With the true first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs set to kick off tonight, it’s time to examine the eight Eastern Conference teams still standing within the Toronto bubble. For the first time since 2017, the Rangers participated in some form of postseason hockey during the qualifying round. However, their defensive issues and horrid forward depth reared its ugly head as soon as the games began, and the team was promptly swept out of Toronto. David Quinn’s squad was the only one of the sixteen participants to fail to win a single game in the qualifying round, so Blueshirts fans will have eight other teams to focus on this summer.
After losing Game 7 of last year’s Stanley Cup Finals in deflating fashion on home ice, the Bruins came into this season looking to rebound from their heartbreaking ending, and rebound they sure did. By the time the regular season was finished, the Bruins stood as the only team to reach the 100 point mark in the standings, and secured their first Presidents Trophy since the 2013-2014 campaign. However, the team failed to win a game during the round robin phase of the playoffs, and have ended up as the #4 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.
Much like last year, Boston’s superstar players were the driving force behind their success. David Pastrnak broke out to the tune of a 48 goal season to tie with Alex Ovechkin for the league lead, Brad Marchand continued his ascent to superstardom, and Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug led Boston’s back end attack. The trade deadline acquisitions of Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase helped shore up the team’s questionable forward depth, and the Bruins have settled in as one of the deepest teams in the league. Former Blueshirt defender John Moore has settled in as a spare part on the team, but he serves as the only connection between the two squads.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning rolled into the 2019 playoffs as one of the best teams the NHL had seen since the days of the Detroit Red Wings trotting out lineups that had more future Hall of Famers than not on them. A 62 win regular season turned into a nightmare postseason journey that ended nearly as soon as it started. Jon Cooper’s squad was swept out of the playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the shocking result gave way to one of the most odd end of season acknowledgements a team has made in professional sports:
We don’t have any words and we know you don’t want to hear them.— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) April 17, 2019
We understand your anger, your frustration, your sadness. Everything you’re feeling – we get it.
This isn’t the ending we imagined, and certainly not the one we wanted. Thank you for being there the entire way.
Without the lofty expectations they dealt with last season, Tampa Bay is back and ready to do some damage. Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow were brought in at the trade deadline to add some forward depth, while the team also inked former Atlanta Thrasher Zach Bogosian to a contract following his acrimonious exit from Buffalo earlier this season. For all of the regular season success Tampa has achieved, being on the wrong end of another playoff upset could cause heads to roll. It’ll be up to Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and former Rangers’ captain Ryan McDonagh to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Following Pittsburgh and Nashville’s failure to make it into the first round of the playoffs, the Capitals now own the longest active streak of postseason appearances. Although Alex Ovechkin’s 48 goals lead the league, the 19 assists he posted that he didn’t led his team in scoring. That distinction goes to Norris Trophy favorite John Carlson, who tallied a 15-60-75 stat line in 69 games. Jakub Vrana, TJ Oshie, Tom Wilson and friends provided all the secondary scoring Washington needed, while former Ranger Carl Hagelin chipped in 25 points as well.
The Capitals changed the makeup of their team with two intriguing additions at the trade deadline. Brendan Dillon was brought in from San Jose to add some snarl alongside Radko Gudas on the blue line, while Ilya Kovalchuk continued his career revival after arriving in our nation’s capital following stops in Los Angeles and Montreal earlier this season.
A 3rd place finish in the round robin means Washington has drawn a rematch with the New York Islanders. These two teams last met during the 2015 Metropolitan Division semifinals, and they played out a seven game slugfest for the right to be the Rangers’ opponent in the divisional finals. This is a series where no Ranger fan should root for either team, so let’s take a look at some other franchises vying for the Prince of Wales Trophy.
This year’s Flyers have some similarities to the Rangers team that made their run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Years of being decent enough to make the playoffs consistently and bow out early but never good enough to make deep runs resulted in a coaching change in Philadelphia last summer.
Enter Alain Vigneault, the winningest coach in New York Rangers history this side of World War II. Vigneault took a team that hadn’t won more than 42 games since 2011-12 and coached them to a 41-21-7 record before the regular season was stopped. The Flyers were a single point behind Washington for the Metropolitan Division lead, and emerged from the round robin as the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Flyers had to overcome Oskar Lindblom’s bone cancer diagnosis in December, and the rest of Lindblom’s teammates played with passion for the remainder of the season. Travis Konecny emerged as a star, matching his career high in goals and setting new highs in assists and points in the pandemic shortened season. Kevin Hayes’ arrival gave the Flyers center depth behind Sean Couturier that they previously lacked, and Alain Vigneault made the most out of the player he knows so well from their time in New York. They might not be the best pound for pound team in the East like their seeding says, but Vigneault’s Jack Adams nomination is well deserved for his team’s performance this year.
