- The SI NHL staff takes a swing at answering some big questions surround the postseason and make a couple of predictions along the way.
The best time of the year is upon us—finally. Anything can happen between now and Commissioner Gary Bettman handing out Lord Stanley's Cup, but SI's NHL staffers decided to try our hands at a couple of predictions. Here's what we came up with:
Which first round series will be the best one?
Alex Prewitt: Thanks to the NHL’s stubborn devotion toward its scatty divisional playoff format, the second- and fourth-best teams in each conference will collide in the first round. Of course, this means that we will be treated to a twin bill of tantalizing Stanley Cup appetizers between Bruins-Maple Leafs and Jets-Wild. The edge here goes to the Atlantic Division foes, who haven’t met since Toronto blew a 4-1 lead in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference quarterfinals. How will coach Mike Babcock’s dearth of right-shot defensemen handle an elite left wing like Brad Marchand? What about colossus Zdeno Chara chasing around Auston Matthews? Expect plenty of firepower on both sides; Toronto finished fourth in goals per game, with Boston ranking sixth.
Jeremy Fuchs: Boston-Toronto. Last time they played, there may have been an epic collapse. No collapses here—just really competitive hockey.
Tim Hackett: Boston-Toronto has all the makings of a fabulous series. If Boston can break out of its recent funk, I think it has the edge, but only just: Toronto can score and Freddy Andersen has had a career-defining year in goal. Mostly, I’m just hoping for something close to the excitement of their 2013 series, one of the most entertaining hockey matchups I’ve ever watched (sorry, Leafs fans).
Eric Single: Golden Knights vs. Kings: There are more traditional rivalries being renewed back East, but the eyes of the league will be locked on Las Vegas to see if the Golden Knights’ magical regular season holds up in the face of playoff pressure and a Kings core that knows a thing or two about postseason hockey. Good thing two of the league’s sassiest Twitter accounts will be on the scene to give us the blow-by-blow. Marc-Andre Fleury against Jonathan Quick is the best goalie matchup of the first round, too.
Michael Blinn: Gimme some of that Penguins-Flyers series. Intra-state rivals? Check. A bevy of MVP candidates? Check. Goaltending questions abound? That'll be one more check. I'm not expecting the goal-fest that was their 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series, but I won't be surprised if we see a whole lotta fireworks.
Who will take home the Conn Smythe as MVP of the playoffs?
Prewitt: Assuming honkytonk hockey lifts Nashville to its first Stanley Cup, there would be far worse choices than P.K. Subban. His 59 points nearly matched a regular season career-high, all while regularly drawing difficult defensive assignments on a pair with Alexei Emelin (no disrespect, but the 31-year-old isn’t quite Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis or Roman Josi). Expect more of the same throughout these playoffs, regardless of how far the Predators advance. And besides, wouldn’t Subban winning the Conn Smythe just wonderfully stick in so many Canadian craws?
Fuchs: Pekka Rinne is coming off a Vezina-caliber season behind the league’s best defense. His numbers will sparkle by the end of it.
Hackett: If my Cup Final prediction holds, the Conn Smythe will either go to Ducks goalie John Gibson for fighting through his injuries and stealing the some games or Nikita Kucherov, who will lead the Lightning in points in their first Cup-winning season since 2003-04.
Single: If the Caps do in fact win it all the Conn Smythe will almost certainly go to Alex Ovechkin, but don’t sleep on Nicklas Backstrom, the assist artist who accounted for five more points than Ovechkin in Washington’s two series last spring and is equally deserving of a lifetime achievement award.
Blinn: Ryan Johansen was a stud for the Predators before emergency surgery on his leg derailed his postseason in 2017. Well, now he's back with the top-ranked team in the postseason and I imagine itching to do it again—with better results.
Which team will earn the 'upstart' moniker?
Prewitt: The Columbus Blue Jackets wound up snagging the first Eastern Conference wild card after resting their best players for the finale, but stands a strong chance to upset Washington (almost 60%, according to MoneyPuck.com). Winger Artemi Panarin ended the regular season ablaze with multi-point performances in each of his final five games, but the true X-factors will be Norris Trophy contender Seth Jones and blueline partner Zach Werenski, who should draw the assignment to check Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov on Washington’s sizzling top line. If reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky gets hot, the Capitals might not even get another second-round crack at their longtime torturer, Pittsburgh.
Fuchs: Columbus. The Blue Jackets are coming in hot, with a great goaltender in Bobrovsky and elite-level defenseman.
Hackett: We can’t mention upstart teams without mentioning the ultimate upstarts, the Golden Knights. I’m through being surprised with this team. I don’t think they’ll win the Cup, but it would no longer surprise me if they did.
Single: The Devils might not knock off Tampa Bay, but like Connor McDavid and Austin Matthews last year, Taylor Hall will warm quickly to the task of his first career playoff appearance, doing enough to scare the Lightning on his own.
Blinn: For all the talk about 2013, this is a totally different Maple Leafs team and I don't think they'll pay much respect to that history. Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander and Co. will bring the swagger and provide plenty of highlight reel material against the Bruins in the opening round—and maybe even make some noise beyond it.
Make a random playoff prediction.
Prewitt: In Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, with Nashville and Tampa Bay deadlocked at 1-1 midway through the third period, Subban will tap into his great gastrointestinal gifts and, by sheer gale force, simultaneously nudge a loose puck and Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy into the net. This will lead to an hour-long goalie interference review, during which commissioner Gary Bettman will descend onto the ice and hunch over an iPad screen, before summarily ruling that the NHL will revert back to its old skate-in-the-crease rule as three catfish sail over his head.
Fuchs: Patrik Laine gets two hat tricks for the Jets. Snipe city.
Hackett: Angry at the recent news that Ilya Kovalchuk is planning to sign with the Rangers, his former teams, the Devils and the Jets (previously the Thrashers, of course) beat the odds for a Cup Final matchup, where they’ll engage in another classic battle of offense vs. defense. Obviously, one of those teams would have to win the Cup; to add insult to injury, the Rangers never even make the playoffs for as long as Kovalchuk decides to remain on the roster.
Single: Matt Murray gets chased once in Round 1. This has less to do with Murray’s basic rate stats dipping below average this season (.907 SV%, 2.92 GAA) and more to do with the tear Claude Giroux is on. The Flyers will put it all together in one of the games at a frothing Wells Fargo Center, at which point, message sent, the two-time defending champs will find a way to stabilize the ship.
Blinn: The Golf Channel is going to get a ratings boost like its never seen.