2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Prospectus
It is that time of year again. The best time of the year in sports in general, and time for the best playoffs of all major sports. We have some fresh faces looking to make a name for themselves in a loud manner (Carolina) in the playoffs this year, and some who have made a return after a couple of years on hiatus (Dallas, Calgary). Others have been here year after year and looking to finally get to the mountaintop (Tampa, Nashville, San Jose), while the defending Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals look very much primed to make a legitimate run at a repeat championship.
Here are the First Round outlooks for each respective series:
Columbus Blue Jackets (2nd Wild Card) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (1st, Atlantic; President’s Trophy)
Game 1: Wednesday, April 10, 2019, 7 PM EDT
Columbus was all-in to win it this year from the get-go, as they knew their two-time Vezina Trophy winning backstop Sergei Bobrovsky was heading into unrestricted free agency along with high flying winger Artemi Panarin this summer. The Blue Jackets were hovering around first place in the division for long stretches before a dip in play buried them among the Wild Card teams fighting for their playoff lives for much of the second half of the season. Trade deadline deals to acquire Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel have not paid off in spades as of yet, as Columbus has mostly maintained the same level of (in)consistency which plagued them all season. In particular, there were baffling, blowout, listless losses (Edmonton) to bad teams at times since the deadline.
However, the slate is clean and everyone is 0-0 as of today. The scary part about Columbus’ fate this year is that they could either be stuck overpaying for players who have never been winners (Duchene) or risk losing out on the draft compensation which was used to acquire him (along with Dzingel, Bobrovsky and Panarin) in free agency; especially if they have a quick playoff exit. While not entirely likely, it could very well happen against a Tampa team that plays a lot like their nickname indicates. Given Bobrovsky’s mediocre playoff performances over the years, and Columbus’ inability to still never win a series since its inception, the Blue Jackets must believe that even if they lose any or all of the aforementioned players this summer, that the pipeline (which is plentiful) is enough to sustain them for years to come. The odds are certainly against them while facing the league’s best team.
Call: Tampa in 5.
Toronto Maple Leafs (3rd, Atlantic) vs. Boston Bruins (2nd, Atlantic)
Game 1: Thursday, April 11, 2019, 7 PM EDT
Just as the point was made about Columbus being 0-0 along with everyone else, Toronto must be relieved that the same applies to them when gearing up to face familiar (and formidable) foe, the Boston Bruins. The B’s have owned the Leafs for the most part in recent memory, and Toronto’s baffling play at times throughout the season, and longstanding concerns about their blue line do not put one at ease. The respective top lines might very well cancel out one another. Depth scoring and defence (along with goaltending) will win this series. Boston has the advantage on defence, while the respective bottom six are relatively a wash, as well.
However, Frederik Andersen has a long way to go in order to shed the label of playoff choker who puts up sterling regular season goals against and save percentage numbers. He tends to be cocky when he’s going well, flashing the leather in arrogant fashion, and then within the same series, giving up beach balls for goals — and in waves — when the stage gets brightest. This dates back to his days in Anaheim. Who can forget the multiple Game 7s that the Ducks lost while he was in goal, including losing Games 6 AND 7 in blowout fashion in the 2015 Western Conference Final against the eventual Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, who ambushed Andersen in both of those pivotal games, as the Ducks held a 3-2 series lead with home ice advantage? Never mind the past two seasons when Toronto exited the playoffs with a whimper and Andersen not doing much to help the struggling 18 who got manhandled by Washington and these same Bruins en route to early playoff exits.
Call: Bruins in 6.
Carolina Hurricanes (1st Wild Card) vs. Washington Capitals (1st, Metropolitan)
Game 1: Thursday, April 11, 2019, 7:30 PM EDT
The Caps enter the playoffs looking a lot like they did in 2018; a so-so (but good) first 50+ games, then a very strong finish post-trade deadline and shoring up of forward lines and defence. Braden Holtby appeared shaky at times during the 2017-2018 regular season and finished with all-world playoff performances. He appeared shaky again at times this season (though overall very solid) and is primed to make another run himself. Alex Ovechkin has paced the Caps yet again with 51 goals (to Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl — who nearly matched that late in Game 82 — and his 50 goals), to secure his eighth Maurice “Rocket” Richard trophy as the league’s top goal scorer. Of note, head coach Todd Reirden has shuffled the lines in recent weeks, placing Nicklas Backstrom back in the middle for Ovechkin and Tom Wilson on the right wing. Last year, the shift by then head coach Barry Trotz to have Evgeni Kuznetsov centre the Ovechkin/Wilson combo truly propelled the Caps. Kuznetsov’s faceoffs and zone play have been questionable at times, and he may indeed be best served to skate with TJ Oshie and — it appears of late and henceforth — Carl Hagelin, who was acquired at the deadline. Hagelin began his tenure with the Caps on the 4th line, then moved up to the 3rd on the Lars Eller line. The Caps have found something with this line combo, as their bottom six looks to also repeat its stalwart performance of last year’s playoffs which truly put the Caps over the hump vs. Pittsburgh, Tampa and Vegas last spring.
