BY: Sam Gemini
MADISON – Finally, the Stanley Cup playoffs have returned to spring and the matchups are set. In the next two articles, I will preview each of the first round series and predict which squad will hoist Lord Stanley in eight weeks.
New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
This East division matchup will be one of the most uncompetitive of the first round. The Isles were an average team at best offensively even before the loss of their captain and number one center, Anders Lee. Since Lee’s ACL injury, New York has had serious difficulty putting the puck in the net, which is not a recipe for success against number one seed Pittsburgh. The Pens have been balling down the stretch, led by their stellar top line: Jake Guentzel; Bryan Rust; and, of course, Sidney Crosby. The Penguins are an old veteran squad with several future hall-of-famers and dozens of Cup rings on the roster. Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have shown no signs of slowing down, and Jeff Carter (their number three center) – former forty-goal scorer and two time champion with Los Angeles – has been burring goal after goal since being dealt to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline. The Islanders will be lucky to win a game in this one; Pens in five.
Pick: Pittsburgh Penguins – 4-1
Boston Bruins vs. Washington Capitals.
This is a series of offensive firepower. Boston boasts a very old and very deep team of veteran forwards; since the deadline acquisition of Taylor Hall, the second line of Hall, David Krejci, and Craig Smith has been lights out, and the “perfection line” of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak remains a top-two line in hockey. Boston also has massive trust in its goaltender – Tuukka Rask – who has brought it to two Stanley Cup Finals in his career. On the other side, the Capitals have been one of the best goal-scoring teams for the better part of a decade. Nicklas Backstrom remains the most underrated player in the world, living in the monstrous shadow of the greatest pure goal-scorer of all time – Alex Ovechkin. Washington is struggling with significant health problems going into this series, with T.J. Oshie listed as day-to-day and Evgeny Kuznetsov out due to COVID-19 protocols. It will be very difficult for Washington to get past the Bruins without a fully healthy roster, and I trust Boston’s goaltending far more than the Capitals’. Boston will advance in a very entertaining series.
Pick: Boston Bruins – 4-2
Nashville Predators vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Jumping to the central division, we have a very intriguing one versus four matchup between Carolina and Nashville. The Hurricanes are custom fitted for a deep run in spring. Great versatile centers – check: Sebastian Aho and Vincent Trocheck. Dynamic scoring and shut-down defensemen – check: Dougie Hamilton and Jacob Slavin. They are balanced; they have goal scorers; they can win many ways. Furthermore, the Canes are top three in both powerplay and penalty kill – two aspects of hockey that are hugely important in the postseason. This shows the tremendous variety and versatility of the Carolina skaters, as powerplays and penalty kills require two completely different skill sets. The Predators have taken a much less scenic route to the playoffs, getting off to a terrible start to the season and dealing with multiple key injuries. Midway through, backup goalie Juuse Saros overtook future hall-of-famer Pekka Rinne for the starting job, and the Preds haven’t looked back. Since then, they have been number one in goals against average and top ten in penalty kill. Here’s the problem: Nashville and Carolina have a very similar makeup. This means that the Predators are going to have to beat the Hurricanes at their own game – a very tall task. For this reason, I’ll go with the Canes to advance.
Pick: Carolina Hurricanes – 4-2
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Florida Panthers
This is one of the headline matchups of the first round. This is superstars and superstars and superstars. The defending Lightning are likely still the most talented team in hockey; Victor Hedman is the best defenseman in the world – period; captain Steven Stamkos is returning from his recent injury; and Nikita Kucherov – one of the most formidable playmakers in the game – is back in the lineup after missing the entire season. Across to the Atlantic coast, Panthers’ center Aleksander Barkov is finally getting recognition as one of the top forwards in the NHL; Jonathan Huberdeau has become an elite playmaker, and MacKenzie Weegar has emerged as a surprise star this season. Even with the injury to Norris Trophy candidate Aaron Ekblad on defense, the Cats are one of the top Cup contenders. But perhaps the coolest thing about this series is the remarkable coaching matchup. Jon Cooper has led Tampa Bay on multiple deep playoff runs, and his greatness as a coach has been overlooked because of the wealth of great lightning players. Meanwhile, Florida’s east side boasts Joel Quenneville, the second winningest coach of all time and three-time Stanley Cup Champion with Chicago. This series is going the distance and will likely be the best series of round one; however, it’s likely that Kucherov and Stamkos will not be playing at 100 percent, and I can’t pick against Coach Q in the postseason. Rats will rain down upon the ice as Florida advances to the second round.
Pick: Florida Panthers – 4-3
St. Louis Blues vs. Colorado Avalanche
The Colorado Avalanche finished with the best record in the NHL at the top of the West division. They are loaded with magnificent talent from top to bottom, all the way up to the best line in hockey – Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen. Cale Makar is must-see TV on defense, Andre Burakovsky is on an eight-game point-streak. . . . I could go on and on. It may seem obvious that the Avs will advance to at least the second round to play the Golden Knights – but not so fast. St. Louis is playing great hockey with the return of prolific scorer Vladimir Tarasenko, and Ryan O’Reilly has put the city on his back as one of the best two-way forwards in the league.
