NHL Playoff Preview


It’s finally arrived. After a long 82 games, the best time of year is here. For six of the 16 participants, the NHL Playoffs gets going tonight. Sixteen teams can achieve their ultimate dream of winning the Stanley Cup. It’s time to break it all down.

The biggest theme entering this postseason is can the Penguins three-peat? Not even the legendary Oilers teams headlined by Gretzky and Messier did that. You have to go all the way back to the great Islanders dynasty when they won four in a row between 1980-83. So, what the Pens are trying to accomplish is special. As loaded as they are with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, it shouldn’t be easy. They’ll start the first round against the arch rival Flyers renewing the interstate Battle of Pennsylvania rivalry with Game 1 in the Steel city tonight. It says here that they’ll only go as far as Matt Murray takes them. Kris Letang should help.

CONTENDERS

The contenders to the throne are quite a few. In the East, you have the Lightning and Bruins as the strongest opposition with the Maple Leafs standing in Boston’s way in a compelling first round match-up that could have plenty of momentum swings. This is good news for the Pens because two of the three could be gone before the Conference Final.

The Bolts are hoping they can turn it on after a subpar finish. The top seed will face a scrappy Devils bunch led by Hart candidate Taylor Hall and Keith Kinkaid. They didn’t beat them in the regular season. How much impact if any will that have? Tampa needs its stars to lead the way. There is a lot of pressure on Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and young All-Star goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to deliver along with key additions Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller (1 goal in 40 career playoff games).

The Bruins are formidable led by Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak which form the best line in hockey. They should be able to exploit the Leafs’ defense. But Toronto counters with Auston Matthews, William Nylander, James van Riemsdyk and Mitch Marner on a dangerous offense that loves transition. Stylistically, Boston can control the tempo with their forecheck and try to wear down Toronto with David Krejci, David Backes, Ryan Donato. They boast Zdeno Chara and polished rookie Charlie McAvoy on the top pair and should have a edge in net with Tuukka Rask over Freddie Andersen.

The Caps also could be in the mix after wining the Metro Division. It all will depend on which goalie steps up. They’re starting Philipp Grubauer over Braden Holtby for Game 1 against the Blue Jackets who enter hot since adding Thomas Vanek and Ian Cole at the trade deadline. They’re no pushovers. Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson are playing well. The top tandem of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones could pose problems for the Caps despite the obvious talent in Rocket Richard winner Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. If he can finally play to form, Sergei Bobrovsky could punch the Jackets’ ticket to the second round for the franchise’s first series victory.

The Predators are the top dog until proven otherwise. Boasting great defense, balanced offense and a elite goalie in Pekka Rinne, they have home ice. A blueline highlighted by P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and oft overlooked Mattias Ekholm should give them a decided edge in any series defensively. Add to that a skilled and gritty mix up front led by Filip Forsberg, Victor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and Craig Smith which can score dirty goals and you have a tough number one overall seed. Kyle Turris, Kevin Fiala, Nick Bonino lend support along with Mike Fisher and Calle Jarnkrok.

It’s too bad Winnipeg plays in the same division because they’re the second best team. Even if they advance over the pesky Wild led by Eric Staal, Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Dumba, Jared Spurgeon and Devan Dubnyk, they’ll likely have to face the Preds in a riveting second round. They played some great games during the season. Minnesota is without top D Ryan Suter which could hurt their chances against one of the league’s most dangerous scoring teams.

The Jets feature Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Nikolas Ehlers, Kyle Connor along with the lethal Dustin Byfuglien on a underrated back end that includes Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey. If American netminder Connor Hellebuyck plays like he did during the season in which he won a record breaking 44 games, they have the potential to make a run.

The Vegas Golden Knights had a amazing inaugural year winning the Pacific with 109 points. Led by Marc-Andre Fleury and amazing headliners William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, they play a very high tempo under Jack Adams certainty Gerard Gallant. He must love having ex-Panthers Marchessault and Smith, who they stole last expansion draft. Think Florida could’ve used either? They have the speed and tenacity that can work in the playoffs. It’s just whether or not guys like Erik Haula, David Perron and Karlsson will come back to earth. They haven’t all season. James Neal and Tomas Tatar could be important if they’re to advance over the difficult battle tested Kings. Fleury will have to be superb. Is a D that features Colin Miller, Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt and Vegas inspiration Deryk Engelland good enough to slow down Hart contender Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter?

UNDERDOGS

The Flyers had a very good season making it back to the playoffs. They didn’t finish far behind the rival Pens. But the question remains the same. Can questionable goaltending with this time it being Brian Elliott shutdown a scary Pens attack featuring Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Derick Brassard, Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Letang and Justin Schultz? They can’t take bad penalties or get into a run and gun series.

Philly can score with Hart hopeful Claude Giroux on a excellent first line that includes Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny. They also have Jakub Voracek, young center Nolan Patrick, Michal Raffl and power forward Wayne Simmonds, who is a liability five-on-five but does his best work on the power play. Shayne Gostisbehere is lethal offensively and Ivan Provorov is the kind of two-way threat the Flyers haven’t had since Eric Desjardjns. They’ll need to be flawless to pull the upset.