Carolina makes their first appearance in the playoffs since 2009 (when they were whitewashed by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins). Jordan Staal was on that Penguins squad, and is making his first playoff as a Cane. Justin Williams, a former Capital, has stabilized the Caps’ room, while electric young centre Sebastian Aho and powerful winger Andrei Svechnikov have helped Carolina make good of their last two top picks (Martin Necas — who is coming next season — has been great with the Charlotte Checkers, as he was the Canes’ #12 overall pick in 2017). Goaltending has been the biggest note for the Canes. We have known for several years now that they have had among the best blue lines in all of hockey, but the combination of wily veteran Curtis McElhinney (who has experienced a renaissance this season, after serving as a backup/journeyman for a decade) and former franchise hopeful with the Red Wings, Petr Mrazek, has placed Carolina in a very good position.
There will be no Storm Surges (most likely) if the Canes win at home, as their focus is on winning and not riling up a focused opponent. They did not look great in the back-to-back scenario versus Washington a couple of weeks ago. They do not appear to be ready to compete as a serious Cup Contender, but hockey is a slippery game and the Caps CAN be had when they are off their game and taking the league’s most stick-related penalties (which they continue to do). This series will be hard fought and closer than some who don’t watch either team with regularity (as we do here) might think.
Call (Hedging): Caps in 7.
Pittsburgh Penguins (3rd, Metropolitan) vs. New York Islanders (2nd, Metropolitan)
Game 1: Wednesday, April 10, 2019, 7:30 PM EDT
Playoff hockey is often about special teams. You can get by with shot suppression and low-scoring games in the regular season. If your power play isn’t great (the Islanders’ isn’t, while the Pens’ is a constant — if not bafflingly inconsistent at times — threat) and your goalie is unproven in the playoffs (as is the case with Robin Lehner; in stark contrast to two-time Cup winner Matt Murray), you better get contributions from up and down your four lines and three defence pairs or you will not be around for long.
There’s not a lot to write here. The Isles have to do something they haven’t done all year and/or hope that they can contain the high-flying Sidney Crosby line, which has been producing points by the boatload while rounding into playoff form. The Isles are just glad to be here, which won’t be for long.
Call: Pens in 5.
Dallas Stars (2nd Wild Card) vs. Nashville Predators (1st, Central)
* – Dallas is technically the second wild card due to not finishing within the top three in the Central Division, despite securing more points than the Colorado Avalanche, who finished fifth behind Dallas.
Game 1: Wednesday, April 10, 9:30 PM EDT
If there’s a team that can be had in the 1st Round among the #1 seeds, it is this Nashville Predators group. They have been stuck in third gear all season. Sure, Pekka Rinne and Jusse Saros have been their normal great Finnish selves in goal, but there is something functionally wrong with this team. Is it fatigue over the past three-plus seasons and deep playoff runs? Have injuries (notably Viktor Advisson, PK Subban and Filip Forsberg, and at the same time, for stretches) solely been the reason for a lack of chemistry? What is up with their power play, which has languished near or at the very bottom of the league all season?
Dallas enters the playoffs on fire. The addition and re-addition (after a month-long stint on IR) of Mats Zuccarello has ignited the Stars. Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg pose major problems as puck rushers, distributors and scorers on the back end. Jason Dickinson has emerged, thereby taking off some of the pressure from Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn to score on every shift (which some seem to think they should do). Radek Faksa is a perfect third line centre, and Roope Hintz has been a major revelation, as well as being pivotal down the stretch as Dallas made its push. We’ll even go so far as to predict that Valeri Nichushkin will score his first goal in the NHL in three whole calendar years (though he spent the past two seasons prior to 2018-2019 in the KHL).
Ben Bishop has vast playoff experience to match Rinne’s, but if Nashville doesn’t awaken from their slumber (maybe they were just coasting until the playoffs, despite playing mediocre hockey over the final 65 games following a super-fast start to the season; yet still won the Central Division which features Winnipeg, a red-hot St. Louis team that had been among the best in the league since January 1 and these Stars), they might be going home. The last time Dallas was in the playoffs, Seguin and Benn weren’t great. They have more depth behind them now. It is difficult to pick against Nashville, and — however reluctantly — we won’t this time, but this is anything but a pick made out of strong conviction.
Call: Predators in 6.
Winnipeg Jets (2nd, Central) vs. St. Louis Blues (3rd, Central)
Game 1: Wednesday, April 10, 2019, 9:30 PM EDT
Winnipeg has somewhat underachieved this season. Sure, 99 points isn’t anything to sneeze at, but many predicted they would be the Tampa Bay Lightning of the Western Conference this season. Patrik Laine learned that there is a lot more to hockey than emulating his idol, Alex Ovechkin (who does a lot more than stand on the left faceoff and fire one-timers on the power play, unlike what many think; two-thirds of Ovechkin’s goals were scored even-strength). Laine has yet to diversify his game. This led to long scoring droughts where he was not productive even in setting up teammates. This has also placed more stress on the Mark Scheifele (Wheeler, Connor) line to do more, which negatively impacted the team. Though the Jets’ bottom six has been steady, if Winnipeg is to go anywhere in the playoffs, they will need a complete game from Laine on a regular basis. The Blues aren’t a team to mess around with. Connor Hellebuyck has been good — not great — this season, though part of Winnipeg’s issues at times were injuries to Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrisey, both of whom appear ready to go to for the playoffs.
