The chase for the Stanley Cup begins on Wednesday. Here’s a preview (and predictions) for the eight opening-round NHL playoff series:
Tampa Bay Lightning (54-23-5) vs. New Jersey Devils (44-29-9)
Season Series: Tampa Bay 0-2-1; New Jersey 3-0-0
Lightning: Despite battling injuries throughout the year, Tampa Bay looks to be healthy while being led by their top forwards in Nikita Kucherov (39-61-100) and Steven Stamkos (27-59-86). With a defence headed by Victor Hedman who had a career-high 63 points on the year with a plus-32, the addition of former New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, and a 44-win performance by goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, it is hard to see Tampa falling out of the first round.
Devils: The Devils have 11 players on their roster who have not played a single playoff game, including leading scorer and Hart Trophy candidate, Taylor Hall. Hall led the Devils with 93 points (39-54-93) along with a 26-game point streak, it will be interesting to see how he performs. The difference-maker will be the performance of either Keith Kinkaid or Corey Schneider in goal. When Schneider injured his hip and groin, Kinkaid went 7-0-1 with a 2.25 GAA in his past eight starts. Coach John Hynes will not reveal who will start in goal.
Prediction: Lightning over Devils in six games.
Boston Bruins (50-20-12) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (49-26-7)
Season Series: Boston 1-2-1; Toronto 3-1-0
Bruins: Forward Brad Marchand will lead the Bruins with his 34-goal, 85-point campaign. Boston will be a tough team to play against with their size and defensive ability in players like Patrice Bergeron. The Bruins have three 30-goal scorers in David Pastrnak (35), Marchand (34) and Bergeron (30) who all play on the same line. If this line is producing, so will the Bruins.
Maple Leafs: The Maple Leafs scored the second-most goals in the NHL and have three 30-goal scorers in James van Riemsdyk (36), Auston Matthews (34) and Nazem Kadri (32). The Leafs convert on 25 per cent of their power play chances, good for second in the league. Look for Toronto’s youth in Mitch Marner, Matthews and William Nylander to power them into the quarter-finals. Do not forget about their back end, spearheaded by star defenceman Morgan Rielly.
Prediction: Maple Leafs over Bruins in seven games.
Washington Capitals (49-26-7) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (45-30-7)
Season Series: Washington 3-1-0; Columbus 1-3-0
Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin scored 49 goals to lead the NHL for the seventh time in his career and has yet to play in the Stanley Cup finals. The Capitals will need secondary scoring to advance in the playoffs coming from the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky. Philipp Grubauer will get the start in goal in Game 1. Since Nov. 1, Grubauer is second in the NHL with 2.06 GAA with at least 20 starts.
Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets are a much more solid team than the one that lost to the Capitals in their first three regular season meetings. Columbus went 13-2-2 in their final 17 games and their next step should to take that momentum and win their first playoff series in franchise history. Forward Artemi Panarin has provided the offence that the Blue Jackets needed, especially with 32 points in his last 19 games. Columbus needs goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to put his past playoff woes behind him where he is 3-10 with a 3.63 GAA to advance.
Prediction: Capitals over Blue Jackets in six games.
Pittsburgh Penguins (47-29-6) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (42-26-14)
Season Series: Pittsburgh 4-0-0; Philadelphia 0-2-2
Penguins: No team has won more than two consecutive Stanley Cups since the New York Islanders won four straight from 1980-83. Pittsburgh won all four regular season matchups against Philadelphia, which included 70 penalty minutes. Their top three forwards in Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin and Phil Kessel all placed in the top 10 in NHL scoring this year, while playing on three separate lines. Goaltender Matt Murray is 22-9 with a 1.95 GAA in 32 Stanley Cup playoff games and if he’s healthy, look for the Penguins to advance easily.
