NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference preview

Left Sidney Crosby, Right Claude Giroux

So where does all of this leave the Leafs as they use the next three days to prepare for Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs on Thursday night? That's right, I didn't stutter. These likely affected his play but the Penguins will need him to be at his best if they want to go far. Sidney Crosby has his sights on a third straight Stanley Cup, a feat unmatched since the early 1980's Islanders.

There are so many headlines heading into these playoffs: Will Washington finally overcome their playoff failures? And just like in 2016, Philly surprised everyone by making the playoffs.

As for the Western Conference, both the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets have clinched playoff spots in the Central Division, followed by the newbies, the Vegas Golden Knights, who have locked up the Pacific Division.

The Nashville Predators are the best team in the National Hockey League.

Will you bet on a favorite this year? While they haven't gotten past the second round in the Alex Ovechkin era, they have a shot this time around.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had been very inconsistent for a stretch, but they ended the regular season having won four of their final five games.

The young difference-makers - Matthews, Marner and William Nylander - not only are a year older, they have the experience of last year's brief playoff appearance and the growth that comes with having produced through a second National Hockey League season. It's simply a reminder that the NHL is a league with little separating the bubble teams from the top teams.

Columbus at Washington, 6:30 p.m.

They have one of the best defenses in the Western Conference and have been able to compete against the top teams in the National Hockey League. Who will come out on top? "You want to be on that upward hill going into the post-season". However, the Lightning have more experience, better depth at forward and the blue line, as well as the edge in coaching. The Caps and the Blue Jackets each scored 12 goals in the season series, but the Caps won the series 3-1. Playoff games tend to be lower scoring, so I will be going with the Under in this one, despite the fact that this has been an "Over" series.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. The intrastate rivals met four times in the regular season, with the Penguins winning each contest.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were one of five teams to finish with 100 points in the Eastern Conference. In the end, the Penguins have too much talent - not to mention the muscle memory of how to get it done in the postseason - and will win an entertaining series. However, that's really all the attacking prowess the Devils have as the team's second-leading scorer is 41 points behind Hall. While this may not have tremendously hurt the team in the regular season; going into the playoffs this could be a major drawback.

The Sharks went 19-13-3 over their final 35 games since Joe Thornton was sidelined with a knee injury.

The final matchup of the first round is another rivalry and a trip to the past as the (2) Boston Bruins will take on the (3) Toronto Maple Leafs. "Them getting (Derick) Brassard as a third-line center, I mean, he's not a third-line center on any other team". He could find a way to pull off this upset. It took years for both of these teams to reach their full potential and should be the marquee match-up in the first round.

Alex Ovechkin can still control any game on any given night despite becoming an elder statesman of the league at 32.

Defensively, the Flyers are led by two young guns in Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov. The Predators' balanced attack is fueled by a group of speedy, playmaking defensemen who combined for a league-best 206 points (56 goals, 150 assists).

Elliott's career numbers in 41 playoff games: a 15-22 record, 2.60 goals-against average, and.908 save percentage. Evgeni Malkin is coming off a borderline Hart Trophy season.

Crosby has turned his season around after a slow start before finishing with 29 goals and 89 points.