The Eastern Conference playoff picture didn't come into focus until the final game of the 2013 season ended on Sunday night. The Ottawa Senators defeated the Boston Bruins by a score of 4-2 to jump over the New York Islanders and grab the seventh seed. The Senators will face the Northeast Division champion Montreal Canadiens in the opening round, while Boston will host another Northeast squad in the Toronto Maple Leafs. The top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins will take on the Islanders and the Southeast Division-winning Washington Capitals will oppose the New York Rangers.
The Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Islanders were the three worst teams in the East last year, so their turnarounds to claim postseason births is surprising and remarkable. The lockout-shortened season will finally kick off the playoffs this week, which is great news for fans and organizations who believed the work stoppage would prevent the Stanley Cup from being awarded this year.
It should be pointed out again that you will see projected lineups below for the playoff participants, but they are subject to change on a game-to-game and sometimes shift-to-shift basis.
Click here for Ryan Dadoun's Western Conference preview.
Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs. New York Islanders (8)
Pittsburgh won four of five meetings against the Islanders this season, while outscoring New York by a margin of 17-9. The Isles are in the postseason for the first time since 2007 and they have won all three times they have played against Pittsburgh in their history. However, the last time these two franchises met in the postseason was in 1993.
The Penguins were easily the class of the East during the regular season. They finished nine points ahead of the second-place Canadiens in the standings and continued to win despite having players sidelined who would normally form an All-Star team. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and James Neal all missed some time this year, but thanks to excellent showings from Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis as well as newcomers, Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla and Jussi Jokinen, the club stayed on the right path. Marc-Andre Fleury enjoyed a strong season and is probably anxious to rid himself of last year's dark cloud from Pittsburgh's first-round playoff exit against Philadelphia. Backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun should provide a better safety net, but Fleury will probably be fine to rebound.
The Islanders posted an 8-1-4 run in April to return to the postseason. They lost three straight to end the year, but their two shootout defeats helped them clinch and end their playoff drought. New York was led by an MVP-caliber season from John Tavares, who gets to make his first appearance in the playoffs in his fourth year of NHL competition. He led the team with 28 goals and 47 points in 48 games. Matt Moulson ended up right behind him with 44 points in 47 contests, while Brad Boyes enjoyed a renaissance year playing alongside the club's dynamic duo with 35 points. Veteran keeper Evgeni Nabokov also deserves plenty of credit for the team's success this campaign. He started 41 of the team's 48 games and posted 23 wins along with a .910 save percentage.
It's not an encouraging sign that the Islanders took their foot off the gas pedal in their final few games. Pittsburgh's defense has been their Achilles' heel in the postseason, but exposing that and keeping the Penguins' deep roster of talent in check will be a difficult task for New York. The Pens represent matchup challenges for any coach and it might be too much for Jack Capuano and his personnel to handle. Don't be surprised if Pittsburgh makes short work of the Islanders and wins this series in five games or less. I like the Penguins in five.
Chris Kunitz - Evgeni Malkin - James Neal
Jarome Iginla - Jussi Jokinen - Pascal Dupuis
Brenden Morrow - Brandon Sutter - Matt Cooke
Tanner Glass - Craig Adams - Tyler Kennedy
Beau Bennett - Sidney Crosby - Dustin Jeffrey
Mark Eaton - Kris Letang
Brooks Orpik - Paul Martin
Doug Murray - Matt Niskanen
Simon Despres - Robert Bortuzzo
Kris Letang recorded two goals and eight assists in his last seven games despite being hampered with some injuries and illnesses. He's a remarkable offensive defenseman, who should be high on everyone's draft board. Jarome Iginla tallied four goals, including three on the power play, and six assists in his last nine outings to finish the regular season on a high note. Brenden Morrow also stepped up down the stretch with six markers and 13 points in his past nine matches. Jussi Jokinen, who was a much-less heralded pickup by the Penguins, registered seven goals and 11 points in 10 games since joining Pittsburgh from Carolina.
Pascal Dupuis didn't find the back of the net in his last seven games, but he did contribute four assists. Brandon Sutter finished the year with an assist in three straight contests, but before that he had three goals and no helpers in his previous 18 matches.
The most intriguing story for the Penguins entering the playoffs is the status of Sidney Crosby. He has been out of action since March 30th with a broken jaw following a shot he took to the face against the Islanders. He was resumed practicing with the team and it's possible he could be ready for Game 1. If he is set to go then he will rejoin Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis on the team's top line and Jussi Jokinen will be bumped to a bottom-six role.
