Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 Preview and Predictions

Stanley Cup Playoffs: ROUND ONE!

Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

In this year’s edition of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we are already in August, there is not fans in attendance, and 12 seeds are in the bracket. If this article was published a year ago dated from the future no one would believe me and that’s an excellent description of the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs: Unbelievable. From a single round-robin determining the top 4 seeds, to best-of-five game series to determine a play-in for the last four seeds, there is a lot to unwrap and learn for this year’s wild Stanley Cup Playoffs. Let’s take a look on the matchups by conference and see how these teams got here and how well I think they will do!

Eastern Conference

Philadelphia Flyers vs. Montreal Canadiens

The Flyers put in some work during the round-robin tournament to come out as the number one seed in the Easter conference and don’t appear to be anywhere near slowing down. The Flyers find themselves atop the East through a very balanced team with one of the better defenses I have seen in the past few years and follows a Flyers tradition. The Flyers allowed one goal on 10 powerplays in the qualifying round and were also backed with a strong goalies in Carter Hart and Brian Elliot only allowing 3 combined goals through three games and Hart who had the highest save percentage amongst goaltenders who played more than one game. This doesn’t mean that the Flyers can’t score. The Flyers put up 11 goals in three games with Scott Laughton leading the way with 5 points in the three games. This Flyers squad could really run deep in the postseason.

The first of two (yes two!) 12 seeds who snuck into the eighth seed of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Canadiens rode heavily on the back of a vintage Carey Price who only allowed 1.67 goals per game in a series against an explosive Penguins team who put up 133 shots in 4 games against Price who showed resilience and got just enough help from the offense to propel themselves way up the standings and into the playoffs. The offensive tandem of Weber and Byron has been a pleasant surprise, but the Canadiens are going to need to be more explosive and cleaner to get past the brick wall that is the Flyers’ defense and goaltenders. Clean play will be one of the keys to victory much like they did against the Penguins with 3 players having a +/- of +6 in the series.

The Canadiens story is incredible, and it’s been nice seeing Carey Price play out of his mind and remind myself of earlier, simpler times in the NHL. The Flyers have also ascended, and it is no fluke or chance as the Flyers have established themselves as a dominant, looming brick wall of an obstacle to any who venture for Lord Stanley’s cup. I just don’t think the Canadiens don’t have the talent on the offensive end to overwhelm the Flyers’ goaltenders the way that the Flyers are going to absolutely unleash onto Carey Price.

Winner: Flyers in 4

Tampa Bay Lightning vs Columbus Blue Jackets

The Lightning start the postseason in the same spot they left off when the regular season was abruptly interrupted: As the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. Following last year’s huge disappointment in the first round getting swept as a first seed, maybe playing as a second seed will take some pressure off of this team that has been a contender for years but hasn’t found a way to finish the job. The Lightning are here with some very familiar faces with Tyler Johnson recapturing his playoff groove with 3 goals in 3 games to qualify for the second seed. The Lightning getting the second seed was no easy feat requiring a shootout win against the Capitals and a one-goal win against the Bruins. Vasilevskiy has seemingly improved drastically from last year allowing only 2.28 GAA (down from 3.82 from last postseason’s sweep) but can he handle the Blue Jackets’ 31.8 shots per game?

The Blue Jackets escaped from their tight series against a competitive Leafs team that forced a game 5 with an insane comeback in game 4. It turns out that didn’t matter when the Blue Jackets turned on the heat and thwapped the Leafs out of the playoffs and set up a first-round matchup against a pressured Lightning team. The Blue Jackets were a nine-seed and are happy to be here in the NHL playoffs at all. Their biggest players from the Leafs’ series were quiet in the last game but that is encouraging that Atkinson (5 points through 5 games) and Dubois (4 points) don’t have to carry the Blue Jackets to a pretty promising second round bid. Combine the high-volume shots and multiple scorers with the absurd performance of Joonas Korpisalo who had not one, but 2 shutouts in the NHL playoffs thus far, this Blue Jackets team will be a tough out.

