2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview: First Round

The 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs are here, finally!

Since this a Penguins-centric blog, we will obviously be spending plenty of time talking about the Penguins and their opponent(s), hopefully for the next two months.  Of course, in the meantime there are fourteen other teams in the playoffs all hoping and vying for their chance to unseat the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions.  I thought I would take some to quickly analyze the other seven playoff matchups before we dive into the Penguins’ first round matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers.

If parity is what the League likes, then they’ll probably like the fact that there are seven new teams in the playoffs this postseason. Of course, the Vegas Golden Knights are the biggest success story of all the newcomers, since they didn’t exist last year, but take  the Colorado Avalanche for example.  They might as well didn’t exist at all last year either, since they were far and away the worst team in the League with just 48 points.  This year, they ended up with 95 points and a date with the Nashville Predators.  I guess some playoffs are better than none at all for some teams?

Perhaps more impressive is the turnaround by the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia Flyers.  Those two teams picked #1 and #2, respectively, in last summer’s Entry Draft, and both teams are in the playoffs this year.  It’s been twenty years, since 1998 when the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks selected Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, since the teams that picked #1 and #2 have gone to the playoffs the spring afterwards.  (As a matter of fact, the Los Angeles Kings also went to the playoffs after taking Olli Jokinen with the third overall pick in the draft.  The Dallas Stars missed the trifecta by three points.)

Central #1 Nashville Predators versus Western Wild Card #2 Colorado Avalanche
Prediction: Nashville in five

Last season, the Predators were something of a surprise to make the Stanley Cup Finals, as they were themselves the second Wild Card in the Western Conference but ended up sweeping the Blackhawks in the first round and then eliminating the Blues and Ducks to claim the Clarence Campbell Bowl.  This year, the script has flipped and the Predators had a President’s Trophy-winning regular season campaign backstopped by another very good season by Pekka Rinne.  They also had thirteen ten-plus goal scorers, which is two more than the next closest teams.  Nashville very clearly has the everything they need to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals, and possibly enough to win it.

As I mentioned before, Colorado is back in the playoffs after a disastrous 2016-17 season.  It’s probably going to be a short-lived ride for the Avs, as they will be without #1 defenseman Erik Johnson and starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov.  They do have likely Hart contender Nathan McKinnon, but he (1G-7A, 2.7% shooting) and captain Gabriel Landeskog (1G-5A, 3.2% shooting) cooled off considerably in the last ten games of the regular season.  They’ll need to be perfect to have a chance to upset the defending Western Conference champions.

Central #2 Winnipeg Jets versus Central #3 Minnesota Wild
Prediction: Winnipeg in six

Pardon the pun, but the Jets have likely flown under many peoples’ radars on their way to the second-best record in the League.  As with their Central Division peers in Nashville, Winnipeg has a star goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck helping lead the way.  What will be interesting is if Hellebuyck, tied with Cam Talbot for the most games played this season, will burn out before the Jets can make a serious run in the playoffs.  Offensively, Winnipeg was tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second-most goals in the League. The Jets feature the League’s second-leading goal scorer in Patrik Laine and the assist laser Blake Wheeler, as well as 31-goal scorer Kyle Connor, 29-goal scorer Nikolaj Ehlers, and I haven’t even gotten to Mark Scheifele, who still had a point per game in a injury-shortened 60 game season.  #2 defenseman Jacob Trouba is the biggest question mark as he’s reportedly dealing with an ankle injury, but he’s played 20+ minutes in three of Winnipeg’s last five games, so I’m betting he’ll be okay.

