It’s finally here, the best postseason tournament in sports. The Stanley Cup Playoff begin on Wednesday night with 16 teams fighting for glory. Only one will hoist the best trophy in sports when it is all said and ton, but plenty of heroes will emerge between now and mid-to-late June. This is going to be a lot of fun.
Let’s get right to it, starting with a look at the Eastern Conference.
A1 Tampa Bay Lightning V. WC2 Columbus Blue Jackets:
When Jimmy and I went live from Warrior Ice Arena for the trade deadline special, we both loved what the Blue Jackets were doing. A month and a half later and things aren’t exactly as peachy in Ohio. The Jackets struggled mightily at times and nearly missed the playoffs after going all-in at the deadline. Instead of a more favorable Metropolitan Division series, the Jackets enter the buzzsaw that is the Atlantic.
The Lightning, from top to bottom, are the best team in the NHL. Although I’m not convinced they win the Stanley Cup, I think they take care of business in the opening round relatively easily. The Bolts have four lines and three pairings that are vastly better than their counterparts from Columbus.
The Jackets’ best two players have one foot out the door already, and Tampa looks unstoppable. This isn’t Columbus’ year to finally make the second round.
Prediction: Lightning in five
A2 Boston Bruins Vs. A3 Toronto Maple Leafs:
Old friends meet again. These two teams went seven a year ago and then Toronto went out and added John Tavares as a free agent on July 1st. That should push them over the B’s, right? Wrong. The Bruins are vastly superior defensively and I believe has both the better coach and goaltender.
The Leafs’ offense, on paper, is better and deeper than the Bruins’ but they have had immense trouble scoring five-on-five against the Bergeron line and Zdeno Chara.
It’s almost unfair that this is a first round matchup, but one of these two is going home early. The Bruins are the better team and playing with more confidence, plus they are finally healthy. Tough to pick against the B’s here.
Prediction: Bruins in six
M1 Washington Capitals Vs. WC1 Carolina Hurricanes:
All the talk, rightfully so, has been about Tampa’s sensational season. Don’t forget about the Capitals though. Washington has quietly been a juggernaut since the calendar turned to 2019 and the Caps don’t appear to have a single hole on their roster. Alex Ovechkin was terrific again this season, sneaking by Leon Draisaitl for the Rocket Richard Trophy, while Braden Holtby looked like his playoff self for most of the year.
What Carolina has done this season has been remarkable. The Canes, no pun intended, took the NHL by storm and created a lot of fans league wide with their celebrations. They too have been terrific since the New Year and I believe they have the defense to keep Washington at bay. The problem is, I don’t believe Carolina has the offensive depth to beat the Capitals four times, and I’m still not sure about their goaltending.
Prediction: Capitals in six
M2 New York Islanders Vs. M3 Pittsburgh Penguins:
It’s going to be a wild scene on Long Island, as New York opens a playoff series at home. The Islanders shocked everyone by not only making the playoffs after losing Tavares, but also going from the worst defensive team in the league to one of the best. They’ll have their hands full against a Penguin team that has been here and done that.
Pittsburgh isn’t without issues, as the Pens’ defense and scoring depth simply hasn’t been up to par all season long. Add that to an inconsistent Matt Murray and it is tough to predict what you will get from this team. One thing is for sure, they aren’t entering the playoffs with the expectation from fans of a Stanley Cup. That might work in their favor.
Neither of these teams is perfect, and I believe we are looking at one of the most entertaining series of the opening round for that reason. It’s tough to bet against Crosby and Malkin, who are the best two players in this series by a wide margin.
Prediction: Penguins in seven
P1 Calgary Flames Vs. WC2 Colorado Avalanche:
Calgary is, in my mind, the most likely upset pick in round one because of their lack of goaltending. That said, the Flames have arguably the deepest roster in the west and a defensive group that should be able to handle the one line attack of Colorado.
The Flames are flat out just better, with deeper forwards and defenders and arguably a better top line than Colorado’s. When your strength isn’t even an advantage in a series, you know you are in tough. That’s the reality for Colorado, who got in thanks to a bad Western Conference.
Not even Mike Smith can ruin this round for Calgary.
Prediction: Flames in five
P2 San Jose Sharks Vs. P3 Vegas Golden Knights:
This should be a really fun series. Mark Stone gives Vegas a true stud forward and two dominating lines, but the Golden Knights haven’t been playing great hockey. Meanwhile, there are real questions in San Jose about the play of Martin Jones and the health of Erik Karlsson. Both are huge factors in this series.
If Jones doesn’t flip the switch, the Sharks are dead in the water. He simply can’t be a sub-.900 goaltender and expect to beat Marc-Andre Fleury in a playoff series. Karlsson also is a huge factor because the Sharks’ transition game is far worse off without him. The key to this series will be attacking a weaker Vegas defense, which you can’t really do without a fast transition game.
As for the Golden Knights, they’ll need to be far more consistent than they were at times during the regular season, especially late. They were far too sloppy and will get beaten by a team like the Sharks if they aren’t careful.
Prediction: Golden Knights in seven
C1 Nashville Predators Vs. WC1 Dallas Stars:
Well, the Winter Classic will be a little more interesting next year. On paper this should be an easy series for the Predators, who hold the advantage everywhere but the crease. Ben Bishop, along with Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, give the Stars a puncher’s chance however.
Bishop has been terrific as of late and is playing well enough that him stealing a series should not be out of the question. Nashville hasn’t played well for the last three weeks, and I have some questions about their offensive attack. In the end, the Preds’ deep attack should be enough to push them back into the second round, but this won’t be as easy as it seems.
Prediction: Predators in six
C2 Winnipeg Jets Vs. C3 St. Louis Blues:
The Jets badly need Dustin Byfuglien to be healthy and be himself or this could be a short playoff run. Winnipeg has looked slow and at times lost in recent weeks, and their top line is struggling to create much offense. Without the snarl of Big Buff, the Jets are not nearly as intimidating. Kevin Hayes hasn’t been a great fit with the Jets, while Patrik Laine has been inconsistent all season to say the least.
Meanwhile, the Blues rose from dead last in the west in January to having a chance to win the division on the final day. St. Louis’ top-nine forward group is deep and all three lines have the ability to score. Add Alexander Steen to the fourth line and you can create some matchup problems.
The Blues are getting strong goaltending for the first time in years and have a roster that I thought would be capable of competing for the Cup back in September. They will prove me right and slay the giant that is Winnipeg.
Prediction: Blues in seven