2018 Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

Updated: April 11, 2018 at 5:58 pm by Dylan Berthiaume

The 2018 playoffs features three teams in the Eastern Conference who did not make the playoffs in 2017—Lightning, Devils & Flyers.

Some familiar faces are back yet again. The Pittsburgh Penguins host their cross state rivals as they begin their quest for a threepeat. The Washington Capitals have often succumbed to pressure of being East favourites but come in a little more under the radar this year. Will that help?

[A1] Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils [WC2]

 Record GF/PG GA/PG PP% PK% CF% SCF%
Tampa Bay Lightning  54-23-5 (3rd in NHL) 3.54 (1st) 2.85 (13th) 23.9% (3rd) 76.1% (28th) 51.65 (7th) 53.06 (4th)
New Jersey Devils 44-29-9 (15th in NHL) 2.96 (15th) 2.93 (17th) 21.4% (t-9th) 81.8% (t-7th) 48.59 (21st) 48.53 (21st)

Injuries really hurt the Lightning last year, but a healthy 2018 saw them get back to the potential everyone saw last season. After a ridiculous first half, the Lightning have been out of sorts recently, winning just six of their last 13 games (6-6-1). The Devils on the other hand, come in hot, winning 10 of 14 (10-3-1) down the stretch.

Despite being the hotter of the two teams entering the series, the Devils are likely going to have trouble matching the Lightning’s depth. Taylor Hall may be the Hart Trophy winner this summer after almost singlehandedly getting the Devils to the postseason. His line with Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri is the Devils’ only hope to advance to the second round because Tampa Bay can roll four really good lines, all of which can score.

The Lightning really beefed up their team at the trade deadline, adding J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh via trade and it makes them a favourite to come out of the East. Miller is skating with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov and picked up 18 points (10G / 8A) in 19 games since the trade—that’s a 43-goal, 35-assist (78 points) per 82 game pace.

The difference in this series will be the goaltending. Andrei Vasilevskiy looked like a Vezina Trophy candidate for the majority of the year but stumbled down the stretch. Since the start of March, Vasievskiy has gone 7-5-0 with a 3.70 GAA and .891 SV%. That could have been fatigue related, but he’ll have a whole week off before Game 1. In the New Jersey crease, Keith Kinkaid overtook Cory Schneider and was already announced as the Game 1 starter. Since the middle of February, Kinkaid has gone 16-3-1 with a 2.32 GAA, .929 SV% and one shutout.

This series could be closer than people think, especially when you consider that New Jersey swept the season series but won each game by just one goal.

 Brock Seguin Dylan Berthiaume Adam Daly
Tampa Bay in 5 Tampa Bay in 5 New Jersey in 6

[A2] Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs [A3]

 Record GF/PG GA/PG PP% PK% CF% SCF%
Boston Bruins 50-20-12 (4th in NHL) 3.26 (6th) 2.57 (4th) 23.5 (4th) 83.7 (3rd) 53.73 (2nd) 53.91 (1st)
Toronto Maple Leafs 49-26-7 (7th in NHL) 3.29 (t-3rd) 2.80 (12th) 25.0 (2nd) 81.4 (t-10th) 49.82 (17th) 48.38 (23rd)

The Bruins sort of limped through the first month and a half of the season, starting 7-7-4 but went 43-13-8 after that, which was good for second in the NHL during that stretch. A lot of that can be attributed to Tuukka Rask. The veteran netminder started the year 3-7-2 with a 2.89 GAA and .897 SV%. After that start, he went 31-7-3 with a 2.21 GAA, .923 SV% and three shutouts over the next 4.5 months.

The Maple Leafs were pretty consistent all season long. They were able to stay afloat while Auston Matthews was sidelined but aside from that they were astonishingly healthy for the second year in a row—10 players played at least 80 games. With Rask playing great, Frederik Andersen will have to be in peak form in the Maple Leafs’ crease. He has shown flashes of brilliance this season, but it was a mostly average year overall—he finished the year tied for 17th in the NHL in SV% (.918) and 31st in GAA (2.81).

