2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs – Round 1 Preview
Another great NHL season is down the tubes with a very competitive playoffs coming with the still screwy division seeding format. In the East, I like Boston. In the West, I like Nashville. Tampa Bay and Vegas are strong backups. But there’s almost no way the Penguins repeat, even though they will probably end up in the Conference Finals again.
A1 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. W2 New Jersey Devils
Season Series: 3-0 Devils
Playoff Series History: 2-0 Devils
What We Learned: The Lightning were consistently one of the best teams all season long. They were also the highest scoring team. The Devils were actually leading the Metropolitan division for a while before ending up with the last wild card. Something they seemed to have wanted because they rested all of their stars in their last game even though they could have moved up to third.
Stars to Watch: There’s a lot of stars to watch in this one. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are as good as any one two punch. Brayden Point developed into a scoring threat. Tyler Johnson took a step back but he’s usually a big threat in the playoffs. Victor Hedman anchors a pretty good defense. Taylor Hall is making his first playoff appearance in his career after his best season ever. Nico Hischier had a good rookie year. Other than Kyle Palmieri, most of the Devils are pretty average.
X-Factor: The Devils lack of depth and playoff experience will probably be a real problem. But the Devils beat the Lightning three times and seemingly wanted to draw the Lightning based on them resting their players. Clearly they know something we don’t. What that is remains to be seen.
Goalie Problem: Andrei Vasilevskiy had a great season and was tied for the league lead in shutouts. He played pretty well the last time he was in the playoffs. Keith Kinkaid has taken over for Cory Schneider, who hasn’t been the same since his injury. Though Kinkaid hasn’t played bad, has no playoff experience and this is probably the worst goalie tandem in the playoffs. Big advantage to the Lightning here.
Fun Fact: Taylor Hall finished with 41 more points than the next closest Devil.
Prediction: It’s odd that the Devils swept the Lightning during the regular season. It’s odder that they want to play them. What would be really odd is if they won this series. I don’t really see that happening though. The core of this Lightning have come close to winning it all but they haven’t done it yet. They are still hungry. Lightning in 6.
A2 Boston Bruins vs. A3 Toronto Maple Leafs
Season Series: 3-1 Maple Leafs
Playoff Series History: 8-6 Maple Leafs
What We Learned: The Bruins, as usual, couldn’t win enough games down the stretch to win the division. The Maple Leafs have been stuck in this playoff seed for at least a month.
Stars to Watch: Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron are three of the most dangerous and skilled at their positions. Torey Krug anchors a good defense. The rest of the team is deep and pretty good. Mitchell Marner, Auston Matthews and William Nylander are the core of this young team. But Nazem Kadri was the one that had his best season ever.
X-Factor: There’s a lot of other things to watch for in this series. How much can Zdeno Chara do? Will Rick Nash do anything to warrant his big trade? What will Patrick Marleau do? How much animosity is there between these two teams? Will one of these teams choke like they usually do?
Goalie Problem: Frederik Andersen pretty much has the same exact season every year. At least he is consistent. Although he’s had some bad games in the playoffs, he’s mostly been pretty good. Tuukka Rask had an up and down season but he still had a decent one. He also gets better in the playoffs.
Fun Fact: The Maple Leafs have the second best powerplay and the Bruins have the fourth best. Expect a lot of powerplay goals in this one.
Prediction: Although this series will be highly entertaining between two very even teams, I really didn’t want it to happen in the first round. One really good team is going to be sent home way too early. I also feel for the Maple Leafs who have to face a higher seeded team than they should. After coming up real close against the Capitals last playoffs, I feel the same thing will happen here. Another close and disappointing series loss for the Maple Leafs. Bruins in 7, in a real dandy.
M1 Washington Capitals vs. W1 Columbus Blue Jackets
Season Series: 3-1 Capitals
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Capitals did what they always do, they won their division. They just didn’t get the best record overall this time. The Blue Jackets had a mostly uneventful regular season.
Stars to Watch: Alex Ovechkin lead the league in goals again. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom round out the usual suspects for the Capitals. The Capitals really aren’t any deeper than they usually are. Artemi Panarin was a huge pickup for the Blue Jackets and he lead them in scoring in his first season in Columbus. Their second leading scorer was a defenseman they picked up a few seasons ago, Seth Jones. Cam Atkinson didn’t break out but he still had a good season.
X-Factor: While neither team has much secondary scoring that will scare you, they each had eleven players with at least 10 goals. Whichever team can get their secondary scorers to produce more will have the advantage.
Goalie Problem: This is where it gets real interesting for the Capitals. Normally, with Braden Holtby this is one of their greatest strengths. But not this time around. Holtby had a lot of bad games this season and seemed lost sometimes. Philipp Grubauer filled in real nicely. He more than likely will get the starting nod. I’d be shocked if they went to Holtby. Holtby is still the future but this season he didn’t have it. Only downside is Grubauer has almost no playoff experience. On the other end, Sergei Bobrovsky had another Vezina like season. He didn’t play all that great against the Penguins last playoffs though. He will be out for redemption.
