The NHL playoffs are just around the corner, with the first round possibly starting for every division but the North late next week. Yet, the playoffs races have been so tight this year that there’s only one division where all four teams have officially clinched a spot: the East Division. It’s also a bit ironic considering that has been the toughest division by a long shot this year, with the 5th place New York Rangers being a playoff team in most other divisions. But anyway, since we have one decided division, now is as good of a time as any to take a look at how all the teams stack up. Specifically, I want to take a look at what could be each team’s kryptonite this summer. Without further ado, let’s dig in.
There is little doubt in my mind that goaltending will make or break the Washington Capitals this postseason. They have two young goalies in Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. Neither of them has any playoff experience, and have only played 80 career regular-season games combined. To make matters a bit worse, Samsonov is in COVID-19 protocols, and might not be eligible to return before the playoffs start. Considering he’s at least seen what the playoffs are like from ice level, having served as Braden Holtby’s backup in the bubble last season, that’s far from ideal. Vanecek will be going in completely cold and without a fellow goalie to lean on even a little bit. So, the Capitals better hope he’s up for the challenge.
As for how Samsonov and Vanecek have played this season, they’ve been decent, albeit a little streaky. Samsonov has appeared in 19 games this year, (18 of which he’s started), going 13-4-1 and posting a 2.69 goals-against average (GAA) and 0.902 save percentage (SV%). Meanwhile, Vanecek has appeared in 35 games (34 of which he started), going 20-9-4 and posting a 2.73 GAA and 0.907 SV%.
Those numbers are good enough considering the circumstances, but the NHL playoffs are a whole different ball game. Maintaining their current level of play won’t be enough. They’ll have to be better if they want to go anywhere this summer. But, even the best rookies tend to struggle in their first go-around, and it is particularly tough to predict how goalies will do. So, it’s looking like an uphill battle for this tandem, but as I said, you never know. They could be ready for this. However, if they aren’t, it will without a doubt be the downfall of the Capitals. You can’t win in the playoffs without a good goalie.
As for the Penguins, health and goaltending are going to be their two biggest concerns in the playoffs. Considering how many injuries Pittsburgh has successfully played through this year, goaltending has the potential to be the bigger problem. This is especially true considering both Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith are day-to-day with injuries right now (although they are expected to be back for Game 1 on the playoffs). Jarry is the only one of the two with any playoff experience, and he only has a whopping one game of it to his name.
As for how they’ve played this season, Jarry has a 25-9-3 record with a 2.75 GAA and 0.909 SV%, while Smith has an 11-7-0 record with a 2.54 GAA and 0.912 SV%. Those are fine numbers, and luckily for the Penguins, Jarry’s numbers don’t tell the full story. They’re dragged down by his rough start to the season, and he’s playing much better now. So, they don’t really reflect how well he’s playing right now.
To make a long story short, all of this means that they are in a very similar situation to the Capitals. Their goalies have practically no playoff experience, and they had decent (but not spectacular) numbers this year. But, the NHL playoffs are a whole new world. There’s significantly more pressure, and you see the same opponent for at least four straight games, which gives them time to find your weaknesses, and you’re only playing good teams. It’s something you can’t properly prepare for, and the only way to tell how someone will do is a trial by fire. Jarry and/or DeSmith will either rise to the occasion, or they’ll crumble like cookies. The Penguins are betting on the former, but whether or not that was a good bet remains to be seen.
New York Islanders
Ever since losing captain Anders Lee, the Islanders have not looked very good. I’m not convinced there’s any one thing that will be their doom, but rather a whole bunch of smaller things. However, if I had to pick one, I would have to say scoring goals. The Islanders are notoriously a defense-first team, so it’s no surprise that they aren’t offensive dynamos. However, it’s been significantly worse than usual lately. They’ve scored a whopping 30 goals in 15 games since April 6th, which is good for 26th in the league. They’ve played all three of the other playoff teams in the division in that span and have lost to each of them, sometimes in spectacular fashion.
This should go without saying, but you cannot expect to win a playoff series if you’re only averaging two goals a game. It’s just not going to happen. You’re not keeping the Capitals, Penguins, or Bruins to a goal or less every game. So, if they can’t figure that out (along with all of their other issues), it’s going to be a very short postseason for them. You can never count a Barry Trotz team out, but things certainly aren’t looking great here.
Last but not least, we have the Bruins, who’ve been scorching hot since the trade deadline. That’s largely thanks to players getting healthy and some newfound secondary scoring, particularly from the new (and dominant) second-line. Yes, you read that right. After years of it being an issue, the Bruins second-line is finally not just passable, but outstanding. Taylor Hall, David Krejci, and Craig Smith are truly magical together, and if they keep it up, it could be a long playoff run.
However, both things that I mentioned as the reason for the Bruins recent success have the potential to be their downfall. If a bunch of players are lost due to injury again, or the secondary scoring suddenly dries up, it’s going to be a problem. We’ll likely see the Bruins from the middle of the season again, who couldn’t string together wins or put the puck in the back of the net to save their lives. That’s not exactly a recipe for success in the playoffs. So, the Bruins hopes of a long postseason hinge on the secondary scoring staying alive and key players staying healthy.
The 2021 NHL Playoffs Are Almost Here
The East Division playoffs are shaping up to be really exciting. All four teams are well-built and don’t have any glaring holes. But, that being said, they all have things that look like they’ll make or break them. For the Capitals and Penguins, it’s their rookie goaltenders. For the Islanders, it’s their rather stunning lack of offense lately. Lastly, for the Bruins, it’s their health and their secondary scoring. However, if all of these things go right for them, every series is going to be extremely close and fun to watch.
All in all, I’m really excited not only for these matchups but playoff hockey in general. There’s just nothing like it. Once things kick-off, you’ll be able to find me glued to my TV every night (and curled up in the fetal position if the Bruins are playing), and I’m sure I won’t be alone. Get ready, hockey fans. The NHL playoffs are almost here!
-Lydia Murray (@lydia_murray12)
Featured image courtesy of sportslogos.net.
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