Previewing the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs - Eastern Conference Edition
There is no more exciting time of the hockey year than the playoffs. The initial field of 31 teams is cut down to the top 16* (*sorry, Montreal), setting the stage for one of the most thrilling tournaments in sports. Big hits, big goals, big games, nonstop. No more loser points. No more shootouts. No more easy wins. The two month grind to determine a victor of Lord Stanley's Cup, the greatest trophy in sports, is about to commence.
Even though the Flyers did not qualify for the playoffs this year, that still doesn't mean this year's field isn't worth breaking down. Here are my thoughts on the first round, and overall predictions for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Matchup: Tampa Bay Lightning (128 PTS, 1st in Atlantic) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (98 PTS, 5th in Metro - 2nd Wild Card)
Recent Meetings: None. This is the first time they've ever met in the playoffs.
Season Series: Tampa Bay took all three meetings by four or more goals, outscoring Columbus 17-3 overall.
Recent Playoff Success: Not much for the Blue Jackets. This is their third straight trip to the playoffs, which is actually a longer streak than Tampa Bay. But they haven't won a single round, losing to the Penguins in 5 in 2017 and then falling to the Capitals in 6 a year ago.
As for the Lightning, they're a bit more complicated. The Lightning have made it to the Eastern Conference Final in three of the last four seasons, which sounds like a great thing. But the last two times they've been there (2018 and 2016), they lost in 7 games to the Capitals and Penguins, respectively. They beat the President's Trophy winning Rangers in 2015 to advance to the big dance, only to lose to the Blackhawks in 6 games in the finals. With all the success the Lightning have had, there's an expectation to get over the hump. So far, no luck.
Who's the Favorite: This series features not just the biggest discrepancy between two opposing teams in this year's playoffs - it's nearly double the next closest matchup (Calgary-Colorado, who have 107 and 90 points, respectively). The Lightning's 62-win season tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the highest total in NHL history. They are stacked, rolling four dangerous scoring forward lines and three lethal defense pairings, with a Vezina caliber-goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy. Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, Sergachev, Point and more headline one of the deepest teams in NHL history.
That's not to knock on Columbus. GM Jarmo Kekalainen went all in at the deadline, not only holding on to pending UFA stars Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but doubling down by adding rentals Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel from Ottawa. Those additions (12 points each) complement a largely home-grown core featuring sniper Cam Atkinson, Pierre Luc-Dubois, and one of the best defense pairings in the game in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. But can anyone hang with the Bolts?
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: Of all the first round series, this one might be the toughest to call in this category. We'll start with Columbus. Most 8 seeds are usually just happy to be in the playoffs, and a blowout loss is almost to be expected. Not for the 2018-19 Blue Jackets. Kekalainen gave away this and next year's 1st and 2nd round picks, as well as prospects, to acquire Duchene and Dzingel (though the 2020 1st is conditional on Duchene resigning). Add in the fact that Panarin and (especially) Bobrovsky seem likely to leave in free agency, and the Blue Jackets are all in. A first round exit combined with losing four of their best players in one fell swoop could result in a Senator-like meltdown.
On the other hand, the Lightning seem likely to cruise to an easy victory. Not many expect them to be the least bit tested until they meet Boston or Toronto in Round 2. But what if they are? If the Lighting can't win this year, with one of the most stacked teams in NHL history, then when can they win? Nikita Kucherov, Ryan McDonagh, and Yanni Gourde will be getting raises next year. Brayden Point is an RFA this summer, and Vasilevskiy the year after. 5 of their 9 roster defenseman are pending UFAs. All I'm saying is there's an awfully strong 2005-2017 Washington Capitals stench coming from Amalie Arena. We'll call this one a draw.
Player to Watch For:
TBL: Nikita Kucherov is the heavy Hart favorite, coming off a record-breaking 128 point season. This is a hard question to answer for Tampa Bay, since there are just so many weapons you don't know who to look out for. But I'd say the clear-cut Art Ross winner is a pretty good guy to keep your eye on.
CBJ: Ever since being acquired from Philadelphia in 2012 (thanks, Homer), Sergei Bobrovsky has established himself as one of the best goalies in the NHL. Well, during the regular season, at least. The two-time Vezina Trophy winner has a career .891 save percentage in the playoffs, and allowed three goals or more in each of the Jackets' six playoff games a year ago. If Columbus has any shot at pulling off the upset, Bob is going to need to stay in regular season form.
The Pick: Tampa Bay in 5
Oddly Specific Prediction (Stolen from Down Goes Brown): Segrei Bobrovsky turns in a Game 1 shutout that leaves everyone in Tampa in a sweat (and not just from the weather). It turns out to be a mirrage, as the Bolts win the next four straight in convincing fashion.
