I'm hopeful that I'll be able to coordinate a playoff preview podcast before the games start, but in case I'm not, I wanted to make sure that my loudmouthed opinions get out into the world before I have a chance to pretend I didn't think them.
So, here are my takes on each of the Eastern Conference matchups. My Western Conference matchup evaluations will be coming tomorrow. I used to include the number of games as part of my predictions, but nobody cares about that. Right or wrong, that's all that matters.
(1) Washington Capitals vs. (WC) Philadelphia Flyers
At the beginning of 2016, I would not have guessed that the Flyers would be the Caps' first round opponent. They've heated up over the last couple months, and managed to oust the Boston Bruins from the playoffs. I had said nice things about Boston, so of course they collapsed and will watch the playoffs from home.
Luckily, I haven't said anything nice about the Capitals, so we should be in good shape.
But seriously folks, this should be an entertaining series. The Caps have been on coast mode for about six weeks, and only on Saturday did they seem to turn the energy back up at all. I think the schedulers helped them out a little bit though, as they finished with games against Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Anaheim. All three of those teams have legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations, so it was a good opportunity for Washington to test themselves against the very best.
This series is going to come down to how well the Caps are able to negate Philadelphia's incredible top line of Giroux, Simmonds, and Voracek (assuming Philly keeps them together). That line gave everyone in the NHL problems this year, but with how lean the rest of their forwards are, it'll be interesting to see if Dave Hakstol elects to split up his best guys to try to match the Capitals' depth. If he did, I think the Caps would win in five, but I think he'll make the right call. Philly will likely give Washington all they can handle, but a Presidents' Cup winning Caps team won't get upended in the first round twice in the same decade...right?
(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3) New York Rangers
This is absolutely going to be the series to watch. The Penguins are the hottest team in the NHL, cruising into the playoffs on a forty-six-game winning streak. Okay not exactly, but they're rolling. The offense is running on all cylinders, and it looks like they'll get Malkin back before too long. The one thing that could be a problem for Pittsburgh is that both of their goalies have endured injuries over the past couple weeks. One or both might be available for game one, but one or both might also not be available for game one. Having to turn to a third-string goaltender in the playoffs isn't an ideal scenario.
That said, this might be a circumstance where that doesn't even matter. Sidney Crosby is once again playing like he's the best player in the world, the paper-thin defensive corps is somehow keeping up with the best forwards in the league, and the new coach seems to have everyone on the same page.
The Rangers, meanwhile, have Henrik Lundqvist.
Seriously, that's it. Could be enough. But I'll take the team over the goalie, this time.
(1) Florida Panthers vs. (WC) New York Islanders
In a surprise to literally no one, the Islanders managed to lose their game on the last day of the season and will avoid Pittsburgh in the first round, instead facing the upstart Panthers. I can't say that I blame them; the Panthers look more beatable than the Penguins, though they do present their own set of challenges.
Florida's strength is in their energy, their youth, and a style of play that minimizes quality opportunities against Roberto Luongo. The Islanders' strength is...I actually have no idea what the Islanders' strength is. John Tavares would be one, I suppose; he's probably the best player that nobody talks about. But as far as what makes this team dangerous, I'm not really sure.
Florida, despite a minimal amount of playoff experience on the roster, should be able to squeak by the Islanders. I give New York a shot, because I give every hockey team a shot. But if Florida is able to stay healthy, I think they move on to the second round.
(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (3) Detroit Red Wings
So Detroit managed to hang on to a playoff spot by the skin of their teeth, extending their string of playoff appearances to 25 consecutive seasons. The Lightning, while not boasting quite so long a streak, made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, and were a preseason favorite in the east.
This is actually a rematch of last year's first round series, but without any of the bluster of the Rangers/Penguins series. I don't think many people are giving Detroit much of a chance this time around, and that's probably appropriate. The Red Wings have some good players, but in the end, the Lightning are too strong all the way around, in spite of all these "injuries" people keep talking about.
Pick: Tampa Bay
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