NHL Playoffs: Breaking down every series in East first round
The Boston Bruins are the favorites to capture their second Stanley Cup in four years when the NHL’s new playoff format debuts Wednesday with three games involving two wild card teams (Columbus and Dallas), two division winners (Anaheim and Pittsburgh) and Atlantic Division rivals Tampa Bay and Montreal.
The Bruins captured the Presidents’ Trophy with 117 points thanks to a torrid March and enviable forward depth, but several teams have legitimate shots at the top prize, including the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins, the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks and a litany of elite Western Conference teams that includes Anaheim, Colorado, St. Louis, San Jose and Los Angeles.
Here’s a look at all eight first-round series.
ATLANTIC NO. 1 BOSTON (54-19-9) vs. WILD CARD NO. 2 DETROIT (39-28-15)
Season series: Detroit, 3-1.
Goalies: Boston’s Tuukka Rask (.930 save percentage) may be the best goalie in the game and has a proven track record in the postseason, having led the Bruins to the Cup Finals last year. Detroit’s Jimmy Howard is no slouch, but he’ll be facing the NHL’s deepest forward group and the league’s third-highest scoring team.
Key players: For Detroit, it has to be Howard. The Red Wings are as well coached as any club and they did win the season series, but they have no chance against the NHL’s best club unless Howard steals games.
Breakdown: Boston established itself as the Stanley Cup favorite when it won 12 straight games and 15 of 16 in March. It is hard to find a weakness in the Bruins’ balanced lineup, which features six players with 51 or more points in David Krejci, Bergeron, Jarome Iginla, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Reilly Smith, the younger brother of Detroit defenseman Brendan Smith. Boston doesn’t have the best speed in the NHL, but the Bruins are maniacally disciplined and take care of all the details. Defenseman Zdeno Chara, a Norris Trophy candidate, logs an average of 24:39 per game and touches all parts of the game with his vast wingspan and versatility. Detroit was hoping to have forward Henrik Zetterberg back in the lineup after back surgery on Feb. 21, but the best-case scenario has him returning mid-first round. Without Zetterberg and forward Stephen Weiss (groin), an enormous amount of offensive pressure falls on veterans Datsyuk, Daniel Alfredsson and wing Gustav Nyquist (team-high 28 goals). The Red Wings, behind coach Mike Babcock’s brilliance, will probably surprise Boston, just as they did last season with Anaheim and Chicago, but this is the one first-round matchup the Red Wings can’t win.
Prediction: Boston in 5.
METROPOLITAN NO. 1 PITTSBURGH (51-24-7) vs. WILD CARD NO. 1 COLUMBUS (43-32-7)
Season series: Pittsburgh, 5-0.
Goalies: Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky followed his Vezina Trophy-winning year with a solid .923 save percentage to tie for eighth in the NHL. He stopped 235 of 248 shots in April for a .948 save percentage. Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury posted eerily similar numbers to past his past three seasons that preceded playoff flops. He struggled down the stretch, allowing 15 goals on 157 shots in April.
Key players: Columbus’ bottom three centers — Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Marl Letestu — will draw the unenviable assignment of defending Penguins star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Good luck with that. Fleury hasn’t topped a .900 save percentage in his last four postseasons. He’s the only way the Penguins can lose this series.
Key stats: Pittsburgh had lost 512 man games to injury entering the season finale — tops in the NHL by 100 games. Columbus has never won a playoff series and has only qualified for the postseason twice.
Breakdown: The Jackets followed a promising 2012-13 season by making the postseason in their first year in the weaker Eastern Conference via offseason realignment. It didn’t come easily. Columbus started 5-10 and was in 14th place in the East before climbing over seven teams in five months. Since New Yearâs Day, the Blue Jackets’ winning percentage is .625. They also set franchise records for victories (43), road victories (21) and goals (231). But Columbus couldn’t overtake the Philadelphia Flyers for sixth place in the East. That means they couldnât escape facing one of the East’s two truly elite teams in the first round. Pittsburgh overwhelmed the Jackets in five games this season, outscoring them 16-7. Columbus led for a total of 56 seconds in the season series. Pittsburgh had its own issues down the stretch, but defenseman Kris Letang has returned to the lineup 10 weeks after suffering a stroke and the Penguins still have all that firepower at their disposal.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 6.