All of this isn’t to say that the Leafs are big underdogs though. They will be in tough, but you can bet on them making it as hard as possible on the Bruins. In fact, the Maple Leafs won’t the season series (3-1) and with the bad blood between these two teams, it could end up being the best series in the first round.

 Brock Seguin Dylan Berthiaume Adam Daly
Boston in 6 Toronto in 6 Boston in 7

[M1] Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets [WC1]

 Record GF/PG GA/PG PP% PK% CF% SCF%
Washington Capitals 49-26-7 (6th in NHL) 3.12 (9th) 2.90 (16th) 22.5 (7th) 80.3 (15th) 47.96 (24th) 47.62 (27th)
Columbus Blue Jackets 45-30-7 (14th in NHL) 2.88 (17th) 2.76 (t-9th) 17.2 (25th) 76.2 (t-26th) 51.49 (9th) 52.36 (5th)

The Capitals are in the playoffs for the fourth straight year and 10th time in the last 11 years, but they are still searching for their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since they made the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998. They’ve been knocked out in the second round in each of the last three seasons and will be tested immediately as they draw a tough Blue Jackets squad.

Columbus has made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history but are still searching for their first ever series win. Two of their first three playoff series were against the eventual Stanley Cup Champions though, so it is hard to blame them for their lack of postseason success thus far.

This series will almost certainly be decided by one of the many Europeans involved. It shouldn’t be surprising that the Blue Jackets are going with Russian Sergei Bobrovsky, but it is more stunning that the Capitals will go with German Philipp Grubauer in Game 1. Braden Holtby struggled down the stretch, which opened the door for Grubauer, who went 11-3-0 with a 2.00 GAA, .934 SV% and two shutouts in his final 17 appearances.

Alex Ovechkin won another goal-scoring title, and Artemi Panarin and Evgeny Kuznetsov were both was over a point-per-game, so there is no shortage of firepower in this series. Not to mention maybe the best D-pairing in the NHL in Columbus’ Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

The Capitals won the season series 3-1, but these two teams haven’t seen each other since February 26th, when Columbus won 5-1.

 Brock Seguin Dylan Berthiaume Adam Daly
 Columbus in 7 Washington in 5 Columbus in 7

[M2] Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers [M3]

 Record GF/PG GA/PG PP% PK% CF% SCF%
Pittsburgh Penguins 47-29-6 (10th in NHL) 3.29 (t-3rd) 3.02 (20th) 26.2 (1st) 80.0 (17th) 52.28 (5th) 53.26 (2nd)
Philadephia Flyers 42-26-14 (13th in NHL) 3.04 (12th) 2.88 (t-14th) 20.7 (15th) 75.8 (29th) 49.70 (18th) 51.07 (9th)

What can you say about the Penguins that hasn’t already been said? They’ve won two Stanley Cups in a row and will try to become the first team to win three in a row since the New York Islanders won four straight from 1980-to-1983.

They have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and added Derick Brassard midseason… the list goes on and on.

On the other side, the Flyers are back in the postseason after a one-year hiatus, but haven’t made it  to the second round since 2012.

This series will ultimately be decided by the goaltending and special teams, as most playoff series are. Matt Murray has been brilliant in the two Cup runs but has had a tough campaign. If he continues to struggle, the Flyers have a shot. However, this series features the No.1 power-play (PIT) in the NHL vs. the No.29 penalty-kill (PHI). If the Flyers get into penalty trouble, they’re in big trouble. However, they had the 13th fewest penalty minutes in the NHL this season, so they’re capable of being disciplined.

The Penguins dominated the season series, winning all four games and scoring five goals in each contest. Overall they outscored the Flyers 20-to-11.

 Brock Seguin Dylan Berthiaume Adam Daly
Pittsburgh in 6 Pittsburgh in 7 Philadelphia in 5
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Dylan Berthiaume

Dylan has been an Associate Editor of DailyFaceoff since 2018 and a co-host of the DFO Podcast since 2015.

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