And so, we began our first normal NHL playoffs in three years. I got all the first-round matchups I wanted even though it wasn't looking good when the Nashville Predators were up 4-0 on the Arizona Coyotes. But I thought there was a chance, and boy did they deliver.
The overwhelming favorites are the Colorado Avalanche. It's hard to argue against them. The same can be said for the Florida Panthers, but it's been a long time since we had two number one seeds meet. That would be 2001 with the Avalanche and New Jersey Devils. Although in 2018, the Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals were division winners.
A1 Florida Panthers vs. W2 Washington Capitals
Season Series: 2-1 Panthers
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Panthers were one of the best teams in every aspect all year long, even after losing their coach. The Capitals are still hanging around, and this is probably their last postseason appearance for a while.
Stars to Watch: The Panthers are led by Jonathan Huberdeau, who had a career year and second in points, and Aleksander Barkov. Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair, and Carter Verhaeghe also had career years. The first four reached 30 goals. Aaron Ekblad is injured and might play in this round. They'll need him in later rounds. This was the first season since 2010 that Alex Ovechkin cracked 90 points. Let that sink in for several reasons. Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson are still there producing. T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom were okay and injured for half the season. Tom Wilson had his best season. I feel like the Capitals have had the same team for a decade.
Goalie Problem: I'm still not sold on Sergei Bobrovsky. He was excellent a few years ago with the Columbus Blue Jackets but not great since, and he'll need a good playoff run. Either Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek will be in net for the Capitals, and that's not a good sign. I doubt either will do well against the top-scoring team.
X-Factor: Claude Giroux was the big late trade pickup. Traditionally, they don't do much in the playoffs. But Giroux has fit in well, averaging more than a point per game since he arrived. However, he hasn't done much in his last four playoff trips. It'll be interesting to see if he can regain his old playoff form.
Fun Fact: The last time the Panthers won a playoffs series way back in 1996, they lost to the Avalanche in the Stanley Cup finals. Will history repeat?
Prediction: I can't see the Panthers losing this series. They already took their learning lumps last season. They could lose if Ovechkin got really hot and the Panthers' goaltending was abysmal. But that's the only way. This Capitals team doesn't excite in any way, and it's the same team that always loses in the first round. They got lucky once, and that was it. The Panthers will likely win in five.
A2 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. A3 Tampa Bay Lightning
Season Series: 2-2
Playoff Series History: None
What We Learned: The Maple Leafs had one of their best and most consistent seasons in a long time. The Lightning look good at times but can't be happy to be the third seed.
Stars to Watch: The Maple Leafs are led by Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander. Matthews reached 60 goals and missed nine games. I'm impressed by how all-around good Michael Bunting has become. Steven Stamkos had a career year, cracked 100 points for the first time, and ended the season on a nine-game point streak, while Nikita Kucherov was injured half the season as usual. Brayden Point, Alex Killorn, and Victor Hedman round out the usual suspect. All five hit 20 goals.
Goalie Problem: Probably the most unbalanced goalie matchup. Andrei Vasilevskiy has won Vezinas and Stanley Cups, while Jack Campbell is just happy to be here. I think Campbell will do well. He played well last playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens. We know Vasilevskiy will too.
X-Factor: Both teams excel at choking away 3-1 series leads. If one of them goes up by that much, don't be surprised if they lose. Matthews is still the biggest factor because the Maple Leafs can't win the series if he doesn't play well.
Fun Fact: Toronto gives it away third most, while Tampa Bay turns it over the least. Turnovers will be key in this series.
Prediction: Beating the champs is a great way for the Maple Leafs to win their first playoff series with this group. They have to win at some point, and this is the best they've looked in years. After all those recently played games, the Lightning will also run out of gas. This reminds me of the Capitals finally getting over their hump by beating the Penguins when they were champs. Only these teams have no playoff history. Assuming Matthews can be anything like he was during the season, the Maple Leafs should win. If he struggles, the Lightning will win.