ATLANTIC NO. 2 TAMPA BAY (46-27-9) vs. ATLANTIC NO. 3 MONTREAL (46-28-8)
Season series: Tampa, 3-1.
Goalies: Tampa’s Ben Bishop (.924 save percentage) left the Lightning’s game on Tuesday against Toronto with an elbow injury and is out indefinitely. The Lightning have won 43 games. Bishop has been in goal for 37 of them. ‘Nuff said. Montreal’s Carey Price has the third-highest save percentage among current starters (.927) and the confidence of winning an Olympic gold medal.
Key players: Tampa backup goalie Anders Lindback has a goals-against average of 3.26, and a save percentage of .878. If he has to play — and it looks like he will — Tampa could be sunk.
Breakdown: This looks like a good draw for Montreal in light of the injury to Bishop. The Canadiens played well down the stretch (7-2-1) and nearly overtook Tampa for home ice in this series. Diminutive forward Max Pacioretty had 39 goals for Montreal and mercurial defenseman P.K. Subban had a good year with 10 goals and 53 assists. The Canadiens’ depth was helped by two trade deadline additions that have panned out, forwards Tomas Vanek and Mike Weaver. Montreal lacks size in its lineup, but the Canadiens have plenty of skill and experience. Tampa has overcome so much adversity this season, including Steven Stamkos’ broken shin bone and the trade of Marty St. Louis, that Bishop’s injury seems like cruel and unusual punishment. The Lightning have four 20-goal scorers in Stamkos, Valterri Filppula, Tyler Johnson and rookie sensation Ondrej Palat, but the other end is the concern now and the Lightning may have to circle the wagons to protect Lindback.
Prediction: Montreal in 5.
METROPOLITAN NO. 2 NEW YORK RANGERS (45-31-6) vs. METROPOLITAN NO. 3 PHILADELPHIA (42-30-10)
Season series: Tied, 2-2.
Goalies: New York’s Henrik Lundqvist, who posted a .920 save percentage this season, is still among the best in the business and may be the Rangers’ greatest advantage in this series. The Flyers? Goaltending hasn’t been a strength since Ron Hextall played in the 1990s, but Steve Mason (.917 save percentage, 60 starts) was a big reason Philadelphia righted the ship and got back into the playoff picture after a 4-10-1 start.
Key players: Rangers top defenseman Ryan McDonagh says he is "ready to go" for the playoffs after a shoulder injury suffered April 1. That’s a huge relief for New York, which needs his offense and minutes against Flyers star Claude Giroux. Mason suffered an upper-body injury and didnât return after a collision in the second period on Saturday. The Flyers can’t afford to lose their goalie for any stretch of this series behind an already suspect defense. Ray Emery has not played well as the backup.
Breakdown: The in-state Pennsylvania rivalry between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia gets a lot of attention, but the Rangers-Flyers rivalry is every bit as heated, with fans regularly riding the trains between the cities to attend games in each other’s buildings. It’s Broadway Blueshirts vs. Broad Street Bullies in the postseason for the first time since the 1997 Eastern Conference finals when Eric Lindros and the Flyers eliminated Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky and the Rangers, 4 games to 1. The Rangers have won the last eight meetings with the Flyers at Madison Square Garden by a combined 31-9 score. Rangers right wing Mats Zuccarello has had a terrific season for New York, eclipsing last season’s numbers with career highs in goals (19), assists (40) and points (59). Equally impressive for the Flyers is wing Wayne Simmonds, who has a team-high 15 goals on the power play, with 27 goals and 58 points overall, and will create problems for the Rangers in the corner and in front of the net. This series promises to be physical.
Prediction: New York in 7.