2016 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports

The slate has been wiped clean. 1,230 NHL regular season games – 82 apiece for each of the NHL’s 30 teams – are now, ultimately, irrelevant as we head into the 2016 NHL Playoffs where anything can happen. No. 1 seeds can fall, No. 8 seeds can hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup and unlikely heroes can and will emerge to spur their team to dramatic victories over the course of the next two months. 

So now that the first round series’ are set, let’s dive into each of the 16 playoff teams from each conference and discuss why they can win it all, how they can lose and discuss the x-factor that could spur them on to a legendary Stanley Cup playoff run.

The Eastern Conference quite simply lacks the parity that the Western Conference has in this playoffs. Out West any team in the Central Division (Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks) along with the top two teams in the Pacific (Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings) can legitimately be considered favorites to win the conference.

Out East, things are a lot simpler. 

Washington Capitals – 120 Points – 1st Metropolitan Division

The Washington Capitals staked their claim to the Eastern Conference in October and haven’t looked back since. They’re the story out of the East and are the lone heavy favorites, but their well-documented cross to bear is playoff ineptitude for the better part of the millennium. That narrative can disappear in a hurry with deep run to the Stanley Cup Finals. 

Why They Will Win It All

Because the only weakness this team has is its history. From top to bottom the Capitals are stacked. They can roll four lines at you without batting an eye. They can play the rough and tumble game, they can light up the scoreboard, they can play defense and they have a goalie in Braden Holtby that just put together one of the great seasons by a goalie in Capitals and arguably league history at the age of 26. 

Their offseason acquisitions of ‘Mr. Game 7’ Justin Williams and T.J. ‘Sochi’ Oshie – both of whom put up 50-plus points and 22 and 26 goals each, respectively – are the final pieces of the puzzle. Alex Ovechkin will continue to light the lamp, and with new coach Barry Trotz at the helm this team is finally ready to take that final step. 

Why They Won’t Win It All

Because it’s what they do. Seriously though, there are two ways in which this team doesn’t run roughshod over the rest of the Eastern Conference and into the playoffs and that’s the number one reason. If they can’t get out of their own heads and their own way and play like they did during their 120-point, President’s Trophy-winning season and revert to the Capitals of postseasons past, they can lose to anybody. 

The second reason, is injuries. The Caps have been healthy most of the year, but injuries shape series’ in unfortunate ways sometimes. But if the Caps stay healthy, mentally and physically, the East is theirs to lose. 

X-Factor – Justin Williams

Williams brings so much more to this team than just his big-game goal scoring prowess. He brings a winner’s mentality, which is vital to a team that hasn’t been able to win the big games for quite a while. His presence in the locker room will be almost as vital as his presence on the ice for the Caps in their playoff run. 

Pittsburgh Penguins – 104 Points – 2nd Metropolitan Division

What if it turns out that the only thing keeping the Penguins from a cup run all these years has been their unwillingness to fire their coach in the middle of the season? Michel Therrien was jettisoned for Dan Bylsma in 2008-09 and the Pens won it all. This year, it appears that Mike Johnston being fired and Mike Sullivan taking over has had the same effect on the Penguins and they could be poised to repeat 2008-09 once more. 

Why They Will Win It All

Because Sidney Crosby – after an abysmal start to the year – is once again the best player in the world. Because momentum is everything in the NHL Playoffs and no team has been as hot as the Pens over the last month. Also, because speed kills and with the additions of Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel to an already speedy team they’ll be able to give other teams fits throughout the playoffs.

penguins4 2016 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Why They Won’t Win It All

Because they’re banged up at the goalie position. Even if Marc-Andre Fleury does come back from a concussion, he’s not exactly a playoff stalwart in the crease and he’ll be rusty on top of that. Then losing backup goalie Matt Murray to injury has left the Penguins even lighter at the most important position in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh isn’t built on their defense, they’re built on fast-paced play and quick puck moving defensemen starting rushes. They can’t defend well enough to make up for lackluster goaltending, especially when goals are at a premium in the postseason. 

X-Factor – Phil Kessel

The Penguins will likely be without Evgeni Malkin for at least the first few games or their first round series with the Rangers so they’ll need someone to play second-fiddle to Crosby. The onus will fall squarely on Kessel to help provide the Pens with enough firepower to get them past the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist, who have a weak defense as well but a much better netminder behind them than the Penguins do. 

Florida Panthers – 103 Points – 1st Atlantic Division

Underestimate the Panthers at your own risk. After making the playoffs for just the second time in the last 15 years, the Panthers are ready to pounce and prove that they belong in the NHL Playoffs.

Why They Will Win It All

Outside of arguably their best forward, the 44-year-old wonder, Jaromir Jagr, the Panthers are a reasonably young and exciting squad. Lead by talented young centers Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Vincent Trochek on the front end and Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau on the back and complemented by vets like Jagr, Jussi Jokinen, Jiri Hudler and Brian Campbell, the Panthers are a team that cannot be underestimated. 

They were a top 10 team in goals scored and goals against this year and with Roberto Luongo backstopping them they can beat anybody any given night.

