By STEPHEN WHYNO
AP Hockey Writer
Three of the top seven teams in the NHL are packed into a four-team murderers’ row playoff bracket and only one can reach the Eastern Conference final.
The Tampa Bay Lightning’s reward for finishing 21 points ahead of the rest of the league during the regular season is a first-round matchup against Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and the all-in Columbus Blue Jackets, while the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs meet for the second consecutive year in the other Atlantic Division series.
“If you do win a round or two going through those two big guys, there’s still a couple rounds to go after that,” veteran Maple Leafs winger Patrick Marleau said. “It’s a hard path to win it, whichever way you look at it. It’s one of those things where you can’t get ahead of yourself.”
It’s not much easier in the Metropolitan Division half of the East bracket where the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals face the Carolina Hurricanes, who just ended the league’s longest playoff drought, and Barry Trotz’s New York Islanders meet the 2016 and 2017 champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Every game’s going to be tough,” said Islanders center Valtteri Filppula, who faced Pittsburgh in the playoffs last year with Philadelphia. “It’d be pretty much the same (no matter) who we’d play, it would be tough games. Hopefully we can play well and get a good start at home and get the playoffs started the right way.”
For all the championships won by the Bruins, Penguins and Capitals over the past eight years, the East has plenty of fresh blood. The Islanders have home-ice advantage in the first round for the first time since 1988, the Hurricanes are in the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and the Blue Jackets are looking to win their first series in franchise history.
The first-round matchups in the Eastern Conference:
(Game 1 at Tampa Bay on Wednesday)
All the pressure is on Tampa Bay after lapping the field this season, tying the NHL wins record and boasting the league’s leading scorer in Nikita Kucherov. The Lightning haven’t played meaningful games for a couple of weeks and are now expected to flip a switch and raise their level in the playoffs.
Columbus has plenty of urgency, too, given that Panarin and Bobrovsky and deadline additions Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Adam McQuaid are pending free agents. Things could blow up there if the Blue Jackets bow out in the first round.
(Game 1 at Boston on Thursday)
These teams went to seven games a year ago but are trending in very different directions now.
The Maple Leafs don’t know which version of goaltender Frederik Andersen will show up and have to hope their defense can withstand the big, bad Bruins. Boston tied Calgary for the second-most points in the league, has gotten strong goaltending from Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, and is deep at forward and on defense.
“I like our team,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We play hard. We’re one of the better teams from start to finish I think in the National Hockey League, specifically the second half of the year. We’ve played well at the right times. We’ve earned our way.”
(Game 1 at Washington on Thursday)
There’s no bigger contrast in the first round than Washington, in the playoffs for the 11th time in 12 years, going up against Carolina, which has 12 players who have not played before in the NHL postseason.
The Hurricanes do have three-time Cup-winner Justin Williams as their captain and one-time champion Jordan Staal as their second-line center, but the Capitals’ big guns of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby are seasoned for this time of year. Winning last year also gives the Capitals extra confidence.
(Game 1 at New York on Wednesday)
Nassau Coliseum will be rocking after the Islanders went from allowing the most goals in the league last season to the fewest this season and finished second in the Metropolitan Division. Trotz brought the structure that helped the Capitals win the Cup to Long Island, and goaltenders Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have been much improved.
Pittsburgh is still dangerous because of the high-end talent of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.