The NHL's regular season is over, which means that the very best time of the year has arrived. That's right—no more shootouts, and the loser point is dead until October!
Oh, it also means the playoffs are here, if you're into that.
Round One gets started on Wednesday, which gives us a few days to break down the matchups, crunch the numbers, and make some predictions that we'll be forced to delete in embarrassment within two weeks. Today, we'll start with the four Eastern Conference matchups. We'll be back later in the week with the West.
This was the league's best division all season long, thanks to the presence of four powerhouse teams. Now it's the playoffs, which means it suddenly has three powerhouse teams and one underdog from the Atlantic, because the NHL's playoff format is weird.
#1 Washington Capitals vs. WC Toronto Maple Leafs
In this corner: The Capitals (55-19-8, 118 points, +84 goals differential not counting shootouts), the winners of the Presidents' Trophy for best regular-season record for the second straight year.
And in this corner: The Maple Leafs (40-27-15, 95 points, +16), who made the unlikely leap from dead last to the playoffs in a single season.
Head-to-head: The Capitals took two of three, including a 4-1 win last week.
Dominant narrative: The plucky band of bright-eyed kids versus the powerhouse that should crush them. It's hard to overstate just how good the Maple Leafs rookie class was—it may be in the discussion for the very best the league has ever seen. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Willie Nylander get the attention, but there are first-year players up and down the roster. That makes the Leafs' playoff appearance all the more remarkable. It should also make them easy fodder for a deep, experienced, and very good Capitals team.
Injury report: The Capitals were without John Carlson for the last three games, although it sounds like he should be back for Game One. The Maple Leafs were remarkably healthy all year, and then lost goalie Frederik Andersen and defensemen Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak over the final weekend. The team says Andersen will be OK, but we're not sure on the two blueliners.
The big question: What could go wrong? Seriously, it's the Capitals, so history tells us that something terrible will happen eventually, and Washington fans will watch the entire postseason through their fingers waiting for the inevitable. In that sense, the Maple Leafs could make for a classic took-them-too-lightly upset special. More likely, they're the team the Capitals sweep aside easily to make the second-round loss to the Penguins hurt even more.
One player to watch: Nylander. Matthews will win the Calder as rookie of the year, and Marner will probably finish in the top five, but Nylander may have been better than both down the stretch. He's got freakish vision that lets him make two or three "how did he see that?" passes per game, and a Kessel-esque release on his wrist shot. He's far from a complete player at this point, and he doesn't have the pure superstar potential that Matthews does, but if anyone's going to have the kind of breakout series that catches some off guard, he could be the guy.
Key number: One. That's the total postseasons in Alexander Ovechkin's career in which he's scored more than five goals. (Weirdly, he's scored exactly five goals in five different playoffs.) If the Leafs are missing two of their three defensemen on the right side, Ovechkin may crack that five-goal mark by the second intermission of Game One.
Prediction: Capitals in five.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: The Leafs win Game One in overtime and everyone on both sides of the aisle loses their minds. Then the Caps cruise to four straight blowouts.
#2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #3 Columbus Blue Jackets
In this corner: The defending champs. The Penguins (50-20-11, 111 points, +50) are coming off a dominant regular season and looking for hockey's first Stanley Cup repeat since the 1997-98 Red Wings.
And in this corner: The season's biggest surprise. Written off as playoff long shots early on, the Blue Jackets (50-24-8, 108 points, +54) ran off a 16-game win streak early on and never really looked back on their way to one of the more stunning seasons in recent memory.
Head-to-head: The two teams split four games, the most recent coming last week (a 4-1 Penguins win).
Dominant narrative: David versus Goliath. If you like an underdog story, this series is for you. Nobody thought the Blue Jackets would be anywhere near this good, and most of the hockey world's self-appointed experts have spent the entire season predicting their demise. It never really arrived, and Columbus ended the season with the league's fourth best record. Thanks to the playoff format, that just earned them a matchup with the powerhouse Penguins. The Blue Jackets have never won so much as a playoff round in their history, and now they have to go through the champs or see the best season in franchise history come to yet another early ending.
Injury report: Columbus is mostly healthy, although Zach Werenski missed a few games last week. The Penguins are beat up, with Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin, and Chris Kunitz all missing time. The biggest injury is Kris Letang, who'll miss the entire postseason after back surgery. There's no way around it—that's devastating to the Penguins' chances to repeat.
The big question: What happened to the Blue Jackets down the stretch? With two weeks left, Columbus still had a shot at home ice in the opening round and maybe even first place overall, but they lost six straight before finally getting a win in Sunday night's season finale. History has shown that teams can stumble down the stretch and still have long playoff runs, but the Blue Jackets aren't exactly a franchise known for their resiliency, and their fans are worried that they've already seen the beginning of the end.
One player to watch: Brandon Dubinsky. The Blue Jackets forward can do a little bit of everything, but he's made his reputation over the years as Sidney Crosby's nemesis, an agitator who can get under the Penguins superstar's skin and even goad him into dropping the gloves. He's occasionally had to venture outside of the rules to do so, but that's life in the NHL, and the Blue Jackets will need to do anything they can to slow down Crosby, who led the league in goals scored.
