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2016 NHL Playoffs Preview: Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

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NHL

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Nope, we’re not talking about Christmas. We’re talking about the start of the NHL playoffs. In just a few hours, the tournament of 16 teams looking to claim hockey’s ultimate prize will get underway. Monday night, my fellow hockey writer Nick previewed and gave you his predictions on what will happen in the Western Conference quarterfinals. Today, I will do the same, but for the Eastern Conference.

Florida Panthers vs New York Islanders

The Florida Panthers return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012, and they come in after having their greatest regular season in franchise history. The Panthers set franchise records in wins (47) and points (103) to capture their second-ever division title. Led by the top line of ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr and youngsters Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida finished in eighth in goals for during the regular season at 2.83 goals for per game. However, they weren’t just an offensive show.

The Panthers also know how to defend, boasting the seventh-best goals against mark at 2.44 goals against per game. 2015 first overall pick Aaron Ekblad leads the Florida blue line, which happens to be one of the most balanced in the Eastern Conference.

Holding down the fort in net is veteran, and five-time All-Star, Roberto Luongo. Luongo holds the match up advantage, by far, in this series as he is still one of the league’s best and is a Stanley Cup finalist, back in 2011 with the Vancouver Canucks. Florida reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1996. If they look to get back there, Luongo has the game to carry them that far.

The New York Islanders, meanwhile, are back in the postseason for the third time in the last four seasons. However, they were not able to get out of the first round the previous two times. In fact, the Islanders have not won a playoff series since 1993. If they are to win a series this year, captain John Tavares will be a big reason they do.

Tavares netted 33 goals this season to help New York finish in the top third of the league in goals per game at 2.77. Forwards Brock Nelson and Kyle Okposo are also big figures offensively for the Isles and will be looked to to help Tavares carry the offensive load.

New York’s biggest problem coming into the series is the health of their back end. No. 1 defenseman Travis Hamonic may not be ready for the start of the series as he has been out of action with a lower-body injury since March 31. He was to be re-evaluated at the end of the season to see his status for the playoffs.

Another big injury the Islanders have on their defensive side of the puck is starting goalie Jaroslav Halak. Halak suffered a lower-body injury back on March 8 and the team said he would be out six weeks. It’s unlikely Halak will be back before the conclusion of the first round, which is why the team will have to rely on backup Thomas Greiss.

Both teams enter this series looking to end 20-year droughts in regards to winning a playoff series (the Panthers haven’t won a playoff series since 1996). One streak will end this year and I believe it will be Florida’s. If Hamonic returns early on in the series, that will definitely help New York’s chances. However, the Panthers are a deeper team, they can score, as well as defend. Those are the reasons that they will see the second round of the postseason for the first time since 1996.

Prediction: Panthers in 6

Tampa Bay Lightning vs Detroit Red Wings

The defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning return to the playoffs looking to be the first Eastern Conference team to repeat as Conference champion since the Pittsburgh Penguins did it in 2008 and 2009. However, the Lightning have an uphill battle this year.

Captain, and leading scorer, Steven Stamkos is out 1-3 months after having surgery to remove a blood clot. When the two teams met last spring, it was Tyler Johnson that carried Tampa offensively, scoring six goals in the seven-game series. This spring, with Stamkos out, Johnson will be looked to to have a similar performance. Usual linemates Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat will also be asked to carry things offensively without their captain. They should not feel uncomfortable with that as Stamkos was held without a goal in the series last year.

The Lightning also have a key piece missing on the blue line. Defenseman Anton Stralman fractured his left fibula on March 25 and is out. Tampa, though, still has Victor Hedman on the back end and he will surely grab some of the minutes available from Stralman’s injury. Like Stralman, Hedman can play in any and every situation.

The Lightning’s biggest advantage may be in goal. Netminder Ben Bishop had another stellar season, leading all NHL goalies with a 2.06 goals-against average and set a team record with six shutouts. Bishop broke out last year during the playoffs. One of his best performances came in Tampa’s 2-0 Game 7 win over Detroit.

