The 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin this Monday, May 2. This is the most exciting time of the year for hockey fans, with the first round filled with great matchups. This article will focus on the matchups happening within the Eastern Conference. Here are the first-round NHL playoff predictions for the Eastern Conference.
(1) Florida Panthers vs. (WC2) Washington Capitals
The Panthers enter the playoffs as the Presidents’ Trophy winners and the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. They thrive off of their high-powered offensive attack, which leads the league in 5v5 goals per game. At the trade deadline, they added Ben Chiarot, Robert Hagg and Claude Giroux to further increase the depth of their team. The only true concern about the Panthers is the inconsistent play from Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Capitals meanwhile are finishing outside the Metropolitan top three for the first time since the 2013-14 season. In addition, Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin is still dealing with an upper body injury he suffered against the Toronto Maple Leafs. But they boast an established core that still has many members from the 2018 championship team. They had a tough regular season, but they have the ability to hang around with just about anybody in the league, which makes them dangerous.
However, goaltending issues of their own is going to make this series very difficult for the Capitals to win. Both Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek haven’t been able to produce consistent results, although they’re both capable of quality play. This is a troubling factor against an offensive powerhouse like the Panthers. The Capitals have the talent to make this interesting, but with the goaltending issues and possibly being without Ovechkin for a portion of this series, the Panthers are going to come away with the first-round victory.
Prediction: Panthers in 6
(2) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (3) Tampa Bay Lightning
This series has the potential to be one of the most entertaining of the first round. The Maple Leafs have yet to win a playoff series in the Auston Matthews era, but they have a chance to change that this postseason. They had a strong regular season, backed by Matthews’ league leading and career-high 60 goals. As a team, the Maple Leafs scored an average of 3.8 goals per game, second behind the Florida Panthers in the East. The problem, as it so often is with the Maple Leafs, is on the defensive side of the puck. They allow nearly as many goals as they score, and have the most total goals allowed out of all of this year’s playoff contenders.
That is a major problem playing against the reigning, back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning have slightly regressed with some of their key departures in the offseason, but still are a dominant force. They’re a well-balanced team that can score with the best of them, and have a solid defensive core in addition to the always impressive Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Leafs and the Lightning split the regular season series, with the Lightning scoring eight goals in their most recent meeting. It’s a very tough call to pick a winner with two really good teams that have a have strong offense and special teams unit. Both teams will be pushed to their limits, but ultimately the Lightning will prevail. Their immense postseason experience gives them the edge against a Maple Leafs team that has some defensive issues and has recently struggled in postseason play.
Prediction: Lightning in 7
(1) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (WC1) Boston Bruins
The Carolina Hurricanes finished the 2021-22 seasons as the Metropolitan Division’s best team and the William M. Jennings Trophy winners. They play a great defensive game with Freddy Andersen having one of his best NHL seasons behind the crease. The concern for the Hurricanes is that Andersen suffered a leg injury and doesn’t appear to be ready for this series. The good news is that backup Antti Raanta has performed very well this season and should help fill the void left by Andersen
The Boston Bruins are also known for their high level of defensive play. They further improved their defense by adding defenseman Hampus Lindholm at the trade deadline. And as always, their top two lines are filled with high-level scorers, led by David Pastrnak’s 40 goals. As good as the Bruins have been, they struggled mightily against the Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes won all three regular season meetings, shutting out the Bruins twice and scoring 16 goals combined. However, one of those games were against the now retired Tukka Rask and the other when the Bruins were without Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. In addition, all three games took place before the trade deadline and all of them had Andersen as the starter for the Hurricanes. With the Bruins playing much better hockey now and facing a different goaltender, they’re going to surprise the Hurricanes. The Bruins will pull off a big upset and beat the Hurricanes in a hard-fought series.
Prediction: Bruins in 6
(2) New York Rangers vs. (3) Pittsburgh Penguins
The New York Rangers return to the traditional playoff format for the first time since 2017. They got swept in the 2020 play-in tournament, but this team is a lot different. New head coach Gerard Gallant and a multitude of new players have helped this team get to second in the Metropolitan after not qualifying last season. And of course, this conversation is incomplete without mentioning Chris Kreider’s 52-goal season and Igor Shesterkin’s Vezina-worthy campaign.
On the other side is the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are making their 15th straight postseason appearance. That is the most important aspect of their team as their core has no shortage of playoff experience heading into this series. However, as rock solid as this core has been throughout the years, they’ve had some trouble in recent postseasons. They got swept by the Islanders in 2019, beat by the Canadiens in the 2020 play-in tournament and then beat again by the Islanders last season. On top of that, they’re still without a definite return date for Tristan Jarry, who was having a great redemption season before suffering a late injury. While Casey DeSmith is no slouch in net, being without Jarry could really hurt the Penguins in this series.
The Rangers won the regular season series 3-1 and outscored the Penguins 11-3 across all four. In addition, DeSmith owns a career 3.45 GAA in seven career games against the Rangers. All things considered, the Rangers are in a good position to win this first-round series. They match up well against the Penguins and, barring an unexpected early return from Jarry, should win this series in relatively short order.
Prediction: Rangers in 5
Featured image courtesy of NHL Public Relations
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