30 pm in Pittsburgh

UPDATE: The Penguins have announced that Evgeni Malkin will play in game 1 against the Blue Jackets

Montreal Canadiens vs New York Rangers

Another surprisingly great matchup pits the Atlantic division winner Canadiens against the Metropolitan wild card Rangers. If seeded 1-8, the Canadiens and Rangers would be #4 and #5, respectively, and would be separated by a mere 1 point.  The Habs are back in the playoffs this year after missing them in 2015, and they’ve also replaced head coach Michel Therrien midway through this season. Left Winger Max Pacioretty leads the team in points this year, matching his 2014-15 career high of 67, while Right Winger Alexander Radulov comes in a distant second with 54. The addition of rookie Artturi Lehkonen and acquisition of 24 year old Phillip Danault has propelled the laggard offense that kept Montreal out of playoff consideration last year. Goalie Carey Price has been a blessing for Montreal, after he was out for most of the 2015-16 season with a strained ligament. This year he’s put up a .923 save percentage and 2.23 goals against average, putting him in the top 10 in both categories. Expect a rejuvenated and restructured Canadiens team to come in with something to prove against New York.

The New York Rangers have one of the most diverse offenses in the NHL this year and are backed by the ever-great Henrik Lundqvist in goal. 4 players are above 50 points in the season, with Right Winger Kevin Hayes just short at 49, and all but two consistent players have positive +/- rating. Left Winger Mats Zuccarello has been an assits machine this year, leading the rangers with 44 assists and 59 total points. Center JT Miller set his career high in goals (28) and points (53) this year, and he continues to develop into an a major offensive threat for the Rangers. Netminder Henrik Lundqvist may finally be showing signs of age, as his save percentage dropped to .910 and he had a negative goals saved above average for the first time in his career, but he’s still getting the job done for New York. Watch for the Rangers to bring in Goalie Antti Raanta if Lundqvist isn’t doing well, as they did in the 2015-2016 playoffs and have done throughout this year’s regular season. Either way, this promises to be another electric first round playoff series for both teams.

Game 1 will be played Wednesday, April 12th at 7:00 pm in Montreal

Ottawa Senators vs Boston Bruins

Completing the list of Eastern Conference Canadian teams is the Ottawa Senators, who also missed the playoffs in 2015-16 but are back again this year. Their opponents are the #3 Boston Bruins, who sit a mere three points behind Ottawa in the final regular season standings. The betting odds, however, favor the Bruins, making this the only round one matchup where the lower-seeded team is still favored to win. Las Vegas doesn’t believe in Ottawa for a few simple reasons: they are the only playoff team with a negative goal differential on the season, rank 22nd in offense in the NHL, and are 4-4-2 in their last ten games. Still, there are some good things going for Ottawa. Erik Karlsson is one of the best Defensemen in the league, netting 71 points and tightening up many of his efficiency stats from last year. Left Winger Mike Hoffman continues to improve, setting a career-high 61 points on the season. Goalie Craig Anderson is proving he can still play at 35, having a 3rd in the league .926 save percentage that has allowed the team to make the playoffs with one of the worst offenses in hockey.

The Bruins return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14. They enter in on a hot streak led by new head coach Bruce Cassidy, who has taken the team 18-8-1 since he was hired. As mentioned earlier, the Bruins hot streak combined with the Senators’ statistical weakness has made Boston the betting favorite, and for good reason. The Bruins enter with a top-ten defensive rating and an offense that is vastly superior to the Senators, despite being only slightly above average. Left Winger Brad Marchand is tied for 5th in points this year, with 39 goals and 46 assists on the season. Right Winger David Pastrnak has had a breakout year, scoring 70 points this year. Compared to last year, Pastrnak has scored 19 more goals and 25 more assists this season. In the net, Goalie Tuukka Rask has been slightly above average, with a .915 save percentage and 2.23 goals against average. Most of the Bruins’ stellar defense comes from their skaters, especially Defenseman Zdeno Chara, who has 130 hits and 140 blocks on the season. The Bruins are a force to be reckoned with this year, no matter what their record says.

Game 1 will be played Wednesday, April 12th at 7:00 pm in Ottawa

-Joseph Politano

The 4th String team

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