Eastern Conference Playoff Preview
The NHL Playoffs start tonight! The 2017-2018 NHL season has seen a ton of ups and downs. One thing that was noticeable early on, was the increase in goals. Scoring in the league jumped up to 2.97 goals-per-game. Also, the average power play converted at just over 20%, which was a significant increase over years past. Goaltenders gave up some more goals on average as the normal mean save percentage dipped to near .909. In previous seasons, it was closer to .915.
The Eastern Conference is filled with some high-octane match-ups and a couple of these clashes feature bitter rivalries. This makes for some entertaining match-ups. This playoff season is not going to just start. It is going to erupt! Let’s get started with the top and work our way down. Yes, this will include predictions and some projections as well. It is always good to listen to The Program and Lace Em Up Podcast for their previews as well.
Tampa Bay Lightning (A1) vs New Jersey Devils (WC2)
Thursday, April 12, 7pm: Devils @ Lightning | NHL Network, SN, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 14, 3pm: Devils @ Lightning | NBC, CNBC, SN360, TVA Sports
Monday, April 16, 7:30pm: Lightning @ Devils | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 18, 7:30pm: Lightning @ Devils | GOLF, SN, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 21, TBD: Devils @ Lightning | TBD
*Monday, April 23, TBD: Lightning @ Devils | TBD
*Wednesday, April 25, TBD: Devils @ Lightning | TBD
* if necessary
Key Players: Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay). Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, Nico Hischier, Sami Vatanen, Keith Kinkaid (New Jersey).
Head to Head: NJ won all three match-ups.
The Skinny: New Jersey defied a lot of odds to make the playoffs. Tampa Bay was the best team in the East for the first half of the season and just squeaked into the top spot of the division and conference. Few expected Keith Kinkaid to be leading the way for New Jersey in net but here we are. He went 7-0-1 over his final eight starts of the season to help clinch a playoff spot. New Jersey averaged 3.1 goals a game over the final 20 contests. Taylor Hall was the team MVP of New Jersey tallying 93 points on the season and carried the offensive load in so many key match-ups (against Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay particularly). New Jersey does not have the depth that Tampa possesses. Few teams do. However, the Achilles’ Heel of Tampa is their defense and penalty kill. They allowed well over three goals a game and only killed 74% of their penalties after the All-Star Break. New Jersey has some of the same defensive weaknesses, but Kinkaid has been able to mask them enough when it counts.
When it comes to individual games, that all bodes well for New Jersey. However, a best-of-seven series allows teams to expose advantages. Can New Jersey adjust? Will Steven Stamkos be close to 100%? Those are the two questions that need to be answered. New Jersey must adjust and turn up their speed along with their ability to chase pucks. They must be able to hammer Tampa’s defense and hem them in their zone as often as they can. Tampa’s forwards have a distinct depth advantage. Their power play has been around 25% all year and New Jersey must keep staying out of the box. If they revert back to earlier in the season, this has the makings of being a short series.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 6 – The Lightning have too many weapons and can wear New Jersey down.
Boston Bruins (A2) vs Toronto Maple Leafs (A3)
Thursday, April 12, 7pm: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 14, 8pm: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
Monday, April 16, 7pm: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN
Thursday, April 19, 7pm: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN
*Saturday, April 21, TBD: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | TBD
*Monday, April 23, TBD: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | TBD
*Wednesday, April 25, TBD: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | TBD
* if necessary
Key Players: David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask (Boston). Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, James van Riemsdyk, Jake Gardiner, Frederik Andersen (Toronto).
Head to Head: Toronto won three out of four match-ups.
The Skinny: Boston went on an insane run as they won 40 of their final 55 games. Toronto has been steady and still ended up with a franchise record 105 points. The only match-up Boston won was when Auston Matthews was in the lineup. Toronto is one of the few teams in the league that can match up well against Boston. They also have a goalie in Andersen, who has played 66 games and faced over 2200 shots. Does Andersen wear down in this high tempo series? Can Tuukka Rask stay the course enough to ensure a Boston series win? There are going to be plenty of momentum shifts in this series, but no one expects to see a repeat of 2013.
At what point does Boston give in and let Ryan Donato loose on Toronto? He may not play in Game 1, and some would argue that is a mistake. Toronto’s penalty kill has been better of late while Boston’s is a top five unit. Both power plays are extremely strong (Toronto – 2nd , Boston – 4th ). It could come down to depth lines where Toronto has a nice third line but an inconsistent fourth line which can be attacked often. Boston can roll four lines a fraction of a hair better, anchored by one of the best top lines in hockey. Toronto has a unique one-two punch that can put fear in Boston defensively. That punch helped Toronto win the regular season series. Can Toronto and Boston hold it together defensively long enough? That ultimately decides the winner of this series. When there are offenses of this high caliber, survival is often the key more than anything else.
Boston’s top line, with their experience, and recent history may be enough. Toronto has a strong chance of winning this series, but the Bruins are healthier than they were last season. That means something here.