Brooks Orpik sat out two games at the end of the regular season with a lower-body injury and is considered day-to-day. If he can't play in the series opener then Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo or Deryk Engelland are available to take his place. Depth forward Joe Vitale is also day-to-day with a lower-body ailment.
The Penguins' play clicked at a 24.7 success rate during the regular season, which placed them second overall. Unfortunately, their penalty kill finished 25th and allowed 34 goals on 167 opposition opportunities.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Matt Moulson - John Tavares - Brad Boyes
Joshua Bailey - Frans Nielsen - Kyle Okposo
Michael Grabner - Keith Aucoin - Colin McDonald
Eric Boulton - Casey Cizikas - Matt Martin
David Ullstrom - Marty Reasoner - Jesse Joensuu
Mark Streit - Brian Strait
Travis Hamonic - Andrew MacDonald
Thomas Hickey - Lubomir Visnovsky
Matt Carkner - Radek Martinek
John Tavares capped off the regular season with four goals and one assist in his last five games. Mark Streit picked up 11 points from the back end in 15 contests to close out the year. Matt Moulson posted nine points, including four goals, in 12 matches during the final month of the campaign.
Joshua Bailey has collected three points in his past seven games, which qualifies as a cooling off period after he had four goals and three assists in six contests to start the month of April. Kyle Okposo has been collecting assists of late, with eight coming in his last 10 games, but he has no goals during that time and only two in his past 21 appearances.
The Islanders don't have any injuries that will impact their roster heading into the playoffs.
Their 21st-ranked penalty kill will face a dangerous Pittsburgh power play, but their 11th-rated power play should get opportunities to supply offense against a poor Penguins' penalty kill.
Forward Matt Martin led the league in hits for a second straight season with a total of 234 in only 48 games.
Montreal Canadiens (2) vs. Ottawa Senators (7)
The Senators and Canadiens split four games with two wins apiece this season. Both clubs were victorious in a shootout and they have never faced each other in the playoffs.
Montreal captured the division title despite stumbling a bit down the stretch. Wins over Winnipeg and Toronto coupled with a pair of Boston losses gave them the crown, which is a tremendous accomplishment considering they finished with the worst record in the East last year. The Canadiens were led in scoring for a second straight season by Max Pacioretty, who had 15 goals and 39 points in 44 games. A resurgent Tomas Plekanec helped fill in for the down swing of production of David Desharnais from a year ago and the addition of Michael Ryder from Dallas proved to be a savvy pickup by new GM Marc Bergevin. The Canadiens also received plenty of bang for their buck once restricted free agent P.K. Subban signed with the team. Rookie forward Brendan Gallagher and Lars Eller had productive campaigns as well, while Carey Price performed well in the team's cage for most of the year.
The Senators were hit hard by the injury bug in 2013 with several players going down at key positions. Jason Spezza hasn't played since the end of January after he required back surgery, while Ottawa also played the majority of the year without goaltender Craig Anderson and defenseman Erik Karlsson. Despite not having their top center, number one netminder and arguably the best offensive blueliner in the league, the Sens managed to keep themselves afloat and in playoff contention. Kyle Turris and deadline-acquisition Cory Conacher shared the team's scoring lead with 29 points this season. Daniel Alfredsson as well as rookies Jakob Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad chipped in with modest efforts too. Sergei Gonchar helped fill in some of the void left by Karlsson by stepping up his efforts offensively. And in goal, Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop, before he was dealt to Tampa Bay, were excellent at keeping the offensively challenged Senators in games and giving them a chance to win.
Ottawa may have caught a break in that regard if Carey Price continues to struggle in the playoffs, but this series has the makings of a tight and low-scoring affair. That could favor the Senators, who have grown used to playing in those types of contests. Getting Karlsson back from his Achilles tendon injury late in the year may by the X-factor that Ottawa needs to get their offense going again though, so they get the slight edge in a series that might go seven games. I'll take the Senators in six in a bit of an upset.
Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - Rene Bourque
Michael Ryder - Tomas Plekanec - Brian Gionta
Alex Galchenyuk - Lars Eller - Brendan Gallagher
Brandon Prust - Ryan White - Travis Moen
Colby Armstrong - Gabriel Dumont
Andrei Markov - P.K. Subban
Josh Gorges - Raphael Diaz
Francis Bouillon - Jarred Tinordi
Davis Drewiske - Yannick Weber
Max Pacioretty has potted four goals and three assists in his last seven games. Rookie Alex Galchenyuk racked up six goals and six helpers in 13 contests in April to close out the regular season.
