By: Ryan Suknandan
In recent years, the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs have been dominated by the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks have gone back and forth over the last four seasons exchanging championships, with the addition of Chicago’s extra 2010 championship. A team from the Eastern Conference has failed to hoist the cup since the 2011 Boston Bruins’ championship over the Vancouver Canucks.
On top of Chicago and Los Angeles’ success, other Western teams have appeared frightening in comparison to those in the East, teams that include the dangerous Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars. Each year, the biggest battles are fought in the Western Conference’s path to the finals, leading to a fairly one sided finish in the Stanley Cup Finals. This could be the year that things change.
The Eastern Conference appears just as dangerous if not more dangerous than the West entering the 2016 playoffs due to a particularly strong Metropolitan Division that has five of the eight teams that have qualified for a playoff spot in the East. With that being said, let’s take a look at the biggest strengths and weaknesses of the Eastern Conference contenders heading into the 2016 NHL Playoffs.
Strengths: This could take a while. The Washington Capitals are the second highest scoring team in the league with 252 GF through 82 games. Their road record (27-10-4) is almost as impressive as their home record (29-8-4), meaning they are never at a disadvantage regardless of their location. Goaltender Braden Holtby is coming off a career season tying Martin Brodeur’s record of 48 wins in a season. The Caps are one of only three teams in the entire league that allowed less than 200 GA with 193. Alexander Ovechkin continues his scoring ways by becoming only the third player in NHL history to achieve seven 50-goal seasons, joining Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy. In regards to special teams, the Caps continue to impress where they’re 5th in the league in PP (21.9%) and hold the 2nd best PK (85.2%). The Capitals roll four solid lines that are all capable of producing offense with a strong blue line featuring John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. This could be The Great 8’s year to hoist the cup.
Weaknesses: History. The Washington Capitals won the Presidents Trophy in the 2009-2010 season and saw themselves upset by the 8th seed Montréal Canadians in a full seven game series. Ovi has never played in the finals in his career showing a lack of success for the Caps once playoffs hit. With the addition of a proven playoff contender and leader in Justin Williams, the Caps may be able to rewrite history and finish the job this time around.
Strengths: The Penguins are the hottest team in the league entering the playoffs. After a slow start to the 2015-2016 campaign, Crosby, as well as the Penguins entirely, have found their game, going 8-2 over their last 10 games and 24-9-1 since the All Star break. Crosby finished the season 3rd in league scoring with 85 points in 80 games after struggling to maintain a point per game pace under previous coach Mike Johnston. While the Capitals earned the Presidents Trophy, the Penguins may be the team that the Western Conference is most fearful of facing in the finals.
Weaknesses: The Penguins have a strong history of injuries on their roster which could come back to haunt them if they end up making a deep run. Marc Andre-Fleury has been sidelined with a concussion for the second time this season and hasn’t played since March 31st. Similarly, backup goaltender Matt Murray experienced a scary incident and has not played since Philadelphia Flyer’s Forward Brayden Schenn collided with Murray’s head last Saturday, leaving Jeff Zatkoff with the goaltending responsibilities. The Penguins are also expected to be without star Evgeni Malkin until at least mid-May due to an upper body injury.
Strengths: The Panthers clinched their second division title in franchise history due to a healthy mix of veteran leadership and energized youth. The ageless-wonder, Jaromir Jagr, led the Panthers with 66 points in 79 GP which was good for 22nd in league scoring. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau both had breakthrough years putting up 59 points each and establishing themselves as consistent NHL point producers. Roberto Luongo has also enjoyed success while playing in Florida, putting up 35 wins while posting a .922 save percentage this season. The Panthers are a complete team with strengths and reliability at every position.
Weaknesses: The Panthers struggle most when taking a look at their special teams, where they are ranked 23rd on the PP (16.9%) and 24th on the PK (79.5%). If they hope to make a serious run for the cup, they’ll need to learn to score with the man advantage and stay out of the penalty box. Despite their struggles with special teams, the Panthers are realistically the only Atlantic Division team that could make a deep run for the Stanley Cup.
