Montreal Canadiens (1) vs. New York Rangers (WC1)
The Habs may be more prepared to succeed in the post-season with Weber anchoring the blueline, the addition of Alex Radulov and the league’s best goaltender in Carey Price, but they still have the same shortcomings that could prevent a deep playoff run.
New York finished with the NHL’s best record on the road (27-12-2) and 102 points, but in the powerhouse Metropolitan Division that meant finishing fourth and in the top wildcard spot.
The Rangers sport a balanced scoring attack that is not dependent on one or two players, but has three offensive lines that can produce and a blueline led by Ryan McDonagh that has vast Stanley Cup experience.
Henrik Lundqvist struggled at times with inconsistency and injury during the season and that was reflected in a career-high GAA (2.74) and career-low save percentage (.910). His career numbers vs Montreal (14-17-3, 2.87 GAA .898 sv %) are also not great, but the playoffs are the opportunity for “King Henrik” to bounce back.
Prediction – Rangers in seven
Ottawa Senators (2) vs. Boston Bruins (3)
The Senators surprised many by making the postseason with new head coach Guy Boucher at the helm. Ottawa was able to improve defensively with a strong top-four defense of Erik Karlsson, Marc Methot, Dion Phaneuf and Cody Ceci, rely on the goaltending of Craig Anderson (who had a remarkable season considering his wife’s battle with cancer) and get production from Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone and Kyle Turris, but the injury bug struck late in the season and may affect their playoff prospects.
Methot may not be available to start the playoffs due to a mangled finger courtesy of a Sidney Crosby slash, Ceci missed most of the last month and returned late in the season at less than 100% and Karlsson’s effectiveness could be compromised by a foot injury.
Boston has injury concerns on the blueline as well, losing power-play point man Torey Krug late in the season to a leg injury and rookie Brandon Carlo to a concussion. Prospect Charlie McAvoy will make his NHL debut alongside Zdeno Chara.
The Bruins offense is stronger with 30+ goal scorers Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, veteran David Backes and up the middle with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, but the key to victory will be goaltender Tuukka Rask, who lost all four games to Ottawa during the regular season.
Prediction – Boston in six
Washington Capitals (1) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (WC2)
The Capitals are the favorite to represent the Eastern Conference after winning the President’s Trophy for the second straight season, but they did so last season and lost to Pittsburgh in the second round.
This will be the last and best chance for this group as TJ Oshie, Karl Alzner and Justin Williams will be unrestricted free agents. GM Brian MacLellan went all in by adding Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline, adding to the depth on the blueline with Alzner, Orlov, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.
The main concern for head coach Barry Trotz is the pressure that his club is under to succeed, as Alex Ovechkin has never been a star performer in the post-season, but Washington is deep and talented and everything does not rest on his shoulders.
Toronto’s achievement of making the playoffs a year after finishing dead last is astonishing. Mike Babcock will likely earn a Jack Adams Trophy nomination for molding talented rookies Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and vets James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri into a club that went 40-27-15, but their lack of playoff experience does not give them a great chance to pull the upset.
Goalie Frederik Andersen, defensemen Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak were injured on the final weekend of the regular season and the Caps will concentrate a great deal of pressure on the Leafs weak defensive corps.
Prediction – Capitals in five
Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (3)
The most intriguing matchup of the first round, the Stanley Cup Champions have Sidney Crosby playing arguably the best hockey of his career and Matt Murray followed up a Cup victory with a great rookie season, but unlike last season when they had lots of support, injuries have taken their toll on Pittsburgh as they enter the post-season.
Kris Letang is out for the rest of the season with a neck injury, Evgeni Malkin, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, Chris Kunitz and Carl Hagelin all missed time down the stretch and will go, but no one knows how effective they will be.
Columbus had a remarkable season under John Tortorella, with goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky earning a possible Vezina Trophy nomination and rookie Zach Werenski a possible finalist for the Calder, but for them to beat the Penguins, they have to shut down and annoy Crosby (hello Brandon Dubinsky).
The Blue Jackets were heavily dependent on their power play during their 16-game winning streak, but to win in the playoffs, Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, Brandon Saad and Alexander Wennberg will have to score at even strength.
Prediction – Blue Jackets in seven
Michael (@MikeInBuffalo on Twitter) can also be found on HockeyBuzz.com