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NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

With the NHL playoffs about to start, let’s make some first-round predictions in the Eastern Conference.

Yesterday we previewed the Western Conference matchups, which are ridiculously unpredictable. Today, we handle the East, where the matchups are merely absurdly unpredictable. Get the tough work out of the way first, I always say.

The East hasn’t produced a Stanley Cup champion since 2011, and it has long been the weaker conference. But that gap narrowed this year, and with several strong teams including the league’s Presidents’ Trophy winner and closest runner-up, this could be the year the East reclaims the Cup. But first, we need to figure out who gets there.

METRO DIVISION

Last year, we’d joke about this being the division of the Penguins and everyone else. Now, Pittsburgh is holding on by a thread while everyone crowds around and chants for the Rangers to finish them. Uh, Caps and Islanders should be good too.

No. 2 Washington Capitals vs. No. 3 New York Islanders

Series starts: Wednesday in Washington

Season series: They split four games, three of which went into overtime.

Playoff history: They used to meet every few years during the Patrick Division glory days, but this is their first matchup since the Turgeon/Hunter incident in 1993.

Dominant narrative: Two flawed but entertaining teams that exceeded preseason expectations meet in a series that should be crazy fun.

In this corner: New York Islanders (47-28-7, 101 points, plus-21 goals differential1)


1.

A reminder: The goals differentials we’re using don’t match what’s listed on the NHL’s standings page because the league insists on counting shootout wins and losses as goals.

The big question: Is the goaltending good enough? Last year, the Islanders’ season was torpedoed by terrible goaltending. They went out and got Jaroslav Halak, who was an instant upgrade and more than enough to stabilize the position. But while he was good, he wasn’t exactly great; he ranked just 23rd in save percentage. He has single-handedly stolen playoff series before, including once against the Capitals in 2010 when he was with the Habs. But the Isles won’t have an edge at the position anywhere along their path to the Cup.

One player to watch: John Tavares. OK, maybe it’s not the most creative call, but Tavares is the franchise on the Island; he led the team in scoring by 35 points, by far the most of any player in the league. Seeing him go head-to-head with Alex Ovechkin will be a treat.

Health watch: Mikhail Grabovski hasn’t played in two months with a suspected concussion, but he could return at some point. Defenseman Travis Hamonic’s return doesn’t appear imminent, and that’s a big loss.

Key number: 115.7, the average even-strength shot attempts per 60 minutes, for and against combined, for the Islanders this year, the most among playoff teams. In English: This team plays high-event hockey.

Bandwagon potential: Put it this way: The last time they were in the playoffs, we had them at no. 1 in our bandwagon guide. And that was back when they had no hope of even making it out of the first round. This year, they’re pretty good and have to be considered at least a long-shot possibility for a Cup run. It’s also their last year at their decrepit arena, so there’s a nostalgia factor in play too.

They’ll win this series if: Tavares outplays Ovechkin, Halak can stay even with Braden Holtby or at least reasonably close, and they get a break here and there, especially in the inevitable overtime games.

And in this corner: Washington Capitals (45-26-11, 101 points, plus-38 goals differential)

The big question: Can they finally get it done in the playoffs? After all, there may not be a team out there that has built more of a reputation for regular-season excellence followed by a postseason meltdown than the Ovechkin-era Caps. It’s not a fair reputation, mind you — they’ve made the second round in three of their last five appearances, and the only year that really stands out is their first-round exit in 2010, when they simply ran into a red-hot goalie. But it’s still a reputation, and at this time of year those can end up being self-fulfilling if enough people believe them.

One player to watch: Nicklas Backstrom. I could have gone with Ovechkin, but he’s already had plenty of attention over the last few months, so let’s shine some of the spotlight on Backstrom, the high-scoring center who has quietly developed into a very good two-way player. He could wind up playing head-to-head minutes against Tavares, which would be a tough test but one he could handle.

Health watch: Plenty of depth guys are banged up, but the key players are OK.

Key number: .860, the Capitals’ winning percentage when they score first, the best mark in the league. But their .205 winning percentage when they don’t score first is the worst among playoff teams.

Bandwagon potential: Not bad. They came close to breaking through for years, then fell back and were widely dismissed before a coaching change and some aggressive offseason moves fast-tracked them back into the playoffs. You could do worse.

Prediction: This is yet another series that seems like it should be too close to call. It’s not impossible to picture the Capitals running over the Islanders, but I suspect this one goes long. And since I’ve been driving the Islanders bandwagon since September, I might as well stick to my guns. Isles in seven.

No. 1 New York Rangers vs. No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins

Series starts: Thursday in New York

Season series: The Rangers took three of four.

Playoff history: They’ve met five times since 1989. The most recent came in the second round last year, when the Rangers upset the top-seeded Penguins on their way to a conference title.

Dominant narrative: After years of elite status, the Penguins are plummeting their way toward an inevitable reset, and now here come the powerhouse Rangers to deliver the fatal blow.