The Matchup: Boston Bruins (107 PTS, 2nd in Atlantic) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (100 PTS, 3rd in Atlantic)
Recent Meetings: You want rivalries? You got one here. The Leafs and Bruins have met twice in the first round in the last six seasons. Both times it went seven, with Toronto blowing a third-period lead in both games, as Boston ultimately prevailed.
Season Series: Boston took three of the four matchups, outscoring the Leafs 16-10.
Recent Playoff Success: After becoming the first team in NHL history to blow a 3-goal 3rd period lead in a Game 7 to the Bruins back in 2013, the Leafs hit rock bottom. However, their young core has now lead them to the playoffs in three straight seasons. Bad news? They've lost two tightly fought series to the Capitals and Bruins, and now have to face their kryptonite in Boston once again.
As for Boston, they went all the way to the final in 2013 before losing to Chicago in 6. The next year, they were President's Trophy winners, but bowed out in a home Game 7 defeat to the Canadiens. After two straight playoff misses and a forgettable 1st round exit to Ottawa, Boston appears back on track with consecutive 100-point seasons. However, after shattering Toronto's hopes and dreams once again last year, they were thumped in 5 by the Bolts in the next round, losing four straight after taking Game 1 on the road.
Who's the Favorite: History, both old and new, say Boston. Let's face it - the Bruins own free real estate in Toronto's heads after these last two bouts. Add in the fact that Boston recently went on a 19-game point streak, whereas the Leafs are limping into the playoffs on a 3-4-3 slump (though they have been dealing with injuries that should be healed up by Game 1), it doesn't take a genius to see where this is leaning. That being said, it should be a star-studded series. Marchand, Bergeron, Pastrnak, McAvoy, and Rask battling against Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Rielly, and Andersen sounds like a treat, regardless of which side you're on.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: Being in Toronto automatically gives the Leafs the edge here. Hockey is king in Canada, and Toronto is its throne. Some Leafs fans are realistic, and known the team's struggles on defense, recent skid, and cautionary past suggest a first round exit. But the other 97% are expecting a victory. Failure to deliver such would set off a hurricane of anger amidst one of hockey's most riled up fanbases, especially with the cap crunch prepared to hit them hard next season.
As for Boston, it's not exactly all house money. But it's not like Boston fans can be too mad if one of their teams finally lose. Well, that's assuming the city doesn't go into a state of shock since it's been more than two months since their last championship.
Player to Watch For:
BOS - With Zdeno Chara aging (though still pushing father time to his limit) and Torey Krug unreliable in his own zone, a lot of Boston's defensive success lies on the shoulders of 21-year old Charlie McAvoy. Leader of all Bruins in ice-time, McAvoy will be depended upon in all three situations to shut down Marner, Tavares, Matthews, and company. That's a pretty big ask for a kid who couldn't legally drink when the season began.
TOR - Regardless of how well the team is playing, Mitch Marner is plain and simply a fun player to watch. On a team with John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, and William Nylander, among others, it was Marner who lead the squad with a career-high 94 points. He's set-up for a massive payday in the summer, but for now the focus is how well he can set up chances as a key cog in the Leafs lethal offense.
The Pick: Boston in 6
Oddly Specific Prediction: Down three games to two, the Leafs score late in Game 6 to send it to overtime, only to allow an overtime winner from Patrice Bergeron. *Extreme Steve Dangle voice* Why does it always have to be Bergeron?
The Matchup: Washington Capitals (104 PTS, 1st in Metro) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (99 PTS, 4th in Metro - 1st Wild Card)
Recent Meetings: None, on account of the fact Carolina hasn't been in the playoffs since 2009, breaking the NHL's longest playoff-less drought this year.
Season Series: Washington took all four meetings, though three of them were decided by two or fewer goals.
Recent Playoff Success: Um, see above for Carolina. As for the Caps, nothing much, other than shedding the label as the biggest chokers in NHL history with a dramatic run to their first Cup in franchise history a year ago to get generational great Alex Ovechkin the ring that he deserved. Oh, and they won the President's in 2016 and 2017 (getting bounced by Pittsburgh in the second round both times) and won the Metro for the fourth straight season this year. This is their 5th straight trip to the playoffs.
Who's the Favorite: With all due respect to Carolina, we have to go with the defending champions here. Experience matters in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Capitals have loads of it (both positive and negative). Alex Ovechkin is arguably the greatest goal scorer ever and is being fed the puck by studs in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. T.J. Oshie, Jakub Vrana, and actually productive NHLer Tom Wilson round out the top-6. On the backend, John Carlson leads the way for a strong defensive core that was bolstered by acquiring Nick Jensen from Detroit at the deadline. Braden Holtby, the winner of all 16 of Washington's playoff victories a year ago, mans the crease once again.
