Last week, we took a dive into the four Western Conference qualifying round matchups. The four series are going to be entertaining with a chance for some upsets.
The Eastern Conference might not have the same flair for the dramatic, but there are some matchups to get excited about. Plus, there may be a new wrinkle as the Eastern teams may be moved to Las Vegas. Numerous reports have the NHL selecting Sin City as one of the two hubs and it’s possible the Vegas Golden Knights may not get to play in their own rink, T-Mobile Arena.
There appears to be more noise about Toronto being the other hub, subject to the Canadian government lifting its 14-day quarantine ban on those who enter the country. The NHL has an office in Toronto, which may have some influence on its decision. And with the Maple Leafs in the play-in portion of the tournament, making them, and the rest of the East, play in Vegas, would give a neutral feel to things.
But wherever the East plays, expect some competitive hockey. The Boston Bruins rule the roost as the Presidents’ Trophy winners, while the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning could round out what would be a murderer’s row of a conference semifinals should everything pan out accordingly.
Before we get there, let’s look at the East’s bracket of play-in matchups.
Pittsburgh Penguins (No. 5) vs. Montreal Canadiens (No. 12): There is no greater contrast of experience vs. youth than the dynasty-laden Penguins facing the upstart Canadiens. We know Pittsburgh’s pedigree; we know this is the time of year the Penguins shine, outside of last year’s sweep from the New York Islanders.
But Montreal has one edge Pittsburgh doesn’t: Carey Price. No disrespect to Tristan Jarry or Matt Murray, but Price is still one of the best goalies in the NHL. It’s the time of year where goaltending is paramount. Price will give the Habs a shot.
Pittsburgh’s talent is still more than enough to overcome a brick wall in net. The return of Jake Guentzel (shoulder surgery) and the addition of Jason Zucker to the top nine will be more than enough firepower for Sidney Crosby and Co. to advance.
Carolina Hurricanes (No. 6) vs. New York Rangers (No. 11): By far, the best matchup in the East bracket. The Hurricanes went all-in at the trade deadline, acquiring Sami Vatanen and Vincent Trocheck, pushing them to contender status. Yet, those two additions pale in comparison to getting star defenseman Dougie Hamilton back after breaking his leg in January.
Put those components together with Sebastian Aho, Tuevo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov, and the Hurricanes have as good a chance as any to return to the Eastern Conference Final for the second straight season.
But if you’re looking for a double-digit seed in the field that can bust some brackets, the Rangers provide that. Artemi Panarin forced himself into the Hart conversation prior to the pause, and had New York made the original field of 16, it might have happened. Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider create a dangerous trio when healthy.
There’s no wrong choice here. Depth, however, should dictate the series and that’s where Carolina has the edge. It’s going to be fun, nonetheless.
New York Islanders (No. 7) vs. Florida Panthers (No. 10): A rousing congratulations to the Panthers. Years of underperforming and failed expectations have led this talented group here; a bad matchup against Barry Trotz’s club.
The Panthers have done well in Year 1 with Joel Quenneville, but Florida has gone through this season with no stretch of positive consistency. Sasha Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau should be playing every postseason. Having Sergei Bobrovsky hinders that.
The Islanders have benefited from Mat Barzal taking another step into becoming a star, while Brock Nelson and Anders Lee have been complementary goal scorers best suited for the 22-year-old Barzal. Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss have been a great tandem after losing Robin Lehner last summer.
The story for the Panthers seems to be the same — maybe next year.
Toronto Maple Leafs (No. 8) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (No. 9): Raise a glass to the Leafs for finally avoiding the Bruins (for now). Now, you have to face the most resilient team in the league this season. Losing Panarin and Bobrovksy was one thing; having 3 million injured players this season is another.
Now Columbus comes into the playoffs at near-full strength with a terrific goalie tandem. Life doesn’t get easier for Toronto in the playoffs.
The Jackets are going to grind and play a defensive-first game that benefits them against the finesse of the Leafs. Columbus has youth, but it’s battle-tested youth with stars on both sides. Pierre-Luc Dubois isn’t Auston Matthews yet, and Seth Jones and Zach Werenski aren’t superstar defensemen yet, but they’re going to bring the grit that helped sweep Tampa Bay last season.