This is part of a series of posts previewing each of the four quadrants of the 2014 NHL playoffs. Below are the four teams that comprise the NHL Atlantic Division bracket. We open with a big-picture look at each team and then close with brief comments on each first-round series matchup individually.
1)Boston Bruins (54-19-9): Boston simply does everything well—they’re an elite team both scoring and on defense, and the best in the league in the 5-on-5. If there’s a weakness is that they have allowed more shots on goal this year than in recent seasons, although the superior play of goalie Tuuka Raask has prevented that from being an issue.
The Bruins get scoring punch from Jarome Iginla and Patrice Bergeron, with David Krejci being an elite passer. There’s outstanding depth on the offense, a reason this team finished with the best record in the NHL.
2)Tampa Bay Lightning (46-27-9): There was a certain amount of tumult with the Lightning’s season. Martin St. Louis, the hero of the 2004 Stanley Cup champs, was traded to the New York Rangers amidst some obvious bad blood. Steven Stamkos, the best pure scorer in the league, missed a lot of time with a broken leg. But the Lightning held steady in the standings because Ben Bishop stepped up with a great year in net, ranking seventh in the NHL in save percentage.
Now Stamkos is healthy and scored 25 goals in 37 games. The team’s strength is its ability to play in the 5-on-5, meaning they won’t be dependent on officiating to get their offense. The weakness is the penalty kill, the worst of any Eastern Conference playoff team. You get the feeling that it’s a power play goal that will break this fan base’s heart.
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3)Montreal Canadiens (46-28-8): Top-to-bottom, Montreal isn’t as good as their record. Yes, they do have a talented scorer in Max Pacioretty, and defenseman P.K. Subban is a good all-around player and fine passer. But Montreal ranks in the bottom third of the NHL in both getting shots and goal and preventing the same. The offense is 21st when it comes to lighting the lamp, and the power play is—as you would expect given all this—subpar.
But one player can make a difference in hockey if that player is the goalie, and Carey Price has had a fabulous season. With a save percentage that ranks 4th in the NHL, Price has made Montreal the eighth-best defense in the league. Montreal will go only as far as Price can carry them. The good news for the Canadiens is that in the NHL playoffs, sometimes that one hot goalie is all you need.
4)Detroit Red Wings (39-28-15): One of the league’s proudest franchises struggled throughout the year, and only a late push got them into the playoffs. What’s most interesting about the Red Wings is that, based on statistical evaluation, how uninteresting they are. In the categories we discussed at the top, they rank no higher than 12th, no lower than 18th. It’s the essence of mediocre play, and with veteran forward Henrik Zetterberg doubtful for the first round—he’s been hurt much of the year—the dullness factor increases.
But no one who remembers last year’s postseason is going to dismiss the power of Detroit pride. Last year they dragged in as the #7 seed in the West (it was only this year’s realignment that shifted the Wings to the East). All the Red Wings did was knocked off two-seed Anaheim, then drag the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks to overtime of Game 7.
Boston-Detroit: As you probably guessed, the Bruins are a hefty betting favorite in this series, at (-320), while the Red Wings can net a (+260) profit on a $100 bet. I’m a Bruins fan, and as such, refuse to take this series for granted. That’s a basic level of respect that has to be given in the NHL playoffs regardless of who you play, and then you add Detroit’s history, noted above to that equation.
Jimmy Howard, the Red Wing goalie, was the key to last year’s playoff run and he’ll be the key again this year, if Detroit is going to be competitive. I’d like to come up with a reason to try and take the pressure off my team and reduce expectations, but if I was looking at this series from the outside on, there’s no reason not to pick Boston to win. I’ll say Detroit competes and wins a couple games, but it ends in six.
Tampa Bay-Montreal: This series is even in the eyes of Las Vegas, with each team going off at (-110). These teams are the ones getting robbed by the new playoff system—they would be #3 and #4 in the East under the old format, and now one is going home in the first round. The presence of Price is reason enough to respect the Canadiens, but Bishop is no slouch himself, and Tampa Bay is a more complete hockey team. The Lightning win it in six.
The eventual winner of this bracket will play the winner of the Metropolitan Division bracket for the Eastern Conference title. Read more about the NHL Metropolitan Division bracket.