Author: Patrick Sexton
The 2017-2018 NHL regular season had some unbelievable story lines, from the record setting season of the Vegas Golden Knights to the bounce back years by the Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils.
On top of those incredible story lines, this past season was arguably the most even year amongst teams across the league. Going into the final month of the regular season, there were seven teams battling for four playoff spots in the Western Conference and six teams battling for three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
These playoffs have the potential to be one of the most intense, evenly-matched and thrilling playoffs in NHL history. Any team can win it all and as cliché as it sounds, it will come down to health, goaltending, special teams and who gets hot at the right time.
Here is my full 1st Round NHL Playoff Preview:
Tampa Bay vs. New Jersey
- Tampa Bay Keys to Success:
- The Lightning are going to need their big guns to step up in this series. The Lighting are a much deeper team than the Devils and will need the likes of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy to carry the load for this cup-contending team. After being decimated by injury last season, which saw them miss the playoffs, the Lightning are relatively healthy heading into the post-season and are looking to make a deep run.
- New Jersey Keys to Success:
- The Devils swept the season series with the Lightning, winning all three games, but the playoffs are a whole different animal. Despite sweeping the season series, the Devils are heavy underdogs in this series. They will need Taylor Hall to continue building off of his career year that saw him put up 93 points. It will be Hall’s first career postseason, and if he can be successful, he can help push the Devils towards a series win.
- The X-Factor:
- The Lightning’s X-Factor will be former Wisconsin Badgers Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who was acquired in a blockbuster deal with the New York Rangers at the trade deadline. One of the league’s best shut-down defensemen, McDonagh will be tasked with shutting down Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier.
- The Devils’ X-Factor will need to be their goaltending. Keith Kinkaid took over the starting job from Corey Schneider down the stretch, and he has never started an NHL playoff game. The Devils are waiting until Game 1 of the series to announce who will start in goal, but regardless of who is in the net, the Devils will need them to keep one of the NHL’s most potent offense’s under control.
- I’m going against the popular opinion and picking the Devils to win in seven games. The Devils are young and play a very fast, up-tempo style of play and I think that despite their lack of playoff experience, the Devils will embrace the moment and upset the cup contending Lightning.
Boston vs. Toronto
- Boston Keys to Success:
- The Bruins are a very deep team looking to make some noise in the playoffs. The Bruins will rely heavily on their strong defensive structure to contain a high-flying, high-scoring Leafs offense. Led by perennial Selke Trophy candidate Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins will look to him and other veteran leaders Brad Marchand and Zedeno Chara to lead the way for their team. The Bruins will win if they stick to their system, stay out of the penalty box and avoid playing a run and gun style of play with the Leafs.
- Toronto Keys to Success:
- The Leafs made some noise last year when they hung with the cup contending Washington Capitals for 6 games, but this year they are the real deal. Forwards Auston Matthews, Willie Nylander and Mitch Marner will need to continue pushing the envelope for the Leafs offense. Adding veteran Patrick Marleau in free agency as well as 2017 Stanley Cup Champion Ron Hainsey will need to lead the way for the young Maple Leafs, who are looking to win their first championship since 1967. The Leafs will need to focus on puck possession and will need to force the Bruins defensive core to defend in order to limit their time on defense.
- The X-Factor:
- The X-Factor for the Bruins will be trade deadline acquisition Rick Nash. Nash has plenty of playoff experience and will look to take advantage of an average Toronto defense. Nash will benefit from a lightened matchup as its expected that the Leafs will pair their top shutdown players against the Bruins top line of Bergeron, Marchand and David Pasternak.
- The X-Factor for the Leafs will be their defensive core. Coach Mike Babcock has talked all year about the Leafs’ lack of defensive responsibility and if the Leafs want to redeem themselves from 2013 when they melted down in Game 7 against the Bruins, they will need to be very responsible defensively.
- I’m picking the Bruins to win in six games. The Leafs defensive shortcomings will ultimately do them in and the Bruins will advance to the Eastern Conference Semi Finals.
Washington vs. Columbus
- Washington Keys to Success:
- The knock on the Capitals every season is that they don’t know how to win in the playoffs. They will need their top forwards to attack the Columbus defense. To state the obvious, they will look to Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to lead the way. The Capitals will also need strong goaltending. Phillip Grubauer overtook the starting job from Braden Holtby down the stretch, and Coach Barry Trotz is rolling with Grubauer in the first game.