Prediction: Boston in 7 – Boston squeaks by with a little help from their depth.
Washington Capitals (M1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (WC1)
Thursday, April 12, 7:30pm: Blue Jackets @ Capitals | USA, SN360, TVA Sports
Sunday, April 15, 7:30pm: Blue Jackets @ Capitals | NBCSN, SN360, TVA Sports
Tuesday, April 17, 7:30pm: Capitals @ Blue Jackets | NBCSN, SN360, TVA Sports
Thursday, April 19, 7:30pm: Capitals @ Blue Jackets | USA, SN, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 21, TBD: Blue Jackets @ Capitals | TBD
*Monday, April 23, TBD: Capitals @ Blue Jackets |
*Wednesday, April 25, TBD: Blue Jackets @ Capitals | TBD
* if necessary
Key Players: Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, John Carlson, Philipp Grubauer (Washington). Artemi Panarin, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, Seth Jones, Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus).
Head to Head: Washington won three out of four match-ups.
The Skinny: Washington and Columbus come into the postseason under completely difference circumstances. The Capitals won eight out of ten quietly while the Blue Jackets have won 15-of-17 in a boisterous way. Columbus’s top two lines were among the best in hockey over the final month of the season while Washington’s top six sputtered a bit. However, Philipp Grubauer won 11 of his final 14 decisions. He will get the game one start over Braden Holtby (who has the second best save percentage among all playoff goalies). However, his struggles over the second half were troubling. The problem for Columbus is Sergei Bobrovsky. Does a top ten offense turn him into a pumpkin in the postseason again? Or will he finally stand up and deliver? His 3.63 goals against average and sub .900 save percentage is a question mark. However, if anyone can turn it around, it is Bobrovsky in this series. Washington can go cold offensively.
Also, does Columbus continue to ride the wave? Like mentioned above, their top six averaged just over a point a player during the final month of the regular season. Columbus has troubles with their 25th ranked power play (17.2%) and near 76% penalty kill. The good news is Columbus is among the ten most disciplined teams in the league. Washington is 17 th in opportunities generated on the man advantage. This is a series where the Capitals will have to create more and draw penalties to win. Columbus can be susceptible to yielding shots in bunches. Washington’s defense is soft down the middle with their depth much like the Blue Jackets. Artemi Panarin vs. Alex Ovechkin’s lines will determine the likely winner of this series. So, what will be the result?
Prediction: Washington in 7 – Washington’s coaching and experience, for better or for worse, could be a deciding asset here.
Pittsburgh Penguins (M2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (M3)
Wednesday, April 11, 7pm: Flyers @ Penguins | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Friday, April 13, 7pm: Flyers @ Penguins | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Sunday, April 15, 3pm: Penguins @ Flyers | NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 18, 7pm: Penguins @ Flyers | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
*Friday, April 20, TBD: Flyers @ Penguins | TBD
*Sunday, April 22, TBD: Penguins @ Flyers | TBD
*Tuesday, April 24, TBD: Flyers @ Penguins | TBD
* if necessary
Key Players: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, Matt Murray (Pittsburgh). Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Jakob Voracek, Shayne Gostisbehere, Nolan Patrick (Philadelphia).
Head to Head: Pittsburgh won all four match-ups (two after regulation).
The Skinny: This series is expected to feature a ton of offense. Pittsburgh at least remembers the 2012 series while Philadelphia may be reminded this is not the 2012 version of the Penguins. It was a regular season match-up that saw Pittsburgh sweep Philadelphia while averaging five-goals-a-game. The expectations of high event, high scoring hockey is prevalent. Goaltending is a question mark for both teams but more for Philadelphia, who have not seen consistent goalkeeping from Brian Elliott or Petr Mrazek. Matt Murray has been able to deliver solid numbers in the past and went 12-4-2 over the final 18 starts (.919 save percentage). Murray’s concern has been injuries, and that is well documented.
Philadelphia and Pittsburgh will feature waves of offense to the point of whomever survives on defense, wins the series. Can the Flyers compete with the Penguins depth? If they can and get league average goaltending, then this is a different series. Watch for the status of Derick Brassard. Brassard was brought in for checking line scoring depth. If he cannot go, it will be up to Riley Sheahan. That may prove to be problematic at times. Philadelphia’s special teams must be better, especially the penalty kill (74% since January 1st ). Pittsburgh accelerates in varying waves which has caused teams many problems in the past. That may be no different here.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 6 – Pittsburgh’s bottom six depth, goaltending, and special teams are all just a little better than Philadelphia’s and that will make a difference.
Written by Chris Wassel / @ChrisWasselDFS
Special to HockeyClan
Main Image: Nikita Kucherov #86, Brayden Point #21 and Ondrej Palat #18 of the Members of the Tampa Bay Lightning, celebrate a goal against the Boston Bruins during the second period of the game at the Amalie Arena on April 3, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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