Michael Ryder has accounted for no goals and three assists in his past nine matches. P.K. Subban also finished the season quietly with two helpers, both of which came in one game, in his final six contests of the campaign. He hasn't tickled the twine in eight straight games despite finishing second NHL defenseman with 11 markers this year.
Alexei Emelin, who has been sidelined since April 6th with a torn ligament in his knee, isn't expected to play in the postseason. His physical presence will be a significant loss for the Canadiens in the playoffs.
The Canadiens owned the league's fifth-ranked power play during the regular season, but their 23rd place standing on the penalty kill could be trouble against Karlsson and the Senators.
Colin Greening - Kyle Turris - Daniel Alfredsson
Milan Michalek - Mika Zibanejad - Jakob Silfverberg
Erik Condra - Jean-Gabriel Pageau - Cory Conacher
Guillaume Latendresse - Zack Smith - Chris Neil
Matt Kassian - Jim O'Brien - Peter Regin
Marc Methot - Erik Karlsson
Sergei Gonchar - Jared Cowen
Patrick Wiercioch - Chris Phillips
Eric Gryba - Andre Benoit
It didn't take long for Erik Karlsson to remind everyone why he's such a threat offensively. He contributed four assists and amassed 16 shots in three games after he made a speedy return to Ottawa's lineup last week. Sergei Gonchar notched a goal and four assists in his last seven games.
Daniel Alfredsson has gone eight consecutive games without a goal, but he does have four assists over that span. Mika Zibanejad has one point, a goal, in his last 10 contests and no points in his past six matches. Jakob Silfverberg has also been cold entering the postseason with two goals in his last 10 outings.
Jason Spezza has been skating of late, but he isn't believed to be close to returning from his back injury. Mike Hoffman has a collarbone ailment. He probably wouldn't be playing even if he was healthy though.
The Senators were the best team in the NHL at killing penalties this season with an 88 percent success rate. They posted the league's 20th-ranked power play, but Karlsson's return should help in that regard.
Washington Capitals (3) vs. New York Rangers (6)
The Capitals and Rangers have met three times in the past four years, so they should be fairly familiar with one another. The Blueshirts won two of three meetings from the Caps during the regular season.
The Capitals began the first two months of the lockout-shortened campaign with a troubling 7-11-1 record and they didn't appear to be close to a playoff contending team. Thanks to a red hot April and the struggles of their Southeast Division brethren, Washington was able to finish atop their division and make it into the postseason. The Rangers also performed below expectations for the greater part of the year before they turned it around and claimed a playoff berth late in the season.
Washington was led by Alex Ovechkin, who received plenty of criticism in the early going, before he ended up netting an NHL-best 32 goals and registering 56 points in 48 games. Offensive defenseman Mike Green also re-emerged as a legitimate fantasy threat with 10 markers and nine assists in his past 18 contests. Mike Ribeiro's arrival in Washington gave the club newfound depth in the middle that they've never had before behind Nicklas Backstrom, while Braden Holtby performed well between the pipes en route to snagging the team's number one job.
The Rangers posted a 10-3-1 record in April to finish sixth in the Eastern Conference. It was bold of the team to trade away disgruntled sniper Marian Gaborik, but the roster overhaul appeared to spark New York. New acquisitions Derick Brassard, John Moore and Ryane Clowe, who was acquired from San Jose, played a helping hand in the team's late-season surge. However, most of the heavy lifting was done by Rick Nash and his team-leading 21 goals as well leading scorer Derek Stepan, who had 44 points in 48 games, and Brad Richards, who ended the regular season on a high note. In goal, Henrik Lundqvist managed to post a solid year despite the team's struggles.
Both teams have been playing at a high level for a while now, so neither one has an advantage in that respect. The Capitals have home ice advantage this time, which helped the Rangers in Game 7 of the 2012 playoffs. Washington's lethal power play could also give them an edge in the series and it will be harder to hold Ovechkin in check if Marc Staal remains absent from the Rangers' blueline. Look for the Caps to win in six games.
Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Marcus Johansson
Troy Brouwer - Mike Ribeiro - Martin Erat
Eric Fehr - Mathieu Perreault - Jason Chimera
Jay Beagle - Matt Hendricks - Aaron Volpatti
Brooks Laich - Wojtek Wolski - Joel Ward
Karl Alzner - Mike Green
John Erskine - John Carlson
Jack Hillen - Steven Oleksy
Tom Poti - Jeff Schultz
Alex Ovechkin has been firing on all cylinders. He tallied 14 goals and eight helpers in 13 matches during the month of April to vault his way back into fantasy stardom. Mike Green concluded the regular season with four markers and 11 points in his last eight contests. Braden Holtby has won nine of his past 10 outings heading into the postseason.
Marcus Johansson doesn't really qualify as cold with nine assists in his last 13 games, but he has only goal during that span and had six in 34 contests this season. Trade-deadline acquisition Martin Erat has one goal and two assists in nine matches with Washington since being traded from Nashville. He ended the regular season with no points in four games. John Carlson had no points in his final five contests and two helpers in his last eight appearances.
Brooks Laich and Joel Ward would probably be on Washington's opening day playoff roster, but injuries may relegate them both to the sidelines. Laich reportedly underwent sports hernia surgery earlier this month and he may not be available until the second round of the postseason. Ward has been dealing with a knee contusion and his status is uncertain for Game 1. Tom Poti hasn't played since March 17 due to back injury and if he was healthy then he would still be hard pressed to play since he has dropped down the team's depth chart.
The Capitals finished the league's best power play after they scored 44 goals on 164 opportunities for a 26.8 efficiency rating. Their penalty kill proved to be an issue though, as they finished 27th in the NHL with a 77.9 kill rate.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Rick Nash - Brad Richards - Mats Zuccarello
Carl Hagelin - Derek Stepan - Ryan Callahan
Taylor Pyatt - Derick Brassard - Chris Kreider
Darroll Powe - Kris Newbury - Arron Asham
Ryane Clowe - Brian Boyle - Derek Dorsett
Michael Del Zotto - Daniel Girardi
Ryan McDonagh - Anton Stralman
John Moore - Steve Eminger
Matt Gilroy - Roman Hamrlik
Ryan Callahan will head into the postseason riding a seven-game scoring streak. During that time, he has picked up five goals and six assists. Brad Richards also ended the regular season on a scoring tear with 11 points during his six-game spree. Derek Stepan racked up eight goals and 11 helpers in 14 April contests.
Rick Nash ended a mini three-game pointless skid with two goals in New York's season finale against New Jersey. Carl Hagelin posted two goals and four assists in his last nine matches to somewhat shake off a seven-game scoring drought before that.
Ryane Clowe's status going into the playoffs is unclear after he missed the last game of the year because of a leg issue and an elbow he took to the head. If he's available to play in Game 1 then he'll probably slot onto the third line and rookie Chris Kreider could come out of the lineup. Brian Boyle has been out of action since April 16th because of a lower-body injury. He likely won't be ready for the start of the postseason. Derek Dorsett, who the Rangers acquired as part of the Gaborik trade, is hoping to get clearance for contact soon after he suffered a broken clavicle back on March 7th. Marc Staal hasn't played since March 5th after he was hit the face by a puck and his return is still cloudy at best. He continues to suffer from blurry vision, but he has been skating with his teammates.
The Rangers had one of the better records in the East at home this season, with a mark of 16-6-2, but they weren't nearly as effective on the road with a 10-12-2 record.
New York finished with the league's 23rd ranked power play and they were 15th on the penalty kill, so they shouldn't be expected to make much noise on special teams.
Boston Bruins (4) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (5)
The Bruins won three out of the four games they played Toronto during the regular season and the Leafs had trouble with Boston over the past couple of years. The Original Six clubs have not faced off in the postseason since 1974. The Leafs are also back in the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Boston struggled down the stretch with a 3-5-2 record in their last 10 games and it ended up costing them the Northeast Division title. They were a powerhouse in the league earlier in the year though and could be one of the better teams in the East if they can rediscover their touch in the postseason. The Bruins got the bulk of their offense from the line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin, but David Krejci had a solid campaign as well despite the ineffective production of his linemates Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton. Jaromir Jagr helped make up for some of that offense after came over in a trade from Dallas. Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg will be counted to be pillars on the blueline, while Tuukka Rask did a superb job as the team's starter after Tim Thomas decided to take the year off.
