Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

It's depressing that this will be the fourth year in a row that the Hurricanes failed to make the playoffs, but there are still plenty of exciting matchups to talk about in this year's first round. The shortened season was going to lead to a lot of interesting outcomes for this year's post-season and it certainly delivered on that promise, as three new teams from the Eastern Conference made the playoffs, a few of which not many expected. I'm sure that most would have laughed at you four months ago if you said that Montreal would win the Northeast after being the second worst team in the NHL last year. They would have done the same thing if you went onto predict that the Islanders would make the playoffs while the New Jersey Devils, last year's Eastern Conference champs, would be on the outside looking in. At least the Southleast Division lived up to its mantra of sending in only one team. Regardless, it looks like NHL fans are in for another exciting first round this year and there are a few series that could really go either way.

I'm sure that each of the fan blogs for these respective teams are working around the clock to break down their own series, but writing playoff predictions and previews is kind of a "tradition" for hockey bloggers, so I figured that I'll post mine here anyway. Most of people's playoff predictions are often based on picking whichever team is the "hottest" coming into the post-season or which team has the most experience on their roster. As most of you know, I have a different approach when it comes to predictions. I'm going to take a look at each series and see how each team matches up in terms of even strength play, how lucky they have gotten and how they have performed on special teams. Luck has played a huge role in a lot of teams making it in since this is a shortened year, so be prepared to see plenty of interesting matchups after the jump where I'll break down each series.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 8. New York Islanders

When looking at how these two teams match-up at even strength, the lower seed might actually have more of a chance here than you think.

  5v5 FenClose 5v5 FenTied 5v5 Sh% 5v5 Sv% 5v5 GF/60 5v5 GA/60
Penguins 49.87% 49.74% 10.00% 92.8% 3 2.1
Islanders 52.01% 52.18% 8.40% 90.3% 2.5 2.6
  PP Sh% PP SF/60 PK Sv% PK SA/60
Penguins 14.98% 54.5 0.845 48
Islanders 14.43% 51.6 0.873 53.1

You're reading that correctly, the Islanders have been the superior team at controlling 5-on-5 territorial play this season. They've been a very good team this year in most areas except for goaltending, which has actually improved compared to how it was earlier in the season. The play of Nabokov is obviously going to play a huge factor, but the Islanders have a legit top-six and their first line of Tavares, Moulson & Boyes is as good as any in the league right now. Adding Lubomir Visnovsky has also done wonders for the team's territorial game, as their possession numbers have improved a lot since he joined the team. The Isles aren't short on tough-minute players either so that will come in handy against a stacked PIttsburgh forward corps.

On that note, Pittsburgh has a lot of notable names on their roster, but their underlying numbers have gone south for the past month for whatever reason. Adding the boat anchor that is Douglas Murray to their blue-line probably contributed to that but neither Jarome Iginla nor Brenden Morrow are exactly terrific possession players either. Both have experience and are former captains, but they have been in the red in terms of their ability to keep the puck out of their own end. While I think the trades have played a role in the Pens declining numbers, they have also been without Sidney Crosby for the last month, as well. Crosby is a dominant player at even strength and is expected to return in time for the playoffs, so could see the Pens return to their dominant form from this March once he comes back.

The Islanders may have the edge in special teams play, but the Penguins have a slight advantage in special teams. Both squads have very good powerplays, but the Pens penalty kill is superior to the Islanders and that could play a difference in this series. If there is any team that knows how much of a role special teams and goaltending can play in a playoff series, it's the Penguins since those were the main two reasons why they were ousted by the Flyers in the first round last year. Pittsburgh certainly has enough weapons up front to make the Islanders pay on the power play, so they could be able to get the upper-hand if their penalty kill stays strong.

As for goaltending, the Pens have the clear advantage here despite Marc-Andre Fleury being the Internet's whipping boy now. The Islanders goaltending has been just plain bad this year while the Pens have gotten solid net-minding from both Fleury and Vokoun. Bylsma also has the ability to go to Vokoun if Fleury has a repeat of last year's playoffs while Capuano doesn't have another option if Nabokov struggles.

I usually go to the better even strength team in a playoff series, but it's kind of hard for me to go against Pittsburgh here since they are lethal when everyone is healthy. The Islanders questionable goaltending and PK also makes me reluctant to pick them. However, I do think they will put up a good fight and push the series to six games.

2. Montreal Canadiens vs. 7. Ottawa Senators

Who has the advantage in this All-Canada showdown?

  5v5 FenClose 5v5 FenTied 5v5 Sh% 5v5 Sv% 5v5 GF/60 5v5 GA/60
Canadiens 53.63% 55.74% 9.1% 0.918 2.8 2.2
Senators 51.92% 51.19% 6.6% 0.934 2.2 2
  PP Sh% PP SF/60 PK Sv% PK SA/60
Canadiens 13.70% 48.8 0.843 43.4
Senators 10.33% 53.3 0.927 52.6

Montreal has been fantastic this year and is superior to Ottawa in every area except for goaltending. This should equate to an easy series win for Montreal but I'm not going to dismiss Ottawa so quickly. They have been playing most of the year without their best player, Erik Karlsson, and still managed to be a pretty solid team even without him. I don't think they would have made the playoffs if it wasn't for their unreal goaltending, but the Sens have built up a nice squad and were a terrific team at even strength earlier in the year when Karlsson was in the lineup.

