This is Part 1 of 2 of The Hockey Writers’ NHL Playoff predictions for the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Western Conference predictions are here.
The first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs begins on Wednesday. There are a number of factors that go into predicting each playoff series, including regular season matchups, home-ice advantage, playing styles, and injuries. Even with those considerations, the playoff results are often unpredictable.
Here at The Hockey Writers, 25 of us who cover different teams and aspects of hockey, decided to compare our predictions for the first round. Writers include: Myself, Andrew DiRienzo, Andrew Forbes, Brandon Share Cohen, Chad DeDominicis, Chris O’Reilly, Donovan Burns, Hannah Bonnie, Jeff Hawkins, Jimmy Murphy, John Bateman, Josh Boulton, Larry Fisher, Louis Pannone, Marcy Di Michele, Matt Pryor, Rob Soria, Ryan Pike, Ryan Szporer, Scott Kline, Shane Sanders, Tom Dianora, Trevor Beggs, Trevor Connors, and Zachary Devine.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Washington Capitals
The Toronto Maple Leafs, who finished in the second wild card spot in the east with 95 points (40-27-15), will face the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. The Capitals finished the season with 118 points (55-19-8).
Losing their final regular season game may come back to haunt the Maple Leafs, who dropped to the second wild card seed with that loss. Had they won, they would have edged out the Boston Bruins for the third seed in the Atlantic Division, matching up against the Ottawa Senators.
Unfortunately for the Leafs, the Capitals have been outstanding at home this season–setting a franchise record for single-season home wins. The Capitals’ roster is loaded with talent, from Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Evgeny Kuznetsov on offense to Kevin Shattenkirk, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov on defense. And of course, the Capitals have 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby in net.
The Leafs, on the other hand, have a plethora of young talent in rookies Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. On defense though, the Leafs may be without Nikita Zaitsev. Goaltender Frederik Andersen has returned to practice after being injured in Toronto on Saturday and is expected to start Game 1. Without Anderson, the Leafs’ disadvantage would only grow.
Comparing the Leafs and Capitals, Toronto’s 5v5 scoring chances for per 60 of 9.55 exceeds Washington’s of 8.45. The Capitals, though, have a higher number of 5v5 goals for per 60 at 2.78 to the Leafs’ 2.60.
Since both teams are extremely capable offensively, their defensive performances may be the difference-maker. The Capitals’ 5v5 goals against per 60 is the lowest in the league at 1.75. On the other hand, the Leafs’ is the highest of all playoff teams at 2.47. The Capitals also allow fewer 5v5 scoring chances against per 60 (8.38, compared to the Leafs’ 8.68). The Leafs have a higher 5v5 expected goals against per 60 (2.68), while the Capitals’ is lower at 2.41.
As offensively talented as both teams are, the Capitals have a distinct advantage because of their defense and goaltending. The Capitals also have more experience than the youthful Leafs, so they will likely be better able to handle the pressures of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Our predictions reflect the Capitals’ advantage over the Leafs. The final count from us was 24 votes in favor of the Washington Capitals in this series and only one predicting a Leafs victory. The majority of us (13) felt the series will end in five games.
Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
The reigning Stanley Cup Champions will begin the playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets. These two Metropolitan Division foes ended up as the second and third seeds in their division. The Penguins accumulated 111 points (50-21-11), while the Blue Jackets finished with 108 points (50-24-8).
The Penguins have a number of key injuries, including defensemen Kris Letang and forwards Carl Hagelin and Chris Kunitz. However, even with mounting injuries, the Penguins have been resilient thanks to their depth.
The Blue Jackets have unfortunately finished the season in an offensive slump. However, against the Penguins in the playoffs, they can bounce back. Their young players have thrived this year, including Alexander Wennberg, Brandon Saad, Zach Werenski, and Seth Jones.
This matchup will be tough for both teams. The key matchup of this series will be Sidney Crosby against Brandon Dubinsky. The goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky will also be crucial for the Blue Jackets against Matt Murray and the Penguins.
The teams are more evenly matched than the Capitals and Leafs are on defense, with a lower differential between a number of their statistics, including expected goals against per 60 (the Blue Jackets’ 2.64 giving them a slight edge over the Penguins 2.72). The Penguins also allow more 5v5 scoring chances against per 60 (9.2 to 8.78) and goals against per 60 (2.87 to 2.02).
The Penguins, however, generate more offense, with their 5v5 scoring chances for per 60 exceeding the Blue Jackets’ (10.3 to 9.07), as do their expected goals for per 60 (2.72 to 2.64) and goals for per 60 (2.87 to 2.57).