The Wild are in their sixth straight postseason but haven’t gotten past the second round since 2003.  They got a career second-best goal output from Eric Staal, and 23-year-old #3 defenseman Mathew Dumba had another big offensive year; only two other defensemen in the League with over 100 shots on goal had a better shooting percentage and more goals than Dumba.  The big, bad news for Minnesota is the late, likely season-ending broken ankle suffered by #1 defenseman Ryan Suter; only Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty played more minutes per game amongst defensemen than Suter.  In three of the four games since Suter’s injury, Dumba has been the team leader in minutes and had two goals and two assists.  If Minnesota are to win this series, they’ll need to halt Winnipeg’s offense and get goals against the League’s fifth-best defense.

Pacific #1 Vegas Golden Knights versus Western Wild Card #1 Los Angeles Kings
Prediction: Vegas in six

I guess an atypical hockey home deserved an atypical inaugural season! The Golden Knights blew up most expectations of an expansion team and ended up winning the Pacific Division with their cobbled-together crew.  William Karlsson had a League-leading 23.4% shooting percentage that helped drive him to the third-most goals in the League, and their offense scored the fourth-most goals in the League.  Marc-Andre Fleury had a renaissance in the desert, turning in career-best numbers in goals against average, save percentage, and goals saved above average.  There is a question if two of their key contributors, Jon Marchessault and David Perron, will be available for the opening series against the Kings, but it’s possible Gerard Gallant was holding them out as the playoffs became more and more certain.

Los Angeles is an interesting case.  They allowed the fewest goals in the League this year, with Jonathan Quick turning in one of his career best years as he won his second William Jennings trophy, and their was the best penalty kill at 85%.  Defenseman Drew Doughty will garner Norris consideration as usual (seventh amongst defensemen in points) and Anze Kopitar inserted himself into the Hart discussion with his high offensive productivity despite making 48.1% offensive zone starts.  Overall though, they were average offensively, and that may not cut it against a stingy Vegas defense.  Quick also played the sixth-most games by a goaltender this year; while it was a comparatively low workload for him, will it have been light enough?

Pacific #2 Anaheim Ducks versus Pacific #3 San Jose Sharks
Prediction: Anaheim in six

Surprisingly, the Ducks and Sharks haven’t faced each other in the playoffs since 2009, despite the two teams missing the playoffs a combined three times since then.  Anaheim’s John Gibson turned in a fantastic season, trailing only Nashville’s Pekka Rinne in goals saved above average, and the Ducks overall tied the Predators in team save percentage.  Anaheim has had health issues all season – Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Adam Henrique all played less than 60 games – and those issues persist somewhat with “#1” defenseman Cam Fowler suffering a shoulder injury late in the season and Gibson missing the Ducks’ last four games with an injury.  If Ryan Miller needs to go in Gibson’s place, he’s been a very capable backup this year as he’s turned in some of his best numbers since his days in Buffalo.

San Jose is looking to avoid being a one-and-done team for the second straight year, but they may have to make do without Joe Thornton, who has been out of action since the end of January.  Evander Kane has also been dealing with an arm injury, but he played over 21 minutes in the Sharks’ regular season finale.  San Jose has decent offensive depth, with eleven skaters scoring ten-plus goals this year, and with Brent Burns having a bounce-back season as he tied Dallas’ John Klingberg with the second-most points amongst defensemen, they look better positioned for a longer playoff run.  However, they will need a better goaltending performance out of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell, who combined to go 5-4-1 in their last ten and a 0.912 save percentage.

Atlantic #1 Tampa Bay Lightning versus Eastern Wild Card #2 New Jersey Devils
Prediction: Tampa Bay in five

The Lightning bolted (boo) out of the gates this season and had thirty-one wins before they had ten losses.  They ended the season with the third-best record in the League, the most goals scored, and the highest shooting percentage.  Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy cooled off from the hot start but still led the League in wins (tied with the Jets’ Hellebuyck) and shutouts; again, it’ll be interesting to see if playing the fourth-most games in the League will affect his performance.  The big news for the Lightning is the possible absence of Steven Stamkos, who left Tampa’s matchup with the Predators on April 1 with a leg injury; if he’s absent, it’s a big hit for the Bolts on even strength and on the power play.  They still have 100-point scorer Nikita Kucherov and three other twenty-plus goal scorers, plus Victor Hedman with his fifth-most points amongst defensemen, so Tampa will not be that damaged on offense.

