The best time of the year for hockey is finally here, as we are just days away from opening night of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.  The first round of the playoffs is always exciting because it’s 16 teams going at it with basically full health.  There’s a lot of excitement build up with storylines and matchups and who will win, there are new teams that are trying to make names for themselves and powerhouses that they must knock off.  This will be the first of two Round 1 previews that I will be doing covering both conferences.  Up first, I will be looking at the Eastern Conference and will see how well each team matches up with each other.

Tampa Bay Lightning (1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (WC2)

Embed from Getty Images

The Columbus Blue Jackets went all in at the trade deadline but an inconsistent stretch in early March has them finish in the least enviable playoff position in the NHL.  This is supposed to be a year where the Jackets make a serious run, but they will be in tough to do so against the Tampa Bay Lightning who had a record tying 62 wins during the regular season.  Shutting down the Lightning attack won’t be easy, but I actually believe that the Blue Jackets are one of the tougher opponents that Tampa Bay could have drawn in Round 1.

Season Series

October 13, 2018 – Lightning (8) – Blue Jackets (2)

January 8, 2019 – Lightning (4) – Blue Jackets (0)

February 18, 2019 – Lightning (5) – Blue Jackets (1)

Tampa Bay swept Columbus in the season series so just by looking at that, some people might find it weird that I’m saying they’re one of the tougher opponents for Tampa to draw.  The reason that I say that has more to do with how Columbus stacks up on paper compared to the other teams and how they have played down the stretch.  It took some time for things to click with everyone on the Jackets but once they started to find their stride, they really started to look good.  In there last 21 games of the season after the deadline, after going 5-5-1 in the first 11, they have gone 7-3-0 in their final 10 games to close out the season.

Team Numbers

Last 10 – Lightning 7-3-0 – Columbus Blue Jackets 7-3-0

Powerplay – Lightning 28.2 (1st) – Blue Jackets 15.4 (28th)

Penalty Kill – Lightning 85.0 (T-1st) – Blue Jackets 85.0 (T-1st)

GF/Game – Lightning 3.89 (1st) – Blue Jackets 3.12 (12th)

GA/Game – Lightning 2.69 (7th) – Blue Jackets 2.82 (11th)

5v5

Shot Share (CF%) – Lightning 51.6 (9th) – Blue Jackets 50.2 (12th)

Scoring Chances (SCF%) – Lightning 52.0 (11th) – Blue Jackets 51.3 (12th)

Goal Share (GF%) – Lightning 56.8 (1st) – Blue Jackets 52.4 (11th)

Columbus has dealt with rough stretches and inconsistent goaltending from Bobrovsky and Korpisalo throughout the season.  Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but goaltending will have to be the difference in the series.  The play of Sergei Bobrovsky will be critical for the Jackets if they want to compete with the Lightning.  His playoff track record hasn’t been exactly flattering and he’s coming off another up and down season.  I do believe that Columbus is a very deep team and a better team than their record would indicate, I don’t think that they will be a push over for the Lightning.  With that being said, Tampa Bay has the advantage in every area of the game, upsets happen sometimes but it would have to be a huge one for the Jackets to pull it off.  Columbus will put up a fight, but I have the Tampa Bay Lightning winning this series in 6 games.

 

Boston Bruins (2) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (3)

Embed from Getty Images

We meet again, the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs meet in the first round for the second straight season and third time since 2013.  This is sure to be one of the better first round matchups with the rivalry that has and is continuing to develop between these two teams.  This is going to be interesting to see how much each team and coaching staff have learned from the season series as well as their playoff series last spring.

