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NHL Playoff Preview: First Round

Eastern Conference:

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils

This series is comprised of two teams that missed out of playoff hockey last year, the Devils by 25 points and the Lightning by just one point. Both teams came out motivated this year and as a result find themselves with a chance to bring home some hardware.

The Devils rode on the back of Taylor Hall who finished sixth in the league with 93 points this season. The next closest Devil was Nico Hischier who has just 52 points. The Devils also owe much of their success this season to the early season play of goaltender Cory Schneider, however his struggles to stay on the ice and preform once he is out there has left the Devils playoff hopes in the shaky hands of Keith Kinkaid.

The one man show and inconsistent goalie play that New Jersey will be bringing to this series, combined with the absolute dominance that the Lightning have seen from their entire roster this season spells a quick, easy series win for the Lightning.

Lightning in five

Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

It is always a treat to see an original six match up in the playoffs, but espically when it is between two teams that have 100+ points on the season. This is exactly what we have in store for us in this first round match up.

Toronto has been trending up since the end of last season when they lost to the Capitals in the first round of last year’s playoffs. After a great regular season and earning a better seed, the Leafs have positioned themselves for a deeper run this year.

Standing in their way are the Boston Bruins, who were the second best team in the East this season, finishing just one point behind the Lightning. The Bruins have a solid team lead by goalie Tuukka Rask who is ranked inside the top ten in both GAA and wins. Rask’s stellar performance and the fact most of this Bruins team has been in the playoffs before make them a formidable opponent.

Although many think the Bruins can make and win the Stanley Cup, Toronto is a dangerous underdog as they have beaten the Bruins three out of four times on the season. If the Leafs can steal one of the first two games on the road, the Bruins should be placed on upset alert as the Leafs are 29-10-2 at home this season.

Maple Leafs in six

Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

After being two of the best teams during the regular season last year, the Caps and Jackets regressed a little this year as the NHL spotlighted shifted it’s attention from the metropolitan division to the Atlantic. However, just because they haven’t gotten a lot of attention this year, does not mean that these teams are undeserving of their playoff spots.

After a break through season in 2016-17 Columbus did their best to keep the band together heading into 2017-18. Lead by goalie Sergei Bobrovsky the Blue Jackets are a solid team that will be a big test for a Capitals team which has struggled mighty in the first few rounds of the playoffs.

Many experts are saying that this is a different Capitals team because of the lack of expectations, the team has not been as dominate in the regular season as they have in the past. This could mean that the team is regressing, or that they are just saving up to show out for playoff hockey.

Despite their struggles in the second round of the playoffs they have been money in the first round since 2014-15. The teams are pretty equal when looking at goalies and defense, but when looking at forwards the Capitals have a clear edge. Simply put, while the Blue Jackets are good, the Capitals are just better at putting the puck in the net, and all the first round experience has to count for something, right?

Capitals in six

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

This is perhaps the most interesting playoff match up East of the Mississippi this year. The Pens embark on a quest to become one of the greatest dynasties of all time by winning their third straight Cup as the Flyers seem to be like the rest of Philadelphia since the Eagles won the Super Bowl, on fire.

The Flyers have seen overall great play from their entire team this year led by captain Claude Giroux who ranks among the NHL’s best in points, assists and plus minus. The one weakness for Philly seems to be the man in the net. Brian Elliot led the team early int he season but has had barely any time to get back into the groove of things  with his first two games in over two months came last week against two non playoff teams.

Pittsburgh on the other hand seems to be firing on all cylinders as they look to their team with tons of playoff experience to lead them to the promise land once again. The most dangerous part of this Pens team is that there aren’t really any question marks on how players will perform in the playoffs.

This is especially scary for a Flyers team which has been in and out of the playoffs over the past six season with one common variable, a first round exit. While this will certainly be an intense, physical series that could hamper the victor in later round of the playoffs, it will be Pittsburgh advancing to the second round of the playoffs continuing their dreams of a three-peat.

Penguins in 6

Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche are the little engine that could of this years NHL playoffs, after missing the playoffs by 46 points Colorado finds themselves in the playoffs by the hair of their playoff beards.

The Avs have shown a special energy this year by laying together as a team and proving to a former star, who shall remain nameless, that Denver is the place to be for playoff hockey. To have success in the playoffs the Avs must lean on offensive weapons such as Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon. The latter found himself in the NHL top ten for points and goals. If these two forwards play well it should spark to rest of the team to follow suit and bring that crazy upset vibe that can only be seen in a first round matchup between the best team to make the playoffs and the worst one.

