2017 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

Alyssa Naimoli

The regular season has slipped away and every NHL fan’s favorite time of the year is coming around: the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Finally, the moment we’ve been waiting for when playoff matchups are set in stone and everything we do is “for the Cup.”

82 games have come and gone and now we’re starting over with 16 playoff teams who each want the Stanley Cup as much as the guys on the opposite side of the face off circle. No matter how badly each one of these teams wants to take home the ultimate prize in hockey, only one team will end up being Stanley Cup champs.

More: 2017 Western Conference Preview

Now that our playoff matchups are finally set and we’re awaiting puck drop in Game 1, let’s take a dive into each playoff team to see why they can go all the way and why they might fall short in their quest for Stanley Cup glory.

Washington Capitals – 118 Points – 1st Metropolitan Division:

 

capitals 2017 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

It isn’t any surprise that the Capitals are a Stanley Cup favorite this season. Washington is leading the NHL and heading towards their second consecutive President’s Trophy. While the Caps fell in the second round to the 2016 Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team seems poised to take the Cup home this year for the first time.

Led by Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby, the Capitals seem more powerful than ever and have become an instant Cup favorite. Their season has been dominating and powerful, to no surprise, and despite hiccups in the season they have always overcome.

Why They’ll Win it All:

Because the Capitals’ roster is deep, powerful and determined to succeed.

Nicklas Backstrom (23 G, 86 P) and Alex Ovechkin (33 G, 66 P) have been staples of the team’s dominating production, which has given them, and the Caps’ offense overall, a clear advantage over other teams. Simply put, the Capitals can make scoring look easy. Not to mention, defense has been solid and Braden Holtby is one of the NHL’s best goaltenders. The team’s roster screams Stanley Cup champs.

Why They Won’t Win it All:

Because they’ve never made a deep run past the second round of the playoffs.

Lack of experience isn’t always a solid reason to count a team away from the Stanley Cup, but the Capitals have never seen past the second round of the playoffs. While is isn’t strange for a team to make it to the finals with minimal playoff experience, it might make it more difficult for the team, especially if they advance to the finals and face an experienced cup-winning team like the Blackhawks, or even the Sharks.

Pittsburgh Penguins – 111 Points – 2nd Metropolitan Division

 

crosby cup 2017 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Can the Pittsburgh Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cup titles? Mike Sullivan has further transformed the Penguins into an alarmingly powerful team since he became head coach last season. Between the talents of Sidney Crosby (44 goals, 89 points) and Phil Kessel, the Penguins are loaded with world-class talents who are determined to win.

The last team to win consecutive Stanley Cups was the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, but the Penguins have notched consecutive wins before, just prior to that, in 1991 and 1992. Pittsburgh will be looking to push boundaries and take the Cup home again.

Why They’ll Win it All:

Because they know how to win.

The Penguins are almost too solid. Pittsburgh knows how to win and their Stanley Cup victory last season is a big part of that conversation. The Pens’ roster is loaded and between top producers, Crosby, Connor Sheary and Kessel; the Penguins have nothing to worry about when it comes to production. Pittsburgh is looking to take the Cup home again this season and if they can channel the same dominating play they did last year and for most of this season, they can do it.

Why They Won’t Win it All:

Because injuries in key spots will finally catch up with them. 

Pittsburgh is having a strong season, especially given how competitive the Metropolitan Division has been. Despite the success, some teams have figured out the Penguins’ play and they don’t have as many wins against the teams that matter most. Which means, even if the Penguins get through the Eastern Conference, they might fall to teams with the upper-hand in the West. Pittsburgh has also lost several top players to injuries recently including Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin and Kris Letang. Losing these players to injuries won’t be easy for the Penguins because, regardless of their timetables, no team wants injury risks, big or small, prior to their playoff race.

Columbus Blue Jackets – 108 Points – 3rd Metropolitan Division

 

blue jackets 2017 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Columbus Blue Jackets, better known as this season’s underdogs, have made quite a splash. The Jackets ended last season second-to-last in the Eastern Conference and no NHL fan would have guessed they’d be third in the Metro Division on their way to the playoffs after a dominating season.

This will be the team’s third playoff appearance and second appearance since 2009. This will also be the team’s first time coming in any place lower than seventh. In fact, the last time the Jackets were in the playoffs, they also faced the Penguins in the first round but fell 4-2 to them.

