With the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs just a day away, matchups on both sides of the league are officially set. Last week, we took a look at what the Western Conference may bring. This week, let’s preview the Eastern Conference.
The Washington Capitals are the President’s Trophy winners (again), meaning they notched the most points out of any team in the league and will hold home-ice advantage through the duration of their playoff run. They will face off against the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs, who have made a complete 180 since finishing in last place in 2016.
Their prize from the 2016 draft lottery, Auston Matthews, is a major reason for the Leafs’ turnaround. Matthews scored 40 goals this year and finished with 69 total points. Though he was the capstone of an incredibly strong draft class, I will be astounded if he does not win the Calder Trophy for the best rookie later this year.
However, Matthews was not the only young gun leading Toronto back into the playoff picture. Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Nikita Zaitsev, and Connor Brown are among other rookies who helped rack up the points. Freddie Anderson was also a great backstop in goal for the team, despite a few injuries.
But will the Leafs’ youth corps be able to hold their own against the powerhouse Capitals? Well, probably not. On the other hand, the Caps always struggle with longer playoff runs, no matter how strong their team is. The playoffs are anyone’s game.
But the chips have to fall in the Caps’ favor sooner or later as Alex Ovechkin is in the height of his career and still does not have a Stanley Cup. Eventually they will make it there, but the window is running out soon and they know it.
A more traditionally contentious matchup will see the Pittsburgh Penguins host the Columbus Blue Jackets – rivals whose cities lie just two hours away from one another. As a Penguins fan who lives in Ohio (and who has tickets for this first round of games), I’m very excited to see how this one plays out.
Whenever these teams meet, it is all but a bloodbath on the ice. The times they have clashed this season saw high scores and high tempers. Additionally, the Jackets had their last taste of playoff action – and first playoff win – a few seasons ago against the Penguins. Both teams have improved markedly from that year, but there is no doubt that the Jackets will want a better outcome this time around.
Meanwhile, the Penguins are seeking a repeat after nabbing the Stanley Cup last season. There’s been minimal roster turnover but, as usual, the injury bug has bitten hard. Top defenseman Kris Letang will be out until the start of next season and the defense is having some trouble clicking without him.
However, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley have just returned from long-term injuries, so that should help alleviate the pressure on other defenders a little bit.
Interestingly enough, the Metropolitan Division – home of the Capitals, Penguins, and Blue Jackets – put up three of the top four teams in the league. At least one of them will be going home in the first round.
The New York Rangers were also one of those top Metropolitan teams prior to a slight slide near the end of the season, but they are always a formidable opponent. The Rangers will square off against the Montreal Canadiens, who are back in the postseason after a lackluster 2016 season.
The drama in this series starts with Chris “Goalie Killer” Kreider of the Rangers, who took out Carey Price in the playoffs a few years ago. Meanwhile, Brendan Gallagher of the Canadiens has earned a similar reputation, picking up the most goaltender interference penalties in the league.
Price and Henrik Lundqvist are two of the best goalies in the world, but neither of their jobs will be easy in this first round – not only because of their usual jobs, but because they will have to keep an eye out for extra traffic in front of their nets, both from assailants and defenders.
Lastly, the Boston Bruins will play the Ottawa Senators. However, Boston will be without two of its key defensemen for at least the beginning of the round: Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo were injured in the last few games of the regular season and have not yet returned to the ice.
On the other hand, they will have rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy to give them a boost. Boston draftee McAvoy just joined the organization days ago after Boston University was knocked out of its postseason run, and spent a few games with the Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League.
With both Carlo and Krug out, the big club decided to burn a year of McAvoy’s entry-level contract and get him some ice time now. Though it’s baptism by fire, McAvoy is more than up to the challenge.
Across the ice from him and his new teammates will be Erik Karlsson, captain of the Senators and arguably the best defensemen in the league right now. Karlsson has been in and out of the past several games with minor injuries, but expects to be back up to par by the time puck drops. Ottawa’s goalie, Craig Anderson, was also just named the NHL’s First Star for the final week of the regular season, which may be a well-earned confidence boost.
Only time will tell which teams come out on top, and today is the last day we, as fans, have to sit back and relax. Tomorrow, the real games begin.