AARON DOSTER, USA TODAY SPORTS

“Ladies and gents, this is the moment you’ve waited for”

As the NHL enters the home straight on its return to play, there could have been no better line to open their promo videos than Brendon Urie singing those first words from ‘The Greatest Show’. This Saturday it all begins again as players and coaches chase their dreams, but which teams hold the upper hand? In this first article, I will preview the Eastern Conference Play-In series and give my opinion on who will progress to face one of the four round-robin teams.

“It’s only this moment, don’t care what comes after”

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

New York Rangers v Carolina Hurricanes

Greatest Show
Jay LaPrete/The Associated Press

It doesn’t seem that long ago the New York Rangers were talking about a rebuild but when you win the Artemi Panarin sweepstakes things can change quickly. With 79 points from seventy games, the Rangers were sitting just outside the wildcard places in the East, but had only two wins in their last seven games. Despite this the team had shown what they were capable of, winning nine out of their ten games between the 9th and 27th of February and managing to hold to key piece Chris Kreider during the deadline was a massive coup for the David Quinn led team. It’s yet to be seen how the loss of Assistant Coach Lindy Ruff to the head coach job at the New Jersey Devils will affect the team, but with players like Panarin (95 points in 60 games), Mika Zibanejad (75 points in 57 games), and Ryan Strome (59 points in 70 games) joining Kreider in attack anything is possible. The main conundrum will come in goal as a choice will need to be made between Alexandar Georgiev, Igor Shesterkin, and Henrik Lundqvist. The heart would say go with ‘the King’ after everything he has given to the team, but if the future is really what you are looking towards then Georgiev and Shesterkin have both had better seasons and one of the two deserves the start.

The Hurricanes will be looking to erase the memory of last year’s sweep by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals after beating the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders in the opening two rounds. The forward group of Sebastian Aho (66 points in 68 games), Teuvo Teravainen (63 points in 68 games), and Andrei Svechnikov (61 points in 68 games) will be vital to the Canes chances of progression, although the loss of Defenseman Dougie Hamilton is a huge blow. The return of Justin Williams from semi-retirement will give the Hurricanes a much needed veteran presence and Brady Skjei, a deadline acquisition from the New York Rangers, will give the media something to focus on during the series.

While the Hurricanes will lean heavily on last year’s amazing win over the Washington Capitals to get focused, it’s hard to see how they will shut down Panarin and the Rangers top line. With that said the Canes like to shoot from everywhere and with underwhelming goaltending this regular season the Rangers may need to score four or five every game to win.

Rangers win the series 3-2

Florida Panthers v New York Islanders

Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

Since they entered the league in 1993 the Florida Panthers have made the playoffs only five times. Of those five times only once have they made it past the first round. The other was their 1995-96 Finals appearance where they got swept by the Colorado Avalanche. Therefore you’d put odds on the Panthers leaving the bubble as quickly as they came in. Luckily for them, they have a huge advantage over other teams (apart from being used to playing in an empty stadium) that goes by the name of Aleksander Barkov. The young Finnish center along with Jonathan Huberdeau and Defenseman Aaron Ekblad will be what Florida fans cling their hopes on and while they might not be strong enough to go all the way the experience of playoff hockey will set these players and the team in good stead for the years to come.

Just like the Panthers, playing playoff hockey will help the Islanders long term when it comes to the young core they possess of Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, and Noah Dobson. Unlike the Panthers, they will be further along in their development as both Barzal and Beauvillier played last year. For Dobson, this will be his first taste of the big time after being drafted by the Islanders in the first round of the 2018 draft. Johnny Boychuk and Matt Martin will look to add the experienced edge to the team while Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss are a decent if not overwhelming one-two punch in net.

The Islanders will look to replicate the form from last year’s first-round series where they swept the Penguins while removing the heartbreak of then being swept by the Hurricanes while the Panthers will be looking to prove they are a growing threat. This is one of the matches on the East I am most looking forward to and can see it going all five games with maybe some overtime thrown in too.

Islanders win the series 3-2

Montreal Canadiens v Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

When you have Sidney Crosby on your team you are not planning on going out at the first hurdle. The fact it happened last year to the New York Islanders and the way it went down (they were swept 4-0) will not sit well with the Penguins. A healthy Crosby (he left practice recently so there is still a question mark over his health) and Malkin will make them a force to be reckoned with while you can’t look past Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel and the impact they could have. Then there’s the fact they added Jason Zucker, Conor Sheary, and Patrick Marleau before the trade deadline to bolster an already steady offense. Defensively they will rely on Kris Letang to help shut down opposition teams’ top lines but the main concern for the Penguins will be the form of goaltender Matt Murray during the regular season. Murray registered a below .900 save percentage for the first time since his days in the OHL with the Soo Greyhounds and if he continues to struggle it will be interesting to see if they trust backup Tristan Jarry enough to give him the start in a playoff game.

The Canadiens were the last team to make the extended playoff format and if the season had continued it would have taken a lot of things going their way to be playing playoff hockey. Despite that here they are and it’s the point of the season when anything can happen. Like the Penguins a lot will depend on goaltender Carey Price who had a below-average season, but unlike the Penguins they don’t have a serviceable backup to turn to should things go poorly. Tomas Tatar will need to continue his regular-season form (61 points in 68 games) to give the Canadiens any hope while Max Domi (44 points in 71 games) and Phillip Danault (47 points in 71 games) will need to bring their A-game. An on-form Shea Weber and Jeff Petry will be imperative at the back end to limit shots at Price, while some output from the 2018 draft pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi could also help the Canadiens.

The Penguins should be fired up to answer the critics who are saying the dynasty is over. As long as Murray can be steady in goal, Sid the Kid and crew should have enough to get past the Canadiens.

Penguins win the series 3-1

Columbus Blue Jackets v Toronto Maple Leafs

Greatest Show
Jay LaPrete/The Associated Press

The Maple Leafs have the talent, now it’s time to put it together and go on a run. The fact that the Maple Leafs last made it past the first round of the playoffs in 2003-04 is weighing heavily on the team and the fan base and if this team can’t win now then when? It’s not like things are going to get any better in coming years with salary cap implications of COVID-19. Its time for Auston Mathews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander to show they are worth the contracts that have crippled the team from building a truly great depth. It may sound harsh but if the Maple Leafs are going to win that line will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting along with Freddy Andersen in goal. Morgan Reilly, Jake Muzzin, and Tyson Barrie will also be relied on heavily in defense.

Luckily for the Maple Leafs, they are facing a team that is not heavy scorers. Oliver Bjorkstrand leads the way with 21 (the same as Zach Hyman for the Maple Leafs) and only Zach Werenski joins him as a Blue Jackets player with 20 or more goals. Together they don’t have as many as Auston Matthews. Unluckily for the Maple Leafs, their opponents do have a stellar defense led by Seth Jones and have gotten amazing performances from goaltender Elvis Merzlikins in the regular season. John Tortorella will be hoping that can help the Blue Jackets go further than their second-round exit last year.

The Maple Leafs will create chances, they then have to take them and force the Blue Jackets to chase the game. If they do that the Maple Leafs will control the series. However, if the games remain tight and Merzlikins can outplay Andersen at his opposite end the Maple Leafs could be making the short trip home extremely early in the tournament.

Maple Leafs win the series 3-1


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