Why They’ll Win it All:

Because they’re rock solid on special teams, which play a major role in the playoffs

Columbus is tired of being a team synonymous with disappointing seasons. The Blue Jackets have long been regarded as a team that isn’t a real Cup contender and now that the team has put together a solid season, they’re ready to prove doubters wrong. The Jackets have been defeating all of the tough teams this season, they’re tied for second for most wins in the league and they rank in the top 10 for both their power play and power kill. This team is young, hungry and has all the determination a team needs to play winning hockey in April/May.

Why They Won’t Win it All:

Because they lack the experience of the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff teams

A lot of NHL fans have long doubted the Blue Jackets’ true level of competitiveness, especially when it comes to the postseason. Not to mention, Columbus doesn’t have the experience, especially now, but that hasn’t stopped teams before.

Montreal Canadiens – 103 Points – 1st Atlantic Division

 

carey price 2017 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

(Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

The Montreal Canadiens are back to being Cup contenders after falling short of last year’s postseason by 14 points. The team’s sparked play this season could be partially contributed to their blockbuster trade from the off season when they sent P.K. Subban down to Nashville in exchange for Shea Weber. The Canadiens even have a new coach behind the bench now when former Bruins head coach Claude Julien went over to Montreal. Montreal has been revived this season and has been putting impressive performances. They’re ready to get back in the Stanley Cup mindset.

Why They’ll Win it All:

Because Carey Price can bail them out when needed and steal a series

The Canadiens are strong, solid and have been one of the league’s best teams for the better part of the decade. Montreal is looking to make up for last year’s disappointing season and is more determined than ever to prove their power. Carey Price, Max Pacioretty, Alexander Radulov and Shea Weber have been outstanding for the Habs this season. The Canadiens have an effective offense, strong defense and a goaltender that can bail them out if need be, which gives Montreal a solid group to chase the Cup.

Why They Won’t Win it All:

Because they don’t stack up against any of the teams in the Metropolitan division

The Metropolitan Division is loaded and if the divisions weren’t separated the Canadiens would have come in fifth place in the conference, behind Metro front runners like the Capitals, Penguins, Blue Jackets and Rangers. Montreal needs to make it through the Metropolitan Division if they intend to go all the way, which might be pretty tough. In fact, the Canadiens were bounced out of the playoffs by a Metropolitan team in six of their last eight playoff appearances.

Ottawa Senators – 98 Points – 2nd Atlantic Division

 

eric karllson 2017 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The Ottawa Senators are back in playoff contention after missing the postseason last year. The team has been putting forward solid play for most of this season and plan to head into the playoffs with revitalized play. The Sens’ defensive core is strong, their offense knows how to get the job done when they have the room to operate, and their goaltending has been consistent. With Erik Karlsson ready to make a strong playoff push and their solid skill, the Senators will find their playoff mindset quickly.

Why They’ll Win it All:

Because Erik Karlsson is a game-changer who can change a series

The Senators are a strong group and have the ability to bring really solid play when they need it. Ottawa is hungry for the Stanley Cup and that determination can go a long way. Not to mention, Erik Karlsson is a game-changer and goaltending from Craig Anderson and Mike Condon has been very solid.  The Sens’ defensive play shuts down their opponent and gives their producers the opportunity to get in and score. Even with a defense-first style to their play, the Senators still have four players with at least 50 points and nine players with at least 30.

Why They Won’t Win it All:

Because they’ve been inconsistent, which is a recipe for disaster in the playoffs

Ottawa has had a problem with consistency lately, especially where injuries have impacted the team. The Sens are currently without five players due to injuries and that isn’t always a comfort when the playoffs arrive. Not to mention, depending on the teams Ottawa would have to cross, their defensive system might not be enough to hold back the opposition. A team with offense strong enough to push through their wall will foil their plans since Ottawa isn’t a team with a score-first mindset.

