There are a select few days in the sports world that should be considered a national holiday, and today is one of them. Today marks the beginning of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, a span of high-level NHL hockey from now until June, where every team dreams of that one historic moment: hoisting the Stanley Cup above their head for the world to see. For me, it marks the beginning of being glued to my computer screen 24/7, incredible mood swings that are dictated by games, a spectacular amount of sleep deprivation, and weeks of wearing nothing but hockey jerseys. It's almost like my life revolves around this game for the next 6 weeks, even more so than normal. So let's take a look at the first round playoff matchups, and my *hopefully* correct predictions.
The first game of the playoffs this season (and most important in my opinion) features the #1 Tampa Bay Lightning out of the Atlantic division versus the second Wild Card Columbus Blue Jackets. As much as I love Columbus, with a burning passion, this series has me very anxious. Tampa Bay has had one of the best seasons in the history of the NHL, racking up an insane 62 wins and 128 points, both were NHL records for a single season. Plus, the Lightning have two of the best players in the league in Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, and both are leading the league in every single stat possible. However, Columbus has been clicking at the right time, winning five straight before losing in their regular season home finale to Boston. With players like Artemi Panarin, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, and Nick Foligno clicking at the right time, this series could surprise some people. But perhaps the most fun matchup of this series is going to come between the pipes. Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is leading the league in GAA, save percentage, and wins. But right behind him is the Columbus net-minder, Sergei Bobrovsky who comes in second in the league in all of the above stats, and Bob has significantly more ice time. Now, am I saying Columbus has a chance? Of course. Do I think we will win? Probably not. My call is the Lightning in six.
The next game features two Metropolitan (the best division) opponents, the #2 New York Islanders and the #3 Pittsburgh Penguins. As much as I hate to admit it, the Penguins really come alive during the playoffs, and I sadly see them moving on past the Islanders. While this isn't the strongest Pens team we've seen in the past few years, the Pens always make a run. Crosby has 100 points, and the big three of Kessel, Malkin, and Guentzel lead in points as well, including a huge 40 goals from Guentzel. Now, this is not saying that the Islanders are just going to roll over and give up, and the fact that Barzal is their leading player is nothing to sneeze at. But the Pens simply have more depth and more playoff experience, including their goalie Matt Murray, who comes in at 11th in the league in stats, while both Islanders goalies are in the twenties. While the Islanders are a good team, I just don't think they can hang with the experience and top lines of the Pens, so Pens in seven(sadly).
Now we finally get to the first game in the Western Conference, between the #2 Winnipeg Jets and #3 St. Louis Blues. This series is a similar situation to that of Pittsburgh and New York. St. Louis is clearly a good team, but simply doesn't have the firepower that Winnipeg does. Between O'Reilly, Tarasenko, and Schenn, the Blues can clearly do some damage, even more so if Bozak and Pietrangelo are on their game. However, with the experience of Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who really came alive during the Jets' playoff run last year, I don't see St. Louis really being able to compete with the defensive depth of the Jets, specifically Laine and Wheeler. I call Winnipeg in five.
Next up, we have the #1 Nashville Predators versus the first Wild Card team in the West, the Dallas Stars. This is a very interesting matchup and could be one of the more competitive series in the first round. These teams played five times during the regular season, with Nashville having the slight advantage in the series, 3-2. The two franchises are Central Division rivals and always play well against each other. Dallas has vital goal scorers in Seguin and Radulov, plus some great goaltending in Ben Bishop, who could prove vital if the Stars were to make a run because of his previous playoff experience with Tampa Bay. However, let's not forget about the monster that is the Predators' first two lines. Between the defensive efforts of Subban, Josi, and Ellis, plus the scoring abilities of Johansen and Arvidsson make the Preds very dangerous. Add in the experience and quickness of Pekka Rinne, and you've got a very dangerous team. I call the Preds in six.
Continuing in the West, the #3 Las Vegas Golden Knights are looking to knock off their Pacific Division rivals, the #2 San Jose Sharks. This situation bears resemblance to the Preds-Stars series because these two teams know each other very well. They have played each other four times during the season, with the series being split 2-2. San Jose can clearly compete with Vegas, specifically in their top lines with Burns, Kane, Karlsson, Thorton, and Palveski, but a clear weakness can be found in their goaltending. Both goalies for the Sharks have almost a 3.00 GAA per game, and with Marc-Andre Fleury on the other side of the rink, chances are very likely that Fleury will win the goaltending battle. For Vegas, watching them shows more cohesion as a team and a very solid backup goalie in Malcolm Subban. However, the Sharks have some significantly larger players who hit harder. Vegas likes to play the boards, while San Jose has a more straightforward passing scheme. This series will be very entertaining, and I'm going to say Vegas in seven.
Moving back to the East, a series that has me very excited is the #2 Boston Bruins against the #3 Toronto Maple Leafs. Again, like most series in the playoffs, these teams know each other very well and do not always have the most friendly relations. These two teams have played four times in the season, with Boston winning the series 3-1. Based on the regular season meetings, and with the strength of the Bruins in Chara, Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak, the Bruins have no problem scoring and are very hard-hitters. However, Tuukka Rask has been off his game for a decent chunk of the season and has almost a 3.00 GAA. And if there's one thing that Toronto can do well, it's score goals. Between Matthews and Tavares, the Leafs are dangerous enough, but add in Marner and the third and fourth lines, there's a high chance that the Leafs can create some chaos up front to disrupt Rask. As much as we're really pulling for Toronto here, the Bruins have more depth and seem to have had the Leafs' number this season, so Boston in 7.
With the final matchup in the East, the #1 Washington Capitals will face off against the first Wild Card team, the Carolina Hurricanes. These two teams met four times in the season, with Washington sweeping the series 4-0. Unfortunately, I see this playoff series going about as well as the regular season one. Carolina's biggest weapon is Sebastian Aho, who by all means is an absolutely incredible player, but there isn't a lot of depth past the first two lines, whereas Washington is one of the most in-depth teams in the league. Carolina has decent goaltending, but I don't think that it will be enough against Ovechkin. Washington has other weapons as well, such as Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Oshie. But let's not forget the brick wall that is Brayden Holtby during the playoffs. With the incredible depth of Washington in the third and fourth lines, like Wilson, Eller, Carlson, and Vrana, I really don't see a way that Carolina breaks through the tough defense of the Caps and plays good enough defense of their own to survive. Sadly, I see Washington in five.
And finally, in the last playoff matchup, we have the #1 Calgary Flames from the West against the second Western Wild Card Colorado Avalanche. These two teams have not seen much of each other this season, mostly because Calgary plays in the Pacific while Colorado is a Central team. The Flames have swept the season series 3-0, and that's mostly due to the depth of the Flames, as well as their scoring abilities. Gaudreau, Monahan, Lindholm, and Tkachuk lead the Flames with at least 27 goals each. While it's clear that the Flames have goal-scoring abilities, they have a similar problem to Boston, that the goaltending hasn't been as good as it should be this season. If Colorado wants to have a shot at moving on, their top players like MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog have to create some commotion in front of the net and take quality shots to score on a tough Flames defense. Colorado's goalie, Philipp Grubauer has been inconsistent this season, but has to be on his game every minute to deal with Calgary. I think Colorado can put up a decent fight, but not enough to defeat Calgary. I call Calgary in six.