On Monday, we released our Western Conference Playoff preview, now it is time to take a look at the East. But before you read on, make sure you sign up for our Fantasy Hockey Playoff Pool! It is $10, with part of the proceeds going to Edmonton Inner City Children’s Program. Also you have a shot at winning some awesome prizes like a $1,000 prepaid VISA card, an autographed Alex Ovechkin jersey and more! Anyways, time to look at the Eastern Conference.
Of the eight teams in both conferences, the West averaged more scoring and less goals against in the regular season. The eight team averages in the West were 2.86 goals for per game, while allowing just 2.44 goals against. On the East, they scored 2.79 per game and allowed 2.50 goals against throughout the 82 game campaign.
Stanley Cup Fact: 12 of the last 14 Stanley Cup Finals series have gone to at least six games.
#1 Boston Bruins vs. #4 Detroit Red Wings
The Bruins won the President’s Trophy with 116 points this season, while Detroit came in through the backdoor to extend their playoff streak to 23 seasons. While the Bruins have looked like a machine, especially in the final month of the season, it was the Red Wings who won the season series 3-1, while outscoring the B’s 13-9.
Boston is a heavy team who are led by ginormous defenseman Zdeno Chara and a team full of great two-way forwards. David Krejci led the team in points (69) and hit 50 assists for the second time in his career. But Patrice Bergeron is the straw that stirs the Bruins’ drink. He is probably playing the best hockey of his career. Bergeron was tied for team lead in goals with Jarome Iginla at 30 and also led all forwards with shorthanded minutes played and face-off percentage. This team is incredibly deep across the board, Krejci, Bergeron and Brad Marchand were 1-2-3 in the NHL in plus/minus and we haven’t even mentioned Tuukka Rask yet. Rask was first in shutouts (7), second in SV% (.930), fourth in GAA (2.04) and fifth in wins (36). #VezinaMuch ?
As for Detroit, their playoff streak appeared to be in huge jeopardy after they were ravaged by injuries following the Olympics. They have not had captain Henrik Zetterberg since Sochi and Pavel Datsyuk missed the vast majority of post-Olympic contests with a knee injury. Dats is back now, but Zetty likely won’t play unless the Wings get by the Bruins. Despite a plethora of injuries (over 400 man games lost), the Red Wings managed to go 13-8-3 after Sochi and claim the final Wild Card spot in the East. A lot of that can be contributed to Gustav Nyquist. Nyquist, who started the year in the AHL because of cap reasons, had a stretch where he scored 22 goals and 34 points in 28 games. But it is not just Nyquist, a number of players who won the Calder Cup with Grand Rapids (AHL) last season have played huge roles. Tomas Tatar had 19 goals and 20 assists. Riley Sheahan had 24 points in 42 games, while winning close to 50 per cent of his face-offs as a rookie. While the Griffins have stepped up it was Jimmy Howard, who re-discovered his 2012-13 form, that carried the Red Wings. He will need to bring his A-game against the Bruins if the Wings are going to stand any chance.
Prediction: Red Wings win in 7.
The coaching matchup should be a dandy. Two of the best minds in the game, Mike Babcock vs. Claude Julien will engage in a chess match all series. If Howard can play as good as he did down the stretch, Detroit will be fine. They won’t engage physically and that should frustrate the Bruins. Ultimately, I think the Wings’ youth and speed can do just enough to pull off the upset.
Key Player: Jimmy Howard
#2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. #3 Montreal Canadiens
The Lightning finished a single point ahead of the Canadiens to earn the all important home-ice advantage. Tampa Bay won the season series 3-1, but every game was extremely close. Tampa won once in a shootout and a once in OT, while the Habs on victory came in the shootout. The two teams only combined for 11 goals in four games, showing that goals could be a premium in this series.
The Lightning have battled adversity all season long. At first it was Steven Stamkos‘ broken leg and then it was the Martin St. Louis saga. Now, Ben Bishophas an injured arm and his status for Game 1 remains unclear. Bishop had a tremendous season, finishing fourth in wins (37) and shutouts (5) and seventh in GAA (2.23) and SV% (.924). The Habs already have the upper-hand in goal, but if Bishop can’t go, the scale tips even more in favour of Montreal. The Lightning have a very balanced offensive attack. They had four 20-goal scorers (Filppula-25 / Stamkos-25 / Johnson-24 / Palat-23) and two 17 goal guys. Included in that 20-goal category is Stamkos, who had 25 in 37 games, which is on pace for over 50 if he was healthy. He is the most dynamic scorer in the NHL and if he can catch fire the Habs are in trouble, but again Tampa needs the 6-foot-7 Bishop in the cage.
The Canadiens come into the playoffs on fire. They went 10-3-1 in their final 14 games. They have been led by their new top-line of Max Pacioretty–David Desharnais–Thomas Vanek. Vanek was acquired for peanuts from the Islanders at the deadline and he has secured six goals with nine assists (15 points) in 18 games with Montreal. Pacioretty set a new career-high in goals (39), but fell one short of 40. He had nine goals and eight assists in 16 games since Vanek was moved to their line.On the blueline, they acquired Mike Weaver at the deadline, which has stabilized their backend. They just got Josh Gorges back, which is a huge boost for the whole unit, but also provides PK Subban with a full-time, steady partner. PK finished sixth among NHL defensemen with 53 points (10G / 43A). But the Habs go as Carey Price goes. After returning from a lower-body injury he won eight of his final 11 games and he will look to add a Stanley Cup to his Olympic Gold Medal for an ultra impressive 2014 resume.
