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Here are my Eastern Conference playoff predictions for the opening round of the 2018 playoffs:
(1) Tampa Bay Lightning vs (WC2) New Jersey Devils
Prediction: Lightning in six.
Taylor Hall and co. will cause some problems at even-strength, especially if the Lightning are really going to use Dan Girardi on the matchup pairing.
Another potential problem spot for Tampa Bay is their penalty kill. Only the Montreal Canadiens allowed more power play goals over the last 25 games of the year and the Devils have been quite potent on the PP since they acquired Patrick Maroon.
The good news for the Devils probably ends there. They don't have nearly as much firepower as the Lightning, they don't have a defenseman close to Victor Hedman's caliber, the 2nd pairing of John Moore and Mirco Mueller is a disaster waiting to happen, and it's only a matter of time before Andrei Vasilevskiy starts playing to the level he is capable of – or at least better than he did down the stretch.
I think the Devils will put up more of a fight than most expect but I like the Lightning to take care of business.
(1) Washington Capitals vs (WC1) Columbus Blue Jackets
Prediction: Blue Jackets in seven.
The Capitals are not a great 5v5 team. They just aren't. They finished 24th in Corsi For% and 25th in Scoring Chance For%. No playoff team finished below them in the latter. They rely a lot on their power play and the Blue Jackets are one of the last teams you want to face when that's the case. It's not that their PK is anything special – they just don't take penalties. Only the Carolina Hurricanes took minors than the Jackets this season.
They are good at keeping things at 5v5, where they should have the advantage. Their underlying numbers are better and they're much deeper up front and on the wings. They also have a defense pairing that can control the game unlike almost any other.
I'd like nothing more than for Alex Ovechkin to take a good run at the Cup and silence his doubters but I think it's going to be another early exit for the Caps.
(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs (3) Philadelphia Flyers
Prediction: Penguins in six.
The Penguins can be leaky defensively and the Flyers definitely have the personnel to take advantage of that, especially if Matt Murray is not on his game.
That said, I don't think the Flyers have enough capable two-way centers, or defenders, to match up with a Pens team that features an elite 89+ point player on each of its top three lines. They're a matchup nightmare.
The Flyers have also been abysmal on the penalty kill all season long and no team scored more power play markers than the high-powered Pens.
I think this is an extremely tough draw for the Flyers. They'll make things interesting, but I think the Penguins will move on when all is said and done.
(2) Boston Bruins vs (3) Toronto Maple Leafs
Prediction: Maple Leafs in seven.
This is the marquee series of the 1st round and it has nothing to do with the rivalry aspect or what happened a handful of years ago. It's just two deep, skilled teams with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations duking it out.
I think it goes the distance either way but I have the Leafs coming out on top. They're the much faster team and I expect that to cause some problems for the Bruins.
The Leafs are also more disciplined. Only two teams took fewer penalties than they did in the regular season. The Bruins took almost 50(!) more than the Leafs.
If the Bruins run into penalty trouble, or give the Leafs an extra power play or two most nights, that could be a huge factor. Over the final 25 games, the Leafs scored 23 power play goals in just over 93 minutes. That equates to an absolutely ridiculous 14.7 goals per 60 on the man advantage. They're #RunningHot.
For perspective, the Penguins averaged led the way in the regular season averaging 9.78 PPG/60 and the Leafs finished 2nd averaging 9.42 PPG/60.
They're not going to continue scoring at the rate they're on but it shows how dangerous they can be.
Over the course of a series, something as small as a few extra power plays could be the difference. I wouldn't be surprised if that turns out to be the case in this one.
Western Conference playoff predictions: Round 1
On an exploitable matchup for the Devils and power play shooting
Five keys to success for the Devils vs the Lightning
Marcus Johansson has played better than given credit for