The 2015-2016 NHL regular season has some to close, and now the 16-team tournament will begin on Wednesday night. Here is a full preview and prediction for all four quarterfinal matchups in the Eastern Conference.
Washington Capitals (1) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (WC2)
— Zesty New York News (@zesty_NY) April 11, 2016
The Presidents Trophy-winning Capitals drew a very familiar opponent for their first-round date in the Philadelphia Flyers. The last time these two teams met in the postseason was in 2008 where Mike Knuble’s game seven overtime goal propelled the Flyers to the second round. Now, the two divisional rivals will again square off in the tournament’s opening round. The Flyers enter the postseason having gone on a major second-half run to surpass the Boston Bruins for the final Wild Card spot while the Caps have simply been dominant all season long thanks in large part to the play of Braden Holtby, who will likely be winning his first ever Vezina Trophy later this spring. Meanwhile, Steve Mason will be the last line of defense for Philly after a season filled with ups and downs and multiple injury stints. Washington probably has the upper hand in the goaltending department so in order for the Flyers to make this is a series they have to find a way to crack the Washington defensive core, get pucks on net and hope for a rebound.
There is no shortage of offensive firepower in this matchup either with Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and TJ Oshie set to do battle against Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and Shane Gostisbehere. The Flyers may not have a lethal set of forwards like the Caps, Penguins, or New York Rangers, but they do have a group of hard hitting guys that are capable of putting the puck in the net. The combination of skill and power that both of these two forward cores possess makes for a very interesting matchup in this series.
For those unfamiliar, the Washington Capitals are the NHL’s Chicago Cubs or Los Angeles Clippers: a great regular season team, but come time for the postseason, the Caps are infamous for their early-round exits and collapses. Washington didn’t exactly draw a favorable matchup against the hottest team in the Eastern Conference with a history of making the impossible become a reality in the postseason (2010). Maybe TJ Oshie will be the postseason difference-maker that Washington has been missing during the Ovechkin era, but until this team is able to get out of the second round it is hard for me to pick them in any playoff series. Philly wins in seven games.
Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs. New York Rangers (3)
See you Wednesday, Rangers!
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 11, 2016
For the third consecutive year, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers will meet in the postseason. The Blue Shirts enter their first round date with Pittsburgh looking for their third-straight playoff series victory over Sidney Crosby and company. The key to this series is going to be the potential returns of forward Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury. Malkin has been out since mid-March with an upper-body injury while Fleury suffered a concussion on March 31st. Malkin is not expected back until at least April 22nd while Fleury has already begun practicing again and could be on track to return on Wednesday for game one.
The key to any team’s success in the postseason is solid goaltending and without Fleury, the Penguins do not have that right now. Jeff Zatkoff and Tristan Jarry have done enough to allow the Penguins to maintain their place as the second seed in the Metropolitan division during Fleury’s absence, but there is a HUGE difference in the intensity between the final two weeks of a season where a playoff spot has already been clinched vs. a playoff series against a divisional rival. Simply, Pittsburgh needs Fleury to return in order to have their best chance at taking down New York.
With the offensive firepower of Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang, the Penguins are able to keep this series close even without Malkin in the lineup and Fleury possibly not at 100% health or in the lineup for the opening game on Wednesday. The Rangers have their fair share of injuries to deal with as well with Ryan McDonough (hand) and Dan Girardi (upper-body) also being uncertain to start the series. However, as long as the Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist in net and their offensive firepower of Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello remains healthy, they are still the favorite to win this quarterfinal matchup. New York wins in six games.
Florida Panthers (1) vs. New York Islanders (WC1)
— Panthers Report (@panther_fanly) April 11, 2016
Two young and upcoming teams will face off in round one with the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers set to do battle. After just barely missing out on the postseason a season ago, the Panthers were able to finish the job in the regular season in 2015-2016 and win the Atlantic Division. The Cats will make their first postseason appearance since 2012, but will be facing a very dangerous New York Islanders team filled with speed and young talent.
The biggest key to this series is the matchup between Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Tavares. The Isles’ captain will likely be shadowed by the Panthers’ No. 1 overall selection from the 2014 draft, creating some must-watch TV every time these two battle for the puck along the boards. Another obvious key to this series is the goaltending matchup between Roberto Luongo and Jaroslav Halak. Both goaltenders have had their moments of shine in the postseason as members of the Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens, but both have also had their moments of heartbreak and failure. Both the Panthers and Islanders are going to score a lot of goals in this series as their offenses have a lot of firepower so whichever goaltender can withstand the most pressure and whichever team can stay out of the penalty box will have a huge advantage in this series as it will take a major burden off of either Luongo or Halak.
The Islanders showed us all a year ago that they are a dangerous playoff team after coming one game short of upsetting the Washington Caps in the first round. 2015-2016 did not see a drop off like so many other past Islanders teams have had after making the postseason the year prior, and now, the Isles are primed to show that they belong. Florida will be able to make this a series but the Islanders depth on offense will prove to be too much in the end. New York wins in six games.
Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. Detroit Red Wings (3)
— Local 4 Sports (@Local4Sports) April 11, 2016
The defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning may have gotten a favorable first-round matchup against the struggling Detroit Red Wings, but the absence of Steven Stamkos could prove to be a killer for this team as Stamkos was diagnosed with a blot clot in his arm and could miss the entire postseason (1-3 month timetable). With Stamkos out for, at least, the entire series against Detroit, the Red Wings may have caught a huge break, but they still will have their hands full with Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman while also trying to figure out a way to crack Ben Bishop. Last season, it took seven games for the Red Wings and Bolts to solve their opening round series, and with Steven Stamkos out, this thing just got even more interesting.
The biggest key in this series is going to be Tampa’s ability to contain the puck, more specifically: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Dylan Larkin. Both Datsyuk and Zetterberg should be seeing a whole lot of Victor Hedman and Braydon Coburn. If Tampa can contain these three studs, they will have a great chance at getting out of the first round despite the absence of Steven Stamkos. If not, they will have to rely on the services of Ben Bishop to solely carry this team through the first round like in last year’s postseason where Steven Stamkos got off to a slow start.
This is easily the hardest series to predict because Tampa is missing its best player and Detroit is only in the postseason because Boston happened to stumble one more step than they did. Nevertheless, Tampa just has too many injuries to overcome and all of their firepower is injured. Detroit wins in six games.