2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs – Round 1 Preview
The Tampa Bay Lightning tied the record for most wins in an NHL season with their 62 this season. To say they are the favorites would be an understatement. The only team that can beat them is themselves. And that’s a strong possibility. Because the last two conference finals they were up 3-2 before they folded like a cheap lawn chair. Those game 7’s were brutal. The looming question is whether they can move past that or not.
Last year I went 8 for 8 in the first round for my first perfect round, But it’s unlikely I can do it again. Let’s look at the first round Stanley Cup playoff match-ups.
A1 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. W2 Columbus Blue Jackets
Season Series: 3-0 Lightning, the games weren’t close either
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Lightning were consistently one of the best teams all season long. They were also the highest scoring team. I wrote the same exact thing last year in this column. The Blue Jackets had a more interesting season off the ice than on it but they ended up where they usually do. A low seeded playoff team.
Stars to Watch: Nikita Kucherov had one of those rare but magical seasons where everything just went right. Steven Stamkos is no longer the best player on the team but he is still the best goal scorer. Brayden Point continued his development into the second best goal scorer on the team. He might even surpass Stamkos next season. Victor Hedman anchors a very good defense. Only he is currently injured. Nobody is sure when he might come back. But the Lightning have the depth, see Ryan McDonagh and his +38, to survive him not being back there for the first round. The Blue Jackets are led by Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson. Panarin had a career year in points while Atkinson had a career year in goals and points. Pierre-Luc Dubois and Josh Anderson lead a deep supporting cast. Seth Jones took a bit of a step back this season but he still anchors the defense.
X-Factor: The Blue Jackets are comprised of a lot of top players who probably/might not be back next season. Something quite rare for a playoff team. You could say this playoffs may not mean much to a lot of them if they won’t be there next season. On the flipside, they’ll want to impress their new team with a strong showing. But they should also want to win a playoff series for the first time in their career.
Goalie Problem: Andrei Vasilevskiy had another great season and he only gets better every year. He was pretty solid last playoffs and he will be again. Sergei Bobrovsky had a bit of a down year, yet he somehow lead the NHL in shutouts anyway. He doesn’t usually play that well in the playoffs. That will need to change here for the Blue Jackets to have a chance.
Fun Fact: The Blue Jackets have still never won a playoff series. They’ve also lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion the last two playoffs.
Prediction: The Blue Jackets aren’t a bad team but the Lightning are a well oiled machine with a lot more playoff experience. They were also first in the penalty kill, tied with the Blue Jackets, and power play to go along with their first in goal scoring. This means it’s highly unlikely the Blue Jackets would finally win a series now. The Lightning may lose a series but it won’t be this early. Lightning in 6.
A2 Boston Bruins vs. A3 Toronto Maple Leafs
Season Series: 3-1 Bruins
Playoff Series History: 8-7 Maple Leafs
What We Learned: This is exactly the same playoff match-up and seeding we had last season. That could really only happen with this playoff format. I don’t think the Maple Leafs can be happy to be right back here.
Stars to Watch: Brad Marchand took his game to another level this season. Notching his first 100 point season. David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron are two other Bruins to definitely keep an eye on along with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk. Torey Krug had another solid season leading the defense. The Maple Leafs are led by Mitchell Marner, Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly. Matthews had a brutal series last playoffs. Producing only two points in seven games. He can’t do that again here.
X-Factor: How much do the Maple Leafs want this? Do they want to finally take the next step or lose to the Bruins yet again in the playoffs. Tavares is one of the few Leafs who has actually won a playoff series. He also averaged about a point per game in those series. He will need to continue playing that well for the Leafs to have a chance. The Leafs chances will literally live and die with him and Matthews. And that might be a problem. Because they will be shadowed by Bergeron, one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL. That match-up will probably determine the series.
Goalie Problem: Tuukka Rask had a very weird roller coaster of a season. The good thing is the Bruins have Jaroslav Halak in case Rask struggles. Frederik Andersen had a decent season but he only had one shutout. More importantly, he didn’t play that well last playoffs. He will need to play like he used to in Anaheim.
Fun Fact: The Maple Leafs were the least penalized team this season. The Bruins were the second most penalized team. The Bruins would be wise to be better disciplined this series. I wouldn’t want to face the 8th best power play anymore than I would have too. I also wouldn’t want to give the Maple Leafs any more chances to gain confidence from it.
