We needed to wait until the final day of the NHL season to get all the seeding settled, and even then, we needed to wait for the makeup games to finalize. I got the matchups I wanted, except the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t make it in. I’d like to see Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin against the Bruins. I’m salivating at the prospect of a western final four of Colorado, Dallas, Vegas, and Edmonton. Those four only had four regulation losses when you combine each of their last ten games. Hook that up to my veins, please.
I thought I had a screenshot of my bracket from last year but I can’t find it. I was perfect out West but not so much in the East. I had three first-round winners right but none in the second. I had Colorado winning it all until I was so impressed with Toronto’s Game 1 win I switched it to them going all the way. Har har har ugh. Last season the West was pretty predictable and should be again this year. I keep seeing a Dallas Stars vs. Edmonton Oilers conference final. Only I’m unsure who wins. The East has too many unknowns. Last year I thought the Maple Leafs vs. Lightning winner would make it to the finals, and that’s what happened. Only I picked the wrong team. I think it will be the Bruins vs. Maple Leafs' winner this time. Of course, this assumes the Maple Leafs beat the Lightning. But what a glorious series that would be. Eventually, we’ll get an all-Canadian Stanley Cup Final. Maybe this year. I’m sure Gary Bettman will love that.
A1 Boston Bruins vs. W2 Florida Panthers
Season Series: 2-2
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Panthers
What We Learned: The Bruins became the winningest team in NHL history. Meanwhile, the Panthers went from first to last in seeding.
Stars to Watch: David Pastrnak had a monster season. Almost doubling the next closest teammate, Brad Marchand, in points. Marchand had a down year, but Pastranek was bumped down to play with a returning David Krejci. The Bruins had nine players with at least 16 goals. All four lines can score. The Panthers are led by Matthew Tkachuk, who broke out this season, and Aleksander Barkov. Carter Verhaeghe had a very quiet 42 goals, Brandon Montour had his best season offensively and defensively, and Sam Reinhart had another solid season. This team isn’t as deep as last season. Anthony Duclair missed most of the season which didn’t help.
Goalie Problem: Linus Ullmark had a very surprising season for the ages. He only has two games of playoff experience and wasn’t great. Sergei Bobrovsky is not the goalie he once was, and I can’t imagine him getting better against this Bruins team.
X-Factor: Overconfidence is a thing. The Tampa Bay Lightning learned that the hard way against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Maintaining a high level of play for so long is challenging. So it could happen to the Bruins, but they beat the Canadiens after they set all the season records. Despite not having any motivation, they still won.
Fun Fact: The Bruins gave up the fewest goals and scored the second most for an eye-popping 128-goal differential. The Panthers and Bruins are first and ninth in shots per game. The Bruins are first in penalty kill, the Panthers 23rd. The Bruins are first in goal against the Panthers 21st.
Prediction: It’s hard not to be enamored by the Bruins. While there’s no guarantee they’ll win it all, I can’t see them losing in the first round. The Panthers would need the Bruins to suddenly go cold, hard to imagine with that depth, and Tkachuk to have a monster series. Anything is possible but I’ll take the Bruins in six.
A2 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. A3 Tampa Bay Lightning
Season Series: 2-1 Maple Leafs
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Lightning
What We Learned: The Maple Leafs went forward to the same spot, and the Lightning went backward to the same spot.
Stars to Watch: The Maple Leafs are led by the big four, Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander. Michael Bunting regressed slightly, but he was demoted to lower lines. Offensively it’s the same team. Defensively they’ve improved. But when you add Mark Giordano. Nikita Kucherov had one of the quietest 100 points seasons ever. Brayden Point surpassed 40 goals for the second time. Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn, and Brandon Hagel round out the offense. Victor Hedman had a career-high 135 blocked shots but less than Giordano.
Goalie Problem: Andrei Vasilevskiy is a future hall of famer, but he’s sometimes been very beatable this season. The Maple Leafs continue their annual goalie change. Are Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov the answer? Possibly. Samsonov has played better than expected, and Murray has occasionally looked like his old self. I assume Samsonov will get the nod. Despite all the changes, goaltending was not the reason the Maple Leafs lost.
