NHL Playoff Predictions: Picking Winners For First Round Of Stanley Cup Playoffs

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Hopefully you spent the last few weeks resting up, because the Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us, which means it’s time for a significant decrease in sleep and a considerable uptick in caffeine.

The quest for the greatest trophy in sports starts Wednesday night, as 16 teams begin a grueling battle for the privilege of hoisting the Cup in June.

Here’s how we see the first round playing out.

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto, the actual city, will be insufferable if the Leafs get any sort of momentum in this series. And while that seems unlikely given how good the Caps are, it’s not crazy to think Toronto’s young stars go into this series with a “nothing to lose” attitude and make the Caps a little nervous. But we’re still not going to pick against arguably the best Washington team in the franchise’s history.

Prediction: Capitals in five

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
The NHL’s new playoff structure really screwed both of these teams. The Blue Jackets finished third in the division, and the only non-division team with more points than them this season was Chicago. All eyes will be on the Sidney Crosby-Brandon Dubinsky matchup, and the latter has a chance to limit Crosby. But even if he does, the Penguins still have the edge in overall talent and find a way to win what should be the best series of the first round.

Prediction: Penguins in seven

Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers
Max Pacioretty getting hurt in practice the day before the series isn’t ideal for the Canadiens, but it sounds like he should be OK. Don’t expect a whole lot of scoring in this series regardless, with two of the best goalies in the world (Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist) doing battle. This series also presents an intriguing coaching rematch of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final with Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault matching wits. We give the Habs the slight edge in both of those categories and therefore we’ll side the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge over the Blueshirts.

Prediction: Canadiens in six

Ottawa Senators vs. Boston Bruins
This is one of the harder series to predict — it could go seven or either team could win it rather easily. We could see Ottawa scoring early in a few games and then just frustrating the Bruins with its 1-3-1 neutral zone trap. But if you go back and watch these teams’ four games this season, the Bruins certainly had their chances; they just couldn’t bury them. As flustering as the 1-3-1 can be, there’s a pretty basic formula to beating it, and while the potential loss of Torey Krug really could hurt Boston in that regard, it’s just the better team. The B’s dominate puck possession and have better forward depth, and you can’t discount the possibility of Tuukka Rask getting hot.

Prediction: Bruins in six

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators
It kind of feels like the Blackhawks are flying under the radar despite entering the playoffs with the Western Conference’s top seeding, which probably means we’re taking their greatness for granted. The Predators’ offseason addition of PK Subban adds a nice wrinkle here, but it’s hard to see the ‘Hawks getting bounced in the first round. The Blackhawks are thinner on the blue line than they’ve been in recent playoff runs, which could catch up to them down the road, but Corey Crawford will do enough in net to at least propel them into the second round.

Prediction: Blackhawks in six

Minnesota Wild vs. St. Louis Blues
The Blues actually won the season series, but there’s a reason Minnesota contended for the No. 1 seed all season. The Wild have arguably the best depth in the entire playoff field, and they also get offense from the back end, with Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon and Matthew Dumba all able to contribute offensively. The Blues have played better since firing head coach Ken Hitchcock and replacing him with former Wild bench boss Mike Yeo, and picking Bruce Boudreau in the playoffs is always a risky proposition. But Minnesota just has too much talent.

Prediction: Wild in six

Anaheim Ducks vs. Calgary Flames
There’s already some bad blood between these teams entering the series, which means we could be looking at the nastiest series of the first round. That all centered around Mark Giordano’s hit on Cam Fowler, which probably will cost Fowler the first round. But it still feels like the Flames are maybe a season or two from really making a run.

Prediction: Ducks in six

Edmonton Oilers vs. San Jose Sharks
This is a wildly captivating series, as it pits an older, more experienced team (San Jose) against a team filled with young stars ready to make its impact on the playoffs (Edmonton). Just as interesting is Oilers coach Todd McLellan going up against his former team, which has to be at least some sort of advantage, right? Injuries also are working against the Sharks, who didn’t have Joe Thornton or Logan Couture down the stretch. Will they be at 100 percent? Oh, and we didn’t even mention Connor McDavid, who is the best player in this series.

Prediction: Oilers in seven

Click for the full Stanley Cup playoffs schedule >>

Thumbnail photo via Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports Images

Have a question for Mike Cole? Send it to him via Twitter at @MikeColeNESN.

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