Las Vegas is Spanish for “the gardens.” Its hockey team, the Golden Knights, have already planted the seeds of of a surprising season. Now comes the playoffs, and we’ve predicted a few surprises still to come:
- Tampa Bay (54-23-5—113 points) vs. 2WC. New Jersey (44-29-9—97)
After surprisingly missing the playoffs in 2017, Tampa Bay is back as a Stanley Cup favorite. The Lightning balance exceptional top-end talent like Nikita Kucherov (team-leading 39 goals and 100 points) and Steven Stamkos with a maturing goaltender entering his prime Andrei Vasilevskiy (NHL-leading 44 wins). The fact that Tampa Bay features elite blue liners like Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev, and plenty of depth at every position does not hurt their chances.
Another team that is returning to the playoffs in 2018 is the New Jersey Devils, thanks in large part to its budding offensive star Taylor Hall (team-leading 39 goals and 93 points), and the combination of young defensemen Will Butcher and Sami Vatanen. The Devils also have two No. 1 options in goal in Keith Kinkaid (26-10-3) and Cory Schneider (17-16-6). Kinkaid will likely get the first crack at slowing down Tampa Bay.
Hovering around the NHL’s upper echelon for years, this may be the year that Tampa Bay finally puts it altogether. Young New Jersey should only be a minor speed bump en route to second Stanley Cup finals berth in three years, as the Lightning sweep the Devils.
- Boston (50-20-12—112) vs. 3. Toronto (49-26-7—105)
Led by its stellar trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand (team-leading 85 points) and David Pastrnak (team-leading 35 goals), Boston made a stunning return to the NHL’s elite in 2017-18. The Bruins boast solid scoring depth, maturing young skaters, and a blue line anchored by the ageless Zdeno Chara alongside stud Torey Krug and rookie Charlie McAvoy. Goaltender Tuukka Rask (34-14-5) also had a great season.
For a team heaped with high expectations, Toronto went through some growing pains in 2017-18. The Maple Leafs struggled at times when star Auston Matthews (team-leading 34 goals) was injured. Mitch Marner (team-leading 69 points) and William Nylander had great seasons, but at times Toronto’s weakness on defense was exposed. Goaltender Frederik Andersen also went through a few rough patches. That being said, the Maple Leafs, whose playoff position wasn’t pressured at all during the regular season, could be a big sleeper.
This should be a terrific series, and one Boston could have avoided with a win in its 82nd game. Boston holds a clear edge in goal and in veteran leadership, but Toronto is a very fast squad. I still like Boston in six games.
- Washington (49-26-7—105) vs. 1WC. Columbus (45-30-7—97)
The Washington Capitals are still Alexander Ovechkin’s team. He scored 49 goals to lead the NHL. Though their roster looks quite a bit different than their recent peak, the core of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and defenseman John Carlson are still intact. Braden Holtby has not been his usual stellar self in goal, but he still racked up 34 wins. Washington can score with anyone in the league, especially on the power play, but its overall depth has become a big question mark.
With the addition of Artemi Panarin, Columbus has the elite scorer it’s lacked since trading Ryan Johansen. The Blue Jackets will never be considered the flashiest team in the NHL, but forwards Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson can pile up goals. Where Columbus always shines is from the backline in. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are two of the best defensemen in the NHL, while Sergei Bobrovsky (37-22-6) is a standout in goal.
Columbus has the defenseman to slow down Washington’s top scorers, and has the clear advantage in roster depth. Therefore, I like the Blue Jackets in a six-game upset.
- Pittsburgh (47-29-6—100) vs. 3. Philadelphia (42-26-14—98)
With Evgeni Malkin (team-leading 42 goals and 98 points), Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel leading the way, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions will be as dangerous as ever in the playoffs. Goaltender Matt Murray, after a sluggish regular season, seemed to find his stride late in the year and posted 27 wins. Defense, the Penguins’ only real flaw a season ago, features a healthy Kris Letang and Justin Schultz this time around.
Philadelphia’s top line of Claude Giroux (team-leading 34 goals, 102 points), Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier is as good as any other in the NHL. Same goes for defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. The Flyers have retooled the rest of its roster and it seems to be paying dividends, especially in goal, as Brian Elliott proved to be a solid No. 1 option (23-11-7) when healthy. Though this might not be the year for a long playoff run, Philadelphia is moving in the right direction.
The latest rendition of the battle for Pennsylvania should be hotly contested. The Flyers will score plenty of goals in this series. Pittsburgh’s offensive depth, however, should provide the margin of victory in a six-game series.
