The first round of the NHL playoffs start on Wednesday and given the unpredictability of the regular season, fans could be in for a wild ride. Who would have thought that the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers, St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers would miss the playoffs and the New Jersey Devils, Colorado Avalanche and the freaking Vegas Golden Knights would? So while it may seem that everyone is waiting for a Cup final between teams such as Boston, Winnipeg, Nashville and Tampa Bay, it’s far from a sure thing. Looking at the first round, there are some intriguing matchups that should produce some compelling hockey.
(1) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (WC2) New Jersey Devils
Storylines: After both teams missed the playoffs last year, the Lightning and the Devils return to the postseason in different stages of team development. The Lightning are bonafide contenders, with depth at every position. The Devils surged ahead in their development primarily because of star winger Taylor Hall’s MVP-worthy season. As one of the few Stanley Cup-favorites, Tampa will face all sorts of pressure while New Jersey will be looking for the upset.
Offense: Boasting perhaps the most lethal attack in the league, the Bolts are led by Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, each eclipsing 85 points this season. Brayden Point, Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson provide a nice measure of secondary pressure as the Lightning cruised to an average of 3.5 goals per game.
New Jersey meanwhile is led by Taylor Hall and his 93 points, a whopping 41 points better than the next highest scorer on the team. The Devils have nowhere near the depth of the Lightning.
Defense: Lightning defender Victor Hedman is a likely finalist and potential winner of the Norris Trophy as best defenseman. His blend of defense and offense from the back powers the team on both sides of the puck. Paired with Anton Stralman, a steady and sturdy rearguard, the team is also manned by solid contributors such as Dan Girardi and newly-acquired former Rangers captain, Ryan McDonagh.
New Jersey has a collection of solid, if unspectacular defensemen including Sami Vatanen, Will Butcher and Andy Greene. They are a sneaky good group capable of limiting chances on their own net, but lack the versatility of the Bolts blueline.
Goaltending: Cory Schneider and Thomas Kincaid have worked well together to get the Devils to this point, but their skills will be surely tested against Tampa’s attack. Schneider has the ability to get hot and carry a team and that might just be needed for New Jersey to advance.
Andrei Vasilevsky started very strong for the Lightning before cooling off the second half of the season. He’s never dealt with a full season schedule before so it will be interesting to see how he handles the workload of the NHL playoffs.
Pick: Tampa in 5.
If Tampa Bay can shutdown Taylor Hall, a large chunk of New Jersey’s offense in neutralized. Add in their superior overall depth and New Jersey can’t compete with the East’s best team.
(2) Boston Bruins vs. (3) Toronto Maple Leafs
Storylines: The last time these two met in the playoffs was memorable to say the least. In game 7, down 4-1 in the last ten minutes of the game, Boston roared back with three goals to force overtime before Patrice Bergeron won it in a win that sent the Maple Leafs into a long rebuild for years to come. The fruits of that rebuild are evident now as the young guns of Toronto will take on the experienced Bruins looking to add another championship.
Offense: Boston boasts three 30-goal scorers, plus another ten players who hit double-digits. Led by star two-way center Patrice Bergeron and super pesky sniper Brad Marchand, Boston’s offense is an imposing group.
Toronto, however, may be even more dangerous up front. Austin Matthews (34 goals), James van Riemsdyk (36 goals) and Nazem Kadri (32 goals) give the Leafs a lethal core full of skill. Add in Patrick Marleau, Tyler Bozak and William Nylander and there may not be a more talented group of forwards in the NHL.
Defense: Jake Gardiner is a talented puck-mover and there are some interesting pieces on the Leafs blueline, but it lacks the veteran experience of Boston’s rearguards. Between Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Kevan Miller and Brandon Carlo, the Bruins have the slight edge in efficiency.
Goaltending: Tuuka Rask of the Bruins and Frederik Andersen of the Maple Leafs are both capable, quality netminders, but Rask has been to a Stanley Cup final before and Andersen hasn’t. Both are capable of carrying their teams at a moment’s notice and it may simply be a battle of wills during this potentially long series.
Pick: Toronto in 7
The storyline is there for Toronto to avenge the playoff disaster of five years ago. Whether it happens is up to Toronto’s young guns and Mike Babcock’s coaching. The Leafs put quite a scare into Washington last year before losing in overtime. Perhaps that experience will help them as they take on a powerful Bruins squad looking for another shot at glory.
(1) Washington Capitals vs. (WC1) Columbus Blue Jackets
Storylines: Last year was supposed to be the Capitals’ year. They went all in, trading for star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline and winning their second President’s Trophy in a row. Instead, they blew their chance again against the Penguins in the second round. Expectations are much lower this time around, but perhaps that’s right where the Capitals want them. Columbus, meanwhile, followed up last year’s surprise playoff showing by catching fire late in the season and enter the playoffs as a potential upset team.