While this appears to be a more even matchup, our cumulative votes favor the Penguins. Seventeen of us believe the Penguins will move past the Blue Jackets, while only 8 of us see the Blue Jackets winning. Much of this comes down to the Penguins’ experience. They managed to win a Stanley Cup with a lesser known group surrounding their core. Through injuries and suspensions, the Penguins persevered.
The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, have significantly less playoff experience. In 2014, the Blue Jackets lost to the Penguins in the first round in six games. Their 2016-17 season series was tied 2-2 as well. Our predictions reflect that this series will likely go the distance, to at least six or seven games.
New York Rangers vs. Montreal Canadiens
The New York Rangers will begin their series in Montreal against the Canadiens. The Rangers, who finished with 102 points (48-28-6), ended the season in the first wild card seed. The Montreal Canadiens led the Atlantic Division with 103 points (47-26-9).
Their last playoff matchup was in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals when the Rangers defeated the Canadiens in six games. Both rosters have evolved significantly since that series, so the matchup is much different now.
Lundqvist is still the backbone of the Rangers’ team. Although this was not his best season, he is still the Rangers’ starter in the playoffs. And in the past, Lundqvist has proven that he takes his game to another level in the playoffs. He will matchup against Carey Price. This is a highly anticipated goaltending showdown.
The last time the teams met, Price only played a part of Game 1 before being injured. This season, Price’s numbers were superior to Lundqvist’s (Price’s 5v5 expected goals saved above average per 60 of 0.227 exceeded Lundqvist’s -0.098, for example). However, Lundqvist faces a higher volume of high-danger scoring chances than Price because of the lackluster defense in front of him.
The Canadiens’ defense has allowed fewer 5v5 scoring chances against per 60 than the Rangers (7.75 to 8.72). The Rangers also allowed more 5v5 shots against per 60 (30.35 to 27.9). The Canadiens’ 5v5 expected goals against per 60 was also superior to the Rangers (2.35 to 2.58).
Neither team has an overwhelming offense. The Rangers slightly edge the Canadiens’ scoring chances for per 60 (8.91 to 8.72). The Rangers also have a higher 5v5 expected goals for per 60 of 2.83, ahead of Montreal’s 2.62. However, the Canadiens’ 5v5 goals for per 60 (2.78) is superior to the Rangers (2.53).
All things considered, this is the closest matchup across the league according to our predictions, with a slight majority of us predicting the Canadiens will be victorious over the Rangers. Much of that can come down to the coaching and matchups set by each team. As it stands, it looks as if the Rangers will match the Canadiens’ gritty style, rather than forcing them to match their speed and skill game. And the consensus may be that Lundqvist cannot carry this team as he has in recent seasons. Our final count for this matchup is 15 in
Our final count for this matchup is 15 in favor of Montreal and 10 for New York. There is no overwhelming favorite for this series, nor for a particular series length.
Boston Bruins vs. Ottawa Senators
In the Atlantic Division, the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins claimed the second and third seeds. The Senators finished ahead of the Bruins with 98 points (44-28-10). The Bruins, on the other hand, had 95 points (44-31-7).
Both teams are dealing with a number of injuries. The Senators are missing both Marc Methot and Cody Ceci, while the Bruins are without Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug. The Bruins have signed their draft pick from Boston University, Charlie McAvoy, to help on defense.
The Bruins defense has allowed fewer 5v5 shots on goal per 60 than the Senators (26.62 to 29.69). The Senators also allowed more 5v5 scoring chances against per 60 (7.74 to 6.73). But the Bruins had a higher number of 5v5 goals allowed per 60 (2.3 to 2.18).
On offense, the Bruins had a higher number of 5v5 shots on goal for per 60 (32.87 to 29.81), but fewer 5v5 scoring chances for per 60 (7.65 to 7.39). Additionally, the Bruins surpassed the Senators in 5v5 goals for per 60 (2.22 to 2.09).
Even though the Bruins went 0-3-1 against the Senators during the regular season, the overwhelming majority at The Hockey Writers predict the Bruins will defeat the Senators in the first round (19-6). Of our 25 votes, 13 believe the Bruins will win in six games.
Based on our Eastern Conference predictions, the semi-finals of the Stanley Cup Finals in the East will be as follow: Capitals vs. Penguins and Canadiens vs. Bruins.
Stay tuned for our Western Conference NHL playoff predictions.
*All data courtesy of Corsica.hockey.
Graduated NYU in 2016 with a Masters in Sports Business. Covering the Vegas Golden Knights from New York.