The 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs start next week and this may be the toughest the Eastern Conference has looked in postseason history. The Boston Bruins are coming off a record 135 points during the regular season and have a chance to be enshrined as the best team ever. Behind the Bruins, the Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs make up the rest of the top-4 teams in terms of points this season. Further down the list? Oh, just the two teams who met in the East Final last season: Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers. So yeah, the East is very, very deep.
Let’s take a look at the East bracket and make some predictions for who will advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
2023 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference predictions
No. 1 Bruins vs. WC2 Panthers
Bruins, next. This isn’t a difficult series to pick though Florida finished the season strong and won the Presidents’ Trophy last season with mostly the same roster, replacing Jonathan Huberdeau with Matthew Tkachuk. Unless this series opens up, the Panthers shouldn’t stand much of a chance. Maybe it goes 5-6 games. My guess is this series is done close to a week in.
Pick: Bruins in 5
No. 2 Maple Leafs vs. No. 3 Lightning
Is this finally the year the Leafs get through to the second round? Even if they do they have a titan on the other side. Toronto should be able to get over the hump. Ryan O’Reilly helps in the room and is seasoned enough. The defense is deeper and Ilya Samsonov has played well enough in net. The Bolts lack depth throughout the roster both on the blue line and forward lines. Unless Kucherov-Stamkos-Point goes atomic and Andrei Vasilevskiy stands on his head all series, the Leafs should prevail.
Pick: Maple Leafs in 6
No. 1 Hurricanes vs. WC1 Islanders
This is a series that should be tight. I wrote a bit about how these two teams matchup well in terms of style with the main advantage being Ilya Sorokin in net for New York. The absence of Max Pacioretty and Andrei Svechnikov will be big for Carolina. In a matchup that should be mostly 5-on-5 scoring, can the ‘Canes get elite goaltending to match Sorokin? If so, they should get through. If Mat Barzal comes back for the Islanders and provides scoring depth, that could be enough to help New York pull off the upset. This series feels like a lot of one-goal games, some overtime and it goes the distance.
Pick: Islanders in 7
No. 2 Devils vs. No. 3 Rangers
We’ll try and put bias aside (I’m a Devils fan) for this one. New York has the advantage. Home ice won’t exist since Newark and Prudential Center will be flooded with Rangers fans from NJ and NY. The Devils are the more talented and better team but lack playoff experience outside of a few veterans. So I’m concerned the Devils will take bad penalties and let up power-play goals. The Rangers’ defense is weak and Igor Shesterkin hasn’t compensated. That may change in the playoffs. Shesterkin can steal games. The Rangers PP and scoring is elite with Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko in the fold. This series should be close but the advantage is with the team that made the East Final last season.
Pick: Rangers in 7
No. 1 Bruins vs. No. 2 Maple Leafs
Oh man, here we go again. The last time these two teams met in the postseason was 2019, when the Bruins won in seven games. That was the second straight first-round series Boston defeated Toronto in seven games (yes, it happened in 2018 as well). If we go a bit further back, same deal, Bruins over Leafs in seven back in 2013. So history is not on Toronto’s side in this contest.
The Bruins went 3-1 against the Leafs in the regular season with three of those four games decided by one goal. It’s just such a tough matchup for Toronto. The Bruins added more scoring depth at the deadline with Tyler Bertuzzi and will have Taylor Hall back in the lineup as well. Boston also has the advantage on the blue line after adding Dmitry Orlov to Charlie McAvoy, Hampus Lindholm and Brandon Carlo. And lastly, Linus Ullmark, the way he’s played this season, it’s hard to envision him being the reason the B’s bow out before the ECF.
The Bruins beat the Leafs yet again in seven games, this time at least it was in the second round.
Pick: Bruins in 7
No. 3 Rangers vs. WC1 Islanders
Now we have another Metro rivalry with the Rangers and Isles meeting in the postseason for the first time since 1994. It’s offense vs. defense with the Rangers boasting a lethal power play and the Isles one of the top penalty kills and goalies in the League. The Isles won the regular-season series 2-1 and have some momentum in the playoffs. This is mostly the same team that went to back-to-back ECF recently.
Can the Rangers muddy up this series enough to get to Ilya Sorokin? That’s likely the path they’d take to trying to win. The Rangers can play physical and if the Isles make mistakes and take penalties, it could bite them. Shesterkin vs. Sorokin is the goalie matchup of the postseason. My concern for the Islanders in this series is what happens if the scoring slows down? Playing tight games isn’t easy against the Rangers. They’ll open things up and try to force penalties to get to the PP. Even if the Isles can kill penalties, it’s a lot of wear-and-tear over the course of a series.
I think ultimately the Rangers’ offense is too much for the Isles and they get through, going back to the ECF.
Pick: Rangers in 6
No. 1 Bruins vs. No. 3 Rangers
Ahhh yes, what every sports fan wants: Boston vs. New York. This isn’t like Yankees vs. Red Sox but it has a bit of bad blood. The Rangers did not fare well at all against the Bruins in the regular season, losing all three contests pretty convincingly. Boston is likely still too much for New York to handle at this point. It’s a historic team with so much depth and goaltending. This series should be a slugfest but it will come down to special teams. The Rangers are lacking on the defensive front without depth on the blue line past Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba. The bottom-6 gets eaten alive by the Bruins’ forward depth. This series doesn’t last long in my eyes unless Shesterkin has something to say for it.
Pick: Bruins in 5