The hardest trophy to win in sports, the Stanley Cup, is back up for grabs. 16 teams and eight intriguing first round matchups begin today with five sure-to-be exhilarating games. Let’s take a look at each of the first round matchups and predict a winner.
Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers:
This fantastic Original Six matchup features two of the elite goaltenders in the world. Carey Price is the undisputed best goaltender in the world, when he’s on. On the other end of the ice resides the King, Henrik Lundqvist. The last time these two teams played in the postseason, Carey Price got injured and the Rangers won the series.
Led by Price and Shea Weber, the Canadiens are an elite defensive team, as they are one of only four teams that allowed less than 200 goals on the year. Their midseason trade for Nikita Nesterov will provide some offensive punch from the blueline alongside Weber, but really the Habs are all about their defense. They defend as a five man unit, with everyone blocking shots and being involved defensively.
Scoring has not always come easily, as they ended the season right in the middle of the pack. Unlike some other teams, the Canadiens will rely on their top line to produce a bulk of their offense, as Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov were the two highest scoring players for Montreal by a wide margin. With only two 20+ goal scorers on the year (Pacioretty and Paul Byron), the Canadiens will look to win these games 2-1.
The Habs defense will be a strict test for the fourth best offense in the NHL. Led by a fantastic first line of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, and Mats Zuccarello, and a potentially even more deadly third line of J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, and Michael Grabner, the Rangers score in bunches. With a good combination of speed and size, the Rangers will come at opponents in bunches. Shea Weber can only be on the ice for around 30 minutes a night, which means the Rangers will have their opportunities to attack Montreal.
Their defense was more in the middle of the pack. That might be impressive, however, considering they played in a crazy difficult and offensive division, and Lundqvist was hurt and struggled at times during the season. Led by Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers will look to slow down the Habs first line, and make other lines beat them. If the Men in Blue can score three goals a game, the Canadiens might be in trouble.
Carey Price vs Henrik Lundqvist, advantage Habs.
Shea Weber vs Ryan McDonagh. Advantage Habs.
Home ice: Advantage Habs.
Canadiens in Seven.
Ottawa Senators vs. Boston Bruins:
No offense to either Ottawa or Boston, but this is most likely the least intriguing first round matchup of the bunch.
Ottawa is the only team in the playoffs that had a negative goal differential on the year. They finished the year 22nd in goals scored, and 23rd on the power play. They are led by Erik Karlsson, the second best offensive defenseman in the world. His 71 points easily paced the Sens, as did his nearly 27 minutes a night. Outside of Karlsson, the bulk of their scoring comes from their first line, as Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris, and Mark Stone make for a very potent line.
Outside of that line, a huge responsibility will be placed on second line center Derick Brassard, as he will be most likely matched up against either Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci, and will need to win that battle for Ottawa to win. Ottawa’s biggest advantage might be that they have a goalie that can steal a series. Craig Anderson missed a big portion of the year to deal with personal issues, but he is capable of stealing games, and he may need to.
Earlier in the season, Boston had a load of talent, but they were underperforming. They fired Claude Julien, and labelled Bruce Cassidy as their interim coach. It seems as though the coaching change fired up the team, as the Bruins finished the year 18-8-1. More than that, the Bruins have the makeup of a team that can go far. They have the best PK in the NHL, a top ten PP, and are third in faceoff percentage.
They are a team with offensive firepower led by Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, but they also are very responsible defensively with David Krejci and two way wizard Patrice Bergeron. Should anything get by the Bruins defense, they have Tuukka Rask there to bail them out. The Bruins do not need that often though, as they allow the second fewest shots per game.
Additionally, they shoot the puck the second most in the NHL, behind strong play in the corners. The Bruins are banged up on defense, but they should not need it to get by the Senators, as they are better in every phase of the game. More goals, less allowed, better special teams, shots, possession, every important stat favors the Bruins. Despite all of that, Ottawa beat Boston three times in the last month of the season. Hockey is just that awesome. So this series really is anyone’s game.
Bruins in Six.
Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
This series features the one team that every single expert would have picked to make the playoffs, versus a team that very few probably foresaw making the postseason. The Caps won the President’s trophy this year, while Toronto’s tank job last year resulted in Auston Matthews and a resurgent year from the Leafs.
Just how good was Washington this year? Every player who put on a Caps jersey for more than six games this year was either even (Zach Sanford), or a plus player. They were third in goals, first by a wide margin in goals against, and top seven in both PP and PK. The Caps shoot a lot, and do not allow many shots to face all-world goalie Braden Holtby.
