Eastern Conference Preview
The NHL Playoffs begin tonight, so Fanpicks is here to bring you our Eastern Conference Preview.
Detroit will get the post-season party started when the puck drops at 7 pm ET in Tampa Bay tonight, as the Red Wings face the Lightning in Round One.
The Penguins and Rangers also face-off tonight (8 pm ET), while the Capitals are in action tomorrow night (7 pm ET). You can view the entire playoff schedule here.
So without further ado, our NHL Playoff Preview.
(1) Washington Capitals (56-18-6-2, 120 pts) vs (WC) Philadelphia Flyers (41-27-6-8, 96 pts)
Alex Ovechkin and his high-flying Capitals are looking for that elusive playoff success, but face a red-hot Flyers squad that finished the season on a 15-6-2 run in which they passed four teams in the standings to reserve a spot in the post-season tournament.
Philadelphia does have a roster with a fair share of playoff experience on it, but none of their position groups are deep enough to defeat the first-place Caps in a playoff series.
Their goaltending is solid, but not spectacular and the same can be said for their forwards and defenseman.
Claude Giroux needs to be dominant if the Flyers hope to win a couple of games.
The Capitals had a record-setting season of all sorts, including surpassing the 54 win mark from the 2009-10 season, setting a franchise-record long win streak and goaltender Braden Holtby tying the legendary Martin Brodeur’s single-season win record.
Washington has been in playoff-mode for a while now, resting star players (Ovechkin, Holtby) and coasting to a 3-3-3 record to close out the regular season, but that doesn’t bother Head Coach Barry Trotz who’s sticking to his long-term plan.
They say stats and numbers don’t mean anything when it comes to the playoffs, but here’s some food for thought. Washington became the first team in NHL history to not lose consecutive games in regulation (82-game season). Steady 60-minute play like that is the recipe for success in the playoffs, so if the Caps can come out on top of a few close ones they will have no trouble advancing.
Important note: Though the Caps finished the season with 15 more wings and 34 more points, the season series was tied at two apiece.
(2) Pittsburgh Penguins (48-26-4-4, 104 pts) vs. (3) New York Rangers (46-27-7-2, 101 pts)
The Penguins are the hottest team in the league, as they went an incredible 13-1 since Evgeni Malkin was lost to injury on March 11. The star centerman is expected to be out another four weeks, somewhere mid-second round but word on the street is that oddly enough they play better without both Malkin and Sidney Crosby in the lineup. Maybe it’s due to the fact Crosby feels he needs to shoulder more of the load, something he’s going to need to do now that Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury have been sidelined with injuries.
Pittsburgh is still unclear who will get the start in Game One on Wednesday night, so be weary of Jeff Zatkoff taking the crease. They’ll face the team that has eliminated them in each of the past two seasons, the New York Rangers.
The Rangers enter the playoffs without their captain and number one defenseman, Ryan McDonagh. McDonagh was injured late in the regular season after blocking a shot against the Blue Jackets. He is listed as out with an upper-body injury, but the Rangers hope he will be back soon.
Henrik Lundqvist must have all the answers in this series. Slowing down Crosby, Kunitz, Kessel and co. is no small task, so the veteran Swede must be at his finest.
(1) Florida Panthers (47-26-6-3, 103 pts) vs. (WC) New York Islanders (45-27-5-5, 100 pts)
The Panthers set a franchise record with 47 wins to earn their fifth playoff berth and second in the past 15 seasons, while the Islanders had an up-and-down campaign that has started to unravel at the worst possible moment.
New York’s strengths lay within their forward depth and sometimes spectacular performances from starting goaltender Jaroslav Halak. So when Halak went down with injury and the inexperienced Christopher Gibson took the reigns, thing didn’t look good. Throw in the loss of top-six forward Anders Lee as well and their odds for success drop immensely.
While most look at the contrast in youth and experience as to why the Panthers were so exciting to follow this year, I just see boatloads of talent.
44-year-old Jaromir Jagr had another unbelievable season to anchor the forward group, supported by superiorly skilled recent top draft picks such as linemates 20-year-old Aleksander Barkov, and 22-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau.
These cool cats have a ton of scoring depth, some solid defenders and an all-star goalie in Roberto Luongo, so they could do some damage in the playoffs.
The two franchises have never met in the playoffs before.
The Islanders are seeking to end a first-round playoff drought. New York hasn’t won a playoff series since a second-round matchup against Pittsburgh in 1993.
(2) Tampa Bay Lightning (46-31-2-3 97 pts) vs (3) Detroit Red Wings (41-30-6-5 93 pts)
The Lightning and Red Wings will be the first pair of teams to hit the ice for the 2016 NHL Playoffs in a rematch of last season’s opening round matchup. The Lightning rallied from a 3-2 series deficit to beat the Red Wings en route to reaching the Stanley Cup final, which they lost to the Blackhawks.
Neither team is trending in the right direction…as both teams are just 5-5 in their last 10 games, with three combined consecutive losses to close out the season.
The Lightning went 7-9-1 in their final 17 games, and enter the playoffs minus captain Steven Stamkos (blood clots) and defenceman Anton Stralman (broken left leg), and possibly Tyler Johnson (upper-body). Rookie Jonathan Drouin was recently recalled after season-long drama and has been producing. He has shown to be clutch in big moments during his junior career.
The Red Wings, who earned their 25th consecutive playoff berth, have concerns of their own.
Detroit’s top three scorers have combined for just two goals and 13 assists: Henrik Zetterberg (six assists), Pavel Datsyuk (seven assists) and Dylan Larkin (two goals). Now, Detroit faces the added distraction of Datsyuk revealing he intends to retire from the NHL after the playoffs and continue playing in his native Russia.
Ben Bishop should give the Bolts the edge in goal, but the 46-game playoff veteran Jimmy Howard should be solid after winning his starting gig back after Petr Mrazek faltered down the stretch.