Playoff picks: Eastern Conference preview

- April 16th, 2014

NEW YORK — Bring on the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It’s that time of the year, which means the predictions are pouring in.

Going back in my notebook, I was happy to report that I chose to Boston Bruins to win the Eastern Conference in our Sun Media season preview and I’m going to stick with that pick, though the rest of the road could be interesting this spring, with plenty of interesting storylines to follow.

Remember the 1 through 8 seeding has been replaced by divisional playoffs with two wild-cards.

Let’s break down the four match-ups:

Atlantic Division semis

Boston Bruins (1) 54-19-9, 117 points vs Detroit Red Wings (2nd wild card) 39-28-15, 93 points

The Red Wings had to scratch and claw just to get into the post-season party and extend an impressive run of 23 consecutive playoff appearances, but their reward is running into the President’s Trophy winner and the team I picked to win the Stanley Cup. Dan DeKeyser and Niklas Kronwall must have a strong series on the back end, while Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar must help Pavel Datsyuk with the Red Wings’ offensive attack. Mike Babcock is one of the best coaches in the NHL and is sure to come up with an insightful game plan. But Tuukka Rask is one of the best goalies in the NHL, Zdeno Chara is playing at an elite level once again and the Bruins four-line depth — led by the two-way talent of Patrice Bergeron and fellow 30-goal scorer Jarome Iginla — should be enough to help Boston win this series in six games.

Tampa Bay Lightning (2) 46-27-9, 101 points vs Montreal Canadiens (3rd) 46-28-8, 100 points

A shootout was required to see which team would have home-ice advantage in this series but not having goalie Ben Bishop at least to start the series could be a tough thing for the Lightning to overcome. Head coach Jon Cooper did an outstanding job with a group that only had sniper Steven Stamkos for 36 games this season and traded its captain (Marty St. Louis) at the deadline for Ryan Callahan. The Lightning got great contributions from rookies Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, while Victor Hedman (13 goals, 55 points) is really coming into his own on the back end. Hard-hitting blue-liner Radko Gudas is another guy to watch in this series. If Bishop was at full health, I’d give the edge to the Lightning. However, relying on Anders Lindback is an awfully tough task for a team that is going to be forced to try and shut down the likes of Max Pacioretty (39 goals) and Thomas Vanek, who was an excellent addition at the trade deadline. Feisty Brendan Gallagher could play a big role as well. Look for P.K. Subban to be a force on the blue line for the Habs, who take the series in six games.

Metropolitan Division semis

Pittsburgh Penguins (1) 51-24-7, 109 points vs Columbus Blue Jackets (1st wild card) 43-32-7, 93 points

The Penguins are finally getting closer to full health after losing more than 500 man games due to injury this season. Captain Sidney Crosby won the Art Ross Trophy in a landslide (104 points) and led the way in all aspects while Chris Kunitz provided consistent production (35 goals, 67 points) after linemate Pascal Dupuis went down with a knee injury. James Neal needs to be a force, while Brandon Sutter will be tasked with shutting down Blue Jackets centre Ryan Johansen, who enjoyed a breakout season. Many are picking goalie Sergei Bobrovski and the Jackets as their Cinderella team in Round 1. But not having Nathan Horton is a big loss for Columbus, as his playoff experience would have given the team a big boosts. From where I sit, the return of Kris Letang from a stroke and the emergence of rookie Olli Maata on the back end, coupled with a return to form from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury after last spring’s meltdown means the Penguins win this series in five games.

New York Rangers (2) 45-31-6, 96 points vs Philadelphia Flyers (3) 42-30-10, 94 points

The Flyers open the series with Ray Emery in goal and while he’s had success against the Rangers in the past and boasts playoff experience, he didn’t have a great season. Henrik Lundqvist was going to give the Rangers the edge in the crease whether Steve Mason was healthy or not, as he really came on strong in mid-December and later led Sweden to a silver medal at the Olympics. It will be interesting to see how the Flyers’ defence corps holds up in this series, but forwards like Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Scott Hartnell, Brayden Schenn, Vincent Lecavalier and Sean Couturier could keep things interesting. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are going to log a lot of shutdown minutes, while a healthy Marc Staal should go a long way in containing the Flyers’ attack. At the end of the day, I think Marty St. Louis finds his scoring touch and Rick Nash puts last season’s playoff disappointment behind him as the Rangers win this series in six games.

Categories: Hockey

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