Along with the Lightning and Blue Jackets, the Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, Boston Bruins, and Toronto Maple Leafs will contend for the Eastern Conference’s Prince of Wales Trophy.
In the Western Conference, the Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks, Vegas Golden Knights, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, and Colorado Avalanche will seek to capture the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl en route to the Stanley Cup Final.
As indicative as the regular season can be, the postseason is unpredictable because of the numerous factors that can influence each and every hockey game, let alone one series, or the four it takes to win the Stanley Cup.
Here at Blueshirt Banter, we’re going to try to predict each round. Along with our picks for who will win each matchup, we have submitted our guesses for series length. As each round of the playoffs progress, we’ll revisit our previous selections, and continue to make predictions as the later rounds are set.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
First up, there’s the match up between the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning and second wild card Blue Jackets.
The league’s best team is headlined by Nikita Kucherov and his 128 points, which were the most for a player in a single season in the salary cap era and the most by a Russian player in a single season in league history. In addition to Kucherov, there’s two 40-goal scorers in Steevn Stamkos and Brayden Point, and depth that includes Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde, and Anthony Cirelli. On the blue line, they have two number one defenders in Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, along with depth such as Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak. What makes them even more dangerous is Andrei Vasilevskiy and his 10.64 goals saved above average in net.
There’s a reason why this dynamic team led the league this season and won 62 games.
On the other side of the equation, there’s the Blue Jackets, who loaded up at the deadline with the additions of Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Keith Kinkaid. They also traded for Adam McQuaid. Rather than dealing pending free agents Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin, Columbus, at the very least, is using them as their own rentals and pushing all their chips to the center of the table going all in on this season.
But a post-deadline slide gives reason for concern. So does their netminding if Bobrovsky’s playoff performance once again falls short of his regular season play.
While Columbus’ chances in the playoffs would likely be questioned in any matchup, they’re particularly suspect against a team as dangerous as Tampa Bay. That’s why every single one of us is predicting a Lightning win in Round 1 without going the full distance.
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
In a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal battle from the Atlantic, the Bruins are set to take on the Maple Leafs.
The Maple Leafs added John Tavares via free agency to round out their already strong forward group that’s headlined by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. The addition also bolstered the team’s center depth and made Nazem Kadri one of the best third-line pivots in the league.
Their weakness, like last year, is defense even though number one Morgan Rielly is having a great season. The Leafs attempted to address this at the trade deadline by adding Jake Muzzin, but there is still room for improvement.
As a whole, Toronto’s 5-on-5 Corsi against of 60.15 per 60 was second to last in the league this season, which falls on their netminder Frederik Andersen. While he’s been excellent, he hasn’t had the support of the team in front of him, and that can weigh on any goaltender; just ask Henrik Lundqvist.
On the other side of the ice, there’s the Bruins who are led by the elite trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak — although, Toronto may have the edge in overall forward depth below that line; after their top line, there’s a huge dip in scoring outside of second-line center David Krejci (73 points).
Compared to Toronto, Boston definitely has the edge in defense, between their puck movers and defensive-minded backs. In net, there’s Tuukka Rask and the support of Jaroslav Halak who performed well when splitting the crease with Rask — enough so that there’s a case for him starting over Rask in the playoffs.
The majority of us think the Bruins will win the series for the second consecutive season, and maybe that’s because of Toronto’s performance in the last stretch of the regular season in which they lost eight of their last 10 games. But we’re in agreement that it will take at least six or seven games for that to happen.
Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Those jerks from North Carolina made the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, and they’re set to play the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Capitals to open the postseason.
Trades have added to their core of Sebastian Aho, Jordan Staal, Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk, and Brett Pesce, with the additions of Dougie Hamilton, Michael Ferland, and Nino Niederreiter. And of course, there’s captain Justin Williams, who had a great season with 53 points, a 57.6 percent 5-on-5 Corsi and 60.5 percent expected goals, and 12.5 GAR is and leading the way for this young team.
Since winning the Stanley Cup last June, the Capitals made a coaching change, with Barry Trotz and co. departing and assistant coach Todd Reirden taking over as head coach. The Hurricanes found themselves in a similar position after Bill Peters left; they promoted assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour to lead behind the bench.
