2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs preview

2019 Stanley Cup playoffs

After an 82-game National Hockey League (NHL) regular season, one team stands alone as the clear favorite to win the Stanley Cup: the record-tying Tampa Bay Lightning, who finished with 62 wins and ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy.

Fortunately or unfortunately, two of the Lightning’s biggest rivals, Boston and Toronto, will face each other in the first round. In the Metropolitan Division five teams separated by just six points all made the postseason, including the defending champion Washington Capitals. The Capitals are a dangerous squad again this year, as are the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the Cup in 2016 and 2017.

In the West, the defending conference champion Vegas Golden Knights lost a bit of luster after their incredible ride one year ago. Strong arguments can be made for six of the eight squads — Calgary, San Jose, Nashville, Winnipeg and St. Louis, as well as the Golden Knights, to emerge and reach the Finals.

Despite the balance out West, the 2019 Stanley Cup is Tampa Bay’s to lose. However, if something goes wrong along the way for the Lightning this postseason, there are plenty of teams ready to swoop in to stake their claim for hockey’s Holy Grail.

Eastern Conference Preview

Atlantic Division

Tampa Bay Lightning (62-16-4—128 points, 1st place Atlantic Division) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (47-31-4—98 pts., 5th place Metropolitan Division & 2nd Wild Card)

Wednesday, April 10: Blue Jackets at Lightning
Friday, April 12: Blue Jackets at Lightning
Sunday, April 14: Lightning at Blue Jackets
Tuesday, April 16: Lightning at Blue Jackets
*Friday, April 19: Blue Jackets at Lightning
*Sunday, April 21: Lightning at Blue Jackets
*Tuesday, April 23: Blue Jackets at Lightning
*If necessary

Since the Salary Cap era began in 2005-06, no team enters the playoffs as a bigger favorite than the Tampa Bay Lightning. They tied Detroit’s 1995-96 squad for the most wins in a NHL season. Tampa Bay has just about everything you could want in a contending team. The Lightning feature explosive, top-line scorers such as the likely Hart Trophy winner, Nikita Kucherov (NHL-leading 128 points), Steven Stamkos (team-leading 45 goals) and Brayden Point (92 points). On the blue line Tampa Bay has last year’s Norris-winning defenseman in Victor Hedman, who has plenty of help. The Lightning also feature a potential Vezina-winning goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy (39-10-4, 2.40 GAA, .925 save percentage). The Bolts are explosive offensively, and come at teams in waves.

If there is a weakness — and it is hardly a glaring one — it is that Tampa Bay fails to get a ton of offense from its third and fourth lines. Secondary scoring can prove crucial in tight series, and Tampa Bay has yet to prove it can consistently win ugly, tight games during recent postseasons.

The first opponent for the Lightning is a Columbus squad that’s been playing for its playoff life for the past two months after General Manager Jarmo Kekäläinen went out on a limb and made a huge splash at the trade deadline, acquiring Matt Duchene and former Ohio State product Ryan Dzingel (among others) in an attempt to win now. These two forwards added to the team’s crop of free agents to be, which includes top scorer Artemi Panarin (team-leading 87 points) and two-time Vezina winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (37-24-1).

Tampa is clearly the better team, but Columbus has great young defensemen, including Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, as well as an emerging superstar in Cam Atkinson, who scored 41 goals during the regular season. The Lightning had first place wrapped up for nearly a month and better be ready right away. The Blue Jackets are playing with nothing to lose. They were arguably Washington’s biggest hurdle en route to winning the Stanley Cup last year and, at least on paper, Columbus has a better squad compared to a year ago.

The Lightning, who finished with 30 more points in the regular season, will survive this round in six games, but this series will prove that there are no pushovers in the NHL.

Boston Bruins (49-24-9—107 pts., 2nd place Atlantic Division) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (46-28-7—99 pts., 3rd place Atlantic Division)

Thursday, April 11.: Maple Leafs at Bruins
Saturday, April 13: Maple Leafs at Bruins
Monday, April 15: Bruins at Maple Leafs
Wednesday, April 17: Bruins at Maple Leafs
*Friday, April 19: Maple Leafs at Bruins
*Sunday, April 21: Bruins at Maple Leafs
*Tuesday, April 23: Maple Leafs at Bruins
*If necessary

It has been a historic season for Boston, which features the best top line in the Eastern Conference and probably all of hockey. Brad Marchand became just the 10th Bruins player to record a 100-point season. Two-way stalwart Patrice Bergeron (team-leading plus-23 rating) and sniper David Pastrnak (team-leading 38 goals in 66 games) had terrific campaigns. Boston’s young defense is really coming along, and is excellent at triggering the transition game. Captain Zdeno Chara, no longer forced to play huge minutes, is arguably more effective than he was four or five years ago.