Prediction: The Maple Leafs have been the victims of the screwy playoff format for a few years in a row now. But I really thought this would be the year they got out of the first round. It won’t be. They don’t traditionally play well against the Bruins, a team that’s in their head, in the playoffs and they haven’t exactly been on fire down the stretch. The Bruins are also way better than expected. You can see it in Mike Babcock’s face that he isn’t happy with his team and you can’t really blame him. They also managed to lose almost all of the key games they played in this season. I don’t see why that trend would suddenly change now. They will certainly make it entertaining and close though. This will be the best first round series but Bruins will prevail in 7.
M1 Washington Capitals vs. W1 Carolina Hurricanes
Season Series: 4-0 Capitals
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Capitals followed up their first Stanley Cup with a division title. What Stanley Cup hangover? The Hurricanes built on their momentum from ending last season on a winning streak by starting out slow. But they turned it back on and made the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.
Stars to Watch: Alex Ovechkin lead the league in goals, again. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom also had great seasons again for the Capitals. Beyond the big three, the Capitals supporting cast actual got better. Four other Capitals scored over 20 goals. When you think of the Hurricanes you don’t really think of stars. But they do have a few. Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen are their biggest stars. Both had career years in points. They also have Mr. Game 7 Justin Williams again.
X-Factor: The Capitals have loads of playoff experience. The Hurricanes not so much. But since one team just won the Stanley Cup and the other has been in the playoffs for ten seasons, it’s not all that surprising. The question is who will be hungrier for the win? It would be highly interesting if this series went to a Game 7 since the Hurricanes have Williams. Ironically, the only team he couldn’t work his magic on was the Capitals. They lost the only Game 7 they were in with him on the team.
Goalie Problem: Braden Holtby had a really shaky season last year but he managed to turn it around in the playoffs. His numbers aren’t as great as they used to be but he’s still pretty solid. He’ll probably have a bad game or two but he should play well otherwise. Petr Mrazek is not a top goalie but he is very underrated. He can probably steal you a game or two for you but that’s about it.
Fun Fact: The Hurricanes had the most shots on goal this season. They also gave up the 3rd most shots. Alex Ovechkin took the 3rd most shots this season. Basically, expect a lot of shots in this series.
Prediction: The Hurricanes should be commended for getting this far but they really aren’t the most talented team. The Capitals are the champs and they are also an even better team than they were last season. The Capitals won’t repeat but this is way too early to go out. This would probably be the biggest lock of the first round. Capitals in 5.
M2 New York Islanders vs. M3 Pittsburgh Penguins
Season Series: 2-2
Playoff Series History: 3-1 Islanders
What We Learned: The Islanders lost their best player, gained a Stanley Cup winning coach and had their best season in quite some time. The Penguins slid all the way up and down the standings, dealt with injuries and landed here.
Stars to Watch: Sidney Crosby had a very quiet 100 point season and Evgeni Malkin was banged up as usual but he still produced. Jake Guentzel became a top goal scorer this season with 40. Almost double his previous season. His net presence was one of the best in the NHL this season. You can’t forget Phil Kessel or Kris Letang either. Mathew Barzal is the closest thing the Islanders have to a star. He was the only one over 60 points. But that’s not really a bad thing. Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee all had over 50 points. Ryan Pulock continues to develop and leads the defense.
X-Factor: Just like the Capitals and Hurricanes, there’s a huge disparity in playoff experience in this series. The Penguins last three seasons could beat almost anyone, let alone a team that has only one playoff series win and four appearances in the last ten years. The Islanders are more hungry though. They also have a coach that just won the Stanley Cup. But this is also the first time they’ve had any expectations. That doesn’t usually bode well for young teams.
Goalie Problem: Matt Murray is a hard goalie to figure out. Sometimes he has really great games and other times he looks like a hot mess. He wasn’t as good this season as he was in the past but I expect he will play much better in the playoffs like he usually is. Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss became the top goaltending duo this season and the Islanders gave up the fewest goals in the NHL. Something nobody saw coming. But both of these guys have been on several teams before. There’s usually a reason for that. It’s possible they could continue their strong play but playoff time is when you really see how good a goalie is.
Fun Fact: The Islanders power play was 29th which is really bad. The Penguins were 5th. That’s a huge disparity. The Penguins were 1st in hits and the Islanders 8th. Expect a hard hitting series. The Penguins also gave up the most short handed goals and the Islanders gave up the least.
