NHL Playoff Predictions: Who Will Move Ahead in the East?

NHL Playoff Predictions: Who Will Move Ahead in the East?

Adam Proteau provides his in-depth predictions of each Eastern Conference first-round series in the NHL playoffs.

Steven Stamkos and Luke Schenn

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL regular season is effectively over. 

There are still two more games to be played Friday. One is of consequence: the Colorado Avalanche play the Nashville Predators, and if the Avs win, they clinch the top spot in the Central Division and a first-round Stanley Cup playoff matchup against the Winnipeg Jets. If Colorado loses, they finish second in the Central, and draw the Seattle Kraken instead.

But after Thursday’s slew of games, the first-round playoff picture in the Eastern Conference is complete. 

The following are this writer’s educated guesses on which teams will win and which ones will be going home severely disappointed. 

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As we’ve said many times, success in the post-season depends on a few key factors. First of all, they must be healthy in all their positions. Most teams don’t have the depth to survive a major injury or two, so good health will always benefit one team over one that is banged up. They also need great goaltending, and they need to almost be coaching themselves out there; players should be ultra-familiar with their coach’s systems to the point most of them can call out teammates who are playing their own game and not the coach’s.

With that in mind, let’s get on to our picks (individually speaking) for the Eastern Conference’s first round.

(With conference season rankings in parentheses)

Boston Bruins (1) vs. Florida Panthers (8)

Why the Bruins could win: This section of the article probably should be labelled as “Why the Bruins will win.” 

Simply put, this year’s Bruins have a team like few others, smashing NHL records left and right on the way to posting a 65-12-5 record and winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best regular-season team. They started the year with a 17-2-0 record, and they finished the year on an 18-4-0 run. There’s no reason to suspect all their good habits in the regular season will somehow vanish and cause the Bruins to crumble.

They’ve got incredible depth at all positions, and coach Jim Montgomery has their special teams working very well. Boston has the closest thing to a flawless team heading into the playoffs, and frankly, the Panthers are the closest thing to a fatally-flawed team entering the playoffs. 

This should be fairly easy for the Bruins.

Why the Panthers could win: The Bruins only lost twice to two teams this year: the Ottawa Senators and the Florida Panthers. But suppose one of Alex Lyon and Sergei Bobrovsky steal a game or two for Florida in net. That still means the rest of the Panthers have to somehow drum up another two or three wins against a Leviathan opponent that minimizes mistakes better than any other team. Matthew Tkachuk could build upon his legend (and excellent regular season) on offense and rattle Bruins starting goalie Linus Ullmark enough to have the Panthers beat him four separate times.

It will take all hands on deck – forwards Carter Verhaeghe, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart – to hold up their end up front, and Florida’s defense corps (most notably, Brandon Montour, Aaron Ekblad, and Gustav Forsling) have to hold off a Bruins attack that comes in waves. 

In theory, it’s possible the Panthers earn what would be one of the biggest upsets in NHL history, but is it likely? The answer is below.

Who is going to win: Boston

Let’s face it: the Bruins were far and away the best team this season. They practically toyed with opponents this season, squeezing them defensively and answering them with a robust offense of their own. 

Just about everything went Boston’s way this year, and their 9-1-0 finish to the regular season suggests things are going to continue going their way in the first round. Florida may earn a couple of wins in this series, but Boston is almost assuredly going to win four games out of seven.

PICK: Boston in six games

Carolina Hurricanes (2) vs. New York Islanders (7)

Why the Hurricanes could win: As we said before the season began, we liked what we saw on paper in Carolina, making them our pick to win the Cup this year. (We also had the Blues in the Western Conference final, so, you know, win some, lose some.) 

The Hurricanes’ speed, smarts, and decent-enough goaltending looks similar to the Avalanche team that won it all last season. But this year, it’s safe to say the Canes are a genuine threat to go on a deep run in the coming weeks.

The Hurricanes have a good balance of veterans and younger players. Although Carolina has dealt with season-ending injuries to stars Max Pacioretty and Andrei Svechnikov, there’s still more than enough above-average talent there to make the Hurricanes a first-round winner. 

On paper, the Canes are, by far, the favorite in this series, but so long as the Hurricanes get solid performances in net from Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, they should win this round relatively easily.

