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Insider Only Handicapping the Eastern Conference

rick nashHANDICAPPING THE EASTERN CONFERENCE

DePaoli ranks the Eastern Conference 1-10 on teams built to win in the playoffs and who have the best chance to reach the Stanley Cup Final: The teams are grouped from Tiers 1-6. “Current Stanley Cup Odds” are official odds from Bovada. “Potential First round Opponent %” via Sportsclubstats.com

TOP TIER: 65% CHANCE OR BETTER OF REACHING STANLEY CUP FINAL

1. New York Rangers 
CURRENT STANLEY CUP ODDS: 13/2
Potential First Round Opponent: Ottawa 33%, Washington 32%, Boston 17%
The best team in Eastern Conference, the Rangers are also the most complete team in the Eastern Conference. They are built from the goaltender on out, a perfect recipe to win in the playoffs. They flew under the radar last post-season but expectations will be sky high in April, which could be a good or bad thing. Beating Henrik Lundqvist, though, four times in a series is going to be a daunting challenge with the Rangers having arguably the best team they’ve had around Lundqvist since he’s broke into the league. The defense is improved and more versatile from last season with the addition of Keith Yandle, and they are more explosive and deeper upfront.
X-Factor | Emerging young players — Kevin Hayes and JT Miller. Hayes gives New York the type of big bodied forward they lacked in the Cup Final vs LA and Miller is coming on at the right time as the Rangers have a much stronger top-9 than a year ago. Young impact role players is a key ingredient to winning in the playoffs.

SECOND TIER: 50-60% CHANCE OF REACHING STANLEY CUP FINAL

2. Montreal Canadiens 
CURRENT STANLEY CUP ODDS: 10/1
POTENTIAL FIRST ROUND OPPONENT: Detroit 44%, Ottawa 20%, Washington 20%, Boston 8%
The advance analytics crew will say the Montreal Canadiens are one and done this post-season with a much deeper Eastern Conference. That said, the Canadiens again project as a team that look vulnerable on any given night when you breakdown the film as the high shots against volume is a concern but they will again be very difficult to knock off four times in a series. Carey Price posted just a .919 save percentage in last years playoffs and the Canadiens still got out of the first two rounds and proved against Boston how difficult they are to play against in a seven game series because of their speed upfront and a balanced group that boasts a premier No. 1 defenseman in PK Subban and of course the NHL’s best goalie in Price.
A great goaltender and a No. 1 shutdown defenseman can take you far in the playoffs. If Price matches his level of play he’s showed in the regular season where he currently has a .937 save percentage, Montreal is a lock to get back to the Eastern Conference Final, despite some feeling Michel Therrien holds this group back.
X-Factor | Thomas Plekanic, 22 goals on the season, including 18 even strength goals, Plekanic is playing at a higher level than last season and gives Montreal a key element that Stanley Cup type teams need in a strong two-way centerman who can shutdown a Steven Stamkos or Sidney Crosby in a series.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
CURRENT STANLEY CUP ODDS: 12/1
POTENTIAL FIRST ROUND OPPONENT: Detroit 47%, Ottawa 20%, Washington 17%, Boston 8%
Top to bottom, the Lightning are arguably the most balanced team in the NHL at the forward position. They have great depth upfront and on the blueline, and they’re not a team anymore that has to only rely on Steven Stamkos. In a league where goals are drying up, Tampa Bay is only one of three NHL teams (Rangers, Stars being the others) averaging over 3 goals per game, an NHL best 3.24 G/G. Tampa Bay leads the NHL with 174 5 v 5 goals, second is the Rangers at 158. The only major question mark is Ben Bishop and he’s the primary reason there’s some pause about the Lightning winning three rounds to reach the Finals.
X-Factor | Nikita Kucherov, 25 even strength goals on the season and 80% of his points come at even strength, such an important area to get production at in the post-season. Among players who have appeared in over 50 games, Kucherov is 4th in the NHL averaging 1.45 goals/60 at 5 v 5. Kucherov is a +36 on the season and an excellent possession player, 55.7 CF% at 5 v 5.

