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2019 NHL Playoffs Preview: Eastern Conference, First Round

The most exciting time of the sports year is finally here, ladies and gentlemen. Today kicks off the NHL playoffs and it’s setting up to be as incredible as ever. A stacked Eastern Conference along with new faces in the Western Conference could make this the most exciting playoffs in years.

The NHL playoffs just seem to be at the top of the sports ladder in terms of excitement every year no matter who is in it. So let’s take a close look at the first round Eastern Conference matchups.

#1 Tampa Bay Lightning vs WC2 Columbus Blue Jackets

The Tampa Lightning have been the best team this season and it hasn’t even been close. Tampa Bay finished the season with 128 points (62-16-4). The next most? The Boston Bruins with 107 points (49-24-9). Tampa’s 62 wins ties an NHL single-season record that was set by the Detroit Red Wings in the ’95-’96 season.

The Lightning are led by Nikita Kucherov – the league’s undeniable MVP. Kucherov had 41 goals and a league-leading 87 assists on the season leaving him with the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s scoring champion with 128 points. But Kucherov isn’t the only beast on this Lightning team.

Center Steven Stamkos was fifth in the league with 45 goals. Teammate Brayden Point was ninth in the league with 41 goals. And goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was sixth in the league with a .925 save percentage. Point being, this team is loaded from top to bottom and there’s a reason why they are the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this year.

The Blue Jackets barely squeaked into the playoffs this year as the second wild-card team after beating the New York Rangers in a shootout at the end of the season.

For those of you who may not remember, the Blue Jackets had a 2-0 series lead over the Washington Capitals in the playoffs last year. Then they ended up losing four straight games to be knocked out, but that doesn’t matter anymore. New year, new playoffs.

The Blue Jackets are led by their star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who led the league with nine shutouts. And despite the hot start from their star players, Cam Atkinson and Artemi Panarin, not a single Blue Jacket was in the league’s top 15 in points. The Blue Jackets traded for Center Matt Duchene at the deadline to help secure their second line, but he hasn’t had the impact many thought he’d have. Scoring just four goals with eight assists in 23 games, perhaps Duchene will show up more for the Blue Jackets in this series and possibly onward.

Prediction: Lightning win the series 4-1.

#2 Boston Bruins vs. #3 Toronto Maple Leafs

The Bruins return to the playoffs for the eighth time in the past 10 seasons entering as the second best team in hockey yet again. They are going up against a Leafs team that many chose to be Stanley Cup favorites at the beginning of the season.

The Bruins are simply a team that just find ways to win. Despite not being in the top-10 for goals scored, goals scored per game, or penalty kill, the Bruins third-ranked power play (25.9%) and goals against per game (2.59) have seemed to carry them to the number-two seed.

Bruins star Brad Marchand had 100 points this season, which was 19 more than teammate David Pastrnak (81), who was second on the team in points. Marchand was also the only Bruin in the league’s top-20 goalscorers with 36. Going up against the league’s 4th best scoring offense, the Bruins are going to have to rely heavily on their veterans and power play.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have now made the playoffs three straight years, but this time they’re aiming to not be first-round exits yet again.

After signing John Tavares to a 7-year $77 million contract, the Leafs were looked at as the most exciting team in hockey. And they were holding true to that image winning 15 of their first 20 games of the season. But they ended the season on the opposite note winning just eight of their last 20.

However, the playoffs are always a different atmosphere. Tavares leads the 4th ranked scoring offense with 47 goals – third in the league. Mitchell Marner is fourth in the league with 68 assists. And defenseman Ron Hainsey is sixth in the league with a 30 +/-. If the Leafs want to get by a defensive-minded Bruins, they have to minimize penalties and remain aggressive on the forecheck.

Prediction: Leafs win the series 4-2.

#1 Washington Capitals vs. WC1 Carolina Hurricanes

The defending champs are back and they basically finished this season (48-26-8) the same as they did last year (49-26-7). The Caps have owned the Metropolitan Division the past four years and now they are, yet again, a #1 seed.

So will the defending champs reclaim their throne? Well, when their star player, Alexander Ovechkin, scores a league-leading 51 goals at 33 years of age, signs might show this team is looking to repeat. Center Nicklas Backstrom became the 26th player ever to record six straight seasons with 50+ assists. And the additions of defensemen Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen will help, for the most part, after Michael Kempny tore his hamstring.

Honestly, the Capitals need to be alert for this series. They won all four of their games against the Hurricanes this season, but the Hurricanes finished the year with just five points less than the Capitals did. So it’s not like this Capitals team is leagues beyond the Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes have finally clinched their first playoff birth in 10 years. And with a 30-12-2 record since the start of 2019, some are saying that they have the most momentum heading into the playoffs out of every team.

The Hurricanes offense is pretty average – 16th in goals per game and power play. And their top goal-scorer, Sebastian Aho, didn’t even crack the league’s top-40. So their 8th ranked defense, led by Brett Pesce, who had the league’s third best +/- (35), is going to need to remain their strong suit.

With the 8th best penalty kill (81.6%) and goals against average (2.70), it’s going to be Carolina’s strong defense vs. Washington’s strong offense. And I don’t think it would surprise anyone if this series goes six or seven games.

Prediction: Capitals win the series 4-2.

#2 New York Islanders vs. #3 Pittsburgh Penguins

The Islanders 48-27-7 record is the franchise’s best record in 35 years. And as a team that didn’t receive enough love at the start of the season, they have certainly made the rest of the league aware that they are a legit threat to reach the Stanley Cup.

Their #1 ranked defense carried this team because it definitely wasn’t their 22nd ranked offense. It also didn’t hurt having the best goalie duo in all of hockey. Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner had a combined 11 shutouts – earning the William J. Jennings trophy for fewest goals against with 196. No other team in hockey allowed under 200 goals.

This is the only Eastern Conference matchup I believe will go seven games. The #1 defense vs. the #6 offense? This series is going to be absolutely incredible. And we may just see the winner in the Stanley Cup when it’s all said and done.

Simply put, even if someone didn’t pay attention to hockey, that person could still predict the Penguins making the playoffs. They have made the playoffs for 13 straight seasons. And in those 13 seasons, they’ve only lost in the first round once.

Penguins star Sidney Crosby had yet another 100-point season – sixth of his career. And while he led the Penguins in assists (65, 7th in the league), teammate Jake Guenztel led them in scoring with 40 goals. More than half of those goals came after the Penguins re-signed Guenztel back in December

The Penguins need to get on the power play early and often. While the Islanders have the number one defense, they’re ranked 18th in penalty kill (79.9%). So that sixth-best (24.6%) power play of the Penguins will need to be on the ice a lot this season.

Prediction: Islanders win the series 4-3.

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