The NHL regular season has drawn to an end, and now the playoffs are about to get rolling. Hockey is a great sport, but it is never better than the two months of the postseason. The Eastern Conference doesn't feel nearly as deep as West does this year, but the top two teams - Washington and Pittsburgh - feel like the two best teams in the NHL right now. They could meet up in a second-round battle for the ages, but before that there are four series offered in the first round for us to focus on. Two should be pretty good, one should be fun because of how lopsided it is, and one just doesn't seem even remotely interesting. Here's how they set up (Odds to win the Eastern Conference are from Bovada ):
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Washington (+230) vs. Toronto (+1400): Wow, this is not going to go well. All Toronto needed to do was get a point against a Columbus team that had nothing to play for in their finale and they would avoid Washington and get a Battle of Ontario with Ottawa that would have been a thrill for fans. They couldn't pull it off, though, so now they have to play the hottest and arguably best team in the league. Washington allowed the fewest goals per game in the league and scored the second most. It's not hard to win a lot of games with that combination. Washington had floundered a little a while back, but they have won 10 of their last 12 and are in top form.
After so much playoff disappointment over the years they are focused and hungry, and they aren't going to let an overachieving and very raw Toronto team get in their way. If the Leafs win a game in this series it will be their Stanley Cup victory. I don't see it happening. Toronto lost three of their last four games and didn't exactly handle the pressure of trying to clinch a playoff spot with grace. This is too much for them to handle at this point in the development of the Leafs. It's not going to be a good series.
Montreal (+700) vs. New York Rangers (+800): On the surface, this series is a good example of the flaws of the wild-card playoff system. Montreal has 103 points, and that won them their division. The Rangers have 102 points, and because they play in a much tougher division they are a wild card team. Montreal certainly doesn't get rewarded for a division win here.
What's interesting, though, is that even by the NBA playoff system - first plays eighth, and so on - these teams would meet. Montreal has the fourth-best record in the conference, and the Rangers are fifth. Regardless, it sets up as a heck of a series.
The teams have played three times since Jan. 14, and the Canadiens swept the series. One game was a shootout, and the other was a close 5-4 contest, though, so there isn't dominance here.
As the points suggest, there isn't a lot separating these two teams. The Rangers score a bit more, but they allow a few more goals, too. The Canadiens don't really care where they play - home and road records are similar. The Rangers are a rare team that was significantly better on the road than at home this year.
I lean towards Montreal in this one for two reasons. The Habs have been the stronger team in the closing stretch of this season, and it's easier to believe that Carey Price can be all-World in the playoffs at this point than it is Henrik Lundqvist. That being said, there isn't really a result in this series that would be at all surprising. And, ultimately, neither of these teams is winning the conference anyways.
Pittsburgh (+375) vs. Columbus (+500): The Blue Jackets have been a great story this year. They recovered from a mess of a season this year to mount a historic winning streak and finish far higher in the standings than anyone could have possibly imagined. And sadly it all ends here.
Pittsburgh is just too good, too experienced, and too hungry to fail. Columbus will put up a fight and win a game or two, but by every measure Pittsburgh has the edge, and they are going to exert it here. Columbus has limped into the postseason, they have some health concerns, and they can't match the Penguins offensively. Most significantly, though, the team just doesn't have the depth of experience they need to draw on in a tough playoff series. That would be a problem no matter what, but against a team as experienced as the Penguins it's a serious problem.
The biggest cause for concern would be if the Penguins are looking past this series because they want a piece of the Capitals next round. That's not a significant concern, though, because while Pittsburgh could conceivably do that for a game they aren't going to let it happen more than once. This is close to a worst-case scenario first round matchup for Columbus.
Ottawa (+1200) vs. Boston (+1400): Wow, do I ever find it hard to care about this series. Both teams have overachieved somewhat this year - more Ottawa than Boston - and I don't give either of them any real chance of being relevant in the hunt for the conference title. I give Boston the edge here - Ottawa hasn't been great down the stretch, Boston has more offense, and Ottawa has had some health concerns lately.
This is, by a wide margin, the least interesting series - of the entire playoffs.
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