The first-round Stanley Cup playoff matchups in the Eastern Conference offer many compelling storylines and exciting series.
The Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings will renew a rivalry that began over 50 years ago when they meet in postseason play for the first time since 1957.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have returned to the playoffs for the second time in franchise history, and their matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins could be the first chapter in what might become an intense Metropolitan Division rivalry over the next few years.
The Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers will continue their spirited rivalry in the teams’ first playoff matchup in 17 years, while the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning will square off in the postseason for the first time since 2004.
Without further ado, here are NESN’s Eastern Conference first-round predictions from Bruins/NHL editor Mike Cole and assistant editor Nicholas Goss.
Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings
Goss: The Bruins have the better goaltender, a deeper blue line and more scoring. They struggled with the Red Wings’ speed in the four regular-season meetings, but the B’s physical style of play should allow them to wear down their opponent over the course of a seven-game series. Detroit’s lack of skill and strength on the blue line, and Henrik Zetterberg’s injury (he likely won’t be ready until end of the series at the earliest) will be too much for the Red Wings to overcome.
Pick: Boston wins 4-1
Cole: The more you look at the matchups, the better you have to feel about the Bruins’ chances. The B’s are better up and down the roster. They have the better goalie. They have the better special teams. The two equalizers, however, could be Detroit’s team speed and head coach Mike Babcock. Much has been made about the Bruins’ struggles with speedy teams, but let’s not forget that Boston had a 3-1 lead over the Maple Leafs last year before Toronto stormed back and the Bruins suddenly began to struggle with the speed. They won’t make that same mistake again this year.
Pick: Boston wins 4-1
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens
Goss: Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop will miss Game 1 with an injury, which is a huge concern. Backup netminder Anders Lindback has 13 minutes of playoff experience and went 8-12 with a .891 save percentage and a 2.90 goals against average during the regular season. Montreal goaltender Carey Price has 30 games of playoff experience and is among the best players at his position. If the Canadiens shut down Steven Stamkos, they will easily win this series because the Lightning lack scoring depth and postseason experience.
Pick: Montreal wins 4-2
Cole: What the Lightning have been able to do this season is remarkable. They lost Steven Stamkos for an extended period of time and traded away a franchise cornerstone in Martin St. Louis. Yet here they are with home-ice advantage. That’s in large part thanks to goalie Ben Bishop, who they’ll be without to start the series. The matchup to watch in this series, though, will be on special teams. The Lightning penalty kill ranked 23rd this season, while the Canadiens’ usually strong power play ranked 19th. I think the unit that shows the most improvement ultimately will win the series. The hunch here is that it will be the Bolts — and home-ice advantage doesn’t hurt, either.
Pick: Tampa Bay wins 4-3
New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Goss: The Rangers win this series if they protect home ice. New York has won eight consecutive games against Philadelphia at Madison Square Garden and outscored its Metro Division rivals 31-9 in that span. The difference will be the play of the goaltenders. Henrik Lundqvist is a proven playoff performer and has much more playoff experience than Steve Mason, who’s 0-4 in his postseason career and posted a mediocre .903 save percentage over the last month of the regular season. The Rangers also are a much better possession team (ranked sixth in corsi-for percentage) than the Flyers, and their blue line has more depth, defensive skill and penalty-killing ability. Unless Lundqvist has a surprisingly awful series, the Blueshirts will advance to Round 2.
Pick: New York wins 4-2
Cole: The question for the Rangers when it comes to the playoffs remains the same: Can they score enough goals to back up Henrik Lundqvist’s tremendous play? The New York goalie has taken a lot of flak for his postseason performances in recent years, but he has posted save percentages of .931 and .934 in the past two playoff runs. New York just couldn’t score in front of him. With a new system in place, you have to think there will be at least a bit of an uptick, especially against an unproven goaltender, and that should be enough for the Rangers to advance.
Pick: New York wins 4-1
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Goss: The Blue Jackets are a feisty team that will outwork the Penguins and wear them down with an effective checking game. Columbus also is a disciplined team with a structured defensive game that possesses the puck better than Pittsburgh, and it has a distinct advantage in net with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky going up against Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins’ inability to play team defense and their lackluster goaltending (Fleury has allowed 43 goals in his last 11 playoff games) will doom them in this series. The Blue Jackets will upset the Metro Division champs if they win the special teams battle, specifically the matchup against the Penguins’ No. 1-ranked power play.
Pick: Columbus wins 4-2
Cole: This will be a very, very interesting series. The Blue Jackets are banged up. Prized free-agent acquisition Nathan Horton is done, while R.J. Umberger and Nick Foligno are nursing injuries of their own. However, the Penguins have a habit of getting a little leaky in the playoffs, especially when Marc-Andre Fleury starts to melt down. If he gives Columbus any sort of opening, they’re a team that can pounce. This series also could be a coming-out party for a player like Ryan Johansen, who has had a fine season. I think the Blue Jackets push the Penguins kind of like the Islanders did last year, but I just think it’s too hard to bet against Pittsburgh in the first round.
Pick: Pittsburgh wins 4-2