- The defending champs are taking on playoff newbies, playoff hockey is returning to the Coliseum, a first-round rematch features a new star player and the Presidents’ Trophy winners are squaring off with a team that’s all-in. The Eastern Conference is primed to have some entertaining series in the first round.
The Stanley Cup playoffs have finally arrived and five of the eight first-round series get underway on Wednesday, with the Penguins taking on the Islanders and the Blue Jackets facing off with the Lightning to get things started for the Eastern Conference.
The right side of the bracket has plenty of entertainment value to look forward to: A first-round rematch, the defending champs, the pressure mounting on the Presidents’ Trophy winners, John Tavares’s first playoff appearance with his new squad, Carolina’s return to the postseason and so much more. But before it all begins, here is a quick breakdown of each Eastern Conference matchup for Round 1.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Boston Bruins
Two Original Six teams. Atlantic Division rivals. A first-round rematch from last year. This series has the potential to be the most interesting matchup in Round 1. Both teams are making their third straight postseason appearance and we can only hope this series will be as exciting as last year’s, when after losing Games 5 and 6, Boston scored four third-period goals in Game 7 to eliminate the Maple Leafs, who haven’t advanced in the playoffs since 2004. The Leafs are hoping that adding John Tavares to the mix will be the key in finally seeing the second round. The Bruins, who have home-ice advantage, are second only to the Lightning in home wins, boasting a 29-9-3 record at TD Garden this year. Boston also finished the regular season with the third-fewest goals allowed per game played at 2.59, while Toronto finished 20th with 3.02.
Goaltending: After a slow start for the Bruins, Tuukka Rask went 27-12-5 this season and finished with a 2.42 GAA and .912 save percentage. Jaroslav Halak, who briefly took on the starting role earlier in the season, went 22-11-4 with a 2.34 GAA and .922 save percentage.
Frederik Andersen had a stellar start to Toronto’s season, but struggled to close out the campaign and went 36-16-7 with a 2.77 GAA and .917 save percentage. Garret Sparks played as backup for most of the season, but will be replaced in that role by Michael Hutchinson, who played just five games this year.
Season series: Boston 3-1-0; Toronto 1-3-0
New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Barry Trotz breathed new life into an Islanders organization that hasn’t seen the postseason since 2016, and they’ll have home-ice advantage at Nassau Coliseum to show for it. The Penguins—who are making their 13th consecutive playoff appearance—are a familiar foe for Trotz, who faced them in the playoffs three times when he coached for the Capitals and finally cracked the code against them last season en route to the Stanley Cup. Sidney Crosby is coming off his sixth 100-point season, finishing with 35 goals and 65 assists. Last year’s Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal will see his first playoff series after 62 points this season, with only one goal to close out the final 24 games.
Goaltending: Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss split netminding duties for the Islanders this season, combining for 11 shutouts. Lehner went 25-13-5 with a 2.13 GAA and .930 save percentage. Greiss yielded similar results, finishing 23-14-2 with a 2.28 GAA and .927 save percentage.
Matt Murray will be the Penguins’ starter in net after finishing the season 29-14-6 with a 2.69 GAA and .919 save percentage. During a few stretches with Murray on injured reserve, Pittsburgh had to turn to backup Casey DeSmith, who went 15-11-5 with a 2.75 GAA and .916 save percentage.
Season series: Tied 2-1-1
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Tampa Bay has firmly secured the title as the team to beat this postseason, sitting atop the league since November. Led by coach Jon Cooper, the Lightning eased their way into a playoff spot back in early March, ended the season with a record-tying 62 wins and saw Nikita Kucherov score a humble 128 points along the way. While the Lightning dominated the regular season, the Blue Jackets stole most of the headlines during the trade deadline, making acquisitions that could make this series fairly interesting. As Columbus sets out to win its first playoff series, it’ll have Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel added to the crew of Artemi Panarin, Cam Atkinson and Sergei Bobrovsky, all who had a hand in the team closing out the season 7-1-0. Though things looked a bit shaky immediately following the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets seems to have gotten into a groove. Now all they have to do is overcome a team that had a +103 goal differential this year!
Goaltending: Andrei Vasilevskiy’s 39 wins led the league among goalies, and he finished with a .925 save percentage and 2.40 GAA. His backup Louis Domingue was listed day-to-day with a lower body injury to close out the season, so Edward Pasquale would slide in as the No. 2 if Domingue isn’t healed up for Round 1.
Bobrovsky (2.58 GAA and .913 save percentage) finished second behind Vasilevskiy in wins with 37 this season. Bobrovsky is likely hoping to bust some playoff demons, having gone 5–14 with an underwhelming 3.49 GAA and .891 save percentage in 24 career playoff games. Backup Joonas Korpisalo when 10-7-3 in 21 starts this year.
Season series: Tampa Bay 3-0-0; Columbus 0-3-0
Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes took the league by Storm Surge to earn their first postseason spot in a decade. Despite Carolina’s youth and 10-year playoff drought, the Canes are not without postseason experience. Captain Justin Williams is a three-time Stanley Cup champ, including with the 2006 Carolina team that was captained by now-coach Rod Brind’Amour. But a tall task awaits the Bunch of Jerks in the defending Capitals, who took the Metro Division title for the fourth straight season. Even after a summer of partying, Alex Ovechkin didn’t seemed plagued by a Stanley Cup hangover, snagging the Rocket Richard Trophy with his eighth 50-goal season.
Goaltending: Though he lost the starting job to Philipp Grubauer last season, Braden Holtby is Washington’s unquestionable go-to heading into Round 1. Holtby finished the season 32-19-5 with a 2.82 GAA and .911 save percentage. He will be backed up by Pheonix Copley, who went 16-7-3 with a 2.90 GAA and .905 save percentage.
Petr Mrazek emerged as Carolina’s starter in the final stretch, finishing the season 23-14-3 with a 2.39 GAA and .914 save percentage. Curtis McElhinney went 20-11-2 this season with a 2.58 GAA and .912 save percentage.
Season series: Washington 4-0-0; Carolina 0-3-1