Most of Ottawa's forwards have done an excellent job of controlling possession, but they have been able to finish for whatever reason. Kyle Turris is their leading goal-scorer with 12 goals and he is the only player on the team who has scored more than 10 all season. Not having Milan Michalek or Jason Spezza in the lineup obviously limits how much offense Ottawa can produce, which speaks volumes about how well their goaltending has been. They've allowed an average of two goals per 60 minutes at even strength and their penalty kill save percentage is the highest in the NHL. Craig Anderson would likely be in the running for the Vezina if he was healthy all year and he is more than good enough to steal a couple games for the Sens if needed.

That being said, Montreal is still the better team here. They are better at even strength, their powerplay poses a bad matchup for Ottawa's porous penalty kill and their PK is not too shabby itself. The one disadvantage they have is goaltending, which sounds silly because Carey Price is a fantastic goalie but has only average numbers this season. I've been told that the Canadiens goaltending has been worse since they clinched, but it's doubtful that they've been as good as Ottawa's. Although, the Habs are less likely to rely on goaltending to bail them out than the Sens since they are better defensively and have plenty of guys in front of Price to help carry the play. Defenseman PK Subban leads the pack here, but they also have one of the better scoring lines in the NHL in Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher and David Desharnais, who I would keep an eye on this series.

I think Ottawa is a different and much better team with Karlsson in the lineup but the Habs have been the better squad for most of the year, so I have to go with them in this series. I think the Sens will push them to seven games, though.

3. Washington Capitals vs. 6. New York Rangers

  5v5 FenClose 5v5 FenTied 5v5 Sh% 5v5 Sv% 5v5 GF/60 5v5 GA/60
Capitals 47.72% 47.94% 8.9% 0.927 2.5 2.3
Rangers 53.88% 52.11% 7.6% 0.93 2.4 1.9
  PP Sh% PP SF/60 PK Sv% PK SA/60
Capitals 20.50% 49 0.887 59.2
Rangers 11.56% 42.1 0.847 48.9

These two teams have changed a bit since their second-round series last year where there were more shots blocked than actual shots on goal. The Rangers are much more powerful offensively while the Caps are less defensively-oriented than they were last season. The one thing that hasn't changed here is that the Caps are still a pretty bad puck-possession team at even strength and the Rangers have a huge advantage over them in that area. The only problem is that the Rangers haven't been able to score a lot at even strength but Lundqvist's goaltending has been able to keep them well above water at even strength.

The Caps lackluster even strength production has been boosted by an incredibly potent powerplay that has scored on over 20% of the shots they've taken this year. I have my doubts that will continue against Lundqvist, but he hasn't exactly been stopping a lot on the PK this year, so this is the one area where the Caps have a huge advantage and it could play a huge difference if the Rangers struggle to score at even strength. That being said, the Caps penalty kill is putrid and while the Rangers power play is also bad, they have a lot of players capable of making the Caps pay if they get into penalty trouble. It's possible that this ends up being a stalemate, though.

Washington has been the popular pick for a lot of people so far because of how hot they are coming into this series. They went 11-1-1 in April to clinch a Southeast Division title and home-ice advantage and Alexander Ovechkin has been nearly unstoppable as of late. They also have a very good goaltender in Braden Holtby, who nearly stole two series for them last year and could easily do it again. With that being said, I have to go with the Rangers here because they have been the better team all season. The Caps run is a nice story but their poor possession numbers tell me that it's built on a house of cards while the Rangers have been a stronger territorial team overall. I think this ends up going to seven games with the Blueshirts taking it.

4. Boston Bruins vs. 5. Toronto Maple Leafs

  5v5 FenClose 5v5 FenTied 5v5 Sh% 5v5 Sv% 5v5 GF/60 5v5 GA/60
Bruins 54.35% 53.04% 7.9% 0.928 2.6 2
Maple Leafs 44.01% 44.85% 11% 0.923 2.9 2.7
  PP Sh% PP SF/60 PK Sv% PK SA/60
Bruins 10.13% 48.1 0.900 39.1
Maple Leafs 14.86% 43.3 0.897 41.9

The Leafs are the second worst puck-possession team in the league and yet, they still managed to make the playoffs on the back of an extremely high team shooting percentage and great goaltending. The chances of that sustaining in the long-run are very, very low but they managed to make it in and crazy things can happen in a small sample size. That's about all the optimism I have for them here, though since the Bruins have the advantage in just about every category except for goal-scoring.

To make things worse for the Leafs, the Bruins are a pretty bad matchup for them. The Leafs life-line this year has been their astoundingly high shooting percentage both at even strength and on the powerplay. The Bruins have received above-average goaltending from Tuukka Rask and have one of the best penalty kills in the NHL, so good luck with that. The one way I could see the Leafs pulling off the upset here is if Rask has a few bad games or if the Bruins powerplay continues to go through a dry spell. One would think they'd snap out of if after adding Jaromir Jagr at the deadline but they are still futile on the powerplay and have scored only 16 goals with the man-advantage all-season. That has to improve sooner or later.

Like I said, strange things can happen in a series and the better team doesn't always win, but I think the B's should handle the Leafs in five games.

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