Flyers: After moving forward Sean Couturier to first-line centre this season, and pushing Claude Giroux to first-line wing, both recorded career highs in points. The Flyers defence produced 50 goals , and the emergence of rookie centre Nolan Patrick will help push them through the first round. Philadelphia must stay off the penalty kill as they finished the season with a 29th-worst 75.8 per cent.
Prediction: Penguins over Flyers in six games.
Nashville Predators (53-18-11) vs. Colorado Avalanche (43-30-9)
Season Series: Nashville 4-0-0; Colorado 0-3-1
Predators: Nashville is coming into the playoffs after recording its best season in franchise history with 117 points, claiming the Presidents’ Trophy. The team’s depth and outstanding defence will be the key in this series. Defenceman P.K. Subban is coming off a Norris Trophy-calibre season and is expected to provide stability off of the back end along with Roman Josi. Goaltender Pekka Rinne crafted himself a Vezina-worthy season, posing a 42-13-4 record with a 2.31 GAA.
Avalanche: The Avs are the biggest underdogs in the playoffs being led by a handful of youthful players who had breakout seasons. Centre Nathan MacKinnon could very well take home the Hart Trophy this year as the NHL’s MVP, as he set career highs in goals (39), assists (58) and points (97). Mikko Rantanen, 21, posted an outstanding season with 84 points, along with Vancouver native Alex Kerfoot who scored 19 goals. For Colorado to provide the upset, they will need production from all lines other than MacKinnon’s and Rantanen’s first line.
Prediction: Predators over Avalanche in four games.
Winnipeg Jets (52-20-10) vs. Minnesota Wild (45-26-11)
Season Series: Winnipeg 3-1-0; Minnesota 1-3-0
Jets: The Jets tied for the Leafs for scoring the most goals in the season, with 44 coming from teenage winger Patrik Laine who will have a major impact on the points in the power play. Winnipeg has three forward lines that can score with the likes of Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler. Coming off a career-best season, goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has never played a Stanley Cup game, but will have to carry this momentum against the Wild to push the Jets through.
Wild: The Wild will have to make do, after losing veteran defenceman Ryan Suter to a broken ankle. The team will also have to perform better up the middle with centres Eric Staal, who scored 76 points this season, and Mikko Koivu.
Prediction: Jets over Wild in five games.
Vegas Golden Knights (51-24-7) vs Los Angeles Kings (45-29-8)
Season Series: Vegas 2-1-1; Los Angeles 2-1-1
Golden Knights: In their first season, the expansion Golden Knights shocked everyone and won the Pacific Division. The atmosphere of the arena and their depth will help them, as they had five players who scored at least 20 goals. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has won the Stanley Cup three times with the Pittsburgh Penguins and knows what it takes to win. Look for number one centre William Karlsson to lead the push.
Ready for battle (towels)— y - Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) April 11, 2018
Kings: The Kings have arguably the best forward in the series in Anze Kopitar, best defenceman in Drew Doughty and best goaltender in Jonathan Quick. Look for each of them to catapult this team past the cinderella story Golden Knights.
Prediction: Kings over Golden Knights in seven games.
Anaheim Ducks (44-25-13) vs. San Jose Sharks (45-27-10)
Season Series: Anaheim 1-1-2; San Jose 3-0-1
Ducks: It will be a tight series between division rivals, without much separating the two. The Ducks were fifth in penalty-killing percentage and will look to continue that. Centre Richard Rakell finally came into his own, amassing a team-high 69 points on the season. Look for ex-Canuck Ryan Kesler to help produce the grit he can provide in the playoffs like he showed in 2011.
Sharks: San Jose will be spearheaded by Norris Trophy contender Brent Burns who scored 67 points. The Sharks are ranked better than the Ducks on the penalty kill, finishing with the second-highest percentage. San Jose will need plenty of secondary scoring, something they were not used to in past years. North Vancouver-born and -raised goaltender Martin Jones will look to continue to dominate in the playoffs.
Prediction: Sharks over Ducks in seven games.