I love just about every sport out there, but there is simply nothing like the NHL Playoffs. While the first round of the NBA playoffs tends to feel like more a formality, champions are made in the early rounds of the NHL Playoffs. Just ask the Los Angeles Kings, who back in 2012 parlayed early round success into becoming the first No. 8 seed in NHL history to win a Stanley Cup Championship. Read on to find out whether that same path is in the cards for any low-seeds in the 2018 playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning V. New Jersey Devils
The Lightning survived the Bruins and managed to capture the Atlantic Division crown after going through a little bit of a late season lull. Their reward? The New Jersey Devils, who are returning the the playoffs for the first time since reaching the Cup finals back in 2012. The Devils come into this series as major underdogs and will have to rely heavily on their two biggest weapons: Taylor Hall and Keith Kinkaid. Hall has been a revelation this year, finishing sixth on the NHL’s point leader list with 93 points (39 goals). Further, Kinkaid has been incredible since replacing Corey Schneider earlier in the year, and has given the Devils a chance to win on most nights. The Devils will give it their all but the Lightning will be coming at them from too many angles. Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman, Miller, oh and Vezina candidate, Andrei Vasilevskiy… I can keep going but you probably get the point. The Devils have a bright future ahead of them, but we won’t see them take that next step this season.
Pick: Lightning in 5 games
Boston Bruins V. Toronto Maple Leafs
It’s always exciting when two of the Original Six franchises meet in the playoffs, and these two teams are no exception. A mix of firepower, youth, and fan-favorite veterans is bound to make this one of the more entertaining matchups of the first round. The Bruins boast one of the NHL’s most dangerous lineups built to decimate you at both ends of the ice. Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron are both phenomenal two-way players and are likely to see a lot of Auston Matthews throughout the series. The Bruins will look to make life extremely difficult for the second year phenom and the rest of his Maple Leafs teammates. Throw in Rick Nash, who is poised to prove to everyone that he is capable of more than his 15 goals in 77 playoffs games. Freddy Anderson will have to be near perfect between the pipes in order for the Leafs to have any chance against the Bruins. That said, these teams play each other tight and if the Leafs get up early, the Bruins will have only the memories of their 2011 run to console them.
Pick: Bruins in 7 games
Washington Capitals V. Columbus Blue Jackets
After making the playoffs for the third time in five years, the Blue Jackets can breathe a sigh of relief. For what feels like the first time ever, they will not have to face the Penguins in the first round. Despite playing the Penguins nearly evenly in 2014 and last season, the Penguins came out on top each time. Unfortunately, even though they won’t be playing the back-to-back Stanley Cup champs, things don’t look much better for Columbus going into the first round.
Slated to face the Washington Capitals, the Jackets will have to shut down the Metropolitan Division winners, who might be the hungriest team in this year’s playoffs. The Capitals are prone to the bad habit of looking too far ahead when it comes to the playoffs, a tendency that will be tough to shake with their likely second round opponent being the arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins. That said, as long as the Capitals focus on the opponent in front of them, they should make quick work of Columbus. For Columbus to have any chance, shutting down Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom is a must. Further, they will have to hope that the apparent new starter, Philipp Grubauer, falters in what will be his first career playoff start in Game one this Thursday. The Blue Jackets are sure to throw everything they have at what might be the one unknown factor for this Caps team, with the hopes of a juicy nerve-induced rebound. If Grubauer can get his legs under him early, you can expect another early exit for Columbus.
