2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Division Finals Preview

2019 Stanley Cup playoffs

Remember those fearless predictions about the Stanley Cup playoffs I made about the Stanley Cup playoffs, just two weeks ago? That bracket might as well get tossed through the shredder. The top seeds in both conferences, Tampa Bay and Calgary, won exactly one first-round game between them. All four division winners, including last year’s Stanley Cup champion Washington and perennial contender Nashville, are out. Pittsburgh, Winnipeg and Vegas, all contenders with recent long playoff runs, are no longer alive.

What does that leave us with? All eight teams remaining have a real opportunity to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. The five upstarts — Columbus, Colorado, Carolina, Dallas and the New York Islanders — now could go all the way, while expectations are raised even higher for Boston, San Jose and St. Louis.

For my part, I fared better than most prognosticators. Though I predicted Tampa Bay would win the Stanley Cup, my predicted Western Conference finalist San Jose survived (only after a historic comeback). I also picked Colorado’s upset of Calgary, St. Louis’ upending of Winnipeg (if you can call that an upset). I even had Boston over Toronto in seven games (though that is becoming a trend).

Here’s my predictions for the second-round:

Eastern Conference Preview

Atlantic Division Final

Boston Bruins (First Round: Defeated Toronto 4-3) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (First Round: Defeated Tampa Bay 4-0)

After a sluggish start to their series against Toronto, Boston came roaring back to knock off Toronto for the second straight year, winning three of the last four contests. At times the Bruins were in danger of getting run out of the rink by the high-flying Maple Leafs, but a pair key power play goals late in the first period of Game 6 turned the series. The other difference-maker was Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s willingness to break up his big line, moving sniper David Pastrnak (six points) to spread out his offense, which caused matchup issues for Toronto’s outmanned defense. Brad Marchand, who led Boston with four goals and nine points, was a difference-maker, as was Zdeno Chara and the Bruins’ bend-but-don’t-break defense, in front of a solid Tuukka Rask (2.32 GAA, .928 SP) in goal.

Meanwhile, extremely an well-rested Columbus squad just pulled off one of the NHL’s most stunning upsets, turning its series against Cup favorite Tampa Bay in Game 1. Down 3-0 in the game, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (2.01 GAA, .932 SP) made a huge save early in the second period on the league’s top scorer Nikita Kucherov, which triggered the Blue Jackets’ stunning 4-3 comeback win. Bobrovsky continued to play great throughout the series, while deadline acquisition Matt Duchene (team-leading three goals and seven points in the first round) finally got red-hot, giving Columbus secondary scoring they have been waiting for since the team’s flurry of late-season trades. As important as Bobrovsky and Duchene were to the upset, I’d argue that Columbus’ defense was the difference maker in the series as Seth Jones and Zach Werenski were both terrific at both ends of the ice.

Boston-Columbus should be an extremely hard-fought, physical series. This one may get decided early if Columbus struggles to find its rhythm again after a long layoff, or if Boston gets down early and runs out of gas after a taxing first round. However I expect this to be another long haul. Coaches and matchups will be a huge in this series, especially if the Blue Jackets can effectively slow down Boston’s big line. The Bruins don’t have a ton of offensive depth to expose Columbus’ bottom blueliners, while Columbus will face a team willing to push back and is much stouter defensively top to bottom than Tampa Bay. I like Boston, the highest remaining seed left in the playoffs, to survive in six games.

Metropolitan Division Final

New York Islanders (First Round: Defeated Pittsburgh 4-0) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (First Round: Defeated Washington 4-3)

The upstart New York Islanders deployed a textbook game plan to slow down and overwhelm the tired Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. New York gave Pittsburgh very little room to maneuver, and goaltender Robin Lehner (1.47 G.A.A., .956) was terrific. However, the difference in their series against the Penguins was New York’s timely goals, from Josh Bailey’s overtime winner in Game 1 to counter-punching every time Pittsburgh scored. Remarkably, the Penguins scored the first goal in each of the final three games of the series, only to see the Islanders respond with a goal of their own under three minutes later. Offensively Jordan Eberle had a big series (team-leading four goals and six points), while Mathew Barzel continued to play well.