The Detroit Red Wings are back in the postseason for the 25th straight year. However, this a very different team than what we saw even five, six years ago.

Aging stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are not as dynamic offensively as they were. Both led the team in scoring, with 50 and 49 points, respectively. It is a sign of the struggles this team had scoring goals. Rookie Dylan Larkin led Detroit with 23 goals. As a team, the Red Wings finished in the bottom third of the league in goal scoring, averaging 2.55 goals per game. They also had the worst goal differential of any of the 16 playoff teams (-13).

Like the two big stars up front, the Detroit defense has two veterans that are not what they used to be. Niklas Kronwall and Mike Green used to be top-2 defensemen a few years ago, but age and a dip in production has seen them slide down the totem pole. Green, a one-time 30-goal scorer, only managed 35 points this season.  Kronwall did play at least 77 games in an 82-game schedule for the first time since 2009-10 and only notched 26 points on the season.

In goal, the Red Wings have two guys they can go with. Both Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard saw playing time this season and both took over the number one spot at different times. Mrazek started all seven games in the series last spring, but struggled down the stretch this season, which could mean Howard will start at least Game 1 this year.

This could be the toughest series to pick a winner from. Most of the offensive numbers favor Tampa, but Stamkos’ absence will definitely affect those numbers in the playoffs. On the other hand, Detroit has struggled scoring goals all season, but with reports that Datsyuk may leave to play in Russia next season, they could rally around that to make one more run with him and Zetterberg. However, I believe the biggest difference will be Bishop and the coaching of John Cooper that will give the Lightning a second consecutive playoff series win over the Red Wings.

Prediction: Lightning in 5

Washington Capitals vs Philadelphia Flyers

The Washington Capitals had one of the greatest regular seasons in the team history. The Capitals finished with 120 points to claim their second President’s Trophy in franchise history. They also claimed the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs. Led by Alex Ovechkin‘s 50 goals, Washington was the league’s second-highest scoring team in the league (3.02 goals per game).

They are also balanced, offensively. The Capitals had five players finish with 50 or more points. With guys like Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, and Justin Williams, Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom no longer have to carry the offensive load themselves.

On defense, Washington is one of the deepest teams in the league. Led by the top pair of John Carlson and Brooks Orpik, the Capitals have eight defensemen that can be rotated should one of the others go down with injury. Not only does Washington boast a deep defense, they have a goalie who put his name in the record books this season.

Netminder Braden Holtby tied the NHL record for wins in a season (48) this season to help backstop the Caps to the President’s Trophy. Holtby and the defense are a big reason they finished with the league’s second-best goals against per game average (2.33).

The Philadelphia Flyers rode a hot streak to end the season to return to the postseason after missing out last year. The Flyers went 20-9-6 in the last 35 games to clinch the second wild card spot on the second-to-last day of the season.

Philadelphia is led by probably one of the more underrated players in the NHL, captain Claude Giroux. Since the 2011-12 season, Giroux leads the league with 366 points. He will be the catalyst for a Flyers team that will surely be riding a wave of emotion into Game 1.

Monday, longtime team owner Ed Snider passed away at the age of 83. Snider had been the only owner  the Flyers had known since their inception in 1967.

Forwards Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and Brayden Schenn will look to help Giroux carry the load offensively and try to help Philadelphia counter Washington’s balanced attack.

On defense, rookie Shayne Gotsisbehere will also look to bring offensive production, which he has done since joining the Flyers November 14. Philadelphia is averaging nearly 0.75 more goals per game with him in the lineup, and their power play percentage has gone up six points since his arrival.

Goalie Steve Mason will enter the playoffs as the Flyers’ No. 1 netminder. The 27-year-old had a decent year in goal, going 23-19-10 with a 2.51 goals-against average, .918 save percentage, and four shutouts. Mason, though, will have his hands full against the Capitals and will have to take his game to another level for Philadelphia to pull of the upset.

