NHL Playoff Preview
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The NHL Playoffs getting underway this Wednesday, so it's time to take a look at the Eastern Conference match-ups.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
The Tampa Bay Lightning are the East's top team. They won the Atlantic Division and play the New Jersey Devils, the second Wild Card team from the Eastern Conference.
The Lightning led the NHL with 54 wins in the regular season. Their 290 goals during the season also lead the league. Offense was their main focus this season, which was event by the Lightning sitting 19th in the NHL with 234 goals against this year.
On the other hand, the Devils were around the middle of the NHL in both categories. New Jersey finished 15th in goals against with 240 and 15th with 243 goals. The Devils will look to play decent in both ends in order to have playoff success, unlike their first round opponents who will look to out gun their competition.
The offensive edge has to be with Tampa Bay. Not only did they led the NHL in goals, but their lineup is littered with high scoring potential. Nikita Kucherov lead the team with 100 points, but 11 Lightning players had 10 or more goals and nine players had more than 40 points.
The Devils boast Taylor Hall, who recorded 93 points this season, but don't have the depth scoring that the Tampa Bay Lightning have.
I look to see the Lightning win this series in five or six games. The Devils will put up a fight, but the overall offensive power of Tampa Bay will overpower the Devils, who will be definite playoff contenders next year.
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
With their loss to the Florida Panthers on Sunday, the Boston Bruins finished second in the Atlantic Division. The Bruins will face off against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the third team out of the Atlantic, in the first round.
Boston put on a huge surge late in the season in an attempt to take over the top spot in the Atlantic Division. While they weren't successful in overtaking the Lighting, the Bruins finished 4th in the NHL with 112 points. What was most impressive this season was the depth the Bruins showed.
The Bruins dressed 35 skaters this season, and 18 of those skaters hit double digits in points. That does not include Ryan Donato, who had nine in 12 games since graduating college. They also had just one player, David Pastrnak, play all 82 games this season. Boston just have so many different players who contributed to their regular season success. If the Bruins can stay healthy, they have a chance to make a deep playoff run this year.
The Maple Leafs also boast a deep forward corp. The issue for them has been their defense. While they were 11th in the NHL with 230 goals against this season, the Maple Leafs gave up 33.9 shots/game. That was 4th worst in the NHL. If the Bruins, who were a strong possession team this season, can have long stretches of offensive pressure, goalie Frederik Andersen may have trouble keeping the Maple Leafs in this series.
Toronto will give the Bruins some struggle in this series, but the Bruins will win in six games. The Bruins are simply a stronger defensive team, and their depth will show up more on the scoreboard.
Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
After a strong regular season, the Washington Capitals won the Metropolitan Division title. Their reward for their successful season is a match-up with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs. The Blue Jackets were the first Wild Card team in the East.
No team enters the postseason in better form than the Columbus Blue Jackets. Over their last 17 games, the Jackets were 13-2-2. They compiled that strong record with strong play in their defensive end and depth scoring from 18 skaters who recorded 10 or more points this season. Ten different players recorded more than 10 goals this season for the Blue Jackets.
Washington did boast similar depth of scoring that the Blue Jackets had. The Capitals did have four players over 65 point this season, including Alex Ovechkin, who lead the NHL in goals with 49.
Interesting news today, though, as the Capitals announced that Philipp Grubauer would start Game 1. The Capitals employ Braden Holtby who won the Vezina Trophy just two season ago.
The Capitals will win this series in seven games. The difference will be the goaltending, where the combination of Holtby and Grubauer will be better than Sergei Bobrovsky, the Columbus netminder.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
The final first round series in the Eastern Conference features two in-state rivals. The Pittsburgh Penguins finished second overall in the Metro, while the Philadelphia Flyers finished third in that same division.
The two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins had the NHL's best powerplay this season with big time players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel. With Matt Murray in goal, the Penguins have to be a favorite to win the Cup again this year.
The Flyers have a big-three of their own in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier. The trio combined for 85 goals and 263 points this season, and will have to be equally impressive if they hope to advance to the second round.
I expect the Flyers to win this series in seven games. I think the Penguins will be a tough team to eliminate, but the Flyers will catch some puck luck over their in-state rival
Now, it's time to take a look at the Western Conference.
Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche
The President's Trophy winning Predators draw the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the playoffs. The Avalanche, if you recall, were the last place team in the NHL last year. They actually set the record for lowest number of points in a season in 2016-17.
The Predators held the best record in the NHL this season. They accomplished this feat by boasting a depth in all aspects of their lineup that is unmatched by any other NHL team.
The blue line features all-world defenders Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, and Ryan Ellis. They also trot out guys like Mattias Ekholm and Alexei Evelin.
The Predators have one of the best goalies in the NHL in Pekka Rinne. Rinne finished tied for first with eight shutouts and won 42 games, third most in the NHL. Along with a couple other goalie, Rinne is a Vezina Trophy favorite this season as the best goalie in the NHL.
Also in-goal for Nashville would be Juuse Saros. Saros is one of the best backup goaltenders in the NHL with a 2.44 GAA, 13th overall in the league.
Nashville also boasts a deep offense, with 13 different double-digit scorers.
The Avalanche had a good season, especially compared with their struggles a year ago. While the enter the playoffs as the team with the worst record, we saw the Predators win 14 games a year ago as the last seed in the playoffs.
Forward Nathan MacKinnon had an MVP season this year for Colorado with 97 points. He leads an Avalanche that isn't as deep as Nashville in scoring. If the Avalanche want to have any success this season, MacKinnon has to been their best player.
I believe the Predators will win in five games. The Avalanche are trending in the right direction, but aren't ready to compete for a Stanley Cup this season. The Predators are, and will overwhelm the overachieving Avalanche in this series.
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
The high-flying Winnipeg Jets finished second in the Central Division and face the third place Minnesota Wild in the first round. The two have not met in the playoffs before, but will meet for a good series this year.
Winnipeg was second in the NHL with 273 goals this season. They boast forwards like Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine who were both in the top 35 in scoring. Laine was second in the NHL with 44 goals this season.
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Los Angeles Kings
The Golden Knights won the Pacific Division in their first year since entering the NHL. They draw their division rival, the Los Angeles Kings, in the first round.
It has definitely been a historic year for the NHL's newest member. Goalie Marc-Andre Fluery set personal bests in GAA and Save Percentage this season. William Karlsson finished third in the NHL with 43 goals. The team finished fourth in the league in scoring.
This has been just an incredible year. Most people expected the Golden Knights to be terrible this season. While they will not doubt regress next season, the Golden Knights have a legitimate chance to accomplish something no other expansion team in sports history has done: win a championship in their first season.
They could not have drawn a more difficult opponent in the first round, however. The Kings have won two Stanley Cups with their current core of Anne Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter, and Jonathon Quick. That playoff experience might be too much for the young Vegas team.
I think the Golden Knights will prevail in this one in seven games. This was one of the hardest match-ups to decide on because on one hand you have the grizzled veterans who know what it takes to get to the ultimate prize, while on the other hand you have a team that no one expected to even be in this position. Vegas will win this series because they have home ice advantage.
Anaheim Ducks vs. San Jose Sharks
The Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks will renew pleasantries in the playoffs once more in the first round of the 2018 tournament. The Ducks finished second in the Pacific, while the Sharks finished third.
Anaheim has dealt with injuries all season. Ryan Kessler was hurt to start the season. Goalie John Gibson has been in and out of the lineup. Cam Fowler can't play in this series.
But after all that, the Ducks find themselves in a great position to succeed, and have the quality players to make a deep run in the playoffs. While they haven't been able to achieve the success of their 2007 championship, the Ducks are a strong team in both ends of the rink.
The Sharks are a good team as well, although they are dealing with their own injury woes. Joe Thornton has been out for months with a torn MCL, and could return to this series, but isn't a sure thing to appear against the Ducks.
The goaltending tandem of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell are equally as strong as Gibson and Ryan Miller for the Ducks. The addition of Evander Kane has boasted the offense for the Sharks.
In the end, the health of John Gibson could impact the result of this series. I think the Shark will win in six games if Gibson can't stay healthy. Gibson will push the series to seven games if he can play and play well, but in the end, the Sharks will prevail.
Be sure to return to Below the Goal Line for continued coverage of the 2018 NHL Playoffs.
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