Eastern Conference Play-In Preview

Francois Lacasse:Getty ImagesPhoto: Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

The NHL announced that the Stanley Cup Playoffs will begin with 24 teams. While there are many boxes to be checked before play begins, Commissioner Gary Bettman said that the playoffs could begin as early as late July. While eight teams in the Eastern Conference will play in a best-of-five play-in round to advance, the top four seeds (Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, and Philadelphia Flyers) will play a three-game round-robin against one another to determine playoff seeding. With the play-in matchups set and the Capitals finishing in the top four in the Eastern Conference, NoVa Caps takes a look at each play-in series in the East.

#5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #12 Montreal Canadiens

Penguins Leaders: F Bryan Rust (27 goals), C Evgeni Malkin (49 assists, 74 points), G Tristan Jarry/Matt Murray (20 wins)

Canadiens Leaders: F Tomas Tatar (22 goals, 39 assists, 61 points), G Carey Price (27 wins)

Penguins Stats: 3.20 goals-per-game (10th), 2.84 goals-against per game (T-11th), 19.9% power-play efficiency (16th), 82.1% penalty-killing rate (T-8th), 31.9 shots-per-game (12th), 29.7 shots-against per game (T-5th)

Canadiens Stats: 2.93 goals-per-game (19th), 3.10 goals-against per game (19th), 17.7% power-play efficiency (22nd), 78.7% penalty-killing rate (19th), 34.1 shots-per-game (2nd), 31.1 shots-against per game (T-13th)

Regular-season series: 2-1-0 Penguins (Pittsburgh had a +1 goal differential in the series)

Outlook: The Canadiens’ stats might not open eyes, but they were second in expected goals-for percentage (54.01%) behind only the Vegas Golden Knights (56.07%), which hints that they played better for their record indicates.

While there isn’t any doubt the Penguins have the edge in offense, defense, and the power-play, the Canadiens have a big in goal with Price. One reason this round is a best-of-five and not three is because the Penguins reportedly complained that it would not be fair to them if Price, who has had a save percentage of at least .918 in four of the past six seasons, stood on his head for three games and ended their season.

The Penguins could have forward Jake Guentzel, who missed the remainder of the regular season after undergoing shoulder surgery on December 31, back in the lineup after he led them in goals (20) and points (43) in 39 games before he got hurt, which could be a big boost for them. Along with Malkin (1.35), Guentzel (1.10), Rust (1.02), and captain Sidney Crosby (1.15) averaged higher than a point-per-game. They never had a lineup at full health throughout the regular season, so it could get pretty scary for others in the league when everyone on that team has had time to heal. One player who will not return for Pittsburgh is center Nick Bjugstad, who will miss the rest of the season due to undisclosed surgery.

Series X-Factors: Price (Canadiens), D Kris Letang (Penguins)

Prediction: Penguins in 4

#6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. #11 New York Rangers

Hurricanes Leaders: C Sebastian Aho (38 goals, 66 points), F Teuvo Teravainen (48 assists), G Petr Mrazek (21 wins)

Rangers Leaders: C Mika Zibanejad (43 goals), F Artemi Panarin (63 assists, 95 points), G Alexandar Georgiev (17 wins)

Hurricanes Stats: 3.19 goals-per-game (11th), 2.84 goals-against per game (T-11th), 22.3% power-play efficiency (8th), 84% penalty-killing rate (4th), 33.3 shots-per-game (3rd), 29.3 shots-against per game (T-2nd)

Rangers Stats: 3.33 goals-per-game (5th), 3.14 goals-against per game (T-23rd), 22.9% power-play efficiency (7th), 77.4% penalty-killing rate (T-23rd), 31.1 shots-per-game (T-19th), 34 shots-against per game (30th)

Regular-season series: 4-0-0 Rangers (New York had a +9 goal differential in the series)

Outlook: The stats seem to heavily favor one team in offense and the other in defense. The Hurricanes may not match the firepower of the Rangers, but they do have talent with Aho, Teravainen, and Andrei Svechnikov (who recorded 24 goals and 61 points in 68 games during his breakout campaign). The Rangers also have some good pieces on the backend with Tony DeAngelo, who set career-highs in goals (15) and points (53) this season, and Adam Fox, who recorded eight goals and 42 points in 70 games during his freshman season.

Center Ryan Strome also had a breakout season for the Rangers with 41 assists and 59 points. Forward Chris Kreider, who suffered a fractured foot two weeks before the NHL paused its season, will also be back.

The two teams made a couple of trades ahead of the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, one of which sent defenseman Brady Skeij to Carolina and the other dealing forward Julien Gauthier to the Big Apple, which could make for an interesting story.

The big matchup will be the Hurricanes defense, which is arguably the deepest in the NHL, against the likes of Panarin and Zibanejad, who have each been among the best players in the league this year and play on two different lines. If they can limit their production, it is going to make life very hard for the Rangers.

One of the biggest things to watch for in this series is going to be goaltending as Henrik Lundqvist appeared to work his way to being the Rangers’ third-string goalie while rookie Igor Shesterkin shined in his first 12 NHL games, going 10-2-0 with a .932 save percentage and a 2.52 goals-against average while earning the No. 1 job. As is the case every year, goaltending is not the Hurricanes’ bread and butter as their .912 save percentage was 26th in the NHL this season according to Natural Stattrick.