- Columbus Keys to Success:
- The backbone of the Blue Jackets is Vezina candidate Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky had another outstanding regular season and if the Blue Jackets want to win, they will need “Bob” to stand tall against the highly skilled, highly potent Capitals offense. While Bobrovsky has had many successful regular seasons, he has not had the same success in the playoffs, giving up at least 3 goals in each of the 5 games against the Penguins last season. As the Blue Jackets look to win their first playoff series in history, the Blue Jackets will need to pressure the Capitals goaltending, stay disciplined to limit the dangerous Capitals powerplay opportunities and get strong goaltending from Bobrovsky.
- The X-Factor:
- For the Capitals, John Carlson will be the X-Factor. His ability to make an impact on both the offensive and defensive sides of the puck will help the Capitals transition from defense to offense quickly in order to keep the Blue Jackets on their heels.
- For the Blue Jackets, Seth Jones will be the X-Factor. The young defenseman is expected to see a lot of time against Ovechkin. Jones will need to keep him under control in order to help the Blue Jackets win their first ever playoff series.
- I’m picking the Capitals to win in six games. The Blue Jackets are a great team that has continuously gotten better over the last five years, but the lack of playoff success for Bobrovsky and the Capitals depth will lead to a Capitals win.
Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia
- Pittsburgh Keys to Success:
- The Penguins are back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions and are looking to become the first team to three-peat since the New York Islanders won 4 consecutive cups in the early 80’s. The Penguins are deep up front and have great goaltending in Matt Murray. The Penguins will need to stay disciplined in order to avoid the nightmare series in 2012 that featured brawls, dreadful goaltending and high scoring games. To win the Penguins will need their star players and bottom six players to create matchup problems for the Flyers.
- Philadelphia Keys to Success:
- The Flyers are going to need star forwards Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek to produce at the same level as the Penguins stars in order to have a chance in this series. Staying disciplined will be critical for the Flyers as the Penguins had the number one powerplay in the league this year and the Flyers had the 3rd worst penalty kill in the league. Limiting the Penguins powerplay opportunities and getting the Penguins to stray from their game is what the Flyers need to do in order to succeed against their long time rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
- The X-Factor:
- The X-Factor for the Penguins will be Patric Hornqvist. He finished the final 10 games of the regular season with 10 points and is instrumental in the Penguins powerplay. He creates havoc in front of opposing goalies and is the prototypical playoff player. He plays hard, blocks shots, kills penalties and contributes offensively. He will be a difference maker for the Penguins.
- The Flyers’ penalty kill is going to be their X-Factor. If they can get the better hand on the number one powerplay from the regular season, then they give themselves a chance to win.
- I’m picking the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins to win in six games. They’ve won eight consecutive playoff series’ and when you combine their star power with their number one powerplay from the regular season, the Penguins will be moving on to round number 2.
Nashville vs. Colorado
- Nashville Keys to Success:
- The Predators won the President’s Trophy for a reason– they are deep all throughout their lineup. To win, the Predators will need to contain the Avalanche’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, who combined for 243 points in the regular season. The Predators will rely on their depth down the middle with Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino and Mike Fisher to create matchup problems for the Avalanche and goaltender Pekka Rinne to shut the door on the Avalanche’s top players.
- Colorado Keys to Success:
- The Avalanche will need their top line of MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen to lead their offense against an unbelievably deep team in the Predators. The Avalanche will also need backup goalie Jonathan Bernier to step up in the absence of the injured Semyon Varlamov. All four Predators lines have the ability to score, so Bernier will need to be solid in net in order to give the Avalanche a chance to upset the number one team from the regular season.
- The X-Factor:
- The Predators’ X-Factor will be their defensive corps. They have arguably the top defensive corps in the league and they will need to shut down the Avalanche’s top forwards and their potent powerplay, which finished 8th in the league during the regular season.
- Jonathan Bernier will be the X-Factor for the Avalanche. If they want to win, Bernier will need to shut the door and keep the Avalanche in close games. If he can do that then the Avalanche aren’t as big of underdogs as all the experts say they are.
- I’m picking the Predators to win in six games to move onto the second round. Their depth will be difficult for the Avalanche to manage. While the Avalanche are very good on home ice, winning 28 games at home this year, the Predators will be too much to handle.
Winnipeg vs. Minnesota
- Winnipeg Keys to Success:
- The Jets had an unbelievable regular season, which saw them finish second in the league with 114 points. The Jets haven’t won a playoff series in over 30 years, and if they want to change that this year they will need captain Blake Wheeler to build off a career season, which saw him tie for first in the league in assists, Patrick Laine to continue his goal scoring ways and Dustin Byfuglien to carry the load on the back end.
