It’s finally time.
After the long 82-game marathon known as the regular season, the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin on April 11th, 2018. Both the Eastern and Western Conference matchups are set, and every series is ready to have a storyline written, however many games it takes. The East is set to have some of the most exciting series in the first round, ranging from an interstate rivalry to an Original Six clash, to an upstart going up against a heavy favorite to win the Cup. Below is the preview of each series taking place in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
Tampa Bay Lightning (1) vs. New Jersey Devils (WC2)
The reigning Atlantic Division Champion Lightning will get their first test on the road to a possible Stanley Cup when they tangle with the surprising New Jersey Devils. These two teams met three times in the regular season, all with the Devils victorious. This series also marks the third time in both teams history they will meet in the playoffs.
Tampa Bay ran through their opponents in the regular season, and that led them to a top-three finish in the league. The Bolts are stacked with talent at every position — all starting with the dangerous duo of MVP candidate Nikita Kuckerov and superstar Steven Stamkos. Following those two, is a plethora of fantastic forwards and heady defensemen. Their netminder, Andrei Vasilevskiy, was lights out this year and is in the talks to possibly win the Vezina Trophy for the league’s best goaltender.
As for the Devils, no one expected them to make the playoffs this season after a bottom-three finish the year prior. Yet here they are, a lot of it due to the insane year by Hart Trophy contender Taylor Hall and the stellar play of goaltender Keith Kinkaid. New Jersey was never out of it all year long, and their youth movement — number one pick Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Blake Coleman, and Will Butcher — have reignited the franchise and have their fans thinking upset.
This Tampa Bay and New Jersey showdown has the makings of a very underrated series.
Washington Capitals (1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (WC1)
Winners of the Metropolitan Division for the third year in a row, the Washington Capitals will have their hands full with a pesky, but high-powered Columbus Blue Jackets squad. Thursday will mark the first time that Washington and Columbus will meet in the postseason. The Caps took the season series from the Jackets three games to one during the regular season.
This could be it for the current core of the Washington Capitals. They have failed over the past five years to finally get over the hump and get not only to the Conference Finals, but the Cup Final. Their megastar Alex Ovechkin, who just won his seventh “Rocket” Richard Trophy, leads one of the league’s most potent attacks with Evgeni Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Nick Backstrom, and Lars Eller. Number one defenseman, John Carlson, had the best season of his career, while their goaltending duo of Braden Holtby and Philip Grubauer was terrific. For Holtby, these playoffs are his chance to finally face his demons of failure in playoffs past.
The Caps opponent, the Columbus Blue Jackets, are in the playoffs for the second straight season under fiery bench boss John Tortorella. Columbus looked primed to take the Metro crown earlier this season, but stumbled in the middle of the year, before getting red hot after several moves were made to bolster the roster at the trade deadline. Forward Artemi Panarin continued to produce as a top-ten forward in the game with 82 points, while rookie Pierre-Luc-Dubois turned out a robust season. On the backend and in goal, the Jackets boast three of the top players in the game, including, most likely the best young top defensive pair in Seth Jones and Alex Werenski, and the 2016-17 Vezina winner in Sergei Bobrovsky.
For these two clubs, get ready for a series full of high-scoring and exciting moments.
Boston Bruins (2) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (3)
It won’t get much more awesome in the first round than the Bruins and Maple Leafs facing off. Both these clubs are a part of the NHL’s Original Six and have a bountiful of playoff history between each other. Every game this past year, these two teams put on a show with the Leafs winning the season series from the B’s this year 3-1.
After sneaking into the playoffs a year ago, eventually falling to the Ottawa Senators in the first round, the Boston Bruins made their mark during the regular season in 2017-18. From about mid-November to the end of April, the Bruins were a force and dominated their way to the second slot in the Atlantic Division. Their Big Three (Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak) were arguably the best first line in hockey over a long stretch of the season. Boston’s youngsters taking the next step, their depth, and the fact that they have the best rookie defensemen (Charlie McAvoy) all contribute to what makes the Bruins such a menacing team. Goaltender Tuukka Rask provided another excellent season in goal.
The Maple Leafs, who made noise in their first-round series last spring against Washington, is ready to take the next step. Toronto has a big three of their own (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander) who form an exciting blend of skill and scoring, and are nightmares for the opposition. Many of the Leafs have been through the postseason grind before, and some are still on the club from the last time these two teams met in what was a heartbreaking seventh-game loss. Veteran Patrick Marleau, who had terrific season will be looking for his second run at a Stanley Cup. In net, Frederik Andersen was brilliant all season, and with another year and some playoff experience under his belt, he’s primed to take Toronto deep into the postseason.
Make sure you keep your eye on the puck because this will be the fastest (on ice) series the playoffs will offer.
Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (3)
Philly vs. Pittsburgh. Very little needs to be said, except, this could be the matchup that steals the show in the first round of the playoffs. The hatred between these teams, their fans, and the fact that the Penguins are looking to three-peat as Cup winners, while the Flyers are looking for their first Cup win since 1975, will all make for a hostile, but memorable series. Pittsburgh swept the Flyers 4-0 in the regular season.
As the back-t0-back champs, the Pittsburgh Penguins could be the favorite to win it all again. Their postseason success and iron will back up that statement. Despite struggling early in the season, the Penguins once again turned the thermostat up after Christmas and never stopped rolling. Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby did their usual thing, tormenting opponents, while goal-machine Phil Kessel couldn’t be contained. The Pens balance on defense seems to find a way to succeed in the playoffs and this time might be no different, plus goalie Matt Murray has done the unthinkable the past two years. Can he make it three?
The Philadelphia Flyers path to the playoffs was a wild one at best. They went from losing ten games in a row in November to one of the hottest teams in the league in January and February. Captain Claude Giroux pushed his way into the MVP conversation enjoying his most prolific season as a pro. His mates Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and probably the most improved player in the league, Sean Couturier, all provided the backbone to the Flyers resurgence. Defensively, several of their youthful players took a huge leap forward in maturity and development while in between the pipes, injuries galore, but their foursome was able to right the ship, and now a healthy Brian Elliott is ready to lead the way.
These two teams are going to kill each other, which will make for a spectacle and the hockey world is going to enjoy every second of it.