NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

As a hockey fan, there is no time of year like when the NHL playoffs roll around. If you haven’t taken in some playoff games before, I strongly urge you to do so. The level of intensity is ratcheted up to ‘Maximum’ for every game, every period and every shift. Every player on each team has a deep belief that this year is the year his squad will raise Lord Stanley’s Cup—that belief shows in the games. To that end, I will be doing an NHL playoff preview for both the Eastern Conference and the West, beginning with the East.

Read the Western Conference NHL Playoffs Preview

#1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #8 New York Islanders

NHL Playoffs Preview
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc Andre Fleury makes a save during the third period against the Carolina Hurricanes at the CONSOL Energy Center The Pittsburgh Penguins won 8 3 Charles LeClaire USA TODAY Sports

Tale of the Tape

Pittsburgh: 36-12 (72 points); 3.38 goals for/game (1st); 2.48 goals against/game (12th) ; 1027 PDO

Islanders: 24-17-7 (55 points); 2.81 goals for/game (7th); 2.83 goals against/game (21st); 988 PDO

This appears to be a lopsided match-up on paper. The Penguins took the season series 3-1 and outscored the Islanders 12-3 in the three wins.  Not only that, but with Evegni Malkin and James Neal returning to the lineup recently and Sidney Crosby expected to be back at some point during the Islanders series (in my own personal estimation), the Penguins are getting healthy at the right time.

Advanced statistics say the match-up is closer than people may realize. The Islanders (52.07%) have a better Fenwick Close% than the Penguins do (50.28%). For those unfamiliar, Fenwick Close% is the possession rate of a team when the score is deemed ‘close’, or when it is a one-goal game in the first or second period or tied in the third period. This gives us a good indication of who plays well when the game is close, which is what playoff hockey is all about.

Goaltending will be key in this series like it was in the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia series last year. To refresh everyone, there were 56 goals scored that series. It wasn’t the goalie that necessarily played the best but the goalie that was able to play less-worse, if that makes sense. Evgeni Nabokov has not lost in regulation since March and had a .928 save percentage in the month of April for the Islanders. He and Islanders were on a tear to finish the season, while Marc-André Fleury limped into playoffs with a .912 SV% in the final month of the regular season.

Fenwick Close% and goaltending aside, I’m not going crazy here. Pittsburgh has elite level talent at all skating positions and Fleury is playing well enough to not lose this series (I think). The Islanders are a team trending in the right direction but this is probably the one match-up that is bad for them in the East: another fast-skating, high-skill team with suspect goaltending.

Prediction: Penguins in five games.

#2 Montréal Canadiens vs. #7 Ottawa Senators 

NHL Playoffs Preview
Montreal Canadiens goaltender Peter Budaj 30 and forward Max Pacioretty 67 and forward Brian Gionta 21 celebrate a win against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre Montreal defeated Toronto 4 1 John E Sokolowski USA TODAY Sports

Tale of the Tape

Montréal: 29-14-5 (63 points); 3.04 goals for/game (4th); 2.58 goals against/game (14th); 1006 PDO

Ottawa: 25-17-6 (56 points); 2.33 goals for/game (27th); 2.08 goals against/game (2nd); 1002 PDO

In the preseason, there’s no way anyone had Montréal winning their division this year. After Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza and Craig Anderson all went down with injuries by the end of February, most people had written off any hope of Ottawa making the playoffs. Despite all this, here we are with our only all-Canadian match-up of the first round.

This is going to be a series of two very different styles of play. Ottawa plays much tighter-checking game with the focus on minimizing turnovers, capitalizing on opportunities and relying on stellar goaltending – their .933 team save percentage was first in the NHL and it wasn’t even close. Montréal plays a fast 200 foot game that looks to score a good chunk of their goals on the power-play.

Special teams will be a huge factor in this series. Montréal had the fifth-best regular season power-play efficiency while Ottawa was just 20th. On the flip side, Ottawa had the best penalty kill in the regular season while Montréal was 23rd. With Montréal scoring 29% of all their goals on the power-play this year, this should be a point of focus for Ottawa. If Ottawa can avoid taking minor penalties and kill off the ones they do take, it will be a tall order for Montréal to overcome.

At the end of the day, as with most playoff series, it will come down to the goaltenders. Carey Price looked very shaky down the stretch of the regular season, allowing 21 goals in his final six games which was good for only a .866 SV%. Craig Anderson returned strong from his ankle injury, allowing two goals or less in his final nine games.

This will be a very close series. It is a fair to say that the first team to three goals in any game will probably win that game, with two goals perhaps being enough. In the end, I just don’t see enough top-end talent in Ottawa that will be able to outscore the offensive talent in Montréal. As long as Carey Price doesn’t give away games, the Habs should be fine.

Prediction: Montréal in six games.