New York Rangers
Strengths: The New York Rangers are at the peak of their rebuild with many big names on their roster. King Henrik has put up another solid season with 35 wins and a .920 save percentage, and the team’s offense has enjoyed success by posting the 7th most goals this season with 233. With the likes of Eric Staal and Keith Yandle playing in the final year of their contracts, and the core of their roster only growing older, the Rangers need to win the cup this year or their rebuild will have been for nothing.
Weaknesses: The Rangers will be without Captain Ryan McDonagh in the first round against Pittsburgh, leaving a large hole that needs to be filled against an explosive Penguins offense. The Rangers will also need Rick Nash to find his old form and put the puck in the net. Nash played a shortened season due to injury, putting up 36 points (15G, 21A) through 55 GP, a definite step down from his normal level of production.
New York Islanders
Strengths: The Islanders have a solid goalie tandem in Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak, each posting a .925 and .919 save percentage respectively. On the defensive end, the Islanders have a strong PK (84.5%) which is good for 4th in the NHL.
Weaknesses: The Islanders have taken a step back offensively compared to their past few seasons. John Tavares posted 70P (33G, 37A) through 78 GP compared to his 86P (38G, 48A) that he posted last season. The Islanders also own the 17th ranked PP (18.3%) which is considerably low when taking into account the high end offensive talent on their roster.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Strengths: The Lightning find themselves finishing 2nd in a weak Atlantic mainly due to how weak the division is this season. The biggest strength for Tampa Bay going into the playoffs comes from the defensive end where they hold the 7th best PK (84.0%) and the fifth lowest amount of GA with 198. If the Lightning want to be realistic cup contenders, goaltender Ben Bishop will need to continue his exceptional play and carry his team.
Weaknesses: For a team loaded on offense with players such as Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, the Lightning find themselves with the 28th ranked PP (15.8%) ahead of only the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets. In regards to injuries, the Lightning will be without Anthony Stralman and Steven Stamkos for the entirety of the playoffs, while Tyler Johnson and Ryan Callahan remain questionable with upper body injuries. Advice: don’t pick the Tampa Bay Lightning for your playoff pool this spring.
Detroit Red Wings
Strengths: The Deroit Red Wings hold very average stats this season and don’t stand out in many aspects. The ongoing goalie battle between Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard has been a large reason for the team’s success, with the goalies putting up 41 wins between them.
Weaknesses: The Red Wings offense just isn’t what it used to be. They’re ranked 22nd in league scoring with only 209 GF through 82 games. The decline of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk is becoming more evident as the two forwards accumulated 50P (13G, 37A) and 49P (16G, 33A), which was the lowest output of Zetterberg’s career in a full season since his rookie campaign in the 2002-2003 season. The Red Wings show nothing to boast about in terms of special teams either, with the 13th ranked PP (18.8%) and 14th ranked PK (81.5%). Luckily, the Red Wings face off against the equally offensively weak Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, meaning a series victory is still possible.
Strengths: The Flyers have a strong top-6 forward unit that has been very consistent this season. Wayne Simmonds posted his highest output of goals in his career with 32, while Brayden Schenn also had his long awaited breakout season tallying up 59 P (26G, 33A) through 80 GP. The electrifying addition of calder-finalist Shayne Gostisbehere has rejuvenated the Flyers power play and has taken some of the offensive pressure off of Claude Giroux. The Flyers offense averages the 5th most shots per game in the NHL with 31.0. The Flyers’ offense must bring their game to an even higher level if they want to get into the head of the Capital’s Vezina-worthy goalie Braden Holtby.
Weaknesses: In contrast to the Flyers’ high shot output, they also allow the 8th most shots against in the league with 30.7 per game. The Flyers blue line is very thin when taking into account the competition they will be facing in their first round matchup against the Capitals. Steve Mason (.918 save %) will be the starter for the Flyers in game 1 and will need to pick up the slack from his sloppy defense in front of him if they hope to make it past the league’s best Washington Capitals.