NHL Playoff Primer 2021: East Division
Hey guys! With playoff hockey right around the corner, I'm sure many of you are beginning to think about your NHL playoff brackets. Here at The Next Great Hockey Blog, we can help! Here's a quick rundown of your four MassMutual East division playoff teams:
Pittsburgh Penguins (37-16-3)
Has a Sidney Crosby-led team ever been as underrated as this year's Penguins? Despite leading the East division in both points and goal differential, I constantly see people sleeping on the Pens. The three-time Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins are a grizzled, battle-tested team with with tons of playoff experience and leadership. The Penguins have a versatile Top 9 forward group highlighted by Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin and of course, Sid the Kid (who isn't much of a kid anymore). Bryan Rust, Jared McCann and speedy winger Kasperi Kapanen provide secondary scoring and tenacity. While the D-corps in Pittsburgh may appear humbler than most, Kris Letang and company have been solid year-round with all Top 6 defensemen registering a positive goal differential (Pittsburgh scores more than they give up when said player is on the ice). In addition, it is important to note Pittsburgh has been among the league's best in terms of their powerplay; they convert at a healthy 24% on the man advantage.
For me, the biggest key to the Penguins postseason success will be the play of Geno (Evgeni Malkin). I've always found Malkin to be a bit inconsistent in his performance- there are spurts where he flat-out dominates and then there are times where he is barely noticeable on the ice. Pittsburgh needs Malkin to be at his best in order for them to have any chance of winning a fourth Cup. This really is a 'last kick at the can' scenario for the Penguins aging core.
Washington Capitals (35-15-5)
Simply put, the Caps were built for playoff hockey. The combination of size and skill up and down their lineup is extremely scary for the rest of the NHL. Washington has assembled a lethal Top 6 consisting of Captain Alex Ovechkin (arguably the best goal scorer of all-time), potential Hall of Fame playmaker Nicklas Backstrom, shootout specialist TJ Oshie, the infamous Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuzentsov "The Birdman" and new acquisition Anthony Mantha. If that wasn't enough, they also have a very reliable D-Core led by previous Norris trophy runner-up, John Carlson. With all that star power, its only natural the Capitals run an elite powerplay (25.9% success rate). What I like best about this team however, is how often they play the body. I find Washington never shies away from a hit which is a good habit to have in place come playoff time when its 7-game series'.
One thing I would be wary about with the Caps though, is their lack of Bottom 6 scoring depth. In order to win in the playoffs, you need contributions all across your lineup. Therefore, the key for the Capitals post-season success will be getting those streaky scorers like Daniel Sprong and Conor Sheary in a rhythm.
Boston Bruins (32-15-7)
The Boston Bruins have once again had an outstanding season and its easy to see why. Love 'em or hate 'em "The Perfection Line" is the best line in hockey. No questions asked. While Pasta (David Pastrnak) has struggled to maintain the scoring pace of his Rocket Richard winning season, Brad Marchand has picked up the slack with a career year. Patrice Bergeron, as per usual, has been astute in all three zones. Boston's top line is truly a game-changer in every possible way thus, it is always the first thing that comes to mind when talking about the Bruins.
The second thing that should come to mind is how great Boston is defensively however, that is not always recognized. If you are a Pittsburgh or Washington fan, I regret to inform you that your potential first round matchup is the 3rd best defensive team in the NHL. The Bruins defensive core, that looks like Swiss cheese on paper, is actually quite good on the ice! Charlie McAvoy has developed into a Norris candidate this year and the other 5 defensemen (who again look questionable on paper) have been awesome as well. Between McAvoy, "The Perfection Line", and elite starting goalie Tuuka Rask, Boston has a legitimate championship calibre core. However, a common misconception is that the team is top-heavy. The Bruins actually have phenomenal secondary scorers including Taylor Hall (former Hart trophy winner), David Krejci, Craig Smith and Jake DeBrusk. The only question surrounding Boston is whether or not their makeshift blueline can withstand playoff competition.
New York Islanders (32-17-6)
As far as I'm concerned, the New York Islanders are an enigma. I mentioned earlier that the Bruins are the third best defensive team in the NHL this year... The Isles are the second (with only my Golden Knights ahead of them). New York does not have the star power of Washington, Boston or even Pittsburgh. Rather, they are committed to playing a very structured, team-oriented game with an emphasis on smart puck management. Make no mistake, New York is the best-coached team in the NHL and it shows out on the ice. Barry Trotz's Islanders utilize a "place-and-chase" system for zone entries and a 5-man unit forecheck. While this philosophy may not produce the greatest possession numbers, it maximizes puck recovery while stymieing the transition game of their opponent. It is not that New York never keeps possession crossing the offensive blueline- if an Islanders player sees an opportunity off the rush, they'll obviously take it! But if there is not, they are better attuned at tactically moving the puck to an area where they can recover possession and create an opportunity. You cannot ignore intangibles such as strong coaching and savvy systems when it comes to making your bracket.
Plus, its not like the Islanders have no star power! They have Mathew Barzal who in my opinion, has one of the best offensive toolsets in the league. Overall, I find the New York Islanders to be a very mysterious team that could really play spoiler come playoff time. The key for them is going to be generating turnovers off the forecheck- their defense is awesome but need to score some goals as well if they want to win postseason games. I personally believe in Barzy though!
I hope you enjoyed this article and that it was helpful to you! Be sure to check back tomorrow for information on the West playoff teams- Vegas, Colorado, Minnesota and St. Louis! I'll also be setting up The Next Great Hockey Blog's Bracket Challenge in our "Community" section after playoff seeding is finalized :)