2018 NHL Playoffs: First Round Preview Full Coverage, Analysis and Predictions for Each Series

NHL+Playoffs

NHL Playoffs

Eric Fishbin, National Sports Editor

Finally. Honestly, that’s all I have to say to introduce this article. There is nothing quite like the NHL Playoffs; the competitiveness, the atmosphere, the talent, it’s all there. 

The headline stories are not lacking either; we have the Las Vegas Golden Knights playing April hockey, a team that did not exist last year. 

The Avalanche squeaked into the playoffs by a point, only one year after finishing at the very, very bottom of the league (by a

21 point margin). 

We also have a Keystone State Showdown between the Flyers and Penguins that is surely going to be must-watch TV and will hopefully be a seven-game series. 

The Capitals did not win the President’s Trophy for the first time since the 2014-2015 season, which is also the last time a team not named the Pittsburgh Penguins won the

Stanley Cup. 

While these playoffs seem to feature a distinct top tier of contenders (Lightning, Predators, Bruins, Penguins, Jets), it would be foolish to overlook any team at this point in the year. Who’s to say the young Toronto Maple Leafs can’t catch fire, or that the Capitals won’t finally thrive without the spotlight and scrutiny that comes with being the NHL’s top dogs. 

And what can we guess of the West? The Golden Knights rewrote the record book for teams in its inaugural season and, by the way, have home ice advantage for at least the first two rounds of the playoffs. 

The Anaheim Ducks closed out the season on a five-game winning streak, stealing home ice from the San Jose Sharks in the process. Anything can happen, so let’s just go to the first round match-ups.

EAST:

(1)Tampa Bay Lightning vs. 

(Wild Card 2) New Jersey Devils

In the East, the Tampa Bay Lightning

secured the top seed and home ice advantage thanks to the Bruins’ loss to the Florida Panthers on the last day of the regular season. They will face Hart Trophy hopeful Taylor Hall and the New Jersey Devils, who have found their way back into the postseason for the first time since 2011-2012 when they made it to the Cup Finals. 

The Lightning’s offense (3.5 goals per game) is arguably the best in the league, and Right Wing Nikita Kucherov posted career highs in both points (100) and assists (61). If the Devils want to steal this series, and it would be just that, they will have to capitalize on every opportunity. 

They can help themselves out by staying out of the box, blocking shots, and most importantly, winning at home.

My prediction: Lightning in 5.

(2) Boston Bruins vs. 

(3) Toronto Maple Leafs

Talk about a toss-up. Between this series and the San Jose/Anaheim match-up, I expect to see the fiercest competition. These teams know each other well, and both feature some of the league’s most exciting young talent. Charlie McAvoy has been paired up with Zdeno Chara for most of the season and surely looks like he belongs on a top defensive pair of a Cup contending team. 

Across him, though, is a talented Toronto top line of Auston Matthews and his partner-in-crime William Nylander. Matthews, despite missing 20 games this season, averaged just over a point per game (1.02), while Nylander picked up 41 assists in 82 games. 

While Toronto took the regular season series (3-1), the Bruins have one thing the Leafs don’t: deep playoff experience. Guys like Bergeron, Marchand, Chara and Rask have all been on the biggest stage and have found

success. 

My prediction: Bruins in 7.

(1) Washington Capitals vs. 

(Wild Card 1) Columbus Blue Jackets

Look, I love the “Is this the Caps’ year?” joke as much as the next guy, but this team could be dangerous. First, they somehow managed to win the Metropolitan Division for a third year in a row while at the same time avoiding the spotlight. 

The Caps are well-coached by Barry Trotz and feature a deadly first line combination of Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. They have a slight goaltending controversy, as Grubauer caught fire in February and stayed hot to end the season. However, it is hard to imagine keeping Holtby on the bench the entire series. Either way, having two goalies caused no trouble for the Penguins last year. For Columbus, winning home games will be essential. They will need Bobrovsky at his best, and can only hope that he will steal a game or two.

My prediction: Caps in 6.

(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 

(3) Philadelphia Flyers

If any team stands a chance of knocking off the Penguins in the first round, I’d say the Flyers are the guys to do it. The inherent intensity of a playoff series alone serves as enough motivation for most, but the Flyers are facing their in-state rivals who happen to be the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champions. 

The Penguins had the Flyers’ number all season, winning all four regular season matchups. The Pens tout the league’s best power play percentage (26.2), so the Flyers will need to avoid penalties. Philadelphia has had crazy sports luck this year, and it may continue with the Flyers.

My prediction: Flyers in 6.

WEST:

(1) Las Vegas Golden Knights vs. 

(WC 1) Los Angeles Kings

It has been a storybook, fairytale,

whatever you want to call it kind of season for the Golden Knights. 

But now is the time that really matters. All of their accomplishments from the regular season, as impressive as they were, will be accompanied by an asterisk noting playoff failure if they can’t find success against

the Kings. 

A Kings win would be a story of the old beating the new, and a rejuvenation of playoff success in LA under the control of John Stevens instead of Darryl Sutter this time. 

The Kings have not won a playoff series since the 2013-2014 season, the last time they won the Stanley Cup. Congrats to the Golden Knights on a great regular season.

My prediction: Kings in 6.

(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. 

(3) San Jose Sharks

Like I said before, the Ducks are coming into the playoffs hot. In the final 10 games of the season, Anaheim went 8-1-1. 

It will be decision time for Randy Carlyle if neither Ryan Miller nor John Gibson emerge as the clear go-to guy. And if that is the case, it will mean trouble for the Ducks. The Sharks are a balanced team. They have playoff experience, a top defender in the NHL and a solid goalie. This series seems destined for Game 7, and I’ll have to let home ice decide this one for me.

My prediction: Ducks in 7.

(1) Nashville Predators vs. 

(WC 2) Colorado Avalanche 

The President Trophy winning Nashville Predators are the team to beat in the West. Their atmosphere and fanbase is incredibly impressive, and their team can stack up against anyone in the league. After falling short last season in the Cup Finals, you can bet they are desperate to get back there. On both ends of the ice they are dominant, as they own the league’s second best goals against average and rank in the top-10 in goals per game. 

The Avs have not been to the playoffs since 2013-2014 and have not won a playoff series since 2009-2010. Though Nathan MacKinnon had a career year in scoring (39/58/97), Colorado will miss Semyon Varlamov minding the net.

My prediction: Preds in 5.

(2) Winnipeg Jets vs. 

(3) Minnesota Wild

Winnipeg dominated the regular season. But, as Jets fans will tell you, all they really want is a playoff win. Since relocating from Atlanta in 2011, the Jets have not won a playoff game. 

They were swept by the Ducks in the first round of the 2014-2015 Playoffs, and haven’t seen Stanley Cup Playoff action since. This year is likely to be the one. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck posted ridiculous numbers (44-11-9 record, 2.36 GAA, .924 SV%) and the Jets supported him offensively, averaging the second most goals per game in the league.

Minnesota should not be dismissed too quickly though. Eric Staal built on a solid first year with the Wild and broke out in his second go, emerging as a top-five goal scorer in the league. 

Goaltender Devan Dubnyk won 35 games this season and can make this series complicated for the Jets. 

My Prediction: Jets in 7.

 These games are going to be exciting. Playoff hockey, even for non-hockey fans, is one of the best sports events in the world. It will take one team winning 16 games to end it, but as my guy Trey Anastasio says, “you’ll never win a major only shooting par.” I think the same can be said for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

Whoever hoists the Cup at the end of the year will have to do something special. Regardless, the Playoffs are finally here. Buckle up, and enjoy.

Contact Eric Fishbin at [email protected]