The NHL’s Eastern Conference was already arguably stronger than the West. Now with the trade deadline behind us, each of the top four powerhouse franchises have strengthened their rosters. The Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, and Pittsburgh Penguins are all top tier teams and could prove to be a difficult challenge to whoever they face. Hopefully, all four teams will manage to make it into the second round, as it will make it all the more fun to watch. This article will not only analyze the talent each roster now possesses but also rank how they should match up against the other three when it comes to the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Top Competitors in the Eastern Conference for NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs
1. Boston Bruins
The big bad Bruins were thought to be gone from the NHL. In recent years they have emphasized speed over strength. That was one of their downfalls last year. They clearly learned from their mistakes. Newcomer Nick Ritchie stands at 6’2” and 234 lbs. That frame brings a physical force that the promising and young Danton Heinen lacked. Boston not only upgraded their physicality but their offence as well. The addition of Ondrej Kase fills the hole in their second-line right-wing spot with a capable scorer. That gives Boston two lines of highly talented forwards who can score at will.
Just because Boston’s additions gave them a boost does not mean that they were not a competitor before. They already boasted the best top line in hockey and had strong defenders, not to mention blue line depth and an excellent goaltending duo. The deadline acquisitions just took this team to another level of dominance. They have all the tools they need to run through any wall in their path. They just need to see how the newcomers will mesh with a tightly knit locker room. This team is not only a threat but one of the best contenders in the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Columbus Blue Jackets pushed this storm back to the sea in the playoffs last year. Now it has returned with a vengeance, hungrier than before. Tampa Bay was able to put together the best regular season in NHL history last year but failed to make their mark in the postseason. They hope that the additions of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow will help them push past the first round and prove they have what it takes to compete with the best of the best. On a team that also has Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman, they should be able to beat anyone and everyone.
What is concerning about the Lightning is the fact that they slumped hard to start the 2019-20 campaign. Likely still in a haze, it took this team some time to find their groove and ever since, they have been nearly unbeatable. Even though they have cooled off as of late, they are still one of the most highly talented teams in the NHL. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are where this team can really get dangerous. Due to the slow start, they have been very much under the radar until now. Any teams who may have been overlooking them earlier in the season could be in for a big surprise should they find themselves going up against this team in postseason play.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh tried hard to elevate themselves above the rest of the Eastern Conference. Patrick Marleau and Conor Sheary help. Evan Rodrigues is a solid role player, but won’t be very impactful come playoff time. Marleau comes with a lot of experience, but will probably find himself in a bottom-six role. The big additions are Sheary and Jason Zucker. They will both be top-six forwards on this team and can possibly be what pushes this team to the next level. Alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The thing holding this team back is that they still lack defence. Kris Letang is a great defenceman that has been injury-prone. They have the forward group needed to get the job done but not the defenders. The goaltending is top-notch as well with both Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray. But how often will two goaltenders see the ice come playoff time? There are too many questions and not enough answers for the Penguins to be at the top of the top but they could surprise everyone with a deep playoff run.
4. Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals did not do enough at the trade deadline. Unfortunately, they probably did not improve as much as some of their fellow Eastern Conference contenders. Ilya Kovalchuk looks to be one of their big additions. The question is do you get Los Angeles Kings Ilya Kovalchuk or Montreal Canadiens Ilya Kovalchuk? Brenden Dillon was the other big acquisition. He will help shore up the back end with a physical presence. Dillon won’t contribute much in the offensive end, however. These have the potential to be big players for the Caps down the stretch but there are enough question marks that there are concerns about how well the new additions will mesh with the rest of the team.
This team is playoff-bound. There is no question about that. The only question comes on if they are built to make a deep run. They are two years removed from a championship now and the roster is not getting any younger. Even though Alex Ovechkin was able to get this team past the second round one year, it does not mean they will be able to achieve those heights again this year. The Eastern Conference is a difficult conference to play in this year and they might not be able to keep up.