Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Preview: Eastern Conference

Devils vs Lightning

Why the Lightning win: To put it lightly, Tampa Bay has too much firepower for New Jersey to handle. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov put up points in bunches. Jon Cooper employs 200-foot savant Brayden Point to counter Taylor Hall. Victor Hedman logs his usual half-hour of work per night on the back end.

Why the Devils win: New Jersey knocks Tampa back on their heels with their speed and pace. Keith Kinkaid, who finished the season 7-0-1 with a .931 save percentage in his final eight games, continues to hold down the Devils crease and outplays Andrei Vasilevskiy, who of late has been a shell of his early-season self.

Player that proves to be the difference: Brayden Point.. Point has emerged as one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL. Point’s line, flanked by Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, will be the shutdown line for Tampa. And they can score goals too.

Something you might want to know: Andrei Vasilevskiy in his final nine games: 4-5-0, 3.74 GAA, .884 save percentage. Keith Kinkaid in his final eight games: 7-0-1, 2.25 GAA, .931 save percentage.

What happens: Lightning in 6. Tampa Bay’s best players prove to be too much of a handful for New Jersey.

Maple Leafs vs Bruins

Why the Bruins win: Two words and they both start with ‘D’. Depth, and defense. Bruins roll four lines as good as any team in the league and have one of the league’s top shutdown defensive pairings in Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. The top forward line of Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak might be the best in the league.

Why the Maple Leafs win: Frederik Andersen carries what was one of the best seasons of his career into the postseason, steals a couple games, and outplays Tuukka Rask. Meanwhile, the injury bug that plagued the Bruins for the final month doesn’t just disappear when the playoffs begin.

Player that proves to be the difference: William Nylander.. Auston Matthews is one of the NHL’s best players and Nylander makes him even better. Nylander’s vision, skating, and puck-carrying ability opens up so much extra space for Matthews in the offensive zone, creating prime opportunities for the 20-year-old phenom, who has 78 goals and 137 points through his first 150 NHL games (regular season and playoffs).

Something you might want to know: Maple Leafs record in the 62 games Auston Matthews played this season: 38-19-5. Maple Leafs record in the 20 games Matthews missed: 11-7-2.

What happens: Bruins in 6. Much like their First Round loss to Washington last season, the Maple Leafs will make this a series. Much like their First Round loss to Washington last season, the opponent will prove to be too much for Toronto.

Flyers vs Penguins

Why the Penguins win: You see them up front? They’re loaded. You’ve got Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard, and Riley Sheahan (who has exceeded expectations since being acquired from Detroit early in the season). Phil Kessel had the best year of his career. The Penguins powerplay (tops in the league at 26.2 percent this season) is a threat to score in any man-advantage, especially against a Philadelphia unit that was third-worst in the league this season, better than only also-rans Canadiens and Islanders. The Pens, who are 30-9-2 in their own building this season, have home-ice advantage.

Meanwhile Malkin continues to be his usual, filthy self.

Why the Flyers win: You need defense and goaltending to win this time of year. The Philadelphia blue line is better than Pittsburgh’s. Ivan Provorov could be the best defenseman in this series. Matt Murray has had a rough season, both on and off the ice. If the forever-plagued-with-goalieitis Flyers get just enough stops in net, that could mean trouble for Pittsburgh. Up front, the Flyers are capable of matching what the Penguins bring.

Player that proves to be the difference: Matt Murray.. I really think it all comes down to which Matt Murray we see in net. This hasn’t been an easy season for the 23-year-old by any stretch. But he tends to raise his level when the games become bigger.

What happens: Penguins in 7. There’s going to be some ugly hockey played in this series. Probably quite a few high-scoring games, some bad defense, spotty goaltending, knowing the history of these teams I’m sure tempers will boil over at some point. But in the end, Pittsburgh finds a way to pull it out.

Blue Jackets vs Capitals

Why the Capitals win: This Caps team has two things going for them: 1) They enter the playoffs flying under the radar, 2) They enter the postseason playing their best hockey, winning 12 of their final 15 regular season games. All they need is the goaltending to hold up, which is a big if.

Why the Blue Jackets win: While the Blue Jackets didn’t create any real fireworks at the trade deadline, they did make some savvy, albeit unheralded moves that have paid off in the aftermath, particularly the acquisitions of Thomas Vanek and Ian Cole. Columbus made a strong finishing kick, which included a 10-game winning streak during March.

Player that proves to be the difference: Seth Jones.. One of the NHL’s best defensemen, Jones and D-partner Zach Werenski will be tasked with shutting down Alex Ovechkin. If they’re effective in doing so, it dramatically changes the outlook on this series.

Something you might want to know: The Blue Jackets finished the regular season with 97 points, second-most in franchise history behind last season, when they picked up 108.

What happens: Blue Jackets in 7. This has the potential to be a really good series. Both teams come in playing well. It all comes down to goaltending. I’ll take Sergei Bobrovsky (in spite of his suspect record in the playoffs) over whatever Washington sends out, whether that’s Braden Holtby or Philipp Grubauer.

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Best Centers: 1-5

So here we go. Best 20 centers in the league. I’ll be putting these out in increments of five (so 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20), and I’ll top it off with the best of the rest. I’ll do the same thing on Tuesday with wingers, defensemen on Wednesday, and goalies on Thursday.

Without further ado, you’re best five centermen in the league. Don’t @ me.