Much like any year, the Lightning has been the better team for the majority of the season and has a legitimate chance at a championship bid. The injuries to the Lightning do raise a major red flag with Stamkos out, and Victor Hedman/Jan Rutta being day-to-day, this is not a favorable matchup for a waning Lightning team and a surging Blue Jackets team.

Winner: Blue Jackets in 6

Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders

The Capitals square off against their Stanley-Cup winning coach on the other bench this time. The Caps carry a couple positives from their robin play such as a 100% penalty kill from the previous round, and a suffocating defense that allowed only 26.7 shots allowed per game. They also won their final game against the Bruins 2-1. These positives are nice but don’t address the many question marks from this Caps team—Will Carlson be healthy? Is Holtby ready to go for the playoffs on such short notice? Where is Ovechkin? It will be important for the first two answers to be “Yes” and for the third answer to be answered with a goal-scoring horn a few times.

Capitals Stanley Cup Playoffs

The Islanders remind me of the Flyers in a lot of ways with the very defensive approach being that they were only 2nd to the Flyers in shots allowed per game (25.8) through 4 games. The offense also has some swagger heading into this series with Jean-Gabriel Pageau being one of 3 players to score a postseason-leading 3 even-strength goals. The only blip on this otherwise balanced and talented squad is Varlamov who played well in the opening round with a 1.76 GAA but has not found his groove in his playoff career.

The Islanders come in as the underdog, but Barry Trotz has been here before as a lower seed ready to upset a higher seed. I feel that Trotz knows his former players better than most and has a strategy prepared to keep Ovechkin away from the net just like in the previous round. I also don’t believe that Holtby is going to hold up for a whole series against the Islanders.

Winner: Islanders in 7

Boston Bruins vs Carolina Hurricanes

The Bruins have a lot of work to do in order to regain their Stanley Cup competition level. The Bruins struggled in the robin-round and did not steal a single win during their games against the Flyers, the Lightning, and the Capitals. The Bruins and Vezina Trophy finalist Tuukka Rask don’t seem to be worried and saw this round as time to recover and prepare for the playoffs. Pastrnak and Rask were scratches for the majority of the round robin and are looking to be well rested and poised to pick up where they left off before the break.

While the Bruins were lollygagging and stretching the joints, the Hurricanes put in work and swept the Rangers 3-0 and come into this first round with a full week of rest. With both teams being rested it really will be a test of skill but with the Hurricanes finding some positives to build on from the qualifying round like Sebastian Aho’s 8 points (5 assists, 3 goals) and Andre Svechnikov’s additional 3 goals in the series. We will see how these offensive weapons react to a strong Bruins defense who has been known to shut down the best options for the other team.

Both teams are coming off of different methods of rest. The Hurricanes earned their rest by kicking the snot out of their qualifying-round opponent and the Bruins were going from a walk to a jog in their round-robin approach. I believe that the Bruins will have some difficulty going from a jog to a sprint against this Hurricanes team that is more balanced, disciplined, and talented than the team that got swept by the Bruins last year.

Winner: Hurricanes in 7

Western Conference

Vegas Golden Knights vs. Chicago Blackhawks

The Golden Knights flexed their explosive offensive firepower during their round robin dispatching of all three of the other top western teams and averaged a postseason-high 5 goals per game en route to their number one seed. The Knights had 10 players score goals and even more contribute to their offense whose lowest goal total for the three-game span was 4. This matches their season long M.O. of just putting up points on the board to compensate for a defense and goaltender who have not been their sharpest (3.33 GAA).

Speaking of surprising offensive firepower, cue the Chicago Blackhawks who blasted their way into the playoffs as a 12 seed after defeating the Edmonton Oilers in an absolute war of goals. This series will prove to be much of the same as the Blackhawks averaged 4 goals per game behind the efforts of Jonathan Toews (7 points) and rookie Dominik Kubalik (6 points). Two more rookies in Kirby Dach and Matthew Highmore have inspired hope for Chicago fans not only this season, but for the future of the franchise as well.

With these two teams being amongst the worst in keeping the puck out of the net, and being the best at putting the puck in the net, I see this series being an absolute shootout between two high-powered offenses in what might be the highest scoring series in this whole Stanley Cup Playoffs. That being said, I think that the Golden Knights’ back-end will hold up way better than the Blackhawks due to their depth on the roster both on defense and in goalie.

