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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
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Do You Mind If We Dance With Your Dates? - NHL First Round Preview: Eastern Conference

The Habs and top-seeded Flyers will face off in the first round of this weird-ass playoff year.
The Habs and top-seeded Flyers will face off in the first round of this weird-ass playoff year.
Photo: Getty

In a bit of true hockey hilarity, the actual NHL bubble-ized playoffs will begin without either of the “hosts” on Tuesday. Both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers scheduled a date for their respective faces with the pavement, and hence will have to watch these modified playoffs take place in their hometowns without them. You have to truly color outside the lines to get thrown out of your own party (though we’ve all done it, right folks?), but this being the Oilers and Leafs, it’s not the big of a surprise.

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Despite the objections of Leafs fans however, the playoffs will continue without them, and probably not even with the 10-minutes of silence to mourn the Leafs exit that they are demanding. There are two 12-seeds and an 11-seed left, only upping the weirdness of it all. But weirdness is what hockey does.

The real question for the top four seeds in each conference, who now enter the real fray, is just how they’re going to go from 0-to-60 in such a short amount of time. The “round robin” games to determine seeding mostly looked like glorified preseason games, while the other teams were competing in win-or-go-home affairs. Maybe it’s a disadvantage, maybe it’s an advantage in that these teams had a greater amount of time to find their rhythm and touch. We’ll find out quickly.

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Anyway, let’s line ‘em up, East first.

Philadelphia Flyers (1) vs. Montreal Canadiens (12)

If you were to just look at seeding, this looks like yet another mismatch. But the Flyers don’t really have much business being a top-seed in the East. They were 11 points off the Bruins in the regular season, and their goal-difference was dwarfed by Boston’s and Tampa’s. But them’s the rules, so here we are.

The Habs might think they’ve run into something similar to the Penguins and fancy their chances. And it’s true that the metrics have the Flyers and Penguins pegged at just about the same. What they won’t find is an injured star, as Sidney Crosby was clearly not himself in the play-in round. Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux are just fine, and the Flyers have far more depth than the Penguins came armed with, e.g. 74-year-old Patrick Marleau and five guys with hyphens in their names. While extremely young, the Flyers do get contributions from just about all 12 forwards, so the Canadiens can’t just focus Phillip Danault on one center with the instructions of “sick ‘im!” Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin will actually have to do something this series, and they won’t.

And the Canadiens won’t have a huge advantage in goal. Matt Murray wasn’t all that bad for the Pens, but not good enough. Carter Hart has been pulling the Flyers’ asses out of various slings all year and was solid in the round robin, whatever urgency those games had or not. Hart ranked fourth during the regular season in goals saved above expected, and the Canadiens were already short on top-line snipers. Anyone can turn into Mike Bossy for one series, it’s just that the Flyers have more candidates. They are not the best team in the East, but they’re better than Montreal. Smart money says there will be Cold Ones in Round 2.

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Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (9)

Perhaps Leafs fans should be thankful that they don’t have to watch their team get swatted aside by the Lightning in the first round. We’ll keep repeating that it’s hard to gauge what exactly the round-robin games were, but the Bolts didn’t look too far off the team that went 31-12-3 from December 1st on at times. Though they looked spotty against the Flyers, their attention level was fuzzy.

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The narratives will fly with this one, as the Jackets are the team that put the Lightning to the sword last year in the most embarrassing result for a Presidents’ Trophy winner in history. And seeing how quickly the Lightning were to panic in that one, one wonders about their itchiness level already. Should they fall behind Columbus again, or even see goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy give up yet another bad goal, as is his wont at this time of year, the gremlins might start getting the beer pong table ready in Tampa’s head.

Still, just like last year, the Lightning are better equipped to deal with John Tortorella’s trapping ways than the Leafs were. Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, and Kevin Shattenkirk can all be trap-busters, and the amount of firepower the Lightning have isn’t too far off what Toronto has.

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But the Jackets have become experts at this, picking their spots and not missing when they get a chance. They’ve also benefited from goalies who went a little funny in the head. This one basically comes down to how much Vasilevskiy fills his pants or doesn’t.

Washington Capitals (3) vs. New York Islanders (7)

If the Lightning-Jackets series didn’t satisfy hockey media’s fix for narratives, this one will as Islanders coach Barry Trotz faces the team he led to a Cup two years ago. And much like that previous matchup, it’ll be one team being energy vampires and the other trying to stay awake long enough to get through the Islanders’ defensive ways. The Panthers certainly weren’t built for it and were soundly beaten. The Caps aren’t the Cats, though.

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Still, facing a team like the Islanders is the sharpest turnaround from the laconic round-robin games the Capitals could have gotten. Beating the Isles means working incredibly hard and being incredibly patient, because no chance or mistake is simply going to fall to you. Trotz sees to that. The Caps biggest weapon in navigating all this is John Carlson, and he didn’t play any of the round-robin games, though he was practicing pretty much the entire time. Without him, the Caps would be in real deep water. Still, if he plays it’ll be his first game in anger in five months. It’s hard to imagine he’ll be full-tilt boogie.

This series screams seven nearly unwatchable games decided with a couple double-overtime games that all resemble Aussie Rules football played by people who don’t know the rules of Aussie Rules football.

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Boston Bruins (4) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (6)

No one will be hoping that the round-robin games were nothing more than glorified batting practices more than the Bruins, who looked positively awful during them. They lost all three in regulation while scoring only four goals, though they did get goalie’d by Brayden Holtby a bit in their last outing as they carried most of the play. It was not encouraging.

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The Bruins will also be hoping that there was some element of illusion to the play-in round, because the Canes utterly destroyed the Rangers over three games. That was a still very much rebuilding Rangers team who didn’t have their best goalie available, but they weren’t anywhere near Carolina. And the Canes did that without possibly their best d-man in Dougie Hamilton, who looks set to return for this series.

This is yet another rematch from last year, the conference final that the Bruins swept. Which makes for an odd counterweight to how these teams looked last week, as neither is that much different roster-wise from last year. Both James Reimer and Petr Mrazek were excellent in their outings against the Rangers, but their career resumes vs. Tuukka Rask’s still looks to be a mismatch.

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There’s always been a feeling that the Bruins’ impressive numbers from the regular season had a lot of air in them, due to having the best line in hockey and then legos on the floor after that. The Canes are far deeper, faster, and are playing with some verve. If what we’ve seen the past week is any indication of the shape these teams are in, and it very well might not be, then this series might look way different than May 2019’s did.

Have you ever looked at a dollar bill, man?

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