Why the Islanders could win: Two words: Ilya Sorokin. 

Four more words: The guy is amazing. 

Sorokin is the reason the Isles squeaked into the playoffs in the first place. The Islanders had the fifth-best goals-against average in the NHL this season (2.65), and it’s almost solely Sorokin’s contributions that got them that good defensively. 

This is not to say key defensemen Adam Pelech, Ryan Puloch, Scott Mayfield and Noah Dobson are valuable pieces of the puzzle – rather, we’re going to argue it’s the Islanders’ lack of depth up front that is the issue.

Indeed, it’s the Isles forwards who need to be better for them to have any hope of beating Carolina. Trade deadline acquisition Bo Horvat hasn’t played playoff hockey since the 2020 post-season, but at that time, he availed himself very well with 10 goals in 17 games. The Islanders would be thrilled with that type of production – and if they get it from Horvat and the other Isles’ top forwards, they could pull off the upset, albeit probably in seven games. 

The Isles’ other forwards would need to be positive factors for the Islanders to win this showdown. They’re not as naturally talented as Carolina, but the work ethic demanded by coach Lane Lambert has given them a stingy side that could be what delivers them to the second round.

Who is going to win: Carolina

Could the Islanders shock the hockey world and eke out a blue-collar, low-scoring victory over Carolina Sure. Sorokin is the kind of elite goalie who can flat-out steal games for you, and if he’s at his peak, the Hurricanes are going to be hard-pressed to get many pucks past him.

However, it’s very likely the Canes are going to emerge from this series as the winner. 

This team has such good balance and tons of playoff experience with star D-man Brent Burns along with core defensive components Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin and Brady Skjei. Also, trade deadline pickup Shayne Gostisbehere was a great little depth pickup – he’s amassed seven assists and 10 points in 23 games since coming over from Arizona. And they’re coached by one of the best bench bosses in the game, Rod Brind’Amour.

Losing this series would be a huge upset for the Hurricanes, but we don’t anticipate the Isles can beat Carolina in four of seven games. The Canes are just too good.

PICK: Carolina in five games

Jesper Boqvist, Braden Schneider and Ryan Graves scuffle in a March 30 matchup.

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

New Jersey Devils (3) vs. New York Rangers (5)

Why the Devils could win: Few people expected the Devils would be this good, finishing second in the Metropolitan Division and missing out on the top spot in the division by a single standings point. 

Coach Lindy Ruff was squarely on the hot seat entering the season, and he responded by guiding a young group of key players to career-best seasons and putting opponents on notice. This is not your dad’s Devils, with all their fabled history as defense-minded demons. This Devils team overwhelms you on offense, with a squad that has only one player over age-30 on defense and only two older than 30 on offense. Many of their players have their best days ahead of them, and that includes this series. That should terrify the Rangers.

Meanwhile, in net, starter Vitek Vanacek has posted a stellar 33-11-0 record this year, as well as a .911 save percentage and a 2.45 goals-against average in 52 appearances this season. He doesn’t need to dominate against a potent Rangers offense – he just has to limit the number of goals to two or three and let New Jersey’s offense be the difference-makers. That’s entirely possible.

Why the Rangers could win: The Blueshirts were one of the most active teams at and around the NHL trade deadline, picking up star wingers Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane and adding depth to an already-dangerous lineup. But the key to any Rangers series victory is the play of superstar goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who did not have his best season this year but still managed to earn a 37-13-8 record, a .916 save percentage and a 2.48 GAA. 

The Rangers were 1-2-1 against the Devils this season. But we’ve got a hunch that because this Blueshirts team is significantly different than the one that began the year, the Devils might be destined to be upset and eliminated in the first round.

Who is going to win: Rangers in six.

The Devils have youth on their side, as well as great depth and an overall level of talent. But the Rangers also have some terrific young players – Adam Fox, K’Andre Miller, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere. They go well with their equally-impressive collection of experienced hands, most notably forwards Kane, Tarasenko, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, Vincent Trocheck and D-man Jacob Trouba. 

This is by no means a pushover Rangers team. And in some metrics, the Rangers (2.63 goals-against per game and 24.1-percent efficiency on the power play) are better than the Devils (2.71 goals-against per game and 21.9 percent on the power play).

