There’s no hockey like playoff hockey. (h/t www.megasportsnews.com)
Have you ever wanted to get some cardio in while simultaneously sitting on the couch? Well, you’re in luck.
Every Stanley Cup playoff game will have your heart racing as if you’ve just done 50 laps. If it’s your own team, make that 100.
Now it’s time for the best part of any playoff beginning: predicting the unpredictable.
Who will be the Uwe Krupp of 2018? The Dany Sabourin of 2018? Will there ever be another game seven specialist like Trevor Linden?
Without further adieu, it’s time to make some predictions.
Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
This is a series that could be nicknamed “Chokers vs. Smokers”.
The Capitals are notorious for choking in the postseason.
The Blue Jackets look like they could make some noise; however, they’ve never won a playoff series and could very well just be blowing smoke.
Since the 2004-05 lockout the Capitals have made the playoffs 10 out of a possible 13 times; however, they’ve never made it past the second round.
They were Presidents’ Trophy winners in both 2016 and 2017, yet that success still couldn’t propel them into at least a Conference Finals appearance. In their defence, they were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in both of those years and there’s less shame in knowing that you were beaten by the eventual champion.
The Presidents’ Trophy curse continues… (h/t www.novacapsfans.com)
The Blue Jackets can partially understand the Capital’s woes. They were eliminated from the first round in 2014 and 2017 by none other than those pesky Penguins.
Columbus’ chances against Washington rely on the strength of their back end. Their top two defencemen, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, are both in their early 20s and lead a solid defence corps despite their age and inexperience. Sergei Bobrovsky continues to provide solidity in the crease (2.42 GAA; .921 SV% this season).
Washington may not have the edge on defence; however, they certainly do offensively. They aren’t exactly the team they were last year seeing as they’ve lost players such as Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Nate Schmidt yet they can still score in bunches. Alexander Ovechkin is looking particularly good this year and finished the season with 49 goals.
There also seems to be some question marks in the crease as two-time Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Braden Holtby (34-16-4; .907 SV%) has not looked good for most of the season. He will be sitting out to start the playoffs as backup Philipp Grubauer (15-10-3; .923 SV%) has emerged as the better starting option over the last month or so.
Out with the old and in with the new? Grubauer has temporarily replaced Holtby. (h/t www.tsn.ca)
In short, we have a team of career chokers taking on a team of promising players who are predominantly under 25 and lacking postseason experience. Getting past the first round would mean a lot for both clubs.
Practical Prediction: Washington in 6.
Dark Horse Prediction: Columbus in 7.
Potential Surprise X-Factors: Jakub Vrana, Andre Burakovsky, Alexander Wennberg, Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
It would take nothing short of a miracle for the Devils to beat the Lightning.
Although the Devils are nothing to sneeze at, they simply cannot match Tampa’s depth in any regard. They made attempts to expand their scoring options by adding players at the trade deadline such as Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon; however, it’s just not enough.
They are currently starting Keith Kinkaid and although he’s been playing more than adequately for them this season (26-10-3; .911 SV%), it’s usually not a smart idea to bet on a veteran goaltender who’s only played 110 NHL games over the past four seasons.
It will be interesting to see how Kinkaid initially performs in this series. The Devils’ usual starting goalie, Cory Schneider, has been sitting on the bench for a while due to injury problems and poor performance. He is in his early 30s now and may not be as good as he once was; however, he was playing well for the first three months of the season and posted a .919 SV% during that time.
Keith Kinkaid (left) seems to have taken the crease from Cory Schneider (right) since the beginning of 2018.
Since 2018 began, Schneider’s numbers have become abysmal. His SV% fell to .868 and he hasn’t won a game since December 27th. His career numbers (2.32GAA; .920SV%) suggest that this may be an injury-related slump as opposed to an age-related regression; yet, the Devils’ brass has certainly lost a lot of confidence in his playing abilities.
Contrary to the Devils, the Lightning have an absolute young stud in net by the name of Andrei Vasilevskiy (44-17-3; .920SV% this season). In front of the 23-year-old, Victor Hedman leads a mostly veteran defence corps while their high-powered offence featuring Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and rookie Yanni Gourde scored a league high 296 goals this past season (with a league best +60 goal differential).
The Lightning look poised to compete for a Stanley Cup while the Devils struggled to lock down a spot in the playoffs. This is the definition of a mismatch for New Jersey. Even on the back of Taylor Hall’s 93-point season they just don’t have what it takes; however, their journey makes a great underdog story. Before this season, they hadn’t made the playoffs since 2012 and to do it with an inexperienced backup such as Kinkaid makes it all the more impressive.
Steven Stamkos’ health is up in the air right now (as per usual) but apparently he has taken part in a full practice with the team and should be ready for game one. Even without him, Tampa Bay is more than capable of providing enough offence to win.
The health of Steven Stamkos could be the difference between disappointment and a Stanley Cup
Practical Prediction: Tampa Bay in 5.
Dark Horse Prediction: Tampa Bay in 4.
Potential Surprise X-Factors: Nico Hischier, Will Butcher, Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
After six years of waiting, they finally meet again.