M1 Carolina Hurricanes vs. W1 Boston Bruins
Season Series: 3-0 Hurricanes
Playoff Series History: 3-1 Bruins
What We Learned: The Hurricanes had their best season in franchise history but barely won the division. The Bruins struggled early but were hot in the second half and almost got out of the wildcard spot.
Stars to Watch: Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Teuvo Teravainen lead the Hurricanes. Tony DeAngelo got another chance and played well, and I guess good for him. Jordan Staal finished his tenth season with them, and it still feels like he disappeared after leaving the Penguins. Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Taylor Hall, and Patrice Bergeron were their usual solid selves for the Bruins. Jake DeBrusk played well after wanting to leave, and Charlie McAvoy and Charlie Coyle are very underrated. Especially Coyle.
Goalie Problem: Frederik Andersen has had a weird career. He's played well for three teams, but now he's injured, so it'll probably be Antti Raanta. The duo won the William Jennings for lowest team GAA. Either Jeremy Swayman or Linus Ullmark might start for the Bruins, which isn't a good sign. They had almost identical stats. I'll lean toward Swayman getting the nod, but I'm not sure it matters who plays.
X-Factor: Confidence and momentum will be huge in this series. The last few playoff games they've played weren't close, and the Hurricanes only have one go-to guy while the Bruins have several.
Fun Fact: The Hurricanes outscored the Bruins 16-1 in the season series. But the Bruins have won eight of their last nine playoff games against the Hurricanes. This is a matchup of the first and fourth stingiest teams. But I still think this will be a high-scoring series.
Prediction: The Hurricanes are a great team, and I thought they were ready to take the next step, but this is the one team they didn't want. I'm not saying the Hurricanes can't beat the Bruins, but the first game will tell us a lot. If the Hurricanes win, they might win the series. It'll probably be another Bruins sweep if they lose, especially by a lot. My one concern with the Bruins is their goaltending. That and the Hurricanes' confidence will be what determines the series. I'm leaning Bruins but not confidently.
M2 New York Rangers vs. M3 Pittsburgh Penguins
Season Series: 3-1 Rangers
Playoff Series History: 5-2 Penguins
What We Learned: The Rangers put everything together, and their young talent almost led them to a division win. The Penguins had another roller-coaster season. It's hard to know what you're getting.
Stars to Watch: Artemi Panarin had a career year and is now injured. I'm assuming he plays. Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider also had career years. Kreider had 52 goals. Ryan Strome hit 20 goals for the first time, and Adam Fox almost doubled his point total. He's a stud. Sidney Crosby battled through injuries and still led the team in points. Evgeni Malkin was gone half the year but still managed to produce a point per game. Jake Guentzel had a career year and another 40 goals. Bryan Rust had a career year, while Jeff Carter had his best season since 2017. Kris Letang is still there doing what he always does.
Goalie Problem: Tristan Jarry is great at times, and sometimes not. Like every Penguins goalie before him. He will need to be on for them to win. Igor Shesterkin is good, real good. So great he's winning the Vezina. That is all.
X-Factor: There's a playoff experience disparity in this series. The Penguins have a lot more experience, although lately, they haven't been as successful, and the younger players don't have as much. Although the top guys, Zibanejad and Kreider, were on the earlier Rangers playoff teams or had it elsewhere like Panarin, this current team has barely played together in the playoffs. They've only been swept by the Hurricanes in the qualifying round. Shesterkin played in only one of those games.
Fun Fact: The Penguins only scored four goals in four games against the Rangers.
Prediction: This is hard series to predict because these teams are very hard to predict. The Penguins have the experience edge, but they don't play well against great defensive teams at all. Just watch their last three playoff exits or their season series against the Rangers. The Penguins could win but assuming Shesterkin plays like he normally does, it would be unlikely since nothing has changed other than getting older, which in their case is bad. I'm going with the Rangers in six unless Malkin and Crosby have an amazing series which is also unlikely.
