After taking look at what the Western Conference playoff teams had to offer yesterday, today comes the hard part. Of the seven Eastern Conference teams looking to stop the Pittsburgh Penguins from a third consecutive Stanley Cup championship, Rangers fans likely hold some degree of animosity towards most, if not all of them. For those of you able to put aside past playoff defeats and ill-wishes towards former Blueshirts, the Eastern Conference is set for four exciting first round matchups, and plenty of opportunity for a new Eastern Conference champion to emerge. With all that said, let’s get right down to it:
Tampa Bay Lightning
There isn’t much gray area for Rangers’ fans and how far they want the Lightning to go this spring. Objectively speaking, Tampa Bay winning their second Stanley Cup in franchise history is the best possible outcome for New York, as it guarantees that they’ll receive Tampa’s 2019 1st round pick as the final component of their blockbuster trade.
When it comes down to it, rooting for logos and colors on sweaters is anything but objective and logical. The presence of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, Ryan Callahan, and J.T. Miller on Jon Cooper’s bench will be what sways nearly every Rangers fan’s opinion on how far they want the Lightning to go. Aside from them, the team has a cavalcade of talented players to root for. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Blueshirt Banter’s favorite son Alex Killorn are among the cast of players looking to finish the job Tampa couldn’t three years ago. Getting to see guys like Girardi and Callahan lift the greatest trophy in sports would be a nice consolation prize for some For others, it’d be their worst nightmare.
After a few years mired in mediocrity following the 2013-14 season, the Bruins have re-established themselves as one of the NHL’s elite teams. In spite of throwing away a chance at home ice for the first three playoff rounds, Boston still looks poised to remind the NHL why they were the most dangerous team through the first half of the 2010’s. As a proud representative of the City of Champions, the Bruins are on a quest to bring the city of Boston their 11th major professional championship since the turn of the century.
With former Ranger Rick Nash set to re-join the lineup after battling a concussion down the stretch, Bruce Cassidy’s squad is getting healthy at the right time. Nash will be re-joining a lineup with a solid mix of tantalizing young talents such as Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and David Pastrnak, and wily veterans looking to win their second Cup in Beantown with Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, and David Krejci headlining that list. Similar to the Sharks, a Bruins’ Cup victory offers hope for the Rangers that all they need is an effective re-tool in order to return to prominence. Boston’s three year “down period” saw them win 41, 42, and 44 games respectively while holding onto their nucleus of players who still remained from the 2011 Cup Championship. In spite of the historical New York-Boston rivalry, there’s plenty of reason for Rangers fans to be satisfied with the Bruins going all the way.
After a successful regular season featuring a Metropolitan Division title and a Rocket Richard Trophy for franchise icon Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals find themselves in a familiar position. While they may not be a top-tier Stanley Cup pick like they were in 2016 and 2017, the Capitals are (arguably undeservedly) favored to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. Their organizational cycle seems to be on track to finish as expected, and if they couldn’t get over the hump during the previous two years of having a stacked roster, it’s hard to imagine this season’s demonstrably weaker iteration of the Capitals getting the job done.
Every year the Capitals underachieve is another summer of Ovechkin-centric hot takes, such as saying both sides would benefit from The Great Eight taking his talents across the pond. On the other hand, every year Washington lets Ovechkin down is another year the old boys club of the NHL gets to stick their head in the sand and take credit away from the greatest pure goal scorer in league history. Overall, there’s plenty of reason to be satisfied with Washington going all the way or crashing and burning out in the first round, Pick your poison.
Toronto Maple Leafs
While the Bruins and Lightning appear to be on a collision course for a second round meeting, the Maple Leafs and their cavalcade of young players might have something to say about that. After embarking on what many surrounding the team saw as a full season of tanking in 2015-16, Toronto has made the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in the post-lockout era. Led by young guns Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner, the Maple Leafs will look to build on their experience of getting ousted by the Washington Capitals last spring.
Of all of the Eastern Conference playoff qualifiers, the Maple Leafs arguably have the least amount of reasons for Rangers fans to root against them. Their fanbase is another issue, but the longer Toronto sticks around, the more exciting hockey viewers will get to enjoy. Although it’s an unlikely scenario, there’s also something to be said for the possibility of the Maple Leafs knocking off both Boston and Tampa Bay and earning a spot in the Conference Finals. This would assure that the 1st Round selections the Rangers receive are no worse than 26th and 27th, although the difference between a late 20’s pick and an early 30’s selection is marginable. Of the four teams in the Atlantic bracket, Toronto is a sensible bandwagon for Rangers fans to hop on.