It is incredibly difficult to find a statistic in which the Caps are not amongst the league leaders. Nicklas Backstrom led the team in points with 86, but was one of five Capitals with more than 55 points. One potential weakness for Washington was offense from their defensemen. So they went and added Kevin Shattenkirk to boost their 5-5 and power play. If that all is not enough, they have a veteran on their team nicknamed “Game 7” in Justin Williams. This has to be their year, or they may be on their way to becoming the Chicago Cubs.
Toronto on the other hand, will come into this series with zero expectations and zero pressure. That may be a dangerous position for a team led by Mike Babcock and Rookie of the Year Auston Matthews. The Leafs boast an elite power play, and have rookies and youngsters contributing up and down the lineup. Despite the offensive prowess of these rookies (they have three rookies with over 60 points) and JVR, their most important line in this series may end up being their shutdown fourth line that includes Brian Boyle and Matt Martin.
There is a reason that they come in as such huge underdogs though, and that is that these young Leafs are susceptible to giving up some heavy rubber towards Frederick Anderson. That is not a recipe for success against Washington, and their defense will need to be rock solid. That said, this team will take their chances offensively, and may try to win a couple games 6-4. In the end, this is Washington’s year, it has to be.
Washington in Five.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Unfortunately for hockey fans, we were mostly robbed of matchups between teams that have a pure hatred for each other. This series would be the exception. And this series will be the best series because of that hatred, and because both teams have a legitimate chance to win it all.
Pittsburgh comes in streaky, having two win streaks of at least four games since March, while also enduring a four game losing streak. The Penguins may give up a few goals, but they also score a lot. Led by Sidney Crosby and a top three power play, the Pens shoot the puck, and score more than any team in the NHL. Crosby has not had consistent linemates this year, but the Penguins have recently settled on Connor Sheary and Jake Guentzel, and they have quickly become one of the best lines, and the fastest in hockey.
However, earlier in the season, the Penguins lost Kris Letang and his 25 minutes a night to surgery. This is a huge loss for the Penguins, as a team cannot simply replace 25 minutes a night. It is on the entire team to step up in his absence. The only bright spot about this for Penguins fans is that Letang was not even their best defenseman this year. That title belongs to Justin Schultz, who is having a marvelous year. He will play a couple more minutes a night, and so will Ian Cole. It is up to them, and a healthy Geno and Phil Kessel to pick up the offense in absence of their best defenseman.
The Pens will be going up against the best team the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise has ever had. Led by potential Vezina trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, and an elite offense, the Blue Jackets won 50 games this year. That total far surpasses their previous franchise record of 43 wins a couple of years ago. The Blue Jackets are built entirely different than the Pens. They lack that go-to superstar, or superstars, and instead rely on a whopping 12 players who scored double digit goals. Cam Atkinson is one of the most underrated goal scorers in the NHL, and he will be key in this series to provide scoring. His line, which includes Crosby annoyer, Brandon Dubinsky, will be critical to Columbus’s success in this series.
Like Pittsburgh, Columbus too scores a lot of goals. However, led by Bob and a young and talented defensive core, the Blue Jackets were an elite goal-prevention team. Lacking a superstar, Columbus relies on a full team effort. From first line winger Nick Foligno, to fourth line winger Sam Gagner, this team comes, and comes, and comes. Led by John Tortorella, this team’s structure is strong and disciplined, and it will not be easy for the Pens to break them down.
This will be a physical, emotional, and well-played hockey series. Led by Brandon Dubinsky, the Blue Jackets will experience their franchise’s biggest success.
Blue Jackets in Seven.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators
This series was a dandy two years ago. The Preds scored so much that they forced Chicago to start Scott Darling over Corey Crawford for a couple games. The Preds come limping into the playoffs, but they have big time players with big time ability, which should make this a great series.
While Nashville comes in limping, Chicago comes in to the playoffs ready to go. While they may have lost their last four games, those four games were irrelevant because of the months of February and March which saw them go 20-4-2. For Chicago, it is always the same story. Get to the playoffs, and then let your five big boys take over. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook are the boys. Those guys know how to step up their game, and relish the chance to play the best and play the most. Throw in Corey Crawford, and that group of players is as stable and steady as any team could hope for.
This Blackhawks team is not elite at any one thing. They are good at everything. Most importantly, they just know how to win. Of every player who notched at least ten points for Chicago, only one was a negative player, the rest were at least +5. In years past, Chicago would be elite in a couple different categories. Now they do not have that luxury, but their knowledge of how to win led to one of their finest regular seasons in franchise history. Oh, and the Hawks will be looking to avenge last year’s first round exit.