In this corner: Pittsburgh Penguins (43-27-12, 98 points, plus-13 goals differential)

The big question: What the hell happened to them over the past few months, and is there any chance that they’ve fixed it? As recently as a month ago, the Penguins seemed fine. Not great, certainly not dominant, and falling behind the Rangers in the chase for the Metro’s top seed, but fine as far as playoff teams went. Then they limped their way to a 4-9-2 finish and nearly missed the playoffs. They were awful. Or were they? Hold that thought.

One player to watch: Marc-Andre Fleury. Has there ever been another NHL goalie who had (a) a Stanley Cup ring, and (b) a reputation for always choking in the playoffs? That doesn’t seem like it should be possible. And yet Fleury has managed it, thanks to eight career playoff seasons but only three with a save percentage over .900. Two of those were in 2008 and 2009, when the Penguins went to the Stanely Cup final both years. The other was last season, when Fleury was pretty good. The way the Pens are playing now, they may need more than “pretty good” to beat the Rangers.

Health watch: They’ve been hit hard, which certainly contributed to their cold streak. Kris Letang is out and, according to the team, probably won’t return during the playoffs. That’s as tough a loss as any playoff team is facing. And it’s not the only one — they’re still missing Olli Maatta and Pascal Dupuis, and Christian Ehrhoff and Derrick Pouliot are still day-to-day.

Key number: 54.0, the Penguins’ 5v5 score-adjusted Corsi over those last 15 games, which is … good? It’s really good. In fact, it’s the best of any playoff team over that stretch. That would appear to make no sense — they were a terrible team, in free fall, yet their possession numbers say they were playing well. I honestly can’t come up with a good explanation for this, and obviously possession never tells the entire story, but it’s possible that the Penguins’ late-season slump was at least partly a mirage.

Bandwagon potential: You’re about 10 years too late. Also, they’re probably going to lose. Also, they’re the freaking Crosby-era Penguins. Wait, are you making this pick ironically? Get lost, bandwagon hipster!

They’ll win this series if: The best player in the world suddenly shows up and starts playing for them. Oh, wait, he does — and if Sidney Crosby (and Evgeni Malkin, for that matter) goes into “nobody’s stopping me” mode, then things could get interesting. Should anyone be picking the Penguins to win the series? Probably not. But should we already be forming a conga line on top of their grave, the way most of us have over the last few weeks? Maybe pump the brakes a bit …

And in this corner: New York Rangers (53-22-7, 113 points, plus-61 goals differential)

The big question: Who’s going to stop these guys? The Rangers went to the Cup final last season, then got off to a slow start this year. But once they got going, they rolled through the East, climbing the standings and eventually winning the Presidents’ Trophy. That makes them this year’s odds-on favorite. In a year when nobody seems to know what to expect, that may or may not be a good thing.

One player to watch: Martin St. Louis. The Rangers are loaded with big names who could turn a series, including Rick Nash, Henrik Lundqvist, and Ryan McDonagh. But St. Louis could be the key. He’s coming off a quiet season, and at 39 this could be his last run. But he’s also just two years removed from winning the Art Ross and one year from forcing a trade to New York. He came within three wins of getting his storybook ending last year; maybe this year he can finish it.

Health watch: Other than Kevin Klein, all the main pieces should be available.

Key number: 25, the number of games started by Lundqvist in last year’s playoffs, one of the heaviest postseason workloads ever. Of the five other goalies who played at least that many games and returned to the playoffs the next season, every one lost in the first round. That’s a small sample, and any fatigue concerns for Lundqvist should include the caveat that he got some time off when he missed almost two months with an injury this year. But still, it’s rare for a goalie to have super deep runs in back-to-back years.

Bandwagon potential: Poor. You’re going to bandwagon the first-place team? Come on.

Prediction: The Rangers will win in six, but it’s not easy.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

The Atlantic gave us four 99-plus-point playoff teams, which somehow didn’t include the consensus favorite Bruins. It’s a tough path through this division, especially when you factor in the presence of this year’s miracle team.

No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 3 Detroit Red Wings

Series starts: Thursday in Tampa

Season series: The Lightning took the first three games, with the Wings getting a win in the final meeting.

Playoff history: They’ve never met in the playoffs (largely because they were in different conferences until 2013).

Dominant narrative: Steve Yzerman’s new team looks to finally finish off this iteration of Steve Yzerman’s old team.

In this corner: Detroit Red Wings (43-25-14, 100 points, plus-20 goals differential)

The big question: Is this the end of the Mike Babcock era? It sure seems like it, as the Red Wings coach made it through the season without signing an extension and there are almost daily rumors linking him to Buffalo, Toronto, or a half-dozen other destinations. If so, he’s not going down without a fight; he recently announced that unheralded Petr Mrazek will get the start in goal ahead of longtime starter Jimmy Howard.

One player to watch: Mrazek. The 23-year-old has never played a minute in the NHL playoffs, and he’ll be facing a Lightning team with plenty of firepower. Then again, this has been the season that reminded us that goaltending is voodoo, so Mrazek standing on his head and stealing the series would fit right in.

Health watch: Trade deadline pickup Erik Cole is out, as is Johan Franzen, and several other guys are banged up. But the big stars are healthy.