Despite all those strengths, the Bruins do have weaknesses. This roster does not feature a ton of scoring depth beyond the top line other than David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk, and goaltender Tuukka Rask (27-13-5) has had his struggles in the playoffs. Enter Jaroslav Halak (22-11-4), who’s enjoying a career rebirth as a backup for the defense-first Bruins.

With a roster jam-packed with talent, Toronto should be among the favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference. Yet because of the other elite teams in the Atlantic Division, there are reasons to worry. Toronto’s offensive is incredible, and comes at opponents in waves. It is led by the young duo of Auston Matthews (73 points) and Mitch Marner (team-leading 94 points), but the big difference in 2018-19 is the off-season addition of John Tavares. The longtime Islanders captain had a career year in Toronto, scoring 47 goals. Goaltender Frederik Andersen (36-16-7) had arguably his best year too, despite facing a lot of rubber behind Toronto’s glaring weakness — its defense.

The Leafs’ Achilles heel, which cost them last year against the Bruins, has not drastically improved. However, Morgan Rielly did have a career year (20 goals, 72 points, plus-24 rating) on the blue line, and two-time Stanley Cup winning defenseman Jake Muzzin was a big in-season acquisition from Los Angeles.

Boston vs. Toronto exemplifies the kind of rivalry matchup the NHL was hoping to create with this playoff format. With two contenders are facing each other in the first round, it’s hard to pick against the Bruins due to their advantages in goal and on defense.

Bruins survive in six games.

Metropolitan Division

Washington Capitals (48-26-8—104 pts., 1st place Metro Division) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (46-29-7—99 pts., 4th place Metro Division & 1st Wild Card)

Thursday, April 11: Hurricanes at Capitals
Saturday, April 13: Hurricanes at Capitals
Monday, April 15: Capitals at Hurricanes
Thursday, April 18: Capitals at Hurricanes
*Saturday, April 20: Hurricanes at Capitals
*Monday, April 22: Capitals at Hurricanes
*Wednesday, April 24: Hurricanes at Capitals
*If necessary

The defending Stanley Cup champions are starting to click at the right time of year, especially on the offensive end. Despite enjoying a fun summer, Alex Ovechkin (team-leading 89 points) showed little sign of slowing down with his goal scoring prowess this season, putting up a league-leading 51-spot. On the blue line John Carlson (team-leading 57 assists) is growing as a leader of this underrated group. In 2018-19 the Capitals continued to show the depth and the physical play that made them so menacing last postseason. Washington’s weaknesses, though relatively slight, are in goal where Braden Holtby (32-19-5) again struggled during the regular season (see the run-up to 2017-18), and defensive depth due to Michael Kempney’s season-ending injury.

The Storm Surge was so strong this year in Carolina, it ended the NHL’s longest playoff drought. Congrats are in order for the fun, up-and-coming ‘Canes, who will be dangerous in the postseason. Carolina can compete with any team in the NHL on its blue line thanks to its great trio of Dougie Hamilton, Justin Faulk and Jaccob Slavin. The Hurricanes also have some elite scorers like Sebastian Aho (team-leading 30 goals and 83 points) and Teuvo Teravainen (team-leading 55 assists) on offense. In goal, Carolina’s Petr Mrazek (23-14-3, 2.39 GAA) saved a career heading south by joining a team in the south, but the verdict is still out on whether he can come up big in the postseason. The Hurricanes also lack extensive secondary scoring, a possible dooming issue when the games get tighter.

Due to their playoff inexperience, Carolina is perhaps an easier draw for Washington than Columbus, but that would discount the momentum the Hurricanes generated after a terrible start to the season. Carolina is a great story, but a now rejuvenated Capitals squad is gearing up for another deep run.

Capitals cruise in five games.

