I’ve written a lot about the NFL for this site, so I wanted to switch it up with this piece. My favorite sport is in fact hockey, and I have followed it closely for many years now. While my beloved New York Rangers missed out on the big dance this year, the playoffs are the best in all of sports.
So let’s get into my first round picks for the Eastern Conference series.
(1) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (WC 2) New Jersey Devils
We open with a first-round matchup that features one of the tournament’s heavy favorites and a team virtually no one picked to be here. The Tampa Bay Lightning and New Jersey Devils will lock horns with one another in round one for a star-studded matchup. Taylor Hall, Steven Stamkos, Nico Hischier, and Nikita Kucherov, just to name a few of the key players in this matchup.
The bolts have been one of the most dominant teams in the league all year, and only got stronger with the acquisitions of Ryan McDonough and J.T. Miller from the Rangers at the deadline. Their overall depth is a lot to handle for any opponent and their impressive home record of 29-10-2 will be put to the test after securing home-ice advantage throughout the eastern playoffs.
New Jersey, meanwhile, has been carried by MVP front-runner Taylor Hall.
Hall, with 93 points on the year, did enough to earn a spot in the playoffs for the first time in his career. You would have to expect a big effort from number 9 in red and black. The key for the Devils will be their goaltending as Keith Kinkaid has taken the place of Cory Schneider down the stretch. Kinkaid will have to put in a strong performance to give the Devils a chance. They’ll also look toward their secondary scoring options to chip in offensively, with players like Travis Zajac and Jesper Bratt needed to match Tampa’s big guns.
Expect there to be some added tension stemming from this incident earlier in the year, with antagonist Miles Wood always toeing the line against an opponent.
Watch as Miles Wood lays a brutal hit from behind on Vladislav Namestnikov, then breaks the visor of Andrej Sustr who came in to retaliate.
Nick’s Pick: Tampa Bay in 5 games
The Devils have been an incredible fairy tale story this year, but I don’t think they have enough to hang with Tampa. Look for them to keep these games tight and probably grab a home game at Prudential Center, but in the end the Lightning will just overpower them.
(2) Boston Bruins vs. (3) Toronto Maple Leafs
We stick with the narrative of teams that not many “experts” liked preseason with the surprising Boston Bruins, who will face the Toronto Maple Leafs in round one.
These two teams hooked up for an epic series back in 2013 that saw the B’s break the Leaf’s hearts by completing a game-7 comeback in overtime.
These two rivals feature rosters loaded with star talent.
On one side, the Maple Leafs’ loaded forward group packs a heavy punch with Auston Matthews leading a core of Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri, and James Van Riemsdyk. Facing them is an equally loaded group from Bean Town led by everyone’s favorite villain, Brad Marchand. His supporting cast of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Rick Nash, Danton Heinen, and many more give the Bruins the firepower to go toe to toe with Toronto.
The biggest difference in the two is their blue line. The Bruins’ back line is anchored by star rookie Charlie McAvoy and he is joined by the likes of Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, and rookie Matt Grzelcyk.
In contrast, the Leafs have their own young stud with Morgan Rielly leading the D-core. However, their defensive depth just isn’t there, flipping this series in Boston’s favor. For Toronto to get an edge they’ll need Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev to have strong series on the blue line.
The goaltending is about even with Frederik Andersen and Tuukka Rask matching up in the playoffs for the first time. These are two of the most talented net minders around, but consistency will be key for them to find success in this postseason.
Nick’s Pick: Boston in 7 games
A stronger defense and home-ice advantage is just too much for the Leafs to overcome as the Bruins win a tight 7-game series to push on to round two for a date with the Lightning.
(1) Columbus Blue Jackets vs. (WC 1) Washington Capitals
We’ll call this matchup the battle of the underachievers. The Washington Capitals — a team that can’t ever get over the hump — and the Columbus Blue Jackets — a team that typically struggles in the regular season while having sky-high expectations.
Washington was sluggish out of the gate this year, but have been hot down the stretch with the “great 8” Alex Ovechkin scoring 49 goals on the season. On the flip side, Columbus was hot to start but then struggled in the middle of the year. Some savvy deadline additions and the stellar play of their two-headed monster of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky got the Jackets into the playoffs riding high.
Here’s Bobrovsky at his acrobatic finest this year in Montreal.
Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky drops his stick to make a sensational blocker save on Montreal Canadiens’ Jacob de la Rose.
To me this matchup comes down to one main thing and that is goaltending.
Washington has seen stalwart net minder Braden Holtby struggle in the second half, which led to Philipp Grubauer getting some time between the pipes. On the flip side, Columbus features Vezina-winner Sergei Bobrovsky in net, and he has had another strong year. Despite all of his ability, Bobrovsky is known to struggle in the playoffs, which was on full display last year against the Penguins when he seemingly couldn’t make a big save.
The winner of this series will, in all likelihood, go over the top because of some stellar play in the net.
Nick’s Pick: Columbus in 6
Bobrovsky finally gets over the hump and has a strong series to get the Jackets to round two. There is good news though, Caps fans: you won’t have to lose to the Penguins in round two this year.
Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Rivalries are often born out of one of two things, proximity or familiarity. This matchup checks both boxes as the battle of Pennsylvania is rekindled this year.
The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins last met in the opening round of 2012, and we can only hope for a series as good as that one. The Flyers advanced in six games from a series that saw Philly score eight goals twice, and the Penguins score 10 in a game. The series also saw its fair share of fights and even a brawl during game three.
This is yet another star-studded matchup with Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and Jakub Voracek facing off with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel. There’s plenty of talent on the back-end too for both sides. But to me, to win this series you had better have plenty of goals in your stick.
This should be a shootout of a series featuring a lot of high scoring games.
Rock ’em sock ’em hockey at its finest. So fire up the goal light and get in the ring bell because this should be one hell of a matchup.
Flyers vs Penguins Brawl ECQF Game 3(4/15/12) See James Neal’s dirty hits on Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux. Fight between Hartnell and Adams. Hartnell pumps up the Crowd. Crosby and Schenn trade words. Crowd chants “You can’t beat us” and Hulk Hogan wants to know, Whatcha gonna do when Flyers Mania runs wild on you?!
Nick’s Pick: Pittsburgh in 7 games
This series should be can’t-miss-TV and I expect it to go the distance. However, I think the two-time-defending Cup champs will do enough as the Penguins advance to round two.
Stay tuned for a second piece coming soon featuring my Western Conference 1st round picks and my Stanley Cup champion prediction. As always share your thoughts with me on twitter @PBPNick and in the comments below to talk about these Eastern Conference series and the playoffs as a whole.