The Eastern Conference playoff picture didn't come into focus until the final game of the 2013 season ended on Sunday night. The Ottawa Senators defeated the Boston Bruins by a score of 4-2 to jump over the New York Islanders and grab the seventh seed. The Senators will face the Northeast Division champion Montreal Canadiens in the opening round, while Boston will host another Northeast squad in the Toronto Maple Leafs. The top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins will take on the Islanders and the Southeast Division-winning Washington Capitals will oppose the New York Rangers.
The Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Islanders were the three worst teams in the East last year, so their turnarounds to claim postseason births is surprising and remarkable. The lockout-shortened season will finally kick off the playoffs this week, which is great news for fans and organizations who believed the work stoppage would prevent the Stanley Cup from being awarded this year.
Here is the schedule for all of the playoff match-ups.
It should be pointed out again that you will see projected lineups below for the playoff participants, but they are subject to change on a game-to-game and sometimes shift-to-shift basis.
Click here for Ryan Dadoun's Western Conference preview.
Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs. New York Islanders (8)
Pittsburgh won four of five meetings against the Islanders this season, while outscoring New York by a margin of 17-9. The Isles are in the postseason for the first time since 2007 and they have won all three times they have played against Pittsburgh in their history. However, the last time these two franchises met in the postseason was in 1993.
The Penguins were easily the class of the East during the regular season. They finished nine points ahead of the second-place Canadiens in the standings and continued to win despite having players sidelined who would normally form an All-Star team. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and James Neal all missed some time this year, but thanks to excellent showings from Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis as well as newcomers, Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla and Jussi Jokinen, the club stayed on the right path. Marc-Andre Fleury enjoyed a strong season and is probably anxious to rid himself of last year's dark cloud from Pittsburgh's first-round playoff exit against Philadelphia. Backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun should provide a better safety net, but Fleury will probably be fine to rebound.
The Islanders posted an 8-1-4 run in April to return to the postseason. They lost three straight to end the year, but their two shootout defeats helped them clinch and end their playoff drought. New York was led by an MVP-caliber season from John Tavares, who gets to make his first appearance in the playoffs in his fourth year of NHL competition. He led the team with 28 goals and 47 points in 48 games. Matt Moulson ended up right behind him with 44 points in 47 contests, while Brad Boyes enjoyed a renaissance year playing alongside the club's dynamic duo with 35 points. Veteran keeper Evgeni Nabokov also deserves plenty of credit for the team's success this campaign. He started 41 of the team's 48 games and posted 23 wins along with a .910 save percentage.
It's not an encouraging sign that the Islanders took their foot off the gas pedal in their final few games. Pittsburgh's defense has been their Achilles' heel in the postseason, but exposing that and keeping the Penguins' deep roster of talent in check will be a difficult task for New York. The Pens represent matchup challenges for any coach and it might be too much for Jack Capuano and his personnel to handle. Don't be surprised if Pittsburgh makes short work of the Islanders and wins this series in five games or less. I like the Penguins in five.
Chris Kunitz - Evgeni Malkin - James Neal
Jarome Iginla - Jussi Jokinen - Pascal Dupuis
Brenden Morrow - Brandon Sutter - Matt Cooke
Tanner Glass - Craig Adams - Tyler Kennedy
Beau Bennett - Sidney Crosby - Dustin Jeffrey
Mark Eaton - Kris Letang
Brooks Orpik - Paul Martin
Doug Murray - Matt Niskanen
Simon Despres - Robert Bortuzzo
Kris Letang recorded two goals and eight assists in his last seven games despite being hampered with some injuries and illnesses. He's a remarkable offensive defenseman, who should be high on everyone's draft board. Jarome Iginla tallied four goals, including three on the power play, and six assists in his last nine outings to finish the regular season on a high note. Brenden Morrow also stepped up down the stretch with six markers and 13 points in his past nine matches. Jussi Jokinen, who was a much-less heralded pickup by the Penguins, registered seven goals and 11 points in 10 games since joining Pittsburgh from Carolina.
Pascal Dupuis didn't find the back of the net in his last seven games, but he did contribute four assists. Brandon Sutter finished the year with an assist in three straight contests, but before that he had three goals and no helpers in his previous 18 matches.
The most intriguing story for the Penguins entering the playoffs is the status of Sidney Crosby. He has been out of action since March 30th with a broken jaw following a shot he took to the face against the Islanders. He was resumed practicing with the team and it's possible he could be ready for Game 1. If he is set to go then he will rejoin Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis on the team's top line and Jussi Jokinen will be bumped to a bottom-six role.
Brooks Orpik sat out two games at the end of the regular season with a lower-body injury and is considered day-to-day. If he can't play in the series opener then Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo or Deryk Engelland are available to take his place. Depth forward Joe Vitale is also day-to-day with a lower-body ailment.
The Penguins' play clicked at a 24.7 success rate during the regular season, which placed them second overall. Unfortunately, their penalty kill finished 25th and allowed 34 goals on 167 opposition opportunities.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Matt Moulson - John Tavares - Brad Boyes
Joshua Bailey - Frans Nielsen - Kyle Okposo
Michael Grabner - Keith Aucoin - Colin McDonald
Eric Boulton - Casey Cizikas - Matt Martin
David Ullstrom - Marty Reasoner - Jesse Joensuu
Mark Streit - Brian Strait
Travis Hamonic - Andrew MacDonald
Thomas Hickey - Lubomir Visnovsky
Matt Carkner - Radek Martinek
John Tavares capped off the regular season with four goals and one assist in his last five games. Mark Streit picked up 11 points from the back end in 15 contests to close out the year. Matt Moulson posted nine points, including four goals, in 12 matches during the final month of the campaign.
