As we gear up for the Stanley Cup playoffs, we went around the horn to name our series to watch, our Stanley Cup favorite (not named Tampa Bay), and our dark horse that could win it as a lower seed (3 or 4).
Series to watch
Emily Jo: Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
While there are plenty of interesting first-round series due to the much-maligned playoff format (which has some of the better teams facing each other much earlier than they should), there’s no better example of this than the Boston/Toronto series. Boston finished with the third best record in the league and so has earned the right to face… Toronto, who finished seventh overall. While most people are treating this like a horror show for Toronto, which it absolutely is after they once again guttingly blew a game seven lead to be eliminated by the Bruins last April, this is hardly a preferred match-up for the Bruins either.
Beyond the standings, this series is star-studded, boasting both future Hall-of-Fame veterans as well as a saturation of young talent: Patrice Bergeron, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, David Pasternak, Mitch Marner, Brad Marchand, William Nylander, Charlie McAvoy, and the list goes on. This won’t be a clean series. There’s desperation and bad blood on both sides. If you want a sneak peek at the intensity of a conference final, look no further than the Leafs and Bruins.
Darren: San Jose Sharks vs Vegas Golden Knights
Whenever we do these roundtable/collaborative-type stories, I do what I can to stir the pot and steal John Barr’s beloved San Jose Sharks away from him. So, here’s my attempt at that for this round. Actually, though, this series should be extremely fun.
As you likely recall, the VGK’s took the hockey world by storm during last season’s playoffs with their exorbitant and beautifully produced pre-game shows that were so uniquely Las Vegas, then backed up the awe-inspiring displays with shockingly strong play on the ice. The expansion franchise pushed all the way into the Stanley Cup Final, showing off all that Sin City has to offer to the hockey world along the way. In year two, Vegas is back, and one could make the argument that this team is better suited for the playoffs than it was entering last season’s magical run, despite a lower seed. Vegas finished this campaign in third place in the Pacific, but after acquiring Mark Stone at the trade deadline, their top nine forwards are as deep as any squad in the league.
On the other side, we have the perpetual competitors that are the Sharks, beefed up with Erik Karlsson roaming the blueline alongside Norris Trophy candidate Brent Burns. The concern here is that Karlsson missed over a month with a groin injury, before returning in the final game of the season Saturday to play 22 minutes. He will be forced to immediately get up to playoff speed, something a bit concerning with the thought that the injury could easily get re-aggravated.
Other storylines to keep an eye on here will be goaltending and the bad blood that certainly percolated in a recent game between these teams. For Vegas, Marc-Andre Fleury—who is historically such a great playoff performer—has been injured and recently missed a couple weeks. Meanwhile for San Jose, Martin Jones has seemed to do everything he can to not earn his team’s trust this season. Jones has a 2.94 GAA and .896 save percentage, and the brilliant hockeyviz.com/goalies ranks him in the bottom third of the league when factoring in shot quality. As for the bad blood topic, Joe Thornton speared Ryan Reeves in the neck with the butt-end of his stick the last time these teams played each other. That’s some “Dr. Hook” McCracken stuff.
Andy: Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Islanders
The Metro Division two-versus-three match up is between the team nobody thought would make the playoffs, much less get home ice in the first round, against the team that seemingly gets penciled into the postseason every year. The Barry Trotz led Islanders surprised everyone this year, as the coach turned what was a historically bad defense to one of the stingiest teams in the league.
You know the names of the Penguins big guns as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have long and storied Stanley Cup resumes. The Islanders? Not so much. This will be the first postseason for Mathew Barzal and the Islanders top-four scorers (Barzal, Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee) have only played in a combined 45 career playoff games.
This may come down to goaltending and the Islanders got a big year from both Robert Lehner and Thomas Greiss. New York led the league in save-percentage (.937) and were fourth in high-danger save-percentage (.857). Can the Islanders’ pair stand tall and overcome the experience and skill of the Penguins? It certainly makes for an entertaining first-round series.
John: Colorado Avalanche vs. Calgary Flames
The atmosphere for a playoff game in Calgary is one of the best in the league. It is loud and impossible not to get swept up in the emotion, even when viewing at home. Calgary has looked like a balanced, solid team all year and, assuming they win the Pacific Division, has a good shot at winning it all. Colorado on the other hand sneaked into the playoffs and will be riding Philipp Grubauer in net. Down the stretch, Grubauer was a big reason Colorado clawed back into a playoff spot and will need to bring that level of effort to get past Calgary. This game will feature some of the young guns that are taking over the league with Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk with Calgary and Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon with Colorado.
Stanley Cup Favorite not named Tampa
Emily Jo: Pittsburgh Penguins
This one may be controversial considering the Penguins didn’t even clinch until game 81 this season and last year they didn’t look like themselves either. However, a chunk of that can be attributed to injuries and a full year of poor goaltending from Matt Murray which bled over into the beginning of this season. However, it looks like Murray has righted the ship and is looking like the young goaltender they protected in the expansion draft.