Toronto isn't playing their best hockey either as the playoffs begin. The club was outshot often by the opposition in their final games and they haven't put up many shots against opposing goaltenders, which isn't usually a recipe for success. Toronto will need netminder James Reimer to be at his best if they want to advance against Boston. He has posted a .924 save percentage and four shutouts this year and has played the Bruins fairly well this campaign. The Leafs were led in scoring by Phil Kessel, who finished in a tie for seventh in the league, with 52 points in 48 games. New regulars Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk followed behind the former Bruins winger in Toronto's point hierarchy, while Joffrey Lupul was productive when he wasn't injured. Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson were very good contributors on Toronto's back end.
The Bruins and Leafs should be one of, if not the most physical series in the opening round. Both teams pride themselves on playing a tough style and their meetings in the regular season had plenty of big hits as well. If Toronto can outplay Boston at their own game and Kessel can find a way to break free of Chara then they may stand a chance, but the playoff hardened Bruins will be tough to beat. I'll say Boston takes the series in six games.
Brad Marchand - Patrice Bergeron - Tyler Seguin
Milan Lucic - David Krejci - Nathan Horton
Jaromir Jagr - Chris Kelly - Rich Peverley
Daniel Paille - Gregory Campbell - Shawn Thornton
Carl Soderberg - Kaspars Daugavins - Jay Pandolfo
Zdeno Chara - Dennis Seidenberg
Andrew Ference - Johnny Boychuk
Wade Redden - Adam McQuaid
Dougie Hamilton - Aaron Johnson
Jaromir Jagr has nine points in 11 games with the Bruins since being traded from Dallas. While it doesn't qualify as hot, Milan Lucic displayed a lukewarm streak to end the regular season by posting a goal and two assists in his last two games. He had just two points in his previous nine matches.
Patrice Bergeron picked up one assist in nine contests to close out the regular season. Zdeno Chara has no goals, two helpers and a minus-three rating in his past eight appearances. Chris Kelly has registered three points in his last 11 contests and he has posted a mere nine points in 34 matches this campaign.
Nathan Horton has missed five games with an upper-body injury, but he might be ready for Game 1 of the series. If he isn't good to go then Rich Peverley or Jaromir Jagr are likely candidates to move up to the second line. Dougie Hamilton, Carl Soderberg and Kaspars Daugavins are probable to start out as healthy scratches due to their lack of experience, but that doesn't mean they won't get a chance to play at some point. Jagr has sat out the last three contests with the flu, but we expect him to play in the series opener.
The Bruins finished 26th with the man advantage this campaign and ended up with the fourth best penalty kill to offset the difference.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Phil Kessel
Joffrey Lupul - Nazem Kadri - Nikolai Kulemin
Clarke MacArthur - Mikhail Grabovski - Leo Komarov
Frazer McLaren - Jay McClement - Colton Orr
Matt Frattin - Joe Colborne - Ryan Hamilton
Carl Gunnarsson - Dion Phaneuf
Cody Franson - Mark Fraser
Ryan O'Bryne - John-Michael Liles
Mike Kostka - Jake Gardiner
Phil Kessel has been scorching hot with 10 goals and 18 points in his last 11 outings. Cody Franson racked up 10 points in 12 contests to finish the regular season. Joffrey Lupul totaled three markers and one assist in five matches at the end of the year. He skated in just 16 games this season, but amassed 11 goals and 18 points when he wasn't sidelined due to injury.
Nikolai Kulemin has no goals and only two assists in 11 games entering the postseason. James van Riemsdyk has two markers in seven tilts and Mikhail Grabovski has one goal and one assist in his past 15 appearances.
The status of Toronto center Tyler Bozak is unclear after he missed the last two games of the regular season with what is believed to be shoulder injury. He is listed as day-to-day and if he can't play in Game 1 then the Leafs will be without their top faceoff man when the playoffs begin in Boston. Nazem Kadri would probably center the top line if Bozak isn't able to dress. Ryan O'Byrne may get a chance to re-enter the lineup to give the Leafs some size on the blueline against the big Bruins.
Toronto's penalty kill vastly improved this season after years of issues. The Leafs had the second-best penalty kill in 2013 and they owned the league's 14th-ranked power play.
The Leafs also finished third in the league in blocked shots (428) and first in the NHL with 1,626 hits. Leo Komarov led the team in that regard with 176, which placed him fifth among all skaters.