The NHL playoffs are back in full swing starting tomorrow night and the Five Three Sports crew are giving their expert analysis for the first round. Our very own Blaise Mesa, however, decided to aim for the stars, choosing teams that are either not in the playoffs or not even in the NHL. His brilliant picks were the Blackhawks, Canadiens, Panthers and Vikings. There is no doubt in my mind that those teams will not be winners this season.
None the less, with exciting matchups on the horizon like the Boston Bruins versus the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Las Vegas Golden Knights versus the San Jose Sharks, there’s plenty of hockey action to take in and plenty of hockey to watch!
Let’s start with the Eastern Conference. The Eastern Conference comes into this year’s playoffs the stronger conference by far. The Tampa Bay Lightning tied the single season wins record last set by the Detroit Red Wings in 1995-1996. If that’s not enough for you, The Toronto Maple Leafs added the best free agent on the market this past offseason, John Tavares. You can never count out the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have combined to win the last three Stanley Cup. Even the so called “weak links” are stronger than the Western Conference. The Columbus Blue Jackets finished hot by winning seven out of their last eight and the Carolina Hurricanes were resurgent playing for new head coach (and ex-Hurricane) Rod Brind’Amour.
The Western Conference does have its teams to watch. The San Jose Sharks have added a “once in a generation” talent in Erik Karlsson and prove time and time again that they belong in the playoffs. The Las Vegas Golden Knights picked up Mark Stone before the trade deadline, adding to a team that already signed Max Pacioretty in the offseason. The Winnipeg Jets are easily the biggest and most physical team in the NHL. Dustin Byfuglien, Mark Scheifele and Patrick Laine literally tower over the competition, not to mention they can score and hit pretty well. Talk about a triple threat.
Without further ado, it’s time we get into the nitty gritty of the first round of the NHL playoffs!
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Christian- Tampa Bay Lighting in 5
Ethan- Tampa Bay Lightning
Man, what a tough pull for Columbus, the Lightning in the first round? Sergei Bobrovsky is having nightmares already and Artemi Panarin won’t be able to keep pace with the highest scoring team in the NHL (325 goals). There’s simply no chance for the Jackets, sorry. That does leave room for Artemi Panarin to come back to Chicago though, seeing as how Columbus looks like they’re heading downhill.
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Christian- Maple Leafs in 7
Look at what we have here, a rematch of last years first round bout. These two teams already hate each other and another first round playoff series can only make it worse. This time though, the tables are turned, as the Leafs have all the offensive fire power under the sun. John Tavares is ready for his shot at the cup, as is Auston Matthews. The only concern for the Maple Leafs is the Bruins top line, which has quietly dominated the NHL this season. It’ll be another glorious fight to the finish, expect these teams to take it the distance.
Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Christian- Capitals in 6
I’m sorry Carolina fans, you guys had a great season after being written off before the start of it, but here’s where your magic runs out. The Washington Capitals are too big, too fast, too strong and too good. They had the top power play this season and they are coming back for a second cup in a row, step aside please.
New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Christian- Penguins in 7
The New York Islanders. Did anyone see this coming? Not only are they in the playoffs, they’re the second seed. After losing their best player to free agency (ouch), it seemed the Islanders were headed for a rebuild, not the playoffs. Alas, here we are and they take on an aging Penguins team. Experience will be the winner here, with Sid the Kid, Matt Murray and Evgeny Malkin leading the charge. The guys are clutch come playoff time and they’ll be well prepared after last years chance at a three peat was squandered by the rival Capitals.
Calgary Flames vs. Colorado Avalanche
Christian- Avalanche in 6
The Calgary Flames with the first seed? Since when? Oh wait, since now. The Flames had a great season powered by Johnny “hockey” Gaudreau, who set personal bests in goals, assists and points. A man possessed; it would have been nice to see him hit the 100-point plateau. Speaking of the 100-point plateau, Nathan Mackinnon came up one point short in his bid for 100 as well. In come the Avalanche, riding high and finishing strong, even with the two of their top three players out for extended time. Now their back, healthy and with a goaltender in Philipp Grubauer who has been playing like a literal brick wall. The man hasn’t lost in regulation since March 11! The Avalanche are hot right now and I look for them to be the surprise upset in round one.
San Jose Sharks vs. Las Vegas Golden Knights
Christian- Knights in 5
Last year these teams squared off in the second round and Vegas made the Sharks look like toddlers. Too fast and too loud (that stadium noise was nuts!), the Knights whipped the Sharks 4-0. The Knights and Sharks both got stronger in the offseason, but the issue is still the same. The Knights play fast hockey and they have one of the best goaltenders (if not the best) in the NHL. Martin Jones is a liability on the Sharks and he’ll be there undoing in this series. Big Joe has to wait another year, if he doesn’t retire.
Nashville Predators vs Dallas Stars
Christian- Stars in 7
Nashville spent a good portion of their year with a lot of key players out. When they were healthy, they were great; when they were missing pieces, they were average. Heading into the playoffs, Nashville is back at full strength, which can scare some opponents but not the Dallas Stars. The Stars come in being the underdog but don’t expect them to roll over so easily. Some great defense and goaltending have this team ready for playoff hockey! If they can keep up in the scoring department, “Smashville” will fall in the first round.
Winnipeg Jets vs St. Louis Blues
Christian- Jets in 6
A tale of two seasons for the Blues. At one point, they were last in the league. Jake Allen is clearly not a starting caliber goaltender, but I think we already knew that. In comes Jordan Binnington, the savior of the Blues season. Since Binnington came in and won 10 straight games to start his NHL career, the Blues have done nothing but ascend the ladder to a playoff spot. All that being said, the Jets have been the exact opposite, slowing down over the course of the season. That doesn’t mean that St. Louis is going to waltz right in and dominate. Winnipeg is a perennial playoff team. They’ll out play the Blues in a hard hitting, black and blue slugfest and find themselves in the second round in six. The biggest hope that I have is that Dustin Byfuglien grabs two people off a pile again. What a sight to behold. The man is a TANK.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the first round of the playoffs play out, a few rematches and some fresh faces. It’s the best time of the year, PLAYOFF HOCKEY BEGINS!