Winner: Golden Knights in 7

Colorado Avalanche vs. Arizona Coyotes

Following a much-maligned injury-riddled regular season, the Avs eagerly welcomed back a ton of fresh, healthy players to form one of the most cohesive units in the NHL. Sporting a regular-season Western Conference best +46, the Avs are one of the fastest teams in the NHL spearheaded by an MVP candidate in Nathan MacKinnon. They also have two great options in the net between veteran Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz. Grubauer has plenty of postseason experience and Francouz has been playing phenomenally this season and capped off his latest performance with a 27-save shutout over the Dallas Stars.

Another low seed at the 11-spot coming in, the Arizona Coyotes rode off the coattails of Kuemper as he dealt with the Predators shooting 40 times a game at him. The Coyotes have potentially the postseason MVP up until this point in the net and have found a groove on the offensive side with 14 goals in 4 games coming from a bunch of different directions. The Coyotes made moves during the regular season in order to make a go at the playoffs and they will get just that and bring their physical-style of play against one of the more finesse-driven teams in the league.

The Coyotes stole both games from the regular season against the Avalanche and have become even more skilled since then. The Avalanche have grown healthier since the regular season and have grown mentally/emotionally stronger since their 7-game series loss to the Sharks in the playoffs last year. The Avs also played a wide variety of games with a buzzer-beating win against the defending champs, a rout of the Dallas Stars, and a close nail-biting overtime loss against the Golden Knights. This variety will prove useful in the takedown of a skilled Arizona squad.

Winner: Avalanche in 7

Dallas Stars vs. Calgary Flames

A lot of the Stars’ success rests on the day-to-day shoulders of Ben Bishop. Bishop, an esteemed goalie, needs to be healthy if the Stars are going to win the series. The Starts struggled really bad in the round robin and it’s hard to be confident after the drop off their goaltending experienced from the regular season to the postseason. Heiskanen is a beam of hope for the Stars due to his ability to set up his teammates. The Stars also showed some grit in a shootout win against the defending champs and hope to ride that wave into the first round.

The Flames were on fire in the qualifying round scoring 4 goals per game against the stout Winnipeg Jets and were straight up dealing with 11 goal scorers (5 of which scored 2) and putting lots of pressure on the opposing goaltender with over 32 shots on goal per game. Monahan scored 6 points in the opening round and was special setting up teammates to score with 4 assists. Talbot also played very well in the series putting up a .945 save percentage on 110 shots.

The Flames have made sure to be apart of the Western standoff playstyle with their extraordinary goalscoring abilities from so many different directions and lines on the ice. The Flames have appeared to mature a lot since their first round upset last year and look to play spoiler against a messy Stars team in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Winner: Calgary Flames

St. Louis Blues vs Vancouver Canucks

The defending champs struggled in the round robin not winning a single game. I will not raise the alarm quite yet however, due to the healthy return of one a Tarasenko who looked to be getting back into the groove following shoulder surgery and a very long break. Binnington also hopes to shrug off some round-robin struggles to bounce back to his Stanley Cup winning form. O’Reilly is still the guy having won the Smythe trophy, he led the Blues in scoring with 3 points through the round robin. The one thing the Blues had going for them was that they led all playoff teams in faceoff win percentage.

The Canucks have skyrocketed in the playoffs due to strong showing from young stars with a special emphasis on Quinn Hughes scoring 6 points (5 of which were assists) from the Defenseman position. Hughes led all defenders in points in this small postseason stretch and brought out the best of his team in a tough series against a scrappy Wild team. The Canucks also put in work on the defensive side of the puck killing over 86% of penalties.

It’s really hard to bet against the defending champs but when the other team has performed so much better so far this postseason… YOU STILL GO WITH THE DEFENDING CHAMPS! The Blues will bounce back based on how competitive their last game was on the defensive side of the puck, I believe that a veteran, balanced, puck controlling team will overwhelm the Canucks and be just enough for the Blues to make it to the next round.

Winner: Blues in 7

Written by Rex Hime