C1 Colorado Avalanche vs W1 Nashville Predators
Season Series: 3-1 Predators
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Predators
What We Learned: The Avalanche were the best team all season before being overtaken by the Panthers. The Predators can't be happy to be in this spot, especially with their injuries and that ugly last game of the season loss.
Stars to Watch: Mikko Rantanen had a career year, while Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog battled injuries but were still productive. Nazem Kadri had his best season by far. The kind that made him worthy of being the seventh overall pick in 2009. Then there's Cale Makar. He's exceptional. Roman Josi led the Predators in points as a defenseman. Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg each scored over 40 goals for the first time. Mikael Granlund, Ryan Johansen and Tanner Jeannot give them some depth. Jeannot is undrafted and scored 24 goals in his first full season.
Goalie Problem: Darcy Kuemper resurrected his career in Colorado. I still prefer Pavel Francouz, but I'm starting to think he'll never be the top goalie. Juuse Saros had another great year but probably won't start the series due to injury. That means David Rittich will. While I had hopes for him, he hasn't had the best moments lately. The Predators might be down 2-0 or 3-0 by the time Saros gets back.
X-Factor: The Avalanche have a problem playing against big or physical teams in the playoffs. They hit more than before, but they're still on the lower end. The Predators led the NHL in hits this season. This will be a good test for later rounds.
Fun Fact: Only three defensemen averaged a point per game or more this season, and two are in this series, Makar and Josi.
Prediction: The Avalanche have something to prove this season. If they had faced the Stars, it wouldn't have been a favorable matchup, despite the Stars' struggles. The Predators do have the season series advantage and have beaten overconfident top teams in the playoffs before, like the Chicago Blackhawks. They definitely can win the series. But losing Saros puts them at a disadvantage. This is the most complete Avalanche team they've had. If they can match the Predators' physical style, they should win. Otherwise, it's an upset.
C2 Minnesota Wild vs. C3 St. Louis Blues
Season Series: 3-0 Blues
Playoff Series History: 1-1
What We Learned: The Blues bounced back to look like a team that could win a Stanley Cup again. The Wild continued to grow into an entertaining team led by journeymen and a fifth-round pick.
Stars to Watch: Kirill Kaprizov scored 45 goals and 105 points in his second season with the Wild. Kevin Fiala had a breakout season. Ryan Hartman came out of nowhere to score 34 goals. Mats Zuccarello and Joel Eriksson Ek had career years. Vladimir Tarasenko is still the Blues best player. Robert Thomas had his best season, including a 17-game point streak. Pavel Buchnevich came over from New York and had his best season. Ivan Barbashev also had his best season, as did Jordan Kyrou, who doubled his best point total.
Goalie Problem: The Blues have been splitting Ville Husso and Jordan Binnington. I guess they'll lean Husso, and he deserves it, but the Blues probably need Binnington to be what he was to go far. Cam Talbot had a good season and has played well since the Oilers gave up on him. A lurking Marc-Andre Fleury has made him better.
X-Factor: These teams are very deep. The Blues were one goal away from nine players with 20 or more goals. The Wild have six. The Wild will need their other lines to step up more.
Fun Fact: The Wild have lost their last six playoff series, including one to the Blues. The last one they won was in 2014 against the Blues. The Blues have the second-best powerplay, and the Wild have the worst penalty kill in the playoffs.
Prediction: Originally, I was leaning toward the Wild, but the Blues have been on a tear lately, and then the Wild also went on a tear. While the Wild almost knocked off the Golden Knights last playoffs, I don't think a Wild team without any recent playoff success can stop a deeper Blues team. The Blues powerplay versus the Wild penalty kill is concerning too. The Wild are also a spare parts team, and those never do well in the playoffs. It'll be a close series, but I'm leaning Blues in six or seven unless the Wild goalies outduel the Blues goalies.
P1 Calgary Flames vs. W2 Dallas Stars
Season Series: 2-1 Flames
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Stars
What We Learned: The Flames turned it on in the second half and ended up a top team. The Stars were their usual confusing hot mess and are the only team with a negative goal differential in the playoffs.