Fun Fact: Ovechkin took the most shots in the NHL this season but as a team the Capitals took the fewest shots. Ovechkin has only produced five goals in each of his last three playoffs.
Prediction: When the Blue Jackets are on, they are a really great team capable of taking on anyone. When they are off though, they are really bad. Putrid in fact. Who knows what team will show up here. The Capitals are once again out to prove they can get past the second round. I’m not sure that will happen but they should be able to beat the Blue Jackets in the first round at least. Capitals in 6.
M2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. M3 Philadelphia Flyers
Season Series: 4-0 Penguins, 2 went into overtime
Playoff Series History: 4-2 Flyers
What We Learned: The Penguins had one of those rocky seasons but managed to get a two seed out of it. The Flyers were bad for most of the first half of the season but put it together in the second half to secure a playoff berth.
Stars to Watch: One should always watch Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who had stellar seasons again. Largely overlooked was Phil Kessel producing the highest point total of his long career. Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist and Jake Guentzel round out a deep Penguins team. Speaking of deep teams, the Flyers also have one of the deeper ones. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek had really great seasons. Sean Couturier and Shayne Gostisbehere also had great seasons. Travis Konecny and Wayne Simmonds score a lot of key goals and do the dirty work for the Flyers.
X-Factor: These teams really don’t like each other. The Flyers also do what other teams can’t do, get under the skin of Crosby and Malkin and throw them off. This will be a brutal affair with lots of hits. The team that can keep their composure the longest will have the advantage.
Goalie Problem: Matt Murray wasn’t really the same this season but I expect he will play much better in the playoffs like he always does. The Flyers have much bigger problems. They lost their top two goalies to injury but Brian Elliott came back for the last game of the season. If he’s healthy enough to go for the Flyers, it will be a huge boost for them. Elliott usually plays pretty well in the playoffs. He will need to since he will be facing the number one powerplay and the third highest scoring team in the NHL.
Fun Fact: Five of the top 13 scorers in the NHL are in this series. The Flyers also have the 29th penalty kill, which won’t go well against the top powerplay.
Prediction: Truth be told, I would actually pick the Flyers to win this series. They have a slightly deeper team and they haven’t recently gone on two long Stanley Cup runs. But they have the same problem most recent Flyers team have, they are suspect in goal. It’s still possible the Flyers could pull the upset but I’m going to go with the Penguins in a high scoring and brutal affair. Penguins in 7.
C1 Nashville Predators vs W2 Colorado Avalanche
Season Series: 4-0 Predators
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Predators went from the team with the worst record in last season’s playoffs to the team with the best record in this playoffs. The Avalanche won their play-in game to secure the last playoff spot. They are basically last season’s Predators.
Stars to Watch: The Predators scoring is very spread out and they have many guys who can score. Think of them like a buzzsaw. They are still led by Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg. P.K Subban is also very key as well. Nathan MacKinnon is the Avalanche. But he does have a supporting cast. Mikko Rantanen developed into a top scorer and captain Gabriel Landeskog had one of his best seasons.
X-Factor: This Predators team wants to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals, badly. The Avalanche are just really happy they don’t suck anymore. I have a feeling this series will end up like the Predators first round series last season.
Goalie Problem: Pekka Rinne had a really great season that might end with him winning the Vezina. The Predators also have a backup, Juuse Saros, who is just as good. Rinne was awesome last playoffs Jonathan Bernier has stepped in and played well for the Avalanche. Bernier doesn’t have a lot of playoff experience though and he’s nowhere near the level Rinne is. Advantage Predators.
Fun Fact: The Avalanche have the worst face-off winning percentage in the NHL. The Predators have the third best. This will matter in the series and further put the Avalanche at a disadvantage.
Prediction: Last season I said you’d be nuts if you thought the Blackhawks would lose to the Predators. Oops. Having not learned my lesson, I’m going to say you would be nuts if you think the Predators will lose to the Avalanche. In all seriousness, the Predators are just a way better team in all areas than the Avalanche. I expect the games to be close though. Predators in 5.
C2 Winnipeg Jets vs. C3 Minnesota Wild
Season Series: 3-1 Jets
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Jets finally put it all together for their best season in a long time. The Wild had a rough start but found their groove in the second half of the season.
Stars to Watch: The Jets are a very potent team. Patrik Laine is always a threat, Blake Wheeler had a career season and Kyle Connor excelled in his first full season. The Wild are a balanced team too but Eric Staal had his best season in a decade. Behind him are Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker, who had his best season ever. They lost Ryan Suter, who logged a lot of minutes, which is a crushing blow.
X-Factor: The Wild are still a Bruce Boudreau team which doesn’t bold well for them. Especially after that stinker against the Blues last season where Boudreau blamed everything but his team’s performance for the loss. This is their first series since then. It’ll be interesting to see how the first few games go. Given that the series will start in Winnipeg, I imagine not well.
