The Stanley Cup playoffs are finally upon us and the excitement has us bubbling over with endless questions about what could come in the next two months.
Before any of those are answered, we try our hands at making a couple of predictions as to what kind of madness will happen by the time June rolls around.
Which first-round series will be the most interesting?
Jeremy Fuchs: San Jose and Vegas. Vegas has been on fire for most of the second half. San Jose has been without Erik Karlsson for a bit, although he’ll be back. If Karlsson is good to go, you could imagine a track meet. If he isn’t, or isn’t at 100%, you could imagine a quick series. But a healthy Karlsson lends itself to a really fun series between two fast-paced teams.
Dan Falkenheim: Winnipeg and St. Louis. Rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington ignited and resurrected the Blues from last place in the Central in January, and St. Louis has been one of the league’s hottest teams since (their +45 goal differential since New Years is second only to the Lightning). The Blues’ top line, spearheaded by a career year from Ryan O’Reilly, is dominating opponents. Winnipeg doesn’t have it easy. Despite having one of the most complete teams on paper, the Jets haven’t been playing well. Losing in the first round would be a huge step back for them after reaching the Western Conference Final a year ago.
Alex Prewitt: Classic western-centric media bias on the part of my colleagues here. What about Boston-Toronto? The Original Six franchises squared off in the first round last spring, a seven-game Bruins victory nonetheless best remembered for Brad Marchand’s tongue bath. The rematch should be just as entertaining, especially now that John Tavares has been added to the fold after spurning Boston (among others) in free agency. At the very least, whoever emerges will be sufficiently battle-tested before facing Tampa Bay.
Eric Single: The last time the Islanders and Penguins met in the playoffs was 2013, when Pittsburgh entered as the top seed in the East but needed two overtime wins at a raucous Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum to escape the first round in six. The Isles are back at the Coliseum this spring, and in the interim have built and then re-built a playoff contender. Barry Trotz is the exact type of coach who can compel New York's superstar-less cast (the Isles are the East's only playoff team without a 30-goal scorer) to push Sidney Crosby & Co. to the limit in thrilling fashion.
Kristen Nelson: Carolina-Washington has all the fixins of creating a series filled with the playoff magic that we love to inject into our veins. Sure, the Capitals swept the Canes in their season series, but this is the postseason when a jazzed up Petr Mrazek could be enough fuel to stonewall the defending champs in a gritty seven-game series.
Who will take home the Conn Smythe Trophy?
Fuchs: Nikita Kucherov. No reason that the best regular-season player won’t be the best postseason player.
Falkenheim: He’s a bit of a longshot, but Mark Giordano. The 35-year-old should also take home the Norris Trophy after a career year in his 13th season with the Flames. Giordano does a bit of everything for a Calgary team that leans younger, and he does it well: He ranked second among defensemen in total points, mans the first power-play unit, logs the most ice time of anyone on the team, kills penalties and is the unquestioned leader in the locker room. Calgary will need to ward off offensive onslaughts to claim the Stanley Cup, and Giordano is the guy who can bring it all together for the Flames.
Prewitt: Kucherov is the no-brainer choice, considering that he finished atop damn near every offensive category besides raw shots on goal this season. But for argument’s sake let’s go with Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevsky. The presumptive Vezina Trophy winner, who has all the flexibility and upper-body build of an especially jacked Gumby, posted a career-best .925 save percentage while finishing second behind Dallas’ Ben Bishop in goals saved above average, according to Hockey Reference. Tampa Bay has no problem entering track meets, partly due to its high-octane offense and partly because Vasilevskiy has proven so rock-solid as the last line of defense. If these Lightning finally get over the hump, Vasilevsky will have played a major part.
Single: This award hasn't gone to a goaltender since Jonathan Quick in 2012 and hasn't gone to a losing goaltender since Jean-Sebastien Giguere in 2003. But if the Preds come out of the West and close in on the franchise's first Cup, Pekka Rinne could put himself in line for a career achievement nod. After a sterling 2017 playoffs, Rinne won the Vezina in 2018 but was a gigantic liability in his team's second-round series against the Jets. Coming off his lightest full-season workload in five years, there are reasons to believe Rinne can slide back into his old form when the stakes rise.
Nelson: If Nashville finds its way to the Final, it will have inevitably faced multiple high-powered offenses to get there. The Predators’ blue line is unquestionably fearsome, but Pekka Rinne will practically be guaranteed as Nashville’s best player in a return to the Stanley Cup Final.
Which underdog team poses the biggest threat of an upset?
Fuchs: It’s not technically an upset, given that they both have 99 points, but St. Louis is certainly not favored against Winnipeg. But if Binnington continues his otherworldly numbers, then look out. Winnipeg hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire lately.
Falkenheim: The Stars will have the Predators on upset watch after a season marked by inconsistency. Nashville ended the season trending in the right direction, but its power play has ranged anywhere from bad to awful and secondary scoring hasn’t always been there. Anchored by a sturdy blue line and Vezina-level goaltending from Bishop, Dallas is the best defensive team in the West. Alexander Radulov and Tyler Seguin highlight an underrated top-six forward group, which will gain Mats Zuccarello for the postseason, and that’s a team that can cause problems for the Predators when play tightens up.
Prewitt: After sweeping their season series against Carolina, winning three in regulation and one in a shootout, the Capitals should make quick work of their first-round opponent. Then again, maybe everything comes together for the Hurricanes. Maybe top-line Finnish forwards Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen enjoy a coming-out party on national television. Maybe their agile blue line holds up well enough to stifle Washington’s vaunted offense, and goalie Petr Mrázek turns into Jaroslav Halak circa 2010. Maybe the Bunch of Jerks beat the defending champs.
Single: The Avalanche got points from 10 straight games to lock up the final playoff spot in the West, and they're one year removed from making the Presidents' Trophy–winning Preds sweat a little more than most expected. That late-season momentum doesn't bode well for the top-seeded Flames, who are used to being the underdogs.
Nelson: Although Tampa Bay won all three of its regular-season games against Columbus, they were played before the trade deadline. The Blue Jackets have a lot of new weapons since the last time the Lightning saw them. Now it’s not going to be an easy feat slowing down the well-oiled machine operating in Tampa Bay, but the Blue Jackets could make this series harder than most might expect. After an adjustment period immediately following the deadline, Columbus closed out the season on a 7-1-0 run that finally saw all its stars clicking as intended.
A random prediction!
Fuchs: Sergei Bobrovsky will have a shutout against Tampa Bay. He will let up six goals the next game.
Falkenheim: Marchand does something weird that inevitably ticks somebody off. Marchand showed a propensity to lick his opponents last postseason and, while he says he’s remorseful after the NHL chastised him, there’s no way the playoffs come and go without Marchand making headlines for something other than his play. He was voted the best and worst trash talker in the NHLPA players’ poll for a reason. Maybe he won’t lick anybody, but perhaps he’ll blow at somebody, a la Lance Stephenson?
Prewitt: At least four teams, whether reflecting a rising trend of reliance on two-man tandems in net or simply due to overall incompetence, will start multiple goalies during the first round.
Single: One of last year's Stanley Cup finalists won't make it out of the first round. The Capitals and Golden Knights know what it takes to navigate that two-month run to the Final, but sometimes the first step is the hardest, especially with spunky Hurricanes and Sharks teams waiting to turn heads.
Nelson: Marc-Andre Fleury will finally score that goal he’s been working so hard to tally for the last 15 years.