This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
We'll have a new Stanley Cup champion this year. We know that much after the opening round, thanks to the Blues' Game 7 elimination of the Blackhawks on Monday. With the Kings already out and the Bruins not even getting an invite, the last six Cup winners are already done. Only two of the remaining teams have won a Cup in the salary cap era, and four have never won one at all.
And so now we're on to round two. Well, sort of.
The NHL is throwing a twist at us this year, starting the Eastern Conference second-round schedule Wednesday with the Islanders and Lightning even though the Western Conference's opening round hasn't wrapped up yet. So we'll split this preview in two, covering the East today and then wrapping up the West tomorrow once we know whether it will be the Ducks or Predators moving on to face the Sharks.
We might as well start with the big one, a series featuring two star-packed teams with plenty of history and what seems like a fairly clear path to the final awaiting the winner. Other than that, not much on the line.
#1 Capitals vs. #2 Penguins
In this corner: The Presidents' Trophy winning Capitals (56-18-8, +57 true goals differential), moving on to the second round for the fifth time in eight years. They've lost each of their previous four visits, including three that went to Game 7.
And in this corner: The Penguins (48-26-8, +42), a team packed with elite talent that stumbled out of the gate before changing coaches and transforming into a powerhouse.
In round one: The Capitals raced out to a 3-0 series lead on the Flyers before losing two straight to resurrect the ghosts of playoff collapses past; they ended that talk, at least temporarily, by closing out the series with a 1-0 win in Game 6. The Penguins speed-bagged Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers in a five-game series.
Injury report: The big name is Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins' goalie who missed the entire first round with a concussion. He's been skating lately and could return at some point, but until then the Pens will rely on rookie Matt Murray, who played well against the Rangers. The Penguins did get Evgeni Malkin back during the opening round, and the rest of the key names are relatively healthy.
The Capitals are also in fairly good shape, although they've been missing veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik and winger T.J. Oshie looked shaken up by a high hit in Game 6 (but did return for the third period).
Dominant narrative: Ovechkin Crosby Ovechkin Crosby Ovechkin Crosby Ovechkin Crosby Ovechkin Crosby Ovechkin Crosby. The NHL spent years trying to market these two as the Magic vs. Bird rivalry of their era, but they've only actually met in the playoffs once before. That was in 2009, a seven-game Penguins win that many consider one of the best series in recent memory.
The big question: Which secondary stars show up? Crosby and Ovechkin will get the spotlight, and rightly so, but this matchup is just packed with elite talent. If Crosby stumbles, the Penguins still have Malkin and Phil Kessel. If Ovechkin goes cold, the Caps have Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom. Any of those guys are skilled enough to take over a game or two single-handedly.
The Penguins have one thing the Caps don't: a true blueline stud in Kris Letang (John Carlson isn't quite there yet). But the Capitals have an all-star in goal, while the Penguins... well... let's get to that.
One player to watch: Matt Murray. With Fleury still experiencing concussion symptoms, it looks like Murray will be the guy, at least early on. The rookie was up to the challenge against the Rangers, outplaying Henrik Lundqvist. But the Capitals aren't the Rangers, and there won't be much margin for error for a kid with just 16 NHL games under his belt.
Key number: 16—Combined powerplay goals for these two teams in the opening round. They each had eight, while no other team had more than six. Discipline and staying out of the box are important in every series; in this one, it will be absolutely crucial.
Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: Ovechkin and Crosby both record hat tricks in a high-scoring Game 2 during the 2009 showdown.
Prediction: Nine of the Capitals' 12 series since 2008 have gone the distance. This one is no different. In the most exciting series of the playoffs, the Penguins win a seven-game classic.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: The winning team loses more games in this series than they do in the next two rounds combined.
Ever get the feeling everyone was only pretending to pay attention to you to be polite? That's kind of where this series is at. Then again, we could have said the same about the oddball Islanders/Panthers matchup in round one, and it ended up being one of the most flat-out entertaining series we've seen in years.
#2 Lightning vs. (WC) Islanders
In this corner: The battered and bruised Lightning (46-31-5, +26), still missing a few of their best players but rested up after being the first team to close out their first round series.
And in this corner: The Islanders (45-27-10, +16), fresh off their first playoff series victory in 23 years.
In round one: The Lightning knocked off the Red Wings in five games, while the Islanders used three overtime wins to top the favored Panthers in six.
Injury report: The Lightning will once again be without key contributors Anton Stralman (broken leg) and Steven Stamkos (recovering from surgery related to blood clots). Stralman could return during the series, while Stamkos raised eyebrows yesterday by taking the ice for practice but isn't expected to play in this round.
The Islanders are missing several pieces of their own, most notably starting goaltender Jaroslav Halak. Thomas Greiss will continue to handle those duties, and was fantastic in round one.
Dominant narrative: With one upset down, the underdog Islanders try to sweep the state of Florida and become the champions of a division that they do not play in.
The big question: Does it even matter? That sounds harsh, but it's fair to say that all the attention in the East is going to be on the marquee matchup between the Capitals and Penguins, one that features two powerhouses that the experts have already labelled as the conference's best bets for the Cup. According to the conventional wisdom, that series is the real Eastern Conference final, and the winner of the Islanders/Lightning series will get the honor of playing third-round cannon fodder to make it official. Of course, you know how conventional wisdom tends to work out in the NHL playoffs.
One player to watch: John Tavares. Sure, suggesting that the best player in the series might be important isn't exactly a stretch. But he was a monster in the opening round, scoring key goals, drawing penalties, and owning the puck against a very good possession team. He figures to see a lot of Victor Hedman in this series, especially in Tampa where the Lightning will be able to dictate the matchup with the last change.
Key number: Two—Total goals scored in the opening round by Lightning players other than the top line of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn. The Islanders managed to essentially shut down Florida's top line, holding Jaromir Jagr, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau to just three goals and eight points combined. But the Panthers' second line, led by Reilly Smith, stepped up and kept the Panthers in it early on. So can the Islanders have the same success against the 2016-model Triplets? And if so, who on the Lightning steps up to fill the void?
Old YouTube clip to get you fired up: The 2009 NHL draft was one of the few in recent memory with any real mystery over who would be the first overall pick. The two top candidates: blue-chip center Tavares and towering defenseman Hedman. The Islanders held the top pick, and GM Garth Snow stepped to the podium in Montreal to make the choice.
The Lightning held the second pick, and took Hedman. Seven years later, the two players have developed into stars, and will be going head-to-head for the division title.
Prediction: Lightning in six.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Trailing the series, the Islanders put Ryan Strome back in the lineup and are rewarded with a crucial goal. We all just agree to ignore that it never made sense for him to be scratched in the first place.