Willes' Eastern Conference playoff picks: Let's go with Pens, Sens, Rangers and Bruins
No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins (36-12-0-72 pts) vs. No. 8 New York Islanders (24-17-7-55 pts)
Season series: Pittsburgh 4-1.
Penguins’ keys to victory: There are only two things that can stop the Pens: their health and Marc-Andre Fleury. Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Paul Martin are all returning after lengthy absences. With Crosby, their SECOND line is Evgeni Malkin-Jarome Iginla-James Neal. Pens boast the NHL’s second-ranked power play. The penalty-killing is just so-so. Fleury doesn’t have to win them a series, but he can’t lose one.
Islanders’ keys to victory: They’ll need a superhuman effort from breakout superstar John Tavares and linemates Brad Boyes and Matt Moulson. Isles have a great group of young forwards. The blue-line will be challenged by the Pens’ firepower. The Pens’ regular-season dominance doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the Isles.
The skinny: The Pens’ playoffs hopes are pinned to Fleury and he might be challenged by the young Islanders.
The call: We said challenged, not beaten. Pittsburgh in five.
No. 2 Montreal Canadiens (29-14-5-63 pts) vs. No. 7 Ottawa Senators (25-17-6-56 pts)
Season series: Both teams 2-1-1.
Canadiens’ keys to victory: As quick as any team in the playoffs, the Habs are a handful when their skating game is going. Rookies Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk played big roles and will have to step up. Canadiens defencemen led the NHL in goals and P.K. Subban emerged as star. For an elite goalie, Carey Price struggles with consistency.
Senators’ keys to victory: They got by on system and goaltending, then received a huge boost when defenceman Erik Karlsson returned for the final game of the season. Interesting team. Four of the Sens’ top seven scorers were rookies. Who are Mike Zibenajad and Jakob Silfverberg? We’re about to find out.
The skinny: Hate to resort to the cliché, but this series rally comes down to the goaltending: Price vs. Craig Anderson.
The call: Upset special. The Senators in six.
No. 3 Washington Capitals (27-18-3-57 pts) vs. No. 6 New York Rangers (26-18-4-56 pts)
Season series: Rangers 2-1-0.
Capitals’ keys to victory: Alex Ovechkin was the NHL’s best player over the last 24 games — 22-13-35 — in leading a Caps’ resurgence, but Mike Ribeiro quietly had a productive season and the deadline acquisiton of Martin Erat gave them offensive depth. The valuable Brooks Laich will likely miss the first round. Young blueline tandem of Karl Alzner and John Carlson form the shutdown pair. Goaltending with Braden Holtby is a question mark.
Rangers’ keys to victory: With the Rangers it begins and ends with their stars: Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan and goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Nash, Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin were hot down the stretch. Marc Staal may be ready to return from his eye injury. Ryan Clowe was knocked out of the Rangers’ last game of the season.
The skinny: Ovechkin has to prove he can lead this team when it counts. Rangers have a huge edge in goal.
The call: Rangers in six on Lundqvist.
No. 4 Boston Bruins (28-14-6-62 pts) vs. No. 5 Toronto Maple Leafs (26-17-5-57 pts)
Season series: Bruins 3-1.
Bruins’ keys to victory: It’s essentially the same team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011, except Tuukka Rask is in goal, Tyler Seguin is two years older and Doug Hamilton is on the blueline. They’re big and deep but they can go into an offensive funk.
Leafs’ keys to victory: Everyone talks about the Leafs’ size and toughness but their key is a balanced scoring attack. They had 11 players with at least seven goals. Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk are frontline NHLers but Nazem Kadri makes them a dangerous team. Goalie James Reimer had an up-and-down year but finished strongly.
The skinny: This will be a war and the Bruins need Milan Lucic to step up after a disappointing regular season. Just have a hard time picturing Reimer beating this team.
The call: Boston in six.
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