New York Islanders (48-27-7—103 pts., 2nd place Metro Division) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (44-26-12—100 pts., 3rd place Metro Division)

Wednesday, April 10: Penguins at Islanders
Friday, April 12: Penguins at Islanders
Sunday, April 14: Islanders at Penguins
Tuesday, April 16: Islanders at Penguins
*Thursday, April 18: Penguins at Islanders
*Saturday, April 20: Islanders at Penguins
*Monday, April 22: Penguins at Islanders
*If necessary

2018-19 represented an amazing turnaround for the New York Islanders, a franchise that lost one of the NHL’s best players (Tavares) in the offseason, yet managed a 20-plus point standings climb. Three major factors triggered the Islanders remarkable turnaround: 1) The addition of coach Barry Trotz; 2) Trotz bringing key members of his coaching staff from D.C., including his goaltending coach Mitch Korn. 3) Returning games to the Nassau Coliseum. Trotz installed solid systems to a loose team and drastically cleaned up play in the defensive zone. The Islanders are not a flashy team, but their stout defense keeps them in every game.

Meanwhile, Korn worked wonders on the ultra-talented off-season addition Robin Lehner (25-13-5, 2.13 GAA, .930 SP). Lehner had a career year, while backup Thomas Greiss also played well. Though it was not for the full schedule, the Islanders’ fan base returned in droves to the old/new barn and it has helped provide the atmosphere that the team lacked downtown. Now New York has the NHL’s permission to hold playoff games at the Coliseum. Couple those three factors with the growth of talent like leading scorer Mathew Barzel (62 points) and captain Anders Lee (team-leading 28 goals), and you have the ingredients for a surprising contender.

The window of contention for the Pittsburgh Penguins with Sidney Crosby (team-leading 65 assists and 100 points) is reaching its final years. Pittsburgh managed to make the playoffs this time, but needed every point it could find along the way. The Penguins’ roster, thinned for years by championship runs, is aging and starting to decline. That being said, anytime a team lines up with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin (72 points in 68 games), 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel, defenseman Kris Letang (56 points in 65 games) and goaltender Matt Murray (29-14-6), it is always going to be dangerous. Crosby had a spectacular second half, while Malkin and Letang each got some key rest due to injuries. Murray, who got off to a terrible start, had some huge stretches late in the season. The goaltender is the clear X-factor for this squad, but is a bit of an enigma in the fact that he still does not have a great regular season on his resume. Still, the two-time Stanley Cup winner is more than capable of stealing a series.

Though there is plenty of optimism with the new regime on Long Island, I don’t see that optimism lasting long in the playoffs. The Penguins are battle-hardened, and have enough pieces in place to overcome the upstart Islanders. It will be a long, gritty series, but I expect the Penguins to prevail in seven games.

Western Conference Preview

Central Division

Nashville Predators (47-29-6—100 pts., 1st place Central Division) vs. Dallas Stars (43-32-7—93 pts., 4th place Central Division & 1st Wild Card)

Wednesday, April 10: Stars at Predators
Saturday, April 13: Stars at Predators
Monday, April 15: Predators at Stars
Wednesday, April 17: Predators at Stars
*Saturday, April 20: Stars at Predators
*Monday, April 22: Predators at Stars
*Wednesday, April 24: Stars at Predators
*If necessary

With come-from-behind wins in its final two games, Nashville overcame the swooning Winnipeg Jets and surging St. Louis Blues to win the hotly contested Central Division. Their huge prize is avoiding the other two top division contenders in the first round, and instead should enjoy a matchup against arguably the weakest team in this year’s playoffs — Dallas. Though Nashville has yet to show its best version of itself, the Predators are experienced and battle-tested.

The Predators are a matchup nightmare on its blue line. Its top-four group of defensemen, Roman Josi (56 points), P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, are arguably the best top four in the league. The Predators also have an explosive top line, featuring three game-changers in Ryan Johansen (team-leading 50 assists, 64 points), Viktor Arvidsson (franchise record 34 goals) and Filip Forsberg. Though the Predators have a lot of depth, their big concern is at the second-line center spot, where Kyle Turris has failed to live up to expectations. Star goaltender Pekka Rinne (30-19-4, 2.42 GAA, .918 SP), now a 36-year-old, is still one of the NHL’s best. The towering Finn has struggled in the playoffs over the years. If that happens again, capable backup Jusse Saros could save Nashville’s postseason.

