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STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF PREVIEW – ROUND ONE PREDICTIONS

View of the Stanley Cup, the National Hockey League’s championship trophy, taken during the cup’s 100th year anniversary, New York, New York, November 1992. The cup is named after Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley. (Photo by Scott Levy/Getty Images)

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 From The 300 Level 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.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Tampa Bay Lightning (1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (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, ’16 and last season. Having tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings’ record for most wins in a regular season, the Lightning are deeper than they’ve ever been. Youngsters like Brayden Point, Mikhail Sergachev and Yanni Gourde and veterans like JT Miller, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi have joined Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Victor Hedman to build a juggernaut. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been stellar in goal.

Traditionally strong in goal thanks to Sergei Bobrovsky and boasting a solid stable of young rearguards led by Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, the Blue Jackets had lacked true game-breakers at forward for a long time. Enter three forwards – Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. The acquisitions of those three over the last few years, plus the presence of Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Josh Anderson, has given their goal-scoring department a major boost.

Prediction – Lightning in six. The Blue Jackets have nearly killed themselves just to get to the playoffs and off-ice drama regarding their big-name free agents will undermine coach John Tortorella and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen. They 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. Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara remain from the old guard while David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Brandon Carlo have provided a shot in the arm.

The Leafs, meanwhile, are a fairly young team that has had a taste of the postseason the last two years 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 been up-and-down – although trading for Jake Muzzin and the return of Gardiner from injury should help take some responsibility off of Reilly’s plate – and goaltender Frederick Anderson’s play has had to carry Toronto in its own end of the ice. The biggest difference between last season and this year has been the arrival of perennial all-star center John Tavares, who has turned in the best year of his career.

Prediction – Bruins in seven. While coach Mike Babcock and general manager Kyle Dubas have done a phenomenal job turning around Toronto’s fortunes the last few years, their one bugaboo has been Boston – who own the Leafs in postseason play.

Washington Capitals (1) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (WC1)

Having finally won a Stanley Cup last season, the weight of expectations is off of the Washington Capitals’ backs. Led by the usual suspects – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie – the Capitals have rarely struggled for offense. Defensively, they are still led by John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov. But one area that the Caps are surprisingly underachieving in is goaltending. Braden Holtby, considered by many to be one of the league’s best netminders, has labored through two of the worst seasons of his career. Can Holtby turn his game around again at the most critical time of the season, like he did last year?

The Carolina Hurricanes have surprised everyone by reaching the postseason for the first time in 10 years and will look to make some damage in the process. General manager Don Waddel and coach Rod Brind’Amour inherited a team this past summer led by a mix of youth (Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov) and veterans (Justin Williams, Justin Faulk and Jordan Staal). So far that mix, plus trades for Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and Nino Nederreiter has worked.

Prediction – Caps in five. Washington is battle-tested and their collection of talent – plus the uncertainty in Carolina’s net between Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney – will spell an early exit for the Hurricanes.

New York Islanders (2) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (3)

Not much has changed for the Penguins in 2018-19. They’re still led by the all-world group of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang, and most of their supporting cast from the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup champions remains in place. The return of Matt Cullen, plus the acquisitions of Jared McCann, Nick Bjugstad and Tanner Pearson, have fortified their depth. One issue to keep an eye on, though, is questions being raised about their goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith.

After Tavares’ defection to Toronto, most believed the New York Islanders would suffer a major downturn. Not so. Talents like Matthew Barzal, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson have turned in stellar efforts and Ryan Pulock, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy have also been strong on defense. Veterans like Matt Martin, Valtteri Filppula and Leo Komarov were brought in by GM Lou Lamoriello to help out Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck play in Barry Trotz’s smothering defensive system and Robin Lehner has had a career-year on Long Island.