Why They Won’t Win It All

The Panthers posted a 48.73 Corsi percentage over the year, which is better than their first round opponent’s (the Islanders – 48.41), but is not going to be good enough to compete with the Capitals or Penguins when push comes to shove. Especially since the Panthers do most of their damage in 5-on-5 play and are weak on both the power play (23rd in the league, 16.9 percent success rate) and penalty kill (79.5 percent, 24th in the league), which is not a recipe for success in the postseason. 

X-Factor – Special Teams

The Panthers simply need their special teams units to step up in the playoffs or they won’t have a shot. Their first round opponents, the Islanders, are the No. 4-ranked penalty killing team in the league and can cause problems for a lackluster Panthers power play. While they may have the edge in 5-on-5 play, their lack of special teams acumen will make or break them.

New York Rangers – 101 Points – 3rd Metropolitan Division

The Rangers have been one of the league’s best teams over the last several years but haven’t looked much like it this go around. Sure, they put up 101 points, but that cushy point total is hiding some glaring issues surrounding a team that’s window may well be closing for a while. 

Why They Will Win It All 

Because Henrik Lundqvist. ‘The King’ has been the Rangers’ savior in tough times for the last 10 seasons and has proven time and again that he can single-handedly will his team to victory. Lundqvist is playoff tested and likely knows that his window for bringing a championship to New York is narrowing each year. If he can muster up the best playoff performance of his illustrious career this postseason, the Rangers have as good a shot as anybody at besting the Capitals.

henrik lundqvist3 2016 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

Elsa/Getty Images

Why They Won’t Win It All

Because this team is somewhat of a mess. Injuries to team captain defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi along with newcomer Eric Staal have weakened a lackluster defensive team eve further. In 5-on-5 play, the Rangers’ Corsi percentage is the lowest out of all 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs at 48.1 percent and their special teams isn’t anything to write home about either. Their power play ranks 14th, but their penalty killing has dropped to 26th in the league. On top of that, their one of the worst teams in the league at the faceoff dot as well, which has contributed to their poor possession numbers and will likely doom them this postseason. 

X-Factor – Rick Nash

Everybody knows what Henrik Lundqvist is going to do. He’s going to be one of the best goalies in the postseason and give his team a chance almost every night with minimal help from his defense. Nash has always been great defensively for the Blueshirts, but they’ll need that scoring touch from the big winger if they’re going to make another serious run at a Stanley Cup. His reputation as “Mr. October” and a playoff bust in New York will likely be cemented if he can’t come through in the clutch for his team this year. Time is ticking for this bunch if it hasn’t already run out. 

New York Islanders – 100 Points – 1st Wild Card

The Islanders had the opportunity to seize the No. 3 slot in the Metropolitan division and didn’t, either by choice or indifference. Either way, they avoided a first round matchup with the Penguins and now will square off against the Panthers for a chance to keep their Stanley Cup dreams alive. 

Why They Will Win It All

Because much like the Capitals, they can roll four lines at you and play whatever style of game you want to play. Want to rough it up? Their fourth line of Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin and Casey Cizikas is one of the most feared and is consistently the move physical in the game. Want to speed things up? Their top six forwards of John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Nikolay Kulemin, Frans Nielsen and Ryan Strome can skate with any in the league. They’re versatile and have a feel for this whole playoff thing after a tough series that they nearly pulled out against the Capitals last year. 

Why They Won’t Win It All

Sure, the Penguins have been red hot, but the Islanders don’t match up well against the Florida Panthers. The Panthers beat the Isles 2-1 in their season series and that was with Jaroslav Halak in net. The Islanders will be without their No. 1 netminder for at least the first round of the playoffs and are turning to 30-year-old journeyman Thomas Greiss to get the job done. While Greiss has been solid for the team since Halak’s injury, he’s played in just part of one playoff game in his entire career. He’s not ready for this stage.

X-Factor – Thomas Greiss

Cinderella goaltending stories do happen and the Islanders will have to hope their goalie is ready to write playoff fairy tale. If Greiss can play even up to Halak’s level before he was hurt, this team has a chance to at least beat the Panthers and hope Halak can come back healthy and ready to go. 

Tampa Bay Lighting – 97 Points – 2nd Atlantic Division

Last year’s Eastern Conference champions are sporting a very different looking roster right now and unfortunately it has nothing to do with any decisions they’ve had to make. Injuries are abundant and so are the questions about whether the Lighting can overcome them this postseason. 

Why They Will Win It All

Because even without Steven Stamkos, Anton Stralman and with a banged up Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman and Ryan Callahan the Lighting are formidable. While they may be well known from last year thanks to their ‘triplets’ line of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, their defense and goaltending have been the pillars of their team this year. Ben Bishop has had a career best year with a 2.06 goals against average and a .926 save percentage en route to a 35-win season. The Lightning are fifth in goals allowed and their penalty killing is among the best in the league, meaning goals are not at a premium against this club. 

