It’s the most wonderful time of year to be a hockey fan. On Saturday, the Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway as the Boston Bruins visit the Washington Capitals, so let’s not waste any time and get to some predictions!
Washington Capitals vs. Boston Bruins
The East division is one of the toughest, and this season’s format is producing two intense first round matchups, starting with the Capitals and Bruins. These are two veteran teams with aging stars, and they are staring reality square in the face.
For the Capitals, this might be the last chance to win one more cup with forward Alex Ovechkin at the helm. The Russian winger is 35 years old and not getting younger, and the same goes for his longtime centerman Nicklas Backstrom, who is 33 years old. It doesn’t end there, though, as this roster is littered with core players in their thirties, including forwards T.J. Oshie, Lars Eller, Carl Hagelin and defensemen John Carlson — not to mention the 44-year-old Zdeno Chara, who is up against the team he was captain of when he won the Stanley Cup ten years ago. On the other side of things, the Bruins are looking similar. Their forwards Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are both 35 years of age, while the pest, Brad Marchand, is just two years behind them. Late in the season the Bruins really found their game with the addition of Taylor Hall, who is thriving on the second line alongside the aforementioned Krejci.
Finishing second in the division gives the Capitals home-ice advantage for this series against the third-seeded Bruins. In the season series, the Bruins had the slight edge with a 4-1-2 record over the Caps, a season which included a suspension of forward Tom Wilson suspension and a handful of fights between the two sides. I fully expect this to be an old-fashioned hit fest with a ton of grit and physical play all over the ice.
The biggest question mark for me for the Capitals is if their big defense, led by John Carlson, Brenden Dillon and Zdeno Chara, can mask the inexperienced goaltending that they will be getting from either rookie Vitek Vanacek or second-year netminder Ilya Samsonov, who is currently unavailable because of COVID-19 protocols. Also yet to be determined is whether their first line center Evgeny Kuznetsov can return from the COVID-19 list, because remember, he was their highest scoring forward on their run to the Stanley Cup just a few years ago.
In Boston, the production from forward Taylor Hall and the second line, as well as the play they get from their inexperienced blue line, will be the x-factors. Tuukka Rask gives the Bruins a sizable goaltending advantage over the Capitals, but they have a weaker defensive core in front of Rask than the Capitals do in front of Vanacek. In this series, like so many others (as you will soon read), it feels near impossible to pick a winner, but I am going with my gut: The Washington Capitals will defeat the Boston Bruins in 7 games.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Islanders
The Penguins and Islanders are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since 2019, when the Islanders completed the sweep, winning four straight games. This year, the Penguins are coming off a regular season performance good enough for first place in the East division, and are riding the performance of their captain Sidney Crosby. Similar to the Boston and Washington series, both teams in this series are also nearing the edge of their championship window. Specifically, the Penguins are looking to their big three of forward Sidney Crosby, forward Evgeni Malkin and defensemen Kris Letang to capture their fourth Stanley Cup as a group, while the Islanders are counting on aging players like the recently-acquired forwards Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, as well as forwards Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey in the absence of their captain, forward Anders Lee, who was injured in the season and will not return this year. In the regular season, the Penguins won six of eight games against the Islanders.
The Islanders are coming in as the fourth seed, but I don’t see them as the underdog in this fight. Given their sweep of the Penguins just two playoffs ago and their run to the Eastern Conference Final last year, I think the Islanders should be the favorites of the series. They also gave away key pieces to get the already mentioned Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac on board at the deadline as two veteran depth pieces to their forward group. With that said, they are encountering one of the greatest players of all time and certainly the best of this generation in Crosby and a team who also made moves at the deadline, so nothing will come easy between two franchises feeling pressure to produce a deep playoff run.
For the Penguins, the most important performance of the series will come from Tristan Jarry. The goalie position is arguably the most important on the ice and can be exploited even on the best teams, so he will need to at least out-perform Semyon Varlamov, the Islanders goalie. As for the Islanders, the x-factor will be their ability to suffocate the Penguins with a strong checking, low-scoring play style. Unfortunately for the Penguins, as legendary as this core is, I think the Islanders are better suited for the postseason style of play and have the better goaltender.
The New York Islanders will defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in 6 games.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Montréal Canadiens
The North division was a fun experiment this year, with storied franchises battling it out every night. Although they have been horrid in the postseason recently, there is renewed excitement for the Maple Leafs, who are looking at the easiest route to the semi-finals of any team in the league. It feels like the Leafs have been in first place in this division since the season began, and they never looked back. This matchup is the first between the two most historic hockey franchises in 42 years, and it is a shame that there will be no fans in the building, but the hockey will be great nonetheless. In the regular season, the Leafs won seven of nine meetings.
I really like the Canadiens roster and have all season, but they will have a really tough time winning this series. Montréal does not have the experience or talent at center to overcome the Leafs roster, barring a spectacular individual showing from Price backstopping the team. If they do, the formula will be simple. The Canadiens will win if they play a hard checking game and get prime Carey Price to show up, but anything less will see the Maple Leafs moving on. Toronto has the offensive talent to dance with any team in the league, but it will be interesting to see if it can build on the solid defensive play it has committed to this year. The additions of forwards Nick Foligno and Riley Nash will be invaluable in the coming weeks, and goaltender Jack Campbell has been solid all season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will defeat the Montréal Canadiens in 6 games.