Even with a roster featuring many big names, including two of the biggest in hockey in Jamie Benn (53 points) and Tyler Seguin (team-leading 33 goals, 47 assists and 80 points), Dallas has not kept pace with the NHL’s best teams. The Stars have struggled to find secondary scoring over the years, and it is an issue that continues to plague the team. Dallas does have a nice group of defense led by young stars John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell, but the real reason why the Stars made the playoffs is goaltender Ben Bishop. Bishop, who has shown flashes of greatness over the years, posted a career season (27-15-2, 1.98 GAA, .934 SP). If he is healthy and at the top of his game, the Stars will be a tough out.

Nashville needed every one of its 100 points to win the division, and it will prove very beneficial in the first round. Though only seven points separates these teams, Nashville clearly has the better squad and should coast here in the first round. The Predators move on in five games.

Winnipeg Jets (47-30-5—99 pts., 2nd place Central Division) vs. St. Louis Blues (45-28-9—99 points, 3rd place Central Division)

Wednesday, April 10: Blues at Jets
Friday, April 12: Blues at Jets
Sunday, April 14: Jets at Blues
Tuesday, April 16: Jets at Blues
*Thursday, April 18: Blues at Jets
*Saturday, April 20: Jets at Blues
*Monday, April 22: Blues at Jets
*If necessary

For a team with huge expectations coming into the season, Winnipeg enters the playoffs floundering, having allowed Nashville to overtake them to win the Central Division. Not only did the Jets forgo having the home ice advantage in potential Division Finals series against the rival Predators, but now Winnipeg has to play a brutally tough first round series against the red hot St. Louis Blues. On paper Winnipeg, led by captain Blake Wheeler (91 points), is still the best team in the division. They have size like Mark Scheifele (team-leading 38 goals), strength and a wealth of talent on offense. Plus the Jets feature a solid group of defensemen (led by Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba), and a normally elite goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck, who struggled at times this season (34-23-3). Injuries have been an issue as of late, and superstar Patrick Laine (30 goals) has struggled at times with his scoring touch.

For the St. Louis Blues, the turnaround in 2019 versus the final months of 2018 was staggering. Left for dead and in last place in the league just beyond the Christmas holiday, the Blues made a coaching change and a goaltending change, which resulted in all of the pieces of the puzzle finally fitting together. Rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington (24-5-1, 1.89 GAA, .927 SP) is the biggest storyline. Having played just one NHL game prior to 2018-19, the rookie ran with the St. Louis net and never gave it up, posting a Calder or even Vezina-worthy half-season. Meanwhile, Ryan O’Reilly (team-leading 49 assists and 77 points) carried on his strong play all year, while sniper Vladimir Tarasenko (team-leading 33 goals) got hot in the second half. The Blues still have a wealth of talent as far as defensemen, including captain Alex Pietrangelo. If there is one weakness it is still scoring depth, but St. Louis’ bottom-six forwards keep improving.

With just two wins separating these two teams, it would hard to call a St. Louis series victory here an upset. The Blues are hot and can match up with the strength and size of the Jets. Plus St. Louis features a solid group of defensemen ready to slow down Winnipeg’s scorers. This prediction hinges on Binnington, but I think he will stay hot for a few more weeks. The Blues pull this series out in seven games.

Pacific Division

Calgary Flames (50-25-7—107 pts., 1st place Pacific Division) vs. Colorado Avalanche (38-30-14—90 pts., 5th place Central Division & 2nd Wild Card)

Thursday, April 11: Avalanche at Flames
Saturday, April 13: Avalanche at Flames
Monday, April 15: Flames at Avalanche
Wednesday, April 17: Flames at Avalanche
*Friday, April 19: Avalanche at Flames
*Sunday, April 21: Flames at Avalanche
*Tuesday, April 23: Avalanche at Flames
*If necessary

A year after the Flames missed the playoffs, new coach Bill Peters has Calgary back with a vengeance atop the Western Conference. Calgary’s success is no fluke. The Flames have a special squad featuring a fun combination of top-flight offense anchored by a sizzling superstar in Johnny Gaudreau (team-leading 36 goals and 99 points). The Flames also feature a little bit of scrappy toughness (see Matthew Tkachuk) and some of the NHL’s best blueliners led by Mark Giordano (74 points). If there’s a concern for Calgary, it is the age-old issue that has plagued the team since Miikka Kiprusoff retired in 2013. Can either David Rittich (27 wins) or Mike Smith (23 wins) make enough big saves to prevent an upset? If either gets rolling, expect the Flames to burn hot all postseason.