1 – Sidney Crosby

When it’s all said and done, Sidney Crosby will be a top-5 player of all time. Right now he’s in the group of 5-10 guys in the running for the guy behind Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux, and Howe. If he wants to, he can lead the lead the league in goals – he won his second Rocket Richard Trophy last year. He can lead the league in assists – he had a league-high 68 apples in 2013-14 and while his 84 helpers in 2006-07 (his second year in the league) was eight off the pace of Joe Thornton’s 92 that season, it would’ve led the league every year since. He’ll out-work, out-grind, out-skill you. There’s nothing he hasn’t won. Oh, did I mention he just turned 30?

2 – Connor McDavid

McDavid is the man trapped in the chasm between Crosby and the rest of the league. He’s inching his way closer to No. 87. Like Crosby in 2006-07, McDavid picked up his first Art Ross Trophy in his sophomore NHL season with his 100-point campaign last season. The 20-year-old is one of five NHLers to record triple-digit point totals since 2010-11, joined by Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, and Daniel Sedin.

3 – Evgeni Malkin

If Crosby is Gretzky, Malkin is Messier. A guy who will go down as one of the top 15-20 players ever, a guy who can go off on his own and lead a team to a Stanley Cup. Malkin has two Art Rosses of his own and after his performance last spring en route to Pittsburgh’s second straight title, as good a case can be made that he should have just as many Conn Smythes.

4 – Patrice Bergeron

The three aforementioned guys are in a class of their own. Bergeron is the best of the rest. Name something you need – Bergeron can do it. He gives you offense (61.2 points per 82 games in his career), he can win a faceoff (in fact, he’s won a league-high 7,524 faceoffs since 2009-10, which is nearly 1,000 more than runner-up Jonathan Toews over that span), he drives play, and he plays in every situation. The greatest quality of Bergeron? His ability to raise the level of the players around him at all times, from flanking Sidney Crosby for Team Canada to carrying his black and gold sidekicks over the years from Marco Sturm to Brad Marchand. It’s what he’s done best since his rookie year when he was part of a line comprised of an 18-year-old Bergeron along with Michael Nylander and Sergei Samsonov that carried Boston in the second half of the 2003-04 season.

5 – Auston Matthews

Don’t trick yourself into thinking the gap between the top pick in the 2015 draft (McDavid) and the 2016 draft (Matthews) is a wide one. Matthews is Sidney Crosby with a few more inches. He’s a big body, he grinds, he protects the puck as well as anybody, and just seems to do everything at will. He scored four goals in his first NHL game, he scored 40 in his rookie season. Matthews scored a league-high 30 goals at five-on-five last season. The Maple Leafs are the team that’s going to bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada and it’s the Good Scottsdale Boy that’s going to lead them there.

 

The Joe Louis Arena Farewell Tour Kicks Off Tonight

Nothing that really jumps out in terms of game action for Monday; the most notable likely the Red Wings beginning its 81-game home slate at the ‘Joe’ for the final time, as the club will move to a shiny new venue in downtown Detroit next fall.

Here’s the action for tonight: Colorado at Pittsburgh, 7; San Jose at N.Y. Rangers, 7; Ottawa at Detroit, 7; Boston at Winnipeg, 8.

Players to Watch

Colorado: Joe Colborne – Scored a hat trick in his first game in an Avs uniform on Saturday night, a 6-5 win over Dallas. The former first round pick, playing in fourth organization after stays in Boston, Toronto, and Calgary, looks like he’s finally finding his game. He went for a career-high 44 points last season (previous was 28), and looks to only be continuing on the upward path.

Pittsburgh: Evgeni Malkin – Has three points in two games but has struggled in the faceoff circle, winning just 14 of 42. A 43.6 percent faceoff man for his career, Malkin’s faceoff percentage has gone down every year since his career-high 48.8 percent success rate in 2013-14.

San Jose: Martin Jones – It’s been two games, but he’s out to show last season was no fluke; 2-0 record with 47 saves on 50 shots in two games.

New York: Rick Nash – He’s pointless through two games, with just five shots on goal. Just the third time in his career he’s been held to such a low output through two games. Last season was one of them; the other was in 2006.

Ottawa: Craig Anderson – Senators are 2-0, but it’s not because Anderson has stood on his head. In fact, he’s allowed seven goals on 62 shots.

Detroit: Dylan Larkin – His praises were being sung – and rightfully so – during his standout rookie season a year ago. But he’s a minus-four with just one point through two games, winning 42.9 percent of his draws.

Boston: David Backes – Injured his hand in a fight during Saturday’s 4-1 loss to Toronto. He’s expect to play.

Winnipeg: Blake Wheeler – He has four points through two games while peppering eight shots at the cage in 21:55 average of ice time. The Bruins could use a guy like him…

#HatTrickChallenge

David Pastrnak: The Bruins forward caps off National Pasta Day the right way.

Game of the Day

Ottawa at Detroit – Not the sexiest matchup but nonetheless the home opener for the Red Wings, the final one at Joe Louis Arena.

Lock to Win

Red Wings – The Wings need the win on the heels of an 0-2 start. They haven’t been terrible offensively, but the Sens are vulnerable on defense.

Links

Larry Brooks stumps for the Rangers to go get Jacob Trouba.

Jimmy Vesey has yet to register a point, but he’s already making an impact.

Major decisions loom for Senators new head coach Guy Boucher.

Sidney Crosby continues to skate.

Red Wings shuffle lines after struggling in opening two games.