It’s time once again for 16 NHL teams to grind and battle for that most-coveted of all sports trophies—Lord Stanley’s Cup. It’s been a great season all around, with ups and downs, the ascent of teams that have spent many years out of the postseason, and the fall of others who often thought of a playoff appearance as a bygone conclusion. We’ll begin this year’s preview in the Eastern Conference.
1. Boston Bruins v. Detroit Red Wings
The Bruins have had a stellar season, capturing their first President’s Trophy since 89-90. They went on an absolute tear in March, winning 12 straight in the month with 17 games in 31 days, many of them back to back. Jarome Iginla has had an outstanding campaign this year, putting up fantastic numbers (30 G/31 A) on the Bruins’ top line with David Krecji and Milan Lucic. One question for Boston this postseason will be health. Iginla’s been banged up as of late. The real question, however, may be how far can their defensive core take them. Zdeno Chara is a big presence on the ice, but even he can’t play 60 minutes. The young d-men—Krug, Miller, Bartkowski, and Hamilton—will have to keep playing at a high level if Boston wants to reach the Cup Finals once again.
Red Wings fans may have been a little nervous this past month, when it seemed that a 23rd straight playoff appearance for Detroit was slipping away. But, thanks to the new wild card format, the Wings secured their place once again in the postseason. The story in Detroit this year has to be Gustav Nyquist. The young Swede only suited up for 57 of Detroit’s 82 games, but racked up 48 pts (28G/20A). Wings supporters have to wonder what he would’ve done if he’d played the entire season. Detroit has the strength and talent to make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals, but they’ll face a determined Boston team in the first round.
Who will win: Detroit has had Boston’s number this season, winning three of the four games played between them. But they’ve mostly been tight games, and Boston will be tough to beat, especially after falling short in the Finals last year. The Bruins will be hungry for a return; so I don’t expect them to overlook their first round opponent. With home ice throughout, the Bs won’t go down easily. Boston wins this series in six games.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens
The Lightning have had quite the season, from losing star Steven Stamkos for a long stretch to injury, to trading captain and long-time leader Martin St. Louis to New York at the deadline. But Stamkos now bears the “C” on his sweater, and they received a quality player in Ryan Callahan in return for St. Louis. Tampa won their final regular season game to take 2nd in the Atlantic and, more importantly, steal home ice away from their first round opponent, the Canadiens. Tampa has been slightly better at home, whereas Montreal has been nearly identical on home and away rinks. For a team that started out slow, the Bolts are poised to make a run at their 2nd Stanley Cup. The questionable health of goaltender Ben Bishop could be the one thing that stops them.
Before the trade deadline, Montreal was sort of coasting along, unsure what their fate would be this season. Then along came Thomas Vanek from the Islanders, allowing coach Michel Therrien to shuffle his lines and bolster his special teams. Montreal definitely has the edge on the defensive side, with Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban anchoring the blue line for the Habs. They eat up a big chunk of ice time and can also contribute in the offensive zone. If goalie Carey Price is healthy, and can play like he did in Sochi, the Habs won’t go down easily.
Who will win: Both teams have offensive weapons, so the fate will fall to which team can come up with better defensive zone play and goaltending. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, they just don’t have the depth if Bishop can’t go. Montreal wins in six.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Penguins can never be counted out when it comes to Stanley Cup contention. Captain Sidney Crosby won his second Art Ross trophy finishing with 104 pts (36G/68A) and Sid the Kid always seems to find another gear when it comes playoff time. After their drubbing at the hands of Boston last year, Pittsburgh’s appetite has to be ravenous to make it back to the Cup Finals. They’re out to prove that they’re as good as ever and with home ice, where they went 28-9-4 this season, they’ll be very tough to beat. The return of defenseman Kris Letang bolsters the blue line, and Marc-Andre Fleury will be chomping at the bit to reestablish his playoff dominance of the past.
The Pens face a determined Columbus team, who are in the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history. Columbus has never won a postseason game, losing in four straight to Detroit back in 2009 in their only previous appearance. But coach Todd Richards seems to have found a way to push the Blue Jackets to the next level, finishing only one point behind division rival Philadelphia and taking the first wild card spot in the East. If the team can remain healthy, especially winger Nathan Horton, who’s proven in the past that he can provide playoff scoring, then the Jackets have a chance. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has played well this season, posting 32 wins, a .923 save percentage and a 2.38 goals against average. Unfortunately for them, though, the Jackets probably couldn’t face a tougher test than Pittsburgh in their quest for a first playoff win.
Who will win: Pittsburgh is the more-rounded team. Columbus will provide some surprises and most likely win a close contest when they play at home. But ultimately, the Jackets will bow out early. The Penguins win it in five games.
4. New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers
What began as something of a mess in the Big Apple this year turned into a pretty stellar season for Alain Vigneault’s first go-round behind the bench at Madison Square Garden. The captain swap of Callahan for St. Louis at the trade deadline seemed like a move in the right direction offensively, but in 19 games for New York, St. Louis has only put up 8 pts (1G/7A). But he has help up front from Brad Richards and Rick Nash and the rest of the Rangers’ forward lines are nothing to sneeze at. The defensive core is strong with McDonagh and Girardi, and there are few better than Henrik Lundqvist in goal. New York won’t make this an easy series for Philadelphia.
When the Flyers signed Vincent Lecavalier over the summer, few Philly fans probably thought that he would end the regular season on the fourth line. But Lecavalier has played well at the fourth center spot, and with players like Claude Giroux and Brayden Schenn on the top lines, there isn’t much better scoring depth to be found in the NHL. In the net opposite Lundqvist will be a rejuvenated and reenergized Steve Mason. Mason has definitely found that No. 1 form this season, winning 33 games and posting a .917 save percentage. For a team that replaced their coach three games into the season, the Flyers have to be enjoying the fact that they’re in the postseason.
Who will win: New York has home ice in the series, and the crowd at Madison Square Garden will be hyped for playoff hockey. But Philly won’t be fazed and, with their offensive depth, they’ll take the series in six games.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Aaron’s Western Conference preview.
AP Photo/Winslow Townson