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Off the Post: Eastern Conference playoff preview

The most wonderful time of the year is finally here — the NHL playoffs started on April 17. It’s the beloved first-round flurry with four games a night, no shortage of action and, if you’re lucky, the opening step to your team making a push for the Stanley Cup. The 2023 postseason headlines some top-tier matchups, especially in an Eastern Conference with so much parity. Let’s break down the four upcoming series on the East Coast. 

Alexia Nizhny/DFP STAFF

The Eastern Conference has got a different look this year. For the first time since 2006, the Pittsburgh Penguins will not be playing playoff hockey, edged out of the second Wild Card spot. The Washington Capitals, another historical powerhouse in the East, didn’t make the cut for the first time since 2014. It’s the start of a new era as guys like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin watch from the golf course while budding stars like Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko strive to make their mark in the postseason. 

No. 1 Carolina Hurricanes vs. WC1 New York Islanders

The Hurricanes won the Metropolitan Division for the second year in a row while the Islanders clinched a playoff spot a day before the regular season ended. Nonetheless, this is going to be a competitive series.

I love the build of the Canes team, led by a gutty head coach in Rod Brind’Amour. Young talent like Sebastian Aho paired with veteran experience from Brent Burns — who was just awarded NHL’s second star of the week after scoring four goals in three games — adds depth to a roster that has racked up postseason experience the past four years. 

The Isles are playing some inspired hockey right now, and it’s fun to see. Goaltender Ilya Sorokin has been outstanding as of late and will be a key piece to success for the group. Center Mathew Barzal missed the last 23 games of the season with a lower-body injury but is projected to return come playoffs. That’s huge for the Islanders –– Barzal has been a top-two point-scorer for his team since entering the league in 2016. 

No. 1 Boston Bruins vs. WC2 Florida Panthers 

Do the Bruins even need an introduction? Boston finished the regular season 65-12-5, breaking the NHL record for wins in a season while also posting a league-high 135 points. They’ve been an absolute juggernaut, shutting down teams night in and night out while creating unmatched chemistry inside the locker room.

This may be the final run for the core group of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Krejčí to win together. The B’s roster is stacked, and the vibes are high — it could be a very fun summer in Boston. 

The Panthers snuck into the playoffs just under the wire, securing the second Wild Card spot just one point ahead of the Penguins. While the team struggled throughout the year, Florida won six of its last eight games. Matthew Tkachuk has been a force in his first campaign with the Panthers, garnering 109 points and a team-first attitude that will bode well in spring hockey.

They’ve got a tall task ahead of them. My money’s on the Bruins, but I do think this series has the potential to go six games. 

No. 2 New Jersey Devils vs. No. 3 New York Rangers

The Battle of the Hudson is getting a playoff edition, and it’s going to be fiery. From Stéphane Matteau’s famous Game 7 overtime goal against the Devils to send the Rangers to the 1994 Cup finals to Adam Henrique ending New York’s run in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012, this rivalry is steeped in postseason history. 

This time around, though, the big names are different. The Devils return to the postseason for the first time in four years with dominant offensive talent on the roster, namely Hughes and Nico Hischier. New Jersey’s deadline acquisition of Timo Meier strengthened its top six, and the team as a whole dominated the Rangers in the regular season. Despite the problems they present for their opponent, the Devils lack experience, and that’s where New York is stocked up. 

Beyond the addition of veterans Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko, the Rangers have a group that earned its stripes in the ECF last year. While the All-Stars steal the headlines, New York’s offensive depth and ability to roll four lines is what has made all the difference this season and will be huge in the playoffs. The Blueshirts’ backend is also strong — and often overlooked — with guys like Ryan Lindgren and K’Andre Miller having breakout years. 

No. 2 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 3 Tampa Bay Lightning 

There are no more excuses, it is time for the Leafs to win a playoff series. Toronto hasn’t won a first-round series since 2004, and they’ve got the group to do it this year. The list of high-power, top-tier skill on this team is ridiculous. Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Auston Matthews are the obvious standouts, but deadline acquisitions like Ryan O’Reilly and Luke Schenn will mean a lot for the Leafs. Give that poor fanbase something to cheer about. If they can’t get it done this year, I can’t imagine what’s next. 

The Tampa Bay Lightning are somewhat of an ideal first-round matchup for the Leafs. While they’ve made it to the Cup final the past three years — and won it all in 2020 and 2021 — in my opinion, the Lightning’s time is done. They had a rocky end to the regular season, dropping four of their last five games. Tampa Bay has looked old and slow, trying to squeeze more success out of their almost-dynasty lineup. There’s no denying it: The group knows what it takes to win and has the experience to back it up. But that’s not always enough in the postseason, and with the way they’ve looked, I don’t think it will cut it this year. 

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