Spring’s most enjoyable playoffs begin Wednesday
Okay hockey fan!
I’m hyper-aware of my audience. But to those of you who care, it’s time for our first annual Stanley Cup Playoffs preview.
Full disclosure, this won’t be as in-depth as my previous baseball and college basketball pieces. I haven’t watched as much hockey this season as I would have liked to, and I haven’t followed it for as long as I’ve followed other sports. But, I love hockey playoff time, and it’s always entertaining, even if your favorite team didn’t make it…for the second straight year (yeah, I know some have it worse).
Last year, the Washington Capitals finally broke through and won their first Stanley Cup. Arguably the best player in the league, Alex Ovechkin, finally climbed the highest mountain. It was a feel good story that bested another feel good story from last year – the Vegas Golden Knights in their inaugural season.
As many sports fans know, expansion teams generally struggle in at least their first season, if not for several years. Look no further than the Houston Texans in the NFL, who didn’t make the playoffs until they were 10 seasons in. Most expansion teams follow a similar trajectory – Vegas had no interest in that.
The Golden Knights were one of the best stories of the 2017-18 NHL season. The season started right around the time of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and the city rallied around the Golden Knights. The number 58 was retired at the beginning of the year in honor and memory of the casualties in that domestic terrorist attack, and Vegas played with that chip on its shoulder all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
So who will raise the Cup this year? The odds-on favorite is Tampa Bay, who finished the season with 128 points and won the Presidents’ Trophy. The Lightning are absolutely stacked, but they haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 2004, and the window might be closing on them soon. They did make the Final in 2015, but lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
The Lightning have probable Hart Memorial Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov leading their offensive attack. Kucherov finished with a massive 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists) this season, and Steven Stamkos (98 points) and Brayden Point (92) both had outstanding seasons as well. Throw in goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and a couple of the best defensemen in the league in Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, and the Lightning are a force to be reckoned with.
It’s hard to bet against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference, but they don’t exactly have an easy matchup in the first round. The Columbus Blue Jackets’ window is right now, and they know it. Artemi Panarin led them with 87 points (28 goals and 59 assists), while Cam Atkinson tallied 41 goals and 28 points (nice). Sergei Bobrovsky is solid in net, but his postseason struggles are well-documented. Columbus is a dangerous team to play in a series, but I expect Tampa to get past them.
From there, the only two teams that I think really have a shot at taking out the Lightning are the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals. Boston has an interesting first round matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were my preseason pick to win it all, but Toronto has been trending in the wrong direction.
The Bruins were led by Brad Marchand, who finished with 100 points. The 22-year-old stud David Pastrnak finished with 81 points and led the Bruins with 38 goals. Patrice Bergeron had 79 points on the year as well, and Tuukka Rask has been one of the best goaltenders over the past six seasons, winning the Vezina Trophy (best goalie) in 2013-14.
The Capitals return a ton of their Stanley Cup winning roster from last year. Ovechkin led the league with 51 goals, and also led the Caps with 89 points. Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and John Carlson all scored at least 70 points, and T.J. Oshie is still on the roster as well. Goaltender Braden Holtby hasn’t been as crisp as he was last season (especially in the playoffs), but the experience is there.
All in all, I expect the Lightning, Bruins, Capitals (vs. Carolina), and Penguins to win their first round matchups. I don’t think the New York Islanders have enough talent to keep up with Pittsburgh in their series. And while it’s hard to bet against Tampa, I like…no, never mind. I’m picking the Tampa Bay Lightning to come out of the East.
Out West, the hottest team all year has been the Calgary Flames (no pun intended). They finished with 107 points, which was best in the Western Conference, and they have one of the most complete teams in hockey. They had five players score at least 74 points, led by Johnny Gaudreau (36 goals, 63 assists). Both goaltenders, David Rittich and Mike Smith, were solid this year, and Mark Giordano could (and maybe should) win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman.
Their first round opponent is the Colorado Avalanche. Nathan MacKinnon is one of the best young players in the league, and like Gaudreau, he also finished with 99 points (41 g, 58 a). Even younger than MacKinnon is Mikko Rantanen, who scored 87 points, and the captain (though older), Gabriel Landeskog, posted 34 goals and 41 assists. It isn’t going to be enough to beat Calgary, though (sorry, Trefty).
My preseason pick in the West was the San Jose Sharks, and like my preseason pick in the East, they too have been trending in the wrong direction as of late. They go up against Vegas in the first round, which should be a terrific series. I think home ice and the late-season acquisition of Gustav Nyquist, along with Brent Burns, Tomas Hertl, and Logan Couture will be too much for Vegas this year, and the Sharks will send the Golden Knights home early. I’m not confident in this pick, but I’m sticking by the Sharks.
I like the Nashville Predators to beat the Dallas Stars in six games in their first round matchup, and while the Winnipeg Jets haven’t been impressive lately, I like them to beat the red-hot St. Louis Blues. I just have a feeling about the Jets and that they’ll right the ship.
Out of the Flames, Sharks, Predators, and Jets, any of those four teams could make a run to the Cup Final. Conventional wisdom and the eye test says go with Calgary, but I think I’m going to ditch my preseason pick again (sorry Sharks) and go with the Nashville Predators to make the Stanley Cup Final out of the West.
That leaves us with a Tampa Bay/Nashville Final, and as much as I love those yellow Preds jerseys and the way the Nashville fans bring it come playoff time, I just don’t think any team can outlast the Lightning in a seven game series. Kucherov could carry the Lightning to the Cup by himself, but he doesn’t have to, because Tampa is stacked. Look for the Tampa Bay Lightning to raise the Stanley Cup for the first time in 15 years.