They’re not scoring at a ridiculous clip like they did last year as one could expect without Stamkos, but they can still light the lamp. If Bishop can continue his stellar play, the Lightning may just be able to survive until their captain comes back for another run at the Stanley Cup. 

Why They Won’t Win It All

‘The Triplets’ line has regressed this year – or alternatively teams have put an added emphasis on shutting them down. Only Kucherov registered 30 goals of the three while Palat and Johnson didn’t even crack the 20-goal plateau and Johnson could reach 40 points. They were the catalysts for Tampa Bay last year and without their high-flying heroics and without Stamkos the Lightning can’t be expected to compete. 

X-Factor – Victor Hedman

Hedman is as strong and fast as they come on defense and was one of the most exciting players to watch in the NHL Playoffs last year. Hedman had a nice year offensively, which will be key for the Bolts, but he was also defensively responsible and finished the year +/- 21. Without Stralman to his right, he’ll have to step up big time on offense and defense if the Lightning are going to repeat as Eastern Conference champs. 

Philadelphia Flyers – 96 Points – 2nd Wild Card

The Flyers were never bereft enough of talent to fall to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings but nobody in their right mind considered the Flyers to be a playoff team. Sure enough, after a 15-6-2 run to close the year, the Flyers are in the playoffs. Their reward? A first round date with the Washington Capitals. 

Why They Will Win It All

Because momentum, my friends, is the strangest and most powerful of things, especially in the NHL Playoffs. The Flyers are hot. What they have right now is not a tangible formula for winning games or a profusion of talent, they’re just finding ways to win and riding the wave. Steve Mason is playing well, Claude Giroux is carrying his club, Wayne Simmonds has been a force and Shayne Gostisbehere has been nothing short of incredible in his rookie campaign. It’s all going well for Philly right now and they got what they wanted – a chance in the big dance. So, why not? 

flyers4 2016 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Why They Won’t Win It All

Because they’re following in the footsteps of the Ottawa Senators from last year. They’re playing over their heads and are about to run into a bully of a team in Washington. Philly’s hard-nosed mentality and style of play could result in a win or two against the Capitals, but the skill disparity will eventually win out over the momentum the Flyers have on their side. 

X-Factor – Physicality and a Game 1 Win

The Flyers need to strike while the iron’s hot. They need to put doubt into the Caps’ heads immediately and need to do it by getting physical with them from the outset. The only chance the Flyers have of beating the Caps is turning the the Caps into a shell of themselves. If they can do that and get the performance of Mason’s life they may have a slight chance at springing the upset. 

Detroit Red Wings – 3rd Atlantic Division

The Red Wings may have backed into the playoffs, but the history books won’t pay that fact any mind. What they’ll acknowledge is the fact that the Red Wings have made the playoffs in each of the last 25 seasons. That’s impressive stuff. Now, can they make it count?

Why They Will Win It All

Because it’s Pavel Datsyuk’s last gasp. Datsyuk has been one of the most exciting players in the NHL over the course of his 14-year career with the Red Wings and he announced this week that it will be his final season in the NHL. As a parting gift of sorts, the Wings have been given a rematch of last year’s first round matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a favorable one for the Wings to say the least. To beat the Lightning and remain a threat, the Wings will need young players like Dylan Larkin, Gustav Nyquist to continue to learn on the fly and complement Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and the rest of the teams veterans. But even more importantly, they’ll need to sure up their goaltending situation. Petr Mrazek or Jimmy Howard, whoever claims the job has to keep it in the postseason, or else there’s trouble afoot. 

Why They Won’t Win It All

Because their goaltending and their defense aren’t up to snuff. On top of that, Tampa Bay’s is and Ben Bishop has the ability to completely stymie the Red Wings while Mrazek and Howard haven’t proven that they can do the same, even to a dilapidated Lighting team. The Red Wings are the only team in the playoffs that allowed more goals than the scored during the regular season. They’re up against it when it comes to beating a banged up Lightening squad so you can forget about beating a team like the Capitals or the Penguins. 

X-Factor – Pavel Datsyuk

The Red Wings’ goaltending issues can only be masked by one thing and that’s goals on goals on goals. While some of the younger guys might be more likely candidates to help the Wings put the puck in the net, all eyes will be on Datsyuk and his performance in what will likely be his final games ever donning a Red Wings sweater. Can he put this team on his back once more? As always, it’ll be fun finding out. 

Eastern Conference Final Prediction: 

Capitals Beat Lightning 4-2

While the Lightning are banged up, they should be able to get past the Red Wings and into a favorable second round matchup with either the Florida Panthers or the Islanders (my guess is the Panthers). Still, they won’t have enough firepower to get by the Caps, who have an easy first round matchup with the Flyers before having to take on the Rangers or the Penguins in the conference semifinals (likely the Penguins). 

I think Washington takes down the Penguins, then the Lightning en route to the Stanley Cup Finals. There, they’ll have a very real chance of winning the whole thing for the first time in their franchise’s history. 

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of total games played this season. 

Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.

Questions or comments? Feel free to follow Bryan on Twitter or send him an email

 

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