By Brad Carroll
The always-exciting Stanley Cup playoffs have finally arrived in the NHL, and the Eastern Conference has four matchups with the potential to be great. From the President's Trophy-winning Rangers taking on Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, to the historically volatile postseason history between the Islanders and Capitals, to the steady Canadiens against the upstart Senators, to the high-scoring Lightning playing the history-rich Red Wings, it should be a tremendous start to the best time of the year.
Here is our breakdown of each series with our predicted winners. Let us know your picks in the comments section below.
No. 1 New York Rangers vs. No. 4 Pittsburgh PenguinsThis could be the Rangers year to win the Stanley Cup, especially after a regular season that saw the Blueshirts rack up 113 points, the most in the NHL. It was three points better than the next closest team, the Canadiens. They are third in goals per game and third in goals against, so they do everything well. Rick Nash, with 42 goals and 69 points, has emerged as the goal-scorer the Rangers desperately need to lift the Cup this year. The Rangers were 3-1 against Pittsburgh this season, with the lone loss coming in overtime. Overall, the Rangers were 15 points better, but Pittsburgh's 43-27-12 record is not something to overlook. Neither is Sidney Crosby, the Penguins star and one of the best players in the league. Evgeni Malkin is also a special player, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is always solid in net. Still, the best player on the ice in Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, and he will carry the Rangers to the second round.
Prediction: Rangers in 5
No. 2 Washington Capitals vs. No. 3 New York IslandersIf you've followed hockey for the past three decades or so, you know there is something special (and downright volatile) about a Capitals-Islanders playoff series. The teams were no strangers to each other in the 80s, matching up five straight times in the postseason, with epic games littered throughout. Perhaps the most infamous of all came in 1993, when one hit is all that is remembered from a series that saw the Islanders incredibly win three straight overtime games. Pierre Turgeon, after scoring a goal for the Islanders, was hit hard from behind while celebrating by Dale Hunter, which set off a wild scene inside the Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders won in six games. The two will meet again Wednesday for the first time since that dark day for Washington. Of course, a lot has changed from then to now. These Capitals and Islanders are as evenly matched as a playoff series can be. Both netted 101 points during the regular season. They split the four times they played this year, with three of the games going to overtime. Both are led by players among the NHL's elite, in Alexander Ovechkin and John Tavares. It has all the pontenial for a epic series, especially considering this is the last games played at Nassau Coliseum, as the Isles are leaving for Brooklyn. Home ice is obviously huge, and it will make the difference.
Prediction: Capitals in 7
No. 1 Montreal Canadiens vs. No. 4 Ottawa SenatorsWhen this series shifts to Ottawa, you may be witnessed to the biggest hamburger feast in history, as Senators fans have taken a liking to throwing the beef and bun sandwich on the ice during games, in honor of goaltender Andrew Hammond, who has hamburgers on his goalie mask. It's a little crazy, and somewhat gross, but remember, Detroit fans throw octopus on the ice, so anything goes. Writing of Hammond, he could be the biggest reason the Senators made the playoffs this year. Since getting called-up in February, Hammond has the second best save percentage in the league. Of course, Montreal won't be intimidated in this matchup, as it has Casey Price minding its net. He has an amazing .933 save percentage, is the first goaltender since 1991 to lead the league in wins, save percentage and goals against average, and is a contender for NHL MVP. But with all that, Ottawa has had Montreal's number this season, winning three straight after losing in December. The last three games weren't even close, with Ottawa outscoring Montreal 14-5. Is it enough, however, to pick what would be a tremendous upset?
Prediction: Senators in 6
No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 3 Detroit Red WingsSorry Red Wings fans, but this might be the easiest of the four series to predict, as the Lightning have everything in their arsenal to beat a Detroit team that is limping into the postseason. The Lightning lead the NHL in goals per game and have one of the best goal scorers in Steven Stamkos, who lit the lamp a team-leading 43 times. The Tampa defense is suspect, especially with injuries hampering the unit, but goaltender Ben Bishop has worked his way into the top goaltenders conversation, with 40 wins and a 2.32 goals against average. This will be Bishop's first action in the playoffs, though, and how he deals with that pressure won't be known until the series in underway. The Red Wings, who lost three of four to Tampa Bay during the regular season, but did win the finale a couple weeks ago, will go with rookie Petr Mrazek in Game 1 over Jimmy Howard in goal. Couple the rookie starting in the net with the high-scoring Tampa Bay offense, and things aren't looking good for Detroit.
Prediction: Lightning in 5