Predicting the Playoffs?
You read it right. I can’t recall a time at this publication in which I went through the first round of the playoffs and wrote my predictions ahead of puck drop. I can’t exactly recall why I’ve decided to take myself out of the running for bragging rights or ultimate humiliation though. Perhaps, it was that time in 2014 when I was on the sports staff for The Setonian and was the only person to pick Kansas City over the Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton-led L.A. Angels in the 2014 American League Divisional Series. You know the story, the Royals made it to the World Series before the modern day dynasty, San Francisco Giants won in a seven-game series.
Since then, and to the best of my knowledge, I’ve tried to ride that high. But given the unprecedented nature of everything this season–everything the last 15 months, to be exact, I’ve decided to break from the norm a bit. But this isn’t one AL Divisional Series prediction…this is the entire Stanley Cup Playoffs opening round. Sixteen teams, eight series, eight eventual-winners and by July, two will battle for the Cup. So keep the expectations reasonable, I mean I can’t go 8-for-8, right?
1-Colorado Avalanche (39-13-4-82pts.) vs. 4-St. Louis Blues (27-20-9-63pts.)
There’s a wild part of me that wants to say the Blues can prevail the longer the series goes. Because even with the unenviable task of going toe-to-toe with the President’s Trophy winning, Avs, there’s a lot of intrigue around the Blues. Mike Hoffman, who waited out much of free agency to sign a one-year deal in St. Louis, has played better down the stretch after a struggling first few acts that included some healthy scratches. Ryan O’Reilly nearly equaled his points total from last season through 71 games in 54 this season–he’s got a Conn Smythe on his resume and is a true gamer. And, Vladimir Tarasenko is healthy for postseason hockey.
All that said, and as much as we’ve seen the league’s top team go down early in the playoffs before, it’s just not tempting enough to bet against Nathan MacKinnon’s Avalanche, especially with young stars, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar having two prior postseason runs to their name. Philipp Grubauer’s numbers look strong, but you know it’s just this close to becoming an area of focus if he starts off slow. I said the Blues seem to be a favorite the longer this series goes, so I’ll take Colorado and I’ll take them in fairly quick order.
(UPDATE: Blues leading scorer, David Perron, was added to the NHL’s COVID protocol list on Saturday)
Prediction: Avalanche in 5
2-Vegas Golden Knights (40-14-2-82pts.) vs. 3-Minnesota Wild (35-16-5-75pts.)
The Golden Knights finished with the same number of points as the Avalanche, but were beaten out for home advantage throughout the playoffs regardless of opponent based off their four regulation losses to Colorado. The result, a pretty tough-to-call series that pits the Golden Knights against a Minnesota team that surprised pretty much everyone with their season. Kirill Kaprizov, 24, will absolutely win the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie and will absolutely force months of debate and discussion on the merit of the award like when Artemi Panarin won it in 2015, but nonetheless the six-year KHL vet has adjusted just fine to North America and headlines a pretty strong offensive club–tied for seventh in league scoring, sixth in goals-per-game. Kevin Fiala had somewhat of a breakout party during last postseason and it will be interesting to see how he tries to repeat himself–Vegas will be on him throughout the series.
Zach Parise, who had a tough season–18 points in 45 games–still has four more years left on that 13-year contract he signed in 2012, but it’s hard to say he’ll hold up long enough to finish it out. He’ll be 37 this offseason and his closest taste of the Cup was a run with New Jersey in 2012. Ryan Suter, 36, isn’t too far behind him–he has the identical contract to Parise and is also void a championship as part of a great career. Though the Golden Knights can boast Mark Stone and last year’s free agent prize, Alex Pietrangelo to go along with much of the cast that was part of their 2018 inaugural season run to the Finals, I just have a feeling the Wild will be a determined bunch. The feel-good story of Vegas has seemed to evaporate and Minnesota is certainly the rooting interest outside the two fanbases.
Prediction: Wild in 7
1-Pittsburgh Penguins (37-16-3-77pts.) vs. 4-New York Islanders (32-17-7-71pts.)
For the second time in three postseasons, the Penguins will meet the Islanders. If you don’t recall the most recent encounter, it might be because it lasted just four games. It also helped prompt then-general manager, Jim Rutherford to trade Phil Kessel to Arizona in the offseason. That Islanders team was particularly surprising in that they advanced to the postseason and won a round after two-straight years of missing and the loss of John Tavares prior to the season via free agency. Tavares, now a Maple Leaf, has carved out the next chapter of his career and so too have the Isles. Led by Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz and on-ice by Mat Barzal, Jordan Eberle and main-stays including Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Casey Cizikas, there’s a solid buy-in from this group that brought back fan favorite Matt Martin in the offseason and traded for veteran presence in Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac and Braydon Coburn. After falling in a six-game Conference Final series with Tampa in last postseason’s bubble, the Isles return with much of the same squad, absent Anders Lee (ACL). Even in this 1v4 series, it’s hard not to think New York can find a way to frustrate and prevail against Sid and Geno in a six or seven-game series.
