On Wednesday, the NHL’s Eastern Conference begins its encore to last year’s upset-filled playoffs, which saw seventh-seeded Philadelphia defeat eighth-seeded Montreal in the conference finals. With weaknesses and injuries rendering the East’s top teams vulnerable again, don’t be surprised by another unpredictable finish.
(1) Washington Capitals (107 pts.) vs. (8) Rangers (93 pts.)
Game 1: at Washington, Wed., 7:30 p.m.
Last season’s offensive juggernaut and No. 1 seed, Washington, hopes to avenge its first-round exit last April with a new defensive mindset. The Capitals allow only 2.29 goals per game, though their offensive output has dropped by more than a goal per game since last year. The Rangers also emphasize stopping the puck, with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist leading the league with 11 shutouts. However, right wing Ryan Callahan’s broken ankle will likely keep him out of a lineup that already has difficulty scoring goals.
Edge: With both defenses fairly strong, look for Washington’s Alex Ovechkin to reinstate his offensive dominance and lead the Caps to victory.
(2) Philadelphia Flyers (106 pts.) vs. (7) Buffalo Sabres (96 pts.)
Game 1: at Philadelphia, Thurs., 7:30 p.m.
The Flyers have no problem scoring, with a conference-leading 256 goals, but have struggled defensively of late thanks to shaky play from rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and a hand injury to top defenseman Chris Pronger. Upstart Buffalo, led by left wing Thomas Vanek, has won eight of its last 10 games and sports a conference-best record of 28-11-6 since the new year began. The Sabres will need full health from goaltender Ryan Miller to contain Philadelphia’s offense.
Edge: Offensive depth and Pronger’s likely return give the Flyers an edge in what promises to be a high-scoring series.
(3) Boston Bruins (103 pts.) vs. (6) Montreal Canadiens (96 pts.)
Game 1: at Boston, Thurs., 7 p.m.
The Eastern first round’s only divisional rivalry will pit two teams with recent bad blood against each other. Just over a month ago, a questionable hit by Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara ended Montreal left wing Max Pacioretty’s regular season. Boston features the East’s best defense, anchored by goalie Tim Thomas’ league-best 2.00 goals against average. The Canadiens are opportunistic, converting 19.7 percent of their power plays while killing 84.4 percent of their penalties.
Edge: Look for the Bruins’ balanced offense — which scored 31 more goals than Montreal’s this season — to be the difference-maker in this hard-hitting matchup.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins (106 pts.) vs. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning (103 pts.)
Game 1: at Pittsburgh, Wed., 7 p.m.
Despite playing without star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the past two months, Pittsburgh nearly won the Atlantic division. The Penguins allow just 2.34 goals per game and kill an NHL-best 86.2 percent of their penalties. Their defense will be tested by the Lightning, who feature the East’s top scoring duo in center Steven Stamkos (45 goals) and right wing Martin St. Louis (68 assists). However, Tampa Bay’s 2.80 goals against average ranks worst among playoff teams in the East.
Edge: With Crosby doubtful and Malkin out, look for Tampa’s offensive stars to steal the show in this series.