Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
No. 1 Montreal Canadiens Defeat No. 8 New York Islanders, 4-1
The Montreal Canadiens will complete their journey from worst to first by passing the Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Montreal has the fewest regulation losses among all East teams and one of the most balanced rosters in the NHL.
In a first-round matchup with the Islanders, Montreal's fifth-ranked scoring offense would not have much trouble lighting the lamp on a regular basis. New York ranks 27th in goals against and does not have an elite shutdown defenseman to prevent the Canadiens' top-six forward group from dominating offensively.
As long as the Canadiens don't beat themselves with foolish mistakes, expect them to easily eliminate the Islanders in five games.
No. 7 New York Rangers Defeat No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-2
This may be a bold prediction, but it's no secret that the New York Rangers are a bad matchup for the Penguins. New York has more size, toughness and defensive talent/depth than Pittsburgh, plus a huge advantage in the goalie matchup with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist.
As long as Lundqvist plays well and the Rangers are healthy, they will defeat the Penguins in a seven-game series. With their additions made at the trade deadline, the Blueshirts are a deeper team than they were at the start of the season with the right balance of offensive skill and grit.
Injury concerns involving Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Paul Martin should also worry Pittsburgh, because without these three stars, this team has no chance to make a deep playoff run.
As one of the best defensive teams in the NHL (ranked fifth in GAA), expect the Rangers to win this matchup because their roster is built for the intensity of the NHL playoffs. The Penguins lack of the defense and goaltending needed to beat a quality team like the Rangers in the postseason.
No. 6 Ottawa Senators Defeat No. 3 Winnipeg Jets, 4-1
The Ottawa Senators added additional scoring depth at the deadline by trading for Lightning winger Cory Conacher (h/t Craig Custance, ESPN.com), and he will play an important role in Ottawa's success during the playoffs. Winnipeg will barely win the Southeast Division, and there are genuine concerns about the team's goaltending. The Jets rank 23rd in goals against, 23th in goals scored and their special teams have also been poor (28th in power-play success and 24th in penalty killing).
If the Senators get strong goaltending from Robin Lehner or Craig Anderson, expect them to reach the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
No. 4 Boston Bruins Defeat No. 5 Toronto Maple Leafs, 4-1
The Boston Bruins are 3-1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs this season and have dominated the special teams battle in each matchup. Boston ranks first in penalty killing, third in goals against and has much better defensive depth/talent than Toronto.
The Leafs have just 206 games of playoff experience on their roster, while the Bruins have 980 games and a roster full of Stanley Cup champions.
Many of the games in this series would be decided by one or two goals, but the strength of the Bruins' goaltending and their impressive playoff experience would help them eliminate the Leafs in five games.