X-Factor: Turnovers decided the series last year and probably will this year. Once again, the Maple Leafs are third in giveaways, while the Lightning are third in takeaways. Whoever has a late series lead probably won’t win either. The Maple Leafs and Lightning boast the second and third-best powerplays. However, the Lightning are the third most penalized team.
Fun Fact: The Maple Leafs have lost in the first round six consecutive times. The last five have been in seven games or five for the qualifying round.
Prediction: At some point, the Maple Leafs have to win a series. The way they played last season in this series demonstrated they could beat the Lightning. If it wasn’t for Nick Paul and a costly turnover, they would have. The Maple Leafs’ goaltending is suspect, but I think it’ll hold, and they boast the second-best power play. It’s inevitable the Lightning will regress. Three straight trips to the Stanley Cup Finals does a number on the body. Auston Matthews is still the key. Last season he scored a goal in Games 5 and 6 and had an assist in Game 7. Much better than when he didn’t show up in previous key games. He’s ready to take the next step. Maple Leafs in seven.
M1 Carolina Hurricanes vs. W1 New York Islanders
Season Series: 3-1 Hurricanes
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Hurricanes
What We Learned: The Hurricanes kept racking up division titles. The Islanders struggled through a season and barely made the playoffs.
Stars to Watch: Martin Necas blossomed into a force and the Hurricanes leading scorer. Sebastian Aho was mister consistent, while Teuvo Teravainen went backward. Brent Burns rejuvenated his career in Carolina. The Hurricanes are deep. Eleven players have twelve or more goals. The Islanders are led by Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, and Mathew Barzal, who was injured and didn’t take the next step. Bo Horvat wasn’t the answer to their offensive woes, either.
Goalie Problem: The Hurricanes split time between three goalies this season, and none were great. I imagine Frederik Andersen will start, and he usually plays better in the playoffs. This is the Hurricanes' biggest weakness. The Islanders always have great goaltending, and Ilya Sorokin had the same season as last year.
X-Factor: The Islanders are the 4th most-hitting team in the NHL, and the Hurricanes are 30th. The Islanders may grind out a series win.
Fun Fact: The Islanders have the third-worst powerplay. Normally teams that bad don’t make the playoffs. The Hurricanes have the second-best penalty kill. You can envision how this will play out.
Prediction: The last time these teams met in the playoffs, the Hurricanes swept after the Islanders constantly hit the post or flat-out missed empty net shots. Considering the Hurricanes have only improved, It’s unlikely the Islanders have much of a chance. Their only hope is to be physical and hope the Hurricane goalies wilt under pressure. Hurricanes in probably six.
M2 New Jersey Devils vs. M3 New York Rangers
Season Series: 3-1 Devils
Playoff Series History: 4-2 Rangers
What We Learned: The Devils' young core blossomed into an almost division winner. The Rangers went all in and added pieces to end up in the same spot.
Stars to Watch: Jack Hughes took another step and almost doubled his point total for the season consecutive season. Nico Hischier, Dawson Mercer, and Jesper Bratt all had career seasons. And let’s not forget Dougie Hamilton. They also added Timo Meier, who has fit in well. Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, and Adam Fox were their usual stellar selves. The Kid Line improved too. They also added Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko, who mostly played to their standard.
Goalie Problem: I assume the Devils will start Vitek Vanecek. He has no playoff starts and is the Devil’s biggest weakness. Igor Shesterkin had a down year. But he was sensational when it mattered most last postseason. I’m sure he’ll have a bad game or two, though. This will probably be a high-scoring series.
X-Factor: This will be expectations versus no expectations. Despite being the higher seed, the Devils have no pressure. They obviously want to win but it’s not expected. The Rangers were ahead of schedule last season, but with their acquisitions, they clearly expect to win.