Series X-Factors: Mrazek (Hurricanes), D Jacob Trouba (Rangers)

Prediction: Hurricanes in 5

#7 New York Islanders vs. #10 Florida Panthers

Islanders Leaders: C Brock Nelson (26 goals), C Mathew Barzal (41 assists, 60 points), G Semyon Varlamov (19 wins)

Panthers Leaders: F Mike Hoffman (29 goals), F Jonathan Huberdeau (55 assists, 78 points), G Sergei Bobrovsky (23 wins)

Islanders Stats: 2.78 goals-per-game (22nd), 2.79 goals-against per game (9th), 17.3% power-play efficiency (T-24th), 80.7% penalty-killing rate (15th), 29.6 shots-per-game (T-28th), 31.2 shots-against per game (15th)

Panthers Stats: 3.30 goals-per-game (6th), 3.25 goals-against per game (T-28th), 21.3% power-play efficiency (T-10th), 78.5% penalty-killing rate (20th), 32.7 shots-per-game (7th), 32.3 shots-against per game (22nd)

Regular-season series: 3-0-0 Islanders (New York had a +4 goal differential in the series)

Outlook: It’s the same story as the Hurricanes-Rangers series in this one as the Panthers have an exemplary offense but a porous defense and the Islanders are not as strong offensively but know how to defend. The Panthers had five 20-goal scorers on their team this season and forward Brett Connolly fell just short of that mark, hitting 19 in 69 games. They also had five players with at least 30 assists. Despite not making the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the past two seasons, they ranked in the top-nine in offense in each.

In the last two seasons, the Islanders’ average of 2.54 goals-against per game is third in the NHL. However, the team went 19-20-8 (26th in the NHL) in their last 47 games after a franchise-record 17-game point streak (15-0-2). While all teams will start from scratch when play resumes, that mediocre performance spanned more than half of the season, which is concerning. They also had just two 20-goal scorers this season.

This series will feature one of, if not the best, coaching matchup of all of the series as Joel Quenneville, who is second on the NHL’s all-time list with 925 career wins, and Barry Trotz, who is fourth with 845, will go up against one another for the second time. Quenneville’s Chicago Blackhawks won the only Stanley Cup Playoff series between the two coaches, beating the Trotz-led Predators in the 2010 Western Conference Quarterfinals.

The key to this series is going to be goaltending. After signing a seven-year contract that carries a cap hit of $10 million, Sergei Bobrovsky had an abysmal season, going 23-19-6 with a .900 save percentage and a 3.23 goals-against average. He was supposed to stabilize the Panthers’ crease, but instead, they finished in the bottom-five in save percentage for the second straight year. Semyon Varlamov of the Islanders had a solid first season in New York, going 19-14-6 with a .914 save percentage, a 2.62 goals-against average, and two shutouts. Just to add more spice to the storyline, both hail from Russia and have both been teammates in the Olympics and World Cup of Hockey.

Series X-Factors: Bobrovsky (Panthers), F Jordan Eberle (Islanders)

Prediction: Panthers in 5

#8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. #9 Columbus Blue Jackets

Maple Leafs Leaders: C Auston Matthews (47 goals, 80 points), F Mitch Marner (51 assists), G Frederik Andersen (29 wins)

Blue Jackets Leaders: F Oliver Bjorkstrand (21 goals), C Pierre-Luc Dubois (31 assists, 49 points), G Joonas Korpisalo (19 wins)

Maple Leafs Stats: 3.39 goals-per-game (3rd), 3.17 goals-against per game (T-25th), 23.1% power-play efficiency (T-5th), 77.7% penalty-killing rate (21st), 32.9 shots-per-game (6th), 31.9 shots-against per game (19th)

Blue Jackets Stats: 2.57 goals-per-game (T-27th), 2.61 goals-against per game (T-3rd), 16.4% power-play efficiency (27th), 81.7% penalty-killing rate (12th), 32.5 shots-per-game (8th), 29.9 shots-against per game (7th)

Regular-season series: 1-0-1 Maple Leafs (Toronto had a +2 goal differential in the series)

Outlook: There seems to be a common theme in each of these series: polar opposites. This one is no different, as the Maple Leafs have a dynamic offense but weak defense while the Blue Jackets are not as deep offensively but are strong on the blueline.

The Maple Leafs had three players with at least 60 points, including the NHL’s third-leading goal-scorer from the regular season in Matthews. Forward William Nylander had his breakout campaign with a career-high 31 goals in 68 games. Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets had only two 20-goal scorers (one of them was a defenseman — Zach Werenski) and three 40-point scorers. However, there is still some talent among the forwards with Dubois, Bjorkstrand, and Cam Atkinson in the wings.

Defense is going to be the key in this series as the Maple Leafs are known to play porously without the puck. Though, they played better after Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as head coach as their 3.04 goals-against per game under Keefe was at the league average during that time frame. And it is not like that team doesn’t have the potential to play better defensively with Tyson Barrie, Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci, and Jake Muzzin as a top-four unit. However, the Blue Jackets counter that with one of the best top-four units of their own with Werenski, Seth Jones, and Ryan Murray headlining the group.

The Blue Jackets would appear to get the edge in goaltending too despite losing Bobrovsky over the offseason with a team save percentage of .9281. Both of their goalies, Elvis Merzlikins (.923 – tied for eighth) and Korpisalo (.911), were in the top-32 in save percentage. Andersen went 29-13-7 with a .909 save percentage, a 2.85 goals-against average, and three shutouts during the regular season.

In addition to defense and goaltending, John Tortorella against a rookie head coach might spell trouble for Toronto.

X-Factors: D Tyson Barrie (Maple Leafs), Cam Atkinson (Blue Jackets)

Prediction: Blue Jackets in 5 (OT)

We will take a look at the Western Conference play-in series later this week.

By Harrison Brown

About Harrison Brown

Harrison is a diehard Caps fan and a hockey fanatic with a passion for sports writing. He attended his first game at age 8 and has been a season ticket holder since the 2010-2011 season. His fondest Caps memory was watching the Capitals hoist the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas. In his spare time, he enjoys travel, photography, and hanging out with his two dogs. Follow Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonB927077
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