Colorado is unbeatable on paper; they are an all-star team; they are the 2021 Gonzaga Bulldogs. But this formula rarely results in a Stanley cup. Many Avalanche players are very similar and one-dimensional; if the game turns into a track meet, they will run up the score, but if the opponent slows things down and goes the tough route, the balance of power may shift. The 2019 Lightning were very similar, and their playoff run ended in gut-wrenching shock as the second wildcard Blue Jackets swept them by simply out-working and out-battling them. St. Louis, on the other hand, is stacked with gritty two-way tough guys, and we know they’re capable of the spring magic because we just saw it two seasons ago. On top of everything, the Blues have a proven champion in net in Jordan Binnington, while Colorado trots out a former backup who had a phenomenal season but has never been past the second round. This may come as a shocker, but I’m taking St. Louis to upset the Presidents’ Trophy winners in seven games.
Pick: St. Louis Blues – 4-3
Minnesota Wild vs. Vegas Golden Knights
The Knights finished with the same record as Colorado but lost the first seed on the tie-breaker; however, they are a completely different type of team. Vegas is comprised almost entirely of two-way players who are capable of competing with any style of play. They are always perfectly structured, and their defensive posturing in the neutral zone and defensive zone is impeccable.
Minnesota, meanwhile, is the most balanced team I have ever seen. All four lines give nearly equal offensive contributions, and all defenseman can be trusted to make a good decision. But a team is defined by its “balance,” it usually means there aren’t any real studs. When Pittsburgh repeated a few years ago, nobody was gushing over how evenly distributed the scoring was. The Wild do have an exhilarating rookie-of-the-year-to-be in Kirill Kaprizov, but now we’re talking about putting a playoff series in the hands of a rookie who has never experienced a postseason game. Vegas will undoubtedly have a plan to contain him, and that plan will involve relentless physicality and aggravation, stick-checking, slashing, and verbal abuse in an attempt to get him off his game. I’m not sure if Kirill the Thrill is ready for a stage of this magnitude; therefore, I don’t expect Vegas to have much of a struggle in this series.
Pick: Vegas Golden Knights – 4-1
Montréal Canadiens vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Pressure on top of pressure on top of pressure – this clash between the two oldest teams in hockey packs endless history and hatred. This is Yankees vs. Red Sox, Bears vs. Packers, Duke vs. North Carolina. . . . As Tony Luftman of NHL Network eloquently stated, “I’m not going to say that this series is life or death because that’s not true – it’s ten times more important than that.” For these two cities, this series is everything – particularly for Toronto. I’ve always said that the Leafs are the Chicago Cubs of hockey; they have incredibly passionate fans no matter how heartbroken they are; they reside in one of the largest and most intense hockey markets in the world; and they are currently in a fifty-four-year Stanley Cup drought, one that will be the longest in NHL history if Toronto doesn’t go all the way this year. Meanwhile, the Canadiens – who are more like the New York Yankees – are twenty-eight years removed from their twenty-fourth championship in franchise history.
The expectations are always high when Toronto qualifies for the postseason, and this year’s Leafs roster is the strongest in twenty years: Auston Matthews set a historic goal-scoring pace with forty-one lamp-lighters in forty-nine games, and his line mate – Mitch Marner – has become one of the most exciting and creative playmakers in the sport. So there’s already massive pressure on this crew to deliver . . . and now we add the Montréal factor to that media hornet’s nest of a city. What results is a hailstorm of trepidation and anxiety that will continue to build until game one finally arrives on Thursday. In fact, Marner already told the media last week that he would not answer any more questions about the series until it began – the playoffs haven’t even started and the press is already relentless. The Maple Leafs are heavily favored in this rivalry matchup, but this amount of stress is nothing but bad, and with future hall-of-famer Carey Price in net for the Canadiens, the perfect storm has been created. Citizens of Toronto will have their hearts ripped out yet again as Montréal shockingly moves on.
Pick: Montréal Canadiens – 4-3
Winnipeg Jets vs. Edmonton Oilers
Two words: Connor McDavid. One player reached the 100 point mark this season, and that was McDavid. 104 points in eighty-two games is phenomenal; one who does that is likely an MVP frontrunner. But wait a second – this was not an eighty-two game season. . . . This was a fifty-six-game sprint. Yes, Connor McDavid reached the century mark in his fifty-third game this season, something that nobody thought we would see in this shortened schedule. Since the days of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, this is simply unheard of. Seventy-one assists! All eyes will be on this generational player this postseason as he plays on a line with reigning MVP Leon Draisaitl. Send this tandem on the ice with Tyson Barrie and Darnell Nurse on defense and you’ll get quite the potent offense. The Oilers are very flawed – their team defense isn’t nearly good enough, and goaltending is a question mark; but the Jets have been in a nose dive for the last three weeks after the loss of Nikolaj Ehlers. McDavid and Draisaitl will carry Edmonton to steamroll Winnipeg and advance to the second round.
Pick: Edmonton Oilers – 4-1