With the NHL playoffs set to begin Wednesday, The Canadian Press takes a look at all eight first-round series.
(1) Tampa Bay Lightning versus (WC2) Columbus Blue Jackets
The class of the NHL during the regular season, the Lightning tied a league record with 62 wins. Led by NHL scoring ace Nikita Kucherov, captain Steven Stamkos, star defenceman Victor Hedman and Vezina Trophy candidate Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal, the battle-tested Presidents’ Trophy winners look primed for a long playoff run. The East’s second wild-card team, the Blue Jackets breathed a huge sigh of relief when they secured a playoff spot Friday. Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen went all-in at the trade deadline, acquiring forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, while also hanging onto two high-profile potential unrestricted free agents — netminder Sergei Bobrovsky and sniper Artemi Panarin.
Head-to-head season series: Tampa 3-0-0; Columbus 0-3-0
Pick: Lightning in five
(2) Boston Bruins versus (3) Toronto Maple Leafs
The Bruins and Leafs will meet in the first round for the second straight spring after Boston beat Toronto in seven games last April. The Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak wreaked havoc on the Leafs a year ago, combining for an eye-popping 30 points. Toronto made the playoffs for a third straight season and is looking for the franchise’s first series win since 2004. Mitch Marner paced the Leafs with 94 points, while John Tavares scored 47 times to finish third overall. Auston Matthews, who had just one goal and one assist against the Bruins last year, had 73 points in 68 games this season. The series could come down to how Toronto’s oft-criticized defence handles Boston’s big guns.
Head-to-head season series: Boston 3-1-0; Toronto 1-3-0
Pick: Leafs in seven
(1) Washington Capitals versus (WC1) Carolina Hurricanes
Last season’s Stanley Cup champions, the Capitals’ first step on the road to repeating will be to get past the upstart Hurricanes. Washington is led by captain Alex Ovechkin, who scored 51 goals to top the NHL for an eighth season. Carolina made the playoffs for the first time since 2009 thanks to an incredible second half. From late December onwards, the Hurricanes went 31-12-2 to earn the conference’s first wild-card berth. Spurred on by ageless captain Justin Williams and a renewed connection with its fans, the so-called “Bunch of Jerks” will be looking to build on the momentum they’ve created during a memorable campaign.
Head-to-head season series: Washington 4-0-0; Carolina 0-3-1
Pick: Capitals in six
(2) New York Islanders versus (3) Pittsburgh Penguins
Another feel-good story of 2018-19, the Islanders surprised many observers under the leadership of new head coach Barry Trotz. Despite losing Tavares to the Leafs in free agency, New York came together thanks in large part to team defence backstopped by the goalie tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. Mathew Barzal, the Islanders’ top point-getter with 62, tied for 67th in the NHL scoring race. The Penguins lost to the Capitals in the second round last spring following back-to-back Cup wins. Led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh is in the playoffs for a 13th straight season, currently the NHL’s longest active streak.
Head-to-head season series: New York 2-1-1; Pittsburgh 2-1-1
Pick: Penguins in six
(1) Calgary Flames versus (WC2) Colorado Avalanche
The Flames finished tops in the West for the first time since the franchise won its only Cup in 1988-89. Calgary underwent an overhaul after missing the playoffs last season, bringing in head coach Bill Peters and swinging a big trade on draft day. Johnny Gaudreau finished tied for seventh in league scoring with 99 points, but the biggest question for the Flames will be whether or not veteran goalie Mike Smith can hold up for a long playoff run. Colorado made the post-season thanks to a late 8-0-2 streak despite missing injured captain Gabriel Landeskog for a chunk of March, while Mikko Rantanen’s health status for Game 1 remains in question. Nathan MacKinnon took his game to a whole new level for the Avalanche, tying Gaudreau with 99 points.
Head-to-head season series: Calgary 3-0-0; Colorado 0-2-1
Pick: Flames in five
(2) San Jose Sharks versus (3) Vegas Golden Knights
Vegas went on one of the most magical runs in NHL history last season, making it all the way to the final as an expansion franchise. The Knights added Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny before the season, then acquired Mark Stone at the trade deadline in hopes of another long spring. And with Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, Vegas always has a chance. San Jose got a boost with the return of Erik Karlsson in the season finale following a 17-game injury absence, while Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Evander Kane will be looking to avenge last spring’s loss to Vegas in the second round. The big question for the Sharks is goaltending — can Martin Jones find his rhythm following a sub-par regular season?
Head-to-head season series: San Jose 2-2-0; Vegas 2-1-1
Pick: Knights in seven
(1) Nashville Predators versus (WC1) Dallas Stars
The Predators beat out the Jets and Blues to win the Central Division for the second straight season. Nashville made it all the way to the Cup final from the West’s second wild-card spot in 2017, but went out in the second round last spring in seven games to Winnipeg after winning the Presidents’ Trophy. Nashville has arguably the top defence corps in the league led by Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekhlom. Dallas, meanwhile, is back in the playoffs as the West’s first wild-card team following a two-year absence.
Head-to-head season series: Nashville 3-2-0; Dallas 2-1-2
Pick: Predators in six
(2) Winnipeg Jets versus (3) St. Louis Blues
Winnipeg had a major breakthrough last season, making it to the conference final before falling to Vegas. With a forward group featuring Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine, the Jets can fill the opposition net, but like San Jose, have a question mark in goal with the so-so play of Connor Hellebuyck. There are no such concerns with the Blues, who sat tied for last overall on Jan. 1, but rebounded thanks in large part to stellar rookie netminder Jordan Binnington. The 25-year-old forced his way into the Calder Trophy conversation after his December recall, registering a 24-5-1 record with 1.89 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage.
Related: Jets Top 5 Games of 2019
Head-to-head season series: Winnipeg 3-1-0; St. Louis 1-2-1
Pick: Blues in six
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press