With March Madness all but over, it’s time to focus on the second-best sports tournament in North American sports: the Stanley Cup playoffs. We spent a lot of time last season covering the meteoric rise of the Vegas Golden Knights, although we really haven’t covered as much hockey this season as we would have like.
[We will have to remedy that next year.]
Nonetheless, the Stanley Cup playoffs are pretty much the best thing in pro sports. Anything can happen, and it often does. There is certainly a predominant favorite this year (read on) despite the fact that in the past, the National Hockey League’s best team in the regular season hasn’t always fared well in the postseason.
To wit, of the last 15 winners of the Presidents’ Trophy—the shiny prize for having the best regular-season record in the league—only twice has the best team gone on to win the Stanley Cup: the 2008 Detroit Red Wings and the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks. The latter squad did it in a shortened season, too, that did not start until January, which means only one team has really turned the trick recently in a full season’s worth of games.
That puts the Tampa Bay Lightning in the hot seat, after they tied the all-time record for wins in a season (62) and tallied 21 more points than any other team in the NHL this year. If Tampa Bay doesn’t win the Cup, well, it will be both expected and a surprise.
We will do round-by-round picks here for the playoffs, starting with the first round, which starts on Wednesday. This is what we think …
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets: The Lightning finished 30 points ahead of the Blue Jackets in the standings, although we should not let that fool us. Columbus actually posted the fourth-most regulation/overtime wins (ROWs) this year in the Eastern Conference. Despite being the “worst team” in this side of the bracket in terms of seeding, the Blue Jackets are good enough to scare the Lightning a little bit. Tampa Bay in six games.
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs: These are the second- and third-best teams in the Eastern Conference, and one of them is going home in the first round. This is a coin flip, with the Bruins having the defensive edge and home-ice advantage. That’s good enough for us to go with them in this series. Boston in seven games.
Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes: The defending champs won their division this year, but in our eyes, they rate as just the sixth-best team in the conference. However, the Hurricanes rate as the eighth—the worst team in the playoffs, basically, on this side of the bracket. Something to keep in mind is that both teams tied with 44 ROWs this season. The Caps’ goal differential was just seven scores better than Carolina’s differential, too. This is going to be a close series. Washington in seven games.
New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: This is the closest matchup in the East on paper, and all the series this side are pretty close, in truth, with maybe the exception of the Lightning/Blue Jackets matchup. However, if any of these four first-round series go to overtime in Game 7, it’s going to be this one. New York in seven games.
Calgary Flames vs. Colorado Avalanche: The Flames emerged as the top team in the West, with the same point total as the Bruins. The Avs were lucky to sneak into the playoffs, really, as they had only 36 ROWs, compared to Calgary’s 50 ROWs. The Flames should win this series, readily. Calgary in five games.
San Jose Sharks vs. Vegas Golden Knights: The Sharks were knocked out in the second round by the upstart Vegas team last year, and then San Jose limped through the last month of the season. The Golden Knights are not the same team as they were last year, and the Sharks want some revenge. San Jose in six games.
Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars: The Preds won the Presidents’ Trophy last year before losing in the second round. They might be motivated this spring to atone for past sins. Meanwhile, the Stars rate out as the worst team in the Western Conference bracket. But get this: Nashville only had 43 ROWs this year, and Dallas posted 42 ROWs. The Preds should win, but it won’t be easy. Nashville in six games.
Winnipeg Jets vs. St. Louis Blues: The two teams tied with 99 points, but the Jets get home ice because of their three-victory edge in ROWs. The teams’ goal differentials are quite similar, so that home-ice edge should end up being very significant. The Blues are slightly better on defense, though. Winnipeg in seven games.
Come back for second-round predictions when the time comes!