Prediction: Canadiens win in 6.
If Bishop is 100 per cent, it changes the entire complexion of this series. But after seeing Price lead Team Canada to Gold and how he has performed down the stretch, it is tough to bet against him.
Key Player: Thomas Vanek
#1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #4 Columbus Blue Jackets
We talked about injuries with the Red Wings, but no one fought injuries harder than the Penguins this season and they still won their division by 13 points. They also dummied the Blue Jackets in the season series 5-0 while outscoring Columbus 16-7.
Pittsburgh battled the injury bug all season long, but the two constants in their lineup were Art Ross Trophy winner Sidney Crosby and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Crosby ran away with the league scoring title. He was the only player to break 90 points and he broke 100 as well–posting 104 points (36G / 68A) in 80 games. Evgeni Malkin missed the final 11 games of the regular season with a foot injury, but could be ready to go for Game 1. Kris Letang missed 10 weeks after suffering a stroke, but has not missed a beat posting one goal and three assists in four games since returning. I can go on and one raving about the Penguins top-6 forwards and top-4 D-men, but their bottom-6 is weak and who knows what Fleury will do in the playoffs. Over the last four playoffs (09-13), Fleury has gone 14-16 with a 3.18 GAA and .880 SV%, that just is not acceptable for a team with such high Stanley Cup hopes. If he can put all that behind him and the Pens can stay healthy, they are as dangerous of a team as there is.
Columbus is all about Sergei Bobrovsky. Meeting the Penguins is a much better matchup than if they would have had to play the Bruins, because Goalie Bob can outplay the aforementioned Fleury; it would not be as easy against Rask. Bobrovsky is 5-1-1 with a 1.82 GAA and .945 SV% in April, in other words, he is red-hot. Offensively, the Blue Jackets were led by third-year forward Ryan Johansen. After a couple of disappointing seasons, the 2010 fourth pick scored 33 goals and added 30 assists in 82 games. Defenseman James Wisniewski led the team from the blueline. having the best year of his career by far–he posted 51 points (7G / 44A) in 75 games. Statistically, no one really jumps out at you, but they are a deep, hardworking team, however not having Nathan Horton will hurt.
Prediction: Penguins win in 5.
I have faith in Fleury. He is too solid of a goalie to continuously struggle in the post-season. But it is more about the firepower the Pens have versus the lack of firepower in the Jackets’ lineup.
Key Player: Sergei Bobrovsky.
#2 New York Rangers vs. #3 Philadelphia Flyers
The Rangers edged out the Flyers for home-ice by two points. They split their four meetings this season, with the home team winning every game, so that home-ice advantage could prove to be pivotal.
After acquiring Martin St. Louis at the trade deadline the Rangers went 12-5-3 despite St. Louis only scoring one goal and seven assists in 19 games. Surprisingly, Mats Zuccarello led the team with 59 points (19G / 40A) in 77 games. Brad Richards scored 20-plus goals for the ninth time in his NHL career and Derek Stepan set a new career-high with 57 points, but saw his points per game drop from .917 last season to .695 this year. Rick Nash battled concussion issues that limited him to 65 games, but he was able to break 20 goals for the 10th straight season. Even with all the star-power upfront, this team’s success hinges largely on the play of Henrik Lundqvist, who had another strong season after a very rocky start. The blueshirts’ key blueliner is Ryan McDonagh, but his status for game 1 remains cloudy after he missed the final five games of the regular season with a shoulder injury.
The Flyers earned a berth into the Stanley Cup playoffs after missing in the lockout shortnened season, finishing the year 42-30-10. They were led by Claude Grioux, who caught fire in the second half of the season after being snubbed from Team Canada’s Olympic team. He registered nine goals and 20 assists in the Flyers’ final 23 games. Wayne Simmods paced the team with a career-high 29 goals and Jakub Voracek followed up a breakout season in the lockout year, with his second straight 20-goal season. The Flyer possess great depth–they had seven players score at least 20 goals and they have played the final few weeks of the season with 2007 Rocket Richard Trophy winner Vincent Lecavalier as their fourth line centre. But, as I have mentioned on a number of occasions, goaltending is the key in the playoffs. You have to give the edge to King Henrik and the Rangers, but don’t count 25-year-old Steve Mason out. He is battling an upper-body injury right now, but should be good to go in game-1. He was 2-1-0 with a 2.01 GAA and .937 SV% against the Rangers this season, so don’t expect him to be intimidated.
Prediction: Rangers win in 7.
Both team are extremely deep and this one is almost too close to call. I give the edge to the Rangers because of home ice advantage and King Henrik and his post-season career 2.28 GAA and .920 SV%. Oh how fun it will be to watch Zac Rinaldo and Daniel Carcillo go at it for seven games.
Key Player: Vincent Lecavalier
Editor’s Note: Please feel free to leave your bracket picks or opinions on all things playoffs. Nothing like a good hockey conversation, especially at this time of year!