Tampa Bay – Columbus (Will)
The Columbus Blue Jackets are surging at just the right time, having won seven of their last eight to sneak into the playoffs ahead of the Montreal Canadiens. Their prize for living to see another day? A date with the Tampa Bay Lightning, winners of 62 regular season games, Presidents’ Trophy champions by a whopping 27 points, the team that will unquestionably be the best of the NHL’s salary cap era if they lift the Stanley Cup come June.
If Columbus is going to stick around against Tampa, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky must be much better than he has historically been in the playoffs. Bobrovsky has been one of the premier shot-stoppers in the NHL for a good half-decade now and will undoubtedly be hungry to exorcise his playoff demons and maximize his earning potential in free agency this summer. Problem is, the man with a .921 regular-season save percentage since 2013-14 has posted a paltry .898 line in the postseason in that time. Another issue for Columbus? In net for Tampa Bay is another superstar Russian goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has outplayed Bobrovsky this season, posting a .925 save percentage despite the increase in scoring league-wide en route to being deemed the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina Trophy.
Looking at each team’s lineup doesn’t help the Columbus cause. Tampa Bay is the first team with a forward trio (Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point) to post 40 goals and 90 points apiece since the 1995-96 Penguins. They have the best power play and the best penalty kill in the league. In their three tilts with the Jackets this year, Jon Cooper’s team dismantled Columbus 4-0, 5-1, and 8-2. It feels a dangerous thing to say in a league of such wonderful parity, but the Lightning have no warts. With all due respect to Artemi Panarin, Seth Jones, & Co., they just don’t stack up. Tampa will want to end this series quickly and begin preparation for the winner of Boston and Toronto, and in my estimation, they can end this series just about as soon as they want to, though I’ll pick Bobrovsky to steal one game.
Will’s pick: Tampa Bay in 5
Noah’s pick: Tampa Bay in 5
Nathan’s pick: Tampa Bay in 6—Bobrovsky can’t steal a series
Roman’s pick: Tampa Bay in 5
Boston – Toronto (Noah)
Noah’s pick: My colleagues here clearly don’t watch enough NESN broadcasts. While all of my information on the topic might come directly from Jack Edwards and the propaganda wing of the Boston Bruins, the product on the ice speaks for itself. The Black and Gold feature the best line in the league in Patrice Bergeron (32G, 47A), David Pastrnak (38G, 43A), and Brad Marchand. This matchup last year saw the birth of Marchand licking players, but this year he has toned down his antics and increased his scoring, breaking 100 points (36G, 64A) for the first time in his career.
The Bruins also have a goalie tandem in Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak who combined for a .917 save percentage and allowed only 2.42 goals per game. While there are plenty of fans who dislike Rask, because he understands how to position himself and makes saves look easy instead of “battling” like his predecessor Tim Thomas, he is the best goalie on the team. That being said, this is an opportunity for head coach Bruce Cassidy to rest his star or ride the hot hand throughout the playoffs. Against a Toronto team that can score in bunches, that will come in handy.
At the end of the day, the Bruins have a much stronger defense, a stronger goalie core, a better power play (25.9 vs 22.01 percent), and play a better possession game at even strength with a 53 percent Corsi For Percentage to Toronto’s 51 (breaking out the *fancy* stats). During the regular season the Bruins won three out of four against the Leafs. Expect that trend to continue.
Noah’s pick: Boston in 6
Will’s pick: Toronto in 7
Nathan’s pick: Toronto in 7—This is the year, Telerski
Roman’s pick: Toronto in 7
Washington – Carolina (Nathan)
The champions open their title defense against a bunch of jerks, who, oh by the way, are the top offense in the league. Carolina entered the season with no expectations, but a potent offense has paced them to their first playoff berth in a decade. They have a good young core of forwards, including Sebastian Aho (age 21, 83 pts), Teuvo Teravainen (age 24, 76 pts), Michael Ferland (age 26, 40 pts), and second overall selection Andrei Svechnikov (age 18, 37 pts). Offensive-minded defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Justin Faulk add to their surge, while Justin Williams provides gritty veteran leadership. However, the acquisition of Nino Niederreiter at the trade deadline (30 pts in 36 games) brings another legitimate scoring threat on the wing for top-line center Aho to play with, and he is the catalyst for Carolina’s success.
Speaking of wings who can score, the Capitals have a guy you might’ve heard of. Alex Ovechkin is the top goal-scorer of this generation, and he just completed his eighth 50-goal season of his career. For reference, the rest of the league has a combined eight 50-goal seasons. Most of Washington’s championship core remains intact, and they appear poised to make another run at the Cup. Outside of Ovechkin, they have six (!!) other 20-goal scorers, including gritty forward Tom Wilson. Once again, acquisitions at the trade deadline have immensely helped the Capitals. Forward Carl Hagelin from Los Angeles has had a renaissance, aiding the penalty kill and the third line with blazing speed. Defenseman Nick Jensen from Detroit has proven to be a solid contributor as well. These acquisitions helped Washington to the best record in the month of March, despite facing the league’s toughest schedule. They have the Capitals playing at their best as the playoffs approach.