A surprising run to the Eastern Conference Final last spring put the Hurricanes on the map for the rest of the NHL, and they solidified their status as one of the beasts of the east throughout the season and qualifying round. Although they were in a Wild Card spot once again when the regular season concluded, Carolina was one of the most puck dominant teams in the league. The team was 3rd in Corsi For% and 7th in Expected Goals For%, and Rangers fans got a firsthand view of how dominant the Hurricanes can be during their qualifying round sweep of the Blueshirts.
Carolina’s top guns dominated New York, as Sebastian Aho and Andrei Sevechnikov combined for six goals and seven assists in their sweep. Those two were joined by Teuvo Teravainen as the Hurricanes’ 60+ point scorers during the regular season, and now they’ll look to dominate the Boston Bruins in a grudge match of last year’s Conference Finals meeting. Boston swept Carolina out of the playoffs and earned the right to represent the East in the Cup Finals, but with Carolina riding high and Boston failing to win a single round robin game, look for this series to be more intriguing than last spring’s one sided affair.
As for draft pick implications, the Rangers will receive the Hurricanes’ first round selection as a result of the Brady Skjei trade. A repeat trip to the Conference Finals means that Carolina’s selection would be no higher than 28th, so Blueshirts fans should be rooting for these bunch of jerks to bow out of the playoffs prior to that point.
New York Islanders
After being on the giving and receiving ends of sweeps last spring, the Islanders have returned to the playoffs in search of their first Conference Finals berth since 1993. I wasn’t even alive at that point, so it’s been quite some time since Islanders fans have gotten to experience a deep playoff run. Barry Trotz’s squad disposed of the Florida Panthers in the qualifying round in order to qualify for the tournament, with trade deadline acquisition Jean-Gabriel Pageau scoring three times en route to leading the team in goal scoring, while former Ranger Derick Brassard notched a pair of assists.
The Islanders and Capitals are set to clash in yet another series that will see Blueshirts fans rooting for a meteor to strike Scotiabank Arena while these two are on the ice. Getting to see Brassard match up with Carl Hagelin could be something to watch, as the two were part of an unbreakable trio of friends along with Mats Zuccarello during their time in New York.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Much like the Edmonton Oilers failed to advance into the playoffs that their city is hosting, the Toronto Maple Leafs won’t be participating in the Eastern Conference playoffs taking place in Toronto. Columbus recovered from a spirit breaking Game 4 collapse and knocked the Maple Leafs out of the playoffs with a dominant Game 5 victory, and with that comes yet another grudge match from the 2019 playoffs.
John Tortorella’s squad, a team that saw their three superstar players from last spring move onto greener pastures, are still alive in the battle for the greatest trophy in sports. Meanwhile, Artemiy Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Sergei Bobrovsky will spend the remainder of their summers watching the playoffs from home. After shocking the hockey world with a four game sweep of the Lightning to open the playoffs last season, the Blue Jackets will look to knock Tampa Bay out once again to kickstart their playoff run. They’ll look to rely on stingy defensive play and solid goaltending from Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins to make that happen.
Montreal’s presence in the playoffs is the most ludicrous thing to come from the league’s return to play plan. The Canadiens compiled a 31-31-9 regular season record, and were 24th in the overall standings. Had either New Jersey or Buffalo played and won a single extra game, they would have made the trek to Toronto while Montreal stayed home. Instead, the Canadiens came to the bubble, and Carey Price turned back the clock by giving up only five goals in three wins as Montreal toppled the Pittsburgh Penguins, the league’s 7th overall team.
This group of Canadiens is a very peculiar one. Reminiscent of the Hurricanes prior to last season. The Habs were only a shade behind Vegas in terms of Corsi For% this season, and and trailed Vegas and Tampa only in Expected Goals For%, so they outshot and chanced their opponents on a regular basis. However, horrid shooting percentage and mediocre goaltending left them far out of the playoffs upon conclusion of the regular season. Much like years past, the Habs will go as far as Carey Price carries them.
That wraps up the Eastern Conference teams. Aside from rooting for Carolina to fall before the Conference Finals and lower seeded teams to win and push Carolina’s pick even higher, there’s not much for Rangers fans to root for in the Eastern bracket. Even if a major rival makes a deep playoff run, residents of Rangerstown still have the glow of last night’s draft lottery victory to bask in for now.