The NHL's regular season is over, which means that the very best time of the year has arrived. That's right—no more shootouts, and the loser point is dead until October!
Oh, it also means the playoffs are here, if you're into that.
Round One gets started on Wednesday, which gives us a few days to break down the matchups, crunch the numbers, and make some predictions that we'll be forced to delete in embarrassment within two weeks. Today, we'll start with the four Eastern Conference matchups. We'll be back later in the week with the West.
This was the league's best division all season long, thanks to the presence of four powerhouse teams. Now it's the playoffs, which means it suddenly has three powerhouse teams and one underdog from the Atlantic, because the NHL's playoff format is weird.
#1 Washington Capitals vs. WC Toronto Maple Leafs
In this corner: The Capitals (55-19-8, 118 points, +84 goals differential not counting shootouts), the winners of the Presidents' Trophy for best regular-season record for the second straight year.
And in this corner: The Maple Leafs (40-27-15, 95 points, +16), who made the unlikely leap from dead last to the playoffs in a single season.
Head-to-head: The Capitals took two of three, including a 4-1 win last week.
Dominant narrative: The plucky band of bright-eyed kids versus the powerhouse that should crush them. It's hard to overstate just how good the Maple Leafs rookie class was—it may be in the discussion for the very best the league has ever seen. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Willie Nylander get the attention, but there are first-year players up and down the roster. That makes the Leafs' playoff appearance all the more remarkable. It should also make them easy fodder for a deep, experienced, and very good Capitals team.
Injury report: The Capitals were without John Carlson for the last three games, although it sounds like he should be back for Game One. The Maple Leafs were remarkably healthy all year, and then lost goalie Frederik Andersen and defensemen Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak over the final weekend. The team says Andersen will be OK, but we're not sure on the two blueliners.
The big question: What could go wrong? Seriously, it's the Capitals, so history tells us that something terrible will happen eventually, and Washington fans will watch the entire postseason through their fingers waiting for the inevitable. In that sense, the Maple Leafs could make for a classic took-them-too-lightly upset special. More likely, they're the team the Capitals sweep aside easily to make the second-round loss to the Penguins hurt even more.
One player to watch: Nylander. Matthews will win the Calder as rookie of the year, and Marner will probably finish in the top five, but Nylander may have been better than both down the stretch. He's got freakish vision that lets him make two or three "how did he see that?" passes per game, and a Kessel-esque release on his wrist shot. He's far from a complete player at this point, and he doesn't have the pure superstar potential that Matthews does, but if anyone's going to have the kind of breakout series that catches some off guard, he could be the guy.
Key number: One. That's the total postseasons in Alexander Ovechkin's career in which he's scored more than five goals. (Weirdly, he's scored exactly five goals in five different playoffs.) If the Leafs are missing two of their three defensemen on the right side, Ovechkin may crack that five-goal mark by the second intermission of Game One.
Prediction: Capitals in five.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: The Leafs win Game One in overtime and everyone on both sides of the aisle loses their minds. Then the Caps cruise to four straight blowouts.