Both teams face the loss of a top four defenseman: Michal Kempny (Washington) and Calvin de Haan (Carolina). Of the 10 first-round series that Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals have played, nine of them have gone to at least six games. This series should be no different, as Carolina will challenge Washington offensively. However, the disparity in goaltending will prove to be too much for Carolina to overcome. Braden Holtby’s years of playoff experience and the inconsistency from Hurricanes goaltenders Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney will prove to be the difference in a wildly entertaining series.
Nathan’s pick: Washington in 6
Will’s pick: Washington in 7
Noah’s pick: Washington in 6
Roman’s pick: Washington in 5
NYI – Pittsburgh (Roman)
After losing team captain and franchise icon John Tavares in free agency over the offseason, many wrote off the Islanders this season. Those who did are kicking themselves now. The team was led to its second place finish in the Metro division by a surprisingly above average goaltending duo of Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner, who led the league in goals against as a tandem, winning the William M. Jennings for their efforts, and were fourth in save percentage. They were led in scoring by forwards Mat Barzal (62 pts), Josh Bailey (56 pts), and Brock Nelson (53 pts), but their season was really characterized by their depth. 13 players scored 20 or more points, and this is a team that will score a lot if they are firing on all cylinders. However, their possession and power play numbers are dismal, which may hold them back from advancing.
For Pittsburgh, they were also almost written off by a poor start to the year. However, a team led by Sidney Crosby (100 pts), Phil Kessel (82 pts) and Evgeni Malkin (72 pts in 68 games) is too good to fail. While Malkin and Crosby’s success are no surprise, the play of young Jake Guentzel (40 goals) has been a splendid surprise for a team that saw minimal production from Matt Cullen (20 pts) and Bryan Rust (35 pts). Kris Letang (56 pts) still anchors the blue line in front of former Stanley Cup-winning goalie Matt Murray.
I see this being a series where experience will be key. The Penguins have been here before, and will be ready to walk into a hostile environment. Will Barzal and the other young Isles be able to do the same? And at the end of the day, I believe goaltending rules in a playoff series, and Lerner and Greiss’ playoff inexperience will be no match for Murray’s pedigree.
Roman’s pick: Pittsburgh in 6
Will’s pick: Pittsburgh in 6
Noah’s pick: Islanders in 7
Nathan’s pick: New York in 7—I like chaos and I hate Pittsburgh
Calgary – Colorado (Nathan)
Calgary is a prime candidate to regress next season. They coaxed a potential Norris season out of 35-year-old Mark Giordano, and their goaltending is suspect. But Calgary fans should enjoy the ride as long as they can. They have a potent, talented team led by American hockey hero Johnny Gaudreau (99 pts). He heads a formidable top line along with center Sean Monahan (82 pts) and winger Elias Lindholm (78 pts). Young Matthew Tkachuk is doing his father proud, recording 77 pts at just 21 years of age. Calgary does have a solid group of defensemen led by Giordano (74 pts) and T.J. Brodie (34 pts). They are successful in spite of the fact that splashy free agent acquisition James Neal has not exactly panned out. David Rittich and Mike Smith have long been capable NHL backups but neither has the experience in leading a team deep into a playoff run. Their goaltending problems can be covered up by the offense for the first round, but they’ll have a more difficult time dealing with San Jose or Vegas.
Colorado will be lucky enough to escape this series with the one win I granted them. Their top line produced well all year, but second-leading scorer Mikko Rantanen (87 pts) is uncertain going into the series. If he is not available, Colorado will suffer dearly. Their lack of depth behind Nathan MacKinnon (99 pts) and Gabriel Landeskog (75 pts) will haunt them against a talented Calgary team. Philipp Grubauer has had a decent year, posting a 2.64 GAA and .917 save percentage, but those numbers haven’t held up in the playoffs over his career. Their other goalie, Semyon Varlamov, has always been inconsistent too, hurting Colorado’s case. Calgary should take this series fairly easily
Nathan’s pick: Calgary in 5
Will’s pick: Flames in 6
Noah’s pick: Flames in 5
Roman’s pick: Calgary in 4
San Jose – Vegas (Roman)
I don’t care what any of the other guys say. Vegas and San Jose will be the marquee matchup of the first round, if you can stay awake long enough to watch it despite the 10:30 pm start times (RIP my already fragile sleep schedule). This series is a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Second Round, a tense, back and forth affair, that the Golden Knights eventually won in six games. Vegas is setting out to prove that their run to the finals last year was not a fluke, while San Jose is planning for one last run to the championship with this core.
