NHL Play Offs: What You Must Watch
NHL Play Offs: What You Must Watch
The N.H.L. playoffs begin Wednesday, and many of the league’s youngest and brightest stars, including Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Toronto’s Auston Matthews, will be in the spotlight.
The benefits — or detriments, depending on your point of view — of the division-based playoff system will also be on display, particularly in the Eastern Conference. The defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins (111 points) and the Columbus Blue Jackets (108 points) have the second- and third-best records in the East, but will face each other in the first round because both play in the Metropolitan Division. Because of the strength of that division, the Rangers’ 102 points were good enough for only a wild card, which means they will play the Atlantic Division-winning Canadiens (103 points) in the first round.
The complete first-round schedule can be found here.
No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. No. 4 Toronto Maple Leafs
The Capitals (55-19-8) captured the Presidents’ Trophy with the N.H.L.’s best record for the second season in a row. They have excelled in all situations, leading the league in goal differential (plus-81) by a wide margin and finishing tied for third on the power play and seventh in penalty killing. Seeking its elusive first championship, Washington enters the playoffs having won 10 of 12 games and added the most significant player at the trading deadline, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
Just making the playoffs has been elusive for Toronto. In the previous 11 seasons, the Leafs qualified for the playoffs only once, in 2012-13, when they famously collapsed in the first round after taking a 4-1 lead in the third period of Game 7 against the Boston Bruins. But the city and the franchise hope this playoff berth proves to be the first step on a long path to glory. After a top-to-bottom shift in personnel, Coach Mike Babcock has gotten the most out of an exceptional crop of rookies. Matthews, the No. 1 draft pick last June, tallied 69 points to lead all rookies, and his 40 goals tied him for second among all players. Mitch Marner and William Nylander tied for third in rookie scoring, each notching 61 points.
No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 3 Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus Coach John Tortorella and Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan are close friends, but do not expect this series to be friendly. The Penguins (50-21-11) had a litany of injuries down the stretch including to defenseman Kris Letang, their leader in time on ice, and Evgeni Malkin, one of their big-ticket forwards. While Letang is done for the year, Malkin should be ready for the playoffs. Mending or recently returned Penguins include defensemen Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley as well as forwards Matt Cullen, Bryan Rust, Carl Hagelin and Chris Kunitz.
The Blue Jackets (50-24-8) have one of the top goaltenders in hockey in Sergei Bobrovsky, but he is unproven in the playoffs. Since entering the league in 2000-1, Columbus has never won a playoff series in two appearances. Only three Blue Jackets, forwards Brandon Saad and Scott Hartnell and center Brandon Dubinsky, have been to the conference finals or beyond. Columbus backed into the playoffs, losing six of its last seven games. The Jackets are also hobbled by injuries. Defenseman Ryan Murray appears unlikely to play in the series, but the star rookie defenseman Zach Werenski is expected to return from an upper-body injury he sustained April 2.
The teams split their season series, 2-2. Game 1 is Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
No. 1 Montreal Canadiens vs. No. 4 Rangers
Montreal (47-26-9) essentially went wire to wire in first place in the Atlantic, though that may be more of an indictment of the team’s competition than an endorsement of its performance. The Canadiens even fired their coach, Michel Therrien, in February and replaced him with Claude Julien, a former Montreal coach who had recently been let go by the Bruins. Montreal went 16-7-1 under Julien. The Canadiens’ success still starts and ends in net with Carey Price, who was injured by the Rangers’ Chris Kreider the last time the teams met in the postseason, in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals.
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist has struggled this season. He also has a poor playing history in Montreal, where he has not won a regular-season game since 2009, though he was 2-1 with a 2.82 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage during the 2014 playoffs.
The Rangers (48-28-6) have won only three of their past 10 games, but are the stronger offensive team in the series. They would love to see a resurgence from the speedy wing Michael Grabner, who was second on the team in goals but had only one in his last 23 games.
The Canadiens swept the season series, 3-0. Game 1 is Wednesday in Montreal.
No. 2 Ottawa Senators vs. No. 3 Boston Bruins
After three years out of the N.H.L., Coach Guy Boucher made a triumphant return, leading the Senators to the playoffs despite a goalie carousel, mediocre special teams and an offense that was 22nd in goals. But sound defensive structure and the wizardry of Erik Karlsson buoyed Ottawa (44-28-10). He remains a strong candidate for the Norris Trophy, which honors the league’s top defenseman, an award he has already earned twice, and may be considered for the Hart Trophy, given to the most valuable player. His 71 points led the team by a wide margin.
In February, the Bruins (44-31-7) fired Julien, who led them to a Stanley Cup in 2011 and a finals berth in 2013, and replaced him with Bruce Cassidy. The change reignited the offense, increasing its production by about a goal a game. Under Cassidy, Boston has gone 18-8-1. There are significant holdovers from the Julien era meshed with more recently integrated talent. Most notable, wing Brad Marchand has gone from pesky to prolific, notching a career-high 39 goals.
The Senators won all four games between the teams this season. Game 1 is Wednesday in Ottawa.