2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs Bandwagon Guide: Eastern Conference Edition

After taking a look at the Western Conference teams yesterday, today’s rooting guide will sneak a peek at the Eastern Conference qualifiers. With the last three Stanley Cup champions emerging from the Metropolitan Division, the rest of the league will be hard pressed to wrestle the Cup away from one of the five teams that made the dance this season.

Unlike the Western Conference teams, most of the East’s playoff teams have rivalry history with the Rangers, so finding a team to actively root for might be an exercise in futility for residents of Rangerstown. Last year’s eastern playoffs featured three unrootable teams, two that probably made your skin crawl, and three teams with fun, conscious-free rootability for Blueshirts fans. In spite of that, let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference playoff qualifiers for the 2019 playoffs:

Tampa Bay Lightning:

After dropping Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on home ice last season, the Lightning went into the offseason with a bitter taste in their month, similar to the one they had handed the Rangers three years prior. Since October, the Lightning have been playing like a team possessed, and their record bears that out.

They tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins in a single season, posting a record of 62-16-4. The 21 point difference between them and the 2nd place Calgary Flames is the same difference between Calgary and t-18th place Panthers and Coyotes. Nikta Kucherov became the first player to score over 125 points since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr did so during that same 95-96 campaign. The first full season after acquiring J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh from the Rangers became one of the greatest regular season performances in NHL history for Tampa Bay, and expectations are unparalleled.

The Lightning boast five former Rangers on their team, as Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman, and Dan Girardi will join Miller and McDonagh for a run at the greatest trophy in sports. Even if seeing former Rangers celebrate a championship is the last thing you want to watch,  Rangers fans have plenty of incentive to root for Tampa otherwise. If the Lightning win another 16 games, they 2nd round pick they owe New York in exchange for McDonagh and Miller will convert to the 31st selection of the 1st round, granting Jeff Gorton more ammo to add to the prospect pool, or move around the draft board as necessary. With no other major draft pick considerations in the East, the Lightning are the team that rational Rangers fans will be rooting for throughout the spring.

Boston Bruins

For the second consecutive season, the Bruins finished 2nd in the Atlantic Division to the Lightning, and have once again earned a first round bye drawn an opening round matchup hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs. This marks the third time in seven years that these Original Six rivals will clash in the first round, and if the last two meetings are a sign of things to come, the 2019 edition of this series will be another exciting series.

The usual cast of characters will look to end the city of Boston’s championship drought. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak will lead the group of men dawning the Spoked B onto the ice at TD Garden, and they’ll look to add the first championship banner to the city’s resume for the first time since February 2019. If not for the juggernaut Lightning that likely await them in the divisional finals, the Bruins would be as good a pick as any to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. However, with the NHL’s best team looming on the horizon, and a Maple Leafs team that can hang with them on the docket for now, the Bruins are in for some tough sledding.

Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin got the Stanley Cup ring he deserved last season, and finally added the last important piece to what will be a first-ballot induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame upon his retirement. Fortunately for Rangers fans, that means there’s significantly more reason to root for the Capitals to crash and burn as soon as possible this spring.

Washington’s trade deadline acquisition of Carl Hagelin adds a former Ranger to the mix, but Hagelin is already a two-time Stanley Cup champion thanks to his stint in Pittsburgh. Tom Wilson is still on the team, and he earned a shiny $31 million contract extension to boot. Washington’s first round opponent is arguably the most popular bandwagon neutral fans will be hopping on this spring, adding more reason to wish for the Capitals to follow last year’s Cup run with a quick exit this year. Fandom is fickle, and comes from being “fanatics” for a reason, but if you’re a Rangers fan, there aren’t any good reasons to root for the Capitals to repeat.

New York Islanders

In case you missed it, the Islanders watched their franchise pillar, John Tavares, string them along for six months heading into 2018 free agency. They came to an agreement to play half of their home games at the Nassau Colosseum, Tavares’ preferred arena over the Barclays Center. They brought in Hockey Men™ Barry Trotz and Lou Lamoriello to bring more respectability to an organization that’s been playing third fiddle to the Rangers and Devils for a quarter of a century. They offered Tavares more money than any other team, and extended him an eight year deal that only they could. In the end, here’s a visual representation of how that turned out for the Islanders:

In spite of Tavares’ return home, the Islanders returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2016 this spring. Looking to record their 2nd playoff series victory in 26 years, they make up one half of a series Rangers fans might want to root for team meteor as opposed to either of the hockey teams skating against each other. If you had to pick one team, don’t ever pick the Islanders. Ever. For any reason. Ever.

Toronto Maple Leafs

In 2016, the 3rd place St. Louis Blues had to grind out a seven game series against the 5th place, defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, and travel into Dallas to take on the 2nd place Stars and scratch and claw their way to another seven game series victory just to make it out of their divisional bracket.

