After six months of hockey, get ready for two more. Mid-April though Mid-June figures to bring plenty of excitement and just as much unknown as the 16-team tournament does not include the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings or a team that had reached seven straight postseasons, the Boston Bruins. With a few of the playoff “mainstays” conspicuously absent, there does not appear to be any clear-cut favorite or overly intimidating club that opponents will back down from.
Here are our first-round analyses and predictions for the Eastern Conference:
Ottawa (4) vs. Montreal (1): The Senators are perhaps the single greatest story of the 2014-15 NHL season, resurrecting a once-sorry season by finishing with an incredible 21-3-3 finish, sparked primarily by unheralded, 27-year-old rookie goaltender Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond. The Canadiens have been playoff chokers for the most part, despite reaching the conference finals a year ago. Carey Price and Hammond provide a stellar goaltending matchup, but the potential absence of leading scorer Max Pacioretty could hinder the Habs in a big way. It would be easy to pick the Sens to run out of gas after their improbable season-ending run, but with a young, hungry team that is clearly no fluke, the Canadiens are the one under all the pressure. Prediction: Senators in 6.
Detroit (3) vs. Tampa Bay (2): The Lightning don’t have a division title under their belt, but they do have some impressive numbers on their side. They led the NHL in goals scored with 262, were second with a +51 goal differential, netted the second-most regulation plus overtime wins in hockey, and possess the league’s second-leading goal scorer in center Steven Stamkos. The Red Wings are making their record 24th-straight playoff appearance, but things haven’t been so rosy of late, as they have failed to reach even the conference finals since losing the 2009 Stanley Cup. The Lightning, who were champs in 2004, went 3-1 against Detroit this season and have to have more faith in their netminder Ben Bishop than Detroit does in rookie Petr Mrazek. The Wings are always a tough out in the playoffs, but they slid significantly late in the year and probably don’t have a counter for the Lightning’s high-flying attack. Prediction: Lightning in 6.
Pittsburgh (4) vs. New York Rangers (1): Talk about limping into the playoffs. The Penguins went 4-9-2 over their final 13 games, surviving a massive collapse with a win on the season’s final day at Buffalo. But they have owned the Rangers in the past, winning four of the teams’ five all-time playoff meetings with the lone exception being last year. New York hopes it doesn’t fall into a growing group of President’s Trophy winners to make early postseason exits. That seems highly unlikely for the team with the best goal differential in hockey (+60), one as well-coached and well-rounded as any in the tournament. Even though getting to the playoffs could provide second life for an underachieving team like Pittsburgh, they are simply not a complete enough team to take down a Rangers club with some unfinished business a year after losing in the Stanley Cup finals. Prediction: Rangers in 5.
New York Islanders (3) vs. Washington (2): These two teams both have significant “playoff baggage.” For years, the Caps had a bad habit of squandering magnificent regular seasons with playoff duds. The Islanders simply have not won in the second season, losing six straight series dating to 1993, when they beat Washington. Though New York is 5-1 in six all-time playoff meetings with the Caps, Washington has shown flashes of greatness but more importantly, so too has goaltender Braden Holtby. He could ultimately be the difference-maker, but don’t discount the fact that the Caps are the league’s best power-play team and the Islanders are the fifth-worst penalty killing unit. The Capitals have a little more experience and this year’s squad is a little more resilient than past ones that have been one-and-done. Prediction: Capitals in 7.