NHL EASTERN CONFERENCE FIRST ROUND PLAYOFF PREVIEW

2023-04-17 · 4 min read · NHL/Hockey
Auston Matthews and David Pastrňák

Nick Turchiaro/USA Today Sports | Adam Hunger/AP

It's playoff time for the NHL and I don't know about you, but I'm very excited to get started. Without further ado let's get into the Eastern Conference first-round matchups.
Boston Bruins Vs Florida Panthers
This year's Bruins are a team like a few others. They smashed regular season records on their way to posting an NHL all-time best 65-12-5 record, winning the President's trophy by more than 20 points. They started the year with a 17-2-0 record and then finished on an 18-4-0 run. There's no reason to think that's going to stop now, the Bruins are surely going to be a tough team battle in any seven-game series.
This is likely not the first-round match-up the Panthers were hoping for but, but that's where they are aligned after a somewhat underwhelming season on the heels of being last year’s President’s Trophy winner. Finding themselves across from the juggernaut Bruins team coming off a historic regular season is a tall task, and this may be the longest odds of any first-round series. All this considered, there is some hope for the Panthers as they’re only 12 months removed from being considered a cup favourite and were hot down the stretch this year winning six of their last eight. The Panthers can also seek solace in the fact that the Bruins only lost twice to only two teams this year: the Ottawa Senators and themselves. If Alex Lyon and Sergei Bobrovsky can steal a couple of games or if the Panthers' bevy of high-end forwards, namely Hart trophy candidate Matthew Tkachuk, captain Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe can keep the pressure on Boston, they just might be able to pull off one of the biggest upsets in NHL playoff history.
Overall, I think the Panthers are better than people think, but to go against the Bruins who are headlined by Hart trophy candidate David Pastrnak, Vezina front-runner Linus Ullmark, and perennial Selke candidate Patrice Bergeron feels foolish. Let alone in the first round against a frankly inconsistent and at times suspect Panthers team, could they steal a game? Sure, they could but upsetting the Bruins is quite unlikely.
The pick - Bruins in 5
Toronto Maple Leafs Vs Tampa Bay Lightning
Here we are again, another tough first-round matchup for the Leafs and the exact same mountain they so narrowly failed to climb last year, losing to Tampa in seven games. This season feels different though as it finally seems the toll of going to three consecutive Stanley Cup finals has affected Tampa. It really seemed to show in the later portion of the season as Tampa finished with a 9-13-2 record since March, while going 0-2-1 against the Leafs during the regular season. Despite this, due to the presence of Andrei Vasilevskiy and much of the same core as the last few seasons, the Lightning cannot be discounted. This and their past first-round failures puts the pressure on the Leafs, especially their quartet of elite forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares to produce early and often.
While this feels like a series that could swing either way, especially if Vasilevskiy has another primetime playoff run in his bag, this year it feels like the Leafs have another element to their game. If their trade acquisitions can deliver, not just former Selke and Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly, but also depth forwards Noel Acciari, and Sam Lafferty plus blueline additions Jake McCabe and Luke Schenn, it seems time for the Leafs to finally win a series, although don’t count on The Lightning to roll over.
The pick - Leafs in 6
Carolina Hurricanes Vs New York Islanders
At the midpoint of the season, I was really high on the Hurricanes. Their speed, smarts, and good but not great goaltending looked a lot like the Avalanche that went all the way last year. I still think the Canes are a genuine threat to make a run in these playoffs as they have a good balance of veterans and younger players, but the losses of Max Pacioretty and especially Andrei Svechnikov worry me a little even though the Canes have the depth to try and compensate. The Islanders are a different story as they feel like they are a piece or two short of being a true contender. They do have Ilya Sorokin who is easily the main reason the Islanders squeaked into the playoffs in the first place and likely was the key reason the Islanders have the fifth-best goals-against average in the NHL this season (2.65). The Vezina trophy candidate is no joke and easily could be the biggest factor in this series.
Are the Islanders capable of shocking the Canes and grinding out some blue-collar low-scoring victories over Carolina? I could see it and Sorokin is definitely the kind of goalie who can straight-up steal games for you, so if he's on his game the Hurricanes are going to have a hard time getting many pucks past him. Despite this I'm still leaning towards the Carolina in this series, they have good balance, depth and playoff experience, plus they’re coached by one of the best in the game in Rod Brind'Amour
The pick - Hurricanes in 6
New Jersey Devils Vs New York Rangers
Few people, myself included, expected the Devils would be as good as they have in the season, missing the top spot in the Metro division by just a single point. These aren't the Devils we used to know either, this Devil's team is young, fast and has a nose for the net. They also reeled in perhaps the deadline's biggest fish in winger Timo Meier, who had 40 goals between the San Jose Sharks and the Devils. Between the pipes, the Devils have Vitek Vanecek who posted a stellar 33-11-0 record this year, alongside a solid .911 save percentage and a 2.45 goals-against average in 52 appearances this season.
Vanecek doesn't have to stand on his head for the Devils to win this series, he just has to limit the number of goals and come through in the clutch moments, something that seems quite possible. The Rangers aren't going to make it easy, as they were one of the most active teams at the trade deadline picking up star wingers Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane, who both have playoff pedigree to add to their already dangerous lineup. The Rangers also possessed superstar goaltender Igor Shesterkin, whose play wasn't quite up to its usual standard this year, yet he still managed a 37-13-8 record, a .916 save percentage and a 2.48 GAA.
I think this was the hardest series to pick for me, I definitely see it going the distance and would not be surprised to see either team come out of it. The Rangers are 1-2-1 against the Devils this season, but three of those were before their deadline pickups. This series feels likely to come down to the goaltending, if Shesterkin can play at his peak level the Rangers will pull out. Currently, though I’m slightly leaning towards Devils as I think their youth and speed will be an asset.
The pick - Devils in 7
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By: Chase Howard

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