Penguins in 6
Since the bubble in 2020, Pulock and Pelech have been a dominant defensive pairing for the Islanders. Per JFresh Hockey, with Pulock/Pelech on the ice, the Islanders have an expected goal of 61%, but without them, the Islanders are managing an expected goal of 49%. The remarkable performance for the Islanders’ top D pair will need to continue if the Islanders are going to have any chance of pulling off the upset against the Penguins. Meanwhile, the Penguins earned the top seed without star Evgeni Malkin for a significant portion of the season, but he should be returning fully healthy for this series. With Malkin, Crosby, and Letang healthy, the Penguins will have very few weaknesses in their lineup. The Islanders’ defense has been incredibly solid with Varlamov in the net, but they are going up against a high-scoring Penguins team with more playoff experience than any other team in the NHL. The Islanders will be able to control the Penguins for a game or two, but it seems unlikely that the Penguins experienced offense will be held in check for an entire series. Unless Mat Barzel finds some magic that he is fully capable of, the Penguins will dominate and win a hard-fought defensive series.
Capitals in 7
The Bruins and Capitals will start on Saturday, with a few main headlines going into their series. Ever since the acquisition of Zdeno Chara this summer, the Bruins and Capitals were bound to meet in the playoffs. The Bruins have spent most of the past three years struggling to get secondary scoring, but it looks like they might have finally solved that problem with the Taylor Hall trade at the deadline. Meanwhile, the Capitals possess one of the best offenses, which centers around Ovechkin, who kept scoring goals 24 in 45 games this year. The high-powered Capitals Power Play has the third-best PP% this year, scoring on almost 25% of their opportunities, but they will face off against a Bruins penalty kill that killed over 85% of their penalties. For the Bruins to win, they need to generate secondary scoring and limit the potent Washington Power play to be so dangerous. The Capitals need to shut down the Bergeron line and play a physical game to control the pace. This series will go 6 or 7 games, and I think the Capitals’ offense is too dangerous for the Bruins to win the series.
Hurricanes in 5
Last season the Tampa Bay Lightning had a historic season winning the President’s Trophy but were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. It as the first time that Columbus had won a series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Blue Jackets beat the Maple Leafs in the qualifying round in the only series that went five games. The Lightning finished second in the round-robin but lost Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman due to injuries. Their availability in the playoffs is uncertain. If they are unable to go, the Lightning will likely fall to the Blue Jackets again.
Lightning in 5
While the Lightning are a three seed, they are one of the primary cup contenders this year. With a Vezina caliber goalie in Vasilevskiy and the return of Kucherov to the lineup, the Lightning are poised to make another deep cup run. Despite the skill the Lightning have, they have a tough matchup playing against their in-state rivals for their first playoff matchup ever. In an underrated division, the Panthers have found themselves after struggling for years. Without a playoff series win since 1996, a highly efficient Panthers offense has a chance to do some damage against an average Lightning defense. This is one of two 3-vs-2 matchups where the three seed is actually the favorite, along with Bruins vs. Capitals. In fact, the Lightning, as a three seed, have the fourth-best odds to win the Cup going into the playoffs. If the Panthers want to pull off the upset, they need to score many goals while preventing Kucherov and the Lightning offense from getting settled in. With Vasilevskiy in net, though, the Panthers won’t score enough points to keep up with the Lightning offense.
Avalanche in 6
In the final game of their season, the Avalanche beat the Kings to secure the division title. The Avalanche have now won division titles in SIX different divisions. More importantly, the Avalanche avoided the Wild in the first round. For context, the Avalanche and Golden Knights are two of the best teams in the NHL, and both have been cup contenders all year long. Still, moneypuck.com still only gives the Golden Knights a 61% of beating the Wild in the first round while the Avalanche has an 84% of beating the Blues. A clutch win in their last game will give the Avalanche a best of 7 against the Blues, who still have a significant amount of their 2019 Cup-winning team. A veteran Blues’ team that has struggled to score this season shouldn’t give the Avalanche too much of a challenge, but Binnington has already proven he’s capable of getting hot enough to carry his team through the playoffs. If the Avalanche continues their goal-scoring, they lead the NHL in goals this year; then they should end the series quickly. Still, watch out for a Blues’ team filled with veterans that have plenty of playoff experience.
Golden Knights in 7
The Golden Knights team has somehow continued to improve their team. Kelly McCrimmon, their GM, and Pete DeBoer, their head coach, have done an amazing job of acquiring and developing talent that has put the Golden Knights in position for another cup run. Fleury and Lehner have put together a dominant performance all year, giving DeBoer plenty of options throughout the playoffs. The Golden Knights scored the third-most goals in the NHL this year while allowing the fewest goals against. In a top-heavy division, the Golden Knights draw an incredibly challenging Wild team that has been ignited by rookie Kirill Kaprizov and goalie Cam Talbot. For the Wild to challenge the Golden Knights, Kaprizov must continue to lead his team in points, and as a team, the Wild will need to figure out how to score on the best goalie tandem in the NHL. Both teams are extremely consistent offensively, so this should be a high-scoring series that will be very fun to watch. I expect the playoff experience of Fleury and the Golden Knights to carry them past the Wild in a hard-fought series.
Maple Leafs in 4
There is no doubt that this matchup will be the most anticipated first-round series in years as the two biggest markets in the NHL face-off. The Maple Leafs have struggled in the first round for decades, and losing in the first round in three consecutive years doesn’t help. However, something feels different about this Leafs team. While there have been some people crediting Matthews and Marner, the difference lies in the goaltending. Jack Campbell should be named the starter for the playoffs after an amazing season where he finished in the 93rd percentile of bad starts. (Meaning he rarely had bad starts) Normally the Canadiens are a popular upset pick because anything is possible when you have Price in net, but Price is older and simply doesn’t have the same ability as he once did. Matthews hasn’t stopped scoring all year long, and I wouldn’t expect him to stop scoring now against an aging Price. The Canadiens have shown their ability to score at times, with Toffoli having an amazing season. Toffoli will need to do everything and give the Canadiens a chance, or if Price somehow gets hot, anything is possible. Unfortunately, neither Toffoli nor Price are on fire going into the playoffs, so the Leafs should finally get the first-round win.
Oilers in 6
The only important headline for this series is McDavid vs. Hellebuyck. McDavid has been red hot all year and somehow got even hotter scoring 29 points in the last 10 games. Now McDavid and Draistl have to go up against Hellebuyck, who has put together another Vezina caliber season. While there is no doubt that McDavid is the best player in the world right now, finally advancing to the second round would certainly improve his resume. The Jets made a major move at the deadline to improve their offense, and Luc-Dubois helped the Jets earn an important third seed to avoid the Maple Leafs in the first round. Most likely, it will be all for naught, as the Jets have struggled against the Oilers, getting two wins in ten games against this year. Like the Canadiens, the Jets need Hellebuyck to get hot if they want to find themselves in the second round because it seems unlikely that the Jets defense figures out how to stop McDavid. A slightly above-average Jets offense could also help take some of the pressure off of Hellebuyck. Unless the Jets can get everything to go their way, the Oilers should be able to move on for the first time since they drafted McDavid.