In 2017, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ reward for being the 2nd best team in the NHL was a first round matchup with the league’s 4th best Columbus Blue Jackets, followed by a trip into Washington for a seven game deathmatch against the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals to earn a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Last year, the 2nd place Winnipeg Jets drew a similarly daunting path, having to face 8th place Minnesota and 1st place Nashville en route to the Western Conference Finals. The NHL’s divisional playoff has produced asinine playoff roads for four years running now, with Toronto (7th) drawing the short straw this season. Their hypothetical road to the final four will likely need to pass through Boston (3rd) and Tampa Bay (1st), while a team like Nashville (8th) will sit at home for the first two rounds and welcome in lesser squads like Dallas (15th) and one of Winnipeg (10th) or St. Louis (12th)

Led by young guns Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and friends, the Maple Leafs have the offensive firepower to keep up with any team in the league. They play an exciting brand of offense-first hockey, and are the polar opposite of Bruce Cassidy’s Bruins. In spite of their tough draws, the Maple Leafs will be part of entertaining series throughout their stay in the postseason.

Pittsburgh Penguins

For the 13th consecutive season, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the Pittsburgh Penguins  have earned spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and they’ll once again look to solidify their era as the next dynasty in hockey. No teams has won three Stanley Cups in a four year span since the Edmonton Oilers did it on two separate occasions throughout the 1980s, and the Penguins are looking to change that with a slightly different cast of characters this time around.

Depth defenseman like Matt Hunwick, Jamie Oleksiak, and Chad Ruhwedel have either been shipped away or phased out of the lineup, replaced by rugged, rough and tumble defensive stalwarts like Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson. Secondary scoring from the likes of Daniel Sprong, Conor Sheary, Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan, and the aforementioned Hagelin is gone, with a new wave of forwards like Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann, and Marcus Pettersson filling the void. Of the 24 players from the 2017 championship roster, less than half of them remain. If the Penguins and Islanders can combine for the same level of exciting hockey they played six springs ago, this will be an entertaining series no matter who wins.

Carolina Hurricanes

If the Lightning are the obvious team for Rangers fans to root for in the Atlantic bracket, then the Hurricanes are the equally obvious favorite in the Metropolitan bracket. When Carolina last made the playoffs in 2009, they were captained by Rod Brind’Amour. Since their run to the Eastern Conference Finals a decade ago, Brind’Amour ceded the “C” to Eric Staal, had his #17 retired by the franchise, and worked his way up from assistant coach to the team’s head coach this past season.

Brind’Amour’s steady hand (along with capable goaltending for the first time in forever) helped energize a fanbase in Raleigh in desperate need of a jolt. Last summer’s offseason swap of Elias Lindholm and former 3rd overall selection Noah Hanifin for Calgary’s Michael Ferland and Dougie Hamilton turned out to be the rare trade that both teams won, and  Carolina’s core of young forwards finally blossomed.

Sebastian Aho topped a point per game, and Teuvo Teravainen wasn’t far behind, posting 76 points in 82 games. 2018 2nd overall selection Andrei Svechnikov potted 20 goals as a teenager, and mid-season acquisition Nino Niederreiter provided the secondary scoring Carolina has lacked in years past. These bunch of jerks are set to tangle with the defending Stanley Cup champions Capitals in the opening round, and they have more than enough firepower to continue writing their fairy tale season.

Columbus Blue Jackets

For a team slated to make only two selections at the NHL upcoming Entry Draft in June, the Blue Jackets are staring down the barrel of a long, painful offseason. The Blue Jackets, who had already swapped their 2nd, 5th, and 6th round picks, loaded up at the trade deadline by trading away six draft picks, including their 1st, 4th, and 7th round selections this June to rent Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Keith Kinkaid, and former Ranger Adam McQuaid. With franchise pillars Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky set to enter unrestricted free agency this summer, the 2019 playoff represent one last, best hope for the Blue Jackets to bring home a Stanley Cup.

Unfortunately, their first round opponent is the NHL’s most dominant regular season team in over two decades. If the Blue Jackets shock the hockey world and upset the Lightning in their opening round series, than the sky is the limit for this them. NHL general managers are more conservative with their draft picks in today’s NHL, so seeing the Blue Jackets be rewarded for their risk-taking with a deep postseason run would be satisfying. Columbus’ performance also has small ramifications on the Rangers’ draft capital. As the owners of the Blue Jackets’ 4th and 7th round selections, Rangers fans have even more reason to root for Tampa Bay to roll into the divisional finals.

In the Metropolitan bracket, the Carolina Hurricanes are the only team Blueshirts’ fans don’t have any reason to actively root against. In the Atlantic bracket, a Stanley Cup victory for the Lightning would give the Rangers an additional first round selection to use as ammo to move around the draft board as they please. Unlike the Western Conference, the rooting interests in the Eastern Conference are pretty cut and dry for Rangers fans.