While the Detroit Red Wings will not be a part of the Stanley Cup race for the second consecutive season, there are some great teams and matchups to watch for in this upcoming first round. Here are my predictions and projections for the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche
The Predators have taken home their first President’s trophy in franchise history and will look to add a Stanley Cup to their mantle. Standing in their way is an old Red Wing foe in the Avalanche. Colorado has made a tremendous rebound this season. After being a bottom feeder in 2017, they were able to secure a Wild Card spot in 2018. Their luck is about to run out, however. The Predators have been one of the most dominant teams in the NHL this season, and this has been especially apparent to Colorado. Nashville has won all four of the games between these two teams in the regular season by an average of two goals per contest. Expect this dominance to continue in a short series going to the Predators.
Prediction: Nashville in 4
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
For the Jets, this is their first playoff appearance since 2015 and will be the first time many of their young core players will see postseason action. Winnipeg players such as Patrik Laine, Nickolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor have never been a part of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and it will be interesting to see if their regular season success will translate. On the other side of this matchup the Wild have been to the playoffs for six straight seasons, but have had little success when they have gotten there. While Wild fans will be looking to see if this team will be the one that finally escapes the first round, I have my doubts. The Jets have a lot of talent on their team and have one of the best goalies over the past year in Connor Hellebuyck. With the players they have up front and the man tending the net, they will be a tough team to defeat. Minnesota also has some major injuries coming at a bad time. They will be without star defensemen Ryan Suter for the rest of the season and could also miss defensemen Jared Spurgeon for this series. Nevertheless, this will be a fun and competitive series that the Jets will emerge from.
Prediction: Winnipeg in 6
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Los Angeles Kings
Speaking of teams that have little playoff experience, the Vegas Golden Knights have made the postseason for the first time in their existence. They are the first American major league expansion team to make the playoffs since the 1968 Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota North Stars (when the entire NHL expanded) and the 1967 Chicago Bulls. While this hodgepodge group of players have some individual postseason experience, it is simply amazing to think that this team not only made it to the playoffs, but won their division and was the top team in their whole conference. Standing in the way of the Knights are the Los Angeles Kings, a team with plenty of playoff experience over the past few seasons. The Kings have been a streaky team all season, boasting both an eight game winning streak and a six game losing streak within an eight week span. The Kings have played well enough to get into the playoffs but their matchup with Vegas will be a very interesting one. While the Kings are a team that you can’t count out in any playoff series, I see the Golden Knights’ chemistry and style of play being the factor that gets them over the top. This series could be a long seven gamer, especially if Jonathan Quick gets hot, but Vegas will come out ahead and continue their miraculous season.
Prediction: Vegas in 7
Anaheim Ducks vs. San Jose Sharks
For two teams that reside in the same state, they do not have a lot of playoff history versus one another. This year the Sharks and Ducks will face off for the first time since 2009 and this series has all of the makings to be a great one. Both teams have a lot of talented players in their forward and defensemen groups but have some questions at the goaltender position. This spot will be the factor that decides this series. Either Martin Jones from San Jose or John Gibson of Anaheim will have to step up and lead their team out of the first round. I am putting my faith in Jones who, along with the great defensive pairing of Brett Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, will have what it takes to overcome the Ducks and advance in a long, hard-fought series.
Prediction: San Jose in 7
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
Like the Predators, the Lightning are a team that has dominated their conference and are looking like one of the most formidable teams in the entire league. They have lots of star power with guys like Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Ryan McDonagh leading their team and elevating their roster to a special place amongst the league. In their first round matchup they will play the Devils, a team that has been struggling over the past few seasons but has made the postseason for the first time in six years. The Devils have a star in Taylor Hall, who will look to make an impact on this series. Unfortunately, his supporting cast is no where near the level of the Lightning. Tampa will make quick work of New Jersey and move on to the second round.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 5
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
In this Original Six playoff matchup, we see two teams that have emerged to contender status thanks to their youth and fast style of play. The Maple Leafs have a star in Auston Matthews and a solid head coach in Mike Babcock, both of whom will be key to Toronto’s advancement in these playoffs. The Bruins also have some nice young players on their team. Guys like David Pastrnak and Jake Debrusk have lead Boston to a 50 win season and will hopefully be what springs them into the next round. I see the Bruins winning this series in another long seven gamer due to their depth and advantage at the goalie position. Tukka Rask has shown in the past that he can lead this team in the postseason and 2018 looks like another Rask year.
Prediction: Boston in 7
Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Washington Capitals are in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year but are hoping this year will be the one that breaks through the glass ceiling that has been their success in the Alex Ovechkin era. While this year’s Capitals squad has less talent than some of their teams in recent years, they have still maintained their regular season success and still have what it takes to make a run at the Stanley Cup. To get there Washington must first defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets, a young team that also has not had much playoff success in recent years. In their last two playoff appearances, the Blue Jackets have only won three games and have been first round exits each time. While this team has some good talent and is taking steps in the right direction, their postseason woes will continue and Washington will advance after a short series.
Prediction: Washington in 5
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
This matchup is my personal favorite due to the ferocity that will come from this rivalry series. These teams do not like one another and it can be seen with each of their contests. What the Penguins possess in speed and skill, the Flyers have in grit and physicality. Ultimately the talent of players like Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby will get Pittsburgh through this series but it should still be a fun one to watch.