While not nearly as competitive throughout the season as their western brethren, the Eastern Conference is filled with fascinating teams. The reinvented Capitals, the defensively strong Bruins, the gritty and resourceful Penguins all make for excellent storylines and intriguing matchups. Here's a breakdown of all four series back on the east coast.
(1) Washington Capitals vs (8) New York Rangers -- After several early exits from the playoffs the past several seasons, the Capitals have reinvented themselves from a high-flying offense into a defensively focused team this year. While they initially struggled in the regular season, they found their footing and ended up the top team in the Eastern Conference, despite finishing with a below average offense. Despite their new focus, there are some causes for concern in Washington. Goalies Michael Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov are both incredibly young and inexperienced, and have struggled at times this season. The offensive talent is focused on a top line, and with very little depth after Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin. The Rangers have a distinct advantage in goal, as Henrik Lundqvist has plenty of postseason success. Top defensive pairing Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are especially equipped to handle the Capitals’ top line. The Rangers have blown out the Capitals twice this season, and a playoff upset would not be altogether shocking. The deciding factor is the Rangers’ offense; if New York’s top talent shows up, Washington could be in trouble. Still, Washington has been built to succeed in the playoffs this season, and they have the slight edge over an inconsistent Rangers squad.
Washington in 7
(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs (7) Buffalo Sabres – This is a matchup of two teams heading in opposite directions. The Flyers started the first half of the season strong, with many picking them as a heavy Stanley Cup favorite. They have offensive and defensive depth, but their inexperience in goal has caught up with them. They fell from the surefire top seed to barely hanging onto the division title from a wounded Penguins team. The Sabres have been a powerhouse the second half of the season, with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller carrying the team on his shoulders and Thomas Vanek taking care of the offensive load in the absence of Derek Roy. The Sabres are built to exploit the Flyers’ glaring deficiencies, and it’s difficult to ignore the sizeable goalie advantage Buffalo enjoys in this series.
Buffalo in 6
(3) Boston Bruins vs (6) Montreal Canadiens -- The large, physical Bruins bring their highly capable defensive squad against a Montreal team that is undersized and emphasizes speed. The Bruins boast goalie Tim Thomas, who just set the single season save percentage record and is a shoe-in for the Vezina Trophy this season. The Canadiens have Carey Price, who is no slouch in goal, but is certainly a level below elite. The only question for the Bruins – as has been since the absence of Marc Savard -- is who will score the goals for them. Still, with their superior size and defensive prowess, the Bruins should be able to shut down the Canadiens’ speed attack.
Bruins in 6
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs (5) Tampa Bay Lightning – The Penguins have been surviving without their captain Sidney Crosby and top winger Evgeni Malkin for the past three months. Players such as Pascal Dupuis and Jordan Staal have been carrying the offensive load in their stead. Marc-Andre Fleury gives them a solid presence in net, but may not be ready to steal a series by himself. They match up against a team boasting Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis (two of the top offensive players in the league) along with Vincent Lecavalier. A healthy Penguins would give Tampa Bay a run for their money; a wounded Penguins team has very little chance.
Lightning in 6