On Wednesday, April 13, 2016, the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs will begin in earnest. In the Eastern Conference, the Washington Capitals are the number one seed. The Caps, led by all-galaxy, superstar forward Alex Ovechkin, posted the best overall record in the NHL this season. Ovechkin also reached the 50-goal plateau for the third straight season and seventh time in his career.
The seven teams standing between the Caps and a trip to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, are the Florida Panthers, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings. The Caps and Panthers were winners of the Metropolitan and Atlantic divisions, respectively. Here is a look at the four Eastern Conference matchups in the first round of playoffs.
Washington Capitals (1) vs Philadelphia Flyers (8): This appears to be the best Capitals team of the Alex Ovechkin era. Not only were they an offensive juggernaut, but were also great, defensively. This was the second-highest scoring team and had the second-lowest goals against average. Their goal differential of + 59, was the best in the NHL. On the other side, the Flyers were out of the playoff picture completely, until going a combined 17-7-5 in the months of March and April. The division rivals split the season series 2-2, with Washington outscoring Philly 12-10. Expect the Flyers to play with an emotional edge, as longtime team owner Ed Snider just passed away on Monday, April 11. If the Caps do get jittery, they can always rely on goaltender Braden Holtby. The 26-year old netminder had a fine season and is a front-runner for the Vezina trophy. This series may turn into a dogfight, but look for the Caps to prevail. Prediction – Caps in six.
Capitals/Flyers series schedule: Gm 1) Thursday, April 14 at WAS. Gm 2) Saturday, April 16 at WAS. Gm 3) Monday, April 18 @ PHI. Gm 4) Wednesday, April 20 at PHI. *Gm 5) Friday, April 22 at WAS. *Gm 6) Sunday, April 24 at PHI. *Gm 7) Wednesday, April 27 at WAS.
Florida Panthers (2) vs New York Islanders (7): After narrowly missing the playoffs last season, the Panthers broke through and won the Atlantic division. It appears as though GM Dale Tallon is doing the same fine job in Florida, as he did when he built the framework for the current dynasty in Chicago. With savvy veterans like Jiri Hudler and Jaromir Jagr to mix with younger players like dynamic defenseman Aaron Ekblad, as well as humble but solid netminder Roberto Luongo, the Panthers are in great shape. The Isles are another story. Their season has been wildly up and down, and despite the undeniable talent of such players as John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, there seems to be a lack of structure. If the Islanders do not at least put up a good fight, this is likely the end of the road for head coach Jack Capuano. Prediction – Panthers in five.
Panthers/Islanders series schedule: Gm 1) Thursday, April 14 at FLA. Gm 2) Friday, April 15 at FLA. Gm 3) Sunday, April 17 at NYI. Gm 4) Wednesday, April 20 at NYI. *Gm 5) Friday, April 22 at FLA. *Gm 6) Sunday, April 24 at NYI. *Gm 7) Tuesday, April 26 at FLA.
Metropolitan division semifinal – Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs New York Rangers (3): This is a rematch of last year’s first round matchup in which the Rangers dumped the Pens in five games. Both teams will be dealing with injuries to key players. Pens star forward Evgeny Malkin last played on March 11 and Rangers stud defenseman Ryan McDonagh suffered a hand injury late in the season – It is not yet known, if or when either player will be available for the playoffs. As of late, Pittsburgh has been the more consistent of the two teams. In fact they went an astonishing 13-2 in Malkin’s absence. Over the course of his Hall of fame-worthy career, Rangers netminder Henrik Lunqvist has accomplished virtually everything, but has yet to hoist that hallowed silver chalice. Perhaps Hank can turn in an epic performance between the pipes and tip the scales in favor of the Blueshirts, but these teams seem to be trending in opposite directions. Prediction – Penguins in six.
Penguins/Rangers series schedule: Gm 1) Wednesday, April 13 at PIT. Gm 2) Saturday, April 16 at PIT. Gm 3) Tuesday, April 19 at NYR. Gm 4) Thursday, April 21 at NYR. *Gm 5) Saturday, April 23 at PIT. *Gm 6) Monday, April 25 at NYR. *Gm 7) Wednesday, April 27 at PIT.
Atlantic division semifinal – Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs Detroit Red Wings (3): Remarkably, the Detroit Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 25th straight season. As a reward, they will face the defending Eastern Conference champions in this rematch of the first round of the 2015 playoffs. This is more than likely the final playoff run for Detroit’s Hall of fame-bound 37-year old forward Pavel Datsyuk. The normally powerful Tampa Bay Lightning have been dealing with a variety of injuries at virtually every position but goaltender, where Ben Bishop continues to play at a high level. Tampa Bay’s star forward Steven Stamkos will miss the playoffs entirely, due to a blood clot issue. Bolts forwards Ryan Callahan, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov are battling injuries, as are defensemen Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman. This will be a trying series for the Bolts as they begin their quest for a return to the Stanley Cup final. This is also a perfect opportunity for 21-year old Tampa Bay forward Jonathan Drouin to prove his worth. In the end, expect Bishop to provide the biggest difference, as both Detroit netminders, Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek, have struggled with inconsistency this season. Prediction – Lightning in six.
Lightning/Red Wings series schedule: Gm 1) Wednesday, April 13 at TBL. Gm 2) Friday, April 15 at TBL. Gm 3) Sunday, April 17 at DET. Gm 4) Tuesday, April 19 at DET. *Gm 5) Thursday, April 21 at TBL. *Gm 6) Sunday, April 24 at DET. *Gm 7) Tuesday, April 26 at TBL.
* – If necessary