By Mike Wynn, NHL Contributor
Finally. The long-awaited finish to the NHL regular season is here. There’s nothing like it. Every shot matters. Every check is finished. Legends are born in April, and it’s time to experience the annual journey that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Every year, I rise up to watch every game, just to also experience the inevitable, yet annual, plummeting of my GPA. It’s worth it. April is a beautiful month in the world of sports. Starting April 10, and for at least the next seven days, there will be multiple playoff games enthralling the NHL faithful. Each series provides all the interesting heavyweight tilts that our hearts could desire. This isn’t the NBA playoffs. This isn’t the NFL playoffs. There’s no Golden State, no New England. There’s just sixteen teams willing to lay their bodies on the line for a chance to hoist the cup in June. It’s nearly impossible to predict the Stanley Cup champion, so here’s a simple look into the first-round matchups.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs Columbus Blue Jackets
The Lightning are an absolute wagon. Tampa has put up 128 points this season, only three teams in the history of the NHL have achieved more points in the regular season. However, the playoffs are an entirely different beast. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point all sit in the top 12 for points. This spells absolute danger for the Blue Jackets because every time the puck is on Kucherov’s, Stamkos’s, or Point’s stick, a bar-down nipski to the top corner or a sick pass leading to a backdoor tap-in is a likely possibility. Though the Tampa Bay wagon is not likely to slow in the first round, Columbus is exactly the first-round opponent that was needed to make a Tampa Bay first-round series interesting. Columbus has sold out from a GM stand point this season. Acquiring Matt Duchene and keeping Panarin and Bobrovsky at the deadline shows the world that they see themselves as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. This is insane, right? The last team to squeak into the playoffs actually thinking they have a shot against the President’s trophy winner? False. The 2011-2012 Los Angeles Kings squeaked into the playoffs and finished the Presidents Trophy winner in five games. Keep an eye on Columbus as this series progresses, they know this year has to be the year.
Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes
The defending Stanley Cup holders seem to have their work cut out for them. Although the Capitals have won all four regular season meetings, the Hurricanes are young, gritty, and have come together over the second half of the season. Carolina is red-hot and has won four of its last five games. Undoubtedly, the Capitals have lost their hype from years previous in the playoffs. Last year’s cup run was exciting for everyone. Everyone wanted the glorious image of Alexander Ovechkin hoisting Lord Stanley’s cup, featuring a set of double D knockers in the background. That moment immortalized Ovechkin. He had done it. However, it’s a new season no tits shall be seen in the background of a Stanley Cup photo ever again. There’s no way the Capitals have the resilience to have what it takes to sober up and buckle down to do what it takes to win it all again. Losing for so long made it so much sweeter. However, no team knows losing like the Hurricanes. This is their first playoff appearance in ten years. The Canes are hungry. The Canes are scrappy. The Canes are ready to battle to defending champions. However, the Canes are the youngest team in the NHL. They still have much to learn before they’re ready to hoist the cup. The Capitals will win this series. However, it is doubtful that they will showcase the same fortitude they did a season ago to win it all.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Islanders
The New York Islanders were supposed to be terrible this season. They lost their best player in free agency, they played the season without a permanent home ice, and they trudged on with third liners and players barely recognizable. Now, they’re sitting with home ice advantage in the NHL Playoffs awaiting the Penguins to come into their barn. This series is interesting because it’s easy to say, “Oh, the Penguins are going to roll these scrubs.” However, the Penguins have resembled a piece of work compared to previous season. Despite Guentzel, Crosby, and Kessel putting up large numbers, the Islanders have an uncanny ability to consistently rotate through all four lines. Every line is a threat because the chemistry is so great. The Islanders depth, defense and goaltending will allow them to outplay Pittsburgh in this series and to shock the nation by eliminating a well-known powerhouse in the first round. The only concern for the Islanders is if the stage is too big for this team. Taking on the star power of Pittsburgh is a tall order, especially because they all have playoff experience. However, a young team that could roll four lines last year shocked us all and marched all the way to the finals. That team was Vegas. This series will come down to who wants it more in seven games. The Islanders will add this series to their list of feats on the 2019 revenge tour.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Boston Bruins
This is the series everyone has been looking forward to. The rematch from last season where Boston broke the hearts of Leafs fans across Canada is now underway. However, Toronto has added a new piece to their puzzle that just might be able to push them past Boston: That piece is John Tavares. Toronto’s offense presents an absolute nightmare for Boston to handle. Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Zach Hyman, alongside offensive defenseman Morgan Reilly plan to keep Boston pinned in their defensive zone. Boston’s key to success is pressuring the shaky Toronto defense into making mistakes, because they will. Not only is Boston’s defense stronger but they also have the star power line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand will do their best to make Toronto’s life unbearable. Marchand is the king of getting under the skin of players in the playoffs as well. Drip Master Marchand actually licked another man’s face last season in the playoffs to get under his skin. That’s the dedication the playoffs bring out in players. Is it weird to post up and lick someone’s face as a form of trash talk? Possibly, but it will undoubtedly give you beachfront real estate inside of the other man’s head for the remainder of the series. This Boston team should never be counted out because of this. No one wants to play Boston, which is why Toronto will lose in the first round in seven games just the same as last season.
Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars
Nashville was able to hang onto the top seed in the central this season, thanks to their goaltending and strong defense lead by P.K. Subban. Nashville is a very capable team of taking home the cup this season. The problem in this series is that Dallas is also very capable of doing the same thing. Tyler Seguin has picked up his production and so has fellow star Jamie Benn. These two had no choice but to figure it out after Dallas Stars CEO Jim Lites called them out for not producing enough points. Lites directly stated,“They are fucking horse-shit, I don’t know how else to put it.” Seguin then added 48 points after the callout and finished the season with a respectable 80 points. The story in Dallas, though, is the season goaltender Ben Bishop has pulled together. He has gathered Vezina Trophy talks as he has posted the second highest goals allowed average alongside the highest save percentage in the league. This series will likely be a hard-hitting gritty defensive struggle where lots of chiclets will be lost. Dallas will win in seven games on the back of their tendy, Ben Bishop.
Winnipeg Jets vs. St. Louis Blues
The famous Winnipeg whiteouts are here. Many people believe this Winnipeg team has what it takes to fire it up to make a Cup-winning run this postseason. However, Winnipeg has only won three of their past nine games of the season, playing themselves right out of first place in the central. This ice-cold team needs to find a way to pull it together quickly because this St. Louis team has been red-hot in the second half of the season. The Blues were in dead last place in early January. Now they are the hottest team in the show looking to topple a struggling powerhouse with legitimate Stanley Cup hopes. On the back of rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington, who leads the league in goals against average, St. Louis soared into the playoff race looking like no one could stop them. If Winnipeg decides to sleep on this team, it could get ugly very quickly. However, if the Jets decide finally decide to reach their clicking point in this series, they should take care of St. Louis in six games.
Calgary Flames vs. Colorado Avalanche
Colorado was able to squeak into the final wild card spot riding a wave of winning all but three of their last 11 tillies. Colorado’s problem lies within its depth. Its first line of Mackinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog provide for more goals than the rest of the Colorado forwards combined. This does not bode well going up against a team like Calgary who is home to Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny “Hockey” Gaudreau, who are both having career seasons. Calgary will win this series in six games or less. Nevertheless, the future for Colorado is inherently bright because they gained the best odds at landing NHL Prospect Jack Hughes in the draft through trading Matt Duchene to Ottawa.
San Jose Sharks vs. Vegas Golden Knights
This series is why playoff hockey is so great. San Jose went out and acquired one of the best players to grace the league in Erik Karlsson this September, putting him next to Brett Burns on the blue line. The lineup in San Jose is absolutely stacked with veterans including Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, and Joe Pavelski. This Sharks team also had the second highest amount of points in the Western Conference. San Jose seemed to have it all figured out going into this season, except for one problem: the abysmal play of goaltender Martin Jones. If Martin Jones can perform at least halfway decent throughout the series, the sharks will be in a good position to compete this postseason. The Knights are an absolute problem for the sharks. The tenacity and grit of this team make them a force that no one wants to play against. The man rocket that is Ryan Reaves will finish every check, be involved in any fight, and provide all of the energy for his team as Vegas looks to upset the Sharks. Also, Marc-Andre Fleury is one of the greatest goaltenders of this generation that is a man that no sharks wanted to face in the playoffs. Fleury looked like he was going to be injured for a bit of the series, but the absolute boulders between his legs prevent this man from missing a minute of playoff hockey. Fleury will be on his game, Reaves will get the team going, and the Knights will grant the Sharks an early access pass to the golf course this season. Knights in seven.