Carolina is a little more chaotic. They've got a couple guys in ex-Cap Mr. Game 7 Justin Williams, Nino Niederriter, and Teuvo Teravainen with some experience, but a large chunk of the core have never sniffed the playoffs. Up front, Sebastian Aho may be the most underrated forward in the NHL. The aforementioned trio contributes heavily, as do rookie Andrei Svechnikov and veteran Jordan Staal (a former Cup winner). The defense is stacked on paper, with Justin Faulk, Jacob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Dougie Hamilton leading the way. Goaltending is a bit of a question - Petr Mrazek has taken over the reigns after an outstanding start from Curtis McElhinney. They're also analytical darlings and started the lovable Storm Surge, though the latter will be held off for the playoffs. Boo.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: In a complete 180 from Tampa Bay-Columbus, the answer here is really no one. Carolina's just happy to be back - winning one game is as good as a Cup for them. Washington finally got the monkey of their back last year, and though will have a target on their back as defending champs, they're probably still relieved that regardless of what happens this year, they won't have to worry about any memes from Penguins fans with a caricaturized Alex Ovechkin holding a golf bag over his head.
Player to Watch For:
WSH - On a team with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Carlson, it often feels like T.J. Oshie gets lost in the fold. But Oshie was a huge part of the run last year, scoring 21 points in 24 games. He has been a model of consistency, scoring 50+ points in five of the last six seasons. And he knows how to handle the spotlight, dating back to his dramatics in the 2014 Olympics against Sergei Bobrovsky. Keep an eye for him creeping in the slot on the Caps power play as everyone frantically dives in front of Ovi and Carlson.
CAR - No defenseman in the NHL has scored more goals in the past two seasons than Carolina's Dougie Hamilton. That's due in large part to Hamilton's commitment to shooting - he holds an active record, having recorded at least one shot on goal in 246 straight games. His five power play assists also lead all Canes blueliners.
The Pick: Washington in 6
Oddly Specific Prediction: After taking a two games to one series lead with a win on home ice, Carolina decides to bring back the Storm Surge. Then hockey proves we can have nothing fun and Washington wins the next three.
The Matchup: New York Islanders (103 PTS, 2nd in Metro) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (100 PTS, 3rd in Metro)
Recent Meetings: Back in 2013, the Penguins beat New York in an intense first-round six game battle.
Season Series: Split - the Islanders took the first two, the Penguins the last two. Both teams won once convincingly in regulation, and once in the shootout.
Recent Playoff Success: After missing the playoffs the year after that 2013 first round loss, the Islanders returned there the next two years. In 2015, they lost a tight 7-game tilt to Washington, but came back stronger in 2016 and beat the Atlantic winning Florida Panthers in six before falling to the Lightning in the second round. Meanwhile, the Penguins define success come spring, having made the playoffs 12 straight years and won 9 straight series (and two cups) in the last three years before finally falling to the Caps in the second round.
Who's the Favorite: This is probably the first time where the lower seed is considered the favorite. As mentioned, the Penguins have one of the best track records over the last three playoffs, and it's not like they hadn't been there before, either. They define star power, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang leading the way as always. Granted, goal scoring has been inconsistent, Matt Murray's play is a glorified coin toss, and GM Jim Rutherford hasn't helped with a couple of puzzling moves. Still, they are the Penguins, so it's hard to bet against them.
Especially when that means the team you'd be betting on is the Islanders. After losing John Tavares (and Calvin de Hann) in free agency, many (including myself) thought the Islanders were going to spiral to the basement. However, lead by one of the greatest defensive turnarounds in NHL history and an incredible encore by Mathew Barzal, the Islanders exceeded all expectations. However, they have struggled down the stretch, as Thomas Greiss and (especially) Robin Lehner's numbers have slowly come back to Earth. It feels an awful lot like the glass slipper is coming off Cinderella a bit too soon.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: It's the battle of proving it to yourselves vs. proving it to the world. A lot of Penguins fans I see on Twitter and YouTube (hi, UrinatingTree) are awfully pesimistic about this year's squad. They don't see how the Penguins could push for another Cup, forgetting that they are the Penguins and therefore can defy logic and injuries because of the leadership powers of Sidney Crosby. But a first round loss would put the heat on Jim Rutherford and slightly intensify the Blackhawks vibes coming from the Alleghney River.
Meanwhile, if the Islanders were to lose, it would be the ultimate "I-told-you-so" moment as everyone pretended they didn't think the Islanders were ever for real. It would be even worse if John "Benedict Arnold" Tavares pushed the Leafs over the top against Boston, too. Add in that three of their five leading scorers (and Lehner) are pending UFAs, and all of a sudden those doomsday predictions from last summer don't look so bad.
The Pick: Penguins in 5
Oddly Specific Prediction: At least two Penguins record hat-tricks against the Islanders record-breaking defense. Sidney Crosby isn't one of them.