Edmonton Oilers vs. Winnipeg Jets
After one of the greatest seasons in NHL history and certainly in recent memory, Connor McDavid is looking to do something he has only done once in his career: win a playoff series. He almost single-handedly willed the Oilers to the second seed in the North division, helped by the recent struggles of the once-scary Jets. While the Oilers come in red-hot with eight wins in the last ten, the Jets are cold, having lost seven of their last ten games of the regular season. In their regular season matchups, the Oilers won seven of nine.
Again, the outcome of this series will have a lot to do with the goaltending. Mike Smith for the Oilers has been a surprising bright spot and played solidly for most of the year, while on the other side the Jets sport the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the best NHL goalie in Connor Hellebuyck. If Hellebuyck shows up in elite form, the Jets are going to be a very hard team to beat. On paper, I prefer the Jets to the Oilers in this series, but Connor McDavid’s desperation to find postseason success combined with the Jets recent struggles are leading me in a different direction.
The Edmonton Oilers will defeat the Winnipeg Jets in 6 games.
Carolina Hurricanes vs. Nashville Predators
The Central division’s top-seeded Hurricanes are one of the deepest teams in the league but are running into a team with arguably the hottest goaltender in the league in Juuse Saros. For the Hurricanes, they have two starting goalies, but will most likely be relying on rookie netminder Alex Nedeljkovic, who has had an impressive campaign as well. The Hurricanes won six of the eight regular season matchups with the Preds.
I think this is a series that will surprise many people. From what I can gather, the Predators are not being given any chance against the Canes, but goaltending can make everything in front of it look a lot nicer than it is. Don’t get me wrong, I still have the number one seed taking the series, but I do believe the games will be close, mostly thanks to the play of Saros. Forward Jordan Staal’s Hurricanes are just too deep and can play a suffocating style of hockey, which will be too much for Nashville to overcome in a seven game series.
The Carolina Hurricanes will defeat the Nashville Predators in 5 games.
Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
For my money, the most entertaining series of the first round will feature two Florida hockey clubs in the Panthers and Lightning. This season, the Panthers surprised many as coach Joel Quenneville led them to second in the stacked Central division, while the Lightning continued their success coming off of a Stanley Cup win. In their eight regular season meetings, the Panthers managed five wins.
These are two great teams and it is slightly bonkers to think that one of them will be going home after the first round. For the Lightning, what needs to be said? They are coming off a dominant playoffs that ended with them hoisting the Stanley Cup, and they have the best goalie in the world on their side in Andrei Vasilevskiy. For the Panthers, they are led by their quietly-elite captain forward Sasha Barkov and three-time Stanley Cup champion head coach Joel Quenneville, who has shifted the culture of the team in a notable way. After years of disappointing or average seasons in Florida, the Panthers have pieced together a consistently great season and have momentum heading into the playoffs.
How can anyone feel confident about picking a side here? The Bolts are not completely healthy, but will be getting reinforcements with their two best offensive players returning from injury in forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. What kind of performances can they provide and how healthy they are, exactly, remains unknown. It was also made known that their defensive weapon Victor Hedman is nursing an injury. If they can replicate the game that they found in last year’s Edmonton bubble, I can see them winning it all for the second year in a row. But with so much hockey recently and the injuries piling up, I question their ability to endure another taxing playoff run. Even with that said, they do have Vasilevskiy, who I find extremely hard to doubt. Sorry, Panthers, but this is a brutal first round matchup, and it means they’ll be shown the door, but not without a fight.
The Tampa Bay Lightning will defeat the Florida Panthers in 7 games.
Colorado Avalanche vs. St. Louis Blues
Despite being matched up against the NHL’s best team throughout the regular season this year, Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly is as confident as ever, saying “We’re going to have some fun and we’re going to beat them.” I must admit, this kind of confidence made me rethink my pick, but the Avalanche have been so good this year and won five of the eight games against the Blues in the regular season.
Without the defensive leadership of Alex Pietrangelo and the elite play of Jordan Binnington, the Blues are not the team they were when they hoisted the cup two playoffs ago. Their defensive depth and the struggles of Binnington lead me to believe this is going to be a rough ride for Blues fans. Meanwhile, the Avalanche have one of the NHL’s deepest offenses, and while I have my doubts about their ability to win the cup with Philipp Grubauer as their goalie, it should be enough for now.
The Colorado Avalanche will defeat the St. Louis Blues in 6 games.
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Minnesota Wild
Interestingly, the Wild have had the Golden Knights’ number this year, winning five of the eight matchups. The Wild are a great story this year, led by the emergence of their rookie superstar Kirill Kaprizov, who helped them outperform expectations and land this first round date with the boys from Sin City.
Similar to the series between the Avalanche and the Blues, I don’t see this going the way of the under-dog. The Knights have the best goalie tandem in the game today with Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner, and are also my choice for best defensive group. Things will tighten up in the playoffs and goals are harder to come by, so I expect the Wild to struggle with scoring in the series. One thing I do wonder about with the Knights is their lack of an elite centerman, which every Stanley Cup winning team seems to have. This team’s offense is carried by its wingers like Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and Alex Tuch. The team is under pressure to deliver a championship given the management’s willingness to sell so many future assets for a chance to win now, and they are my pick to emerge as Stanley Cup champions this year.
The Vegas Golden Knights will defeat the Minnesota Wild in 5 games.