By: Brian Berry
The NHL regular season is officially over with 5 teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year making it in.
The Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Minnesota Wild, and New Jersey Devils all missed the playoffs after making it last year. The newcomers to the playoffs this year are the Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, and Calgary Flames.
With some teams packing their bags and scheduling tee times, 16 teams remain in contention for hockey’s most prestigious trophy.
(1) Nashville Predators vs (WC1) Dallas Stars
Season Series: 3-2 Predators
Player to Watch: G Ben Bishop (DAL)
The Predators squeeze into the first seed of the Central Division and face a newcomer to this years playoffs in the Dallas Stars, the first wildcard team.
This is a clear uphill battle for Dallas. Nashville is experienced throughout the entirety lineup, only two years removed from a Stanley Cup Final defeat. The additions of Mikael Granlund and Wayne Simmonds at the deadline propels this team forward in terms of skill along with forwards Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen. Couple that with steady Swiss defenseman Roman Josi and the sometimes controversially debated P.K. Subban, this could be the year that Nashville pulls it off.
One thing that Nashville has to worry about is goaltending in the playoffs. Pekka Rinne has a habit of letting in easy goals come playoffs and isn’t noted as a playoff performer. If things go south, expect to see backup Juuse Saros get time in net.
However, Dallas is no pushover. 6’7 goalie Ben Bishop has had a phenomenal year along with his goaltending partner Anton Khudobin. Bishop could make a case for the Vezina, but the number of starts aren’t there and Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy seems to have the trophy locked up. Bishop has been stellar this season though and could steal away the series as we saw him do with the Lightning only a few years ago. A hot goalie is everything you need in the playoffs (e.g. Jonathan Quick or Braden Holtby)
Dallas also has superstar power to match Nashville. Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov have had an up year and should be two players to watch in the series. Captain and former Art Ross trophy winner Jamie Benn has seen a drop in production but still will play a major role in the series.
This Dallas team isn’t making it over the hump yet. The pieces are there with a budding defensemen in John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen and a good offensive core, it just needs time. Nashville takes the series in 6 games.
(2) Winnipeg Jets vs (3) St. Louis Blues
Season Series: 3-1 Jets
Player to Watch: F Patrik Laine (WPG)
A team that was sitting at last place in the NHL in January turned everything around and make the playoffs. That, of course, is the St. Louis Blues, largely thanks to amazing play from rookie goalie Jordan Binnington and forward Ryan O’Reilly. Vladimir Tarasenko has broken out of a slump and has seemingly returned to the Tarasenko that scored 40 goals in 2015-16.
The most surprising thing to come out of a rather dull Blues team in the start of the season is rookie goalie Jordan Binnington. “Winnington” has compiled a record of 23-5-1 and immediately helped the Blues get to the playoffs when he jumped into the net. Goalie Jake Allen lost the starter job long ago and Binnington should be the goalie rode out through the playoffs.
By winning strings of games from February to now has the Blues comfortably seated in a playoff battle with the tested Jets.
The Jets are a team designed to go deep in the playoffs with hard-hitting defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and multiple prolific forwards in Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, and Kevin Hayes. Put this together with one of the deepest defensive cohorts in the NHL and a reliable goalie in Connor Hellebuyck and you have a recipe for success in the Winnipeg Jets. The team is also extremely tight in the defensive zone with five players winning over 50% of their faceoff draws.
Laine will need to have a big playoffs though as he’s seen worrying stretches through the season of not scoring goals and having no effect on play away from the puck. Facing his fair share of criticism due to his rather unhealthy Fortnite habits may force him to have an extremely prolific run in the playoffs, or else time could be ticking on Winnipeg fans leniency with him.
There’s something about this St. Louis team that has a charm to it. Picking a team with a rookie netminder is a dangerous move, but St. Louis wins the series in 7, with Binnington stealing the show and paving the way for one of the most unlikely paths for a team once in last place.
(1) Calgary Flames vs (WC2) Colorado Avalanche
Season Series: 3-0 Flames
Player to Watch: F Matthew Tkachuk (CGY)
The best team in the west faces a once thought dead team in the Colorado Avalanche. The Calgary Flames could be the biggest threat to an absolute juggernaut in the east that will be discussed later. For now, they have to face a rather top-heavy team in the Colorado Avalanche.
Colorado boasts the NHL’s best trio in Rantanen–Landeskog–MacKinnon. The trio has combined for over 300 points with each three missing portions of the season. After those three playoffs. production drops dramatically. Carl Soderberg is the next forward in terms of point total with 49 points across 81 games.
Tyson Barrie has had a career year, recording 59 points across 77 games and should be a key player for the Avalanche entering the playoffs. Goalie Philipp Grubauer has also taken the starting role from Semyon Varlamov and has played extremely proficiently.
