The first round of the playoffs is finally upon us.
Never failing to disappoint, the first two weeks of the postseason often has the freshest teams looking to give everything they have. This year’s first round, especially in the Eastern Conference, is shaping up to be one for the ages.
All eight teams in the East have established themselves as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders or have at least shown flashes of contention throughout the season.
Every Eastern playoff team had 100-point regular seasons, the first time that has ever happened.
At least three of the four series in the East are basically a coin flip, and championship-caliber teams are destined to lose in the first round.
Let’s dive into a loaded Eastern Conference.
It took 12 games for the Panthers to lose a game in regulation – defining themselves as an elite NHL squad. They kept that high-caliber pedigree throughout their best season in franchise history.
The Panthers boosted their high-octane offense at the trade deadline, adding longtime Flyers captain Claude Giroux. They also improved their defense after acquiring Ben Chiarot from Montreal.
For the Panthers, the rich got richer. The few questions surrounding the Panthers include the health of standout defenseman Aaron Ekblad, whether they can keep up their offensive output, and the ‘President’s Trophy curse.’
Toronto Maple Leafs
Oh, the Leafs.
They look as potent as ever. Eventually, they have to win a round, right?
So what was the reward for the Leafs after setting the franchise record in points at 115 and finishing fourth in the league standings. A date with the back-to-back defending champs. After that, they’ll likely match up against the league-leading Panthers in the second round.
Other than having possibly the hardest path to the cup, Toronto’s goaltending remains a significant question mark, with Jack Campbell encountering performance-based struggles and injuries down the stretch.
The two-time defending champs haven’t missed a beat despite losing a good chunk of their middle-six in the off-season.
A healthy Steven Stamkos had a monster year, tallying 106 points in 81 games.
The Lightning addressed the turnover in their middle-six after acquiring Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel at the deadline.
Much like the Leafs, the Lightning will also face a tough road to the cup, having to take down the Leafs and then most likely the Panthers just to reach the conference finals. The only question: can they keep it going?
The Capitals may be the exception in this year’s Eastern Conference.
Inconsistent goaltending, a banged-up Alex Ovechkin, and overall inconsistent play down the stretch saw the Capitals miss an opportunity to avoid Florida in the first round. As the second wild-card team, the Capitals will have to come out of the Atlantic – the league’s toughest division in 2021-22.
Things don’t look too promising for the Caps, but they have surprised us before, and they could do it again. After all, they’re only four years removed from hoisting their first Cup in franchise history.
The Metropolitan half of the Eastern Conference bracket may be a small step behind the Atlantic, but the matchups are just as much of a tossup, if not more.
The Hurricanes received great goaltending throughout the year, backed by a versatile team defense. They may be the most well-rounded team outside of Tampa Bay.
Carolina showcased consistency for most of the year but slowed down a little toward the end of the regular season. The slow ending didn’t prevent the Canes from setting a franchise record in points en route to securing the top spot in the uber-competitive Metro.
It’s safe to say that the Rangers’ recent rebuilding era is officially over.
Falling a few points short of the division crown in the regular season has brought the Rangers a date with the Pittsburgh Penguins, another coin-flip of a series.
The Rangers dominated the Penguins in the regular season. They’ll enter their first-round series as a slight favorite, especially with Tristan Jarry out. But despite Pittsburgh’s recent playoff struggles, it’s hardly wise to bet against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Quite simply, the Rangers are about to enter a proverbial dogfight against the Penguins.
This team won’t go away, until maybe next year.
Malkin and Kris Letang are pending unrestricted free agents this off-season. We could be looking at a ‘last dance’ scenario for the longest-tenured trio in NHL history.
The same old Pens aren’t easy to bet against, even without their starting goalie and a difficult matchup ahead against the Rangers. But they will need to rely on their experience in order to win in their first playoff round since 2018.
Should the Bruins feel fortunate that they managed to stay out of the Atlantic bracket? It sure seems that way. However, they will have to face down a stout Hurricanes team that outscored them 16-1 in three beatdowns this season.
This is a much better Bruins team than when they last saw the Hurricanes on Feb. 10. Again, you can flip a coin for this first-round series.
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