The battle of Pennsylvania has always been a treat to watch. The most recent first-round playoff series between the two squads in 2012 was one of the most entertaining in history. Throughout six games, the teams recorded a combined 56 goals and 309 penalty minutes.
Game three was arguably the most memorable of the series. The Flyers won 8-4 and there were 158 penalty minutes handed out in total. Sidney Crosby fought Claude Giroux while Kris Letang simultaneously fought Kimmo Timonen and that was in the first period alone.
There are a few similarities between the upcoming series and the one from 2012. In 2012, Pittsburgh finished fourth in the conference with 108 points while Philly finished fifth with 103 points. This year, Pittsburgh also finished just ahead of Philly with 100 points (fifth) while Philly finished with 98 (sixth).
Last time, Pittsburgh was favoured to win the Stanley Cup but Philly managed to upset them in the first round. This time around, the odds are more or less the same. If anything, Pittsburgh is more heavily favoured than before due to the fact that they’re aiming for their third straight Stanley Cup.
Imagine if Claude Giroux (left) and Sidney Crosby (right) dropped the gloves again? (h/t www.kwese.espn.com)
In terms of offence, the Pens are as strong as ever. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel have all posted 89+ points this season and the strength of their three-headed monster is a nightmare for any opposition to try and subdue. Kris Letang leads a fairly decent defence corps and will be playing with a chip on his shoulder after missing out on last year’s Stanley Cup run due to injury.
Matt Murray hasn’t had the greatest year (2.92GAA; .907 SV%); however, he’s still a 23-year-old goaltender with two Stanley Cups to his name. Brian Elliott has recently come back from surgery and played well; however, it’s no secret that the Flyers net has been a carousel for years. Perhaps Petr Mrazek can figure himself out and take over instead. In any case, the crease advantage goes to the Pens.
The Flyers may have a slight edge on defence in terms of skill as Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov are a hell of a one-two punch. The bottom-four feature the hard-hitting youngster Robert Hagg as well as another bruiser in Radko Gudas. The Penguins defence is not far behind and despite losing some key defencemen from their run last year (Ron Hainsey, Ian Cole, and Trevor Daley), their current core still features Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta, and Brian Dumoulin. The three defencemen mentioned from the Pens’ corps last year may not seem like big losses, but they were all averaging at least 18:50 TOI during the playoffs. The Pens’ defence has been criticized in the past but they have also managed to pull it together when it mattered the most.
Pittsburgh should be able to win and move on although that was the alleged story last time and everyone saw how that didn’t pan out. This is going to be one hell of a series.
Brian Elliott needs to stand on his head for the Flyers to de-throne the Penguins (h/t www.sportingnews.com)
Practical Prediction: Penguins in 6.
Dark Horse Prediction: Flyers in 7.
Potential Surprise X-Factors: Conor Sheary, Derick Brassard, Nolan Patrick, Jordan Weal.
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
It’s been almost five years since the Leafs’ historic playoff collapse to the Bruins in game seven.
As most fans remember (or are understandably trying to forget), the Leafs lead the Bruins 4-1 with nine minutes remaining in the third period during game seven. The Bruins, who were up 3-1 in the series at one point, seemingly just turned on the jets. Suddenly, the game was tied 4-4 at the end of regulation. Patrice Bergeron scored for the Bruins in overtime and the rest is history.
On the bright side, this time around is much different. Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, and Nazem Kadri are the only three forwards still within the top-nine that were involved in that series (Leo Komarov was on that team as well). Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander are arguably the three best forwards on the team right now and none of them were even drafted at the time.
The Leafs’ defence has always been a debatable topic; however, players such as Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey, and Travis Dermott have shown a lot of positive play this season and are fully capable of contributing all over the ice. James Reimer was solid for the Leafs when he played for them, but he was certainly no Frederik Andersen. Freddy almost stole the show from the Capitals last year and this year, his elite play should continue from where it’s been all season (38-21-5; .918 SV%).
Frederik Andersen broke the Leafs’ franchise record for wins in a season by a goaltender. What’s next?
On the other hand, Boston is also a lot better now than they were during that series. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Zdeno Chara can all still make big plays and an infusion of young talent has bolstered their already productive offence. Other key players include David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug, and newly signed Olympic standout Ryan Donato. They also just signed Karson Kuhlman, a 22-year-old forward who was recently named the tournament MVP of the NCAA Frozen Four Championship with the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
Tuukka Rask had an incredible year (34-14-5; .917 SV%) which comes as no surprise given the rest of his stellar career. He will be a worthy matchup for Andersen and this series will ultimately come down to who has the better defence, as it did last time.
The Bruins have a lot of skilled players who can also lay the body and their mix of good young players and star veterans could prove to be too much for the Leafs. Toronto may not have the defence or the grit of the Bruins but they make up for it a bit with their scoring and speed.
With all of that being said, this should be the closest series in the Eastern Conference during the first round.
Practical Prediction: Bruins in 7
Dark Horse Prediction: Leafs in 7
Potential Surprise X-Factors: Charlie McAvoy, Ryan Donato, Kasperi Kapanen, Travis Dermott.