Prediction – Penguins in seven. The Islanders’ depth and talent level doesn’t hold a candle to Pittsburgh’s.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Calgary Flames (1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (WC2)

The patient rebuilding process that GM Brad Treliving undertook over the last few years has finally bore fruit. After making and missing the playoffs in alternating years since 2014-15, the hiring of Bill Peters and bringing in players like Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin and James Neal have supplemented a young core made up of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk. Defenseman Mark Giordano is having the best season of his underrated career at age 35 and is the favorite for the Norris Trophy. However, Calgary has a goaltending controversy between Mike Smith and David Rittich.

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, Gabriel Landeskog and Derek Brassard, 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. Like the Flames, the Avs also have questions in net over who should be their starter – Semyon Varlamov or Philipp Grubauer.

Prediction – Flames in five. The Avalanche can put the puck in the net but their defense remains a question mark as does their goaltending. That won’t bode well against a deeper, more talented Flames team.

San Jose Sharks (2) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (3)

The Golden Knights have followed up on last season’s surprise run to the Stanley Cup Finals with another strong outing. Led by Marc-Andre Fleury, William Karlsson, Jon Marchessault and Reilly Smith, the Golden Knights have augmented their core group with veterans like Mark Stone, Paul Statsny and Max Pacioretty and are a team that relies on speed and a strong forechecking game. Coach Gerard Gallant was the winner of the Jack Adams trophy as coach of the year last season and has kept his team on course.

The San Jose Sharks have been one of the better teams in hockey over the last 15 years, but 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 Evander Kane around to help offset any sort of decline. The acquisitions of Erik Karlsson and Gustav Nyquist this season have seemed to indicate that the Sharks are gunning for a championship push right now, but injuries and inconsistency – notably with goaltender Martin Jones – have kept San Jose from reaching their potential.

Prediction – Sharks in seven. Vegas is without a doubt a strong hockey club. But we’re willing to bet that the Sharks’ experience and talent will jell together at the right time.

Nashville Predators (1) vs. Dallas Stars (WC1)

This version of the Predators is essentially the same as the group that reached the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago and won the President’s Trophy last season. The difference between past rosters and this one, however, is this year’s team is deeper. Veteran pickups like Wayne Simmonds, Dan Hamhuis, Brian Boyle and Mikael Granlund have boosted a team already boasting the deepest defense corps in hockey, a strong group of forwards and consistent goaltending from Pekka Rinne.

The Dallas Stars are an interesting case study. Goaltender Ben Bishop turned in one of the best seasons of his career as has backup Anton Khubodin. Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, John Klingburg and rookie sensation Miro Heiskanen have been excellent. But the team’s lack of depth has crept up upon them this season, as captain Jamie Benn has had an underwhelming campaign, Jason Spezza no longer being counted upon as a scoring threat and injuries to contributors like Martin Hanzal, Stephen Johns and Marc Methot threatened to derail their season. Late acquisitions like Mats Zuccarello, Andrew Cogliano and Ben Lovejoy have kept them afloat, but how much longer will the magic last?

Prediction – Predators in six. The Stars have fought valiantly over the last few months, but the depth and skill difference between the two franchises will favor Nashville.

Winnipeg Jets (2) vs. St. Louis Blues (3)

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and coach Paul Maurice are finally starting to reap the benefits of a long, slow rebuild. Their patient stance has paid off, as the Jets have acquired players like Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Jacob Trouba, Kevin Hayes and Connor Hellebuyck to add to their veteran group of Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and Bryan Little. Sticking to their guns have allowed the Jets to become one of the Western Conference’s best teams – resulting in last year’s run to the conference finals.

After a brutal start to the 2018-19 season, Blues coach Mike Yeo was canned and replaced by ex-Flyers boss Craig Berube. Since then, a veteran squad led by Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Pietrangelo and Brayden Schenn has caught fire – rising from one of the NHL’s basement dwellers to a postseason berth. Key contributors like Jaden Schwartz, Robby Fabbri and Alex Steen have had down years, but rookie Jordan Binnington turned in a marvelous rookie campaign in goal – taking over for the inconsistent Jake Allen in the process.

Prediction – Jets in seven. The Blues have been one of the hottest teams in hockey since the start of January, but we think their magic will run out against one of the best in the West.

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