It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Typically, that’s a phrase one would hear around Christmas. But for hockey fans – save for devotees of certain teams – there’s no better time of year to enjoy the game than the playoffs. With storylines galore and the intensity at an all-time high, witnessing 16 teams battling for the right to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup in June is a sight to behold.
Throughout the postseason, we here at fromthe300level.com will provide you with series previews and predictions from the start of round one – which begins this week – through the finals. Previews will become more in-depth as the playoffs roll along, but for now, here is our analysis of the first round.
Tampa Bay Lightning (1) vs. New Jersey Devils (WC2)
It can be argued that this year’s Lightning squad might be the best Tampa Bay has had since they won the Stanley Cup in 2004. And that includes the powerhouse rosters they iced in both 2015 and 2016. Finally, healthy after a year and a half’s worth of injuries, the Lightning are deeper than they’ve ever been, with youngsters like Brayden Point, Mikhail Sergachev and Yanni Gourde and veterans like JT Miller, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Chris Kunitz joining Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Victor Hedman.
It’s been six years since the New Jersey Devils reached the big dance, and the last time they made it, they embarked on a surprise run to the finals. These aren’t your older brother’s Devils, however. No longer defined by plodding defensive play and goaltending, the offensive-minded Devils have been paced by Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall, former Ducks defenseman Sami Vatanen and a group of fresh-faced rookies in former first overall draft pick Nico Hischier and Will Butcher.
Prediction – Lightning in six. The resurgence of the Devils has been impressive, but the team’s lack of defensive depth – and recent goaltending questions surrounding Cory Schneider and Keith Kincaid – won’t have any answers for the Lightning’s explosive offense.
Boston Bruins (2) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (3)
The Boston Bruins have a nice mix of veterans left from their title-winning team in 2011 and youngsters who have come into their own over the last few years. Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Zdeno Chara remain from the old guard while David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Ryan Donato have provided a shot in the arm.
The Leafs, meanwhile, are a fairly young team that had a taste of the postseason last year and is back for more. Led by their core group of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly, this team is a high-flying group that can score in bunches. Defensively, the Leafs have struggled, and goaltender Frederick Anderson’s play has had to carry Toronto in its own end of the ice.
Prediction – Maple Leafs in seven. Despite the Bruins’ dominance throughout the regular season, call this a gut feeling. The Leafs will get revenge for the team’s chokejob against the Bruins in 2013.
Washington Capitals (1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (WC1)
Washington has, for years, been defined by their offensive capabilities. Led by the usual suspects – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson, the Capitals have rarely struggled for offense. But one area that the Caps are surprisingly underachieving in is goaltending. Braden Holtby, considered by many to be one of the league’s top five netminders, has labored through the worst season of his career, giving way to Philipp Grubauer going into the NHL’s second season.
Their opponent, Columbus, has been the polar opposite of Washington. Traditionally strong defensively and in goal thanks to Sergei Bobrovsky and a solid stable of young rearguards, the team had lacked true game-breakers at forward for a long time. Enter three players – Artemi Panarin, Thomas Vanek and Pierre-Luc Dubois. The acquisitions of those three over the last two years, plus the emergence of Cam Atkinson, has given their goal-scoring department a major boost.
Prediction – Blue Jackets in seven. The Capitals don’t have the amount of depth that they used to have, and are too top-heavy, in addition to having a goaltending controversy. Columbus, meanwhile, is finally ready to win a playoff series for the first time in franchise history.
Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (3)
Not much has changed for the Penguins in 2017-18. They’re still led by the all-world group of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang, and most of their supporting cast from the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup champions remains in place. The additions of Derek Brassard and Riley Sheahan have made up for the losses of veterans like Kunitz, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen.
Like the Bruins, the Flyers have a good combination of older players and young guns. They’ve been the beneficiaries of players having career years – like Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier – and an injection of youth from Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny and Nolan Patrick has helped the team rejuvenate itself. As seemingly always, the Flyers still have shaky goaltending, and have dealt with a drop in play this season from Wayne Simmonds.