Offense: Alex Ovechkin still powers the Capitals’ attack as he nearly put together another 50 goal season (49). Along with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and TJ Oshie, Washington can still generate an impressive attack.
Columbus is more of a one-man ship with Artemi Panarin (82 points) providing most of the offense. If Panarin is off his game or shut down, goals could be hard to come by for Columbus.
Defense: Columbus’ strength is their depth on defense. Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray are big and mobile and drive the opposition crazy.
John Carlsson in Washington has had a career year offensively and there are some interesting puck movers in Washington in Matts Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov, but no one to really control a game or shut the other team down.
Goaltending: Both Brayden Holtby of Washington and Sergei Bobrovsky of Columbus have each won a Vezina Trophy as top goaltender so even though neither are favorites for the award this year, they are both fully capable of stopping the puck.
Neither has exceptional playoff numbers though and that will need to change if they hope for postseason success.
Pick: Washington in 6
Columbus’ defense and goaltending will keep things close, but they don’t have the offensive talent to compete with the Capitals. It could be bumpy, but I see the Capitals moving on.
(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3) Philadelphia Flyers
Storylines: Now this is playoff hockey. The Penguins and Flyers hate each other and another chapter will be written in the bloody battle of Pennsylvania. Sidney Crosby and company will be looking for their third straight championship while the Flyers would like nothing more than to eliminate their biggest rivals.
Offense: A Penguins offense that utilizes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel has few equals. Add in Patrick Hornqvist, Brandon Rust and Jake Guentzel, plus trade deadline acquisition Derick Brassard and it’s downright scary. They’ve replaced the talent they lost over the summer and look deep and dangerous on every line.
The Flyers meanwhile counter with their own MVP candidate in Claude Giroux and Selke candidate Sean Couturier. Jakub Voracek and power forward Wayne Simmonds compliment a group of strong, but less deep forwards.
Defense: Kris Letang missed last year’s playoffs and everyone assumed the Penguins were done for. They won the Cup and Letang is back, meaning that this group may be even better than last year’s. The rest of the defense are solid, playoff-proven performers.
The Flyers have Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov to power offense from the back end and Andrew MacDonald to shut things down from there. It’s a group that is on its way, but not quite there in development.
Goaltending: Penguin’s goalie Matt Murray has had an up-and-down season, but after guiding Pittsburgh to back-to-back titles, you can’t count him out. Flyers goalie Brian Elliot is back after an injury and remains a huge question mark. Behind him, former Red Wing Petr Mrazek would need to regain his form of year’s past to stop the Pens.
Pick: Pittsburgh in 5
The Penguins are too experienced, too deep and too star-laden for the Flyers to beat and should coast to a series victory.
(1) Nashville Predators vs. (WC2) Colorado Avalanche
Storylines: After coming so close to a title last year (and probably deserving it if not for injuries), the Predators won the President’s trophy as the league’s best team this year. Deep at every position, well-coached and healthy for the moment, they are the Stanley Cup favorite. Colorado is just happy to be here, but in a balanced, salary-cap world, never truly count anyone out.
Offense: The Predators have a balanced attack powered by Victor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris. Though they lack a true superstar, the depth down their lines is impressive and hard to contain.
The Avalanche boast perhaps the single-greatest performance of the year in star Nathan MacKinnon’s 97-point season. He nearly single-handedly dragged the team into the playoffs and must be stopped by the Predator’s defense.
Defense: The Predators have the best defense in the league in a top-four that employs Roman Josi, PK Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis. They can shut down their opponent, run a powerplay and score with regularity, a rarity to find in the league nowadays.
Tyson Barrie has been an offensive dynamo for Colorado and Erik Johnson is a good shutdown defenseman, but the Avalanche are still in rebuild mode and lack that elite player on the back end.
Goaltending: Pekka Rinne turned in a potential Vezina Trophy-winning season for the Predators, putting up some of the best numbers of his career. He’ll be a force for any offense to puncture.
Semyeon Varlamov is a capable goalie who has put together some good seasons, but is far removed from his best days. He might be able to catch fire at the right time.
Pick: Nashville in 5
Nashville has the clear advantage and it would be shocking if the Avs were able to beat them. Their depth and talent at every position has them uniquely primed for another Cup run.
(2) Winnipeg Jets vs. (3) Minnesota Wild
Storylines: The Jets enter the playoffs as one of the Cup favorites even though the franchise has yet to win a single playoff game. With the second most points in the league and a balanced lineup after years of drafting and developing, the team is beginning to see the fruits of their labors. The Wild have quietly had a very good season as well, bolstered by a return to form for center Eric Staal, but face injury trouble that could derail their chances.
Offense: The Jets are powered by a lineup that includes Blake Wheeler (91 points), Patrick Laine (44 goals) and five other players who cleared 40 points this year. They are deep, large and fast. Throwing in deadline acquisition Paul Stastny just gives them even more center depth.