New Jersey lost its final game of the regular season, but still qualified for the postseason by virtue of the Panthers just missing the mark.  It took a hot finish for the Devils to get into the playoff race, as backup goaltender Keith Kincaid went 7-0-1 in New Jersey’s final ten games.  Possible Hart candidate Taylor Hall also finished the season on fire, scoring 8G-8A as he ended up sixth in the League in points and just one of two non-Penguins in the top five in power play points.  Befitting their position in the middle of the League’s standings, they were smack dab in the middle of the League in goals scored and allowed, so they will need to be at their peak to fend off the Lightning which, coincidentally, was swept by the Devils in their three games in the regular season.

Atlantic #2 Boston Bruins versus Atlantic #3 Toronto Maple Leafs
Prediction: Boston in seven

The last time the Bruins and Maple Leafs met in the playoffs, the Bruins mounted an incredible comeback in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, scoring two goals in the last 1:22 of regulation to tie the game at 4 before winning in overtime.  From there, the Bruins went on to the Stanley Cup Final, while the Maple Leafs plunged off the face of the Earth, only to emerge after picking eighth, fourth, and first in the Entry Draft.  Those players, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Auston Matthews, have turned the Maple Leafs into a serious contender for the first time since the early 2000s.  Toronto had the second-best offense in the League as well as the second-best power play.  In goal, Frederik Andersen played the second-most games and led the League in shots faced and saved, so the workload was quite extreme for him, but a better offensive output was the difference this year.

Boston had their best year since 2014, even with a somewhat down year from Tuukka Rask; they ended the regular season sixth in goals scored, third in fewest goals allowed, fourth in power play, and third in penalty kill.  They had three thirty goal scorers including possible Hart contender Brad Marchand (who was fourth in points per game) and likely Selke finalist Patrice Bergeron.  They had a tough time with the Maple Leafs during the regular season, losing three of four.  Still, there’s a lot to like about the Bruins’ chances as they were one point away from taking the Atlantic Division crown from the Tampa Bay Lightning, but they will have their hands full with the young and hungry Maple Leafs looking to upset.

Metropolitan #1 Washington Capitals versus Eastern Wild Card #1 Columbus Blue Jackets
Prediction: Washington in seven

It’s the battle of the bridesmaids, as both the Capitals and Blue Jackets have the Penguins to thank for their recent playoff exits.  Perhaps weary of being the champions of the regular season and nothing else, Washington nevertheless remained Metropolitan Division champions despite a push from the Penguins.  They are led once again by Alex Ovechkin, whose 49 goals was enough for his seventh Rocket Richard trophy, tying Bobby Hull for the most times leading the lead in goals.  Perhaps surprising was the regression by Braden Holtby, Jennings trophy winner and Vezina finalist last year, who was remarkably below average while his backup, Philipp Grubauer, found himself supplanting Holtby as the starting goaltender for Game 1 of this series.  Still, the Capitals’ defense and goaltending on the year was average, and might be the reason they have yet another disappointing postseason.

The Blue Jackets almost found themselves out of the playoffs altogether, save for the Florida Panthers not quite having enough to possibly push them out of the Wild Card race.  It came on the heels of a good-but-not-great year by Sergei Bobrovsky in terms of the typical stats, but who nonetheless led the League in goals saved above average per 60 (just ahead of Grubauer) and total goals saved above average (far and away the best, ahead of Grubauer by 18 goals).  However, Columbus has to be worried about their special teams play, which ranked 25th in power play and 26th in penalty kill.  Still, offseason acquisition Artemi Panarin gave the Blue Jackets their franchise’s first 80-point scorer, but the Jackets will need much more offense to make any serious noise in the playoffs.