Prediction: This is hard series to predict because these are two teams that are very hard to predict. The Penguins are really not playing up to their talent level. The Islanders are overachieving with theirs. You assume the Islanders will continue their strong play but you aren’t really sure what Penguins team will show up. The Islanders are probably the better team but the Penguins have the better players. Hockey is very much a team sport but sometimes it comes down to which players can make the key play. I count on the Penguins players to do that more. This will be a very tight series but Penguins in 7.
C1 Nashville Predators vs W1 Dallas Stars
Season Series: 3-2 Predators
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Predators played the longest game of division leapfrog with the Jets and won. The Stars played well in the second half of the season to secure their fist playoff berth in a while.
Stars to Watch: Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg are the main goal scorers for the Predators. But Ryan Johansen had one of his best seasons ever and led the team in points. The Predators are still a defense first team and they are led by Roman Josi. P.K Subban had one of his worst seasons ever, he might want to focus less on other projects. But he’s usually quite a force in the playoffs and I expect him to be so again. You probably already know about Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin on the Stars. Seguin had another great season. However, Benn took a step back. But two players you may not know about but should are Alexander Radulov and Miro Heiskanen. Radulov has his best season ever and Heiskanen is a rookie phenom that leads a surprisingly talented defensive core. The Stars actually had four defensemen in double digits in goals this season.
X-Factor: Playoffs is all about unsung heroes. Whoever wins the cup always have several. The Stars can put out an all star caliber starting five but beyond that, it’s fairly grim. Especially with the forwards. Will any of the other guys step up and make a big play? Because I know several players on the Predators will.
Goalie Problem: It wasn’t the best Pekka Rinne season but it was still good. Rinne was awesome in the playoffs when the Predators went to the finals. The other times he was just average. Ben Bishop bounced back to have arguably his best season ever. He hasn’t been in the playoffs in a few seasons but he’s really good in them. Bishop might actually play better than Rinne in this series.
Fun Fact: These are the 2nd and 4th stingiest teams. Expect a a low scoring series. They’re also 4th and 5th in face-off percentage.
Prediction: The Stars are a good team but they aren’t a great team. To put it mildly, they lack scoring depth. They also tend to do really stupid things in the third period. Meanwhile the Predators have unfinished playoff business. They still want their Stanley Cup. They also love taking advantage of other teams’ mistakes. The Predators are a better and more balanced team. They also have home ice. Predators in 6.
C2 Winnipeg Jets vs. C3 St. Louis Blues
Season Series: 3-1 Jets
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Blues, if you count the Jets first incarnation
What We Learned: The Jets looked poised to wrap up the division title about two weeks ago but they couldn’t get it done. The Blues were literally the worst team in the NHL in January but they came back to almost win the division.
Stars to Watch: Patrik Laine took a huge step back this season with his lowered goal production and -24. But the playoffs might just be the place for him to, hopefully, redeem himself. Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele had career seasons and Kyle Connor led the team in goals. Dustin Byfuglien doesn’t have it like he used to but he had an awesome playoffs last season. Ryan O’Reilly led the Blues with his best season ever. Vladimir Tarasenko led the team in goals and was red hot in the second half of the season. Brayden Schenn, David Perron and Alex Pietrangelo all had decent season.
X-Factor: These two teams were headed in opposites directions until they equaled and met here. The Jets got a big win over the Coyotes in the last game of the season and took back home ice. All four head to head games this season were played in 2018, when the Blues weren’t any good. This will be like a whole new team to the Jets. They might be surprised early on.
Goalie Problem: Jordan Binnington came out of nowhere to literally become the best goalie this season. That’s really hard to do. He is now the man in the hot seat this series. If he plays lights out like he has been, he could single-handedly win the series for the Blues. Connor Hellebuyck will need to have the series of his life to compensate. Something I don’t really think he is capable of doing. But he did have a great playoffs last season so anything is possible.
Fun Fact: On February 1st, the Jets had 11 more wins and 19 more points than the Blues. They finished with the same points.
Prediction: This is a hard one to predict because you can never tell how much of the regular season will carry over. I worry about the Jets because they are a young team. But it’s highly unlikely they would go from the Conference Finals to a first round exit the next season. It’s also hard for me take the Blues seriously. Although I do commend them from coming back when I left them for dead. But the Senators went on a similar magical run a few years ago only to lose in the first round. They were a much lower seed however. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Jets in 7. However, if Binnington has the series of his life the Blues will win in 6.
P1 Calgary Flames vs. W2 Colorado Avalanche
Season Series: 3-0 Flames
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Flames coasted all season long to the best record in the conference while the Avalanche scratched and clawed their way to the final playoff spot.
