Playoff hockey has arrived. Sixteen teams are geared up to take a run at Lord Stanley’s precious chalice with sixteen different and fascinating stories spurring them on. Let’s preview the action of the first round playoff series. (This sport is too chaotic to try and analyze the whole postseason and predict a winner. We’ll go just one round at a time.)
Boston Bruins vs Toronto Maple Leafs
A repeat of the first round from last season. These Original Six teams have a decorated past of hating each other and a recent series of wars.
Boston posted the second-best record in the conference, trailing only a historically dominant Tampa season. They ride possibly the most dangerous top-line in the entire league of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. This trio torched Toronto last season and appears ready to perform well again. David Krejci had a resurgent season, Jake DeBrusk helped break Toronto’s back before and depth forwards Marcus Johansson and Karson Kuhlman need to play important factors to move forward. Zdeno Chara is still a physical presence and Charlie McAvoy is a wicked offensive defenseman. The blue line is backed up by a strong tandem of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. This team finished fourth in goals allowed and is primed for a postseason push.
Toronto has a curious spot to work from. In the offseason, they added the biggest free agent in NHL history, John Tavares. He has lived up to expectations personally, setting a franchise record for goals scored by a center. The pre-existing core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander performed mostly to standard and lifted stand at the fourth best offensive mark in the League. Frederick Anderson had a strong season in net, frequently stealing games behind a porous defensive unit that ended as the 20th best goal allowing unit in the league. Jake Muzzin is a key addition to the top D-Pair along with Morgan Reilly, but the lower pairs are suspect. Jake Gardiner has a history of playoff yips and Travis Dermott has his share to prove.
Prediction: Bruins in 6. Boston has lived rent-free in Toronto’s head since completing a comeback from down 4-1 in 2013. The Leaf’s defense has not improved enough to match the Bruins. Toronto has the offensive firepower to match most, but not enough to stop the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs Columbus Blue Jackets
This is the most straightforward prediction of the bunch. Tampa is a juggernaut boasting a likely Vezina winner, the Art Ross and very possibly Hart winner, the reigning Norris winner, the best supporting cast in the sport, and one of hockey’s best coaches. Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Yanni Gourde, Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson, and the entire forward core is a threat to score. Victor Hedman is among the best defensemen in the league and is flanked by capable players in Ryan McDonough and Mikhail Sergachev. And in net, Andrei Vasilevskiy is the best netminder going today. The Lightning are the favorite not just to win the opening round, but to win the Cup.
Columbus, meanwhile, is the least successful franchise in the NHL. They’ve never played more than six games in a single postseason, let alone win a series. Last year’s matchup against Washington was the first time the team led a playoff series in their history. And the franchise is at a crossroads. Sergei Bobrovskiy and Artemi Panerin are free agents and both appear ready to depart Ohio. A poor playoff performance appears sure to leave Head Coach John Tortorella looking for a new job at season’s end. Seth Jones and recently added Matt Duchene can make some noise, but the Jackets are up against it this postseason.
Prediction: Lightning in 5. Bobrovskiy is good enough to steal one game off the Bolts. I don’t think this Blue Jackets squad matches terribly well with Tampa. Not for Columbus’s fault per se, Tampa is just a historically dominant team with a chip on their shoulder.
New York Islanders vs Pittsburgh Penguins
After John Tavares departed to Toronto in the offseason, the Islanders were expected to slide deeper out of the playoff picture. That departure deflected from how drastically the structure of the organization improved. The GM-Coach tandem went from Garth Snow and Jack Capuano/ to Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz and a previously awful defense improved dramatically with actual structure and a coach with clear defensive expectations. Robin Lehner produced his best career season, backed up strongly by Thomas Griess and the Islanders soared as a result. Matthew Barzal appears destined for superstardom and Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier are solid offensive pieces. This Islander team has new blood and looks ready to capitalize.
Pittsburgh is among the most decorated organizations in the sport. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are first-ballot Hall of Famers and Phil Kessel is a point-a-game player and regular all-star. Kris LeTang has turned around his play this season and looks to be healthy entering the postseason. Matt Murray and the remainder of the Pen’s blue line is suspect, but the top scoring talent is fearsome. They’ll be a hard out.
Prediction- Islanders in 6. I don’t trust Murray entering this postseason and I think the Islanders finally believe in themselves again. Pittsburgh is a hard out, NY will advance though.
Washington Capitals vs Carolina Hurricanes
The reigning Champion versus the League’s newest Bunch of Jerks.
Importantly, Washington does not have Barry Trotz behind the bench. This will be a challenge for first time Head Coach Todd Reirden. Here’s the curious factor: Washington isn’t expected to just lose in the second round. Last season’s victory wiped away a legacy of losing important playoff games. Alex Ovechkin took his spot on hockey’s Mount Rushmore and led the league in goal scoring again this season. Evgeni Kuznetsov,Tom Wilson, TJ Oshie, and Nic Backstrom anchor an imposing offensive unit for the Caps. Brayden Holtby is an intimidating force in the Caps net and the defense anchored by John Karlsson can cause some damage too.
Since Don Cherry described Carolina as a “Bunch of Jerks”, the Hurricanes have surged back into playoff form. Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen infuse youthful energy and scoring prowess with Mr. Game Seven, Justin Williams, and Michael Ferland to make the Canes a fun unit offensively. Nino Niederreiter has been strong since arriving from Minnesota. The D-Corps is respectable with Trevor van Riemsdyk, Calvin de Haan, and Dougie Hamilton able to create points and perform well in their own end. Peter Mrazak and Curtis McElhinney are both respectable goalies and fun performers, but both lack postseason experience.
