2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Prospectus
It is that time of year again; the most dramatic and thrilling playoffs in all of sports: the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Some leagues have great finals series, and even some penultimate series leading to their championship series, but their earlier series are dull, boring and often predictable in practice and in outcome. Such is not the case with the NHL, and we are here for it.
Even these “mismatches” in the #1 vs. #8 seeds are exciting and could go either way. When was the last time that occurred in the NBA?
*- REMINDER: THE #1 SEED IN EACH CONFERENCE PLAYS THE SECOND WILD CARD, WHILE THE #2 OVERALL SEED IN EACH CONFERENCE PLAYS THE FIRST WILD CARD. THE SECOND PLACE FINISHER IN EACH DIVISION PLAYS WITH HOME ICE ADVANTAGE WITH THE THIRD PLACE FINISHER IN EACH DIVISION.
- Each Series is a Best of 7.
EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFFS
NEW JERSEY DEVILS (SECOND WILD CARD) VS. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (#1, EASTERN)
Game 1: 4/12, 7:00 PM EDT
This series could go either way for a multitude of reasons; not the least being the health of all-world sniper, Steven Stamkos. Tampa played relatively well without Stamkos, but they are the cream of the crop when he is active and healthy. As of now, it appears that he will be ready to go for Game 1 on Thursday. They will need him to beat New Jersey. The Devils have not made the playoffs since 2012, when they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before getting outclassed by the champion Los Angeles Kings.
What the Devils lack in playoff experience (and very few players from other teams possess any at all), they make up with speed, grit and tenaciousness. Given that Tampa has had issues getting untracked early in games, it would behoove them to break that trend, or they could be in for more than they bargained for with the Devils.
Tampa has more elite forwards (Nikita Kucherov and Stamkos), electric young talent who produce (Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, JT Miller) and overall depth, better defencemen (Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Mikhail Sergachev), and better goaltender (Andrei Vasilevskiy). However, New Jersey does have all-world Taylor Hall, and his band of young, impressionable forward mates, as well.
Tampa SHOULD win this series, but it won’t be easy. Hockey is too slippery of a sport to get too in depth with analysis. Who wants it more? Tampa has been on the cusp for three out of the past four years. Their window isn’t closing, but simply having great talent isn’t enough to rely upon year in and year out.
Ask the Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars and Edmonton Oilers in 2018, for starters.
CALL: LIGHTNING IN 6.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (#3 ATLANTIC) VS. BOSTON BRUINS (#2 ATLANTIC)
Game 1: 4/12, 7:00 PM EDT
Toronto will forever be reminded about their epic choke job versus Boston in 2013, where Toronto all but had Game 7 of their First Round series won, before giving up two late goals in regulation and then the overtime winner to Mr. Selke, Patrice Bergeron.
Boston is even better in 2018 than they were in 2013. Toronto has their hands full.
Then again, because — once again, this is hockey — so does Boston with Toronto.
Much like New Jersey, what the Leafs don’t have in playoff experience, they more than make up for it with speed. And skill. And lots of it, up front. The difference with the Leafs vs. Devils is the Leafs were here last year, and were within a couple of shifts of winning a series as a collective. They were better for it.
Freddie Andersen is better than Tuukka Rask, let’s get that out of the way off rip.
Boston’s defence has more playoff-tested players, and Toronto’s defence can be an eyesore at times, but the Leafs top two lines are going to give the B’s fits, even with Bergeron’s Selke ways, Brad Marchand’s pesky ways, and David Backes’ testy ways.
Boston went out to get Rick Nash as scoring depth and traffic cone Nick Holden to “shore up” (wink) their blue line, from the New York Rangers. It remains to be seen if Boston truly has enough to consistently handle the Leafs, as they roll four lines and all can skate.
Gimme the Leafs here.
CALL: LEAFS IN 6.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS (FIRST WILD CARD) VS. WASHINGTON CAPITALS (#1 METROPOLITAN, #2 EASTERN)
Game 1: 4/12, 7:00 PM EDT
Another year, another division title for the Caps. Another year of questioning do they have enough to get past the second round.
Short answer: with the way Braden Holtby has played for long stretches this season? They’d be lucky to even GET TO the second round. And because the Caps still don’t have the consistent scoring from their bottom six and now have issues on their blue line that they didn’t have the past three years, Holtby has to be even better. Though it is believed that Holtby will get the start in goal, Philipp Grubauer will be ready and waiting in the wings if Holtby returns to his mid-to-late season subpar play.
Alexander Ovechkin can only do so much as a winger. Nicklas Backstrom normally plays well in first round series, and then progressively disappears thereafter. The same has been the case with Evgeny Kuznetsov, though Gene was better in 2017 than in the previous three playoffs. It’s going to come down to guys like Lars Eller, Brett Connolly and the important board work of Devante Smith-Pelly and Jay Beagle, however.
Columbus plays a hard-charging, heavy game. They don’t possess any bona fide superstars up front, though Seth Jones and Zach Werenski on the blue line provide some playmaking and scoring touch. The Jackets play as a team. Consistently. They will test the Caps’ mettle.
Because depth scoring is so important, and Columbus doesn’t have any one overwhelming scoring threat, special teams will play a role.
And a team with Ovechkin firing one timers (and other varied shots) from the left faceoff circle will always get the nod.