Enter the Calgary Flames. The team is top to bottom extremely deep. Listing all the names would take two or three lines. Matthew Tkachuk has inserted himself into the league as not only extremely skilled, scoring 77 points in 80 games, but as an elite power forward and pest. Look for him to insert himself as a driving force for the Flames this series. James Neal, at one point thought to be dead in the water with Calgary, has caught a bit of fire heading into the playoffs and the former Golden Knight could be a big player come round 1.
One issue with the Flames is their goaltending. The duo of David Rittich and Mike Smith have split games across the season and the consensus seems to be that Rittich will start the playoffs. While both have played well, Rittich has no playoff experience and Smith has looked shaky at times in the season.
Colorado really doesn’t have a fair chance here. Against any other team in the west, they’d have a reasonably decent shot at taking 2 or 3 games off the series. Here though, this is all Calgary. Calgary wins the series in 4 with the depth of Calgary prevailing against the trio in Colorado.
(2) San Jose Sharks vs (3) Vegas Golden Knights
Season Series: 2-2
Player to Watch: F Timo Meier (SJS)
In what could be the closest and most exciting of the playoff series out of the Western Conference, San Jose takes on Vegas in a rather even tilt. Both teams enter the series in serious despair with both losing a multitude of games heading into the playoffs.
First, the San Jose Sharks window is closing to win a championship. In what could be one of the last times we see the Sharks and Joe Thornton head out for one more ride, the team needs to get it done soon. An aging core, an upcoming salary cap crunch, and a non-existing cupboard of draft picks leaves the team in a dire situation. For now though the team is an all star studded one.
Defenseman Brent Burns will get consideration for the Norris as he’s had a very good season. Although we haven’t seen much of Erik Karlsson this year, him paired with the reliable Marc-Édouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, and Brenden Dillon makes for a very good defensive unit. The team also has a lot of young talent coming through in the offense. The acquisition of the extremely fast Gustav Nyquist seems to be a good one along with Evander Kane, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture having good offensive years. Youngster Timo Meier has been a pleasant surprise for the team and provides ever more threat for an already dangerous team. Jumbo Joe Thornton seems to be slowing down as he nears the end of a legendary career but still provides a good locker room presence and calming factor on the ice.
The biggest issue with this team is its goaltending. Martin Jones and Aaron Dell aren’t the answers here for San Jose. Both have had abysmal years and will be a weak point for the Sharks if things keep up.
To the other side of the matchup is the Vegas Golden Knights, a team no stranger to struggle. The team has been on a skid coming into the series and looks to right the ship against a team they beat last year in the playoffs.
Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty are playing some of their best hockey and will contribute greatly to any success in the playoffs. The line of Smith–Karlsson–Marchessault seems to heat up at all the right times and they could have a big series against an unreliable goaltender in Martin Jones.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has had a big season too, logging a large amount of games while also having middling stats. Fleury in the playoffs is your man though and isn’t a weakness for this team.
The big weakness is the defense. Apart from Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore, the team is rather shallow at the back-end. Deryk Engelland is a liability in terms of speed and Jon Merrill, Colin Miller, or Nick Holden haven’t sold anyone on very much yet.
This is hands down the hardest series to pick. With that being said, the Golden Knights continue the magic and make it through in an extremely hard fought 7 games. Having a good goaltender is the most important thing come playoff time, and San Jose just doesn’t have it.
(1) Tampa Bay Lightning vs (WC2) Columbus Blue Jackets
Season Series: 3-0 TBL
Player to Watch: Nikita Kucherov (TBL)
This Tampa Bay team could be the best team we’ve seen this century. Ending with the 4th best record of all time and multiple players setting records has the Bolts looking down on everyone else heading into the playoffs. Their first round matchup is against the underachieving Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets went all in at the deadline with acquiring superstar Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. Those moves seem to be paying off as the Blue Jackets have made the playoffs, but for an extreme cost and against an opponent that has dominated them in the season series with Tampa outscoring Columbus 17-3 across 3 games. The Blue Jackets will have to match up in terms of speed with Tampa, something they may not find too difficult considering the scoring power of Panarin and sniper Cam Atkinson.
Nikita Kucherov and the Tampa Bay Lighting ended with the same amount of points: 128. Both have set records and have been extremely impressive. While Connor McDavid is undoubtedly the best player in the NHL, Kucherov could make a case if he has a prolific playoffs. Kucherov isn’t the only superstar on the team though. Steven Stamkos has come back from multiple leg injuries and has had an impressive year along with youngsters Brayden Point, Mathieu Joseph, Erik Cernak, and Anthony Cirelli. Not even mentioning Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, or Alex Killorn yet just adds onto the depth of this team.
Former Norris trophy winner Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh make for one of the best defensive cores in the NHL, along with Mikhaill Sergachev, the aforementioned Cernak, Braydon Coburn, Anton Stralman, and Dan Girardi.
On, and there’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, more than likely going to win the Vezina trophy as the best goaltender in the NHL this season. He goes under the radar generally in Tampa (as does everyone else in smaller markets) but has been sensational and extremely critical for the Lightning.
