NHL playoffs: Breaking down the Eastern Conference field

April 19, 2022 10:43 PM
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With less than two weeks left in the NHL regular season, every playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference has been decided. Although we don’t know what the final seeding will look like, now is a good time to check in on how each team has fared over their last 25 games. I used statistics website Evolving Hockey to look at how the East’s eight playoff teams are trending.

Florida Panthers: Without question, the Panthers are the best team in the East. However, as we saw in 2018-19 when the Blue Jackets swept the Lightning, being the best team in the regular season doesn’t always translate to playoff success. Seven-game series are heavily influenced by luck. Still, the Panthers continue to dominate the league on a nightly basis. If anything, they’ve gotten better since acquiring forward Claude Giroux. Oh, and their best defenseman, Aaron Ekblad, hasn’t been in the lineup for a month (he’s on track to be ready for the playoffs). The Panthers have a 60% goal share since Feb. 21, and they’ve backed that up with a 58.8% expected-goals percentage and a 59.9% shot share. The Panthers’ 4.3 goals scored per 60 minutes is a byproduct of their relentless attack, which generates 41 shots per 60 minutes. There’s no smoke and mirrors here. The Panthers are the real deal, and if the Western Conference wasn’t full of weak teams, they’d be the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. The Eastern Conference is different. The Panthers will likely have to play the Capitals or Bruins in the first round, and then take on the Lightning or Maple Leafs. If there’s one concern for the Panthers, it’s their on-ice save percentage, which sits at .896 over their last 25 games. Even the best teams need great goaltending to win it all.

Toronto Maple Leafs: I’m not going to go as far as to say the Maple Leafs will have success in the playoffs, but I’m not going to be scared to bet them if the price is right. The Leafs have taken down some good teams recently, and they’ve put up strong underlying numbers all season. Their offense has been lighting it up with 4.54 goals per 60 minutes over their last 25 games, and they rank second behind the Panthers in expected-goals percentage. Unfortunately for the Maple Leafs, they have the worst on-ice save percentage of the East’s eight playoff teams. The Leafs look like contenders, but I’ve seen this movie before, and my confidence in their goaltending is shaky at best.

Boston Bruins: The Bruins have run into injury trouble at the wrong time, but with David Pastrnak and Hampus Lindholm both skating on their own, it’s safe to assume they’ll be ready to go for the playoffs. The Bruins are a strong team, with the third-best expected-goals percentage in the East behind the Panthers and Leafs, but they struggle to score when Pastrnak, their leading scorer, isn’t in the lineup. I’m wary of backing the Bruins down the stretch, but assuming they’re healthy when the first round starts, they’re going to be a tough out for whichever team draws the short straw.

Carolina Hurricanes: Like the Bruins, the Hurricanes have run into injury trouble at a bad time. Starting goaltender Frederik Andersen will be re-evaluated next week (the extent of his injury is unclear). Jordan Staal and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are also out, which leaves the team without two key forwards. The Hurricanes don’t have the superstar talent of the other elite teams, but structurally and stylistically they’re able to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the NHL. Bettors should be concerned about Andersen’s health, though. Backup goaltender Antti Raanta has been good, but the Hurricanes’ chances of winning a playoff series will be significantly worse if Andersen isn’t back. The Hurricanes are a strong team, but they’ve been underperforming their expected goals over the last 25 games, and defense has been their strong suit thanks to Andersen.

Pittsburgh Penguins: An injury to starting goaltender Tristan Jarry has me feeling less optimistic about the Penguins’ chances of making a deep run, but the Pens are a good team with strong underlying numbers. They rank fourth in the East with a 53.4% share of expected goals in all situations, and while they have slightly underperformed that mark, they should play up to their potential going forward as long as Jarry’s injury doesn’t keep him out for too long. The biggest concern is they haven’t played well against the Rangers this season, and that’s the team they will likely meet in the first round.

Washington Capitals: Only the Maple Leafs and Panthers have scored more goals on a 60-minute basis over their last 25 games, but the Capitals have allowed the second-most goals against per 60 minutes. The poor play of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov wasn’t enough to sink them during the regular season, but goaltending is a weak spot heading into the playoffs. The Capitals will likely draw the Panthers in the first round and will need a lot of luck to move on. The core is getting old fast, and although they still could make a Stanley Cup run, the East is more competitive than ever. The Capitals might not be up to the task, or they could be sleeping giants. It’s a new season in the playoffs, and strange things happen. I like the group in Washington, and I’ll have no problem backing them against the Panthers if the odds are high enough. In fact, I’m not that confident that Sergei Bobrovsky will give the Panthers a lift in goal. His GSAx (Goals Saved Above Expected) is -4.75 over his last 17 games, and Vanecek has a slightly better save percentage than Bobrovsky since Feb. 1..

New York Rangers: Igor Shesterkin is a big reason why the Rangers have been so successful this season, but he has shown signs of slowing lately and they’ll need to manage his usage down the stretch. Maybe winning the Metropolitan Division isn’t important. After all, the Rangers have played extremely well against the Penguins, and meeting them in the first round might be their best matchup. I expect Shesterkin to be at the top of his game come playoff time, but I still believe the Rangers are one of the weaker teams in the East playoffs and I’m not as bullish on them as others. The Rangers have a positive expected-goal differential over their last 25 games, but I don’t believe their numbers will look as good against the league’s best. However, with the Hurricanes’ Andersen and the Penguins’ Jarry suffering injuries, the door blocking the Rangers from reaching the East finals could be kicked wide open.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Maybe I was wrong about the Lightning. A couple of months ago, I believed there wasn’t much separating the Lightning and Panthers, but the Lightning’s play has been discouraging. Of the eight teams in the East playoffs, the Lightning rank last in expected-goals percentage (50.6%) and seventh in goals per 60 minutes. They haven't been outshooting or outchancing opponents, and as a result, they’ve scraped by over their last 25 games with a 52.2% goal share. If they are playing possum, they have me fooled. I don’t have the same confidence in this team that I had heading into the season. I knew they wouldn’t be as deep without Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde and Barclay Goodrow, but it’s clear now just how much those players meant. All three are impact players on different teams now, with Coleman and Goodrow playing on Stanley Cup contenders. Maybe adding Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel will pay off, but the Lightning will need Andrei Vasilevskiy to be as good as ever, if not better, and that might be tough for a goaltender who has played a lot of hockey over the last few years.

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