The Wild are no slouches though. Eric Staal shocked everyone by scoring 42 goals this year to go along with 76 points. Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker provide more offense and don’t forget about Zach Parise, Nino Niederreiter and Mikko Koivu either.
Defense: The Wild took a huge blow when defenseman Ryan Suter was lost for the season to an ankle injury. He had the highest average ice time of any player in the league (again), and he’ll be near impossible to replace. There are other solid contributors in Minnesota such as Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, but the loss of Suter may prove fatal.
The Jets counter with a deep four of Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Toby Enstrom. They are an imposing group of size and skill that’s taken years to cultivate.
Goaltending: Devan Dubynk has put together another solid though not spectacular season for Minnesota. He’s a quality netminder, but may be missing that extra gear when in comes to the playoffs.
After signing Steve Mason during the offseason, the Jets were pleasantly surprised when backup Connor Hellebuyck snagged the number one spot and put together a .924 save percentage over 64 games. He’s never faced the postseason rigor before and the pressure on him to deliver will be enormous.
Pick: Winnipeg in 6
The loss of Ryan Suter is just too hard to overcome for the Wild. He is their best player and there is no one who can fill his roster spot. The Jets should advance with a couple of hiccups along the way.
(1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (WC1) Los Angeles Kings
Storylines: The Knights weren’t even expected to contend for a playoff spot in their first season and all they did was win their division. Though they cooled down the stretch after starting so hot, they roll four solid lines and have a Stanley Cup-winning goalie in net in Marc-Andre Fleury. While the Knights brim with youth, the Kings ooze experience. This is still the same core that won two championships in three years not that long ago and though they may be the wildcard, many look at them as the favorite in this series.
Offense: Who would have thought that a team of castoffs from other franchises would somehow flourish in the desert, but the Knights have gotten major contributions from William Karlsson (43 goals), Jonathan Marchessault (75 points), Erik Haula (29 goals), James Neal (25 goals) and David Perron (66 points). Whether it’s a flash in the pan or the group continues to put up points is the question, especially come playoff time.
The Kings are led by a resurgent Anze Kopitar (92 points), in his best season, and Dustin Brown (28 goals). Now back from an injury, Jeff Carter has potted 13 goals in his last 27 games, giving the Kings another strong scorer.
Defense: Drew Doughty has been an absolute beast for LA this season, putting up 60 points, a plus-23 and playing in all situations. He should be in line for at least another Norris nomination if not win.
The Knights have a collection of unspectacular rearguards, headlined by Nate Schmidt. They must be able to shutdown Anze Kopitar to succeed.
Goaltending: Marc-Andre Fleury has been strong and steady with his new team and for the Knights to have playoff success, he’ll need to be fantastic. He’s got a Cup to his name and the added fire of taking Vegas this far with more to prove.
Jonathan Quick has had maybe his best regular season to date and comes into the playoffs as unequivocally one of the best money goalies of the playoffs. With two Cups and a Conn Smythe trophy on his resume, he’ll be hard for Vegas to beat.
Pick: LA in 6
The Kings are just too experienced for the Knights to handle in theory. Quick, Kopitar, Doughty, Brown and Carter all bring star power and a winning-pedigree to a series that could go any number of ways. No one has been able to pin down Vegas’ success yet and they may turn a surprise regular season into a surprise playoff run.
(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (3) San Jose Sharks
Storylines: The Ducks squandered for most of the year due to injury, but are entering the playoffs on a good run, still seeing their cup contention window open. The Sharks are likewise in the same boat, after adding Evander Kane at the deadline and see this year as perhaps their best shot with this current group of players.
Offense: The Sharks have a balanced attack that includes Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Brent Burns on the backend. If Joe Thornton is able to return from injury, they’ll be an even more intimidating group.
The Ducks still have their one-two punch of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry along with a breakout year from Rickard Rakell and good forward depth with Adam Henrique and Jakob Silfverberg, though they lack a game-breaking scorer.
Defense: With Cam Fowler currently injured, the Ducks took a big hit on the backend. Health, as it has been all season, will be the biggest concern for the team.
The Sharks’ Brent Burns is the highest scorer on the team, an offensive force who’s a threat every time he’s on the ice. With Marc-Edouard Vlasic to back him up, the Sharks have a great balance on defense.
Goaltending: Both Martin Jones of San Jose and John Gibson of Anaheim are solid netminders with varying degrees of success. It’s a close matchup with either capable of carrying a team.
Pick: San Jose in 7
The series should be close as both teams are talented and borderline Cup contenders. San Jose has a bit more firepower though and that might power them through to the end.
Ultimately, I’m predicting a Stanley Cup Final between Tampa Bay and Nashville with the Lightning emerging victorious in 7 games. Whether that’s true or not, we’ll discover over the next two months.