1. Columbus Blue Jackets. Currently tied with the Boston Bruins in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Columbus Blue Jackets scraped and clawed into the playoffs, finishing eighth in the east. Now that they are in the playoffs, they have been the hottest team. After sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, the Blue Jackets head back to the Columbus with home ice advantage against the highest seeded team remaining in the Eastern Conference. Led by Artemi Panarin, who has nine points (four goals, five assists) through six games played in the playoffs and Matt Duchene who they acquired from Ottawa for practically nothing late in the season, the Blue Jackets have really come to life and look to be a force in the games ahead.
2. St. Louis Blues. It has been a long time coming for Blues fans. After what seemed like another lost season, the Blues battled back from dead last in the NHL to finish third in the Central Division. With a loaded roster from top to bottom, the Blues really do have what it takes to make the Stanley Cup Finals. The biggest wildcard for the Blues, is rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington, who is mainly responsible for their mid-season turnaround. If need be, the Blues do have veteran Jake Allen standing by at the ready if a problem with Binnington were to arise; however, with the way Binnington has been playing, Allen will likely only see time if they need to rest the rookie or he doesn’t feel 100%.
3. Boston Bruins. The Boston Bruins are one of the most hated teams in the NHL. Some of this is because of their dedicated fan base or from people who are not keen minded of Brad Marchand. Regardless, the Bruins have looked great throughout the season, and that is why they are ranked third out of the eight teams remaining the playoffs. Led by veterans Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and David Backes, the Bruins have a lot of experience. The best thing the Bruins have going for them is the chemistry, as their core has been together for the better part of the last 10 years unlike most of the teams still playing. The Achilles’ heel of the Bruins is Tuukka Rask. Some games he shows up, others he may as well be trying to stop the puck from the parking lot. If he shows up and plays to the best of his ability Boston will have a chance to sneak past the Blue Jackets; otherwise, the Bruins just caught Columbus while they were hot.
4. Carolina Hurricanes. Most people are shocked the Hurricanes are leading a 2-0 series against the Islanders heading back to home ice. More people are shocked the Hurricanes beat the Washington Capitals in game seven in DC to advance to the second round. And yes, you guessed it; a lot of people are shocked the Hurricanes even made the playoffs. The Hurricanes came into the playoffs as the second hottest team in the NHL since the new year, only behind the Tampa Bay Lightning. With the Lightning eliminated, the Hurricanes are now arguably the hottest team on ice. The thing about the Hurricanes that is unlike any other team is that they currently do not have a single player that stands out. A few months ago that player would have been Sebastian Aho; but he has been irrelevant on the stat sheet as of late. If anyone has taken charge of the team in the playoffs, it has been Warren Foegele who has netted five goals through nine playoff games. The Hurricanes have the defense to stop any team remaining. That was proved when they knocked off the defending Stanley Cup Champions. If they want to keep advancing, consistent defense and a slight boost on the offensive end is all they need.
5. San Jose Sharks. With the addition of Erik Karlsson, the San Jose Sharks have a very offensive defensive core. The downfall of that is they do not always play the best defense. If there is any one thing that will keep you alive in the playoffs in any sport, it is defense. Another thing hurting the Sharks is their goaltending. The Sharks’ goaltenders are a weakness. Of all the goaltenders remaining in the playoffs, Martin Jones has the highest goals against average at 3.04 per game, and the lowest save percentage at .907. For a team that can struggle on the defensive end at times, this explains why they need to score four goals to win a game. While the Sharks’ offensive talents usually do not struggle to put the puck in the back of the net, the Sharks’ will be toast if they make the finals against any of the teams remaining in the Eastern Conference, who are backed by great defense and above par goaltending.
6. New York Islanders. The New York Islanders are an interesting team. Anyone who can sweep the experienced Pittsburgh Penguins has to be great. In their current series however, the Islanders have been in a slump offensively. Most of this is due to the stellar defensive presence offered by the Carolina Hurricanes. With the Isles currently down 0-2 in their series, they should not feel defeated. The Hurricanes and Islanders matched up perfectly in Game One of the series, offering one of the most even games in the NHL all season. Game Two was different. New York dominated Carolina in almost every way possible except where it counts; the final tally. The unfortunate thing for the Islanders is now they have to head to Carolina and try to steal a game in one of the rowdiest playoff arenas in the NHL. If you are the Islanders, there is not much you want to change from Game Two honestly. Just play your game and hope to come out on top. One thing that should be noted, if the Islanders want to come back against the Hurricanes, their offense will need a drastic boost. That boost would also need to be carried for the rest of the playoffs. The Islanders’ offensive woes are what is holding them back at six in the ranking.
7. Colorado Avalanche. Let’s be honest. Of the four wildcard matchups in the first round, the Avalanche were most likely the pick that would upset the division winner because they were matched against Calgary. Calgary had a great regular season, but taking a look at their roster versus the Avalanche’s roster, the Avs just had the right guys for the job. Depending on which Avalanche team shows up for the game, they could be the best team in the west, but because of their consistency issues, they are not deserving of that title. Two things highly in the Avalanche’s favor is their goaltending and their star forward, Nathan MacKinnon. Right now MacKinnon is the best player still playing, and if the Avalanche want to sneak past the Sharks, they will need a solid effort from him night in and night out. That does not mean he will need to score three goals every game; he just needs to be a playmaker and make the players around him better like he has been doing.
8. Dallas Stars. The Dallas Stars are the most unpredictable team in the final eight teams of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The have everything you need to become Stanley Cup Champions. Great forwards, solid defense, and an experienced goaltender that will keep you competing in every game. For some reason, even though Dallas has everything you need, they feel like the weakest team remaining. Their roster is not the problem, but looking at them play reveals so many weaknesses that cannot be fixed in enough time to thrive and advance. Dallas has had a good run and still have what it takes to pull off an upset, but it’s unlikely given how well the Blues are playing.
Recap: This year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs are something else; something never seen before. This was the first year where every division winner was knocked out in the first round. It was also the first year where the President’s Trophy winner was swept in the first round. Many people believe anyone can win the cup this year, and it is with great reason they think that way. These are just rankings based on each team’s performance on the ice throughout the playoffs. At the end of the day, the best team will win a best of seven series, and it should be expected to be an exciting journey to a 2019 Stanley Cup Champion.
Eastern Conference Final: Columbus Blue Jackets (WC2) versus Carolina Hurricanes (WC1)
Western Conference Final: St. Louis Blues (C3) versus San Jose Sharks (P2)