The Eastern Conference has been my favorite conference for some time now. Around 10 years ago, there seemed to be a culture and power swap between the East and the West. Once most power, high-scoring and skilled, the West has largely gave all those attributes to the East. It also helps for me that we are inundated with national broadcasts from the Northeast. It seems like every Sunday afternoon I can look forward to Penguins playing the Rangers, or the Sabres playing Flyers–yes, I know those two teams aren’t in the playoffs, but that’s what makes the East so great; even the non-playoff teams are fun to watch.
I’ll be excited to watch the East playoffs this year mainly because the Capitals are back to being “The Caps” and could very well be on a collision course with a stacked Penguins team–the NHL needs a revival of “Crosby vs. Ovchekin”. On the other end of that, you have a rejuvenated Bruins team and a very deep and feisty Canadiens team looking to win their first Cup in 20 years. I’ll only acknowledge the Maple Leafs accordingly.
So come on, get to know who what the Red Wings will be going up against next year.
(8) New York Islanders vs. (1) Pittsburgh Penguins
Penguins won season series 4-1
Break down: The Islanders have been a team on my radar for the past three seasons now. John Tavares has made a very steady Claude Giroux-esque ascension to becoming one of the best centers in the game. Joining him has been the consistency of veteran Swiss defenseman Mark Streit, grit of Kyle Okposo and arguably the fastest player in the league Michael Grabner. The Islanders haven’t come out of no where; they’ve had offensive capability building for a while but never the defensive depth or goaltending to prop them up. As fun and exciting as the Isles are, they are still not deep enough to pose a serious upset threat to the Penguins. This was more or less a matter of seeding; had Boston beat Ottawa Sunday night, the Sens would’ve been the appetizer for a hungry and loaded Pens squad. With the strong possibility of Crosby’s return in this series, the best player in the game can merely serve as a compliment to Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Kris LeTang, Jerome Iginla, Pascal Dupuis and well…it goes on and on and on and on. Every Penguins player is dangerous. This is the best roster assembled since the 2002 Red Wings. The only thing standing in their way could be their own goaltending. Last year Marc-Andre Fluery had a legendary meltdown and Tomas Vokoun has looked old in some appearances this season. That is their only uncertainty. It’s a shame the Islanders had to go straight into the wood-chipper first round–they could pose a serious challenge to most other playoff teams, but not the Penguins.
Pens in five.
(7) Ottawa Senators vs. (2) Montreal Canadiens
Season series tied at 2
The Senators got their best player, Erik Karlsson, back just in time for the playoffs. Coming off a nasty achilles injury courtesy of Penguins goon Matt Cooke, the defending Norris Trophy winner will bring shut down defense and a power play point threat to a team 26th in scoring. It’s been no secret, Ottawa is the streakiest of any playoff team and the good side of those streaks have been forged by the goaltending carousel of Craig Anderson, Robin Lehner and the since traded Ben Bishop. Anderson is back from an ankle-sprain and lead the Sens to winning five out of their last six games to leap in over the Winnipeg Jets into the playoffs and Islanders into the 7th seed. While the Senators are all about stopping the puck, the Habs are about efficiently moving the puck. Max Pacioretty led the team with only 39 points but was one of nine players with 25-plus points–a fantastic amount of depth, especially considering the Penguins only had seven players above the 25 point mark. Add onto the Habs depth is a stellar defense featuring a player I’ll argue as the most exciting in the game: P.K. Subban. With P.K.’s emergence as dynamic, he has a backdrop of veteran savvy; Andrei Markov has led the team in ice-time at age 37 and Francois Bouillon at age 34 played every game averaging 18 minutes a night with a solid +4 rating. Regarding forward depth, Brandon Prust an off-season signing, seems like the prime candidate to win the “Joel Ward Award” for third-liner turned playoff hero. He will play huge minutes in these playoffs. Similar to the top-seeded Penguins, they’re built for a long run with scoring depth, a superstar player in Subban and the perfect mix of young and old composing the roster–yet the question with them as well is goaltending. Unlike previous seasons where Cary Price has had to contend with Cristobal Huet and Jaroslav Halak for playoff starts, this is his team. He has seemed unable to handle that at times, being swept by the Boston Bruins in 2009 and turning the team over to Halak in 2010 who took the Habs to the conference finals. If he can keep his head, the Habs should straighten out their inconsistencies and be playing into late May. Anderson will steal a game or two as he tends to in the playoffs but it won’t be enough for the Senators to overcome this made-for-postseason team.
Habs in six.
