Atlantic Bracket A Brutal Path to the East Final
For all the championships won by the Bruins, Penguins and Capitals over the past eight years, the East has plenty of fresh blood. The Islanders have home-ice advantage in the first round for the first time since 1988, the Hurricanes are in the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and the Blue Jackets are looking to win their first series in franchise history.
The first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference:
(Game 1 at New York on Wednesday)
Nassau Coliseum will be rocking after the Islanders went from allowing the most goals in the league last season to the fewest this season and finished second in the Metropolitan Division. Trotz brought the structure that helped the Capitals win the Cup to Long Island, and goaltenders Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have been much improved.
Pittsburgh is still dangerous because of the high-end talent of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.
“It starts with Sid,” Trotz said. “Sid’s still the standard and Malkin raises his game in the playoffs all the time. They’ve got Kessel, they’ve got a number of people. They’ve got championship pedigree.”
(Game 1 at Tampa Bay on Wednesday)
All the pressure is on Tampa Bay after lapping the field this season, tying the NHL wins record and boasting the league’s leading scorer in Nikita Kucherov. The Lightning haven’t played meaningful games for a couple of weeks and are now expected to flip a switch and raise their level in the playoffs.
“We’ve been ready for a while,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’re ready for playoff hockey.”
Columbus has plenty of urgency, too, given that Panarin and Bobrovsky and deadline additions Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Adam McQuaid are pending free agents. Things could blow up there if the Blue Jackets bow out in the first round.
(Game 1 at Boston on Thursday)
These teams went to seven games a year ago but are trending in very different directions now.
The Maple Leafs don’t know which version of goaltender Frederik Andersen will show up and have to hope their defense can withstand the big, bad Bruins. Boston tied Calgary for the second-most points in the league, has gotten strong goaltending from Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, and is deep at forward and on defense.
(Game 1 at Washington on Thursday)
There’s no bigger contrast in the first round than Washington, in the playoffs for the 11th time in 12 years, going up against Carolina, which has 12 players who have not played before in the NHL postseason.
The Hurricanes do have three-time Cup-winner Justin Williams as their captain and one-time champion Jordan Staal as their second-line center, but the Capitals’ big guns of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby are seasoned for this time of year. Winning last year also gives the Capitals extra confidence.
“It’s a fun time,” Ovechkin said. “You have to believe in each other and work hard.”