2021 NHL Playoff predictions: Mass Mutual East Division

(Washington Capitals/Twitter)

By: Lucas Reyes

The East division is set to be the most competitive in the NHL this season, and that’s a narrative that is shared by most people who watch hockey on a regular basis. If the bottom of the barrel consists of slowly rising teams like Buffalo and New Jersey, then you know the division should be in for a bloodbath.

Here’s a look at who the top four teams will be in the division once the season comes to an end, despite this division being the hardest to predict by a country mile.

1. Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers came into the new year looking to follow up an impressive 2020 campaign with a run to the cup, and they have the team to do it. The forward core looks scary with guys like Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Jakob Voracek, Kevin Hayes and Travis Konecny leading the way so far to begin the season, and a quality start from youngster Joel Farabee makes this core even more dangerous as he’s off to a point-per-game start.

The blue line depth is where the question marks start to be raised for Philly, but even then it’s a pretty solid group. Travis Sanheim and Ivan Provorov have shown that they are capable of leading a good defense, and Shayne Gostibehere still has time to prove himself as an elite defenseman, which he has shown flashes of before.

Ultimately, having an emerging star in net is what’ll glue this talented team this year. Carter Hart was very good last season and is ready to take a leap this year as a full-time starter. His stats don’t look amazing to start due to a lopsided 6-1 loss to Buffalo weighing down his numbers, but Hart and the team have been off to a great start excluding that one game.

Look out for the Flyers this year when filling out your playoff bracket.

2. Washington Capitals

Seeing Washington make the playoffs has become an annual guarantee over the past several years, and it doesn’t seem like that trend will end in 2021. There are hardly any serious holes on this roster that would raise red flags. Their goaltending is a concern this season given the departure of Braden Holtby, but the rest of the team should be able to give Ilya Samsonov enough help to get through the season.

Alex Ovechkin remains the elite goalscorer he’s always been, and the offensive core is fantastic around him (this team scored more goals than Toronto last season over less games played, keep that in mind). Not much more needs to be said about their scoring.

Defensively, the Capitals have been a bit of a mess since Barry Trotz left for the Islanders. The team allowed a concerning 215 goals over 69 games last season, and this year hasn’t been much of a different start for them. John Carlson does wonders providing scoring chances, but he’s never been known as a shut down defender, which is someone the team could use at some point this year. But the truth is that the Caps still managed to finish top two in their division despite these flaws in recent years, and the competition in this division hasn’t improved enough to change that this year.

3. Boston Bruins

The Bruins did get worse over the offseason, and there’s no debating that. Losing Torey Krug to free agency hurts the defensive core badly, and watching captain inevitably Zdeno Chara leave didn’t help. Also, the team won’t have leading goal scorer David Pastrnak for a while as he recovers from a hip injury.

However, this team is still a very good one that shouldn’t be overlooked. The front line including Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron remains elite, and they have a lot of grit on the back lines that will be key in terms of winning puck battles and drawing penalties.

Their gritty style of play helps them excel in their own zone. They have been the best penalty killers in the game so far this year as they have killed off all 13 penalties they’ve faced so far, which is a trend that continues after a year where they finished the league third in penalty killing with an outstanding 84.4% penalty kill conversion. Not having Krug will hurt this number as the season goes on, but having Charlie McAvoy as the top defenseman can make up for that loss.

Their goaltending tandem is what holds the team together lately. While both Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak are each hitting the older side of their 30s, their play remains exceptional and will be much needed over the course of this shortened season. Overall, the team should be able to hold it down until Pastrnak returns.

4. New York Islanders

The four seed in this tough division is going to be chased in a bloodbath, but the defensive presence of the Islanders should barely get them by the Penguins this season. The team lost Devon Toews to free agency and Johnny Boychuk called it a career, but it’s the system built by Trotz that carries the success, and they still have the personnel to maintain that structure.

Mat Barzal is a great young player and will be greatly needed this year. He only has one point through three games to start the year, but expect him to ramp up the production significantly as the year progresses. Overall, though, the offense is going to struggle and there is no way around it. Barzal can’t do everything alone and the team lacks star talent.

Semyon Varlomov is a great goalie, and adds to the team’s insane ability to keep pucks out of the net. He has two shutouts to start the season after having a great first season in Long Island last year. Fellow netminder Ilya Sorokin hasn’t had the same fortunes as he got lit up for five goals in his season debut, but he’s only 25 years old and has the potential to be a franchise goalie for New York.

The team won’t be able to score many goals this season, but their elite puck stopping play should get them enough 1-0 wins to squeak into the playoffs.