NHL: Atlantic Division Playoff Preview
Playoff hockey is among us and the Atlantic Division is shaping up to be an exciting one to watch. Let's take a look at how each team will match up in their postseason game and if they come close to the Stanley Cup trophy.
Tampa Bay versus Columbus
The President’s Cup matchup is always one to watch out for. Being one of the most volatile sports, a top-seed falling in hockey is much less of a miracle that in other sports. Since the 2000 playoffs, the first seed has been upset five times in the first round. This year is a little bit different though. This record-breaking Bolts team will be hard for a team like Washington or Pittsburgh to take down in the conference final, let alone in the first round by a Columbus team that has struggled since the trade deadline.
Tampa Bay (62-16-4)
Tampa Bay has had an unexpected historical season: NHL records broken, milestones passed, and a new league superstar. The Lighting have been the biggest storyline of the NHL since the season began. The team has sported multiple seven-game win streaks this season, and a 10-game streak back in February. The 2018-19 Tampa Bay team is a one for the ages. They lead the NHL in most team stats and their goaltending duo hold the third best combined save percentage in the NHL and the eighth best goals-against average.
Players to watch: The Bolts are led by Russian forward Nikita Kucherov, who tallied 128 points this regular season (12 ahead of Connor McDavid, who took second in the points race). Fellow Russian Andrei Vasilevski anchors the Bolts’ defense in net. Tampa plays a very high paced, low contact style of game, scoring a lot of goals and scoring them quickly. Basically, if they keep playing the way that they have all year, the first two rounds should be an appetizer for them.
The Blue Jackets operate under a converse play style from Tampa Bay. The Blue Jackets play a more disciplined, lower scoring game. Columbus is the second least penalized team in the league, while the Bolts come into the playoffs with the third-most. That may not help the Jackets as much as it seems, though. Tampa leads the league in both powerplay percentage and penalty kill percentage. So, even though Columbus is second in the penalty kill, Tampa leads in both special teams categories.
Players to watch: The scoring duo of Panarin and Atkinson have been prolific for years in the league. Even though their stats took a step back this year, they still lead the team in scoring and should play a key role in the series. In net, veteran goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has yet to win a playoff series in his nine NHL seasons. A win over inarguably the best team of the decade would be a great storyline in this goaltenders troubling postseason career.
Game One Recap
Long story short: Tampa Bay choked away game one. They had a secure three-goal lead and allowed the Jackets to score four straight goals (three of which came in the third period) and win the game. The Bolts scored all three of their goals in the first period, and then seemingly took their foot off of the gas.
Boston versus Toronto
One of the most intriguing matchups this year is between two six teams with bad blood. Boston has flown under the radar, playing just well enough to be a serious contender for the Stanley Cup, but not put a target on their back. Toronto, on the other hand, was one of the frontrunners in preseason Stanley Cup odds. Since then, they have seen both defensive issues, a top-six forward hold out for half of the season in contract negotiations (only to underperform when the Leafs finally signed him), and an overall up and down season. That being said, the regular season doesn’t matter anymore.
Watching a Bruins game this season has been loosely reminiscent of watching an ECAC college hockey game. They get the lead early, then shell up and protect their net. They are third in the league in the goals against statistic. They are 25-5-1 when leading after one period and 31-3-3 when leading after two periods. Add to that the fact that they outscored their opponents by 20 goals in the second period and 10 goals in both the first and third periods, and it becomes clear why the B’s have been so quietly dominant this season. They’re gritty and fundamentally sound. They have also accomplished these feats while struggling with injuries throughout the season. The Bruins embody resilience and grit in the NHL. That’s their stick, and it’s worked well for them this season.
Players to watch: This team has talent up and down the lineup. It has veteran presences in Bergeron, Chara, and Marchand. It has talented, new-generation youth in Mcavoy, Pastrnak, and DeBrusk. In net, the duo of Halak and Rask is one of the best in the league. The Bruins don’t just have players to watch. They have a whole team.
One of the most highly touted teams in the preseason, the Maple Leafs haven’t exactly lived up to ALL of the hype. The expected offensive juggernaut is present, as expected. The Leafs come in at No. 4 in goals. Also, as expected, they struggled a bit defensively, allowing just under three goals per game. The only team below them in this statistic to make the playoffs is San Jose.
What Toronto does have going for them, though, is scoring depth. The team has the equivalent of three full lines of forwards with 10 or more goals. Even William Nylander picked up his play a bit after disappointing fans with his lackluster few weeks after the end of his Le’Veon Bell-esque contract negotiations. He finished the season with 27 points in 54 games. Although his performance isn’t worth the time, effort, and money that the Leafs organization put into him, he still adds skill and depth to this already talented forward group.
Players to watch: Offensively, the majority of this team’s scorers are young and inexperienced in the playoffs aside from a first round exit last year, so look to the veteran presence of Tavares to guide this team through the postseason. Also, even though Matthews is young on the stats sheet, he carries himself like he’s been in the league for much longer than three seasons. Defensively, well… the entire defense. The fact that only three of the team’s 10 rostered defensemen have more than 62 games played is worrisome in itself, but when that it contrasted with abysmal plus-minus ratings of the blueliners (four defensemen are in the negatives and two more are below a plus-5 rating), the defensive issues in this squad become all too clear. This may not prove to be Toronto’s downfall against a more defensive minded Bruins squad, but if the Leafs have any hope of making any type of deep postseason run, the defensive core will need to pull it together in a hurry. In net, Anderson has taken almost three-quarters of the 82 game schedule. He’s compiled a relatively average stat line: a .917 save percentage and 2.77 goals against average. Toronto’s play in their own zone will determine the outcome of this rivalry series.
Nathan Pullen is a journalism major. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.