Prediction: Capitals in 6. The Hurricanes will play with spunk and determination to prove the storm surge right. The Caps are fully loaded with possibly the best goal scorer in the sport’s history coming off his eighth 50 goal season and eighth Rocket Richard trophy. The supporting cast and goaltending are also there to help Washington to another deep playoff run.
Calgary Flames vs Colorado Avalanche
Calgary is finally putting the pieces together. Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk anchor the league’s second-best offensive unit. The defense is showing itself as an entertaining unit led by Mark Giordano and Noah Hannifan. The biggest difference from prior editions of the Flames is the improvement in goal. David Rittich has taken and owned the job in net. He’s got the Flames primed for the first deep playoff run since 2004.
Colorado has performed quite well since descending to hockey hell a few seasons ago. Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog have lifted the offense to a strong level and formed a tough top line with Mikko Rantanen, who will be ready to skate after an injury. The depth forwards include Alexander Kerfoot and Tyson Jost, both of whom will be needed for a push. Philip Grubauer has performed excellently since coming from Washington in the offseason in net. The problem? The Av’s blue line is suspect beyond Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie. The lower blueliners will need to perform well to pull an upset.
Prediction: Calgary in 5. The Flames look like a different team with actual goaltending. Colorado is an organization on the upswing, but this is not their season. Adding the 4th pick in this year’s draft via Ottawa and Cale Makar for next season should make the Avs a more potent force. As is, Calgary is ready to finally make a push.
Winnipeg Jets vs St. Louis Blues
These teams took different roads. The True North was expected to dominate their way to another conference finals. While they looked good, they were mortal at points. Paul Maurice’s squad boasts a deep collection of talented players who can score and dish out punishment. Blake Wheeler, Dustin Buflygyn, and Mark Scheifle all come to mind. However, the Jets were not their dominant selves. Connor Hellebuyck is still solid, but not the lockdown goalie of last season. And Patrik Laine vanished down the stretch of the season for big points of the season. He will need to reappear for the Jets to advance.
St. Louis was dead last in the league early in the season and revived from the dead after firing Mike Yeo and bringing in Craig Berube as bench boss. The top stars, Alex Pietrangelo, Vladimir Tarasanko, and Ryan O’Reilly, are performing as expected. Jordan Binnington has owned the net late in the season and the blue line led by Jay Bouwmeester and Colton Parayko is drastically improved.
Prediction: Blues in 6. St. Louis is the hottest team going into the playoffs and look like their contender selves. Winnipeg has more talent in total, but Connor Hellebuyck has been inconsistent and Patrik Laine has been at some points mediocre or worse, invisible. St. Louis is together and loaded right now.
Nashville Predators vs Dallas Stars
Smashville and Dallas in a southern hockey series. The NHL is a predictable sport indeed.
Nashville is built the same as ever, on a stingy blue line comprised of Roman Josi, PK Subban, Matthias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis. They added Dante Fabbro to their depth pieces as a college signing from Boston University. They play in front of the reigning Vezina winner, Pekka Rinne. The 36-year-old goalie is getting up in years and was inconsistent in last year’s playoffs. But he is a force to be reckoned with in the Preds net. The offense leaves something to be desired. Still, Ryan Johansson and Filip Forsberg are elite talents who can break through and cause problems.
Dallas’ season was defined by the owner being a loudmouth regarding his star players and the ensuing drama. Still, Jim Montgomery performed well in his debut as an NHL bench boss. He leaned on Jaime Benn and Tyler Seguin to handle the surprisingly poor scoring output while goaltenders Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin stole the show behind a rather poor blue line. Behind John Klingberg, the remaining Dallas defenders are rather uninspired. Still, the Stars are a curious team that appears to be on the organizational upswing.
Prediction: Predators in 7. Dallas showed they have a defensive presence this season with Ben Bishop lobbying for a Vezina late in the season. The offense has, for some reason, slowed down despite the talents of Tyler Seguin and Jaime Benn. Despite their skills, Nashville’s blue line is otherworldly and Jim Montgomery is new to NHL playoff season. They’ll make noise, but not enough to keep afloat against a veteran Preds team.
San Jose Sharks vs Vegas Golden Knights
Last season’s Cinderella story faces the NHL’s Californian Charlie Brown.
Vegas enters this season with no pressure after making the Final in their first year of existence. They don’t have the moniker of an underdog anymore. They’re respected as a threat in the league. Their deals to get Max Paccioretty in the offseason and Mark Stone at the deadline added to an offensive corps of Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault to make Vegas a dangerous scoring team. The blue line is suspect, but they do have the goaltending to back them up. Marc-Andre Fleurry is a Hall of Famer with a decorated playoff history, including last season’s series stealing against the Kings, Sharks and Jets. There’s concern of whether he was over-played this season, but if on he is formidable. Vegas will be a hard out.
While Vegas has no pressure, San Jose has more pressure than any franchise outside of Tampa. They poured out all their energy to get Tavares or O’Reilly in the offseason. When that didn’t work, they tried again and got the biggest trade fish in Erik Karlsson. This long denied team built a great D-Corps of Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. They traded for Gustav Nyquist to add to their forward depth of Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Evander Kane, and an aging but still respected Joe Thorton. The only problem is that Martin Jones, while having a good record, posted a .896 save percentage; by far the worst of his starting career and the worst of any net-minder at playoff’s outset. If he’s off in the opening round, it’s a catastrophic failure for a franchise rife with disappointments. This unit is talented but needs a good showing.
Prediction: Sharks in 7. I see this series being pretty even. Martin Jones must step up his game and I believe he will. Vegas doesn’t have the blue line to keep up with the Sharks.