Stanley Cup Playoffs: Eastern Conference preview

Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins begin their quest for a third Stanley Cup title in a row on Wednesday, an achievement that hasn’t been accomplished since the New York Islanders won four consecutive between 1979-80 and 1982-83. has the Penguins listed as the sixth favourite at 10-1 behind Nashville (15-4), Boston (11-2), Tampa Bay (6-1), Vegas (15-2) and Winnipeg (8-1).

Here is a glance at the first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference:

Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Regular-season records:

Season series: Maple Leafs won 3-1-0 (Bruins 1-2-1)

  • Nov. 10 @ Toronto — Maple Leafs 3-2 (OT)
  • Nov. 11 @ Boston — Maple Leafs 4-1
  • Feb. 3 @ Boston — Bruins 4-1
  • Feb. 24 @ Toronto — Maple Leafs 4-3

The skinny: Boston and Toronto were the only two Original Six teams to make the playoffs this season. The Maple Leafs enter the post-season with a solid 12-6-2 record in the final quarter of the season, while the Bruins limped home with a 1-3-1 finish last week.

Special teams could be a deciding factor. Toronto had the second-best power-play, while Boston were fourth overall in man-advantage situations. The Bruins had the third-best penalty-killing efficiency, while the Maple Leafs finished 11th in PK.

Boston and Toronto were the only teams to have three 30-plus goal scorers; David Pastrnak (35), Brad Marchand (34) and Patrice Bergeron (30) led the Bruins, while James van Riemsdyk (36), Auston Matthews (34) and Nazem Kadri (32) were the Leafs’ top goal-scorers.

Bruins veteran Rick Nash missed the final 12 regular-season games with a concussion but is expected to be ready for the series opener on Thursday.

Player to watch: Toronto centre Nazem Kadri. He checked in with two goals and five points in his four games against Boston, but had a plus-minus rating of minus-three. Kadri likely will go up against Marchand, and the latter relishes the big stage of the playoffs.

Prediction: Bruins in seven — like back in 2013. The rivals are even up front and in goal, but the Bruins have the better blue line.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils

Regular-season records:

Season series: Devils won 3-0-0 (Lightning 0-2-1)

  • Oct. 17 @ New Jersey — Devils 5-4 (SO)
  • Feb. 17 @ Tampa Bay — Devils 4-3
  • March 24 @ New Jersey — Devils 2-1

The skinny: The Lightning set a franchise record for wins (54) and points (113), despite a 3-4-1 closing stretch. Both teams had a 12-7-1 fourth-quarter record, but the Devils finished strongly at 8-1-1.

New Jersey netminder Keith Kinkaid became the No. 1 goalie in late January, going 13-3-1. The Devils are making their first playoff appearance since they lost in the 2011-12 Stanley Cup final to the Los Angeles Kings.

Also, welcome back to the playoffs, Steven Stamkos, who because of injury has played in only one playoff game in last two springs.

Player to watch: New Jersey left wing Taylor Hall. The Hart Trophy candidate has finally made the playoffs after 529 NHL regular season games and 26 more in the AHL with the Oklahoma City Barons during the 2012-13 lockout.

Hall’s last postseason outing was on May 23, 2010, when his junior team, the Windsor Spitfires, won back-to-back Memorial Cups.

Prediction: Lightning in five. Tampa Bay has too much firepower up front and the better goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Regular-season record:

Season series: Capitals won 3-1-0 (Blue Jackets 1-3-0)

  • Dec. 2 @ Washington — Capitals 4-3
  • Feb. 6 @ Columbus — Capitals 3-2
  • Feb. 9 @ Washington — Capitals 4-2
  • Feb. 26 @ Columbus — Blue Jackets 5-1

The skinny: Washington head coach Barry Trotz declined to reveal his starting goaltender, but Braden Holtby struggled in the second half and Philipp Grubauer has a .937 save percentage in his last 37 outings. The Capitals had a strong fourth quarter at 14-6-0, but the Blue Jackets were even better at 14-4-2.

Washington captain Alex Ovechkin led the league in scoring with 49 goals for his seventh Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy in his 13-season career. Columbus is in the playoffs for only the fourth time in 17 seasons and have yet to win a series.

Player to watch: Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin. This is his 10th visit to the Stanley Cup playoffs. In his previous nine playoff runs, the Capitals have advanced to the second round six times, but never to the East final.

Prediction: Capitals in six. Ovechkin will push Washington into the second round.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

Regular-season records:

Season series: Penguins won 4–0-0 (Flyers 0-2-2)

  • Nov. 27 @ Pittsburgh — Penguins 5-4 (OT)
  • Jan. 2 @ Philadelphia — Penguins 5-1
  • March 7 @ Philadelphia — Penguins 5-2
  • March 25 @ Pittsburgh — Penguins 5-4 (OT)

The skinny: Claude Giroux became the first Flyer to reach 100 points since Eric Lindros in 1995-96. Philadelphia goalie Brian Elliott performed well in his two games back since abdominal surgery.

Philadelphia made the playoffs even though they suffered through a 10-game losing streak in November; four of the losses were in overtime and another in a shootout.

Both the Penguins and Flyers struggled in the fourth quarter of the season with 11-7-2 and 9-7-4 finishes, respectively. Philadelphia, however, won four of its final five games.

Player to watch: Pittsburgh defenceman Kris Letang. He missed last year’s Stanley Cup championship after undergoing neck surgery in late February. Letang needed the entire season to bounce back and find his form.

Prediction: Penguins in six. Pittsburgh has more depth up front and a big advantage in goal with two-time Stanley Cup-champion Matt Murray over Elliott.

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