It is still difficult to write this paragraph and not start and end with Shea Weber. He was the face of Smashville, their best and most important player, and their best leader. Together with Roman Josi, that pairing was nearly impossible to score on. However, the Weber trade brought in P.K. Subban, one of the most dynamic defenseman in the NHL. It took him a while to adjust, but you would have to think there is a massive problem with his -8 rating on the year.
However, this is a team game, and Nashville certainly has the players to really challenge Chicago. Pekka Rinne is an aging goaltender, but he still has elite goaltending in him. They have a true #1 center in Ryan Johansen and a true #1 goal scorer in Filip Forsberg. Together, they play on a line with the supremely underrated Viktor Arvidsson to create a lethal top line. Their most important line will be their second line. Craig Smith and James Neal were arguably their two best performers in the postseason last year, and Mike Fisher will be one of the main players tasked with shutting down Kane and his Russian linemates.
Chicago is the better team, but all the advanced stats like Nashville slightly more than they like the Hawks. Stats are important, but I will go with the eye test on this one.
Blackhawks in Six.
Minnesota Wild vs. St. Louis Blues
These two teams have been going in opposite directions. The Wild come limping in to the postseason, while the Blues have really turned their season around.
Minnesota has built their team around strong offensive play and a Vezina Trophy candidate in Devan Dubynk. Led by the resurgent Eric Staal, who scored 28 goals this season, the Wild enter this matchup second in the NHL in goals scored. They are a solid special kills team, top ten in both categories. However, they are a very strong 5-5 team. Their top two defensemen, Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, lead defensemen in +/-.
The most important line for this team will be their third line. That line, with Charlie Coyle, Martin Hanzal, and Jason Zucker, will be relied upon to both provide offense and shut down Vladamir Tarasenko. Zucker will be key; his +34 was highest among all forwards, and tied with Suter for the NHL lead. That tHurd line, and points leader Mikael Granlund will be critical for Minnesota, as both of those lines will see a lot of Alex Pietrangelo.
The Blues come in on a great stretch of form, they won 15 of their last 19 games to climb to third in the Central. Going further back, this stretch coincides with Mike Yeo taking over as head coach. On the ice, that move has resulted in Jake Allen being in fantastic form. The Blues have only lost one game in regulation since March with Allen in goal, and his brilliance will help overcome the loss of Shattenkirk.
Up front, this team will rely heavily on their first line as Tarasenko leads this team in points by a significant margin. He plays with second leading scorer Jaden Schwartz. If you can shut down their big guys, as the Sharks did last year, you can have success against the Blues. Therefore, secondary scoring will be crucial for the Blues, and that starts with Alexander Steen. If the Blues can play with the Wild during even-strength play, their special teams can take over led by their tHurd ranked PK.
The Blues are out for revenge, and have been playing lights out since March.
Blues in Seven
Anaheim Ducks vs. Calgary Flames
The Pacific Division was weird this year, but come playoff time it ended normally. Anaheim won the division, and a surprise team won the wild card. This year, it’s Calgary.
Anaheim won the Pacific behind a fantastic and young defense (and Kevin Bieksa). Their penalty kill is solid as always, and Anaheim has two huge weapons to get out of trouble. The Ducks can throw out Antoine Vermette or Ryan Kessler, two of the elite faceoff guys in the league, and have them win an important draw. Those two helped propel the Ducks to being the best faceoff team in the league.
Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf will still be relied upon to provide offense. However, this team is all about their defense and their incredible third line. Kesler, along with Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano are the best shut down line in the league, while still being able to provide offense. Their job will be to frustrate Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and simply make the other Flames beat them.
Calgary got here on the strength of a ten-game winning streak that also saw them go 15-1-1 with Brian Elliot in goal during that same run. That stretch saw them give up two goals or less in eight straight games, transforming from being a team with offensive talent and defensive lapses to a more complete team. Led by rookie Matthew Tkachuk, the Flames will not back down and will attempt to be more physical than Anaheim. This should be a hard-nosed, heavy, low scoring series.
Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie are going to be key to slowing down Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Calgary’s forwards will need to be cognizant of Ducks players jumping into the play, and must remain patient and responsible. The Ducks will not give them many opportunities, so Calgary will need to capitalize on their chances. Game one in this series is more important than any other series, because Calgary has not won in Anaheim in a decade. If they can win Game one, or prove to themselves that they belong, this could become a fantastic series.
In the end, the experience of the Ducks, and the torture that they have gone through in trying to close out teams, will come into play. They will know what it takes, the Flames do not.
Ducks in Six.
Edmonton Oilers vs. San Jose Sharks
This should be a high quality series. Connor McDavid is the best player in the Western Conference, and he will be going up against two of the five best defenders in the world in Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Rogers Arena will be rocking, but the Sharks know what it takes to win.
For a more extensive look at the Sharks series, go see my full preview here.