What hasn’t changed over the last year is the dominant scoring of Alexander Ovechkin, or the rest of the star power on the Capitals that’s highlighted by Nick Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and John Carlson.
The Hurricanes and Capitals are an interesting matchup, as it features the team that is always one of the best in shot share and a team that’s focuses on shot quality. But the Hurricanes, despite having strong underlying numbers, haven’t had results and much of that was because of goaltending — until this year, thanks to the surprising tandem of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney. Their opponent, the Capitals, have had a similar problem, just in the playoffs — that is, until winning their first Stanley Cup this season.
So which team moves on?
We’re predicting the Hurricanes to eliminate the Capitals. As experienced as the Capitals may be, the Hurricanes’ surge to the playoffs has been one of the highlights of the season. But we’re mostly in agreement that this series is going to go at least six games. If it goes seven, we think it’ll be the Hurricanes, who are led by Mr. Game 7, Justin Williams, that will be victorious.
Previews: Japers’ Rink
New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
In a Metropolitan Division showdown, the Islanders are back in the playoff mix to take on the Penguins in Round 1.
The Islanders have home advantage and will play Round 1 on Long Island. The team exceeded all expectations this season, much of which is in thanks to the defensive structure implemented by head coach Barry Trotz, and the goaltending that has been elevated with the help of director of goaltending Mitch Korn and goaltending coach Piero Greco. But their weakness lies in their offensive generation, both at even strength and on the power play.
Offensive certainly isn’t a weakness of the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins, who also boast Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel. Their depth improved with the mid-season additions of Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad.
But the Islanders’ have the defensive advantage, with a blue line that features defenders that have grown this season in Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, and Devon Toews.
Based on their full season, they also have an advantage in goaltending between Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, who have both excelled this year. Neither have much postseason experience though. While Matt Murray didn’t get off to the best start in the Penguins’ crease this year, he bounced back as the year went on, and has been thriving going into the playoffs. Plus, we’ve all seen what he can do between the pipes when the playoffs start.
Maybe it’s the playoff experience, the high-powered offense, or that the Islanders have been considered underdogs all season, but we’re just about all siding with the Penguins in this one.
Calgary Flames vs. Colorado Avalanche
Onto the Western Conference, we start with the best in the west, the Flames, against the Avalanche.
The Flames were on the other side of that trade the Hurricanes benefited from, as they added Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin. Plus, Carolina’s coach left to join the Flames’ bench. Lindholm’s fit very well in Calgary, posting a career high of 78 points skating alongside the Flames’ best in Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.
Offense as a whole is a major strength of the Flames, from their underlying numbers to their results. Below their first line is a stellar combination of Mikael Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk, and Michael Frolik, affectionately known as the 3M line, who thrive on both sides of the ice.
This is one area in which they’re far and away the better team than the Avalanche. Besides the first line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen, who have proven just how dangerous they can be, they’re lacking in forward depth — and that first line can’t stay on the ice all postseason for them. The Flames are also excellent defensively, which create even more of a problem for the Avalanche, especially when their top three aren’t on the ice.
Goaltending is where the Avalanche may have the edge. The Flames’ net was shared between Mike Smith and David Rittch; while the latter outplayed the former, it’s Smith who will open the playoffs in the starter’s net. For Colorado, it’s Phillip Grubauer’s exceptional play as of late that helped them even reach the playoffs.
Even with that goaltending in mind, we’re all on the same page with this one — we think it’s the Flames’ series to lose.
San Jose Sharks vs. Vegas Golden Knights
In another rematch from last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’ll be the Sharks and Knights battling once again; this time, in Round 1. Just like last year, this is bound to be a close matchup.
Each team has made a major change since their last playoff battle, by adding the biggest trade pieces available — both of which came from the Ottawa Senators.
The Sharks added an elite defender in Erik Karlsson to further load up their defense that already has Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The Golden Knights acquired one of the best two-way forwards in the league in Mark Stone at the deadline. Both acquisitions have played extremely well with their new teams.
