Eastern Conference First Round Preview

Mark LoMogio:Getty ImagesPhoto: Mark LoMogio/Getty Images

With puck drop on the first round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs less than 24 hours away, NoVa Caps takes a look at the Eastern Conference matchups.

#1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. #8 Montreal Canadiens

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

Outlook: The two underdogs in the Eastern Conference collide after the No. 12 seeded Canadiens knocked off the No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins in just four games to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs while the Flyers went 3-0-0 in the round-robin tournament to vault all the way from the No. 4 seed in the East to the No. 1 after outscoring the three top teams in the conference by a combined score of 11-3.

Both teams had strong possession statistics, which should result in some good hockey for the fans at home.

A major storyline in this series will be the goaltending matchup as Carter Hart, who went 24-13-3 with a .914 save percentage, a 2.42 goals-against average, and three shutouts in his sophomore season, was projected by many to be the next Carrie Price, who was regarded as the NHL’s best goalie for much of the last decade and came up big in their series against the Penguins as he went 3-1 with a .947 save percentage and a 1.67 goals-against average.

The Flyers should have the advantage in offense and defense as they were one of the top offensive teams in the NHL this season and those years of drafting and developing young defensemen are finally paying off for the orange and black. Meanwhile, the Canadiens have some bright young forwards who shined in the qualifying round as Jesperi Kotkaniemi recorded two goals, Arturri Lehkonen tallied three points, and Nick Suzuki posted a couple points. Meanwhile, Nicolas Aube-Kubeel (two goals), Joel Farabee (two points in two games), and Scott Laughton shined in the round-robin. While the Flyers likely have the edge on defense, Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot (two assists, +6 rating), and Jeff Petry (two goals, three points) both had great series against the Penguins.

The Canadiens have the better underlying numbers but they don’t have quite the fire power the Flyers do on offense and are thinner on the blueline. Price should give the Canadiens a chance but with the way the Flyers have been playing dating back to February, it is hard not to knock them off.

Regular-Season Flyers Leaders: F C Travis Konecny (24 goals, 61 points), F Jakub Voracek (44 assists), G Carter Hart (24 wins)

Qualifying Round Flyers Leaders: F Scott Laughton (three goals, five points), C Kevin Hayes (four assists), Hart (.966 save percentage)

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

Qualifying Round Canadiens Leaders: D Shea Weber (two goals, four points), D Jeff Petry/C Jesperi Kotkaniemi (two goals), F Paul Byron, Price (.947 save percentage)

Regular-Season Flyers Stats: 3.29 goals-per-game (seventh), 2.77 goals-against per game (T-seventh), 20.8% power-play efficiency (14th), 81.8% penalty-killing rate (11th), 31.4 shots-per-game (2nd), 31.1 shots-against per game (T-13th), 51.02% Corsi-for Percentage (ninth), 50.64% Expected Goals-For Percentage (15th), .9152 team save percentage (22nd), 1.007 PDO (eighth)Regular-Season 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 (16th), 28.7 shots-against per game (first), 54.43% Corsi-for Percentage (second), 54.01% Expected Goals-For Percentage (second), .917 team save percentage (17th), 0.992 PDO (25th)

Prediction: Flyers in 6

X-Factors: Hart (Flyers), F Jonathan Drouin (Canadiens)

#2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. #7 Columbus Blue Jackets

Regular-season series: 1-0-0 Lightning (who had a +1 goal differential in the series)

Outlook: The storyline in this one is obvious. The Lightning get a chance to change the narrative of not being able to live up to expectations in the postseason as they have lost Games 6 and 7 to be eliminated in 2017 and 2018 before getting swept by the eighth-seeded Blue Jackets last season. The Blue Jackets, who defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games during the qualifying round series, swept Tampa Bay after the Lightning tied an NHL-record with 62 wins during the 2018-19 season and led 3-0 after the first period of last year’s series Game 1, outscoring them 19-5 the rest of the way.

This time around, the Blue Jackets do not feature the star power they had last season with forward Artemi Panarin, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, and center Matt Duchene gone. Their offense took a big hit this season because of those losses but they still have talented forwards in Oliver Bjorkstrand, Cam Atkinson, and Pierre-Luc Dubois, who all had big series against the Maple Leafs.

The Blue Jackets’ defense could very well match up closely to the Lightning’s, as it was among the league’s best this season and features David Savard, Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, Ryan Murray, and Markus Nutivaara. The status of Tampa Bay’s Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman’s status is up in the air after he left and did not return to the Lightning’s final round-robin game due to an injury.

The goaltending matchup will be fascinating as both Blue Jackets goalies performed very strong during the regular season and were solid during the round-robin in both Elvis Merzlikins (.956) and Joonas Korpisalo (.956) had save percentages above .945 against the Maple Leafs while Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has been nominated for the Vezina Trophy for three consecutive seasons, posted a .921 save percentage and a 2.29 goals-against average.