Fun Fact: The Devils last won a playoff series in 2012, the season they lost to the Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals. Zach Parise left as a free agent that summer, and things were never the same.
Prediction: I love the Devils' season story. They’ve come a long way in a few seasons and even this season when the fans were chanting for the coach to be fired. But really young teams making their first playoff appearance rarely win in the first round. It’s possible they could outscore the Rangers in a long series, but experience matters during the playoffs, and the Rangers have more firepower. Rangers in seven.
C1 Colorado Avalanche vs W1 Seattle Kraken
Season Series: 2-1 Kraken
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Avalanche struggled the first half of the season and were out of the playoffs for most of it but were red hot the second half. The Kraken played consistently well all season and made it to the playoffs faster than expected.
Stars to Watch: Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen had career years. MacKinnon cracked 100 points for the first time, and Rantanen set the franchise record for goals in a season. Cale Makar missed time but was his usual stellar self. Gabriel Landeskog is injured and won’t return, while Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky, now a Kraken, left in the offseason. This team isn’t as potent or deep as last season, but all lines can still get it done. Matty Beniers will probably win Rookie of the Year, Jared McCann had a quiet 40-goal season and led the team in goals and points. Jordan Eberle and Vince Dunn had solid seasons. The Kraken are probably the deepest team. Thirteen players had thirteen or more goals. Although one was traded to the Predators.
Goalie Problem: Alexandar Georgiev is now the number-one goalie for the Avalanche. He was very sharp in his limited playoff appearances. It’s uncertain if Martin Jones or Philipp Grubauer will start for the Kraken, but it doesn’t matter. This is a major advantage for the Avalanche.
X-Factor: Since the Avalanche aren’t as deep, and they’ve battled injuries all season, another injury could give the Kraken the upper hand.
Fun Fact: These teams are 28th and 31st in faceoff winning percentage. Someone will need to win.
Prediction: This will be a closer series than most expect. The Kraken beat the Bruins once, almost twice, and they have the season series over the Avalanche. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Kraken won, but it’s still their first playoff appearance, and they’re playing the defending champs. The Avalanche should win in six.
C2 Dallas Stars vs. C3 Minnesota Wild
Season Series: 2-2
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Stars
What We Learned: The Stars became a new team under Peter DeBoer. The Wild improved under Dean Evason, and both almost won the division.
Stars to Watch: Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, and Joe Pavelski were the most potent scoring line for the second consecutive season. Robertson had 109 points. Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Wyatt Johnston, and Mason Marchment add some depth. Miro Heiskanen is still a duel threat. Kirill Kaprizov’s numbers declined, but he still leads the Wild. Mats Zuccarello and Joel Eriksson Ek had another solid season and were joined by Matt Boldy and his breakout season.
Goalie Problem: Jake Oettinger was sensational in his first playoff series. I’d love an encore. Filip Gustavsson had a surprising year and there’s always the declining Marc-Andre Fleury. This should be a fun goalie duel if Gustavsson starts.
X-Factor: These teams spent the second and third most time playing tied this season. The Stars spent the third least amount of time trailing. Most of the series probably will be tied, but it’ll be more important for the Stars to have a lead. The two Wild wins in the season series were one-goal games, and the two Stars wins were three-goal wins. Neither team is physical, but most of their goals are scored around the net. Whoever establishes a net presence will have an advantage.
Fun Fact: The Wild have lost their last seven playoff series.
Prediction: I love the Wild's progress this season, but I don’t see it equating to a series win. The Dallas Stars are a very balanced and deep team. It’s also hard to beat their firepower up top. When that line is rolling, they’re hard to stop. This Stars team is better than the one that made it to the Stanley Cup Finals a few seasons ago. Stars in six.
P1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. W2 Winnipeg Jets
Season Series: 3-0 Golden Knights
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Golden Knights
What We Learned: The Golden Knights rebounded from last season’s injury plague disappointment, but that was a given. The Jets crashed and burned into the final spot.