Stars to Watch: The Flames are led by their big four of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk. All of whom had career years this season. Likewise, the Avalanche rely on their big three of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog who also all had career years this season. Both teams have decent supporting casts behind them.
X-Factor: This should be a fast series. And I do mean really fast. I expect it to be high scoring too. The Flames were the 2nd highest scoring team this season. If you like great goaltending and low scoring games, this won’t be the series for you. Whoever can take advantage of their speed and the opportunities it creates will have an advantage. The Flames scored the most shorthanded goals this season, making them quite skilled at doing just that.
Goalie Problem: The biggest weakness of the Flames is their goaltending. Surprisingly, they were 10th in the NHL in goals against. David Rittich seems to have supplanted Mike Smith as the top goalie. But that’s not hard to do and he has no playoff experience. It’s hard to know how good he really is. On the other end, I don’t really trust the Avalanche’s goaltending either. Semyon Varlamov didn’t have the best season and he hasn’t been in the playoffs in a while. But he was supplanted by Philipp Grubauer who was last benched by the Capitals before they went on their Stanley Cup run. Grubauer should be adequate here.
Fun Fact: The Flames have four of the top nine players in plus minus. The Avalanche, on the other hand, don’t have anyone in the top 40. The Avalanche were 2nd in blocked shots and the Flames were 30th. On the flipside, The Flames were were 2nd in giveaways and the Avalanche were 30th. That’s a huge boon to the Avalanche if they can take advantage of it.
Prediction: The Avalanche will play hard, like they did last season against the Predators. But ultimately their firepower and consistency are a notch below what the Flames possess. The Flames also have home ice and that place will be rocking. The Flames have 14 more regulation wins than the Avalanche. That’s a significant difference and it does mean something. But this series will be fun as hell to watch regardless. Flames in 6.
P2 San Jose Sharks vs. P3 Vegas Golden Knights
Season Series: 2-2
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Golden Knights
What We Learned: The Sharks played really well until they crashed and burned the last few weeks from injuries and other things. The Golden Knights had a slow start but they rebounded to make the playoffs again. You probably figured one of these teams would win the division this season. Instead, we get a rematch of the second round playoff match-up from last season in the first round.
Stars to Watch: Brent Burns, a defenseman, lead the Sharks in points again. Evander Kane played pretty well in his first playoffs and first season with the Sharks last season. I imagine he’ll play even better this playoffs. Joe Pavelski was injured but led the team in goals. Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl had their best seasons ever. Joe Thornton is also still there. A lot of Golden Knight players took a step back from their career years last season. But that didn’t make the team any worse. They don’t rely on any one player in particular and they have about a dozen players that can easily be interchanged. Having said that Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson are still their top players. Five other Golden Knights scored over 19 goals, including Mark Stone who was a great pickup.
X-Factor: These teams did not finish their seasons strong. The Sharks could not have played any worse and they actually did have something to play for, a division crown. This series will probably have a slow start to it. Erik Karlsson hasn’t fit in as well as expected when he was acquired. He’s had some bad games and he’s been injured a lot. He is currently injured but is expected to return here. Will he have any impact? For the Golden Knights, will they be able to ride their home crowd to more playoff success?
Goalie Problem: If Marc-Andre Fleury couldn’t have played it would have been a huge blow to the Golden Knights chances. He was a big reason they played so well last playoffs. Also Malcom Subban doesn’t have any playoff experience and he hasn’t looked all the great the last few weeks. But Fleury just came back. But he looked a little rusty so it might take a few games to get into a groove. Martin Jones hasn’t been playing well lately and he also had his worst ever season statistically. But he does play well in the playoffs. Even though each goalie has played well in the playoffs before, I wouldn’t be all that confident in my goaltending if I were either team right now.
Fun Fact: These teams were 1st (Golden Knights) and 5th (Sharks) in takeaways. These teams usually don’t give it away much but a turnover may end up being key in this series.
Prediction: It’s funny, a few weeks ago I thought this series was going to be really tight because of how good both of the teams are. Now I think it’ll be tight because both teams have been pretty bad lately. I was going to pick the winner of this series to go all the way to the finals but now I’m not so sure. This is the hardest series to predict as I could see either team winning this series. I also actually thought this was one of the better San Jose Sharks seasons ever. But somehow I think it will culminate with a first round exit. Even though I can also see them winning it. Golden Knights in 6 or 7.