Key number: 53.9 percent, the Red Wings’ score-adjusted Corsi at 5v5, tied for the best among all playoff teams. The team they’re tied with: Tampa Bay.

Bandwagon potential: Most years I’d say that the Wings were off the board thanks to all of their past success, but this season has a “last call” sort of feel for the Datsyuk/Zetterberg era, so if you want to get nostalgic I guess I can’t blame you.

They’ll win this series if: Mrazek wins the goaltending battle, either by playing well or because Ben Bishop falters. If that happens, it at least gives the Wings’ old/young mix of stars a chance to keep up with the Lightning. Not a great chance, but a chance.

And in this corner: Tampa Bay Lightning (50-24-8, 108 points, plus-53 goals differential)

The big question: Are we all getting ahead of ourselves here? The Lightning have a ton of talent, they’re young, and they’re good at every position group, so it’s no surprise that many are picking them to win the Cup. But remember, this is largely the same team that was the first one out of last year’s playoffs. Granted, that team was missing star goaltender Bishop, who was injured, but it’s also true that he has never played a playoff game. This seems to be the one and only series that everyone agrees on, which makes you wonder what we’re all missing.

One player to watch: Steven Stamkos. There are lots of players to choose from on Tampa Bay, and the young line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov have looked great. But I’m going with the face of the franchise in Stamkos, a generational talent who hasn’t yet had much opportunity to shine on a big stage. His career has featured just two playoff appearances, with only one of those lasting past the first round, and a broken leg last year cost him a chance to play in the Olympics. You get the feeling he’s just waiting to explode under the big spotlight.

Health watch: The blue line is banged up, with Jason Garrison, Braydon Coburn, and Andrej Sustr all missing time recently. All three could be ready for the opener but may not be 100 percent.

Key number: 10.9, the Lightning’s shooting percentage across all situations, the highest total in the league. Sometimes that indicates a team running hot; sometimes it’s just a sign of an especially talented forward group. In the Lightning’s case, it’s probably a bit of both.

Bandwagon potential: You’re probably a little late to the party, but we can squeeze you in.

Prediction: Let’s not overthink it. The Lightning will win in five.

No. 1 Montreal Canadiens vs. No. 4 Ottawa Senators

Series starts: Wednesday in Montreal

Season series: Ottawa won three out of four.

Playoff history: They’ve met once before, two years ago, in an ugly series that the Senators won in five.

Dominant narrative: The league’s most valuable player and undisputed best goaltender looks to continue his dominance when he takes on Carey Price and the Canadiens.2


2.

Just a little joke to lighten the mood there, Habs fans, since I know you would appreciate a good OH GOD MY CAR IS ON FIRE.

In this corner: Ottawa Senators (43-26-13, 99 points, plus-24 goals differential)

The big question: How long until Andrew Hammond turns back into a pumpkin? It probably should have happened already. After all, there was nothing on his college or AHL résumé that said he could succeed in the NHL, let alone dominate. And yet he’s been on one of the greatest runs we’ve ever seen, going 20-1-2 and posting a .941 save percentage.

One player to watch: All eyes will be on the Senators rookie who’s been ridiculously hot lately. No, not Hammond, although he’d fit here too. This time it’s Mark Stone, the rookie winger who’s been scoring at a league-leading pace during Ottawa’s hot streak. He’s not blazing fast and won’t make many highlight reels with fancy stickwork, but he’s got an uncanny knack for finding the open area and getting an accurate shot off clean.

Health watch: Chris Neil and Milan Michalek will likely both be available for Game 1, although Neil probably won’t play. Chris Phillips is still out.

Key number: 14,the number of points out of a playoff spot the Senators were in February, the biggest gap ever erased by an NHL team.

Bandwagon potential: Off the charts. They’re young, they’re the year’s most stunning underdog tale, and they’re playing the Habs. Factor in the inspirational Bryan Murray story, and I’m not sure what more you could ask for.

They’ll win this series if: They’re not just happy to be there, the kids keep coming through, and they end up facing Playoff Carey Price instead of Regular Season Carey Price.

And in this corner: Montreal Canadiens (50-22-10, plus-30 goals differential)

The big question: So, about that Price playoff résumé … Look, it’s probably ridiculous to worry about this stuff. Price is coming off one of the greatest goaltending seasons in recent history, and it’s going to earn him the Vezina and Hart. And it’s not like he’s some sort of choker in big games, since he won Olympic gold as a starter just last year. But his career playoff numbers have been inconsistent, and if he happens to get off to a shaky start this year, that’s going to be all we hear about.

One player to watch: P.K. Subban. That’s really all I should have to write, because if Subban is playing, you need to be watching him. Between him and Erik Karlsson, this series probably features the two most entertaining defensemen in the league. And one of them even owns a personality!

Health watch: Max Pacioretty’s status is up in the air for the opener, which is big.

Key number: 61, the number of third-period goals allowed by the Canadiens during the season, tied for the lowest total in the league.

Bandwagon potential: No. Nope nope nope. Non.

(Seriously, though. No.)

Prediction: Something ridiculously controversial will happen in this series, and two hypersensitive fan bases are going to lose their freaking minds over it. If the arenas are still standing after that, Habs in six.