Season Series

November 10, 2018 – Bruins (5) – Maple Leafs (1)

November 26, 2018 – Bruins (2) – Maple Leafs (4)

December 8, 2018 – Bruins (6) – Maple Leafs (3)

January 12, 2019 – Bruins (3) – Maple Leafs (2)

I know there are a lot of people that think that this will be a sure win for Boston based on past playoffs and the season series this year.  But Toronto has improved their roster since then and they are going to be motivated to play against Boston who as we know, has beaten them twice in the playoffs.  Coaching will be very important in this series, because it played a big role in why the Bruins won and why the Leafs lost.  The Leafs ran their defense with Rielly, Gardiner and Dermott on the left and Hainsey, Zaitsev and Polak on the right.  Knowing that the right side was vulnerable, the Bruins did an excellent job of game planning for that and targeted that side of attack as much as possible.  This resulted in Boston’s monster line of Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak to dominate and Rielly and Hainsey were just feasted on for most of the series.

Team Numbers

Last 10 – Bruins 6-4-0 – Maple Leafs 3-4-3

Powerplay – Bruins 25.9 (3rd) – Maple Leafs 21.8 (8th)

Penalty Kill – Bruins 79.9 (T-16th) – Maple Leafs 79.9 (T-16th)

GF/Game – Bruins 3.13 (11th) – Maple Leafs 3.49 (4th)

GA/Game – Bruins 2.59 (3rd) – Maple Leafs 3.04 (20th)

5v5

Shot Share (CF%) – Bruins 53.1 (6th) – Maple Leafs 51.7 (8th)

Scoring Chances (SCF%) – Bruins 52.2 (8th) – Maple Leafs 53.1 (6th)

Goal Share (GF%) – Bruins 55.1 (4th) – Maple Leafs 54.8 (7th)

I don’t weigh season series or regular season as high as maybe some in terms of playoffs.  However, the Bruins have been a top 5 team since the start of 2019 and the Leafs second half of the season was pretty underwhelming considering the team they have.  Playoffs are a different season and I expect both teams to be at there best, but the way Toronto has played lately could be concerning.  If Toronto were to win this series, they need to make sure that they have the proper lineup to do so.  The health of their blueline with Rielly, Gardiner, Dermott and Muzzin all playing is crucial.  Only Tampa Bay can match or exceed them offensively, but if they’re not healthy on the backend and guys like Hainsey, Zaitsev or any others are forced to play top 4 minutes if they’re not capable, then they won’t have a chance against Boston.  I have a feeling that this series will go 7 games again, and I have Boston taking this series again in 7 games.

 

Washington Capitals (1) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (WC1)

Embed from Getty Images

It’s the defending Stanley Cup Champions taking on the Bunch of Jerks in the opening round.  This series has the potential to be a very exciting series to watch.  The Carolina Hurricanes will make their first visit to the Playoffs since 2009 and only the second time since they won the Stanley Cup back in 2006.  After finally getting over the hump, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are back and hungry for more.  Considering that the Capitals are the reigning winners, most people would expect them to win this series, but don’t sleep on Carolina upsetting them.

Season Series

December 14, 2018 – Capitals (6) – Hurricanes (5) SO

December 27, 2018 – Capitals (3) – Hurricanes (1)

March 26, 2019 – Capitals (4) – Hurricanes (1)

March 28, 2019 – Capitals (3) – Hurricanes (2)

The Carolina Hurricanes have been on fire since the start of the new year going 28-11-2 in 2019.  They stole Nino Niederreiter from Minnesota on January 17th and he has fit in fantastically with 14 goals and 30 points on 36 games with the Hurricanes.  He and Sebastian Aho have formed some great chemistry on Carolina’s top line.  Acquiring Dougie Hamilton in that big offseason move with Hanifin and Lindholm has worked out well for both teams.  Hamilton has fit in well to form arguably the best group of 6 defensemen in the NHL.  Washington has been very good in the last month as well and they are starting to get warmed up for another long run.  They have had Carolina’s number in the regular season, but I don’t expect it to be like that in this series.

