It's the most wonderful time of the year. The NHL Playoffs kick-off Wednesday night with five of the eight series gearing up for Game 1. The toughest trophy to win in sports will go to one of these sixteen teams and it all starts with four wins in the First Round.
8. Tampa Bay Lightning (A1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (W2)
If the Blue Jackets were playing any other team, they'd have a fairly good chance at the upset. However, they're up against one of the top teams of the salary cap era that's coming off a record braking 62 win season. The time is now for the Lightning to win that elusive Cup as all signs point to this team being the best they'll ever be able to forge. Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Vezine favorite, Andrei Vasilevskiy is a combination that'll be too much to handle for the revamped Blue Jackets. A healthy Ryan McDonagh and rookie, Erik Cernak, give the Lightning a top-end shutdown pairing. The Blue Jackets will certainly put up quite the fight, especially if Sergei Bobrovsky can find some postseason success, but the Lightning are too stacked for a first round exit.
Lightning in 6.
7. Boston Bruins (A2) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (A3)
Here we go again. Yet another Leafs and Bruins First Round matchup that should be one of the best series of the Playoffs. The Bruins came out on top in last year's series but that was a John Tavares-less Leafs team. Jake Muzzin gives the Leafs an upgrade at defense that they desperately needed, but they still struggled to maintain consistency down the stretch. The Leafs finished the season with a 7-8-1 record, allowing 73 goals over that span. In that same span, the Bruins went 12-7-0 and emerged as the second Stanley Cup favorite team out of the Eastern Conference. Expect another nail-biting series but the results remain the same.
Bruins in 7.
6. Washington Capitals (M1) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (W1)
For the first time in nine years, the Carolina Hurricanes will be competing past Game 82. Unfortunately, they have a tough matchup against the reigning Stanley Cup Champions. Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney have combined in net to bring the 'Canes back to the post-season but neither can be relied on against the high-flying offense of the Washington Capitals. Alexander Ovechkin won his second straight Rocket Richard Trophy with 51 goals and should be equally potent in the postseason. The injury to Michael Kempny hurts the Capitals, but the acquisition of Nick Jensen should be a huge factor for the Caps' Playoff chances. In the end, the Capitals potent offense and impeccable goaltending should be enough to overpower the Hurricanes.
Capitals in 4.
5. New York Islanders (M2) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (M3)
On paper, this looks about as good as a mismatch as we'll get in the first round. However, the defensive-minded Islanders have shown why they can compete with the top teams of the NHL. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel will undoubtedly be a problem for the Islanders, who lack that true shut-down defensive pairing or forward line. However, home-ice advantage will be a huge factor for the Islanders, as Nassau Coliseum will be the loudest arena of the postseason. That being said, Mathew Barzal won't be able to compete with Crosby while Robin Lehner and Tomas Greiss can't be relied on to continue their strong 2018-19 seasons.
Pens in 7.
4. Calgary Flames (P1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (W2)
The Colorado Avalanche struggled to find consistency until the last leg of the season as they pushed for the final spot in the Playoffs. Unfortunately, they'll have to face off against the offensive powerhouse that are the Calgary Flames. Johnny Gaudreau had a career year with 99 points while offseason acquisition, Elias Lindholm, has been nothing short of spectacular in his first year as a Flame. The only question mark for the Flames are their goaltenders, as neither David Rittich or Mike Smith have been spectacular this season. However, Semyon Varlamov infamously struggles in the post-season and should be left out to dry by the Avs' leaky defense.
Flames in 5.
3. San Jose Sharks (P2) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (P3)
The Vegas Golden Knights bested the San Jose Sharks in the second-round of the 2018 Playoffs but that was when Erik Karlsson was still an Ottawa Senator. Unfortunately, the Knights went out and claimed their own Senators star by trading for Mark Stone at the deadline. Martin Jones remains a question in net for the Sharks while Marc-Andre Fleury put together a Vezina caliber season. Expect a similar result to last year's second round tilt between the two teams.
Knights in 6.
2. Nashville Predators (C1) vs. Dallas Stars (W2)
Ben Bishop finished his Vezina caliber season as the hottest goaltender in hockey. In his last ten starts, he posted a 8-1-0 record with four shutouts, just seven goals allowed and a .972 save percentage. He is battling with a lower-body-injury that kept him out for about two weeks to finish the season. However, the Nashville Predators boast one of the best forward cores in the league, led by Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen. Combine that group with trade deadline acquisitions Brian Boyle, Wayne Simmonds, and Mikael Granlund, the Preds' forwards group will be just too much for the Stars to handle.
Predators in 5.
1. Winnipeg Jets (C2) vs. St. Louis Blues (C3)
There is just one team that's posted a record better than the Tampa Bay Lightning since early January and that's the St. Louis Blues. Since Jan. 3, the Blues have gone 30-10-5, finishing as the league's hottest team going into the Playoffs. Meanwhile, the Jets finished their season with a 3-5-1 record and scored just three power play goals over that span. The X-factor will be rookie goaltender phenom, Jordan Binnington, who's emerged as the starter for the Blues. If he can maintain his strong play, the Blues should come out on top against the Jets.
Blues in 7.