While the Blue Jackets are a strong team with one of the best coaches in John Tortorella behind the bench, they are weaker on offense than they were a year ago and the Lightning will be focused on avenging last year’s embarrassing exit. The series will likely be close but the Lightning’s firepower and depth will give them the edge.

Regular-Season Lightning Leaders: F Nikita Kucherov (33 goals, 52 assists, 85 points), F Steven Stamkos (.509 goals-per-game), G Andrei Vasilevskiy (35 wins)

Qualifying Round Lightning Leaders: F Tyler Johnson (two goals, three points), C Brayden Point (two assists, three points), F Alex Killorn (two assists, three points), Vasilevskiy (.921 save percentage)

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

Qualifying Round Blue Jackets Leaders: Dubois (three goals), F Cam Atkinson (three assists, five points), D David Savard (three assists), Korpisalo (.956 save percentage)

Regular-Season Lightning Stats: 3.47 goals-per-game (first), 2.77 goals-against per game (T-7th), 23.1% power-play efficiency (T-5th), 81.4% penalty-killing rate (T-13th), 31.1 shots-per-game (T-19th), 30.9 shots-against per game (12th), 52.25% Corsi-for Percentage (fifth), 53.73% Expected Goals-For Percentage (third), .9253 team save percentage (seventh), 1.022 PDO (second)

Regular-Season 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), 49.11% Corsi-for Percentage (20th), 51.92% Expected Goals-For Percentage (ninth), .9281 team save percentage (fifth), 0.996 PDO (21st)

Prediction: Lightning in 5

X-Factors: D Ryan McDonagh (Lightning), Bjorkstrand (Blue Jackets)

NOTE: We did a decimated preview for the series between the third-seeded Washington Capitals and sixth-seeded New York Islanders. You can read it here.

#4 Boston Bruins vs. #5 Carolina Hurricanes

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

Outlook: This matchup features a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Final, which the Bruins won in four games. After winning the Presidents’ Trophy by six points, going 44-14-12 during the regular season, the Bruins dropped all three games of their round-robin tournament by a -5 goal differential to fall all the way to fourth in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes swept the New York Rangers in their best-of-five qualifying round series.

The teams arguably have the two deepest bluelines in the NHL, which will make it a challenge to create offense for either side. The Hurricanes just added to their impressive group of blueliners by signing Jake Gardiner in free agency and trading for Joel Edmundson, Sami Vatanen, and Brady Skjei in the past year while the Bruins ranked first in goals-against this season. Both teams were hovering around the same area in terms of offense so expect there to be a lot of similar play between the two teams. The Bruins definitely have the advantage in net as Vezina Trophy nominee Tuuka Rask, who went 26-8-6 with a .929 save percentage, 2.12 goals-against average, and five shutouts during the regular season, has been sensational for the past couple seasons for the black and gold. Although Peter Mrazek went 2-0-0 with a .940 save percentage and a 1.50 goals-against average against the Rangers in the qualifying round, the 28-year-old disappointed in the regular season as he went 21-16-2 with a .905 save percentage, a 2.69 goals-against average, and three shutouts.

While the Bruins certainly have the advantage over the Hurricanes on paper, Carolina has had plenty of time to rest and could get defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who did not play at all in their series against the Rangers, back in the lineup. The Bruins also struggled during the round-robin tournament, which may leave some wanting to scratch their heads about them. The Bruins have the advantage in goal but the Hurricanes are more balanced offensively and deeper defensively.

Regular-Season Bruins Leaders: F David Pastrnak (48 goals, 95 points), F Brad Marchand (59 assists), G Tuukka Rask (.929 save percentage)

Qualifying Round Bruins Leaders: F Chris Wagner (two goals, two points), D Charlie McAvoy (two points), nine players with one assist, Rask (.917 save percentage)

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

Qualifying Round Hurricanes Leaders: Aho (three goals, five assists, eight points), F Andrei Svechkinov (three goals), G James Reimer (.974 save percentage)

Regular-Season Bruins Stats: 3.24 goals-per-game (ninth), 2.39 goals-against per game (first), 25.2% power-play efficiency (second), 84.3% penalty-killing rate (third), 32.1 shots-per-game (10th), 30 shots-against per game (eighth), 50.85% Corsi-for Percentage (12th), 51.67% Expected Goals-For Percentage (10th), .9338 team save percentage (first), 1.017 PDO (third)

Regular-Season Hurricanes Stats: 3.19 goals-per-game (11th), 2.84 goals-against per game (T-11th), 22.3% power-play efficiency (eighth), 84% penalty-killing rate (fourth), 32.5 shots-per-game (8th), 29.3 shots-against per game (second), 54.3% Corsi-for Percentage (third), 52.41% Expected Goals-For Percentage (sixth), .9122 team save percentage (26th), 0.993 PDO (24th)

Prediction: Hurricanes in 7

X-Factors: Mrazek (Hurricanes), F Brad Marchand (Bruins)

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
This entry was posted in Games, News, Playoffs, Teams and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply