Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Picks and Beyond

Tonight, it finally gets rolling. After a long 82-game schedule, the best time of year is finally here.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin with four games on Monday. The first round gets going later. It’ll start off with the defensive minded Islanders at the puck possession Hurricanes. That’s at 7 EST. Half an hour later, the record-setting Bruins host the Panthers. Those are your two Eastern Conference games on Day One.

Out West, an intriguing match-up between the Wild and Stars faces off at 9:30 EST. It pits the former North Stars against the current Minnesota team. They’ve always had a unique rivalry. It’s definitely contesting styles. That should make for a good series.

The late game takes place in Edmonton at 10 EST. The Oilers and Kings will battle once again in Round One. Last year, it took a superhuman performance from Connor McDavid to carry the Oilers past the stingy Kings in seven. They made it all the way to the Western Conference Final. This year, they’re one of the favorites to get back to the Final Four and potentially the Stanley Cup Finals. LA will be the underdog. A role they don’t mind.

Per the schedule, the Islanders and Hurricanes are on MSG. They’ll be on locally for the first four games. ESPN2 has the national for Games 1 and 2. It’s TBS for Game Three and TNT for Game Four. That’s only if you’re out of the area. Otherwise, it’ll be subject to blackout. Sunday would be Game Four at UBS Arena. It’s at 1 PM. After Game Five, the teams get two days off for Game Six. If it happens, that would be on April 28. If it goes seven, that’s April 30.

ESPN has the Panthers and Bruins from Boston. The Bruins are the overwhelming favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Led by David Pastrnak and Linus Ullmark, they broke the record for most wins (65) and most points (135) in a season. None of that matters now. They will have lots of pressure to do it in the postseason. The Panthers come in playing a little better. They can trade scoring chances. They’ll rely on Alex Lyon, who got them here. Matthew Tkachuk has a chance to lead a big upset.

The Wild and Stars are on ESPN2 following the Islanders/Hurricanes. If that goes to overtime, the start of Dallas and Minnesota could be moved to ESPN News or ESPN Plus. If you like scoring, the Wild boasts some exciting talent with top star Kirill Kaprizov returning for Game One. He’s ready to go. Matt Boldy took the reigns and went on a tear. They’ll start with Filip Gustavsson in goal. The Stars have the exciting Jason Robertson, who combines with Roope Hintz to form a potent duo. Joe Pavelski is always tough in front during the playoffs. Miro Heiskanen is the best defenseman in the series. Totally overlooked for the Norris, he is one of the game’s elite D. The Stars should have an edge in net with Jake Oettinger.

ESPN has the late game from Edmonton. CBC has it up north. The Canadian feed is always great. Maybe I’ll try to get it on my Android. The Kings hope to slow down McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. They all had over 100 points, becoming the first trio on the same team to eclipse the century mark in a season since Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, and Ron Francis did it for the ’95-96 Penguins. Petr Nedved missed being the fourth by one point. McDavid went over 150 points, becoming the first player to reach that plateau since Lemieux in 95-96 when he led the league with 161 points. Edmonton will lean on Stuart Skinner in goal. It’s his first postseason. Jack Campbell is the veteran backup. Mattias Ekholm changed the defense after coming over from Nashville. He was plus-28 following the trade. Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard provide the offense. The Oilers also have better offensive depth due to Zach Hyman, Evander Kane, along with support players Mattias Janmark, Ryan McLeod, Klim Kostin, Derek Ryan and Warren Foegle.

Los Angeles hopes to have key scorer Kevin Fiala back for the first two games. If they don’t, their chances of an upset go down. They will depend on the two-way play of captain Anze Kopitar, Phillip Danault, and defense led by Drew Doughty and deadline addition Vladislav Gavrikov. Adrian Kempe and Viktor Arvidsson supply the offense along with Kopitar and Doughty. They could also be without Gabriel Vilardi. That means they’ll need other players to step up. Are Quinton Byfield or Arthur Kaliyev ready for that kind of role? It might fall on veterans like Trevor Moore, Alex Iafallo, and Blake Lizotte. The defense is a strength with Sean Durzi, Matt Roy, and Mikey Anderson key players. They’ll be without vet Alex Edler.

The four other first round series begin on Tuesday. The Rangers and Devils are first up. They’ll be on MSG Plus and MSGSN. The Rangers will be moved to the third network due to the ridiculous NBA schedule that has the Knicks playing the Cavaliers in Game Two tomorrow instead of tonight. That starts at 7 EST. Game Two is on Thursday at 7:30. Saturday is on ABC exclusively at 8 EST. ESPN+ if you’re streaming it. Only between Games 4 and 5 is there a two days off. If it goes seven, that would be on May 1.

