It may have arrived a few months behind schedule but playoff hockey is finally here, and when you consider the alternative, I don’t think many people are too mad that we’ve had to wait a bit longer than usual for what is arguably the most wonderful time of the year on the sports calendar.
After a dramatic qualifying round featuring numerous upsets, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are slated to kick off inside the bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton on Tuesday. The NHL’s postseason is one of the most exciting and unpredictable tournaments in existence, which makes watching them an absolute thrill and attempting to forecast the outcome an almost impossible task.
Last year, more than half of the teams that advanced to the second round did so by upsetting a higher-seeded opponent, and if trying to guess who will move on wasn’t hard enough already, the months-long hiatus between the end of the regular season and the most recent slate of games makes doing so even more difficult.
With so much time off, the “rust vs. rest” argument was as relevant as ever as the teams that had momentum on their side back in March had to start from scratch when play resumed. For example, the Bruins held the top spot in the league and made their grand return by dropping every single round-robin game on their way to securing the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. As a result, I’ve never been less confident when it comes to trying to project the eight teams that’ll move on but I’m going to try my darndest.
1) Philadelphia Flyers vs. 8) Montreal Canadiens
Zach’s Pick: Flyers in 5
The Canadiens surprised just about everyone in the hockey world when they defeated Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games to earn a spot in the playoffs this year. With that said, they don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell against the Flyers.
The Flyers were just heating up before the NHL’s pause in March and they look like the best team in the league right now based on how they played while going undefeated in round-robin play to claim the top seed with ease. The Canadiens may be able to sneak in a win if Carey Price can stand on his head but the Flyers will likely make quick work of them.
2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. 7) Columbus Blue Jackets
Zach’s Pick: Lightning in 6
Lightning fans probably experienced all kinds of PTSD when they realized they would be facing off against the Blue Jackets in the first round once again. Last year, the Lightning capped off a historic 62-win regular season (tied for most all-time) by getting swept by the Blue Jackets after blowing a three-goal lead in the first game that they never managed to recover from.
Columbus is fresh off of an upset of the Maple Leafs in the qualifiers and looks really solid but I don’t think the Lightning will let them get by unchecked this time around. The Bolts’ window of opportunity for a championship is closing and I think leadership from veterans like Steven Stamkos will power them to a deep run this year. They’re also a damn good team, which certainly helps their chances.
3) Washington Capitals vs. 6) New York Islanders
Zach’s Pick: Islanders in 7
The Capitals are the clear favorites on paper compared to a pretty dull Islanders squad. However, the Isles have been looking solid as of late and there’s a chance Washington might have to deal with the absence of Norris Trophy candidate John Carlson, who led the team in scoring this year.
Another key part of this series? Barry Trotz. The man at the helm on Long Island coached the Caps to a Stanley Cup in 2018, and with many key players from that championship team still on the roster, Trotz’s knowledge of the Capitals could potentially play to his advantage in this series. The Islanders play a very structured and defensive game, and if they can shut down Alex Ovechkin and the other weapons Washington has on its roster, they could have a shot at taking them down. This just feels like an upset in the making.
4) Boston Bruins vs. 5) Carolina Hurricanes
Zach’s Pick: Bruins in 6
In theory, the Bruins have all the things you need to succeed in the playoffs: the phenomenal goaltending of Tuukka Rask, the veteran leadership of Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron, high-octane goal-scorers, outstanding defense, and some toughness to boot. However, they looked as unimpressive as they have all year during round-robin play.
Carolina, on the other hand, looked outstanding while sweeping the Rangers in three games to earn their spot in the playoffs. This will definitely be a competitive series but I think the Bruins will be able to fire on all cylinders when it comes time to win, and when they do that, they’re nearly unbeatable.
1) Las Vegas Golden Knights vs. 8) Chicago Blackhawks
Zach’s Pick: Golden Knights in 5
I’m really looking forward to this series. In one corner, you have the Golden Knights, a brand new franchise that has been in the playoffs every year since its inception in 2017. In the other, there’s the Blackhawks, a storied organization that’s won three championships in the past decade and boasts some legendary veteran leadership on their roster. When you consider Chicago traded goaltender Robin Lehner to Vegas at the deadline, you also have some compelling storylines to make things even more interesting.
With all of that said, I don’t think the Golden Knights will have too much trouble getting past the Blackhawks. The Hawks’ victory over a flawed Oilers team probably made them look better than they really are and Las Vegas has been elite all year long, as they picked up where they left off by going 3-0 in round-robin play. I may reassess this take if they end up losing but I wouldn’t be surprised if they make a run to the Finals this year.
2) Colorado Avalanche vs. 7) Arizona Coyotes
Zach’s Pick: Coyotes in 7
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: one of the biggest keys to playoff success is good goaltending and the Arizona Coyotes have the most underrated goaltender in the league in the form of Darcy Kuemper. He missed some time due to injury this season, but in the 29 games he played, he posted a .928 save percentage, a 2.22 GAA, and a 16-11-2 record.
While the Avalanche are a better team overall, they’re also pretty young and I think they are still a year or two away from really hitting their stride in the playoffs. The Coyotes made some exciting additions to their lineup this season by adding Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel, and after the performance they put on in their series against the Predators, I think they have what it takes to sneak by a talented Avalanche team.
3) Dallas Stars vs. 6) Calgary Flames
Zach’s Pick: Dallas in 6
Continuing with the theme of my last prediction, the Stars have the goaltending edge in this series with the tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin in net and I think they also have a little bit more depth on offense. If they can rise to their full potential, their veteran lineup—which includes names like Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski, and Corey Perry—could make a difference in this series.
Calgary has some strong offensive weapons (none of whom is more dangerous than Johnny Gaudreau), and as far as toughness goes, they can bully just about anyone with Matthew Tkachuk and Milan Lucic in their lineup. This will definitely be a tough, competitive series, but at the end of the day, the Stars should be able to edge out the Flames as long as Bishop remains solid in net and they can get their offense going.
4) St. Louis Blues vs. 5) Vancouver Canucks
Zach’s Pick: St. Louis in 4
I apologize in advance to Canucks fans but the boys from Vancouver don’t stand a chance against the Blues. The defending Stanley Cup champions are rock solid from top to bottom and have the luxury of having star goalie Jordan Binnington in between the pipes.
The Canucks just don’t have the firepower or depth to get by St. Louis’ elite defense. On offense, the Blues have depth that is almost unmatched by any other team and they should be able to get by the Canucks’ defense at all levels. If they play well, the Blues should be able to make quick work of Vancouver.