Stanley Cup Playoff preview
Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Season series: 3-1 WSH
These two teams offer high powered offenses with strong bluelines to match. Alexander Ovechkin led the league in goals this year with 49, defying the age curve yet again. Fellow Russian star Artemi Panarin of the Blue Jackets has 30 points since the beginning of March which is the 2nd highest total in the league in that time. John Carlson leads the league in points by a defenseman with 68 for Washington. An X factor for Columbus is Thomas Vanek who has put up 15 points in 19 games since being traded from Vancouver. Capitals goaltending situation has become unexpectedly cloudy recently. Since the new year, starter Braden Holtby has a save percentage under .900 while backup Philipp Grubauer has the 2nd best save percentage and goals against average in the league in that same time.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Season series: 4-0 PIT
Fans will love this matchup of the classic Pennsylvania showdown. These rivals will play with some extra motivation to beat their cross-state rivals. The Penguins seem to be the favourite with superstars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. However, Claude Giroux has taken a step forward and put up a 100-point season to guide Philly to this strong finish. The biggest concern for both teams is goaltending. The Flyers have had 4 different starting goalies make over 10 starts since January 1st. The Penguins have also had multiple goalies start in the last half of the season. Matt Murray is the #1 for Pittsburgh but he just needs to stay healthy. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Petr Mrazek has taken over the crease since being traded and will face a tough test with the Penguins in the first round.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
Season series: 3-0 NJ
Tampa Bay was everyone’s favourite to come out of the east since the beginning of the season and they started off hot to back that up too. The New Jersey Devils have come a long way since their 27th place finish last year and winning the draft lottery. Tampa Bay has a loaded roster. Kucherov is an MVP candidate, Hedman a Norris Trophy candidate and Vasilevskiy was a Vezina favourite. However, that is the reason people have lost confidence in the Lightning as Vasilevskiy’s play has dropped off significantly. The Devils don’t have the firepower of Tampa, but they possess a strong MVP candidate in Taylor Hall who has led this young, unproven, and hungry team into the playoffs. Their starting goalie for the past 5 seasons, Cory Schneider, has lost his job from poor play. Keith Kinkaid is now the starter and has proven to be a steady presence between the pipes.
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Season series: 3-1 TOR
This is a classic original 6 matchup many traditional fans will enjoy. The Leafs have won 7 of their last 8 meetings against Boston but they lost to Boston in the 2013 playoffs in a thrilling 7 game series. The Bruins are led by arguably the strongest line in hockey of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand (each one has 30 goals this year). The Toronto Maple Leafs are on the upswing of their rebuild reaping the benefits of fast and skilled young players. Mitch Marner had a slow start to the season but excelled in the 2nd half of the season and is the points leader for the club. Frederik Andersen has faced the most shots in the league despite some missed games due to injury. It will be interesting to see if he can shoulder the load for these playoffs. Both teams have a top 5 powerplay in the league but Boston also has the 3rd best penalty kill.
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Los Angeles Kings
Season series: 2-2
The hockey surprise of the decade has to be the rise of the Vegas Golden Knights to not only make the playoffs, but win the Pacific division in their first year in the league. They take on a Kings team that is very well experienced in playoff hockey. They won their Stanley Cup in 2012 as the 8th seed in the west so fans aren’t going to rule them out anytime soon. The 2012 throwback feelings also stem from the play of their core players from that Cup winning team. AnzeKopitar and Dustin Brown set career highs in goals, assists, and points. Drew Doughty also broke his career highs in assists and points. For Vegas, they have turned all these expansion players into a 100-point team. William Karlsson had the most unexpected season with his 43-goal season. Marc-Andre Fleury will look to add to his ring total as the goalie leads the team into the playoffs in the franchise’s first year of existence.
Anaheim Ducks vs. San Jose Sharks
Season series: 3-1 SJ
The Ducks and the Sharks are big, physical rivals which should mean an enjoyable series for hockey fans. Anaheim won their last 5 games of the season to get into the playoffs and slide ahead of the Sharks for the important home ice advantage. These two teams don’t necessarily have anything stand out too much this season, they just have been consistently winning games through team efforts and they match up well in the playoffs. The Sharks core of Brent Burns, Logan Couture, and Joe Pavelskihave had solid years. The addition of Evander Kane has been important as he has 14 points in 17 games in San Jose. Anaheim has been led by their strong defense core along with the career year of Rickard Rakell and another strong year from Ryan Getzlaf. These teams will play a tough series and their strong defending and goaltending should keep this close.
Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche
Season series: 4-0 NSH
The Predators come into this matchup having won their last 10 games against Colorado. Nashville ended this year with the best record in the league with 117 points. Meanwhile, Colorado snuck into the playoffs beating the St. Louis Blues, which was basically an elimination game as the Blues missed the playoffs. According to most hockey people, the Preds have the best defense core in the league as 3 of their top 6 points leaders in the second half of the season are defensemen. For Colorado, not many predicted their rise from league worst 48-point season last year to almost double that total to 95 this year. Star forward Nathan MacKinnon is a solid MVP candidate who some see as the favourite for that award. Pekka Rinne has had a very strong year for Nashville and should warrant some Vezinaconsideration. This may look like a lopsided matchup to some fans, but this year has proven that you shouldn’t count out the Avalanche.
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
Season series: 3-1 WPG
The Winnipeg Jets capped off a tremendous season with 5 straight wins. They are top 5 in the league in goals for and against. There are plenty of highlights this year for the Jets. Blake Wheeler finished in the top 10 for scoring with 91 points, Patrik Laine finished 2nd in goals with 44, and rookie Kyle Connor scored 31 goals. Matt Dumba had a career high 50 points for the Wild and needs to carry this level into the playoffs as they will be without Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon. Connor Hellebuyck had a terrific season as he hopes to take home the Vezina trophy for this season. Devan Dubnyk will look for more support from his team as he only allowed 10 goals in 5 games in last year’s playoffs, but still lost the series in 5 games. Winnipeg is firing on all cylinders but the veteran Minnesota lineup could provide some trouble.