The Stanley Cup Playoffs are here.
First Round Preview
Unofficially, the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the Divisional Semifinals.
Eastern Conference Atlantic Division Semifinals
Tampa Bay Lightning (1st Atlantic, 113 Points) vs. New Jersey Devils (2nd Wild Card, 97 Points)
The Lightning come into the Stanley Cup Playoffs as one of the odds-on favorites to win the Cup, as they have been all season. Tampa had a monster division lead at the midway mark and despite squandering it down the stretch to the Bruins, the Lightning still took the top spot in the East. New Jersey’s incredibly young offense was led by Taylor Hall for most of the second half. The key to the series will come down to how the Devils goalies can defend the Lighting’s electric offense. What’s interesting is the history between the two teams: New Jersey won all three games this season and have won the previous two playoff series–the most recent was in 2007. Even with the Devils’ goalies firing on all cylinders, that won’t be enough to outlast the depth Tampa has with its forwards. Lightning in Six. Game 1 is Thursday at 7pm on the NHL Network.
Boston Bruins (2nd Atlantic, 112 Points) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (3rd, Atlantic, 105 Points)
An Original Six Rivalry Renewed. Boston nearly won the division thanks to solid play from veterans and young-guns alike. Brad Marchand has dominated the top of the score sheet and the front of the net while Charlie McAvoy and Ryan Donato are quickly becoming household names. Toronto features one of the most dynamic offenses in hockey with five 20-goal scorers including Auston Matthews and William Nylander. The Leafs have won eight of the previous 14 playoff meetings but Boston won the most recent in 2013 in one of the most dramatic comebacks in recent memory. Boston’s defense is the difference-maker in this series: Bruins in Seven. Game 1 is Thursday at 7pm on NBCSN.
Metropolitan Division Semifinals
Washington Capitals (1st Metropolitan, 105 Points) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (First Wild Card, 97 Points)
Another year, another Capitals division title. The usual suspects led the way for Washington (Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Backstrom) but the rest of the offense hasn’t been as robust as the past (relatively speaking, WSH still ranked ninth in goals for). Columbus is in a position where their defense will need to be their best offense. CBJ defensemen rank amongst the league’s best in points but also sport one of the best goals against rankings in the NHL–and having a perennial Veniza candidate in Sergei Bobrovsky certainly helps. What will make the ultimate difference is the frequency of penalties. Columbus had the third-lowest penalty minutes but one of the worst penalty kill units in the league. If CBJ isn’t careful, the Capitals incredible power play will rout CBJ. These two teams have never met in the playoffs but Washington won three of the four regular-season games this season. Caps win in six. Game 1 is Thursday at 7:30 on USA.
Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd Metropolitan, 100 Points) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (3rd Metropolitan, 98 Points)
As I have in the past for the Flyers, I’m going to write a full preview of this series with my full bias. Objectively, the Penguins won all four meetings this season although two games went to overtime. Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel each finished in Top 10 in the NHL points-wise for Pittsburgh whereas Claude Giroux finished 2nd in the NHL with 101 for Philly. There is something about this rivalry in the playoffs that makes me think it isn’t as open-and-shut as the tale of the tape from the regular season might indicate. I didn’t make any picks for the Eagles’ playoff games this year and I’ll continue that trend for the Flyers. Game 1 is Wednesday night at 7pm on NBCSN. Stay tuned for my full series preview.
Western Conference Central Division Semifinals
Nashville Predators (1st Central, 117 Points) vs. Colorado Avalanche (2nd Wild Card, 95 Points)
Nashville follows up their incredible Cup-run from last season by winning the President’s Trophy. The Preds once again have one of the best defenses in the NHL and nothing, I repeat, NOTHING can beat their home-ice advantage. Whether it’s catfish being flung onto the ice, country music stars belting out the national anthem, or just the absolute madness of the crowd, Nashville showed us they had secretly been a great hockey town last year and now they look to prove their one of the best. Colorado can play spoiler just like Nashville did last year. A solid goalie tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier along with an incredible season from Nathan McKinnon are the highlights for the Avs. It wasn’t enough in the regular season as Nashville won all four meetings and it likely won’t be here–Preds in five. Game 1 is Thursday at 9:30 on NBCSN.
Winnipeg Jets (2nd Central, 114 Points) vs. Minnesota Wild (3rd Central, 101 Points)
Winnipeg has the West’s best offense which is led by Patrick Laine. Mark Scheifele missed some time due to injury but having him back just adds another layer that Minnesota will need to shut down. Wild netminder Devan Dubnyk will have his work cut out for him because of how dynamic the Jets can force their attack. The Preds will be waiting for Winnipeg and the Jets should be able to take care of business on all levels. Jets in five. Game 1 is on Wednesday at 7pm on CNBC.
Pacific Division Semifinals
Vegas Golden Knights (1st Pacific, 109 Points) vs. LA Kings (98 Points, 1st Wild Card)
Vegas has been the story of the 2017-18 NHL Season setting nearly every record for an expansion team in North American sports history. The Kings have quietly put together the best defensive effort in the NHL. LA’s biggest challenge will be to score on a solid Vegas defensive core which is led by goalie Marc Andre Fleury. Vegas has a number of stars who can put a team away but LA will need to watch out for William Karlsson–VGK’s leading scorer. In the end, the Kings’ experience is what makes the difference. Kings in seven. Game 1 is on Wednesday at 10 on NBCSN.
Anaheim Ducks (2nd Pacific, 101 Points) vs. San Jose Sharks (3rd Pacific, 100 Points)
Both teams were plagued by injuries all season and as both became more and more healthy, both made their playoff pushes. The vets on both squads have led the charge but San Jose’s activity at the trade deadline might be the ultimate difference maker. Evander Kane is going to be a big X-Factor in this series as he’s nearly put up a point per game since coming to San Jose and returning from injury. Sharks in six. CHOMP. CHOMP. CHOMP. Game 1 is Thursday at 10:30 on USA.
Disagree with my picks? Let me know in the comments below.