The NHL playoffs are set to begin for real. We’ve watched the top four teams in each conference play a round-robin against each other for seeding. We’ve watched eight other teams play their way in through a best-of-five preliminary round. Now, at 3 PM ET today, the puck drops on a traditional best-of-seven series in the Round of 16. Below are comments on all eight matchups. Note that seedings are adjusted after round-robin play and re-seeding the preliminary round survivors.
Two franchises with long histories. They met in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1976 when the playoffs weren’t bracketed by geography and they met up in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010. The Flyers, with their 3-0 run through the round robin, are a heavy favorite in this series with betting odds of (-240). Philly has a deeper offense than the Canadiens and as long as Carter Hart plays goalie, the Flyers are good enough in net. But Montreal goalie Carey Price was terrific in his team’s knockout of Pittsburgh. This series will be more competitive than the experts think.
A rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. The Bruins swept the Hurricanes in that series, but there’s no reason to think this year will be as easy. Boston did not look good in the round robin, losing all three. The Bruins started to show some competitive sparks again in losses to Tampa and Washington, but Carolina did more than show sparks—they impressively dismantled the New York Rangers. Boston is no longer the Stanley Cup favorite they were when the postseason opened and need to show they can start winning games.
The juiciest first-round series. Islanders coach Barry Trotz led the Capitals to Stanley Cup glory in 2018 before a dispute over salary had him packing for Long Island before the champagne was even dry. The Isles are a classic Trotz team—physical, smart and tough on defense. Washington is vastly more talented on the offensive end, with Alex Ovechkin coming off another vintage year. The Caps’ mediocre defensive numbers this season are about an off-year by goalie Braden Holtby, who is more than capable of turning it back around. On paper, this series says Washington. My gut tells me otherwise.
The Lightning have been waiting for this revenge match for over a year. Last season, Tampa was the top-heavy favorite to win the Stanley Cup. The Blue Jackets stunned the hockey world when they swept the Lightning out in the first round. There’s no chance of Tampa looking past Columbus this time around, but it won’t be as easy as just getting focused. The Blue Jackets are a top defensive team that just rendered some excellent Toronto players impotent in the preliminary round. It’s hard to imagine Columbus winning the series again, but they could drag this one out.
Picks In The East: I’m going to call three upsets–Montreal in 7, Carolina in 6, NY Islanders in 7. Tampa, my pick to win the Stanley Cup, will get rid of Columbus in five, although I expect those to be hard-fought games, the kind that makes you feel the favorite is always fighting for its life.
Chicago’s upset of Edmonton in they prelims was a classic case of a proud veteran team playing above its statistical profile. The Blackhawks did nothing for an entire season that suggested they were capable of anything out all in this delayed postseason. But when your roster has Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, the possibility of waking up the echoes always exists. It happened once and the Golden Knights are not an overwhelming 1-seed. I’m surprised that Vegas is such a decisive (-210) favorite. During the season they ranked ninth on offense, 13th on defense and while their attack has nice balance, it’s nothing that can’t be contained. I don’t know if this will be the best series in the West, but Chicago’s cast makes it the most compelling.
The defending Cup winners from St. Louis came to the bubble and, like Boston, were not ready to play and lost all three games in round robin action. Unlike the Bruins, the Blues drew a favorable matchup in the opening round. Vancouver has a good offensive team, with the excellent passing of 20-year-old Quinn Hughes and balanced scoring from J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat. But the Canucks don’t play good defense and are susceptible to a big team that will pound on them. That’s exactly what St. Louis will do.
The most competitive first-round series. Caps-Isles and Knights-Blackhawks have better storylines, but for sheer on-ice drama, the Stars and Flames are hard to separate. Calgary, after a ho-hum regular season, they looked good in knocking Winnipeg from the prelims. Cam Talbot got the call in goal and played well. David Rittich is a viable #2 if he falters. But Ben Bishop is more than capable for Dallas and if Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn can generate some offense, the Stars will be hard to stop. Can’t wait to watch this one.
Colorado, like Tampa, went 2-1 in the round robin. To me, that’s ideal. You’re not so hot that a cool-down is inevitable, but at the same time you’re into a rhythm. Arizona won’t go quietly. Darcy Kuemper has had one of his best seasons at goalie and was hot in the prelims against Nashville. The Coyotes would be a tough out for a lot of teams, but the Avs are the only team in the NHL that ranks in the top five on both offense and defense, and they’re playing well. Wrong matchup for Arizona.
Picks In The West: I’ll call for another 1-seed to go down and pick Chicago in 6. Then it’s three favorites– St. Louis in 5, Dallas in 7, Colorado in 4. The Avs keep on track for my projected Finals showdown with Tampa.