The NHL continues with their strange playoff format, which will lead to some intriguing first and second round matchups in the Eastern Conference.
|Current Playoff Format||Old Playoff Format|
|[A1] TBL vs. CBJ [WC2]|| TBL vs. CBJ |
|[A2] BOS vs. TOR [A3]|| BOS vs. CAR |
|[M1] WSH vs. CAR [WC1]|| WSH vs. PIT |
|[M2] NYI vs. PIT [M3]|| NYI vs. TOR |
The old current playoff format seems to make a lot more sense. The Maple Leafs drawing the Islanders instead of the second-place Bruins is much more legit. The Capitals vs. Penguins first-round matchup would certainly be a treat. But, the NHL seems happy with this format and have already signed on to continue with it next season, so it is what it is. Let’s breakdown this bracket.
[A1] Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets [WC2]
|Record||62-16-4 (1st)||47-31-4 (13th)|
|GF/PG||3.89 (1st)||3.12 (12th)|
|GA/PG||2.70 (7th)||2.82 (11th)|
|5v5 SV%||.922 (10th)||.916 (23rd)|
|PP%||28.2% (1st)||15.4% (28th)|
|PK%||85.0% (t-1st)||85.0% (t-1st)|
|CF%||51.59% (9th)||50.21% (12th)|
The 2019 Lightning tied the 1996 Red Wings for the most wins (62) in NHL history, but will try to avoid the same fate as that Detroit team, who lost in the Western Conference Finals. The Lightning draw a winnable first-round matchup against the Blue Jackets. Tampa Bay swept the season series, going 3-0 while outscoring the Blue Jackets 17-to-3.
The Blue Jackets loaded up at the trade deadline and finished the season on a strong note. They went 14-8-1 in 23 games after acquiring Matt Duchene on February 22nd—tied for third in the NHL over that stretch. Sergei Bobrovsky was the key reason for their strong finish (winning seven of their final eight games), going 6-1-0 with a 1.50 GAA, .947 SV% and three shutouts in his last seven starts of the year.
Bobrovsky is going to need to be sensational if the Blue Jackets are going to have a chance vs. Tampa Bay, but the playoffs have never been kind to him. Bobrovsky has gone 5-12 with a 3.37 GAA and .898 SV% in 17 playoff games with Columbus. At the other end of the ice, Andrei Vasilevskiy is 15-11 with a 2.68 GAA and .919 SV% in 29 career playoff appearances and was the NHL’s best goalie from start-to-finish this season.
The Blue Jackets have a deep lineup but they are going to have a tough time matching up with the Lightning’s top-6. Nikita Kucherov had an historic season, setting the single-season record for points by a Russian-born player with 128 (41G / 87A). Steven Stamkos is capable of driving a line by himself, which allows head coach Jon Cooper to break their superstars up and Kucherov has helped turn Brayden Point into a star on the “second-line.”
Where the Lightning separate themselves is on the power-play. Tampa Bay’s 28.2 PP% is the best rate over the last two decades by nearly 1.5%, which is just astonishing. However, no one has a better chance of slowing down their power-play than the Blue Jackets. Columbus took the second-fewest minor penalties in the NHL this season and were tied for the best penalty kill percentage (85.0%) in the league.
Bottom Line: The Blue Jackets match-up with the Lightning better than most teams but Tampa is simply too strong and too deep. Also, I don’t trust Bobrovsky in the postseason and Joonas Korpisalo hasn’t showcased the ability to replace Bobrovsky effectively. The Lightning come in with some injury concerns but they are better across the board and should win the series pretty handily.
My Prediction: Lightning in 5️⃣
Dylan’s Prediction: Lightning in 4️⃣
[A2] Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs [A3]
|Record||49-23-9 (3rd)||46-28-8 (7th)|
|GF/PG||3.13 (11th)||3.49 (4th)|
|GA/PG||2.59 (3rd)||3.04 (20th)|
|5v5 SV%||.931 (3rd)||.924 (7th)|
|PP%||25.9% (3rd)||21.8 (8th)|
|PK%||79.9% (t-16th)||79.9% (t-16th)|
|CF%||53.1% (6th)||51.7% (8th)|
For the second straight season we will get the Bruins and Maple Leafs in the first round. It is a terrible matchup if you are a Boston or Toronto fan but if you have no affiliation to either team, then this is going to be a fun one. The Bruins were able to edge Toronto in seven games last year and were 3-1 while outscoring Toronto 16-to-10 in four games this season.