While an injury cut his season short, Karlsson had 45 points in 53 games, and fantastic 5-on-5 numbers, including a team-leading 59.5 percent Corsi and 60.3 percent expected goals.
Stone, on the other hand, tallied 11 points in 18 games in Vegas. He’s slid onto their second line, alongside two players that weren’t in Vegas last time they met the Sharks in the playoffs, Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. With that trio on the ice, the Golden Knights have taken almost 58 percent of the shot share and are expected to score 66.6 percent of the goals share. And that’s their second line, behind their mainstay first line of Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and William Karlsson.
At 5-on-5, the Sharks’ are first in Corsi this season (54.9 percent); the Golden Knights aren’t far behind in fourth (54.3 percent). In terms of expected goals, Vegas is ahead in second (56.1 percent), while the Sharks are just trailing in fourth (54.4 percent).
Where they depart is what could define this series: goaltending. Martin Jones and his .895 save percentage and minus-23.35 GSAA at 5-on-5 is the Sharks’ Achilles’ heel. On the other side of the ice, it’ll be Marc-Andre Fleury who helped lead the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final last season with his outstanding play.
Since the Sharks and Golden Knights are evenly matched in a number of ways, we’re fairly split on this; San Jose gets a slight majority with seven predictions, ahead of the Vegas’ five.
Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars
The playoff configuration of the top three Central Division teams was up in the air until the final days of the season, when the Predators moved up to the top, setting them up for a contest against the wild card seed Stars.
Each team sprung for forwards at the deadline. Dallas added Mats Zuccarello, while the Predators acquired Mikael Granlund, Wayne Simmonds, and Brian Boyle.
While Zuccarello got off to an exciting start in a Stars’ sweater, he broke his arm in his first game. He’s expected to play in the Stars’ first game of the postseason, even though he was held out of their last few games as a precaution after returning for one game. If he can stay healthy, he’s a key addition to the Stars who need the two-way play he brings.
The Predators have other concerns with their forward acquisitions. Zuccarello thrived in the time he played... he just didn’t play much. Granlund and Simmonds have both struggled since their respective trades.
Besides their top players, which for Dallas includes Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alex Radulov, and Zuccarello, and Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson for the Predators, forward depth isn’t exactly a strength for either team.
Their strengths outside of their star forwards is on the backend. The Predators still have one of the best blue lines in the leagues with Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm. The Stars are highlighted by John Klingberg and rookie Miro Heiskanen.
Along with their defense, both are strong in net. The Predators lean on Pekka Rinne, while the Stars have Ben Bishop, who has Vezina-caliber numbers this season between his .934 save percentage and 24.66 GSAA — although, Rinne’s .918 save percentage and 10.03 GSAA are pretty impressive too.
With another seven to five vote, Nashville gets the slight edge from us in this series.
Winnipeg Jets vs. St. Louis Blues
Lastly, there’s one more Central Division matchup to look at, the Jets against the Blues.
The Jets and Blues trended in opposite directions the season. After last season’s run that ended in the Western Conference Final, the Jets have struggled as the season’s progressed. The Blues, on the other hand, have rebounded from an awful start to third in the division.
Considering the Jets roster, an offense that features Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, and deadline acquisition Kevin Hayes, they should be a more dangerous team than this season shows. Injuries to Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey clearly hurt the team; with them back in the lineup for the playoffs, they should have the balance they were missing in their absence.
Up front, the Blues are led by Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn, and Ryan O’Reilly. Jaden Schwartz and David Perron, who both missed time with injury, have become key pieces to their offense as well.
On the back end, their top-three lead the way in Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, and Vince Dunn on a very stingy defense. The Blues are among the league’s best in Corsi against (fifth with 52.7 per 60) and expected goals against (second best with 2.08 per 60). That defensive support has helped Jordan Binnington’s transition to the NHL and emerge. The rookie goaltender’s numbers are some of the best in the league, with a .928 save percentage that ranks second to Bishop and a 10.49 GSAA.
Like the last two series, we’re stuck at a seven to five vote, with the Jets slightly ahead. Our consensus is that this series is going to at least six games, though.
Data via Corsica.hockey and Evolving-Hockey