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First Round Playoff Preview: Metropolitan Division

On paper, the Metropolitan Division is easily the stronger portion of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.  The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals ran away with the division, but the Pittsburgh Penguins went on a major surge after the All-Star break to clinch second place and give them home-ice advantage during the first round.  The New York Rangers edged out the New York Islanders for third place in the division, but enter the playoffs with a few injury concerns while the Philadelphia Flyers beat out the Boston Bruins for the final playoff spot after being one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch.

Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers

The Capitals enter the playoffs after finishing with 56 wins and 120 points, earning their first Presidents’ Trophy since the 2009-10 season when they were knocked out of the first round by Montreal.  From start to finish, they have been the top team in the NHL despite a recent slip in their play over the last couple of weeks, although some of that can be blamed on the fact they had already clinched the best record in the NHL.  They went 2-0-2 against the Flyers during the regular season, but three of the games were decided by one goal.  Washington blew a 3-1 series lead to the Rangers in the second round of last season’s playoffs before bowing out in seven games.  The Capitals were second in the league in both goals scored and goals allowed per game, and were one of six teams that boasted five players with 50 or more points:  Alex Ovechkin (71), Evgeny Kuznetsov (77), Nicklas Backstrom (70), Justin Williams (52), and T.J. Oshie (51).  Ovechkin also won the Rocket Richard Trophy for the fourth consecutive season, leading the league with 50 goals and ending up as the only player in the league to hit that mark for the third consecutive season.  Braden Holtby tied Martin Brodeur’s record for most wins by a goalie in a season (48), while finishing with a goals-against average of 2.20 and a save percentage of .922.  He’s considered a strong favorite for the Vezina Trophy.

Since the All-Star break, the Flyers have been playing the equivalent of playoff hockey just to get into the postseason, tallying a record of 20-9-6 in that time to squeeze into the playoffs for the first time since 2014 when they were knocked out by the New York Rangers in seven games in the opening round.  Philadelphia got off to a very slow start under new head coach Dave Hakstol, but their fortunes changed when rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere was called up from the AHL in November.  The rookie blue liner provided the Flyers with an offensive boost from the back end that they haven’t had in years, immediately giving their power play a jolt and setting a record with a 15-game point streak, the longest by a rookie defenseman in NHL history.  Up front, center Claude Giroux continues to be one of the most productive players in the NHL, while Wayne Simmonds has become one of the league’s more prolific power forwards, topping the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career.  Steve Mason has gotten the starting nod in the 13 of the Flyers’ past 14 games while Michal Neuvirth was injured, providing Philly with top-notch goaltending down the stretch.  Neuvirth was playing very well before he got hurt, sporting a .925 save percentage.  Now that he’s healthy again, he’ll probably be the backup as the Flyers look to ride Mason’s hot hand.  If Mason should falter, they know they’ve got a good option on the bench in Neuvirth.

SERIES OUTLOOK:  The Flyers have been playing at a very high level since early February, and following the news of owner Ed Snider’s passing on Monday morning after a two-year battle with cancer, this is a team that has a little extra motivation in the tank for this series.  Philadelphia has what it takes to give the Capitals a hard time, and the longer this series goes, the more it could easily play into the Flyers’ hands.  However, the Capitals have plenty of motivation of their own, mostly their own history of falling short in the postseason time and time again.  If Washington is to make a deep playoff run and a push for the Stanley Cup, this is the year to make it happen due to the lack of depth in the Eastern Conference.  This is a team that has been the cream of the crop in the NHL this season, and while the Flyers are an unexpected surprise as a playoff participant, the Caps simply have too many weapons, in addition to dominant goaltending, to be denied.