There might not be a team in the NHL that can stop the Tampa Bay Lightning. For now though, they get past the Columbus Blue Jackets in a relatively comfortable 5 games.
(2) Boston Bruins vs (3) Toronto Maple Leafs
Season Series: 3-1 BOS
Player to Watch: John Tavares (TOR)
Can the Toronto Maple Leafs finally get over the hump that has been the Boston Bruins? The Bruins have solved this puzzle before, most recently last playoffs, dispatching of the Leafs in 7 games.
The Leafs have gotten better since then though. Adding superstar John Tavares through free agency and defenseman Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings has made this team much more competitive. Goalie Frederik Andersen has also been steady in net and should be of no concern. Tavares with Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, Partick Marleau, and the struggling but still dangerous William Nylander can practically outscore any defensive issues they have.
Speaking of defensive issues, that’s where the problem lies. After Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly, there isn’t much to be proud of. Ron Hainsey is a consistent defenseman, but doesn’t add much to an offense. The ever-criticized Jake Gardiner needs to show up in order for Toronto to have a good chance at beating the Bruins.
The Boston Bruins enter the series as the team that has haunted Toronto. The fast-paced offensive unit that is Marchand–Bergeron–Pastrnak is one of the best in the NHL and can go toe-to-toe with any unit in the NHL. The additions of Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle at the deadline should lessen the pressure we saw on that top line last year in the playoffs when they were dismantled by the Lightning in round 2.
Goaltender Tuukka Rask has something to prove this playoffs also. A rather streaky goalie, the question remains of how he’ll perform after sharing games with backup Jaroslav Halak, who isn’t out of the question of if he starts games if Rask falters.
It’s still not the year for Toronto. The team doesn’t play physical enough to match up to the physicality that Boston outputs throughout all lines. Boston keeps up the trend of beating the Leafs in the first round by going through in 6 games.
(1) Washington Capitals vs (WC1) Carolina Hurricanes
Season Series: 4-0 WSH
Player to Watch: Sebastian Aho (CAR)
The season series isn’t looking too good for the Carolina Hurricanes.
A team that thrives on offensively outpacing opponents, the Hurricanes may have trouble doing just that against the Washington Capitals.
The reigning champs have Braden Holtby who proved himself last year as an extremely reliable presence in net. Goalscorer and power forward Alex Ovechkin recorded yet another 50 goal season and just keeps chugging along.
Defenseman John Carlson has entered the Norris trophy talk and the team could be stronger than the one that won the Stanley Cup last year. The additions of Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen adds depth to both the offense and defense, as well as veteran leadership in a team that doesn’t lack it as is. Tom Wilson, although hated among most, still is a very talented player and will have a huge presence in the first round.
The Hurricanes enter the playoffs as a team that defied all odds by even making it this far as most had the team on the outside looking in. The revelation of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney in net has propelled this team forwards and the surge of Sebastian Aho becoming a superstar seemingly overnight.
There’s a chance that we see the speed and offensive output that the Hurricanes output catches the Capitals off guard, but it’s a rather low chance. What most likely will happen is Washington will impose their will over an inexperienced playoff team and win the series in relatively easy fashion. Capitals take the series in five. Rest in peace, storm surge.
(2) New York Islanders vs (3) Pittsburgh Penguins
Season Series: 2-2
Player to Watch: Kris Letang (PIT)
Maybe the New York Islanders are better off without John Tavares? Or maybe Barry Trotz and co. are geniuses. We’ll go with the latter, as the former Capitals coach has come into the island and revitalized a team that was thought of as a team dead in the water.
While not having a point per game player, one thing that the Islanders do have going for them is goaltending and a complete defensive effort from both forwards and defenseman. Both Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have split games and have both been equally impressive. Mitch Korn, the goaltending coach for the Islanders and one of the key personnel that Trotz brought from the Capitals to the Islanders, seems to of done his magic again with both goalies.
The youngsters are going to need to show up to play in this series if the Islanders want to knock off the perennial contenders in the Penguins. Mathew Barzal, Ryan Pulock, Anthony Beauvillier, and Devon Toews need to play like veterans immediately to go up against the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
The big bad Penguins are back, but a bit weaker than normal. Goaltender Matt Murray has looked downright awful at points of this season while also looking great at other points. Kris Letang, the teams best defenseman, has been battling injury issues, but when he’s in he’s one of the biggest game changers for the Penguins.
Crosby and Malkin will show up to play, it’s a tradition at this point. Will the likes of Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist, and Jared McCann be able to keep up their offensive production? The secondary scoring needs to show up for the Penguins, Crosby and Malkin can no longer outscore their woes.
It’s extremely hard to pick against Crosby and crew. Which is exactly why it was hard to pick the Islanders to take the series in 6 games. The Penguins are the clear safe bet here with championship pedigree and battle-tested players. However, the Islanders fast-paced offence finds a way to crack Matt Murray and either Lehner or Greiss puts on a performance of a lifetime.