This was a difficult choice as there’s no team but Tampa Bay where key weaknesses are difficult to find. Boston is a little older and injury prone. Calgary’s goaltending is as steady as a rowboat in an ocean storm. Toronto’s right defense is basically a red carpet to the opposition. So I was left with my good old gut, and my gut says go with the team that has guys that can just take over a series or four. Pittsburgh has two in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, one a consistent, unshakeable force and the other a sleeping dragon who occasionally just wakes up and is the best hockey player on earth for a few weeks.
Who knows? I still think there’s time for the Two-Headed Monster to take another Championship.
Andy: Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights always go to the Final, right? Vegas is out to prove that last year’s run wasn’t a fluke and just might be a better team this time around. The Mark Stone trade has proven to be a big get for the Golden Knights as he has given them two tough lines at the top of the lineup – look for Stone to play along side Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty.
Down the stretch the Golden Knights suffered some injuries but head coach Gerard Gallant declared his team healthy over the weekend so it should be full steam ahead for Vegas. Get used to a long stretch of over the top pregame shows again this spring, the Golden Knights could be around a while.
Darren: Boston Bruins
Imagine being on a team that puts up 107 points, and finishes the regular season 21 points behind the division winner. That’s what has happened in Boston, though, where Bruce Cassidy has very quietly led an impressive campaign. Picking a Stanley Cup winner is always tough, because it’s just never the team you expect. Well, nobody expects the Bruins to win it, but with David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron providing the skill, and Brad Marchand providing the licks to opposing player’s faces, these guys have as good a chance as anybody to play into June. Bolstering their chances, the Bruins also have one of the better 1A/1B goalie tandems in Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, which gives them a huge leg up and a better chance of somebody getting hot at the right time, a must for any Stanley Cup winner.
John: Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg was one of the preseason favorites with great depth coming into the year. They started hot and everything looked as if “they are who we thought they were” going 33-18 through the first 4 months of the season. They would finish the rest of the season 13-17. They are battle tested. The team knows what it takes to make it in the playoffs with 3 rounds of playoffs under their belt last year including a brutal seven-game series in the second round against Nashville. After missing half the season due to injury, Dustin Byfuglien returned to the lineup the last week of the season. He is a hockey player built for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Winnipeg has one of the best power plays in the NHL and they are getting healthy at the right time.
Emily Jo: Carolina Hurricanes
This might seem a bit rich considering the Canes are facing the reigning Stanley Cup Champions but to be honest, Washington hasn’t looked that scary in comparison to most of the other matchups Carolina could have drawn in the first round. If Carolina’s goaltending holds out, they’re exactly the kind of team that I think could surprise in the playoffs. They have a great defensive group and an offense that has looked good on paper but recently started looking really good on the ice as well.
The Canes have had a uniquely positive year, making great acquisitions, clicking in the locker room, and sparking waves of fan support through morale-boosting occurrences like the Storm Surge and winning. They won’t be the favorite against Washington, but if they can get past them, the confidence boost of a rolling underdog team might allow them to move through another weaker Metro division matchup and onto the conference final.
Andy: St. Louis Blues
We learned last week that teams who go into the playoffs hot don’t necessarily end up on long playoff runs but the Blues could buck that trend. St. Louis finished the season by winning eight out if its last 10 games, but the Blues story goes back longer than just the last 10. Left for dead on New Year’s Day, they caught fire and instead of selling off assets like Vladimir Tarasenko, started winning and came within one point of winning the – as some would say – stacked Central Division.
They discovered a gem with rookie Jordan Binnington, who took over the Blues net and ended with a 1.51 goals-against, a .941 save-percentage and an equally impressive .866 high-danger save-percentage – good enough for fifth best in the NHL. They have a tough first-round match up with Winnipeg and then possibly Nashville, but the Blues have shown that they’re every bit as good as those two clubs.
Darren: Colorado Avalanche
By definition, I almost feel that a “darkhorse” has to be one of the lowest seeds. Colorado snuck into the final wild card spot thanks to a hot run toward the end of the season and disastrous finishes by the other competitors in the so-called turtle race. This is a team that had a lot of success early on, getting obscene production from top-liners Nathan MacKinnon, Gabe Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen. It fell off drastically mid-way through, because opposing coaches figured out how to check the top line and expose the team’s lack of offensive depth.
The Avs have recently had injuries to both Landeskog and Rantanen, but each are likely to play. One could see that trio getting hot at the right time, and helping this time slide by the Flames.
John: Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights are better than they were last year and calling them a dark horse is probably a bit of a stretch. The addition of Mark Stone at the trade deadline has built them into a series contender. Vegas got off to a slow start of the season without Nate Schmidt in the lineup, they could have easily been in contention to win the Pacific division. Last season was magical and it will be interesting if they can play with the same intensity and speed that took them all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last year.