Pick: Washington in 5 games
Pittsburgh Penguins V. Philadelphia Flyers
The two-time defending Cup champs will have their work cut out for them as they are up against the hottest sports town in America: Philadelphia. The Flyers will look to continue the trend of Philly championship teams, and what better way to start than by taking out the champs, and one of their biggest rivals. Philly finished strong down the homestretch of the season, holding off the Panthers for a Wildcard spot before climbing into third in the Metro division. Claude Giroux seems healthy and his play definitely backs that up. Further, he has taken rookie, Nolan Patrick, under his wing, turning Patrick into a key contributor for this Flyer squad. The Flyers’ biggest question is about goaltending (Isn’t it always?). Will they ride Petr Mrazek, or will they give Neuvirth, or even Elliot a chance to lead them? Crosby, Malkin, and the rest of the Penguins know exactly what they have to do to win. They will jump on the Flyers early and hold on in a tightly fought series.
Pick: Pittsburgh in 5 games
Nashville Predators v. Colorado Avalanche
While the Preds were celebrating winning the first Presidents Trophy in franchise history, the Avalanche were starting the playoffs early against the Blues in a must-win game. With the adrenaline already pumping in Colorado, the Avalanche might just have a prime opportunity to steal a road game. Then again, have you seen this Preds team play? While the Avalanche have some amazing weapons in MacKinnon and Landeskog, the Preds are the most complete team in the NHL and can destroy you with four lines, and a defense corps that can win any game on their own. Oh, and not to mention goaltender Pekka Rinne, who looks ready to win his first Vezina Trophy this season, an award I genuinely needed to confirm he had not won numerous times already. The Predators are next level. Expect them to find their groove no later than halfway through Game 1 and not look back from there.
Pick: Nashville in 4 games
Winnipeg Jets V. Minnesota Wild
The Wild have made the playoffs every year since 2013 but have not made it past the second round once in that time span. Further, after experiencing first rounds exits the last two years, Minnesota will have to take on a young and dynamic Jets team without being able to rely on
their defensive leader, Ryan Suter and his 26:46 minutes per game (second only to Drew Doughty), who is out for the remainder of the season with a fractured ankle. The Wild had their work cut out for them before the injury. Now that Suter will be missing the series, many are wondering how the Wild can stop the skill of the Jets, most notably Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele. The Biggest question mark for the Jets is in nets, with Connor Hellebuyck making his playoff debut. But after setting a new record for most wins by an American-born goalie in one season with 43, his confidence, along with the rest of the Jets, should be sky high, allowing them to make quick work of the Wild.
Pick: Winnipeg in 5 games
Las Vegas Golden Knights V. Los Angeles Kings
The logical and rational person inside me believes that the Kings should win this series. After all, they have tons of playoff experience, a deep team that boasts Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jeff Carter, as well as great goaltending, with Jonathan Quick returning to form this season. That being said, fan is short for fanatic, and rationality has no place in the incredible and emotional story we have seen play out for the Knights this season. They have defied the odds all season. After every single hockey analyst on the globe picked them to finish last in the division (myself included), they went ahead and won it, smashing every single expansion team record along the way. They got one hell of a season out of William Karlsson, as he notched a career high 43 goals. Karlsson is only one member of a Golden Knights squad made up of castoffs who have bonded, done the impossible, and who are looking to shock the hockey world yet again. Who am I to disagree with what seems like fate?
Pick: Vegas in 7 games!
Anaheim Ducks V. San Jose Sharks
This Battle of California will be keeping many East coast hockey fans up late in the coming weeks. The Sharks and Ducks are two teams who each possess high levels of talent and skill, while at the same time not being afraid to go into the corners to battle for every loose puck. The Ducks scratched and clawed their way into the playoffs, and Getzlaf and Perry know what to expect. The Sharks’ addition of Evander Kane has energized captain Joe Pavelski and the two have quickly become quite the dynamic duo. Expect this hard fought series to go the distance. The only real question is why did NBC choose to move this series to the Golf channel? Shame!
Pick: Anaheim in 7 games
***ATTENTION READERS: ******
As many of you have heard by now, the recent tragedy of the Humboldt Broncos Junior hockey team has shock the entire country of Canada. In responded to this tragedy, a GoFundMe page has been created, which will donate to victims and their families of those involved. Should you feel the urge to donate, please follow this link:
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