PREDICTION:  Capitals in six



This has been a tale of two seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins.  A mediocre 15-10-3 start saw former head coach Mike Johnston lose his job, leading to the team bringing on Mike Sullivan as the guy in charge behind the bench.  Once Sullivan was on board, the Penguins finally regained their mojo, going on a tear in the second half of the season that propelled them from barely hanging on to a wild card spot to being firmly entrenched as the second place team in the Metropolitan Division with 48 wins and 104 points.  Sidney Crosby’s play mirrored that of his team, as he recovered from a rough start to finish with 36 goals and 85 points, quieting all of that “What’s wrong with Crosby?” talk from earlier in the season.  Carl Hagelin, who scored the series-winning overtime goal against Pittsburgh in last year’s playoffs while playing with the Rangers, has been a strong contributor since arriving in a midseason trade with Anaheim, while defenseman Kris Letang has quietly had a Norris Trophy-caliber season.  Evgeni Malkin’s return is still unknown, but when he does make it back into the lineup, it will make Pittsburgh even more dangerous.  The Penguins will look to seek some payback against the Rangers, who have knocked Pittsburgh out of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.  Pittsburgh got some good news as goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who kept them afloat during their early season struggles, practiced on Monday for the first time since sustaining his second concussion of the season on March 31st in a 5-2 win over Nashville.  Before that, Fleury had won eight of his previous nine starts.  Matt Murray went 4-0-0 in Fleury’s absence before he had to leave the Pens’ season finale following a collision with Philadelphia’s Brayden Schenn.  His status is unknown at this time, so Fleury’s return would be a huge boost to the Penguins.

The Rangers ended up in third place in the Metro Division with 46 wins and 101 points, and will once again be led into the postseason by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who continues to be one of the league’s elite netminders while carrying New York on his back on a regular basis.  Despite not having a Cup on his resume, Lundqvist has proven to be one of the league’s best during the playoffs, capable of stealing a game or even a series for the Rangers at any time.  They’ll need him more than ever in this year’s postseason, as they’ve been rather porous in their own zone on many occasions this season, only to get bailed out by Lundqvist’s stellar play.  Complicating matters for New York is the fact that two of their top defensemen, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, have been injured recently.  Girardi has missed the last two games, while McDonagh is questionable to return for the start of the series with a hand injury after missing the last three games.  Center Eric Staal, acquired from Carolina in a trade deadline deal, has also been battling an injury lately.  Offensively, the Rangers finished the season tied with Ottawa for the 7th-most goals scored in the NHL this season, and are led by Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, and Derek Stepan.  Brassard led the Rangers with 27 goals and finished with 58 points, while Stepan set a new career-high with 22 goals this season.  Zuccarello finished second on the team in goals (26) and assists (35), while leading the Rangers with 61 points.  The team will als need contributions from Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Rick Nash, Kevin Hayes, as well as from Keith Yandle from the blue line in order to provide Lundqvist with some support.  During last season’s playoffs, the offense struggled to score goals on a regular basis, and that will have to change if New York wants to make another deep playoff run.

SERIES OUTLOOK:  These two division rivals are clashing in the playoffs for the third straight season, and the Penguins are primed to avenge those previous two series defeats to the Rangers, especially if either Fleury or Murray can return to the lineup ready to go.  Pittsburgh has been playing some excellent hockey over the last couple of months, even without the injured Malkin in the lineup.  They have the speed and skill up front, as well as the puck-moving ability of Letang, Trevor Daley, and Justin Schultz to give the Rangers’ defensive corps fits.  New York’s blue-liners are a group that was struggling even before McDonagh and Girardi were injured, as they’ve had issues with teams that have speed such as Pittsburgh.  The Rangers went 1-2-1 against the Pens in the regular season, and even though they’ve got plenty of offensive depth, they’ll go as far as Lundqvist can carry them.  Lundqvist has proven more than capable of the task in the past, but with the way the Pens have been playing going into the playoffs, I have a tough time seeing a talented, but flawed Rangers team being able to overcome their defensive deficiencies in front of Lundqvist.

PREDICTION:  Penguins in six



Eastern Conference Sleeper:  New York Islanders

Western Conference Sleeper:  San Jose Sharks

Eastern Conference Bust:  Tampa Bay Lightning

Western Conference Bust:  Chicago Blackhawks

Eastern Conference Champions:  Washington Capitals

Western Conference Champions:  Los Angeles Kings

Conn Smythe Winner:  Drew Doughty

Stanley Cup Champions:  Los Angeles Kings



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