Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Preview
Forget late December, late April is the most wonderful time of the year. Where the golden voice of hockey (and possibly the world) Mike “Doc” Emrick hops on the mic and gives hockey fans around North America small heart palpitations as he announces playoff hockey. When Doc screams as a puck rings off the post, I jump out of my seat the same as when I saw Jordan Peele’s “Us” at the theatre. There are so many storylines going into these playoffs. Will the Lightning live up to the expectations of their historic season? Will John Tavares and the Leafs finally bring a cup home? Will I regret betting the Sharks at 25 to 1 odds to win it all? Regardless, these playoffs will be highly entertaining. I’m breaking down each first round matchup and who will be the key difference makers.
San Jose Sharks vs. Las Vegas Knights
A rematch of the 2018 Western Conference semi’s, the Knights and Sharks provide high-powered offense from top to bottom. The Knights system last year was like nothing the league had ever seen, with all four lines putting a “full-court press” on opposing defenses at all times. This worked well until they seemed to burn out in the finals against Washington. The Sharks come into the playoffs going through a bit of a rough patch, but they are a seasoned team filled with talent on the front and back end.
Winner: San Jose in 6
The back end will win this series for the Sharks. The offenses will put a lot of pressure on each other the entire series, but the Sharks have the defense to hold it together.
Winnipeg Jets vs. St. Louis Blues
It’s tough to tell who will come out of that bottom half of the bracket between the Blues, Jets and Predators. Each group is pretty solid top to bottom. They all have some speed, some playmakers, some physicality. Each team has been to the playoffs recently and have been close to the cup. In my opinion, whoever comes out on top in that bottom half will be representing the West in the finals.
Winner: Winnipeg in 7
The Blues are very hot right now, and I am not very confident sticking with the Jets, but they are the more complete team and have been dominant the whole season. As good as Jordan Binnington has been, he has no playoff experience. Connor Hellebuyck is one of those goalies who can be a rock even if the defense falters a bit and showed that in last year’s playoffs (2.36 GAA, .922 Save %, 2 shutouts).
Calgary Flames vs. Colorado Avalanche
The Calgary Flames were my favorite to win the president’s trophy this year. The Lightning had other ideas, but the Flames finished with the best record in the West. They will face off against the Colorado Avalanche who snuck in as the 8 seed. If you like high scoring hockey, this will be the series for you. The Flames top line of Johnny “Hockey” Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm have been a top 3 line in terms of production all season. The Avalanche also had an extremely productive top line, with Nathan Mackinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. However, Rantanen has been out with an undisclosed injury for some time and it’s unclear whether he will be at 100 percent or even ready to play for the first round.
Winner: Calgary in 5
Calgary is simply the more complete team here. They have talent on each of their lines and a Norris Trophy candidate in Mark Giordano on defense. The Avalanche top line is a force, but beyond that there isn’t much production and Philipp Grubauer has a bad playoff history so far and is not a Stanley Cup goalie by any means.
Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars
This will be a fun series regardless of the outcome. There is a lot of star power between these teams. Also a preview of next year’s Winter Classic at the Cotton Bowl in Texas. Nashville has been a cup contender for the last few seasons and seem like they are going to be for some time. They have their stars like Forsberg and Johansson, but this team is FULL of nose to the ground kind of guys. Kyle Turris, Mikael Granlund, Austin Watson, Nick Bonino and new addition Wayne Simmonds will all be very tough to contain in the later games in this series. The Stars are similar to Colorado in that their top line is their engine. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alex Radulov have scored considerably more than the remainder of the forwards. However, young D-men John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen can provide more offense to the Stars. The Stars may surprise some people and stretch this series out.
Winner: Nashville in 5
Although I have them in 5, I would not be surprised if the Stars got this series to 6 or 7 games. The Defense will be the key. Goalies Ben Bishop and Pekka Rinne will make the saves they should, but beyond that it’s going to be up to the defenses to stop the high powered first lines. The Predators will be able to and the Stars will not, and that will be the difference.