Team Numbers

Last 10 – Capitals 6-3-1 – Hurricanes 6-4-0

Powerplay – Capitals 20.8 (12th) – Hurricanes 17.8 (20th)

Penalty Kill – Capitals 78.9 (24th) – Hurricanes 81.6 (8th)

GF/Game – Capitals 3.34 (5th) – Hurricanes 2.96 (16th)

GA/Game – Capitals 3.02 (17th) – Hurricanes 2.69 (8th)

5v5

Shot Share (CF%) – Capitals 49.0 (18th) – Hurricanes 54.8 (2nd)

Scoring Chances (SCF%) – Capitals 48.8 (19th) – Hurricanes 54.2 (3rd)

Goal Share (GF%) – Capitals 55.0 (5th) – Hurricanes 52.0 (12th)

Both teams are coming into the playoffs playing well.  Home Ice advantage could be a benefit for Washington, as both teams Home records are better than their Road ones.  Washington is expected to win every year and they are expecting to win again.  They still have a few more years in their window to win again with Ovechkin, Backstrom and the core they have.  Carolina is coming into the playoffs off a very strong second half of the season.  They haven’t been to the playoffs in 9 seasons, the excitement around their team and city is at an all-time high right now.  They have a great, young team and they also have the lowest pay roll in the NHL.  We all know the saying “playing with house money” but Carolina is a prime example of that.  They are a good team, they are excited to be here, and they actually match up with Washington better than some people might think.  I have to have a bold prediction somewhere in my playoff previews, and I have the Carolina Hurricanes upsetting the defending champion Washington Capitals in 7 games.

 

New York Islanders (2) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (3)

Embed from Getty Images

The last first round matchup in the East that I will be previewing is the New York Islanders taking on the Pittsburgh Penguins.  The Islanders exceeded all expectations this season, completely turning things around under Barry Trotz.  Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss were both terrific in net and the Islanders miraculously went from 31st in Goals Against to 1st in just one season.  The Penguins got here in typical Penguins fashion, playing horrible for the first 2-3 months of the season and then turning it on in the second half.  It will be a battle of can Pittsburgh’s star-studded offense solve the Islanders stingy defense.

Season Series

October 30, 2018 – Islanders (6) – Penguins (3)

November 1, 2018 – Islanders (3) – Penguins (2) SO

December 6, 2018 – Islanders (2) – Penguins (6)

The Islanders won the season series 2-1 but the Penguins outscored them 11-10.  If Robin Lehner continues what he did during the season in the playoffs, the Islanders have a good chance of winning this series.  They will have to rely on their goaltending and defense structure to win because I don’t know if they will be able to score enough.  Pittsburgh has the star players that can change games and that have the experience of doing it a lot in the playoffs.  They’ve proven they don’t need a lot of opportunities to score and if they get solid goaltending, they could be hard to beat.  Matt Murray was not very good last season, and in the playoffs, the Penguins will need to him to regain his form from their two Stanley Cup wins.

Team Numbers

Last 10 – Islanders 6-4-0 – Penguins 5-2-3

Powerplay – Islanders 14.5 (29th) – Penguins 24.6 (5th)

Penalty Kill – Islanders 79.9 (17th) – Penguins 79.7 (19th)

GF/Game – Islanders 2.72 (22nd) – Penguins 3.31 (6th)

GA/Game – Islanders 2.33 (1st) – Penguins 2.90 (14th)

5v5

Shot Share (CF%) – Islanders 47.9 (26th) – Penguins 49.7 (15th)

Scoring Chances (SCF%) – Islanders 49.4 (16th) – Penguins 52.1 (10th)

Goal Share (GF%) – Islanders 56.1 (2nd) – Penguins 54.8 (6th)

The New York Islanders have had a great regular season, and this could be any team’s series.  While they had a lot of success, I’m still not 100% convinced if they can continue this in a long playoff series against Pittsburgh.  They have good pieces that can be difference makers like Mat Barzal, Josh Bailey and Anders Lee.  If Robin Lehner plays great, they have a chance, but I don’t know how much longer they are going to hold up in a long series.  They might prove me wrong, but because of the horses up front and on defense, and the playoff experience that the Penguins have, I have the Pittsburgh Penguins winning this series in 6 games.