The Stanley Cup playoffs provide the most exhilarating and pulse-pounding moments in sports, and this season’s first-round matchups should do nothing to change that.
We have established rivalries being renewed, the potential for news ones to be formed and a historic expansion team looking to carve out a piece of playoff lore.
Here are our predictions for the first round of the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning (A1) vs. New Jersey Devils (WC2)
The Devils have a very young team, highlighted by 2017 No. 1 overall draft pick Nico Hischier and likely Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall. Keith Kinkaid has had an excellent season in net for the Devils, too. However, the Lightning have more experience, better depth at forward and the blue line, as well as the edge in coaching. Tampa Bay does have a poor penalty kill (fourth-worst in the league), but its high-powered offense (third in goals scored, No. 2-ranked power play) will be too much for the Devils.
Prediction: Lightning in 5
Washington Capitals (M1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (WC1)
Caps goalie Braden Holtby had a poor season, but he has a top five career playoff save percentage and usually raises his game at this stage of the campaign. Columbus has a good blue line and is well structured, but poor special teams (25th-ranked power play, 26th-ranked penalty kill) could be a real issue, especially if Alex Ovechkin takes over on the power play. Washington is better, but this should be a very competitive series.
Prediction: Capitals in 7
Pittsburgh Penguins (M2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (M3)
One of hockey’s fiercest rivalries writes another chapter in its playoff history. These teams last met in the postseason in 2012, when the Flyers won a high-scoring and violent series in six games. The Flyers are a young team and should be good for a long time, but the two-time defending champs have the edge in depth, coaching and a huge special teams advantage. The Penguins’ top-ranked power play could feast on the Flyers’ 29th-ranked penalty kill. Oh, and did I mention the Penguins still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, arguably the game’s two-best players?
Prediction: Penguins in 6
Boston Bruins (A2) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (A3)
This could be the most entertaining series of the first round. We have two rivals loaded with young talent, excellent coaching and extremely passionate fanbases. The Bruins have a slight edge in depth and goaltending, as well as home ice advantage. Boston’s veteran core (Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Brad Marchand) has won a Stanley Cup — and been to another — and knows what’s required to win this time of the year. Leafs goalie Frederik Anderson has stellar stats in his career against the B’s, but this is his first playoff matchup against Boston. If he struggles, the highly skilled Leafs forwards — Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, etc. — will need to have a tremendous series, and they’re certainly capable of that.
Prediction: Bruins in 6
Nashville Predators (C1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (WC2)
The Predators have the best group of defensemen in the league, an excellent coach and plenty of motivation after coming close to winning the Stanley Cup Final last season. The young and skilled but inexperienced Avalanche don’t stand a chance.
Prediction: Predators in 4
Winnipeg Jets (C2) vs. Minnesota Wild (C3)
We could be seeing the birth of a genuine Central Division rivalry here. Winnipeg is one of the most well-rounded teams in the league, and ranked second in goals scored, fifth in goals against, fifth on the power play and ninth in penalty killing. The Jets also have home ice advantage, which is bad news for the Wild because Winnipeg was a league-best 32-7-2 at Bell MTS Place.
Prediction: Jets in 5
Vegas Golden Knights (P1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (WC1)
The Golden Knights got really productive seasons from a lot of young players, and starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury should provide a calming presence for an inexperienced squad as a three-time Stanley Cup champion. The Kings have been here before, and several of their best players from the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup champion teams, including Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, still play prominent roles. Los Angeles was the best defensive team in the league, highlighted by the lowest GAA and the top-ranked penalty kill.
Vegas’ storybook expansion season was a tremendous story, but it’s going to end at the hands of the Kings.
Prediction: Kings in 6
Anaheim Ducks (P2) vs. San Jose Sharks (P3)
This matchup has all the makings of a seven-game series. We have two division rivals with loads of experience and similar physical styles of play. The Ducks have a little more skill, and ranked third in GAA and fifth in penalty killing, but the Sharks also ranked in the top 10 of both GAA and PK percentage.
The x-factor is Ryan Miller, who’s now the Ducks’ starting goalie because of the recent injury to John Gibson. Miller has plenty of playoff experience, but he hasn’t played in the postseason since 2015. His career .915 playoff save percentage and 2.49 playoff GAA aren’t too impressive, either. If Miller has to play some or all of this series and struggles, the Ducks will be in trouble. Gibson did practice Monday, though, which is a good sign for Anaheim.
Prediction: Ducks in 7
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