The Devils are a feel good story having gotten back to the postseason for the first time since 2012. Led by Hall, smart two/way rookie Nico Hischier and the Jersey Rocket Kyle Palmieri, John Hynes’ club doesn’t back down from anyone. They play their game and can fluster opponents. Just ask their first round opponent Tampa, who lost all three games in the season series. If they can avoid the penalty box and play the Lightning at even strength, it’s not impossible for them to win. But this is a seven-game series. Kinkaid will have to be dynamic as he was the final two months against a potent attack that not only features Kucherov, Stamkos and Miller but 30-plus goalscorer Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and rookie Anthony Cirelli. Ryan McDonagh is back with Dan Girardi as part of the Tampa Blueshirts featuring Anton Stralman, Miller and Ryan Callahan.

For New Jersey to win, aside from remaining disciplined, they’ll need big contributions from checkers Travis Zajac, Brian Boyle, Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen. Their goal along with Miles Wood and Patrick Maroon is to turn this series into a physical battle. Make it tough on the skilled Bolts. Michael Grabner must show up. He can be a game breaker due to his defensive acumen and speed at both five-on-five and on the penalty kill. There will be a lot of pressure on Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen who will draw the difficult assignment against the Lightning top line of Kucherov, Stamkos and Miller. Will Butcher and Mirco Mueller are key cogs along with vet Ben Lovejoy.

The Avalanche had a plus-47 improvement under second-year coach Jared Bednar. Nathan MacKinnon is why. The Hart contender was superb all year centering a lethal top line with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. The lethal trio are amazing. Particularly on the rush and power play. MacKinnon will need to go berserk for Colorado to have any chance against Nashville. Rantanen is great at finishing plays around the net with his quick release. Landeskog can score the dirty goals and is back to being the player he was a few years ago.

It’ll be hard for them to win. Jonathan Bernier must play unreal with Semyon Varlamov out for the season. Tyson Barrie had a bounce back year on the back end. He and Samuel Girard will be huge with Erik Johnson uncertain. Nikita Zadorov showed improvement. Unless youngsters Alex Kerfoot, Tyson Jost and J.T. Compher are ready for prime time, the Avs can’t win. They’ll look to vets Carl Soderberg and Blake Comeau for leadership.

It’s hard to label the Ducks, Sharks and Kings underdogs. But that’s exactly what they are entering the first round. We know this much. Either the Ducks or Sharks will advance to face the Kings/Knights winner for a shot at the Conference Final.

Picking between Anaheim and San Jose is like playing craps. The Ducks enter playing well earning home ice for this awesome Battle of California match-up. Featuring beast Ryan Getzlaf and top sniper Richard Rakell, the Ducks obviously need their best players to rise to the occasion. A year removed from a run to the Western Conference Final before falling to Nashville, they’ll have to do it without ace blue liner Cam Fowler. It’ll fall on Brandon Montour, Josh Manson, Hampus Lindholm and popular vet Francois Beauchemin to stifle a dangerous Sharks attack led by Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and great deadline pickup Evander Kane. Good luck. Even without Joe Thornton, the Sharks are formidable thanks to Kane, who’s been splendid. Youngsters Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier are key contributors along with Tomas Hertl and Chris Tierney.

If there’s a big difference, it’s on the back end with San Jose featuring The Caveman, Brent Burns. He will bomb away from the point and can be a threat at even strength and the power play. Marc-Edouard Vlasic remains a solid shutdown D who will see a lot of Getzlaf, Rakell and likely Ondrej Kase, who’s developed into a good scorer. Neither defense is great. The Sharks rely on Brenden Dillon and Justin Braun to play big minutes.

It could come down to which goalie or goalies are better. While the Sharks boast Martin Jones who is the unquestioned starter two years removed from a Stanley Cup Final, Anaheim has both John Gibson and proven American veteran Ryan Miller. Depending on Gibson’s health, that’ll decide who plays. Gibson is young, talented and streaky. Miller has been splendid all year and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s in net.

The Kings are underdogs due to where they finished. But the West’s first wildcard has the match-up they want. Sure. The Golden Knights are very good and have a great home ice. But LA proved they can beat Vegas in the season series with two great comeback wins that saw Kopitar in full beast mode. He’s the best forward in the series with Carter right behind. The best defenseman is Drew Doughty, who pairs with Jake Muzzin to make a formidable tandem. Jonathan Quick is a two-time Stanley Cup champion and former Conn Smythe winner. There’s nothing separating him and Fleury, who’s won three Cups and was a huge part of last year’s repeat in Pittsburgh. He’s played phenomenally in his first year with Vegas and that must continue.

It depends on the style. The Kings want to slow down the Knights and turn it into a meat and potatoes series. That’s where a rejuvenated Dustin Brown and Tanner Pearson can do damage. They want Doughty and Muzzin to control the tempo and Kopitar to dominate all three zones. He really is one of the game’s best players and he could finally get that recognition.

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

East

Round One

(A1) Lightning over (WC2) Devils in 6

(A2) Bruins over (A3) Maple Leafs in 7

(WC1) Blue Jackets over (M1) Capitals in 6

(M2) Penguins over (M3) Flyers in 6

West

Round One

(C1) Predators over (WC2) Avalanche in 5

(C2) Jets over (C3) Wild in 6

(WC1) Kings over (P1) Golden Knights in 6

(P2) Ducks over (P3) Sharks in 7

Round Two

East

(A2) Bruins over (A1) Lightning in 6

(M2) Penguins over (WC1) Blue Jackets in 6

West

(C1) Predators over (C2) Jets in 7

(WC1) Kings over (P2) Ducks in 6

Round Three

Bruins over Penguins in 5

Predators over Kings in 5

Stanley Cup Finals

Predators over Bruins in 7

Conn Smythe-Viktor Arvidsson

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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