- Minnesota Keys to Success:
- The loss of stud defenseman Ryan Suter for the season was a huge blow to the Wild. Suter regularly plays close to 30 minutes a night in the playoffs and not having him will be a steep obstacle to overcome. The Wild are, however, a great team on home ice, so if they want to beat the Jets, they will need to steal at least one win on the road. The Wild will look to Eric Staal and Zac Parise to carry the load on offense. Staal, who had his best season statistically in years, will look to continue his success in the playoffs.
- The X-Factor:
- The X-Factor for the Jets will be their home ice advantage. The MTS Center is guaranteed to be rocking throughout the playoffs and the Jets will undoubtedly feed off of that energy.
- Goaltender Devan Dubnyk will be the X-Factor for the Wild. With the loss of Suter, Dubnyk will need to be outstanding if the Wild hope to shut down Patrick Laine and company.
- I’m picking the Jets to win their first playoff series in 31 years over the Wild in six games. The Jets are too good on home ice, and the loss of Ryan Suter will make it extremely difficult for the Wild to contain the Jets.
Las Vegas vs. Los Angeles
- Las Vegas Keys to Success:
- Embrace the moment. The team is made up of players that every other NHL team deemed expendable, and the Golden Knights played with a chip on their shoulder throughout the season. They will need to continue to do so in the playoffs. The Golden Knights shattered every possible record previously set by an expansion team and will need their veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to lead the way for this first-year franchise. Fleury, who won three Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, posted career bests in goals against average and save percentage during the regular season. The Golden Knights will also need William Karlsson to continue his career year if they hope to beat a talented, deep and experienced Kings team.
- Los Angeles Keys to Success:
- The Kings were in a battle to the bitter end for a playoff spot and have essentially been playing playoff hockey for a month already. To succeed against the “favored” Golden Knights, the Kings will need their Hart and Selke Trophy candidate, captain Anze Kopitar to continue leading by example, and for Drew Doughty to log big minutes on the blue line. Fleury is a very good goalie and is extremely athletic. If the Kings want to beat him, they will need to get to the net and make it as hard as possible for him to see shots.
- The X-Factor:
- The Golden Knights X-Factor will be their home ice advantage. They had one of the best home records in the league this year and will look to continue their winning ways at home over the Kings, who are a very experienced team that has multiple players with Stanley Cup wins.
- While some believe that the Golden Knights were simply a feel-good story from the regular season, I’m picking the Golden Knights to win their first ever playoff series in six games. Their home ice advantage, chip on their shoulder attitude and veteran goaltending will help the Knights move on to round number 2.
Anaheim vs. San Jose
- Anaheim Keys to Success:
- The Ducks were decimated by injuries the entire season, but are relatively healthy heading into the playoffs. In what is sure to be a long, grueling series, the Ducks will need veteran leaders Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to lead the way. Both are proven playoff performers that play hard at both ends of the rink and are known for taking their game to another level in the playoffs. The Ducks will need them to lead by example and continue to dominate both ends of the rink in order to overcome the Sharks.
- San Jose Keys to Success:
- The Sharks had an interesting season. They got off to a slow start, but have been hot down the stretch. The Sharks have plenty of experience, having gone to the Stanley Cup Finals just two seasons ago. They will look to get back to the finals on the backs of their stars Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Brent Burns. Thornton missed the final 35 games of the regular season due to a knee injury, and has been ruled out for the first game of the series, but he is hopeful to get back into the lineup at some point. To beat the Ducks, the Sharks will need to pressure the Ducks into playing defense. Additionally, the Ducks will be without their ice time leader from the regular season, Cam Fowler, for the entire series.
- The X-Factor:
- The Ducks X-Factor will be Ryan Getzlaf. While Getzlaf was injured for an extended period of time during the regular season, only playing 56 games, he is nearly a point-per-game player in the playoffs. He is a playoff player that plays the game the right way and is willing to do whatever it takes to win.
- The Sharks have two X-Factors: Evander Kane and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Kane, who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Buffalo Sabres, has been outstanding for the Sharks, put up 14 points in 16 games, mainly playing alongside Joe Pavelski. Meanwhile, Vlasic is one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL. Vlasic is expected to see a lot of ice time against Getzlaf and Perry and if he can shut them down then he gives the Sharks a great chance to beat the Ducks.
- This series is a toss up that could go either way. Both teams are dealing with injuries to key players, they have both been playing playoff type hockey for a month and both have veteran, experienced players in their lineups. I’m picking the Ducks to win in seven games. Getzlaf and Perry’s proven playoff performances and the fact that the Ducks finished the year on a 10-1-1 run are what I believe will give them the slight edge over the Sharks and will push them on to round number two.