But, we can’t discount 86 or 71, despite the latter having his worst season in his career. Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust had particularly strong showings, Kris Letang stayed healthy and Jeff Carter has 9 goals in 14 games with the Penguins after recording 8 in 40 prior with Los Angeles prior to the trade deadline. Despite all their talent, the Pens were not a favorite to capture first in the East, particularly over the Caps and Bruins, but still in win-now mode, they’ve put themselves in a strong spot. The Islanders might have their number, but maybe the Penguins, who are now under the leadership of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke, are flirting with some destiny again.
Prediction: Penguins in 6
2-Washington Capitals (36-15-5-77pts.) vs. 4-Boston Bruins (33-16-7-73pts.)
Is it possible that the deciding factor in this series ends up being goaltending? And more specifically, does this eventually become the Vitek Vanecek versus Jaroslav Halak series? Because you just wonder if there’s any hiccup in Tuukka Rask’s start to the postseason, there will be questions about it. It’s not exactly fair given his 15-5-2 season and the fact that the Bruins lost both Zdeno Chara, now a Cap, and Torey Krug, a Blue, to free agency with seemingly no reliable minute-eater replace them. The Finn made a decision to leave last year’s bubble and return home to his family–a personal decision that really isn’t anyone’s concern except Rask, and there has been some suggestions that the 34-year-old could either leave Boston this summer in free agency or retire from the NHL. The Caps will ride Vanecek to start the series and it’s likely Ilya Samsonov will be the next man up despite his inexperience, should any trouble come on the team’s goaltending.
Of course, goaltending won’t have it easy this series. Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie (a game-time decision to open the playoffs), Nicklas Backstrom for Washington; David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and newly-acquired, Taylor Hall for the Bruins. It could come down to who can keep the scoring threats in check throughout the series. Tom Wilson will be up to his antics, which gained more publicity down the stretch of the regular season and you know a Marchand confrontation is just inevitable. This is surprisingly the first meeting between the two playoff regulars since Washington, a seventh seed, ousted Boston in the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup quarterfinals. This one should be pretty entertaining but hard to tell just how the pendulum may swing.
Prediction: Capitals in 6
1-Carolina Hurricanes (36-12-8-80pts) vs. 4-Nashville Predators (31-23-2-64pts.)
People say they want the Canadian division to stay beyond this year and I’ve got news for you: Metropolitan division GM’s probably want it, too. Particularly if it means the Hurricanes aren’t around. Carolina, who is a legitimate threat to win the Stanley Cup, has ultra skill up front with Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov while seemingly re-jolting Vincent Trocheck’s offensive game and have one of the league’s deepest defense corps with Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce leading the way. In-goal, they boast 32-year-old, James Reimer, Petr Mrazek, 28 and Alex Nedeljkovic, 25. Though that’s not exactly a goalie trio that gets much coverage, they’ve put up some meaningful efforts and have enough strong play in front of them to shelter a lot.
The Preds though are an interesting one. At various points this season we thought John Hynes, who was hired by the team last season, was going to be canned. At various times, we wondered if David Poile would return as GM. And, we wondered just how open for business Nashville would be with parts of its core–Filip Forsberg, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis and still-struggling, Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene, and longtime netminder, Pekka Rinne. But heading into the postseason, all remain in their respective roles and the Preds closed out the final 25 games of the regular season 18-6-1 to bounce Dallas out of the postseason a year after they went to game six of the Cup Final. It’s a team that is rolling right now and although the Cup expectations don’t seem to be there to the extent of the ‘Canes, it could be a fun round of hockey.
Prediction: Hurricanes in 5
2-Florida Panthers (37-14-5-79pts) vs. 3-Tampa Bay Lightning (36-17-3-75pts.)
And like Christmas morning we can finally say it’s here! An All-Florida playoff matchup for the first time in the history of the two franchises, which entered the League in the early 1990’s. The Lightning, coming off the club’s second Stanley Cup, remains a Cup favorite and Florida, who finished four points better in the regular season, still has to prove that they can be part of that conversation. Make no mistake about it though, the Cats can hang. Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and ex-Bolt, Carter Verhaeghe have led the way for the team’s top-five offense. They may have to move heaven and earth to stop Seattle from taking Chris Driedger, who could take the net from Sergei Bobrovsky in the playoffs–if it goes the same way as the regular season–from them in the expansion draft, but that means little to them right now.
The Lighting return to the postseason with much of the same cast and goal in mind. Jon Cooper and Julien BriseBois will try and go back-to-back after winning last year’s inside the Edmonton-based bubble. Can Steven Stamkos, who you could see was beloved by that group during his absence last summer, stay healthy for another run? If he needs some extra motivation, perhaps it’ll be trying to get the best of his long cross-state rivals in their first playoff showdown. Florida won the final two meetings versus Tampa to close out the regular season, outscoring the defending champs 9-1. It’s a whole new ball game come playoffs, but there’s a lot to like about the clear contenders versus their rivals trying to become that. Maybe Florida’s scrappiness can put them over the top. This should be the must-watch series of the U.S.-based first rounds.
Prediction: Panthers in 7