Prediction – Penguins in six. The Flyers’ depth and talent level doesn’t hold a candle to the two-time defending champions’.
Nashville Predators (1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (WC2)
This version of the Predators is essentially the same as last year’s group that reached the Stanley Cup Finals. The difference between last year’s roster and this one, however, is this year’s team is deeper. Additions like Bonino, Kyle Turris, Alexei Emelin, Scott Hartnell and Ryan Hartman have boosted a team already boasting the deepest defense corps in hockey, a strong group of forwards and consistent goaltending from Pekka Rinne.
Few teams in the NHL have had such a dichotomy on their team between their offensive and defensive talent over the last few years like the Colorado Avalanche. Blessed with studs at forward like Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, the Avs will certainly light up scoreboards. But beyond Tyson Barrie, the Avs don’t have much on defense – and frankly, have been hurting for defensive depth since the turn of the decade.
Prediction – Predators in five. The Avalanche can put the puck in the net, as evidenced by the team finishing 10th in the league in goals during the regular season. However, their defense, while slightly improved from past seasons, remains a question mark and the injury to Semyon Varlamov will leave Colorado relying on journeyman Jonathan Bernier in net. That won’t bode well against the defending Western Conference champions.
Winnipeg Jets (2) vs. Minnesota Wild (3)
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is finally starting to reap the benefits of a long, slow rebuild. His patient stance has paid off, as the Jets have been able to acquire players like Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Jacob Trouba and Connor Hellebuyck to add to their veteran group of Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and Bryan Little. Sticking to his guns have allowed the Jets to become one of the Western Conference’s best teams.
Over the last several years, the Minnesota Wild have been among the league’s better squads in the regular season. Playoff success, though, hasn’t come quite as easily. Having lost in the first or second round in each of the last five years – and not reaching the conference finals since 2003 – the Wild are banking on breakout regular seasons from Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba and a resurgent year from Eric Staal to carry over.
Prediction – Jets in five. The Wild would likely push Winnipeg to six or seven games if not for a season-ending injury to defenseman Ryan Suter, but they’ll still put up a fight.
Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (WC1)
The Golden Knights have surprised everyone with the strongest debut season of any team in major professional sports. Led by Marc-Andre Fleury, William Karlsson, Jon Marchessault, David Perron and Reilly Smith, they’ve been a team that relies on speed and a strong forechecking game. Coach Gerard Gallant is the runaway favorite for the Jack Adams trophy as coach of the year.
On the flip side, the Kings are a club that has seen everything over the last few years. The players they rely on the most – Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin and Jonathan Quick – have been with the team for both of their Cup runs in 2012 and ’14. The difference is, the shackles imposed on them by former coach Darryl Sutter have been removed by new coach John Stevens, and as a result, essentially all of those aforementioned players have posted career-bests in their statistics.
Prediction – Kings in seven. The Golden Knights have been the best story in the NHL this season, but all good things must come to an end. They likely will against a team that is having its best season since its last championship run four years ago.
Anaheim Ducks (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (3)
Orange County’s professional hockey team has been a powerhouse for the better part of the last decade and a half, but things are starting to change in Anaheim. For the first time since 2012, neither Ryan Getzlaf nor Corey Perry led the team in scoring (Rickard Rackell) and the Ducks started the season slowly. A heroic run since the midway portion of the season helped them get in, but some of their major contributors – Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan Kesler, Antoine Vermette, Andrew Cogliano, etc. – are aging.
The Sharks are nearly a mirror image of the Ducks – one of the league’s most successful franchises since the 2005-06 season, yet Father Time is starting to creep up on them. Luckily players like Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have younger players like Logan Couture, Martin Jones, Tomas Hertl and the recently-acquired Evander Kane around to help offset any sort of decline.
Prediction – Sharks in seven. It’s fair to wonder if the Ducks’ efforts just to get into the playoffs in the first place have left them running out of gas. We’re willing to bet that factor, and their collective age, will do them in.