Well, this is it folks – the moment every hockey fan has been waiting for: the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For the first time since I started writing about sports, my hometown team is in there. They needed every point they could get, as they essentially snuck in between Philly and Florida for the final spot in the East.
In October, I made the bold prediction that the Washington Capitals would win their first Stanley Cup over the Edmonton Oilers. This was mostly due to the fact that I’m sick of hearing the Capitals dominate and see nothing come of it, plus I truly believe Alexander Ovechkin deserves at least one Cup to show for his sparkling career.
Now that they’re one of the remaining sixteen teams, and Edmonton so brilliantly flamed out of their spot, I have a new round of predictions for you. Playoffs start on Wednesday in Pittsburgh and Winnipeg simultaneously, while the first ever playoff game in Las Vegas will happen later that night. There are plenty of storylines to follows, so let’s dive in:
Philadelphia at Pittsburgh
The rumble in Pennsylvania would be enough of a storyline, as the rivalry can get pretty nasty in postseason play. It might not be as huge as Ovechkin-Crosby make their faceoffs, but the ’09 and ’12 rounds were particularly chippy. Instead, the most important aspect of these games are that Pittsburgh is hoping to make 2018 their third consecutive Stanley Cup year. Having knocked off the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators the last two seasons, they only need to face off against four more opponents and accumulate sixteen wins to make the team the first to get three consecutive Cups since the New York Islanders nabbed four from 1980-1983. Much of the Penguins squad that won the last two years is there, though they picked up Derick Brassard at the deadline to replace Nick Bonino as a third-line cog. They’ll look to stave off exhaustion to reach their dynasty, but Philadelphia looks to just be starting things. While Claude Giroux is suddenly a veteran, he managed to turn in the best single-season performance of his career, posting 102 points (34g, 64a) in a bid for MVP status. In leading the Flyers back to postseason contention, he’s brough along a slew of newcomers – Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov and the number 2 pick in the draft last year, Nolan Patrick. The team will look to overcome one of their biggest rivals to dismantle the tenth-longest Stanley Cup drought ever.
Previous Meetings: 1989, 1997, 2000, 2012 (Philadelphia); 2008, 2009 (Pittsburgh)
Pittsburgh in seven.
Columbus at Washington
Three teams have the chance to win their first ever playoff series: the Winnipeg Jets (more on them later), the Vegas Golden Knights in their first ever chance, and the Columbus Blue Jackets. While the Jets have never managed to win even a game, the Blue Jackets were able to snag a few from the Pittsburgh Penguins in their two matchups (2014, 2017). Beyond being swept by the Detroit Red Wings in 2009, Columbus has always had a heavy hitter to face. This year will be no different, as the aforementioned ever-hungry Washington Capitals will be striving for their own advancement. The Caps are nearly synonymous with collapse, and having moved past the second round since their star captain Alex Ovechkin was merely 12 years old (1998). If Sergei Bobrovsky can translate regular season success into April’s games, then they’ll find themselves in the second round for the first time. As for our perennial flop stars, they’ll have to hope the usual suspects find a better way to win games, otherwise it’ll be like Einstein’s definition of insanity (trying the same thing twice and expecting a different result). In fact, they may have a goalie controversy on their hands, with Philipp Grubauer gradually usurping Braden Holtby a year removed from winning the Vezina.
Previous Meetings: none
Washington in five.
Toronto at Boston
Two original six teams at peak performance? This may be the fastest, most exciting match-up in this first round. You’ve got the youth movement whipping around up in Toronto, while there’s all of a sudden a new wave shipping out of Boston. Tuukka Rask and company held a resurgent season behind the newcomers Charlie McAvoy, Riley Nash and other recent phenoms like David Pastrnak and Brandon Carlo. Unfortunately for them, McAvoy is nursing a knee injury and must come back into shape, while Carlo is out for the rest of the season with an ankle injury. If they can overcome some of their missing key pieces, they’ll be able to handle the tricky trio of William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner that bedevil their rivals. In four games this year, Boston only won once, and allowed 12 goals. Stingy as they were, they let up the second-most to Toronto (Pittsburgh and inexpicably Buffalo were first with 13). Rask has a tad more playoff experience than Frederik Andersen, although the latter was a game away from the Finals in 2015 before Chicago dispatched his Ducks team. I give the slightest advantage to Boston, though they’ve been colder lately while Toronto has remained on fire. This may be the tightest contest of the first round.
Previous Meetings: 1933, 1935, 1936, 1938, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1959 (Toronto); 1939, 1941, 1969, 1972, 1974, 2013 (Boston)
Boston in seven.
New Jersey at Tampa Bay
Taylor Hall single-handedly lifted the Devils out of the dump heap and into the second wild-card spot this season. Chants of MVP have been lauded towards him for a month now. That doesn’t mean the team is without its equally exciting role players: rookies Nico Hischier, Will Butcher and Jesper Bratt all contributed heavily throughout while Brian Boyle, Michael Grabner, Patrick Maroon and Sami Vatanen were key additions the team sorely needed. Now with this revitalized edition of the team alongside the two stalwarts Travis Zajac and Andy Greene, the team is as whole as it was in its heyday. The strangest aspect is not that they’re firing on all cylinders, but that backup goaltender Keith Kinkaid has virtually taken over the backstop. Cory Schneider caught the injury bug and Kinkaid took the reins with finesse. Still, while all that is well and good, they’re coming up against one of the most complete versions of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite Steven Stamkos being their star for many seasons, he’s not the main story anymore. Nikita Kucherov nearly robbed Ovechkin of the scoring title, while Andrei Vasilevskiy has far and away turned out one of the finest goalie seasons in recent memory. Much of the team that stormed that 2015 Finals against the Blackhawks remains (Ondrej Palat, Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman, Brayden Point). What they’ve added is oddly the 2014 Rangers defense that knocked them out on the way to their own Finals: Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, along with JT Miller came aboard the hottest team at the trade deadline. Look, on paper the Lightning have the obviou advantage. The Devils are plucky and their season was littered with brilliant comebacks. It’ll be a David vs. Goliath by far, and if any wild card team has a chance, I sincerely think its the Devils. Reality is, I’m not sure either team makes it much further.
