With the regular season officially finished up, it’s now the best time of the year for hockey fans. The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs will begin on Wednesday where there will surely be fireworks and drama as usual.
The NHL blessed its fans with plenty to be excited about this postseason. The Tampa Bay Lightning are one of the greatest teams ever assembled, the Carolina Hurricanes broke an agonizing playoff drought, and there are several superstar matchups in the first round. It’s not always easy to see where the craziness will develop, but these predictions should provide enough of it.
1. Ryan O’Reilly Will Lead the First Round in Scoring
For a skater to lead any playoff round in scoring, a few things have to happen. First, a player needs to be a significant offensive threat. Next, the player will need to be involved in a long series. Yes, an elite talent like the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov could quickly notch 10 points in just a few games, but a six or seven-game contest obviously provides more scoring opportunity.
One player who fits this mold is Ryan O’Reilly of the St. Louis Blues. The Blues will square off against the Winnipeg Jets in what will surely be a tightly-contested series (more on that later). More importantly, the 28-year-old center posted a career-high 77 points during the regular season, breezing by his former career best of 64 set during the 2013-14 campaign.
That was actually the last time O’Reilly suited up during the postseason. He turned in a solid performance, scoring six points in a seven-game series loss to the Minnesota Wild. This time around, the Blues look like a threat to make a deep run and O’Reilly will stand up to the test, notching at least eight points in the first round.
2. At Least One Wild Card Team Will Advance to Round 2
Everyone loves cheering for the underdog or the Cinderella story, especially come playoff time. This season, several of the wild card teams look poised to give a division winner a run for their money during the first round. One of the most popular upset picks is the Dallas Stars taking out the Central Division champion Nashville Predators.
Dallas allowed the second-fewest goals in the NHL during the regular season backed by strong goaltending from Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. While they split time for most of the season, Bishop’s 1.98 goals-against average (GAA) and .934 save percentage (SV%) were both among the best in the league and he’s expected to be the workhorse during the postseason.
However, Nashville and Pekka Rinne weren’t far behind, allowing the third-fewest goals of any team this season. The two squads were fairly even in their head-to-head matchups during the regular season. Nashville took three of the five games, but two of those wins came in overtime and the two teams posted an even goal differential against one another. If Dallas’ superstars Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn can get the offense rolling, the Predators might be in trouble.
Another intriguing matchup is the Hurricanes facing the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. Carolina is a young and exciting team that will appear in the postseason for the first time in a decade. With all the headline the “Bunch of Jerks” have made this season, they look like a Cinderella story waiting to happen. The Hurricanes roll into the postseason winning four of their final five games but also dropped two straight to the Capitals just prior to that. Washington actually swept the four-game head-to-head series in the regular season.
Despite getting knocked around during the regular season, the Hurricanes still have hope. Washington was notorious for losing earlier than expected in the postseason until finally getting over the hump last year. However, with former coach Barry Trotz gone, it remains to be seen how the team will perform in crunch time. They’ll also have to find a way to score on one of the hottest goalies in the league, Petr Mrazek. In his last 15 games, he went 12-3-0 with a wonderful 1.67 GAA and .943 SV%, carrying his team to the postseason.
Finally, there’s the Colorado Avalanche facing the Calgary Flames, the top seed in the Western Conference. Calgary didn’t earn the top seed on accident; the team was tied for second in the NHL in goals scored. However, the inconsistent goaltending is a glaring issue that could be exposed by a solid Avalanche offensive attack.
From the start of March through the end of the season, Mike Smith and David Rittich appeared in nine games each and both posted a save percentage under .910. At this point, it’s still unclear who will be the primary goaltender in the postseason, a rarity for such a strong contender.
Meanwhile, Colorado may not have terrific depth scoring but features one of the most lethal forward lines in all of hockey. Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen combined for 106 goals and 261 points, making one of the highest-scoring trios in the league. If that group catches fire, Calgary’s netminders may not have an answer.
3. Two Series Will Go 7 Games
As mentioned, several of the first-round matchups look airtight, including the Blues and Jets. While Winnipeg took three of the four regular-season matchups, these two haven’t faced off since Dec. 7, when a Blues victory brought them to 10-13-4 on the season. A lot has changed for St. Louis since then, perhaps most importantly who is defending the crease
Rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington has been a godsend for St. Louis this season. In his first start of the season, he shutout the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 7 and began a smoking hot stretch that dragged his team out of last place in the Central Division. The 25-year-old ended his rookie campaign with a ridiculous 1.89 GAA and .927 save percentage, vaulting himself up the Calder Trophy leaderboard. With him and O’Reilly leading the way, the Jets are up for a tall task. However, Winnipeg’s star-studded group of forwards featuring Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler should make this series a nailbiter.
In the Eastern Conference, it’s seemingly been a foregone conclusion that the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs would dance in the first round all season long. Boston and Toronto finished second and third, respectively, in the Atlantic Division and in goal differential in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins thrive on limiting opponent’s shots with a strong defensive group while the Maple Leafs play more of a run-and-gun style.
The style clash will be interesting especially with a highly-talented goaltender on both ends of the ice. Boston’s Tuukka Rask is a former Vezina winner and has Stanley Cup experience. He hasn’t been entirely impressive this season (2.48 GAA and .912 SV%) but with just 46 games played, he should be fresh for the playoffs. Worst case scenario, if Rask falters, Jarolsav Halak might be the best backup in the NHL after registering a 2.34 GAA and .924 SV%.
On the other end, Frederik Andersen was one of the league’s best goalies for the second straight season. Toronto stumbled out of the regular season going 3-4-3 in the final 10 games. In his last five appearances, Andersen allowed 17 goals and lost three games. He’ll be a problem for Boston if he gets back to his early season form; in 15 games from Oct. 11 to Nov. 21, the 29-year-old never allowed more than three goals, going 10-5-0 with a 1.88 GAA and .943 SV%. No matter what way this series is looked at, it’s going to be an even one.
4. Tampa Bay Won’t Sweep Columbus
Of course, the final wild-card team is the Columbus Blue Jackets facing the Lightning, but they’re in a slightly different category than the teams previously mentioned. In just about any situation, this wouldn’t exactly be considered “bold.” However, not only were the Lightning historically good
The Lightning outscored them 17-3 for a ridiculous plus-14 goal differential. Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy started all three of those games, turning away 100-of-103 shots he faced, including a 31-save shutout. After entirely dominating Columbus in the regular season, what makes things different now?
The last time these two met was in mid-February before Columbus went all-in at the trade deadline, acquiring Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel from the Ottawa Senators. It took a little while for the new roster to get rolling, but Columbus ended the season 7-1-0 in the team’s final eight games. The Lightning are heavily favored in this matchup and rightfully so, but the Blue Jackets won’t be pushed around like they were during the regular season.
As always, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are sure to bring endless amounts of excitement, upsets, and all-around craziness. Nothing is guaranteed in the world of hockey, and a few underdog victories in the first round could lead to a shocking postseason finish.