We’re not counting out the Devils by any means. They have a stacked lineup, and they’re going to win games in this series. The real question is whether they have the mental stamina to outlast a goalie who gets in their heads. And we can definitely see Shesterkin hulking up and taking his game to an MVP level. 

When he’s at his best, Shesterkin’s counterpart cannot match his efforts.

The Blueshirts had a 24-9-8 road record this season, and their composure and focus as a road team could well be the difference in who moves on in this series and who goes home for the summer.

A Rangers win will be classified as an upset, but it really shouldn’t be labelled like that. There’s very little separating the Rangers and Devils, and it won’t take much for the Rangers to take advantage of and smother the less-experienced Devils in six games.

PICK: Rangers in seven games.

Toronto Maple Leafs (4) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (6)

Why the Maple Leafs could win: The Leafs had another fantastic regular season, earning the NHL’s fourth-best record (50-21-11) – better than any Western Conference team – and securing home-ice advantage in the first round. But everyone and all their friends know that a superb regular season doesn’t matter in Toronto. It’s all about playoff wins, and the Leafs’ core of top talent doesn’t have nearly enough of them thus far.

Even with star Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy between the pipes, the Leafs’ latest mix of high-quality depth, grit and a high-panic threshold could be enough to defeat him four times. 

Certainly, the pressure is on star forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares to produce most of Toronto’s goals. Still, it may take secondary assets such as Calle Jarnkrok, Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari, Matthew Knies and David Kampf adding a key goal here or there for the Leafs to emerge victorious more often than not.

But, as it goes with all teams at this stage of the season, the focus of the series will center around goaltending. 

Toronto has No. 1 Ilya Samsonov ready for Game 1. If Samsonov gets injured or doesn’t play well, it will be fascinating to see whether Buds coach Sheldon Keefe goes with fragile veteran Matt Murray or instead chooses rookie Joseph Woll, who has put in very good performances in seven appearances this season.

If Vasilevsky doesn’t get in Toronto’s head, the Leafs have their best chance yet to upend the Bolts and win a playoff series for the first time in 18 years. The Leafs are deep, experienced and talented, and the Lightning look a little worn down late this season. 

All the ducks are in a row that favors the Leafs, but they have to prove they can do it and silence their many critics.

Why the Lightning could win: It’s not an exaggeration to argue Vasilevskiy is the central figure in Tampa Bay’s Cup aspirations. They desperately need him to cover up for a defense corps that has, slowly but surely, rusted notably this season. 

Star blueliner Victor Hedman’s offensive point total dropped by 36 points this year. There is no more of veteran Ryan McDonagh around, as the salary cap has squeezed the Lightning’s depth on ‘D.’ And though the Bolts have impressive depth in their top nine forwards, you can no longer say the same about their group of defensemen.

That said, if Vasilevskiy’s confidence shines through and he frustrates Toronto’s waves of offense, the Lightning have a Cup championship-winning collection of high-end forwards that can pick apart Leafs goalie Samsonov. 

The Lightning can’t simply flip a switch now that the season has ended, but they’re definitely going to win a couple of games in this series and make the Leafs earn any victories they can carve out. The question is whether they can still outlast a Toronto team that has wanted revenge for a full year now and are ready to take it.

Who is going to win: Toronto

The Lightning finished the season with a 9-13-2 record, hardly the mark of a team firing on all pistons. In addition, Toronto’s home record of 27-8-6 and Tampa Bay’s road record of 18-22-1 points to a clear advantage for the Leafs. 

Like many teams that eventually won a Cup – the Avalanche are a perfect, most recent example – the Buds have had to lose, painfully, to be in a position to learn their lesson, overcome adversity and win a series or two (at least). That’s where they are now.

The Lightning aren’t about to roll over for Toronto, but this year’s Leafs have shown they can play a low-risk, defense-minded game and beat Tampa Bay; the Leafs went 2-0-1 against the Bolts in this regular season, so Toronto knows it can succeed over an older, creakier Lightning squad. 

Now, they have to win when the games really matter.

Toronto has shown they can win three games in a series a number of times, but getting that fourth win in a series has been a problem. We think that problem will be solved this season. The Leafs may not win it all, but this is the best team they’ve had in many a year, and they’re primed to shake off the ghost of playoffs past.

PICK: Toronto in six games

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