Goalie Problem: Connor Hellebuyck had a decent season for the Jets but he has no playoff experience. But as Matt Murray has shown, that doesn’t matter. I think he will play decent enough in his first series. On the other side, Devan Dubnyk does have playoff experience. However, his playoff runs are never as good as his regular seasons. His last playoff run was better though. The goaltending is pretty much even in this series and slightly unknown.
Fun Fact: The Jets have not actually won a playoff game in their new incarnation. That should change here.
Prediction: The Jets are a young, fast and balanced team. The Wild are very similar to the Jets but a rung below in most areas, with a history of not doing much in the playoffs and a coach that never wins playoff series. They also lost their top defenseman. This pretty much makes a Jets win a foregone conclusion. Jets in 6.
P1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. W1 Los Angeles Kings
Season Series: 2-2, two games went to overtime
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Golden Knights record breaking regular season concluded with a division title. The Kings just barely sneaked into the playoffs like they always do.
Stars to Watch: The Kings scoring goes where Jeff Carter goes. And he’s back and better than ever. However, Anze Kopitar had his best year ever in his long career. Dustin Brown has also been rejuvenated and also had his best season ever. Tyler Toffoli still hasn’t broken out but he played decent enough. Then there’s Drew Doughty who logs a lot of minutes. The Vegas Knights are led by William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault. Karlsson probably had the most surprising season ever, Erik Haula, Reilly Smith and James Neal round out their scoring
X-Factor: Most of the Golden Knights have no playoff experience or no meaningful playoff experience. Except for Fleury and Neal of course. But they also had never played together before and that worked out pretty well for them. The Kings have a lot of playoff experience. The core of the team also won two Stanley Cups. This will probably be the most uneven series in terms of playoff experience.
Goalie Problem: Marc-Andre Fleury had basically his best season ever. That’s very impressive when you consider everything he had to deal with this season. He should be able to keep that momentum going. Especially since he was great in the playoffs last season in Pittsburgh. Jonathan Quick posted his best SV% in his career this season and he’s also been known to get hot in the playoffs. This will be a really fun goalie duel between two great goalies.
Prediction: This is definitely one of the hardest series to predict. I could honestly go either way. It’s hard to pick against the Kings, given the career years some of their stars have had and their experience. Normally, I would pick them in an upset but they didn’t play that well the last time they were in the playoffs. I’m also worried about the lack of great defensemen on the Golden Knights. But I can’t believe the Golden Knights magical season would just end in the first round. Vegas should be rocking for the home playoff games too. Golden Knights in 7, in a dandy.
P2 Anaheim Ducks vs. P3 San Jose Sharks
Season Series: 3-1 Sharks, with three going to a shootout
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Ducks
What We Learned: The Ducks got hot at the right time to snatch away home ice in the first round. The Shark pretty much had the same exact season they had last season. Good but not great.
Stars to Watch: Brent Burns was once again the Sharks leading scorer, which is odd since he is still a defenseman. Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture are still the next two most important players on the Sharks. Tomas Hertl still hasn’t broken out yet but he was decent enough. Joe Thornton probably won’t be ready to go by the start of this series and Patrick Marleau is gone now. It’s the changing of the guard. The Sharks also acquired Evander Kane who is appearing in his first playoffs. Rickard Rakell has become the Ducks most important player. Ryan Getzlaf can still produce even though he is on the downside of his career. Corey Perry is also on the downside but can still produce. The Ducks are going through their own star transition. The rest of the Ducks are mostly average but they are a very balanced group of secondary scorers that can all score when needed.
X-Factor: These teams don’t like each other. This will be the first time these two teams have met in the playoffs since the Ducks beat the Sharks as an 8th seed. I think the Sharks will want some revenge. Also Cam Fowler, the Ducks top defenseman, will miss the first round. That’s a huge blow to the Ducks.
Goalie Problem: Martin Jones pretty much has the same exact regular season every year. But in the playoffs, he tends to play even better. On the other end, John Gibson has great regular seasons but in the playoffs it’s been more of a mixed bag. I expect Gibson to play better making this goaltending match-up pretty much even.
Fun Fact: The Ducks are the lowest scoring team in the playoffs. They also have one of the worst powerplays. The Sharks have the 2nd best penalty kill.
Prediction: This is another hard series to predict. It’s actually a good thing the Sharks are now the third seed. They play better when they have less pressure. Neither of these teams are consistent and neither really rely on one player. But the Sharks seem to have more star power. This will be a long and nasty series. Losing Fowler is a big blow for the Ducks. My gut is telling me the Sharks will prevail. Sharks in 7.
Author: Alex Mueller
Alex Mueller graduated from Temple University with a minor in journalism over a decade ago. He’s been writing about NHL hockey, on and off, since the Fall of 2009. He’s written for Pucking Awesome, the Checking Line and now Hockey Recaps. He played goalie at San Diego Ice Arena. His first novel, Bobby Sterling vs Truth, is available on Amazon now.