Boston Bruins – 95 Points – 3rd Atlantic Division

 

boston bruins 2017 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Bruins haven’t seen the postseason since 2014 and every year since then Boston would end the season just a few points out of contention, but that’s officially in the past. Boston is hitting the postseason and the team couldn’t be more prepared to give their all in the playoffs. Boston has seen coaching changes, new players and new systems this season and it has been working well for them. Now, the Bruins are refreshed and ready to take on the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Why They’ll Win it All:

Because Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are having career years and Tuukka Rask has found his game at the right time

Boston has solid roster depth and even though Tuukka Rask has had his issues (perceived, or real) this year, he knows what it takes to get the job done in the playoffs. This season the Bruins have five players with more than 50 points and four lines that can keep the puck moving in the offensive end. Boston also has three strong defensive pairs that do a good job of guarding the net as a security blanket for Rask. They also know how to keep their play balanced at and away from the blue line. Veteran members of the Bruins have been stepping up this season and several players are having milestone career-highs, including Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

Why They Won’t Win it All:

Their record against teams within their playoff bracket is awful this year

A lot of the teams they might have to face in the Metropolitan Division, like the Senators or Rangers, have dominated them this season for that same reason. Against the Rangers, Senators and Canadiens this year the Bruins are 2-9-1 (both wins came against Montreal), and they’ll need to beat two of those three teams in the first and second rounds of the playoffs just to get to the Conference Finals against the likes of Washington, Pittsburgh or Columbus.

New York Rangers – 102 Points – 1st Wild Card

 

lundqvist 2017 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The New York Rangers have been passionately chasing the Stanley Cup for a few years now but haven’t been able to seal the deal. New York is trying to do things differently this season; they’ve got an overall younger team, a lot of roster depth and reliable goaltending in Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta. The Rangers aren’t leading the loaded Metropolitan Division this season, but are winning games when it matters most.

Why They’ll Win it All:

Because their mix of veterans and young talent is finally right for a Stanley Cup run

The Rangers have seen teams pass them for the Stanley Cup the last few years and are finding the determination to buckle down and take the Cup this year. The team has gotten younger, stronger and more determined this season and are in the best shape to make a strong playoff run. The defense has received a face lift with the additions of Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith and Nick Holden while the new offensive faces Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey and Mika Zibanejad are bringing strong performances. Not to mention, some of the veteran talent like Rick Nash and Michael Grabner have been stepping up significantly not only as leaders but as well-rounded players. The team is solid and, aside from some inconsistencies, this roster has what it takes.

Why They Won’t Win it All:

Because their blue line is a liability and their goal scoring won’t be able to mask it all postseason long

The Rangers have all the ingredients of a winning team but sometimes let their little mistakes and inconsistencies ruin their game. The team has struggled on the blue line and when defense falters the forwards step in to help and lose scoring chances. While both Lundqvist and Raanta are posting solid seasons, goaltending has caused a few issues for the team this season mostly due to the unstable defense. While acquiring Smith at the deadline is beneficial, some of New York’s veteran D-men will need to pick up their play if they want their defense to stay solid.

Toronto Maple Leafs – 95 Points – 2nd Wild Card

 

auston mathews 2017 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The biggest underdog in the Stanley Cup race this season is the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs took on rookies Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, fixed up the team a bit and became an entirely new organization. Toronto has only qualified for the playoffs once in the last 11 seasons and the future is bright, but can the youth movement propel the Maple Leafs to new heights this year?

Why They’ll Win it All:

Because they’re young, fast, and hungry

The Leafs are producing and finding ways to win. Between the scoring and play-making abilities of William Nylander, Marner and Matthews, the Leafs are loaded with young scoring talent. The Leafs have been sitting back the last few seasons but have been collecting young talent that is exploding now. Size has increased, defense has improved and Frederick Anderson has been performing in net. Not only is the team in solid condition but the Leafs are motivated beyond a doubt to make a big splash in the playoffs this season. If they can mimic their regular season performance and push the limit, they will surprise people.

Why They Won’t Win it All:

Because they’re still a few years away from having the experience to win it all

The Leafs don’t have the same experience as the other teams do and it has forced them into play that turns out to be very good or very disappointing. Not to mention, the Leafs will need to get out of the Eastern Conference if they intend to take home the Cup, and the Metropolitan Division won’t be very forgiving, especially considering the struggles the Leafs endured against these teams over the regular season.

Eastern Conference Final Prediction:

New York Rangers top Washington Capitals 4-3

The Rangers and the Caps always come together for intense games and this conference finals will be no different. The series will be a long one, but the Rangers will come out on top in a close series. The Rangers, with their roster depth, offensive talent and player additions this season will have a refreshing advantage against the Capitals. It’ll come down to a battle of wits and who wants it more. In the end, the Rangers will rally and get the job done if they stay determined, shore up their defense, and stay healthy and strong.

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