#3 Washington Capitals vs. #6 New York Rangers 

NHL Playoffs Preview
New York Rangers center Brad Richards shoots to tie the game against the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period at the PNC center The Rangers defeated the Hurricanes 4 3 in overtime James Guillory USA TODAY Sports

Tale of the Tape

Washington: 27-18-3 (57 points); 3.04 goals for/game (4th); 2.71 goals against/game (18th); 1016 PDO

N.Y. Rangers: 26-18-4 (56 points); 2.63 goals for/game (15th); 2.25 goals against/game (4th); 1004 PDO

Washington started the season 2-8-1. The Rangers only won nine of their first 19 games. Yet here we are, with these two teams who underperformed early on facing off against each other. The talent was always there for both squads but after the terrible starts both had to the season, it wasn’t looking good. However, the Rangers found a way to win some close games (they had eight overtime/shootout wins) and Washington rode the tandem of Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby to a Southeast Division title.

These are two teams who certainly found success down the stretch in the regular season. The Rangers went 7-2 in their final nine games, averaging 3.6 goals/for down that stretch. Now, the quality of competition wasn’t great (seven of those nine games were against non-playoff teams) but it would be more worrisome if they didn’t win those games. Washington was even more impressive over the month of April, going 11-1-1 in their final 13 games and averaged 3.7 goals in their final seven games.

You might look at the goaltending match-up of Braden Holtby vs Henrik Lundqvist and see a mismatch and usually you’d be right. Let’s look at how these two goalies fared in the months of March/April

Holtby: 17-5-1; .931 SV% on 737 shots faced

Lundqvist: 16-9-2; .931 SV% on 754 shots faced

So Holtby had an identical save percentage to Lundqvist while facing more shots per game. We all remember how well Holtby played last year in playoffs (.935 SV% in 14 GP) so I don’t see a distinct edge in this department. Both teams are scoring coming into the playoffs so that doesn’t seem to be much of an issue either.

I see the edge on the blueline. The Rangers are a plus possession team while Washington is not and a lot of this has to do with the defensemen. The Rangers had four defensemen play at least 15 games and have a positive On-Ice Corsi while Washington had just two such players in Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy. Also, the Capitals had four defensemen play at least 30 games and have a sub-50% offensive zone start. What that tells us is they spend a lot of time in their own end (obvious by the minus-possession factor).

When two teams are evenly matched, you start splitting hairs. The only distinct advantage I see is on the blue line. When the only difference is defensemen, expect a close series.

Prediction: Rangers in seven games.

#4 Boston Bruins vs #5 Toronto Maple Leafs 

NHL Playoffs Preview
Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara skates near the crease during the third period of a NHL game against the Florida Panthers Mandatory Credit Winslow Townson USA TODAY Sports

Tale of the Tape

Boston: 28-14-6 (62 points); 2.65 goals for/game (13th); 2.21 goals against/game (3rd); 1008 PDO

Toronto: 26-17-5 (57 points); 3.02 goals for/game (6th); 2.67 goals against/game (17th); 1032 PDO

I really want people to pay attention to that PDO number. The Maple Leafs are shooting 11% as a team on the season while somehow still managing a .917 team save percentage (good for T-7th in the NHL). That might not seem shocking to some, good teams score and play good defense, right? Well, Toronto had the second-worst shot ratio in the NHL at -5.9, barely edging Edmonton at -6.0. More? Ok. Scoring chances through 36 games show us that on an average night, a Kessel-Bozak-vanRiemsdyk line combination would lead to a scoring chance differential of nearly -6. For you Leafs fans, I don’t need to tell you how poorly they played during the final stretch of the year, either.

I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on the Leafs (I kind of am) but this team is an anomaly. Sure, anomalies sometimes find success in the playoffs (ahem, 2010 Canadiens) but the vast majority of the time, they do not. Oddly enough, I thought James Reimer was their one glaring weakness coming into the season. Reimer had a better even-strength save percentage (.924) than goalies like Carey Price, Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur. Not bad.

Those big bad Bruins, they’re something else. This team is good; they had the fourth-best Fenwick Close% in the NHL this year and the second-best team SV%, tied with Chicago at .923. Their problem is scoring; the team shooting% was 8%, which was around middle of the pack. This became even more obvious down the final stretch of games, where Boston managed to score more than two goals once in their final nine games (a 3-0 win over Florida) and won just two of those nine.

I’d be more worried about Boston if there was not a track record. However, the core of this team won the Cup in 2011 and they know what playoff hockey is all about. They were also shot/possession monsters: Not a single Boston defenseman had an On-Ice Corsi below +5, which is absolutely astounding. For a reference, every single one of Toronto’s defensemen were a negative Corsi (incidentally, Jake Gardiner was their best defenseman in terms of shot production.) The top line of Marchand/Seguin/Bergeron was among the best in hockey (all top-7 among forwards in On-Ice Corsi) and Chara/Hamilton were both in the top-10 among defensemen in this regard.

The decided advantage in this series goes to Boston.

Prediction: Boston in five games.

I have Pittsburgh winning the East this year. Good luck in your fantasy hockey playoffs everyone and stay tuned for my Western Conference Preview tomorrow!

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