Holtby is going to have a couple of games where he gives up 4 and gets yanked in one or both after doing his customary pulling off of his mask, having a squirt of his sports drink and staring up at the Jumbotron, but the Caps will likely win this because they have Ovechkin and the Jackets do not.
CALL: CAPS IN 7.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (#3 METROPOLITAN) VS. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (#2 METROPOLITAN).
Game 1: 4/11, 7:00 PM EDT
The Flyers better figure out what they did wrong against Pittsburgh all year, or else they are going home.
The Pens scored 5 or more goals in every matchup this year, and given the Flyers’ style of play, there is nothing to suggest that Pittsburgh won’t be able to do much of the same in this series.
Matt Murray isn’t as good as he is made out to be, but Brian Elliott is about as hit or miss as Aaron Judge at the plate for the Yankees. He’s (Elliott) feast or famine between the pipes. He can be lockdown, impenetrable at times, or a sieve at others. Sometimes in back to back to back games to each extreme. You literally do not know what you are going to get from one game to the next.
But the Pens have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and the Flyers are prone to long scoring droughts, taking bad penalties, and the Pens have the best power play in the NHL.
Don’t think it will be easy, but…
CALL: PENS IN 7.
WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFFS
COLORADO AVALANCHE (SECOND WILD CARD) VS. NASHVILLE PREDATORS (#1 WESTERN)
Game 1: 4/12, 9:30 PM EDT
The Preds spent all season refining their game, adding pieces, motivated by falling short in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Pens (and the r… no, let’s keep this objective and professional). That they were the best team in the NHL in both record and overall play is not surprising. However, they developed some bad habits late in the season which must be cleaned up as the playoffs begin. Nashville became a penalty-taking machine and were prone to long stints of unproductive play in their offensive zone.
They may be able to work out those kinks in this series, because despite the eye-popping play of Should-Be Hart Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon, the Avs are largely viewed as a “one line” team. They will have prove that they aren’t if they are going to beat the Preds and potential Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne.
CALL: PREDS IN 5.
LOS ANGELES KINGS (FIRST WILD CARD) VS. VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS (#1 PACIFIC, #2 WESTERN)
Game 1: 4/11, 10:00 PM EDT
We’ve heard all the platitudes and record-shattering talk about Vegas and their historic inaugural NHL season. We’re going to talk about playoff hockey in this space.
Vegas, like Nashville, developed some bad habits late in the regular season. And this was before they pulled their regulars in the final game or so. They also began taking more penalties, had mind-boggling scoring droughts, and mediocre play by Marc-Andre Fleury.
The unique thing about Vegas is that they don’t have any talent that stands out head and shoulders above the rest like some teams do. The Knights are comprised of effectively four second-line units. It works for them. One thing that lacks in their game is board play. Consistent board play, that is. They will hit at times, they do finish their checks, and they forecheck like the dickens, but Vegas feels an awful lot like the 2014 New York Rangers, which ran into this (largely the same) Kings team that year for the Stanley Cup Final.
There just feels like something is missing from Vegas’ game.
The Kings aren’t all that good, though, and the way they played in the final month and change doesn’t portend well, even if they are one of the most playoff veteran-laced teams in the league.
CALL: VEGAS IN 7.
MINNESOTA WILD (#3 CENTRAL) VS. WINNIPEG JETS (#2 CENTRAL)
Game 1: 4/11, 7:00 PM EDT
The Jets’ years of stockpiling high-end #1 picks has finally paid off, with the emergence of Mark Scheifele and the Finnish Alex Ovechkin, Patrik Laine. The Jets have tons of offensive depth up and down all four lines, and everyone on that team seems to be 6’3″ or taller and 210 lbs and heavier. Including the goalie, who is a viable Vezina Trophy candidate, Connor Hellebuyck.
Minnesota has their hands full. Eric Staal has enjoyed a resurgent season, scoring 42 goals, and others have contributed here and there, which is what a team built like the Wild’s needs, but they lost their best defenceman, Ryan Suter to a season-ending injury late in the year, and their chances of winning this series — already-slim with Suter healthy — went down along with him.
CALL: JETS IN 4.
SAN JOSE SHARKS (#3 PACIFIC) VS. ANAHEIM DUCKS (#2 PACIFIC)
Game 1: 4/12, 10:30 PM EDT
San Jose likely does not make the playoffs without acquiring veteran winger Evander Kane from Buffalo. Kane has been good for an extra goal per game for the team since coming over, and in the games he was out of the lineup, his presence was sorely missed. On a line with captain Joe Pavelski, the Sharks looked like one of the best units out there for the final six weeks of the season. On a power play unit that also includes stalwart defenceman Brent Burns, they really look like a viable threat in the West. Martin Jones’ play in goal will need to be as it was in 2016 during the playoffs.
Anaheim is hitting their stride, and should get Cam Fowler back sometime after the first couple of games of this series. As it is, the Ducks have a good enough defence to stifle the Sharks. Hampus Lindholm and Brandon Montour — especially Montour — are offensive weapons. The question that has nagged the Ducks for the past few years is will they a) get enough secondary scoring and b) can John Gibson — who is all-world — stay healthy and not psych himself out of games like he did last playoffs?
Anaheim is the better team, but with Kane in the lineup for the Sharks, this is going to be a nasty, uber-physical series. One worth watching. Especially with the likes of equally-nasty Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler on the other side.
CALL: DUCKS IN 7.