The key for Toronto is slowing down Boston1, something they have not had any success doing. Even with Patrice Bergeron missing two of their meetings this season, the trio of Bergeron-Brad Marchand–David Pastrnak has combined for seven goals and 12 assists (19 points) in four games vs. Toronto. Pastrnak has been the kryptonite, picking up nine points (6G / 3A) which adds to the 13-point (5G / 8A) performance he had in the playoffs last year.
Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock will likely try to match the John Tavares line against the Bergeron line and if Tavares and Mitch Marner can match their production, the Maple Leafs have a good chance to make it into the second round. That is obviously easier said than done, but Tavares and Marner are plenty capable of getting it done. If they can, Auston Matthews will need to try and get the upper-hand against the David Krejci line, who has been very tough at 5v5 this year. Matthews has disappointed in his first two playoff appearances, picking up just seven points (5G / 2A) in 13 games. He needs to be better to give Toronto a chance.
Between the pipes, Frederik Andersen also needs to be better this year. Once again, he had a great regular season but needs to improve on his .896 SV% from last year’s playoff meeting. For the Bruins, Tuukka Rask will likely start Game 1 but they can turn to Jaroslav Halak if he falters. Having two good goalies in the playoffs can be key to a long-run, look at last year’s Cup Champions, who started with Philipp Grubauer and turned to Braden Holtby in Game 3 and never turned back.
Toronto’s blueline has been much maligned over the years but they are looking as strong as ever. Acquiring Jake Muzzin was a huge addition and the end of the season has allowed them to bring up Calle Rosen. The 25-year-old has just eight games of NHL experience but a much better option than Martin Marincin and Igor Ozhiganov, who the Maple Leafs had to utilize a lot this season. With a full healthy blueline heading into the playoffs, Rosen will open as their No.7 defenseman.
Bottom Line: We are in for another great series between two Original 6 rivals. The Maple Leafs added Tavares and Muzzin from the team that lost last year but I think BOS1 and the Bruins overall depth will continue to give the Maple Leafs a tough time. It’s going to be an extremely close series but I still have a tough time finding an edge for Toronto.
My Prediction: Maple Leafs in 7️⃣
Dylan’s Prediction: Maple Leafs in 7️⃣
[M1] Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes [WC1]
|Record||48-26-8 (4th)||46-29-7 (11th)|
|GF/PG||3.34 (5th)||2.96 (16th)|
|GA/PG||3.02 (17th)||2.70 (8th)|
|5v5 SV%||.921 (t-12th)||.921 (t-12th)|
|PP%||20.8% (12th)||17.8% (20th)|
|PK%||78.9% (24th)||81.6% (8th)|
|CF%||49.04% (18th)||54.8% (2nd)|
After missing the playoffs for nine straight seasons, the Hurricanes are back in the postseason. Their reward? A first-round date with the defending Stanley Cup Champions. It was a tale of two seasons for the Hurricanes. Pre-Nino and Post-Nino. Prior to acquiring Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild, the Hurricanes were 22-19-5 which was tied for 17th in the NHL. They were averaging 2.70 goals for and 2.91 goals against per game. After the trade they were tied for the third best record in the NHL at 24-10-2 while averaging 3.31 GF/pg and 2.42 GA/pg. Is it all Nino? Probably not, but this is a much better hockey team than we saw through the first few months of the season and will present a real challenge for the Capitals.
The big question mark for the Hurricanes coming into the season was goaltending. They brought Petr Mrazek in on a one-year contract and claimed Curtis McElhinney off of waivers from the Maple Leafs and the duo gave him a .921 5v5 SV%, which was good for 14th in the league. Mrazek started to stumble in his last few seasons in Detroit but you can’t ignore how good he was before that. He enters the playoffs red-hot, winning 13 of his last 17 starts with a 1.83 GAA, .938 SV% and three shutouts. Additionally, Mrazek has a stellar postseason resume. In 10 career starts, he is 4-6 despite posting a sparkling 1.88 GAA, .931 SV% and three shutouts—and both of those series were vs. the Lightning, who won 50 and 46 games in those seasons.
