Adam Pyde

NHL Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference Matchups

NHL Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference Matchups

I love NHL playoff hockey. Best teams versus the best teams. Teams going all out because all the chips are down. Players leaving it all on the ice. Shooting, hitting, saves, scoring, blood, sweat, tears, emotion. And the Eastern Conference is wide open this year.

Even better this year is that I do not think you can positively say that any team that loses in the first round would be the victim of an “upset”. Every team in every division is so close it almost is not fair to you gambling folk out there.

By: Adam Pyde – @Adam_Pyde

So to prepare for the best two months of NHL hockey, why not make predictions? I mean, no one gets these right. Ever. TSN used to have a monkey spin a wheel and it nailed more correct outcomes than the “experts.” And I’m not an expert, nor am I a monkey which leaves me in between somewhere so obviously I know more than people who get paid.

New York Rangers (1st in Metropolitan)
vs
Pittsburgh Penguins (Wildcard 2)

Any playoff series with Sidney Crosby in it will be the highest profile one in the NHL. Are the Rangers smoke and mirrors propped up by elite goaltending? Sorta. Are the Penguins any good? Sorta.

Why New York can win: They have speed to kill. They’re like the epitome of an Eastern Conference team; they don’t play heavy hockey to beat you up, they just play fast hockey to tire you out. Rick Nash is having his best season in years. Their top two centers in Derek’s Stepan and Brassard have fully emerged as top-level players. The defence has its warts, but Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Klein and Marc Staal are solid. They’re also playing in front of one of the best goaltenders of a generation in Henrik Lundqvist.

Why Pittsburgh can win: When you have the two best centers in the series, and two of the very best on the planet, you’re never really out of it. They’ll get Christian Ehrhoff back to start the series. David Perron, Chris Kunitz, Patrick Hornqvist and Blake Comeau have all shown they can be effective scorers. Despite the slide at the end, the playoffs are a chance at a clean slate and on paper the Penguins are still as good as anyone in the conference.

Pick: Rangers in 5 games
Pittsburgh isn’t bad. Not at all. They’re just leveled by injuries on defence and basically anyone who isn’t their top pairing or on their top line gets absolutely buried by the other team when on the ice. That isn’t the case for the Rangers. They can actually roll more than 2 lines.

Washington Capitals (2nd in Metropolitan)
vs
New York Islanders (3rd in Metropolitan)

Two revitalized franchises meet up, guaranteeing that one of them faces a massive disappointment. This is the last playoff run for the Islanders in the historic Nasseau Coliseum. For the Caps, another early round exit can be seen as nothing but a failure, which seems to be the norm in Washington.

Why Washington can win: Alex Ovechkin is the most dominant goal scorer that hockey has seen in ages. Era adjusted he ranks in the top-five all time. Braden Holtby is the best goaltender in the series, judging by the regular season. While I was not a huge fan of it at the time, the money on their defence has been well spent in Matt Niskanen. Brooks Oprik has been… serviceable. Mike Green and John Carlson are having terrific seasons. Barry Trotz squeezed a whole lot out of some average Nashville teams, and he could probably get a whole lot more out of a talented roster like he has now.

Why New York can win: John Tavares may have had the best season among any center in the NHL, and a big reason to that is that the Islanders actually built a legitimately deep, strong and balanced team behind him.

Pick: Islanders in 7 games
Coin toss. I hate to see Ovechkin out this early because it will lead to a bunch of terrible “RUSSIANS DON’T GOT WHAT IT TAKES FOR PLAYOFF HOCKEY” hot takes, but I’m less convinced of Washington’s lines 2-4 than I am of New Yorks.

Montreal Canadiens (1st in Atlantic)
vs
Ottawa Senators (Wildcard 1)

Something that is neat to see is new rivalries develop with playoff hatred. Chicag0-Vancouver, Boston-Toronto, St.Louis-Chicago, and now I feel I can comfortably add Ottawa-Montreal to that list of playoff-developed rivalries. Yay for violence!

Why Montreal can win: Great goaltending is the equalizer of all things in the NHL. Carey Price has had the most dominant goaltending season the NHL has seen in quite some time. To put it into perspective, if he stops 28 of 30 shots, for a .933 save percentage, then his save percentage actually goes down. As a friend of mine put it, “Two goals and I’m very comfortable Habs win the game. Two goals.” I guess they have a few decent players on the team too. PK Subban is one of the best defenceman in the NHL. Max Pacioretty is one of the best goal scorers that never comes up in “best goal scorers” conversation and they have enough quality forwards and defence to win games.

Why Ottawa can win: They’re Cinderella. After switching coaches mid-season they improved to about a 53.5% possession team and made the playoffs on a 23-3-3 run to close the year. Andrew Hammond has been a terrific story in net, replicating shades of Ken Dryden (and wouldn’t you know it, the Senators are playing the Habs). The team is better than people think too with a solid top six and a third line that can tread water most nights. Erik Karlsson is a one man breakout machine and a Norris candidate, and the speed game both teams play is right up his alley. I like the Senators ability to control play a whole lot.

Pick: Canadiens in 6 games
I don’t buy the Habs as a deep threat due to their possession. Boohoo it all you want, but its reflective of team play and less reliant on godly performance in net. However, I feel that midnight is going to strike on the Senators Cinderella run, and the defence 3-6 in Ottawa isn’t deep enough. This will be the Eastern series that goes to overtime a whole lot.

Tampa Bay Lightning (2nd in Atlantic)
vs
Detroit Red Wings (3rd in Atlantic)

Can the young Lightning handle the experience of the Red Wings? Can Ben Bishop handle his first ever playoff appearance well? Can Mike Babcock add even more money to his next contract if he wins another series for the Red Wings?

Why Tampa Bay can win: They are so deep its peculiar. Steven Stamkos anchors their top line and is the best shooter in the NHL outside of Washington. He’ll draw the top defensive assignments, which opens up the second line of Ondrej Palat-Tyler Johnson-Nikita Kucherov to run wild on you, brother, as it has all season long. Its one of the best “pick your poison” situations for opposing teams. “Do we try to stop the amazing goal scorer with our best players or the lightning fast trio of youngsters that tore the league apart?” Tampa also has the best defence in the Eastern conference. It isn’t even close this playoffs. They are 8 deep with #1 (Victor Hedman), two #2’s (Brayden Coburn, Anton Stralman), a #3 (Matt Carle), a #4 (Jason Garrison) and then some combination of Andre Sjustr, Nikita Nesterov and Mark Barbeiro in their 6 spot.

Why Detroit can win: Because they are Detroit. They just can find ways to push and push no matter how out they look. Mike Babcock is the best coach in this series and his combination of matchups and systems will be tough for an inexperienced Tampa team to handle. Jimmy Howard, despite his recent struggles, has shown he can be an elite goaltender. The defence is well-rounded and has enough size to handle Tampa’s cycle game, and also make slick plays for quick transition. The biggest reason the Wings can win though is that they can separate the excellently defensive Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg across two lines to stop the top-six attack of the Lightning. And not only can those two shut down the opposition, but they can also play offence while doing it.

Pick: Lightning in 5 games
The most fun about this series is that I can see it having 9 goals a game. The Red Wings goaltending is more wobbly than the Bolts, and I’m not sure how well Detroit’s defence will hold up against a relentless, fast attack. They’ll go down swinging in a series of tight games where they just couldn’t quite get the edge.

So what do you think? Am I crazy? Super crazy? Super crazily right? Let me know, because I’m right.

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