Key number: 219. That's the combined points earned by the two teams during the regular season, tying this for the best first-round matchup in league history in terms of total points.
Prediction: Penguins in six.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: The Blue Jackets take a 2-1 series lead and push Game Four to overtime in front of a raucous Columbus crowd, but the Penguins win it in sudden death and don't look back.
The Atlantic managed to completely turn over its playoff presence in one year. Last season, three teams went to the postseason; this time, it's four completely new ones, including the Metro-bound Leafs. Oh, and the Rangers are here, too.
#1 Montreal Canadiens vs. WC New York Rangers
In this corner: The Canadiens (47-26-9, 103 points, +25), who make a return to the playoffs after a disastrous 2015-16 season.
And in this corner: The Rangers (48-28-6, 102 points, +37), who aren't in this division and also nearly finished with more points than the Canadiens.
Head-to-head: The Canadiens swept the season series, winning all three meetings.
Dominant narrative: Goaltending. Granted, that's the case in most playoff series, but this one features the best head-to-head matchup of the opening round. Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist have both won Vezinas, and both have taken home Olympic gold, but neither has a Stanley Cup, and Lundqvist appears to be running out of time. Both guys can be unbeatable when they're on, but both have also gone through extended slumps this year. Chances are, whichever one plays best is your series winner.
Injury report: Montreal defensemen Shea Weber, Alexei Emelin, and Jordie Benn are all banged up, although at this point they're all expected to play. The same is true of Rangers forwards Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello and defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
The big question: Where does Montreal's scoring come from? The Habs feature a big three of Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk, and Alexander Radulov, but after that there's a steep drop. The team's next highest scoring forward is Paul Byron, who a lot of NHL fans had probably never heard of coming into the season, followed by Phillip Danault. During the season, when the secondary scoring faltered, so did Montreal. They went out and got Andrew Shaw for a moment like this, and Brendan Gallagher had a nice postseason a few years ago, so they could be OK. If the Rangers can clamp down on the big names, however, Montreal is going to need somebody else to step up and find the net.
One player to watch: Weber. The goalies will get the attention, and rightly so, but it's become conventional wisdom that you can't win the Stanley Cup without a Norris-caliber stud on the blueline. Not many teams in the East have one this year, especially now that Letang is out, but the Canadiens do. For all the (deserved) heat that the team took for the controversial P.K. Subban trade, this is the sort of series where Weber can earn his massive contract.
Key number: 12. That's the number of playoff goals Nash has scored in 65 career games. That's a rate of roughly 0.18 per game, well under half of his regular-season pace. He's been to the playoffs five times, but never scored more than five goals in a single postseason. That's left him with a reputation as a playoff underachiever, and if you take the results-oriented view, it's deserved. In recent years, though, Nash has played well in the playoffs, leading the league in postseason shots in 2014 and 2015. The puck just hasn't gone in for him ... yet.
Prediction: Rangers in seven.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Price and Lundqvist exchange shutouts in the first two games.
#2 Ottawa Senators vs. #3 Boston Bruins
In this corner: The Senators (44-28-10, 98 points, -4), a team nobody seems to think is all that good but they apparently missed that memo on their way to home ice.
And in this corner: The Bruins (44-31-7, 95 points, +23), who make the playoffs for the first time in three years despite an uneven season that saw them fire their coach.
Head-to-head: The Senators swept all four games.
Dominant narrative: They don't get no respect. You could make a reasonable case that these are two of the worst three or four teams to make the postseason, and the fact that they draw each other means one of them is moving on to the next round. That will bother some fans across the league, but if you're on the bandwagon for the Bruins or the Senators, you don't care. Instead, you'll sit back and gorge on that precious "nobody believes in us" nectar over the next two weeks, and then celebrate punching a ticket to Round Two—or lament a golden opportunity that slipped away.
Injury report: The Bruins have some question marks on the blueline, including Tory Krug and Brandon Carlo, which could lead to top prospect Charlie McAvoy making his debut. The Sens were beat up down the stretch, but should have everyone back with the possible exception of Marc Methot. Keep an eye on Erik Karlsson's bad foot, though.
The big question: Can the Bruins at least get a stalemate in the goaltending battle? That seems like an odd question, since Boston is the team with the former Vezina winner, but Tuukka Rask followed up a strong start with an up-and-down season that has some Bruins feeling nervous about the position. Meanwhile, the Senators' pairing of Craig Anderson and Mike Condon hasn't won many awards, but they've done the job all season long, even in the face of adversity.
One player to watch: Patrice Bergeron. Fellow forward Brad Marchand got more attention during a breakout season, but Bergeron is still the guy who can single-handedly tilt a playoff series. He'll probably win yet another Selke, and there may not be a better player in the league when it comes to shutting down a team's top line. The Senators aren't really a team built around one big line, though, so it will be interesting to see who Bergeron matches up with. Maybe the Bruins just stick him on Karlsson.
Key number: -4. That's that Senators' goals differential, the only negative one you'll find among playoff teams. It's rare for a team in the red to make much playoff noise.
Prediction: Bruins in six.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Marchand and Alex Burrows will each do something that has everyone yelling for a suspension. Quite possibly to each other.
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