Previous Meetings: 2003, 2007 (New Jersey)
Tampa Bay in 5.
Minnesota at Winnipeg
The Western conference is chock full of newer teams, and as such many have never won the Cup before. This matchup is the only one to feature two Cup-less teams, and as mentioned earlier, the Jets have never even won a playoff game. When in Atlanta, the one time Thrashers were swept by the Rangers (2007) and the Anaheim Ducks knocked them off in 4 games in 2015. The original iteration fared much better before moving south to Phoenix – although they could barely ever push their way out of the first round either, winning only twice over the Flames. Given their relative inexperience, this is an opportune time for them to translate their best ever regular season into a deep postseason run behind longtime stars Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom. Connor Hellebuyck is the real story here, allowing the Jets to finally have their franchise goalie. He may very well win the Vezina, but first he’ll face off against another surprise star goaltender in Devan Dubnyk. Another business-like performance from Dubnyk allowed the Wild to push their way into the conversation yet again, and despite losing Zach Parise for most of the year, and Ryan Suter just before now, they’ve cobbled together an admirable run. With the increasingly fiery Jets squad, we could be looking at their first true contention, deep past the hobbled Wild.
Previous Meetings: none
Winnipeg in four.
Colorado at Nashville
While New Jersey became the 27th team in modern NHL conference format play to bounce back from worst in the conference to a playoff spot, two days later Colorado became the 28th. Somehow both bottom of the barrel teams on each side tore upwards in the standings in order to secure another chance at Stanley’s Cup. For what it’s worth, it took until the last game to get in. Their 82nd game was technically a play-in game against the woeful St. Louis Blues, packing it in for the first time in seven years. Given that their reward is to face off against the best team in the league, my hopes aren’t high for the former Nordiques. Nashville started off the season hoping to avoid the sophomore slump a Cup Finals brings, especially hopeful for a good turnaround after being the losers of that Cup. Instead, revenge is on the menu as the Predators shot up the rankings to nab their first ever President’s Cup. Adding only Nick Bonino and shedding some dead weight (not that James Neal is dead weight, but he was stolen for the Vegas draft), the team from Tennessee also let their captain Mike Fisher return from retirement mid-way through their campaign. Everything’s working right for Nashville this year, almost as surprising it is for Colorado to be in the same spot. I expect a fierce fight to the finish, but the more dominant team should shine through in the end.
Previous Meetings: none
Nashville in five.
San Jose at Anaheim
The California clashes continue, as Anaheim hosts their northern neighbors for the second time. Anaheim stuck ahead at the last minute to gain home ice advantage, but the locales shouldn’t play too much into the incredibly even showdown. Any bad blood between the pair of teams should be behind them as much of each squad has seen a lot of turnover in the past couple of years. Anaheim found themselves in a bit of a spot of trouble after losing Patrick Eaves to Guillain-Barre syndrome after only two games, and several players hit by scoreless streaks. Adam Henrique was swapped over from New Jersey for Sami Vatanen and it seemed to spark both teams. Henrique filled in admirably until several other teammates such as Ryan Getzlaf, Jakob Silfverberg, and Corey Perry returned to bolster everything. San Jose coerced Evander Kane into joining them at the deadline and have seen the second best acquisition fit in nicely in the Bay area. The two fairly even teams will look to extend their seasons as rapidly as possible, but will likely find a thicker first round schedule.
Previous Meetings: 2009 (Anaheim)
Anaheim in six.
Los Angeles at Vegas
What the inaugural season in Las Vegas hockey has proven is that there can still be inspiring and exciting storylines that exist in the sport. No one expected the team to make it out of the basement, let alone into a playoff spot, let alone the top of the divison. James Neal was their only good player, with a ragtag team of castoff third and fourth liners dotting the depth chart. Marc-Andre Fleury should steal a few wins, but he’s clearly done after getting spared a back-up role in Pittsburgh. They did all that and more, at one point having their fourth and fifth goalie in tandem after Fleury, Malcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk were hurt in such a tight stretch about two weeks into the season. They were the last team to lose a game, they may have somehow stolen William Karlsson out from under the Blue Jackets’ nose. Who knows if Karlsson would have such a breakout year without the chance an expansion team provided? Whatever their record regular season brought, Vegas will hope that continues as April rolls along. If anyone can stop the juggernaut Golden Knights, it’s the rejuvenated Los Angeles Kings, boosted by Anze Kopitar’s career year, with personal bests in goals (35) and assists (57). Jeff Carter’s early injury did not derail a comeback, as Jonathan Quick, Kopitar and former captain Dustin Brown, who also had a career year (28g and 33a). This may be the most thrilling time in the West, and perhaps even the series to watch all playoffs.
Previous Meetings: none, Vegas’ first rival!
Vegas in six.
So that’s what we’ll go with for the first round, while the semi-finals loom large. For some early reckonings, I’ll wager these guesses:
Vegas vs. Anaheim: Vegas in six.
Nashville vs. Winnipeg: Nashville in five.
Tampa Bay vs. Boston: Boston in seven.
Pittsburgh vs. Washington: Washington in seven.
Vegas vs. Nashville: Vegas in seven.
Boston vs. Washington: Boston in five.
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Boston Bruins:
Vegas in six.