The NHL playoffs begin today! The Penguins aren’t starting until tomorrow, which leads to one worry-free night of viewing tonight before the Pens take center stage around these parts. With that in mind, here’s what to watch for and some predictions for today.
** Also - if you didn’t see from this weekend, it’s not too late today to let us see your own picks. The Pensburgh Bracket Challenge is back, though hosting on the NHL’s official website. To join all you have to do is click here **
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Boston vs Carolina
Even though this is a division champ vs a Wild Card, this could be considered one of the closest matched series of all the first round matchups in the league. Such is life in the brutal Eastern Conference this year.
How Carolina wins - starter Frederik Andersen had a Vezina finalist-worthy season but is looking unlikely to play today due to injury. They will need likely him back as soon as possible. With Sebastien Aho and Andrei Svechnikov likely to see a ton of Patrice Bergeron and Charlie MacAvoy, the series could hinge on just how much a very deep Hurricanes forward group can score. Players like Teuvo Teravainen, Vincent Trocheck and Nino Niederreiter will be key to have a good series.
How Boston wins - As a bigger and more physical team, the Bruins could wear a lighter Carolina team down over the course of a long series. Boston is very comfortable and used to playing low scoring games, which conventional wisdom tells us this series could be with two great defensive teams. No one in the NHL has had better defensive numbers than the Bruins, who are great at suppressing shots and chances against, and then taking advantage on offense when they get chances.
Prediction: Boston in 7
—It’s not uncommon at all for a Wild Card to take down a division champion in the first round, and the styles of these teams gives Boston a nice look on paper, now that David Pastrnak is back from injury. Canes backup goalie Petr Mrazek could be capable of winning this, however the Carolina goalie situation is worth monitoring. The series possibly swings on Andersen’s health and his form when he returns. Here, we’re projecting it’s just a little too late.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
How Tampa wins - Protect home ice. The Maple Leafs have arguably the most pressure and expectations, if Tampa can steal one in Games 1 and 2, and hold serve at home that would make Scotiabank Arena very, very tense. The Leafs have been really good at home (31-8-2) and like most, aren’t as good on the road (23-13-5). Tampa is the two-time defending Cup champions, and they know how to play this time of year.
How Toronto wins - Play out the process. Toronto has been a top-5 team this year in just about every advanced metric. They have the firepower up front, and this could be a real coming out party for 60-goal scorer Auston Matthews to put his stamp on the conversation for the best player in the game today with a strong run. Tampa would make a really formidable first round opponent for anyone, but if the Leafs can get over this hurdle, a lot of the pressure will be off and could turn into momentum.
Prediction: Tampa in 7.
—I’m a simple man, I see Toronto in the playoffs and I pick the other team in seven games. That’s been a pretty tried and true formula over the years. At the end of the day, Andrei Vasilevskiy is still the king of the playoffs, and it’s tough to pick against him.
St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild
How St. Louis wins - All hands on deck. The Blues have three lines of 20 goal scorers, and are one of the deepest teams around. The center depth is a big edge to STL with Robert Thomas, Ryan O’Reilly, Brayden Schenn and Tyler Bozak all down the middle that stack up really well against Minnesota’s crew of Ryan Hartman, Frederick Gaudreau, Joel Eriksson Ek and Tyson Jost. Center play this time of year is so crucial,
How Minnesota wins - Star power and defensive depth. Kirill Kaprizov ought to be the best player on the ice in this series, and the Wild will need him to be big. The Wild are deep in net with Cam Talbot and Marc-Andre Fleury, it might take figuring out which one they want to ride, but goalie play shouldn’t be a problem in Minny.
Prediction: St. Louis in 6.
—This could be one of the most fun and physical series of the playoffs. Both teams are built very similarly with Minnesota better on the wings, and STL better at center. Both defenses and goalie groups are on a similar level, though the Wild potentially are better at both. It would be surprising for either to emerge when the dust settles, but give me center depth and some of the bones of a team that has won a title.
Edmonton Oilers vs. Los Angeles Kings
How Edmonton wins - Show up? On paper this looks like one of the widest gaps of talent with Kings’ star defenseman Drew Doughty out for the season with injury. The Oilers, however, are 26-9-3 under Jay Woodcroft this season, and as we saw last week in Pittsburgh, Edmonton is a very fast and skilled team that is hitting on all cylinders right now. They’ve been a punching bag for some of their moves around the league, but the on-ice addition of Evander Kane has worked out really well, and their new coaching inputs have been very impressive.
How LA wins - Stop the stars. The Kings will have to limit Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl as much as possible, and then win when they aren’t on the ice. That’s a lot easier said than done. The Kings might be the “just happy to be here” type of team that makes the playoffs but isn’t really in a position this season to do a lot of damage.
Prediction: Edmonton in 5.
—Anything could happen in the playoffs, but this one has a clear resolution of which team “should” win. 40-year old Mike Smith might run out of gas at some point deeper into the tournament, but his stellar April should build a lot of confidence that he will provide quality goaltending. The elite Edmonton forwards should be able to do the rest from there in this series.