THIRD TIER: 25-40% CHANCE OF REACHING THE STANLEY CUP FINAL


4. Pittsburgh Penguins
CURRENT STANLEY CUP ODDS: 16/1
POTENTIAL FIRST ROUND OPPONENT: NYI 78%, Washington 10%, NYR 5%
What to make of the Penguins? Even Vegas that often overrates the Penguins Cup chances are down on them. The Penguins are capable of reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009 but just about everything is going to have to go right and that’s why getting out of the second round, something that’s going to be a real struggle for them, should be deemed a success for this group. With top-6, secondary scoring concerns and questions whether their blueline can hold up over a seven game series against a team that pushes back, any extended run in the playoffs is going to come down to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc Andre Fleury all having dominant post-seasons at the same time.
The Penguins are certainly capable of making a deep run but they’re not likely to get out of the East and a big reason not to be confident with this group is they have no identity with the playoffs just around the corner.
X-Factor | Penalty Kill — You can win in the playoffs with a marginal power play but you can’t win with a bad penalty kill. The Penguins boast one of the best penalty kills (2nd) in the NHL right now and a great penalty kill can win you quite a few playoff games. Marc Andre Fleury’s save percentage on the penalty kill is .911, the same percentage he posted last season. The Penguins had a top-5 penalty kill last season but in the playoffs last spring Fleury’s save percentage on the PK dipped down to .891, and if that same trend happens again this year, the Penguins will be in trouble if their struggles to score continue into the post-season
5. New York Islanders
CURRENT STANLEY CUP ODDS: 14/1
POTENTIAL FIRST ROUND OPPONENT: Pittsburgh 78%, Washington 11%
Because of their offensive depth, the Islanders will be a handful for any team in the East, including the Penguins in a potential 2-3 matchup, that would truly be a “pickem” series and some will surely favor the Isles, but among the top six teams in the playoff picture, New York boasts the weakest goaltender, have one of the NHL’s worst penalty kills (28th in NHL) and are still lacking at critical moments in games of committing to team defense. You can go deep in the playoffs with a bad power play but not a bad penalty kill.
X-Factor | Jaroslav Halak — Has 35 wins on the season but his season has been very average  in some important areas, notably a .914 save percentage. The concerning area for Halak is an .850 save percentage on the penalty kill. The Islanders are a team no one wants to play but they’re are a flawed team in some critical areas that derail long playoff runs.
6. Washington Capitals
CURRENT STANLEY CUP ODDS: 22/1
POTENTIAL FIRST ROUND OPPONENT: NYR 32%, Montreal 20%, Tampa Bay 17%, NYI 11%, Pittsburgh 10%
With a big, strong versatile group of forwards, Washington is now a team built to wear down teams in a seven game series to go with their much improved defensive play and most importantly attention to details. When Washington plays with structure in the neutral zone and in the defensive zone, they can cause anyone in the East fits. Currently in the top wildcard spot, though, would give them an extremely tough draw to get out of the East and this is a team that when they get away from playing with structure and go back to Adam Oates type hockey, they are a very vulnerable group. They are also only four points up on ninth place Boston.
From Alexander Ovechkin, to a strong third line and the new found commitment to team defense under Barry Trotz, Washington is a threat in the East but their downfall figures to be the lack of scoring in the top-6 after Ovechkin, Backstrom.
X-Factor | Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Capitals second line center has all the talent in the world but has not taken that next step yet with 9 goals and 30 points. The potential is there for him to breakout at anypoint and Washington’s second line of Curtis Glencross, Kuznetsov and Troy Brouwer could play a huge role on whether the Capitals make noise in the East or don’t get out of round 1.