Vegas came on strong to end the season, especially after the midseason addition of winger Mark Stone (73 pts) who has partnered with Reilly Smith (53 pts), Jonathan Marchessault (59 pts) and William Karlsson (56 pts) to form a potent offense. On defense, Shea Theodore (37 pts) and Nate Schmidt (30 pts) lead a strong blue line. They are supported in goal by one of the best netminders in the league in Marc-Andre Fleury who has played in 107 playoff games in his career and is totally capable of putting the team on his back, and carrying them deep into the playoffs, like last season.
On the other side of the rink the Sharks have been led by career years up and down the lineup. The team was led by four 30-goal scorers in Joe Pavelski (38), Tomas Hertl (35), Timo Meier (30) and Evander Kane (30). In overall points, the team was led by former Norris Trophy winning defenseman Brent Burns (83 pts). They are also looking to get a big boost for the playoffs as (their other) former Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson (45 pts) rejoins the team after only playing 53 games this season. This series will assuredly come down to goaltending. Martin Jones (.896 gaa) has been weak all year, but I have seen Jones turn it on in the playoffs before and he just has to keep the games close for the Sharks offense to take over. I think this will be enough
Roman’s pick: San Jose in 7
Will’s pick: Vegas in 6
Noah’s pick: Vegas in 7
Nathan’s pick: San Jose in 6—I’ll always pick against Ryan Reaves
Nashville – Dallas (Will)
I understand why Nathan and Roman are of the belief that this will be done and dusted quickly—this is a Nashville team that went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016-17, won the Presidents’ Trophy last year, and still largely has that same core intact. The Preds’ rock-solid top four should be able to limit the Stars’ few scorers. The devastatingly effective JOMA line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson has dominated all season, while Pekka Rinne put up Pekka Rinne numbers in the regular season and will be thirsty to get that elusive Cup ring in his age-36 season. Dallas has little-to-no depth in their forwards, and it could be argued that they only made the playoffs after Ben Bishop posted a league-best .934 save percentage that not even the most optimistic of Stars fans could have predicted after his disappointing 2017-18.
I can’t help but feeling like this series is going to be tight, however. Since former University of Denver head coach Jim Montgomery took over behind the bench in Dallas, the Stars have done a total philosophical 180, to the point where the former run-and-gunners scored the second-fewest goals in the league this season, but similarly gave up the third-fewest total. Every man on the Stars is brought in to defending as a unit, certainly. Even so, Dallas ranks a respectable 17th in expected goals scored this season, and has the league’s 11th most effective power play. So it’s not like the Stars have totally forgotten how to create chances—their finishing has just been poor this year. Couple that with the fact that I think Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn come to play on the national stage after being called out by team CEO Jim Lites in December, and we might have a real slugfest here with a slew of 2-1 games on the radar. Even still, I don’t have it within me to pick against the Central Division-winning Predators here. They know how to win a first-round playoff series, and these types of games were exactly what deadline acquisitions Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund were brought on board for. Give me Nashville in double-OT at Bridgestone Arena.
Will’s pick: Nashville in 7
Noah’s pick: Nashville in 5
Nathan’s pick: Nashville in 4—I rarely pick sweeps but a healthy Nashville skates laps around Dallas
Roman’s pick: Nashville in 5
Winnipeg – St. Louis (Noah)
Noah’s pick: Connor Hellebuyck must be exhausted. He started 62 games this season. He faced 100 more shots than any other goalie and saved more than anyone else. But he also let in 179, the most in the league. Meanwhile, St. Louis is riding the hot hand of Jordan Binnington, owner of the best goals against average in the league (1.89). In only 30 starts he won 24 games. He let in more than two goals only eight times.
When a team has a goalie as hot as Binnington, it is hard to pick against them. When a team has a Corsi For Percentage below 50, meaning that the Jets allow more shots than they take and hold the puck less, it is hard to pick them. But, at the same time, experience matters. This is the same Winnipeg team that made it to the conference finals last year, and of course, the Blues team which missed the playoffs last year, and has never hoisted Lord Stanley’s cup.
With Binnington making his postseason debut against a seasoned offense that had five players break the 50 point mark this season, the lights just might be too bright. Blake Wheeler (20G, 71A), Mark Scheifele (38G, 46A), and Kyle Connor (34G, 32A) can rip him to shreds. And with a powerplay that scores 24.8 percent of the time, Winnipeg is capable of running away with a game.
Hellebuyck’s legs will give out at some point during his team’s cup run, but not in this round, and that should be just enough.
Noah’s pick: Winnipeg in 7
Will’s pick: Winnipeg in 7
Nathan’s pick: Winnipeg in 7—Binnington will have a tough time standing up to the waves of the Jets offense
Roman’s pick: St. Louis in 7