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NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference First Round Preview

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Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports

Christmas is a good time and all, but the “most wonderful time of the year?” Not in my book, sorry Andy Williams. The most wonderful time of the year is unquestionably playoff hockey time, which begins on Wednesday and will remain with us for the better part of the next two months. So now that the playoff field is set, we can all begin to mentally prepare ourselves for the inevitable overtime marathons, the game-seven heartaches and the paralyzing nervousness that generally exists non-stop throughout each game. That and we can try and suss out exactly who is going to make it into the second round and who will be hitting the links before the month of April is over. Let’s start with the Eastern Conference.

Islanders vs Capitals

About a month ago the Islanders would have been the clear favorites to dispatch the Capitals with relative ease en route to the second round, but the Islanders have been playing poor hockey of late while the Capitals have found their game heading into the playoffs. The Caps finished the regular season 5-1-1 while the Islanders have been mediocre at best and let a golden opportunity to claim home-ice advantage over the Capitals slip away in a shootout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

caps isles NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference First Round Preview

Rob Carr Getty Images

Still, the Islanders are going to be a tough out and they’ll be especially hard to beat at the Nassau Coliseum, which should be rocking as the Isles try to make history at the old barn one last time before doing the “cool” thing and moving to Brooklyn. For this reason alone, I think the Islanders loss of home ice and a chance to host a game seven at home will cost them a chance to advance in the playoffs.

Prediction – Capitals in 7

Senators vs Canadiens

While these two Canadian squads don’t have a rivalry the likes of the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs, there’s no better time to get some hatred brewing than in the first round of the playoffs. The Canadiens have been consistent all year and are anchored by Carey Price, the league’s best goaltender by a wide margin this season.

sens habs NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference First Round Preview

Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

But on the opposite side of the ice the upstart Senators went 23-4-4 in their last 31 games and are surging heading into the playoffs. Led in net by Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond, who has been one of the most remarkable stories of the year and Mark Stone, a Calder Trophy favorite, the Sens might just be like the 2012 Los Angeles Kings who got hot late and stayed hot on an improbable playoff run. It also has to be noted that the Senators seemed to have the Habs’ number this year and went 3-1-0 against them this season. Unfortunately though, I think their Cinderella run ends here to a more skilled and more playoff-seasoned Canadiens team.

Prediction – Canadiens in 6

Penguins vs Rangers

The Penguins have been the victims of a hard luck season to a certain extent as injuries have plagued the team since October. They’ve been without Pascal Dupuis since mid-November and will now be without star defenseman Kris Letang for the playoffs. Still, the Pens lost five of their last six games and barely got a victory over the “McEichel-bound” Buffalo Sabres to clinch the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. Not exactly a good way to head into the playoffs.

rangers pens NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference First Round Preview

Matt Kincaid Getty Images

Meanwhile the Rangers have been firing on all cylinders and took the last two games off essentially after clinching the President’s Trophy. The Rangers quickness, skill and defensive depth combined with superstar netminder Henrik Lundqvist will likely give the Penguins fits and result in a short series. However, this is a heated Atlantic Division rivalry. Last year’s stunning game seven defeat at the hands of the Rangers will surely have the Pens looking to spring the upset on the league’s best team. Plus, any team that has Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby can certainly steal a game or two and make it interesting. 

Prediction – Rangers in 5

Red Wings vs Lightning

Let’s call this one the Steve Yzerman cup – the team that Yzerman built in the Lightning versus the team Yzerman captained to glory for more than a decade. Yzerman’s new squad have been fantastic this year. The Lightning have been one of the best teams in the East thanks scoring machine Steven Stamkos and his new cast of young and talented forwards. Players like Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat built off of last season’s incredible rookie years and have given the Lightning scoring depth to complement Stamkos. The Lightning also boat Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman on the backend and give Tampa Bay plenty of production offensively from the blue line.

yzerman NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference First Round Preview

Former Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman - Elsa/Getty Images

The Red Wings haven’t had a stellar year by Detroit hockey standards but the streak of playoff appearances continues for the franchise for the 24th year. Similarly to Pittsburgh, any team with two major stars such a Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg can steal a few games and make this a series, especially if Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist can continue to contribute for this team. Still, this year’s Red Wings don’t have the supporting cast necessary to counter the deep and talented Tampa Bay Lightning, who are gearing up for what could be a memorable run towards their second Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Prediction – Lightning in 6

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the Western Conference as we continue to make our way towards puck drop on Wednesday night.

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