For the third consecutive year, the Penguins are entering the playoffs after a slow start to the season where they flirted with missing the playoffs entirely before playing their best hockey down the stretch and earning home ice in the first round. Pittsburgh’s entire path through the Eastern Conference playoffs appears to be one of “who do you hate less?”, with Philadelphia, Washington, and one of Tampa or Boston being the teams they’ll most likely face.
The two-time defending champions have seen massive roster turnover over the last 12 months, as 10 of the 25 players who skated in last year’s playoffs have found homes elsewhere. In spite of that, the Penguins brought back a strong group of players in their quest for hockey’s first three-peat since the Islanders dynasty of the early 80’s. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel will be joined by a healthy Kristopher Letang, former Rangers’ playoff hero Derick Brassard, and more. Seeing Brassard win the Cup would be nice, but at the cost of solidifying the Crosby/Malkin era Penguins as a dynasty is it worth it? Probably not.
It’s been six years since the Penguins and Flyers crossed paths in the playoffs, and the more things change, the more they stay the same. Flyers’ superstar Claude Giroux outscored Sidney Crosby throughout the season once again, and Sam Carchidi’s revelation in the playoff series six springs ago looks as intelligent today as it was back then:
Again: I think a national TV audience saw Crosby pass baton to Giroux as NHL's best player. #NotAHomer #Flyers #Pens— Sam Carchidi (@BroadStBull) April 23, 2012
Crosby will have a chance to reclaim the torch from Giroux, but that’s about all the entertainment this series can provide for Blueshirts’ fans. Watching Philly and Pittsburgh go at each other for seven games will be fun, but it’s hard to actively root for a winner in this series. The city of Philadelphia already hit their quota for championships this decade, while watching the Penguins win another Cup doesn’t make things much worse than they already are. On the other hand, seeing how the city of brotherly love handled their last championship makes you think a Flyers Cup parade and the fallout from it wouldn’t be the worst thing the world has seen.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Much like Toronto in the Atlantic bracket, it’s hard to argue against Columbus as the easiest team for Rangers fans to cheer for in the Metropolitan side of the playoffs. Unlike Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington, the Rangers hardly have an established rivalry with the Blue Jackets. While the days of Columbus being nothing more than “Rangers Midwest” are over, the team still has some holdovers from New York’s previous era. John Tortorella has led Columbus to the franchise’s first ever consecutive playoff berths, and the man who should have been New York’s 26th captain is still kicking in Columbus nearly six years since being dealt in a package for Rick Nash.
Aside from Tortorella and Dubinsky, the Blue Jackets have a handful of exciting players. Artemi Panarin proved himself as one of the league’s elite talents this season, stepping out of the shadow of Patrick Kane and outproducing Chicago’s franchise player. Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, and Thomas Vanek are among the handful of Columbus’ top guns looking to lead the franchise to their first playoff series victory. While they might not stack up against the juggernauts of the league on paper, watching the Blue Jackets go on a deep run would be a great story throughout the hockey world.
New Jersey Devils
Taylor Hall emerged as an MVP candidate this season, and almost single handedly carried the Devils into the playoffs, and the reactions from certain parts of hockey media have been hilarious. Imagine the storylines if Hall carries them to a championship? As hilarious as they would be, the Devils are that team people will look back on in five years and not even remember they squeaked into the playoffs by a single point.
There really isn’t much to say here. There’s absolutely zero reason you, as a Rangers fan, should be rooting for New Jersey. Sure, seeing Hall and former Ranger Michael Grabner enjoy some success might be nice in a vacuum, but not at the expense of a deep run for the Devils. Even if you wanted to root for them, the Devils are cannon fodder for a stacked Lightning team that probably already has their eyes on the Atlantic Division Finals. The NHL normally strays away from awarding byes to their top ranked regular season teams, but that’s exactly what happened for each conference’s top seed this season. New Jersey’s quick exit from the playoffs will earn the Rangers the 48th pick in the Entry Draft, barring a Cindarella run from the Colorado Avalanche.
That about sums up the sixteen playoff teams, and why you should root for them. As for me, I’ll be rooting for Winnipeg and Tampa Bay as my top picks from each conference. With that said, I hope you enjoy the best two months the world of sports has to offer from now until the middle of June.