While I just laid out a lot of positives for the Hurricanes, a meeting with the Capitals is a daunting task. They did not beat Washington this season and Braden Holtby went 4-0 with a 2.21 GAA and .918 SV% in those meetings. Possibly the worst news is that they couldn’t slow down Alex Ovechkin, who had four goals and two assists in those four games.
Both teams come into the series releitvely healthy, with each team missing once defenseman. Michal Kempny for Washington and Calvin de Haan for Carolina.
Even if the Hurricanes lose the series, everyone will know who Sebasitan Aho is after it’s done. Aho might be the best player that the casual fan doesn’t really know about because he plays in Carolina but the playoffs will give him a ton of exposure. Especially if Aho ends up seeing time agains the Ovechkin line, he could have a great series at 5v5 and will be a real difference maker if Carolina wants to pull off an upset.
Bottom Line: The Hurricanes should be able to control most of these games at 5v5 but they will need to stay out of the penalty box to have a chance. Carolina took the 11th most minor penalties in the NHL this season and even though they had the eighth-best penalty kill (81.6%), you don’t want to be giving Ovechkin and company opportunities to tee-off on Mrazek. If they get into penalty trouble, Washington will run all over them. This series will be heavily reliant on goaltending. If Holtby stands up to the barrage at 5v5, Capitals win but Mrazek has shown to be perfectly capable of stealing games in the playoffs before as well.
My Prediction: Hurricanes in 7️⃣
Dylan’s Prediction: Capitals in 6️⃣
[M2] New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins [M3]
|Record||48-27-7 (5th)||44-26-12 (7th)|
|GF/PG||2.72 (22nd)||3.30 (6th)|
|GA/PG||2.33 (1st)||2.90 (14th)|
|5v5 SV%||.937 (1st)||.931 (4th)|
|PP%||14.5% (29th)||24.6% (5th)|
|PK%||79.9 (18th)||79.7% (19th)|
|CF%||47.85% (26th)||49.73% (15th)|
What a turnaround for the Islanders this season. Last year they were 35-37-10 and missed the playoffs by 17 points. In the summer they lose their franchise player but bring in Robin Lehner and head coach Barry Trotz and find themselves with home-ice advantage in the postseason.
Their success this season was thanks to a combination of things. They were a more defensively sound hockey team under Trotz. Last season they gave up the most ScoringChancesAgainst/60 (30.91) and High-DangerChances/60 (12.8) and their goalies turned in a .917 SV% at 5v5. Under Trotz those numbers improved to 27.25 SCA/60 and 10.79 HDCA/60, which still aren’t great but a definite improvement. While that definitely attributed to some of their success, the goaltending was drastically better as a whole. Lehner and Thomas Greiss combined for a league-best .937 5v5 SV% and allowed the fewest goals against (2.33) of any tandem in the NHL.
However, playing a more defensive game and losing Tavares dropped their goals for per game from 3.18 (7th) to 2.72 (22nd), so there was some give with the take.
Relying so heavily on goaltending can be a scary thing as you head into the playoffs, especially against a high-powered Penguins team that is capable of exploiting the best of goalies. Additionally, a lack of fire-power and goal-scoring up-front makes it extremely difficult to come back after you fall behind.
Like it always is, the key to beating Pittsburgh will be slowing down their big-4. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang had their way with the Islanders this season, combining for eight goals and nine assists (17 points) in their four meetings. However, the Islanders we able to split the season series despite all of that damage.
It is easy to say “this series will come down to the goaltending” but that is true in this series more than any other in the Eastern Conference. With the Islanders leaning so heavily on Lehner and Greiss and Matt Murray being pretty inconsistent behind a suspect blueline, this series could go either way depending on how the goalies perform.
Bottom Line: The Islanders have been one of the best stories in hockey this season but goaltending can be total voodoo and disappear once the postseason rolls around. I am a firm believer that Lehner is a high-end NHL goaltender but I don’t think he is good enough to make up for a lot of the Islanders inefficiencies. He could easily stand on his head in this series and only get a handful of goals in support and the Islanders lose to no fault of his.
My Prediction: Penguins in 6️⃣
Dylan’s Prediction: Penguins in 6️⃣