Joshua Bailey has collected three points in his past seven games, which qualifies as a cooling off period after he had four goals and three assists in six contests to start the month of April. Kyle Okposo has been collecting assists of late, with eight coming in his last 10 games, but he has no goals during that time and only two in his past 21 appearances.
The Islanders don't have any injuries that will impact their roster heading into the playoffs.
Their 21st-ranked penalty kill will face a dangerous Pittsburgh power play, but their 11th-rated power play should get opportunities to supply offense against a poor Penguins' penalty kill.
Forward Matt Martin led the league in hits for a second straight season with a total of 234 in only 48 games.
Montreal Canadiens (2) vs. Ottawa Senators (7)
The Senators and Canadiens split four games with two wins apiece this season. Both clubs were victorious in a shootout and they have never faced each other in the playoffs.
Montreal captured the division title despite stumbling a bit down the stretch. Wins over Winnipeg and Toronto coupled with a pair of Boston losses gave them the crown, which is a tremendous accomplishment considering they finished with the worst record in the East last year. The Canadiens were led in scoring for a second straight season by Max Pacioretty, who had 15 goals and 39 points in 44 games. A resurgent Tomas Plekanec helped fill in for the down swing of production of David Desharnais from a year ago and the addition of Michael Ryder from Dallas proved to be a savvy pickup by new GM Marc Bergevin. The Canadiens also received plenty of bang for their buck once restricted free agent P.K. Subban signed with the team. Rookie forward Brendan Gallagher and Lars Eller had productive campaigns as well, while Carey Price performed well in the team's cage for most of the year.
The Senators were hit hard by the injury bug in 2013 with several players going down at key positions. Jason Spezza hasn't played since the end of January after he required back surgery, while Ottawa also played the majority of the year without goaltender Craig Anderson and defenseman Erik Karlsson. Despite not having their top center, number one netminder and arguably the best offensive blueliner in the league, the Sens managed to keep themselves afloat and in playoff contention. Kyle Turris and deadline-acquisition Cory Conacher shared the team's scoring lead with 29 points this season. Daniel Alfredsson as well as rookies Jakob Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad chipped in with modest efforts too. Sergei Gonchar helped fill in some of the void left by Karlsson by stepping up his efforts offensively. And in goal, Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop, before he was dealt to Tampa Bay, were excellent at keeping the offensively challenged Senators in games and giving them a chance to win.
Ottawa may have caught a break in that regard if Carey Price continues to struggle in the playoffs, but this series has the makings of a tight and low-scoring affair. That could favor the Senators, who have grown used to playing in those types of contests. Getting Karlsson back from his Achilles tendon injury late in the year may by the X-factor that Ottawa needs to get their offense going again though, so they get the slight edge in a series that might go seven games. I'll take the Senators in six in a bit of an upset.
Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - Rene Bourque
Michael Ryder - Tomas Plekanec - Brian Gionta
Alex Galchenyuk - Lars Eller - Brendan Gallagher
Brandon Prust - Ryan White - Travis Moen
Colby Armstrong - Gabriel Dumont
Andrei Markov - P.K. Subban
Josh Gorges - Raphael Diaz
Francis Bouillon - Jarred Tinordi
Davis Drewiske - Yannick Weber
Max Pacioretty has potted four goals and three assists in his last seven games. Rookie Alex Galchenyuk racked up six goals and six helpers in 13 contests in April to close out the regular season.
Michael Ryder has accounted for no goals and three assists in his past nine matches. P.K. Subban also finished the season quietly with two helpers, both of which came in one game, in his final six contests of the campaign. He hasn't tickled the twine in eight straight games despite finishing second NHL defenseman with 11 markers this year.
Alexei Emelin, who has been sidelined since April 6th with a torn ligament in his knee, isn't expected to play in the postseason. His physical presence will be a significant loss for the Canadiens in the playoffs.
The Canadiens owned the league's fifth-ranked power play during the regular season, but their 23rd place standing on the penalty kill could be trouble against Karlsson and the Senators.
Colin Greening - Kyle Turris - Daniel Alfredsson
Milan Michalek - Mika Zibanejad - Jakob Silfverberg
Erik Condra - Jean-Gabriel Pageau - Cory Conacher
Guillaume Latendresse - Zack Smith - Chris Neil
Matt Kassian - Jim O'Brien - Peter Regin
Marc Methot - Erik Karlsson
Sergei Gonchar - Jared Cowen
Patrick Wiercioch - Chris Phillips
Eric Gryba - Andre Benoit
It didn't take long for Erik Karlsson to remind everyone why he's such a threat offensively. He contributed four assists and amassed 16 shots in three games after he made a speedy return to Ottawa's lineup last week. Sergei Gonchar notched a goal and four assists in his last seven games.
Daniel Alfredsson has gone eight consecutive games without a goal, but he does have four assists over that span. Mika Zibanejad has one point, a goal, in his last 10 contests and no points in his past six matches. Jakob Silfverberg has also been cold entering the postseason with two goals in his last 10 outings.
Jason Spezza has been skating of late, but he isn't believed to be close to returning from his back injury. Mike Hoffman has a collarbone ailment. He probably wouldn't be playing even if he was healthy though.
The Senators were the best team in the NHL at killing penalties this season with an 88 percent success rate. They posted the league's 20th-ranked power play, but Karlsson's return should help in that regard.