- Nashville (53-18-11—117) vs. 2WC. Colorado (43-30-9—95)
Once its glaring weakness, Nashville is now the deepest team in the NHL at the center ice position, with Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino and Mike Fisher, as just four of the team’s many options. They are complimented by talented wingers like Filip Forsberg (team-leading 64 points) and Viktor Arvidsson, plus a top-four defense that is second to none. In goal, 35-year-old Pekka Rinne had another Vezina-worthy season, posting a stellar 42-13-4 record with a 2.31 goals-against average and nearly .930 save percentage. The Predators are clearly the team to beat in the West.
Colorado was historically bad in 2016-17 and is perhaps the NHL’s most unlikely playoff team. But as the Avalanche continue to mature, they should get better and better, anchored by an elite top line of Nathan MacKinnon (team-leading 39 goals and 97 points), Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. Colorado has a couple of big-minutes blueliners in Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson, and a capable goaltender in Semyon Varlamov.
Playoffs were certainly a bonus for this squad, so the Avs have the advantage of playing with house money this postseason. That being said, Nashville is simply too good to stumble here, and will likely sweep Colorado.
- Winnipeg (52-20-10—114) vs. 3. Minnesota (45-26-11—101)
The long-awaited arrival of the Winnipeg Jets finally happened in 2017-18. The Jets are big and fast and have elite talent up front with a one-two combo of Blake Wheeler (team-leading 91 points) and Patrik Laine (team-leading 44 goals). On defense, Winnipeg features the towering combo of Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers. Combine that with a young, budding superstar in goal named Connor Hellebuyck (44-11-9), and the Jets are the West’s best team outside the state of Tennessee.
With the loss of defenseman Ryan Suter for the entirety of the playoffs, Minnesota’s chances took a devastating blow. The Wild are veteran team led by the resurgent Eric Staal (team-leading 42 goals and 76 points). Minnesota plays an up-tempo game, and has a goaltender in Devan Dubnyk that can come up big when it counts.
With Minnesota facing an inexperienced Jets squad in round one, this series has the makings of an upset. However, Winnipeg should overwhelm the Wild’s defense, especially with its physical play. Jets in six games.
- Vegas (51-24-7—109) vs. 1WC. Los Angeles (45-29-8—98)
Led by the inspired William Karlsson (team-leading 43 goals and 78 points), Vegas’ thrown-together roster of expansion draft players was the surprise of the NHL in 2017-18. A dominant team at home, Jonathan Marchessault, David Perron, Reilly Smith and Erik Haula all had terrific seasons. On defense, blue liners like Colin Miller and Nate Schmidt exceeded expectations. Meanwhile, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29-13-4) thrived playing behind the Vegas core. There might not be a ton of big names on this roster, but the Golden Knights are for real.
Unfortunately, Vegas’ first-round opponent is the experienced Los Angeles Kings. Anze Kopitar is back with a vengeance this season, scoring 35 goals and 92 points. Drew Doughty is a potential Norris Trophy winner on the blue line and Dustin Brown found his game once again. With a nice combination of veterans backstopped by stalwart Jonathan Quick (33-28-3), plus young, maturing forwards, the Kings are a dangerous sleeper squad in this year’s playoffs.
Though Vegas seems like a team of destiny this year, I like Los Angeles to play the Golden Knights extremely tough. The Kings will squeak out a first-round upset.
- Anaheim (44-25-13—101) vs. 3. San Jose (45-27-10—100)
After years at the top of the West, Anaheim is a team in transition. Veterans Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are still key contributors offensively, but the Ducks have young players like Rickard Rakell (team-leading 34 goals and 69 points) taking on bigger roles. The defense is also transitioning as Josh Manson, Cam Fowler (currently injured) and Brandon Montour are all chewing up big minutes. However, Anaheim’s biggest strength is in goal, where John Gibson (31-18-7) has firmly established himself as one of the league’s best.
Veteran-laden San Jose is battle-tested and capable of a run in this year’s playoffs. Brent Burns (team-leading 67 points) is one of the NHL’s best on the blue line, while Joe Pavelski, Logan Coulture (team-leading 34 goals) and Tomas Hertl are all terrific at center ice. Along with Burns, San Jose has a steady core of blue liners with Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, and a goaltender in Martin Jones (30-22-6) who can win big games.
This should be the most intense first-round series, with little to differentiate either team. San Jose will have a speed advantage, while Anaheim is the more physical team. The margins are negligible. I will take Anaheim in seven games in a series that could go either way.
The Rest of the Playoffs
Tampa Bay over Boston in seven games; Pittsburgh over Columbus in six games. Tampa Bay over Pittsburgh in five games.
Nashville over Winnipeg in six games; Anaheim over Los Angeles in seven games.
Nashville over Anaheim in five games.
Stanley Cup Finals
Nashville over Tampa Bay in six games.