FOURTH TIER: 10-25% CHANCE OF REACHING STANLEY CUP FINAL

7. Detroit Red Wings
CURRENT STANLEY CUP ODDS: 16/1
POTENTIAL FIRST ROUND OPPONENT: Montreal 44%, Tampa Bay 47%
The Detroit Red Wings have overachieved this season with 89 points and even their head coach see’s them as a project and one of the reasons he hasn’t committed to them beyond this season. The Red Wings are one of those fringe teams where they’re a team that can win a round but aren’t a legitimate Cup contender. Detroit is one of the top possession teams, top coached teams but rely too much on the health of Pavel Datsyuk who at this time of the year, is no lock to be at full strength.
Detroit’s a team that lacks a needed shutdown defenseman and a group that can be pushed around in a seven game series. A tough draw of likely having to go through Tampa Bay and Montreal in the first two rounds hinders their chances of getting through the East.
X-Factor | Jimmy Howard played at a near elite level in the lockout shortened season, but the past two seasons he’s been unable to match that level of play, .910 save percentage in 2013-2014 and .912 save percentage in 2014-2015, giving little confidence Detroit can get through the East.

FIFTH TIER: 10% OR LESS CHANCE OF REACHING THE STANLEY CUP FINAL

8. Ottawa Senators
CURRENT STANLEY CUP ODDS: 28/1
POTENTIAL FIRST ROUND OPPONENT: NYR 33%, Montreal 20%, Tampa Bay 20%
The Senators emergence has become the story of the NHL season, led by goaltender Andrew Hammond (14-0-1). The Senators are a perfect example of where a coaching change at the right time paid huge dividends and Ottawa has gone from being one of the worst possession teams to one of the best under Dave Cameron. Ottawa is the NHL’s 7th highest scoring team in the NHL, averaging 2.88 goals per game and they’re getting it done with speed and young emerging players and when you factor in Bryan Murray’s health situation, it’s a team easy to root for. The Senators have five players 25 years old or younger with at least 18 goals this season. Erik Karlsson (19 goals, 24 years old), Mark Stone (18 goals, 22 yrs old), Mike Hoffman (26 goals, 25 yrs old), Mika Zibanejad (19 goals, 21 yrs old), Kyle Turris (21 goals, 25 yrs old). The Penguins have zero for those wondering.
X-Factor | LW Alex Chiasson – Big power forward at 6-4, Chiasson has 11 goals on the season and plays the type of game where he could impact a playoff series in a positive matter.
9. Boston Bruins
CURRENT STANLEY CUP ODDS: 22/1
POTENTIAL FIRST ROUND OPPONENT: NYR 17%, Montreal 8%, Tampa Bay 8%
All season the Bruins haven’t looked right, yet you never wanted to rule them out in becoming a factor come spring time. Well the Bruins time is starting to run out. Currently on the outside of the playoffs and ravished by injuries, Dougie Hamilton being the latest, the pressure is mounting on Boston as massive changes will be coming if they miss out on the playoffs and everyone knows it. They look like a team that’s more likely to fold than get in and any playoff success will be dictated by the team getting healthy and Tuukka Rask playing lights out.
X-Factor | David Krejčí – Has appeared in just 38 games this season and could return to the lineup Thursday night. Krejci coming back after a month’s absence and producing immediately like a No. 1 center will be critical to the Bruins hopes of getting to the playoffs.

SIXTH TIER: 1% CHANCE OF REACHING STANLEY CUP FINAL

10. Florida Panthers
CURRENT STANLEY CUP ODDS: 200/1
POTENTIAL FIRST ROUND OPPONENT: NYR 1%, Montreal 0.2%, Tampa Bay 0.3%
The Panthers are a team on the rise but now isn’t their time. Five points out of the last wildcard spot, the Panthers are a longshot to get in and if they do, they’re a one and done team.

ATLANTIC DIVISION
1. Montreal Canadiens, 100 Points, 8 GR
2. Tampa Bay Lightning, 99 Points, 8 GR
3. Detroit Red Wings, 90 Points, 10 GR
METROPOLITAN DIVISION
1. NY Rangers, 99 Points, 10 GR
2. NY Islanders, 93 Points, 8 GR
3. Pittsburgh Penguins, 91 Points, 9 GR
WILD CARD
1. Washington Capitals, 88 Points, 9 GR
2. Ottawa Senators, 85 Points, 10 GR
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3. Boston Bruins, 84 Points, 9 GR
4. Florida Panthers, 80 Points, 9 GR

About The Author

William DePaoli

TIOPS Insider

William DePaoli is the President/Founder of Inside Pittsburgh Sports LLC and can be reached at wdepaoli@insidepittsburghsports.com

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