For most, the best playoffs are those in which there is no heavy favorite to advance. Such is the case in this year’s NHL playoffs, at least in the Eastern Conference. Of the last five Stanley Cup finals, only two finalists from the Eastern Conference will be represented in this year’s playoffs: the Tampa Bay Lightning, who will be without superstar goalscorer and captain Steven Stamkos in addition to stalwart blue-liner Anton Stralman, while the New York Rangers will also be without defenseman Ryan McDonagh after the team captain broke his hand in play last week.
Moreover, two of the remaining six teams, the Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers, did not make the playoffs last year. So who does that leave us with? Four teams: the Washington Capitals, the Detroit Red Wings, the New York Islanders, and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Capitals have all the skill in the world but lack the playoff experience that the Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, or Los Angeles Kings have. The other three teams have been flirting with mediocrity for years now, unable to ascend to stardom that is needed to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Undoubtedly, there is open season in the Eastern Conference. Perhaps, looking at matchups will make for an easier process.
#1 Washington Capitals (2-0-2) vs. #4 Philadelphia Flyers (2-2)
Here’s an interesting matchup: the league-leading Capitals will take on one of the Conference’s hottest teams in the Flyers. The Capitals finished the season with 120 points, 11 in front of second place. The Flyers picked up 13 of a possible 20 points to finish the season.
The Capitals won two of four contests against the Flyers in 2015-16, losing the other two after regulation. While many would be quick to write-off Philadelphia after just barely sneaking into this year’s playoffs, I have lost much faith in Washington as a result of their lack of effort towards the end of the season. Still, it’s tough to count out Alex Ovechkin, especially against a goalie without much playoff experience like Steve Mason.
#2 New York Rangers vs. #3 Pittsburgh Penguins
It’s like deja-vu all over again. For the third season in a row, the Penguins and Rangers will do battle in a best-of-7 playoff series. However, unlike the previous two years, 2016 could be the year that Pittsburgh reverses their fate. Why? Well, Pittsburgh is unstoppable lately and took down the Rangers three times in March. The Rangers could be without their captain, at least for the first contest. Odds are stacked up against Manhattan’s team but that hasn’t stopped them in the past.
Neither team is so talented that the winner of this series is a foregone conclusion, but I just don’t see how the Rangers can overcome the odds this year — especially with Henrik Lundqvist looking pretty pedestrian lately — over a more motivated Penguins squad. As a hockey fan, this series is about history, skill, and excitement. As a Devils fan, this is painful.
#1 Florida Panthers vs. #4 New York Islanders
In the only inter-division matchup of the first round (within the Eastern Conference), the Panthers and Islanders will do battle for the first time. The Panthers have been one of the League’s great success stories of 2016, with a good blend of youth: Aleksander Barkov; Jonathan Huberdeau; and Nick Bjugstad; in addition to veteran leadership from goalie Roberto Luongo and ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr. Even though they don’t stack up as good on paper and don’t have a superstar like the Islanders’ John Tavares, the Panthers can dance with just about any team right now and that makes them fun to watch.
The Islanders, meanwhile, are one year removed from an embarrassing playoff showing against Washington in 2015. This year, the Islanders look to make up for last year’s riches-to-rags storyline and the Panthers are first up on the gamut. However, consider it a mismatch in New York: Florida’s offense is just too talented.
#2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. #3 Detroit Red Wings
We finish off with another rematch from the 2015 playoffs with the Red Wings going up against the Lightning. The Red Wings have made the playoffs for a record 25-consecutive seasons. Are they that good? In 2016, they barely snuck in without former head coach Mike Babcock. In Babcock’s place, coach Jeff Blashill has committed several questionable lineup decisions that have hurt the team. Can he be trusted to bring Motown’s team to the promised land?
On the other side, the Lightning are plagued by injuries. Without two of their star players, the Lightning have to hope for matchup advantages for a while. Fortunately, the hockey gods grant them that favor in the first round, letting them face off with a weak Red Wings squad.
I’m not going to open up my crystal ball and tell you who will be hoisting the Stanley Cup in June. It would ruin the fun for the fans. But I will say that I am as excited as anyone to see how the opening round plays out in a hyper-competitive Eastern Conference.
Featured image courtesy of: Keith Allison