Even though you are late, the NHL is still allowing people to sign up for the Bracket Challenge, so hurry up and get your entries in already (Pw: SIDNEY87).
The remaining four series kick off today, so let’s take a crack at them.
New Jersey Devils vs. New York Rangers
It will be a big letdown if NYR/NJD isn’t one of the most exciting, intense and closest of the playoff matchups this spring. Both teams have a lot of star power and success going for them, and someone is bound to be bitterly disappointed losing to a cross-town rival and having an extended off-season.
Based on odds, this is the most coin flip of the first round - with New Jersey barely a favorite (-120) over NYR (+100). The Rangers have the goaltending edge, and a lot of experience. Much of the Devils core (including Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier) will be getting their first taste of NHL playoff action - which is a well-worn trope that the young/new team must learn lessons and exit early the first time around for good reason. Such growing pains are typically unavoidable, though NJD does have players like Timo Meier and Dougie Hamilton with no shortage of experience to lean on.
Meier and Hamilton will also be key figures to add to New Jersey’s very formidable offensive of getting scoring chances off the rush. If this is a “run and gun” type of series with lots of action, that’s a good thing for the Devils. If the Rangers can make it more of a slog and then look to strike with their power play, they will have to be happy to see it unfold that way.
Ultimately, I do think goaltending and experience will be the differentiating factors to set these teams apart, the Rangers have the nod in both categories. Seemingly everyone and their brother are making this the most popular “upset” for NYR to move on, which also makes me believe that the Devils actually will win. Of all the series, this should be the one most likely to go for either direction. I’m just hoping we get a Game 7 out of this one for excitement and entertainment value.
Prediction: Rangers in 7
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Every year, I am steadfast in seeing Toronto in the first round and picking the other team in seven games. I make that joke every time, and it always works. At the risk of being Charlie Brown running to kick that football, I am going to have faith that is really is going to end differently this time.
Tampa has been the team to represent the Eastern Conference in the prior three Stanley Cup Finals. But it took until this year for them to have either lost too many pieces or look fatigued and out of gas, stumbling to just 9-13-1 down the the stretch. Obviously, the Lightning still have some very good players and can kick it up a notch - but all season long something has been off for them compared the level they were at from 2020-22.
Contrast that with the Maple Leafs, where they have loaded up for this moment. Ryan O’Reilly, Jake McCabe, Noel Acciari, Sam Lafferty all were additions for a team that knows they must get results and win their first playoff round since 2004. This is the seventh year in a row that Toronto has made playoffs, the previous six have been one letdown after another. That ends this year. This is a team that has the urgency, and unlike previous Toronto teams, I think this one plays with more intensity and more of that “playoff style”.
The best way to avoid losing in a Game 7 is not to let a series get that far. Perhaps this really is the time that the Leafs will figure that out.
Prediction: Toronto in 6
Colorado Avalanche vs. Seattle Kraken
The Avalanche received a blow when it was recently announced that captain Gabe Landeskog’s injuries will prevent him from playing in these playoffs. Injuries and absences are nothing new for the defending champs, who weathered a ton of key players missing all season long (including Landeskog playing no games at all).
Seattle enters the playoffs as an upstart, having had a pleasantly surprising season. They had a worse than expected first year, but followed that up with an incredibly fun ride to the playoffs in season two. The Kraken get offense from anywhere and everywhere, with 11 players notching 35+ points this season.
Much like any good expansion team, Seattle has the vibe of misfit players who didn’t work in other places like Eeli Tolvanen and Daniel Sprong that have emerged as productive options for them. The Kraken took on Oliver Bjorkstand as a Columbus salary cap dump and he put up a tidy 20G+45P season. The Kraken’s first ever draft choice in Matty Beniers will win the rookie of the year. Lots of unexpected success stories like that have helped Seattle to a season as enjoyable as it was disappointing last year.
Their reward might be a taste of reality though, because the Kraken run into the defending champs in Round 1. Nathan MacKinnon has been leading the charge - since the All-Star break MacKinnon has 29 goals (and 57 points) in the last 34 games, putting him right up there with McDavid. I can’t see MacKinnon allowing the Avs to bow out in the first round, we’ll give Seattle a token win and call it a gentleman’s sweep.
Prediction: Colorado in 5
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Winnipeg Jets
I saw this matchup described as “lackluster” and I have to agree. Of all the playoff series this year, this is definitely one of them.
Both teams are just kind of there, Connor Hellebuyck should help tip the scales a little further than Winnipeg usually deserves. Overall Vegas is a solid all-around team and should be getting a boost from the play of captain Mark Stone as he comes back from injury. Stone added to six 50+ point scorers gives Vegas a lot of offensive muscle to work with, which served them well enough to take home ice advantage in this side of the bracket as the top team in the West.
This will also finally be Jack Eichel’s first taste of postseason NHL hockey.
Power play goals might be hard to come by, so 5v5 play will be the key. In most areas, the Golden Knights are just a little better. I always want to like Winnipeg more than they’ve proven to be - which is pretty good but nothing exceedingly special. To me, that descriptor sums up my interest in this series in general.
Prediction: Vegas in 6