The Stanley Cup Playoffs kick off this Wednesday with a compelling slate of matchups. Each conference possesses clear-cut favorites, but any team in the field is capable of advancing.
Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche
The Predators got a taste of the Stanley Cup finals last season and return this year to seal the deal. Smashville rebounded from the heartbreaking cup final to win the President’s Trophy and are the odds-on favorites to win the Cup this year. Nashville possesses a deep squad, with five players topping 50 points. Goalie Pekka Rinne will attempt to replicate his performance from last year’s run, where he conceded fewer than two goals per game.
He’ll have to contend with Colorado’s top two of Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. The duo is as good as any, combining for nearly 200 points. MacKinnon has enjoyed a breakout year, posting 95 points, nearly doubling his tally from a season ago.
The Avalanche are a year removed from a season in which they posted merely 48 points and a goal differential of minus 112. Their turnaround, highlighted by a 10-game win streak in December and January, is remarkable. Colorado is unable to match up with Nashville’s depth, however. The Predators won all four games in head-to-head matches, and the same should be true in this series.
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
The Jets are making their second playoff appearance since the reboot of the franchise in the 2011-12 season and have yet to win a playoff game. That will change this year when they meet Minnesota.
Patrik Laine ranks second in the NHL in goals with 44. Running mate Blake Wheeler has assisted on 68 goals to form a stiff one-two punch. The Jets boast an excellent blend of offense and defense, ranking in the top five in both goals scored and goals allowed, with Connor Hellebuyck holding down the fort in net.
The Wild are coming off two straight first round exits. Like the Jets, the Wild play well on both ends of the ice. Eric Staal has enjoyed a renaissance season, scoring 42 goals. Zach Parise has regained his old form and is surging heading into the series.
Defensively for Minnesota, Ryan Suter’s ankle injury will force him to miss the playoffs, but fortunately Jared Spurgeon is targeting a return from his hamstring injury in time for the postseason. Minnesota will need Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba to remain strong in front of netminder Devan Dubnyk, who has played well of late.
The Wild are one of only two playoff teams with a losing record on the road, which does not bode well for their opening round clash with Winnipeg, one of the NHL’s sharpest teams. The Jets won four games in the season series, which they have a strong chance of duplicating in the first round.
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Los Angeles Kings
Vegas turned heads in their inaugural season, gaining a strong following in Sin City. The Golden Knights cracked the century mark in points and won the most games among expansion teams in their first year. Expansion draft picks William Karlsson and Erik Haula top the team in goals scored, and Karlsson’s plus-minus is the best in the league.
Once a perennial all-star, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s career hit its low point last year. Now playing for Vegas, the former No. 1 pick posted his top goals against average (GAA) of his career this year at 2.24 and is a major reason the Golden Knights are one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
Fleury and his defense will have to go blow for blow with Los Angeles, who have surrendered the fewest goals this season. The Kings’ old guard continues rolling on, as Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty lead the team in scoring. Vegas’ superior scoring ability ought to see the Golden Knights through.
Anaheim Ducks vs. San Jose Sharks
The Ducks drew the more favorable Pacific division opponent, squaring off with the Sharks. Anaheim lacks a major scoring threat, but grinds down opponents with their stout defensive effort.
Goals come from across the lines for San Jose. Brent Burns still remains a player to watch, posting 54 points this season. The draw is as much of a toss-up as there is in the West, with both teams countering each other’s strengths.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
The Devils finally ended a seven-season playoff drought, clinching a berth as a wild card seed this season. Winger Taylor Hall recorded an incredible 26-game point streak in the middle of the season and has been the spark in the Devils’ attack.
Tampa Bay remains the team to beat in the East and are No. 1 in goals scored. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos counter Hall, plus goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is a leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy. New Jersey’s dream season will likely conclude in a quick exit.
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Bruins have played like a fine-tuned machine all season. Boston let a chance at being the top seed slip away, but are still one of the favorites in the conference. Brad Marchand has been spectacular once again this season. David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron join him in what is a balanced offense.
Toronto poses a strong threat to Boston. The Maple Leafs depth has improved from a season ago where they returned to the playoffs. Their series with the Bruins may be the most compelling of the opening rounds and can tilt either way.
Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
For as steady as Washington has been, the Capitals still have not won a Stanley Cup and have not played in a Stanley Cup final in 20 years. In a crowded Eastern field, the Caps will need to prove they can stand out. Washington is deep with scorers once again. The ageless Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals with 49. He, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom form an indomitable trio.
Goaltending will be a major question mark for the Capitals. Braden Holby was roughed up at times in the regular season, and his marks in GAA and save percentage are career lows. If the Blue Jackets, who have won seven of their last 10, can stay hot, Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson can propel Columbus to an upset victory. Washington’s roster is more talented, and they have topped Columbus four times this season, making a Caps win the more likely outcome.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
An all-Keystone State matchup finishes off the Eastern Conference field. The Penguins took a step back from their Cup-winning season, but as an experienced side they are capable to peak at the right time. Meanwhile, Claude Giroux tallied triple-digit points for the Flyers, who are returning to playoff action.
Pitting two top scoring teams, this Pennsylvania tilt has the potential for fireworks. Philadelphia scored five goals in all four head-to-head matchups this season, winning all four. Their experience should guide them to a triumph over their in-state rivals.