Seeding means nothing in the giant game of rock, paper, scissors that is the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Top-seeded Tampa Bay lost all three meetings this season against eighth-seeded New Jersey, Toronto beat Boston three out of four times and records don’t matter when Pittsburgh and Philadelphia meet in another battle of Pennsylvania. The Penguins are the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champions while the Lightning and Bruins are among the best teams in the NHL — and yet there isn’t one obvious team to beat.
“In the East, anybody can beat anybody,” said Devils defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who won it all with the Penguins in 2016. “When we’re playing our best game, I think we can beat anybody, and I think that the opposite is true. We have to be dialed in no matter who we’re playing, and we’ve done a really good job of that against the best teams in the league this year.”
The Devils certainly match up better against the Lightning than they would have against the Bruins, who are in for a tough series against the Maple Leafs. Washington has had a lot of success in recent years against Columbus but has a big question of who to start in goal and the Capitals have not played the Blue Jackets and their additions at the trade deadline.
Before stubbing their toe in game 82 and failing to win the Atlantic, the Bruins looked like they had the potential to be a buzz saw with Tuukka Rask in goal and enough depth to withstand injuries all season. They still might be.
“You don’t want to downplay how good every other team is, but you want to be the team to beat,” Boston defenseman Torey Krug said. “We try to play like the team that we are and play to our strengths and make sure that other teams are changing the way that they play to play against us.”
That’s half the fun of the playoffs, where matchups matter more than anything than points earned during the regular season.
“There’s no sitting here saying, ‘Who’s the best matchup?'” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “You need health. You need luck. You need so many things to go your way to win in the playoffs.”
Goaltending doesn’t hurt, either. If Tampa Bay gets the kind of Vezina Trophy-caliber play out of Andrei Vasilevskiy that he delivered for much of the season, it could go on a deep run, though the same could be said for Pittsburgh with Matt Murray, Washington with Braden Holtby or Philipp Grubauer, Columbus with Sergei Bobrovsky or Toronto with Frederik Andersen.
LIGHTNING VS. DEVILS
The East’s top team for much of the year, Tampa Bay hopes Steven Stamkos is healthy after dealing with a nagging lower-body injury late in the season. Stamkos, 100-point scorer Nikita Kucherov and top defenseman Victor Hedman make the Lightning a scary opponent. The Devils aren’t scared. They have Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall, star rookie Nico Hischier and enough veteran playoff experience to not look out of place.
“We’ve been in a playoff spot all year long and we’ve earned the right to be here, so that’s what we understand as a group,” said Devils center Brian Boyle, who went to the 2014 final with the Rangers and then the next year with the Lightning. “We believe in what we have. The way we play, our foundations, systems, are what got us here.”
BRUINS VS. MAPLE LEAFS
Plenty has changed since Boston beat Toronto in seven games in 2013.The Maple Leafs added Mike Babcock as coach, Andersen in goal and have young stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
“It’s a very exciting team, a very dynamic team,” Maple Leafs deadline addition Tomas Plekanec said. “A lot of young talent on this team.”
The Bruins can go punch-for-punch with the Maple Leafs and just about anyone in the league. Led by the top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, they have handled injuries to Bergeron, Rick Nash, captain Zdeno Chara and others and just keep clicking.
“We feel we’ve got a pretty strong lineup and that’s been a constant all along even though we’ve missed guys,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “That’s just what it’s been this year. It’s just how we’re going to be. It’s become a bit of our fight song, so to speak, that, hey, we can do it and different guys in and out, guys are prepared to step in and play with whoever they’re asked to play with.”
CAPITALS VS. BLUE JACKETS
Despite losing several key players last offseason, the Capitals won the Metropolitan Division for the third consecutive year. Their reward: a matchup against Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and the John Tortorella-coached Blue Jackets.
“We’ve always thought that they’ve been a pretty good team for the last few years, not just the last couple where they’ve had more success,” Holtby said. “I think we’ve always had a good challenge against them. We play better against solid teams, teams that are coached well and it’s always fun to play against them. I think it’ll be a good series.”
At the very least, it probably won’t be a short series.
PENGUINS VS. FLYERS
These two teams don’t like each other, which should make for some fireworks in the first round. Since they last met in 2012, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins have won the Cup twice, but something about Philadelphia-Pittsburgh makes for good games.
“They’re really fun games to play,” Flyers MVP candidate Claude Giroux said. “They’re not easy games to play, but it’s easy to get up and play some hockey when you know you’re playing the Penguins.”
CONFERENCE FINAL PREDICTION
Toronto over Pittsburgh in seven games. Matthews outscores Crosby and the Maple Leafs make their first trip to the Cup Final since they won it all in 1967.