(6) New York Rangers vs. (3) Washington Capitals
Rangers won season series 2-1
This rematch of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semi-Final will likely be as entertaining as the seven game series last year. With the Capitals only earning three more points than the Rangers, all evidence points to it being that close. The big question is whether the Capitals will suddenly stall out. They began the season 3-8-1 under new head coach Adam Oates. Washington was at their most successful as a free-wheeling offensive team that let Ovie shoot from anywhere. He went through three coaching changes, a rash of nagging injuries and it seemed like 2013 would become a proverbial death-march for him and the post-2006 lockout Caps. The era wasn’t over quite yet; the Capitals got it together and Ovechkin–with the help of reclamation project Mike Ribeiro and his old pal Nicklas Backstrom–won his third Richard Trophy for leading the league in goals. The Caps got their groove back and have seem to fought through so much turmoil and controversy that they’ve finally paid their penitence and are ready to take the next step. It’s not that Ovechkin is a bad playoff performer–he has 59 points in 51 career playoff games–it’s that the team seems to flail around him come spring time. With the addition of Joel Ward in 2011 and recently Troy Brouwer, I truly believe the Capitals are in a good place to finally move forward. The Rangers have appeared to make a regression. Last season, they dominated the regular season on the way to being upset by the cross-river rival New Jersey Devils in the conference finals. I’m not sure if the shock from that has ever worn off or if it’s that they traded key playoff components like Brandon Dubinsky, Marion Gaborik and Mike Rupp plus letting Brandon Prust walk in free agency. Now you have Rick Nash who only made the playoffs once as the doughy face of the Columbus Blue Jackets and has never won a playoff game in his career. I enjoy many players on the Rangers; Dan Girardi, Ryan Callahan and Brad Richards are among favorites of mine to watch, but to me the Rags sold their soul for Rick Nash and will pay the price for selling out to the leagues biggest underachiever in these playoffs.
Caps in six.
(4) Boston Bruins vs. (5) Toronto Maple Leafs
Boston won the season series 3-1
Lets just talk about the past 10 years of the Maple Leafs for a second and this delusional fan base. They are BY FAR the most delusional fan base. Every year I have to hear the Toronto-based hockey media talk about ___________being the next great goalie and __________ being the next great young defenseman and _____________ being the next great forward and how if the Leafs don’t win the division _____________ and ______________ HAVE TO BE FIRED. Yet every year since 2004, the Leafs had missed the playoffs and that constant Hockey News prognostication formula would always turn into _______________ put on waivers, ________________ traded for future considerations, _________________ turning his career around after being signed by the Canadiens and _______________ and __________________being FIRED. To me it’s been the funniest thing in all of professional sports. The Maple Leafs have joined the Lions and Chicago Cubs in my mind regarding hilarious, unprecedented cluster (BLEEP) futility. Lets put this in perspective; there have been TWO lockouts since the Maple Leafs last MADE the playoffs. There have been THREE since the Wings last MISSED the playoffs. They’ve finished in last place three times since 2004. More hilariously, they haven’t even been to the Stanley Cup finals since the league expanded from the Original Six but ohhhhhh Leaf fan will be sure to tell you about their 1993 conference final against the Kings. Despite allllllll this, the Leafs still sell out the Air Canada Centre every night and have through the playoff drought. The fans haven’t wavered and while some slaps will find that noble, I find it disgustingly stupid. So I suppose they’ve finally been rewarded. James Reimer looks like the goalie the Leafs have always needed in these down years. Phil Kessel has finally stepped up to scoring consistently. Nazem Kadri is a promising star who reminds me a lot of a young Datsyuk. Most envious to me, the Leafs traded for James VanReimsdyk; a player that would be PERFECT for the Wings, a young power forward who can finish. They’re also fun to watch with their bruiser brothers Frazer McClaren and Colton Orr. So is this the year the Leafs make a full ascension? NO. The Bruins are one of the best four-seeds I’ve seen in a while. They’re a team of tremendous depth that seem to offer defense and goaltending so tough and then can nab you with big playoff performers like Brad Marchand. Young gun Tyler Seguin, savvy vet Patrice Bergeron and bangers David Krecji and Milan Lucic can now welcome legend Jaromir Jagr. The 42 year old has been far from showing his age since being moved at the deadline; he has 9 points in 11 games since putting the big ‘B’ on. Defensively they have the perennial Norris candidate Zdeno Chara, rookie Dougie Hamilton and stay-at-homers Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference. I believe the only question for the Bruins will be Tuukka Rask. In the 2010 playoffs he was handed the team. Performing well early on, he was part of blowing a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers. The following year the now retired Tim Thomas led the B’s to a Cup, posting a Conn Smythe performance. Now that the team has been turned back over to him, it will be interested to see how he responds.
B’s in five.
That’s it, I’ll see how much explaining I have to do for round 2!
Kyle Bauer is an award winning college sports broadcaster and former Sports Director of WXOU 88.3fm, freelance journalist and radio producer who has been published in The Macomb Daily, mlive.com, Oakland Post and MIPREPZONE.com, follow him on Twitter @kyle_bauer