On paper, Washington is the deeper, better team. The Flyers, however, are a blue-collar team that will make you work for what you get. That attitude will help them push the Capitals into a deep series. Washington comes into the series with big expectations and hope to not repeat what happened to them the last time they won the President’s Trophy (they were eliminated in the first round). However, the Capitals’ depth across their lineup will ultimately be the difference in this series.

Prediction: Capitals in 6

Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Rangers

Pittsburgh ended the regular season as one of, if not the hottest team in the NHL. The Penguins went 8-2 in their last 10 games to finish three points ahead of New York for second place in the Metropolitan Division. Like the team, center Sidney Crosby started off slow, but heated up as the season progressed.

Crosby finished the season with 36 goals and 85 points to lead Pittsburgh in scoring. He will be the main offensive catalyst for the Penguins, especially since Evgeni Malkin is out with an upper-body injury that may keep him out of the first round.

Phil Kessel and former Ranger Carl Hagelin will try to provide offense on the second line. Both guys have plenty of speed and Kessel has one of the league’s best wrist shots. Their production helped Pittsburgh finish the season third in goals per game average at 2.94.

However, after their top two lines, the Penguins don’t have a lot of depth and experience in their bottom six group of forwards, which could be a problem in the series.

On defense, Kris Letang is the main man. He averaged over 27 minutes of ice time during the season, and will surely play close the same amount in the playoffs, if not more. Veteran Trevor Daley has been Letang’s recently and has played with him. The Penguins’ biggest concern on the blue line, though, is the health of Letang’s usual partner, Olli Maatta.

Maatta has been week-to-week with a lower-body injury. It is not known if the young defenseman will be ready to play before the series ends.

Between the pipes, starter Marc-Andre Fleury is a question mark as he is recovering from a concussion. The team says he is a game-time decision when the series starts tonight. When healthy, though, Fleury has proven he can backstop a team to the Stanley Cup, as he did in 2009.

The New York Rangers come into the postseason having knocked out the Penguins in two consecutive postseasons, including coming back from 3-1 series deficit in 2014. The strength of the Rangers in years past has been from the goal out, but this year they developed a bit of a scoring touch.

New York finished seventh in the league in goals for per game, compared to 16th in goals against per game. The leader, offensively, for the Rangers is Mats Zuccarello, who is probably also the heart and soul of the team.

The forward group for New York is pretty deep, with the likes of Eric Staal, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, and others scattered across their top nine. If those guys can produce at the level they are capable of and Zuccarello has, they are more balanced offensive team than Pittsburgh.

On the blue line, the Rangers may start the series without their top two defenders. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are trying to recover from late-season injuries. Girardi is day-to-day and McDonagh has already been ruled out for Game 1.New York still has plenty of depth and experience on the back end with Kevin Klein, Marc Staal, Keith Yandle, and Dan Boyle. 

In goal, the Rangers have the ever-reliable Henrik Lundqvist. The 34-year-old is still one of the game’s best in the net and has had Pittsburgh’s number recently in the playoffs. In the last eight postseason games against the Penguins, Lundqvist is 7-1 with a .954 save percentage and 1.34 goals-against average. If Lundqvist can frustrate Pittsburgh early on, New York could make it three straight series victories.

This has been one of the NHL’s most drama filled series the last few seasons. Both teams have key guys injured who could miss significant time. However, the Rangers’ depth, experience, and Lundqvist’s recent domination of the Penguins will ultimately be the difference in what’s sure to be another long series.

Prediction: Rangers in 7

The fun begins tonight with Game 1 between the Lightning and Red Wings (7 PM EST, NBCSN). Here at Tha Sports Junkies 101, we will do our best to keep up to date with the most important news from the playoffs. Enjoy the games!

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