Stars to Watch: Jack Eichel will make his first playoff appearance and led the team with only 66 points. Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and William Karlsson, the only originals left, had their usual consistent seasons. Chandler Stephenson bounced around and served many roles as the second-leading scorer. Phil Kessel is also there, and Mark Stone might be back. Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore anchor the blueline. Kyle Connor led the Jets in points, Mark Scheifele led them in goals with a quiet 42, and Josh Morrissey is the highest-scoring defenseman in the playoffs. Pierre-Luc Dubois and Blake Wheeler were their usual selves.
Goalie Problem: The Golden Knights have had a challenging season in goal. Laurent Brossoit will probably be the starter if he can stay healthy. He has no playoff experience, though. It won’t surprise me if Jonathan Quick sees some action. When Connor Hellebuyck plays well, the Jets advanced. When he doesn’t, they go out early.
X-Factor: Vegas is the least penalized team and is first in blocked shots.The Jets produce the fewest shots of the playoff teams and have the worst powerplay of the teams except the Islanders. The Jets will really need to earn their wins. Honestly, that’s not an x-factor. The Jets excel at nothing as a team. They seriously rank around twentieth in almost every important category. Their only hope is to bore the Golden Knights to death.
Fun Fact: Neither team made the playoffs last season, and both lost to the Canadiens in the COVID playoffs the season before.
Prediction: I would say the Jets don’t have a chance, but I said that a few years ago against the Oilers, and they swept them. The Jets definitely have a chance, but they’re not impressive. They lost pretty badly against the Calgary Flames in what was basically a playoff game last week. Not a great omen. They were also swept in the regular season series. The Golden Knights have something to prove and should win in five or six.
P2 Edmonton Oilers vs. P3 Los Angeles Kings
Season Series: 2-2
Playoff Series History: 6-2 Oilers
What We Learned: The Oilers and Kings made strides this season only to end up with the exact same seeding and a series rematch.
Stars to Watch: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins all finished in the top nine in scoring. Zach Hyman wasn’t far behind, and Evander Kane posted solid numbers despite missing half the season. Darnell Nurse continues to progress, and Mattias Ekholm was a solid pickup. Thirteen players had double digits in goals. Although one was traded to the Predators. Anze Kopitar is still around and led the Kings in scoring again. Drew Doughty is also still there. Adrian Kempe had a quiet 41 goals, Viktor Arvidsson had another solid season, and newcomer Kevin Fiala didn’t miss a beat. First-round pick Gabriel Vilardi had 23 goals in a sort of rookie season. The Kings almost had thirteen players with double-digit goals.
Goalie Problem: Neither of last year's starters is here now. The Oilers go through goalies like the Maple Leafs. Stuart Skinner is unexpectedly the number one goalie and an All-Star but has no playoff experience. Pheonix Copley is now the man for the Kings. It’s a gamble, but Quick wasn’t playing well. Copley is a rookie, and while he played well in the AHL playoffs, I can’t imagine he’ll do well against this potent Oilers team. This isn’t a strength for either team, but both will give it their all.
X-Factor: The Oilers might be too confident. They’ll expect to score often on the Kings. If that doesn’t happen, frustration will set in. The Oilers have the best powerplay at 32% the Kings have the 24th-best penalty kill. If they’re not scoring on the powerplay, they’re frustrated.
Fun Fact: The Kings haven’t won a playoff series in nine years. The Oilers scored 128 goals in the second period this season, the most by a team in a period and twenty more than the Maple Leafs, the largest margin of any period.
Prediction: I say this every season, but this is by far the best Edmonton Oilers team since McDavid arrived, and the previous one went to the conference finals. Although I don’t watch the Kings play because I can’t, they strike me as a ho-hum above-average team. Although it was close, since the Oilers beat the Kings last season, I don’t see why they wouldn’t again with a better team. I’ll take the most potent powerplay and the highest-scoring team over a rookie goalie any day. Copley is not Oettinger. Although, if he became him, that would be the only way the Oilers could lose. Oilers in six.