Lord Stanley’s Cup is once again up for grabs as another NHL regular season draws to a close. Will the two-time defending champion Penguins achieve an elusive three-peat? Or will a newcomer rise up and take the throne?
Nashville vs. Colorado
Just like last year, the Nashville Predators ripped through the competition this season on their way to the top of the conference. Their incredibly deep offense (led by team captain Filip Forsberg, Craig Smith and former Ottawa center Kyle Turris *chokes back sobs*) is anchored by a formidable defensive back line (led by Ryan Ellis and P.K. Subban). The Avalanche have shining star Nathan McKinnon to thank for their surprising turnaround from their dreadful 2017 campaign, when they placed dead last in the league. The Avs are a much-improved team, but the Preds are simply better in every way. Nashville over Colorado, 4-0.
Winnipeg vs. Minnesota
The Winnipeg Jets are looking to win their first playoff game since the franchise moved from Atlanta, and they stand a good chance in the matchup against their southern rivals, the Minnesota Wild. Forward Eric Staal is having his best season since he led the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup championship in 2006, with 42 goals and 34 assists to lead the Wild into the postseason. Meanwhile, Jets winger Patrick Laine is tied for 2nd in the league with 44 goals to his name; Winnipeg is among the top teams in almost every category, including goals for (second), goals against (fifth) and face-off win percentage (fifth). Get your white towels ready, Winnipeggers! Your Jets should be soaring into the second round. Winnipeg over Minnesota, 4-1.
Vegas vs. LA Kings
Wow. Words don’t come close to describing the amazing inaugural season for Las Vegas’ first “Big Four” sports franchise. The Golden Knights took advantage of an expansion draft stocked with under-appreciated talent and proceeded to absolutely crush the Pacific division in their first season of play. Vegas’ success has truly been a team effort: from walking Hall of Famer goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to hotshot forwards Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson, each member of this team has stepped up and given this city an unforgettable show. The LA Kings have the Rock of Gibraltar (aka goalie Jonathan Quick) and center Anze Kopitar to thank for their wild card berth, but something tells me Vegas has luck on their side. After all, the house always wins. Vegas over LA, 4-1.
Anaheim vs. San Jose
Two tough California teams will face each other in the postseason for the first time since 2009. The (formerly Mighty) Ducks of Anaheim will face off against the San Jose Sharks in what I am predicting will be the closest series in the Western Conference. The Ducks are led on offense by Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell (the former of which has 50 assists) but thrive mostly on their defensive prowess (allowing the fourth-fewest goals in the league this season). Normally that would make for an intimidating first round opponent, but the Sharks don’t seem phased: they won three out of four regular season games against their bitter division rivals and have playmakers of their own in Brent Burns and Logan Couture. Both of these teams have been frequent contenders for years: this marks Anaheim’s sixth straight playoffs appearance, and San Jose competed in the Stanley Cup Finals only two seasons ago. But most importantly: they absolutely hate each other. I think the Sharks hold a slight edge, but it will take a full seven games. San Jose over Anaheim, 4-3.
Boston vs. New Jersey
The seeding for the Eastern Conference playoff bracket has not been finalized by the time this goes to print, so I’m basing my predictions on my assumption that Boston beats the Florida Panthers on Sunday night. To be honest, it would not matter if they lose, because I am picking the Bruins to win in the first round regardless. The New Jersey Devils, this year’s other surprise team (the first, of course, being Vegas), started off hot after finishing last in the Eastern Conference last season. Former Oiler Taylor Hall has taken this rusty lemon of an offense and turned it into a smooth dragster, racking up 93 scoring points (goals plus assists) along the way. But the Bruins are also a well-oiled machine, ranking third in goals against, fourth in power play success percentage, and third in penalty kill success percentage. Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak form the left and right arms of Boston’s offensive attack, and the young Devils will have a hard time slipping the puck past Tuuka Rask. I think experience beats passion in this matchup. Boston over New Jersey, 4-0.
Tampa Bay vs. Toronto
The Tampa Bay Lightning are outstanding competitors that I would not bet against regardless of who they faced in the first round. Unfortunately, that involves betting against the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose 50 year championship drought is a curse I would be more than happy to see lifted. To keep it short, Tampa Bay is stacked on offense: Nikita Kucherov (who has 100 points this season), Steven Stamkos (who has 86 points) and Brayden Point (who has 32 goals and 66 total points) make the Lightning a force of nature. There’s a reason they led the entire league in goals scored. In contrast, the Leafs player with the highest points total is Mitchell Marner with 69. That’s a big gap to fill, and while Toronto can rely on Marner and fellow forward Auston Matthews to make it a competitive series, I cannot see a scenario where the Leafs stop the Lightning from scoring all over the place and running away with the series before Toronto can catch up. Tampa Bay over Toronto, 4-2.
Washington vs. Columbus
Is this the year the Washington Capitals dig deep inside themselves and make it over their Stanley Cup Playoff woes? My heart says yes, but my head remains a cynic. The Caps have gone out of their way to state that this year is different, and they have the pieces to make it happen. They won the Metropolitan Division with the help of the Dirk Nowitzki of hockey, Alex Ovechkin. He has the second most power play goals of any player this season with 17. The Columbus Blue Jackets rank fifth-worst in the league in penalty kill percentage, so it’s easy to see where this could go horribly wrong for the plucky no-nonsense team from Ohio. Columbus is appearing in the postseason for the second consecutive year, which is the first time that has ever happened. Artemi Panarin will keep it competitive, but Columbus will have to wait another year for their first ever playoff series win. Washington over Columbus, 4-1.
Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia
What a series this will be. If the entire state of Pennsylvania manages to keep itself from burning to the ground, the hockey world will be shoveling popcorn in its mouth during this fierce rivalry between the Penguins and the Flyers. Reigning champion Pittsburgh will come in as seasoned veterans, while Philadelphia will return to the race for Lord Stanley’s Cup after a season’s absence. The Penguins have an opportunity this year to establish themselves as a true dynasty. They have Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and a seemingly endless bench who can score at any time from anywhere, and while the Penguins fans miss having Marc-Andre Fleury in front of the net, the team has not suffered too terribly in his absence. The Flyers should be happy with the production of Claude Giroux (who has 102 points this season) and piece players like winger Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds, but they need to play a near-perfect series to pull off this upset. I’m expecting them to raise some eyebrows and take this series to six games, but that’s as far as I’m willing to stick my journalistic neck out for them. The Penguins swept them in regular season play and are thirsty for another Finals appearance, and it’ll be tough to keep them from accomplishing that. Pittsburgh over Philadelphia, 4-2.
Overall, this playoffs will be one to remember. There’s nothing like Stanley Cup playoff hockey to get the adrenaline going. My personal Finals prediction: The Nashville Predators will avenge last year’s defeat and win the Cup in seven games against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Whoever wins, you better believe I’ll be glued to my laptop watching every game from first puck drop to final horn.