After 82 games, the NHL regular season has officially ended, and the 16 teams that made the playoffs are ready to face off for the Stanley Cup. Playoff hockey is always full of surprises, so here are some attempts at predicting the madness in an intense playoff format that teaches us to expect the unexpected.
Prediction 1: The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals will meet in the second round for the third year in a row, and the Capitals will win
In the first round, Pittsburgh should have no problem taking care of Philadelphia — who the Pens swept in four regular-season games and blew out 7-0 in the first playoff game Wednesday. The Capitals will likely move on as well by defeating the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round with superior firepower after taking three of four games in their regular season series.
This year, however, it will be Washington advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals instead of Pittsburgh. The Caps finished at the top of the league in points but fell to the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs in both 2016 and 2017.
The weight of the Presidents’ Trophy crown — awarded to the league’s best regular season team — is often heavy, and the Capitals did not perform well under the high expectations. They are not alone though. Only eight of the last 32 Presidents’ Trophy winners went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Without the expectation that comes with the Presidents’ Trophy, the Caps are flying under the radar this year, finishing tied for sixth most points in the league. Although they once again won the Metropolitan Division title, they are no longer favored to win the Stanley Cup, which can actually work in their favor, now that the pressure is off of them.
The Caps and Pens split the season series two games apiece just as they did last year, and the 2017 playoff series between the two was a tight battle, eventually ending in game seven. With fewer expectations, the Capitals might finally be able to outlast the Penguins in a playoff series and end their second-round drought.
Prediction 2: The Wild Card Los Angeles Kings will Eliminate the No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights in the first round
The Golden Knights have had a storybook inaugural season, becoming the most successful expansion team in all of pro sports. But the team hit a few rough spots later in the season, including a sweep by the Kings on back-to-back days in late February.
When it comes to playoff experience, the Kings have an obvious advantage, having won two Stanley Cups in the past six seasons, while this is the Knights’ first season as a team. While Vegas has a powerful offense, Kings’ star defenseman Drew Doughty and defensive-minded forward Anze Kopitar will be instrumental in shutting down the Knights’ top lines.
The playoffs are not only a physical game, but a mental one as well. The Golden Knights exceeded expectations in the regular season, and people are looking to see that in the playoffs. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on a new team that has never been in the playoffs as a cohesive unit before, and the veteran Kings can certainly exploit that.
It is also important to note that the Kings won both their first championship as an eighth seed in 2012 and as a third seed in their division in 2014, showing that they can rise to the occasion in the playoffs to defeat some of the top teams en route to the Stanley Cup.
Prediction 3: The Toronto Maple Leafs will upset the Boston Bruins
This series will not be short, as it is hard to find an area where one team dominates the other. In the end, don’t be surprised if Toronto emerges victorious, because this matchup is so close that it will come down to which team has the most offensive depth. The Leafs have a slight edge over the Bruins in this department.
Both teams have dangerous first forward line trios. Boston has David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, all of whom have had over 30 goals this year. Toronto has Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews and William Nylander, a grouping that has also seen remarkable offensive success this season.
The Bruins may have a slightly more effective first line, but the Maple Leafs extend their depth through their next three. With veterans Nazem Kadri (55 points) and Patrick Marleau (47 points) paired with youngster Mitch Marner (69 points), the Leafs’ second line is fierce as well, and their bottom two lines are not to be ignored.
In addition to the depth, the Maple Leafs have had the edge in recent meetings, winning eight of their past 10 against the Bruins.
Prediction 4: The Nashville Predators will win the Stanley Cup
Yes, this does seem contradictory to what I mentioned earlier — considering the Predators won the Presidents’ Trophy this season and recipients of this trophy don’t always succeed in the playoffs.
The Predators are in a better position than previous Presidents’ Trophy winners, though. They enjoyed a run to the finals last year when they were the Cinderella team of the playoffs but lost to the Penguins in the finals. They regrouped this year and came back better than ever with their best season in franchise history — amassing 117 points.
They don’t have a superstar like Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, but that’s OK. The Preds rely on their powerful defense and offensive depth to win games, as well as the always-reliable Pekka Rinne in net (.927 save percentage). Nashville doesn’t need to rely on the success of a star to carry them in the playoffs and final because they are so well balanced.
A strong defense led by P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm, coupled with Rinne’s superb goaltending, led to Nashville having the second-least goals allowed over the regular season. A well-balanced offense led by Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, each with over 60 points, has led Nashville to be one of the top goal-scoring teams in the league.
If the Preds can successfully build on their regular season achievements, they will most definitely have a strong chance of claiming the title that so narrowly eluded them a year ago.