The first round of the post-season gets underway Wednesday, but before we dive deep into each series, take a quick look at what to expect when the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.
It took until the last game of the season for the playoff matchups to be set, but the Boston Bruins’ loss at the hands of the Florida Panthers locked the two final post-season series into place. And with that, the hockey world can prepare for the two-plus month journey to the Stanley Cup with a look at the first-round matchups that will decide which teams extend their seasons and which will be joining the non-playoff clubs for some late-spring tee times:
Washington Capitals (1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (WC1)
In other years, the Capitals entering the post-season as a top seed would come with big expectations. That’s not the case this time around, and that’s entirely the result of Washington fooling prognosticators time and again with earlier-than-expected playoff exits. It also doesn’t help matters for the Capitals that they’re entering a series against a Blue Jackets team that was one of the hottest in the NHL over the past month. The good news for Washington, however, is that the season series finished 3-1 in favor of the Capitals despite the fact the Blue Jackets held a significant edge in shots in each outing. This is a series that could come down to a battle of stars — Alex Ovechkin vs. Artemi Panarin — and goaltending.
Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (3)
We wanted more Battle of Pennsylvania, and we’re getting more Battle of Pennsylvania. There’s little doubt this is going to be one of the most heated series of the first round as there’s no love lost between the Penguins and Flyers. As for who wins the battle, though, the season series would seem to suggest this is going to be lopsided. Pittsburgh scored five goals in each of the head-to-heads during the regular season en route to a 4-0 sweep of the season series, but two of those contests were overtime wins and the Penguins’ defense is going to be tasked with shutting down a Claude Giroux who has returned to world-beating form. The playoffs can be a different animal, and in a series with this much emotion, no result would be shocking.
Tampa Bay Lightning (1) vs. New Jersey Devils (WC2)
Based purely on seeding and regular season performance, the assumption would be that this is the Lightning’s series to lose. Thing is, that’s exactly what Tampa Bay did during the regular season. Three times the Lighting and Devils squared off during the regular season. Three times New Jersey came out on top. In fact, Tampa Bay is the only Eastern Conference team who lost every one of their outings against New Jersey this season, so maybe this is the best possible draw for the Devils. Even with that said, though, one worries about an inexperienced New Jersey group taking on a Tampa Bay team that knows what it takes to win in the playoffs, and the sure-to-be increased focus on Taylor Hall means the Devils may have to find another hero to drive them to victory.
Boston Bruins (2) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (3)
Seven points may have separated the two teams during the regular season, but the margin was even thinner than that. Both Boston and Toronto traded 4-1 victories at separate points during the campaign, while the other two contests were decided by a single goal — and both of those outings were Bruins losses. It should be noted, however, that two of those games came in the first half of the season, before Boston became one of the NHL’s juggernauts. In the second half, the Bruins went a remarkable 29-10-6 and were two points off the league lead from January onward. Toronto wasn’t far off, finishing seventh in the second half, but a healthy Boston lineup is as scary and as deep as any in the league.
Nashville Predators (1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (WC2)
The Avalanche won a crucial game, a winner-take-all battle with the St. Louis Blues, to earn the right to make the playoffs. Unfortunately, sneaking in as the second wild-card team also comes with the task of playing the Predators in the first round. Nashville was nearly unstoppable in the second half of the campaign and Ryan Ellis’ return rounded out an already lethal blueline to give the Predators arguably the most complete lineup of any team in the post-season. The season series doesn’t offer Colorado much hope here, sadly. Four losses, three by two or more goals and one that was decided in overtime. If Nathan MacKinnon is shut down by Nashville’s defense corps, this series could be a quick one.
Winnipeg Jets (2) vs. Minnesota Wild (3)
Winnipeg comes into this series as the regular season’s second-best, a group that’s deep offensively and defensively and one that has received stellar goaltending throughout the campaign. But getting by Minnesota, their cross-border rivals, is going to be no easy task. Sure, the Jets won the season series, but two of their three victories were of the one-goal variety and the Wild carried play at even strength. Winnipeg’s home-ice advantage might help decide the series, though, as Minnesota finished the season two games below .500 on the road, giving them the second-worst road record of any Western Conference playoff team. The Jets, meanwhile, had more wins at home than any other team in the NHL.
Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (WC1)
The Golden Knights’ success this season led them to top spot in the Pacific Division and sees them enter their first-ever playoff series as the betting favorites. The long look makes it clear why, too. Vegas had the league’s fifth-most potent offense, eighth-most staunch defense and both special teams units ranked just outside the top third in the NHL. Over the final quarter of the campaign, however, the Kings scored only one fewer goal, allowed 11 fewer against, had a power play that operated at only a slightly lower rate of success and boasted the NHL’s second-best penalty kill. Los Angeles also went 15-8-3 to Las Vegas’ 14-9-3 from mid-February onward. This might be a top seed-versus-wild-card club battle, but the on-ice play will be much tighter than the standings suggest.
Anaheim Ducks (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (3)
If the season series is any indication, hockey fans in California are going to have some late nights watching the Ducks and Sharks. Of the four outings played between the two teams, three went to extra time and all three needed to go beyond overtime to decide a winner. That’s how razor-thin the margin between these two clubs has been all season. It should be noted, however, that Anaheim has yet to face this post-deadline San Jose group, which has seen a significant boost in offense since the arrival of Evander Kane. The Sharks were the sixth-highest scoring team after the trade freeze, fifth-best defensively and one of the better possession teams in the NHL. That said, getting pucks past a healthy John Gibson with any consistency is going to be a tough task, and goaltending is a definite edge for Anaheim. Buckle up for this one.