The Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to start tonight. Although tonight will only hold games from the Western Conference, I will be giving you all my Eastern Conference predictions for the first round. The Eastern Conference has games scheduled for tomorrow; the full schedule can be found here.
I will start with the match up between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs. This is an original six match ups, and hockey purists are likely to be salivating heavily over this series. The Maple Leafs have not been to the playoffs since 2004, so the city of Toronto must be buzzing with playoff excitement. The Bruins have won a Stanley Cup in recent years, beating the Vancouver Canucks in 7 games to conclude the 2010-2011 season. It is pretty easy to say that Tuukka Rask has greatly exceeded expectations this season in replacement of Tim Thomas. The same may also be true for Maple Leafs’ goaltender James Reimer. Rask was a backup for Thomas last season. It was apparent that Rask held a lot of upside, but he had never played as the number one goalie. His success this year has been key to the Bruins. Reimer has bounced back form a sub-par season this year, arguably carrying the Leafs to the playoffs. This game will feature a battle of two goalies, but I feel that the extra defensive muscle of Boston will propel the Bruins to a series win in 6 games against the Maple Leafs.
The next match up on the bracket features the New York Rangers facing the Washington Capitals. The Capitals have had a history of making the playoffs and severely underachieving. However, to the dismay of some Lightning fans, I think the Capitals are more of a serious threat this season than the team has ever been. The Rangers will be no pushover for the Caps however, especially with Henrik Lundqvist in net. The biggest key for the Capitals will not be Alex Ovechkin and his scoring; instead, it all lies within Braden Holtby. A pattern has already begun in this article: goaltending will be the key. Goaltending will both make and break my predictions. However, because Lundqvist is so consistent, the key for the Rangers will be providing the net minder with enough goal support. If this series turns into an offensive shootout, the Capitals will win easily. The Rangers will only win if they can keep up with the offense of Washington. My prediction: Capitals win in 5 games.
If a rivalry is not already in place, it will probably be cemented after the series between the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens. And guess what the theme of this matchup will most likely be: goaltending. Carey Price is a proven all-star, but does not have a vast amount of playoff experience. Craig Anderson will likely be in net for the Senators, and he has shown that he can single-handedly steal games from opposing teams. With the high-flying offense of the Canadiens and the sometimes spotty defense of the Senators, Anderson may have to steal one, maybe two games from Montreal for his club to win the series. Even with Erik Karlsson returning from his nasty achilles laceration, I think the Canadiens will best the Senators. Montreal wins this one in 6 games.
The final series, and in my opinion, the most interesting one, will see the Pittsburgh Penguins face off against the New York Islanders. The Islanders are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007, and a big reason is, of course, is the performance of Evgeni Nabokov. Like Anderson, Nabokov has the ability to rob teams of a win. However, Nabokov is a player that has been questioned in the past because of sub-par playoff performances with the San Jose Sharks. It is no secret that the Penguins will have Marc-Andre Fleury in net; the biggest question will be team defense. After that crazy first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers last season, many were left questioning not only the strength of the Penguins’ defense, but also the team’s mental strength. The Penguins allowed about 2.7 goals per game last year while this season they have improved slightly to 2.4 goals per game. This number is a solid one, but the Penguins have proven in the past 3 seasons that regular season dominance does not equate playoff dominance. The Islanders success is not only credited to better goaltending, but also more solid play from all-star John Tavares. The offensive numbers are there as expected, but Tavares has played better defensively this season as well, despite his -2 rating. The Islanders will need a solid, consistent team defensive theme to slow down the Penguins. If the Islanders can keep the Penguins from running up the score, they will have the chance to win every game. The final verdict: Islanders in 7.
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