Stars to Watch: The Flames are led by their big three, Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and Elias Lindholm. All scored 40 or more goals, and the first two had over 100 points and career years. Andrew Mangiapane added 35 goals. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin had down years, and neither cracked 50 points. Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, and Joe Pavelski supplanted them, and all had career years too. Miro Heiskanen quietly had his best season.
Goalie Problem: Jake Oettinger is outstanding, considering it's his second season. This will be his first playoffs. I thought the Flames were dumb for signing Jacob Markstrom, but he had his best season ever and led the NHL in shutouts. It should be an interesting goalie duel.
X-Factor: The Stars are the lowest-scoring team in the NHL, but they score against the Flames. They also have some fast guys, and the Flames like to play a fast open style. This could very well end up being a track meet. The Flames don’t do well in the playoffs if Gaudreau gets hit around and neutralized. Something to watch. But they seem more balanced now.
Fun Fact: This game will feature two of the top three scoring lines in the NHL. Gaudreau-Lindholm-Tkachuk and Robertson-Hintz-Pavelski. Only Bunting-Matthews-Marner have more than the Stars line.
Prediction: The Stars are a hot mess but don't count them out. This is a rematch from two years ago. Both teams were a hot mess then, and as predicted, there were turnovers galore and blown leads of three or four goals multiple times, even in the same game. The Flames aren't that team anymore, but if the Stars won that series and went to the finals, they could do that here even if it doesn't look like it. I'm leaning Flames in six or seven, but there's a chance the Stars pull the upset.
P2 Edmonton Oilers vs. P3 Los Angeles Kings
Season Series: 3-1
Playoff Series History: 5-2 Oilers
What We Learned: The Oilers played well, then they didn't and fired their coach, and played well again. The Kings are only here because the Canucks struggled early, and the Golden Knights had injury issues.
Stars to Watch: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl crushed it like they always do for the Oilers. Evander Kane was the best pickup in some time and was on pace for 40 goals. In his first Oilers season, Zach Hyman was another great addition with a career-high 27 goals. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is very underrated and can do it all. His contributions don't always produce stats. Anze Kopitar is still around and led the Kings in scoring. Adrian Kempe had a breakout season, as did Phillip Danault in his seventh season. Viktor Arvidsson had a solid first season with the Kings.
Goalie Problem: It's a battle of goalies who are still there. Jonathan Quick for the Kings and Mike Smith for the Oilers. Although Mikko Koskinen will be starting. But never count out Smith. He's like a cockroach. Quick isn't what he once was, but he can still make some key saves. Koskinen has had a mostly decent season, but he'll be on a short leash, and he wasn't very good last playoffs. They should have kept Talbot.
X-Factor: The Kings haven't won a playoff series in eight years, and they haven't been here in four years. Drew Doughty is gone for the rest of the season. They do still have Dustin Brown, and it's his last season. But they're basically starting over. The Oilers, however, are expected to win now. They have more pressure but also a lot more recent playoff experience. I'd like to think they've learned from their failures. But it won't be good if they get frustrated.
Fun Fact: These teams were tied for third with 11 shorthanded goals. There's a good chance we'll see a few. The Kings also have nine shorthanded goals against. The Kings have the worst powerplay of all the playoff teams, and the Oilers have the third-best.
Prediction: Last year, I wrote if the Winnipeg Jets could shut down McDavid and Draisaitl, they could win the series. I didn't think they would, but if they did, they would probably win. That's exactly what happened. The Kings aren't as fortunate because of Kane. The Penguins were in the same boat with Crosby and Malkin. I said they needed to get a winger who could generate their own offense in case they were shut down. Enter Phil Kessel, and they won two Stanley Cups. They haven't won since he left. Kane is the Oilers' Kessel. There's also no way you could stop them if they put them all on the same line. Meanwhile, a 34-year-old leads the Kings. I'll take the Oilers. They should win in four or five but knowing them, seven, but if they lose, oh man.