Unfortunately for the Avs, Nashville is all to familiar with that energy as they were in the Avs shoes last year when they upset the Blackhawks in just four games. So the Preds know how to handle an upstart playoff team. On top of this they are the best team in the West, after winning the Western Conference last year and have some of the best defense in the league. Oh and don’t forget, they are hungrier than ever after falling just two wins short of the Cup.

Overall it is pretty easy to pick a series winner here, the Predators are just too good, too hungry and have experience from last year to prevent a jaw dropping upset in the first round. This is not to say this will not be a good series because it will be, Colorado should steal a game or two at home but at the end of the day Nashville will be moving on to the second round.

Predators in 5

Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild

This series will probably fly under the radar in a first round that contains an expansion team, a team going for a three-peat and a battle between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. However, this is not to say that the Jets and Wild won’t put on a show, both teams have solid team which are coming off great regular seasons.

The great thing about the Wild in this series is that you know exactly what you are going to get, Minnesota has kept most of their players since 2012-13 which is when this current streak of six straight playoff appearances began. While the Wild have not found much success in April, the years of experience give them an edge over the Jets heading into this series.

For the Jets, it is about keeping the magic going as they finished with the second most points in the NHL (114) and just three behind the Preds for the division title. Winnipeg appears to be ready to win with Blake Wheeler ranking among the NHL’s best in points (91) and assists (68), while his teammate Patrick Laine finished with 44 goals on the season. Five behind Ovechkin who lead the league with 49 on the season.

Despite it flying under the radar, this will be one of the most entertaining first round match ups because of how well these teams match up with one another. Ultimately the Jets magic season and the Wild’s ability to be the Capitals of the Western Conference will win out allowing Winnipeg to move on to the second round.

Jets in 7

Las Vegas Golden Knights vs. Los Angeles Kings

If the Jets had a magical season than the Knights had a super natural one. Becoming the first expansion team to reach the playoffs in their first year with the league, but after a flaming hot start and a good finish to the season that is exactly the situation in which Vegas finds itself.

The Knights were led by center William Karlsson and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Karlsson had an unreal season for the Knights leading the league with a plus/minus of 48 and picking up 43 goals to finish third in the leauge. Fleury showed that he is still an elite goaltender ranking in the top ten in save percentage and GAA. The one thing that should worry the Knights is their utter lack of playoff experience. Something that their opponets have in spades.

Securing the first wild card was huge for the Kings as they would avoid playing the deadly Predators in the first round. After missing Jonathan Quick and subsequently the playoffs last year, the Kings are back and Quick is healthy and ready to go. The Kings star goalie ranked top ten in the NHL in GAA, wins and shut outs.

This series will be decided by goaltenders as the Kings and Knights are pretty even when it comes to forwards and defensemen. This is dangerous for the Knights as Fluery has a lower save percentage and higher GAA than Quick in the playoffs. This combined with the lack of playoff experince for the Knights will spell their doom by the end of this series. Essentially, there is a reason why Los Angeles is the Kings and Vegas is only the Knights.

Kings in 7

Anaheim Ducks vs. San Jose Sharks

Minnesota, Winnipeg might be the most under the radar game this first round, but this Sharks, Ducks series will be the most evenly contested series and your best bet to go the full seven games as the two teams were separated by just one point going into the playoffs.

The Ducks have been able to make the second round and conference finals consistently over the past few years but always seem to lose to a team that is just a little better. Last year that team was the Predators and two years before it was the Blackhawks. History, and the lack of big moves, points to another empty handed exit for the Ducks in this year’s playoffs however maybe the Ducks will get some luck this year. They’re certainly due after only missing the playoffs twice since 2005-06.

The Sharks are an interesting team only missing the post season once since 2005-06, their most recent success coming two years ago when they lost to the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals. There is not reason to count the Sharks out of this series as they have made the right moves to stay in contention.

When filling out our NHL bracket this series the most dangerous one because there is no clear winner here and whoever does come out on top has the posssiblity to make a run and win the cup based on talent and playoff experience. At the end of the day, the Ducks will come out victorious simply because neither team will lose a game at home in this series. The Ducks have four games at home and the Sharks have three.

Ducks in 7

 

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