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
In a rematch of last year’s thrilling first round 7-game series, Boston is coming into the playoffs on a pretty hot end to the season. The Leafs have struggled a bit toward the end but look like they are back on track. The Leafs high powered offense with John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews will be the big question. Last year, Matthews and Marner struggled against Boston in the playoffs, however Tavares is known for some playoff heroism. He scored the game winner to send the Islanders to the second round against Florida in 2016. Boston has the same core group as last year and is always a tough physical team along with the high producing play of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak.
Winner: Toronto in 7
As a hockey fan, I am very excited to see this one go the distance. The Leafs have a tremendous amount of pressure at this point. I am not sure how much better this offense can be, and I do think the big names will be able to break through, along with some grittier guys who have a nose for the net like Nazem Kadri and Zach Hyman. The Bruins still have a lot of playoff experience and will push the Leafs to be their best and they’ll need to be if they want to beat Boston.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
This will be the shortest analysis for obvious reasons. The Jackets got the short end of the stick here. The Lightning are about as complete of a team as your going to see. They have tied the NHL’s regular season wins record. Even if Art Ross and most likely Hart trophy winner Nikita Kucherov put up regular numbers, this team is top to bottom Stanley Cup ready. The Jackets have a solid top 2 lines, with Panarin, Duchene and Atkinson rounding out the top line. They also have additional help on the offensive from defensemen Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, who both have incredible skating agility and shots from the point.
Winner: Tampa Bay in 4
Tampa is simply too good of a team for the Jackets. Even if they somewhat contain that top line, Columbus still has to contain the other 3 lines and has to get past Norris trophy candidate Victor Hedman and Vezina trophy candidate Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes
The Capitals take on the surging (get it? SURGE-ing) Hurricanes in what should be a pretty fun series. The Capitals have a pretty similar storyline going into the playoffs as the 2018 postseason. Alex Ovechkin is at the top of the league in scoring, the team is near the top of the league in the standings. The only aspect that is different is that Braden Holtby will be the starting goalie for Game 1. Last year, Philipp Grubauer started the first 2 games before Holtby entered and went on an incredible Stanley Cup winning run. Holtby the last few playoffs has been increasingly more difficult to get pucks past. The Hurricanes have been the hottest team in the second half of the season. The only thing more entertaining than watching Sebastian Aho’s incredible agility and stick-handlings skills is the Hurricanes SURGE celebrations after each win. From human fishing to a home run derby, this team is entering the playoffs with a ton of energy and confidence.
Winner: Washington in 5
As good as the Hurricanes have been, they are a few years premature in terms of being a cup contender. The Capitals are going to be a tough team to eliminate and Holtby is going to be even more difficult to score on. The pace of the games in this series will make it a must watch, but the Capitals should take this series.
New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
In their first season without John Tavares, the Islanders are back in the playoffs. While the Penguins are returning for the 13th straight season. Both of these teams are pretty hard-nosed. The Penguins haven’t really been that kind of team, but have added on a few grinders in recent years. Crosby, Malkin and Kessel are also getting older and can’t fly down the ice like Connor McDavid anymore. Not to say Crosby still isn’t a top player in the league. They have had somewhat of an offensive rebirth with Jake Guentzel. He, like many others placed on the same line as Sidney Crosby, has had a career year in points. It’s weird how hockey works sometimes. The Islanders leading scorer, Mat Barzal only has 62 points in 82 game, but they are a playoff team. I will say, this team, more than most, plays as well of a team game as almost any team in the league. Which explains how they finished second in the metro division. The Islanders are not a very flashy team, but they are able to come up in the clutch and have the Jennings trophy winning tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss in net. It will be interesting to see who gets the nod.
Winner: New York in 6
New York is one of those teams who really feed off the energy of their crowd, and the Islanders have some of the craziest fans in the league. The Penguins are nearing the end of their glory years. Even so, they are not an easy team to take down. They are very experienced and have a young goalie who has already won 2 Stanley Cups. This series will be the lowest scoring of the first round and the Islanders have relied on their back end all season. As long as the Islanders can put up 2 to 3 goals a game, they will take this series.