After losing the first two games of their first-round series against heavily favored Washington, Carolina found its footing with two inspired wins on home ice. Though the Hurricanes lacked the talent and experience of the defending Stanley Cup Champions, they were able to methodically outwork the Capitals. The difference was their defense, led by Jaccob Slavin (team-leading nine points), which failed to break outside of a blowout loss in Game 5. Carolina is not a very deep team. Its core, led by aging captain Justin Williams (once again a Game 7 hero), veteran Jordan Staal and star-in-the-making Sebastian Aho might not have much left in the tank after climbing the Washington mountain. That may not matter if goaltender Petr Mrazek (2.54 GAA, .899 SP) continues to play well in goal, and Warren Foegele (team-leading four goals) continues his coming out party.

In a matchup no one would have predicted before the regular season, let alone the playoffs, gas in the tank might be the largest factor in who moves on. The Islanders are well-rested but could be complacent, especially early on. Carolina is riding high, but may not enough left to overcome the defensively stout Islanders. I like the Hurricanes to take Game 1, but then be stifled for the rest of the way in a five-game Islanders win.

Western Conference Preview

Central Division Final

St. Louis Blues (First Round: Defeated Winnipeg 4-2) vs. Dallas Stars (First Round: Defeated Nashville 4-2)

In order to defeat Winnipeg (the most talented team in the Western Conference) in the first round, St. Louis stuck to the exact game plan that made it the hottest team in the NHL during the second half of the season: solid goaltending from Jordan Binnington (2.63 GAA, .908 SP), a bruising defense led by Alex Pietrangelo (team-leading six points) that does not allow many opportunities against, and just enough offense. Though star Vladimir Tarasenko struggled at times against Winnipeg, his teammates had his back. Jaden Schwartz (team-leading four goals), who endured a nightmare season, found life via a line juggling. Oskar Sundqvist, Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron all played well against the Jets.

Dallas was relentless in its first-round upset of Nashville. Down 2-1 after three games, the Stars were the better team throughout the series, and turned the tide with a four-goal first period in Game 4. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov (team-leading four goals) each tallied six points and overwhelmed the vaunted Nashville defense. However, the biggest difference maker was the Stars’ other trio — the young trifecta of John Klingberg (six points), Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell, as well as star goaltender Ben Bishop (1.90 GAA, .945 SP). They completely stifled Nashville’s banged-up offense.

I have been on the Blues’ bandwagon ever since their amazing second-half turnaround and I like the run to continue for at least one more series. Both teams are stout defensively, so every game should be tight and low-scoring in this series. I would expect even a few lengthy overtime contests, but St. Louis to emerge in six games.

Pacific Division Final

San Jose Sharks (First Round: Defeated Vegas 4-3) vs. Colorado Avalanche (First Round: Defeated Calgary 4-1)

It is amazing how one power play could turn a series, but down 3-0 in the third period against their arch-nemesis Vegas, San Jose needed something to go their way. The Sharks lost their captain, heart-and-soul player Joe Pavelski, to a gruesome head injury. That triggered another gear we have been waiting for all year from the Sharks. In just over four minutes of a five-minute major, San Jose scored four goals and finally took control of the series. An overtime winner by Barclay Goodrow finally finished off San Jose’s nemesis, the Golden Knights. The Sharks had been the better team in Game 7, much like Vegas was the better team in Game 6, but needed a spark to finally solve Marc-Andre Fleury. Even if San Jose is without Pavelski for a while, the Sharks now look poised for a deep playoff run, led by their scoring duo of Logan Coulture and Tomas Hertl (six goals each). It all may depend on goaltender Martin Jones, who stole Game 6 but was miserable for most of the first round.

Much like Columbus in the Eastern Conference, young Colorado surgically dismantled the heavily-favored Calgary Flames in the first round. Calgary had no answer for the Avalanche’s dynamite top-line trio of Mikko Rantanen (team-leading five goals, nine points), Nathan McKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. McKinnon was especially explosive and staked his claim as the best player remaining in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Philip Grubauer (4-1-0, 1.90 GAA, .939 SP), who struggled for much of the season, played terrific against the Flames. Perhaps most surprising was Calgary’s inability to expose Colorado’s big weakness — its defense. The Avalanche may not be so lucky against the Sharks’ vaunted offense.

After barely emerging from the first round, San Jose is now the clear favorite in the Western Conference. Instead of a highly anticipated matchup against Calgary, the Sharks get the upstart Avalanche, still playing with house money. Expect McKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog to have a field day against Jones, but San Jose will be able hit back much harder than the Flames and should expose Colorado’s defensive issues. This will be a high-flying, high-scoring series, but I like San Jose in six games.

The Rest of the Playoffs

Eastern Conference

Boston over New York in five games

Western Conference

San Jose over St. Louis in seven games

Stanley Cup Finals

Boston over San Jose in seven games

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