Yesterday we previewed the Western Conference matchups, which are ridiculously unpredictable. Today, we handle the East, where the matchups are merely absurdly unpredictable. Get the tough work out of the way first, I always say.
The East hasn’t produced a Stanley Cup champion since 2011, and it has long been the weaker conference. But that gap narrowed this year, and with several strong teams including the league’s Presidents’ Trophy winner and closest runner-up, this could be the year the East reclaims the Cup. But first, we need to figure out who gets there.
Last year, we’d joke about this being the division of the Penguins and everyone else. Now, Pittsburgh is holding on by a thread while everyone crowds around and chants for the Rangers to finish them. Uh, Caps and Islanders should be good too.
No. 2 Washington Capitals vs. No. 3 New York Islanders
Series starts: Wednesday in Washington
Season series: They split four games, three of which went into overtime.
Playoff history: They used to meet every few years during the Patrick Division glory days, but this is their first matchup since the Turgeon/Hunter incident in 1993.
Dominant narrative: Two flawed but entertaining teams that exceeded preseason expectations meet in a series that should be crazy fun.
In this corner: New York Islanders (47-28-7, 101 points, plus-21 goals differential)
The big question: Is the goaltending good enough? Last year, the Islanders’ season was torpedoed by terrible goaltending. They went out and got Jaroslav Halak, who was an instant upgrade and more than enough to stabilize the position. But while he was good, he wasn’t exactly great; he ranked just 23rd in save percentage. He has single-handedly stolen playoff series before, including once against the Capitals in 2010 when he was with the Habs. But the Isles won’t have an edge at the position anywhere along their path to the Cup.
One player to watch: John Tavares. OK, maybe it’s not the most creative call, but Tavares is the franchise on the Island; he led the team in scoring by 35 points, by far the most of any player in the league. Seeing him go head-to-head with Alex Ovechkin will be a treat.
Health watch: Mikhail Grabovski hasn’t played in two months with a suspected concussion, but he could return at some point. Defenseman Travis Hamonic’s return doesn’t appear imminent, and that’s a big loss.
Key number: 115.7, the average even-strength shot attempts per 60 minutes, for and against combined, for the Islanders this year, the most among playoff teams. In English: This team plays high-event hockey.
Bandwagon potential: Put it this way: The last time they were in the playoffs, we had them at no. 1 in our bandwagon guide. And that was back when they had no hope of even making it out of the first round. This year, they’re pretty good and have to be considered at least a long-shot possibility for a Cup run. It’s also their last year at their decrepit arena, so there’s a nostalgia factor in play too.
They’ll win this series if: Tavares outplays Ovechkin, Halak can stay even with Braden Holtby or at least reasonably close, and they get a break here and there, especially in the inevitable overtime games.
And in this corner: Washington Capitals (45-26-11, 101 points, plus-38 goals differential)
The big question: Can they finally get it done in the playoffs? After all, there may not be a team out there that has built more of a reputation for regular-season excellence followed by a postseason meltdown than the Ovechkin-era Caps. It’s not a fair reputation, mind you — they’ve made the second round in three of their last five appearances, and the only year that really stands out is their first-round exit in 2010, when they simply ran into a red-hot goalie. But it’s still a reputation, and at this time of year those can end up being self-fulfilling if enough people believe them.
One player to watch: Nicklas Backstrom. I could have gone with Ovechkin, but he’s already had plenty of attention over the last few months, so let’s shine some of the spotlight on Backstrom, the high-scoring center who has quietly developed into a very good two-way player. He could wind up playing head-to-head minutes against Tavares, which would be a tough test but one he could handle.
Health watch: Plenty of depth guys are banged up, but the key players are OK.
Key number: .860, the Capitals’ winning percentage when they score first, the best mark in the league. But their .205 winning percentage when they don’t score first is the worst among playoff teams.
Bandwagon potential: Not bad. They came close to breaking through for years, then fell back and were widely dismissed before a coaching change and some aggressive offseason moves fast-tracked them back into the playoffs. You could do worse.
Prediction: This is yet another series that seems like it should be too close to call. It’s not impossible to picture the Capitals running over the Islanders, but I suspect this one goes long. And since I’ve been driving the Islanders bandwagon since September, I might as well stick to my guns. Isles in seven.