On the other side of the coin, the hottest team in the NHL going into the playoffs is the Colorado Avalanche. Colorado fought off the February doldrums to grab the final playoff spot in the West with an impressive run. The Avalanche feature an up-and-coming squad whose offense is already here. Colorado has a ton of offense in its top line, as the trio of Nathan MacKinnon (team-leading 41 goals and 99 points), Mikko Rantanen (87 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (75 points) are arguably the NHL’s best and can dominate games. In goal Philip Grubauer (18-9-5) got off to a slow start, but he has been playing great as of late, while Semyon Varlamov is very capable as well. The Avalanche’s weak spot is on defense, despite a great season from Tyson Barrie (59 points) and young Samuel Girard’s growth.

Calgary and Colorado should provide an exciting brand of hockey as both teams carry a strong offense first mentality, and have question marks in goal. The matchup to watch in this series is Calgary’s Giordano & T.J. Brodie vs. the Avs’ MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog. If Colorado wins that matchup, they have a big shot in this series. For that reason I see an upset here as the Avalanche steal this one in seven games.

San Jose Sharks (46-27-9—101 pts., 2nd place Pacific Division) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (43-32-7—93 pts., 3rd place Pacific Division)

Wednesday, April 10: Golden Knights at Sharks
Friday, April 12: Golden Knights at Sharks
Sunday, April 14: Sharks at Golden Knights
Tuesday, April 16: Sharks at Golden Knights
*Thursday, April 18: Golden Knights at Sharks
*Sunday, April 21: Sharks at Golden Knights
*Tuesday, April 23: Golden Knights at Sharks
*If necessary

With a defensive group second to none in the NHL, San Jose was a trendy pick all season to contend for the Stanley Cup. The Sharks’ trio of Brent Burns (team-leading 67 assists and 83 points), Erik Karlsson (45 points in 53 games) and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, is stout. Plus this is the deepest San Jose offense in team history, with plenty of scoring wealth, highlighted by Tomas Hertl (74 points) and Joe Pavelski (team-leading 38 goals), spread throughout three lines. For the Sharks, the biggest concern going into the playoffs is in goal. Despite earning 35 wins this season, Martin Jones has not been great between the pipes. Certainly Jones’ struggles are a product of San Jose’s offense-first mentality, but they are a concern for a Sharks squad expecting a long postseason run.

After a magical ride to the Stanley Cup finals last season, which upset the apple cart of fellow contenders like the Sharks and Jets, Vegas regressed a bit this season, especially at the outset. Still, there is a lot to like about the Golden Knights, who possess a very balanced offense. Fine additions Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny joined Vegas’ big two of William Karlsson (56 points) and Jonathan Marchessault (team-leading 25 goals and 59 points). The Golden Knights also feature some solid blue liners like Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt. But what makes Vegas especially dangerous is the fact that they feature the best goaltender in the division in Marc-Andre Fleury (35-21-5, 2.51 GAA, .913 SP).

I picked against Vegas in every round last year, and I feel like there’s no reason to stop now. The Golden Knights have a terrific team, but I’ve had a feeling all year on the Sharks. I love their blue line, I love their power play and I love their transition game. I think those three things will help San Jose prevail in a long and difficult seven-game series.

The Rest of the Playoffs

Eastern Conference
Atlantic Division Finals: Tampa Bay defeats Boston in six games
Metropolitan Division Finals: Washington defeats Pittsburgh in seven games
Eastern Conference Finals: Tampa Bay beats Washington in five games

Western Conference
Central Division Finals: Nashville defeats St. Louis in five games
Pacific Division Finals: San Jose defeats Colorado in five games
Western Conference Finals: San Jose defeats Nashville in seven games

2019 Stanley Cup Finals Prediction
Tampa Bay defeats San Jose in six games

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