St. Louis has played great hockey since the year 2019 began. Ryan O’Reilly has provided head coach Craig Berube with stability in taking faceoffs in every zone and in all situations, which allowed for more in the way of puck possession. This sparked goal scoring from Vlad Tarasenko, who had his usual slow start to the season, before finishing with more commensurate and expected goal scoring from him as the second half of the season wore on. Jordan Binnington has been a godsend in goal for the Blues, among the Calder Trophy candidates (though Elias Pettersson will surely win it). Alex Pietrangelo got better with the season, as he was downright awful in October. The Blues have a complete team with Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, big man Oskar Sundqvist, and a hard working bottom six which mirrors the former style of play of their head coach.
This is a tough call, because the Jets have just buoyed for the past two months while the Blues have been on fire. Matchups are everything in hockey, and everything rests on how well the Jets can defend the Blues. If Laine begins to realize his massive potential during this series, it will be an even more difficult call to make. Right now, give me the Blues.
Call: Blues in 6.
Calgary Flames (1st, Pacific/Western) vs. Colorado Avalanche (1st Wild Card)
Game 1: Thursday, April 11, 2019, 10:00 PM EDT
The Avs had to scratch and claw in order to make the playoffs, benefiting from a scrappy, young bunch of Arizona Coyotes who simply ran out of gas (and bodies) entering the home stretch of the regular season. The Flames have mostly been consistent all year (minus an eye-catching stretch immediately following the trade deadline). Anything is possible in hockey, but if the Avs don’t get a fully-ready-to-go Mikko Rantanen (he will play, but he has missed the past three weeks to date) in this season, not even the mercurial Nathan MacKinnon and Gabe Landeskog (the MGM Line) can overcome the Flames, whose lineup is littered with multiple 30-goal scorers (John Hockey, Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan) and two others who were nearly a point per game for the season (Elias Lindholm and defenceman Mark Giordano — who should be a marked man when the chance arises for recklessly injuring Connor McDavid in a meaningless Game 82 days ago).
Philipp Grubauer will likely be in nets to start, as Semyon Varlamov has not been the same goalie he was four or five years ago. The Achilles Heel (potentially) for the Flames is that both Mike Smith and David Rittich have been woefully inconsistent to flat out BAD at times all season. It bears watching. The Flames are plenty talented enough of front to beat anyone. Including Tampa.
Call: Flames in 6.
San Jose Sharks (2nd, Pacific) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (3rd, Pacific)
Game 1: Wednesday, April 10, 2019, 10:30 PM EDT
In short, Vegas owns San Jose. The Sharks can’t skate with Vegas, nor match the Golden Knights’ style of play. This isn’t to suggest that the Sharks can’t win a game or even the series itself, but several things must play in their favor in order to do so. The Sharks did get Joe Pavelski back just before the regular season ended. Pavelski, who suffered an awkward-looking injury weeks ago, is the heart and soul of the Sharks up front. Erik Karlsson, who has been in and out of the lineup over multiple stints due to injury and suspension, came back just before the regular season ended, as well. He will need to jump right back into it and neutralize the issues the Sharks have had in both generating offence from the blue line, as well as giving up eye-popping numbers against all opponents over the last month of the season. Martin Jones has not been great, and he’ll have to be the same Jones who the Sharks had tending goal for them during their 2016 Cup Final run, or they will get run out of the building again. Joe Thornton and Logan Couture are almost taken for granted, while Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier have been the guys who have given opposing teams fits all season. The Sharks will need Evander Kane’s entire game (scoring, playmaking, willingness to play on the edge — without engaging Ryan Reaves and being lost due to penalties), as well.
Vegas is rounding into form, after a slow start to the season. They found their game about two months ago and haven’t looked back. The biggest concern for Vegas isn’t up front. They are loaded, from Jonathan Marchessault, Wild Bill Karlsson, Paul Stastny, Gus Nyquist, newly acquired and extended Mark Stone, recently returned Max Pacioretty, Alex Tuch and a host of experienced defencemen. The concern is the health of Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury (“MAF”) has been out for weeks with a lower-body injury and his stand-in, Malcolm Subban (younger brother of Preds’ PK) has had his moments, but at other times been a sieve. If Vegas has a chink in their armor, it is all about the questions surrounding Fleury. If he is healthy and ready to go — which he appears to be — without hindrance, the Sharks are going to have their hands full; especially their third pair defence, which effectively doomed them vs. Pittsburgh in the 2016 Cup Final.
Call: Vegas in 5.
We’ll reconvene at the beginning of the Conference Semifinals in about two weeks.
NOTE: The 2019 NHL Player Entry Draft Lottery is tonight, April 9, 2019, 8 PM EDT in Toronto.