For more coverage on the Battle of Hudson, please refer to my complete series breakdown. It promises to be an intriguing match-up. The headliners are Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Timo Meier, Tomas Tatar, Dawson Mercer, and Dougie Hamilton for the Devils. For the Rangers, it’s Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Vincent Trocheck, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Adam Fox. Don’t forget that in a playoff series, it’s usually the grinders who make the difference. That could be Mike McLeod, Miles Wood, Nathan Bastian, Ryan Graves, John Marino, or the battle-tested Ondrej Palat for Jersey. On the Blueshirts, it could be Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Barclay Goodrow, Jimmy Vesey, Tyler Motte, Jacob Trouba, or Braden Schneider. To reiterate, the goalie match-up pits Igor Shesterkin against Vitek Vanecek. A much more thorough analysis is in the above preview I linked up.

If you’re looking for another potential series to watch, then Lightning vs. Maple Leafs II has you covered. Last year, the Bolts rallied to stun the Leafs in seven, extending Toronto misery. This time, the Leafs look like the better team. Although the Bolts didn’t win much down the stretch, don’t forget how much championship pedigree they have. Andrei Vasilevskiy can steal a series. He’ll need to be at his best. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point are playoff clutch. There’s Steven Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, who all have been here before. Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul are key contributors. Nick Perbix is the surprising rookie.

The Leafs are hoping that Ilya Samsonov can get it done in goal. He has plenty of offensive support from Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and John Tavares. But adding former Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly could be huge. He’s got the necessary experience they can lean on. Even additions Sam Lafferty and Noel Acciari are the kind of high character depth players who can provide secondary help. There’s also the edge Michael Bunting plays with. He and Corey Perry don’t like each other. There were a ton of penalty minutes in the tune-up. If Tanner Jeannot can go for Tampa, that would be interesting. They acquired him for this series. Calle Jarnkrok became a key scorer for the Leafs. There’s much more depth this time around. Having Luke Schenn to support Morgan Rielly and Mark Giordano on defense should help. He knows the Lightning well. If Samsonov falters, Joseph Woll is a good option.

Game One is on ESPN tomorrow at 7:30 EST. It should be a doozy.

Out West, you have the final two series. The Golden Knights are the top seed. They have a strong nucleus that features Jack Eichel in his first postseason. There’ll be plenty of pressure. Having a good supporting cast that includes old reliable trio William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Marchessault should help. Chandler Stephenson remains a vastly underrated playmaker. Their depth includes Phil Kessel, William Carrier, along with veteran Teddy Blueger, former Blue Ivan Barbashev, and Nicholas Roy. How much will Pavel Dorofeyev play? The biggest edge they should have against the Jets is on the back end. Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo anchor the D. Alec Martinez adds experience while Nicolas Hague and Brayden McNabb are solid defenders. The biggest question is in the net. They’re going with backup Laurent Brossoit in Game One. He played well recently. If the experiment fails, it’s Jonathan Quick. A Stanley Cup winner, who’s nearing the end. I think we’ll see him.

The biggest advantage Winnipeg has is with Connor Hellebuyck in goal. He carried them into the playoffs. A former Vezina winner, who’s in his prime, he is capable of stealing a series. The question is, how many shots will he have to stop. The 29-year old American is one of the best goalies. He could have to stand on his head for the Jets to pull it off. The defense isn’t particularly strong. However, they boast Josh Morrissey. A Norris candidate, he can fill it up. He’ll be looking to jump up often. It really weakens with Neal Pionk not strong in his end. Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt supply the nuts and bolts. Dylan DeMelo is a decent skater. This could be it for this core that includes Kyle Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and proven vets Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and Nik Ehlers. The scoring isn’t as good. They’ll need secondary help from Adam Lowry, Mason Appleton, and Morgan Barron. Nino Niederreiter is no stranger to the postseason. He and Vladislav Namestnikov were brought in to supply help.

The Avalanche still came back to win the Central Division. Most impressively, they did it without captain Gabriel Landeskog. Unfortunately, he’ll miss the playoffs. He’s an old school player who could play in any era. They could miss him in trying to go back-to-back. Nathan MacKinnon enters on fire. He and Mikko Rantanen are fantastic superstars who can carry a team. Facing the upstart high scoring Kraken, Colorado has the edge on the blue line and with Alexandar Georgiev in the net. He won 40 games in his first season as a full-time starter. How will he perform under the spotlight? Pavel Francouz backs up. Cale Makar was rested down the stretch due to an injury. How serious is it? He’s the leader of a defense that features Devon Toews, Bowen Byram, Sam Girard, Erik Johnson, and Josh Manson, who’s ready to return.

The Avalanche have overcome injuries to get where they are. But key scorers Artturi Lehkonen and Val Nichushkin are healthy coming in. J.T. Compher is overlooked. The secondary scoring will be provided by Evan Rodrigues, Alex Newhook, and Logan O’Connor. If healthy, Denis Malgin can contribute. They added Lars Eller from the Caps. Is Darren Helm ready?

The Kraken got here in their second year. Pretty impressive stuff from coach of the year candidate Dave Hakstol. Jared McCann scored 40 goals. He became their go-to guy. Matty Beniers is a good young center who should win the Calder. Seattle does it by committee with Jordan Eberle, Yanni Gourde, Daniel Sprong, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Jaden Schwartz all pitching in. Keep an eye on Eeli Tolvanen. He scored 16 goals after Seattle claimed him from Nashville off waivers. Brandon Tanev supplies the grit, and Alex Wenmberg provides additional play-making. Imagine if Andre Burakovsky is cleared to return. He was also an Av.

The big offensive guy on the blue line is Vince Dunn. He finally fulfilled his potential with 64 points, including a team best 50 assists. Adam Larsson had a good season. Jamie Oleksiak and Justin Schultz can contribute. William Borgen and Carson Soucy round out the D. Goaltending is a huge question mark. Can they rely on the tandem of Martin Jones and Philipp Grubauer? Grubauer performed well versus his former team. He likely will get the nod for Game One with Jones just returning.

So, what to expect in the first round? A couple of upsets along with some favorites advancing.



Eastern Conference

(1) Bruins over (A4) Panthers in 5

Analysis: Too much depth from a loaded Bruins featuring Pastrnak, Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci, DeBrusk, Hall, Zacha, Coyle, Bertuzzi, Frederic, Hathaway, McAvoy, Lindholm, Orlov, Carlo, and Forbort. The Panthers can score. Tkachuk, Barkov, Reinhart, Verhaeghe, and Montour are all capable of lighting the lamp. But the team defense could get exposed.

(A2) Maple Leafs over (A3) Lightning in 6

Analysis: Here we go again. The improved depth should finally get the Leafs over the hump. The Lightning hasn’t been consistent all year. Maybe a defense without McDonagh gets exposed. They can never be counted out. If Toronto can’t do it this year, then when will they ever?

(M4) Islanders over (M1) Hurricanes in 6

Analysis: The games should be tight. If they are, that favors the Islanders, who have the better goalie in Sorokin. The Canes are starting Raanta in Game One. They lost both Pacioretty and Svechnikov. Barzal is ready for the Isles. That bodes well. Horvat, Nelson, and Pageau are strong up the middle. Aho, Kotkaniemi, and Staal are, too. Unless Necas and Teravainen fill the net, along with Skjei and Burns, goals could be hard to come by for Carolina. Lee, Palmieri, and Parise know what it takes. The Isles can be exposed on the back end. But Pelech, Pulock, and Mayfield supply the grit. Sorokin can steal this series.

(M3) Rangers over (M2) Devils in 7

Analysis: If you read my preview, this looks like a very even match-up between two high scoring teams that love to transition. The team that makes the fewer mistakes will prevail. I believe it’ll be the play of Chytil, Lafreniere, and Kakko that make the difference. Shesterkin gives the Rangers an edge. I like their power play. The Devils have dangerous game-breakers, great team speed, and comeback ability. That’s why I see it going seven. The Rangers have the pressure. They need to win.

Western Conference

(1) Golden Knights over (C4) Jets in 6

Analysis: I was tempted to pick Winnipeg due to Hellebuyck. I don’t believe their team defense is good enough. I also think the Knights’ D won’t allow the Jets’ burners to turn it into a track meet. Tighter checking favors Vegas, who will probably play well in front of their goalie(s). It gets interesting if the Jets can steal home ice. Give me the overall depth of Vegas.

(P2) Oilers over (P3) Kings in 5

Analysis: As much as I respect how the Kings play, they are without two key scorers. It’s Korpisalo in the net. Can they make it tough on the supremely skilled and much faster Oilers? Yes. Do they have enough to beat them? I don’t think so. McDavid has taken his game to another level. Ekholm has made a difference. As long as Kane shows up, I think they’ll win the rematch more comfortably.

(C1) Avalanche over (P4) Kraken in 5

Analysis: There should be plenty of goals scored. As long as Georgiev holds up, I can’t see the Kraken pulling the upset. They love to speed up the tempo. But the defending champs are better at it due to MacKinnon and Rantanen. If Makar is good to go, he’s the best defenseman in the series. Seattle will need a gigantic performance from either Grubauer or Jones.

(C2) Stars over (C3) Wild in 7

Analysis: I think this is a heckuva series. Both teams have speed and scoring. Each relies on their goalie. The Stars have the proven Oettinger. The Wild is hoping Gustavsson can duplicate his regular season. If not, Fleury is a good option. Minnesota needs a big series out of Zuccarello, Eriksson Ek, Hartman, Gaudreau, Foligno, and Johansson. Spurgeon, Brodin, and Addison are key D, along with Middleton. They’ll want to turn it into a physical series. The Stars have more balance due to Benn, Seguin, rookie Wyatt Johnson, and Marchment. Hakanpaa flies under the radar on that blue line with Lindell. Suter remains steady. It should be a close series. I like the Stars to overcome their recent first round failures.


(1) Bruins over (2) Leafs in 7

(3) Rangers over (4) Islanders in 6

(1) Avalanche over (2) Stars in 6

(2) Oilers over (1) Knights in 6


(1) Bruins over (3) Rangers in 5

(2) Oilers over (1) Avalanche in 6


Bruins over Oilers in 7

Conn Smythe: David Pastrnak


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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