The NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs begin April 11 with three first-round matchups airing on Wednesday night, and four more beginning on Thursday. Here’s a quick breakdown of all eight first-round battles and who will advance to the second round:
Nashville (1) vs. Colorado (wild card)
Predators - Calle Jarnkrok (upper body, unclear if he’ll return for Game One)
Avalanche – Erik Johnson (expected to miss six-to-eight weeks), Nathan MacKinnon (expected to play, but considered hurt), Seymon Varlamov (left knee, expected to miss first round)
Colorado’s return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2013 wasn’t what we expected out of the team this season. Nathan MacKinnon’s efforts have thrust him directly into the MVP conversation, and the team as a whole is far deadlier than they were last season. But so are the Predators, who lost in the Cup Finals last season and have seemed the favorite out of the Western Conference all season. Pekka Rinne is a leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy, and the Predators as a whole are the deeper team. Nashville beat Colorado all four times the teams met in the regular season, outshooting them 117 to 112, and outscoring 17-8, according to Hockey Reference. Colorado will be without the services of their starting goaltender and top defenseman in the first round. As exciting as the Avalanche’s season has been, it’s hard to imagine they get past the Presidents’ Trophy winners.
Winnipeg (2) vs. Minnesota (3)
Jets – Toby Enstrom (lower body, will not return for Game One), Dmitry Kulikov (back, expected to miss three to four weeks on March 8), Jacob Trouba (ankle, expected to be ready for Game One)
Wild – Jared Spurgeon (hamstring, may not return for Game One), Ryan Suter (ankle, out for season)
Minnesota will fight an uphill battle against the Winnipeg Jets, who are still looking for their first playoff win since returning to Winnipeg in 2011. Top defenseman Ryan Suter was sideline for the season on March 31 with an ankle injury, and it’s unclear whether Jared Spurgeon, the team’s other leading skater in average time on ice, will be ready for Game One. The Jets have a higher-flying offense and defense, and without those top defensemen on Minnesota’s blueline, it’s going to be hard to stop Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, and Nikolaj Ehlers from finding the back of the net. The pressure will be on Minnesota center Eric Staal to keep up his impressive production during the regular season and have a better showing in the first round than he did last year.
Vegas (1) vs. Los Angeles (wild card)
Vegas – Jon Marchessault (undisclosed, expected to play in Game One), David Perron (undisclosed, will likely play in Game One) Luca Sbisa (hand, unclear if he will return for Game One)
Los Angeles – Drew Forbort (lower body, no timetable for return), Alex Iafallo (lower body, status for Game One unclear), Jake Muzzin (upper-body, unclear if he will return for Game One)
The absolute best story of the 2017-2018 NHL season was the Vegas Golden Knights’ improbable run as a top team in the league in the franchises’ very first season. So many of Vegas’ players were underperformers elsewhere, or solid young players in need of further development, that have simply amazed the league this season. Team scoring leaders William Karlsson and Jon Marchessault’s breakout season were simply unprecedented. The further the Golden Knights advance in the playoffs, the more fans will rally around this team, but their first-round opponent is no joke. Los Angeles is an experienced playoff team - when the Kings won the Cup in 2012 and 2014, they didn’t exactly march into the playoffs the most feared team in the West, either. Led by a rejuvenated Anze Kopitar (92 points) and Dustin Brown (61 points, a career best). Vegas better be careful not to let memories of those championship teams run amok against LA.
Anaheim (2) vs. San Jose (3)
Ducks – John Gibson (upper body, status for Game One unclear), Cam Fowler (shoulder injury suffered on April 1, will likely miss first round), Kevin Bieksa (recovering from hand surgery)
Sharks – Joe Thornton (knee, not expected to return for Game One), Evander Kane (arm, expected to play Game One)
Both these teams nurse major injuries to star players heading into the first round. The Sharks have always had a sufficient core surrounding Joe Thornton, but he’s been missed since late January. San Jose doesn’t hurt for center depth, though – Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, and Chris Tierney are four of their top five scorers, and centers to boot. If the Sharks continue to receive meaningful goal scoring from trade deadline addition Evander Kane (9 goals, 5 assists since joining San Jose). Anaheim battled injuries all season long – not a single player on the roster skated in all 82 games. With John Gibson injured, the Ducks will turn to veteran goaltender Ryan Miller to keep pucks out of the net. At 37, Miller has performed well this season, sporting a .928 save percentage in 28 games played, and sporting quality starts in 13 of his 21 starts throughout the season.
Pittsburgh (2) vs. Philadelphia (3)
Flyers – Michal Neuvirth (lower body, questionable for Game One), Johnny Oduya (lower body, uncertain return to the lineup)
Penguins – Derick Brassard (groin, has not played since 3/27)
Claude Giroux surged for 23 points in Philadelphia’s last 20 games of the regular season, making the Flyers captain one of three players with 100+ points this season. Beyond that, the Flyers have potent offensive threats up front in Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier, as well as young defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov on the blue line. Philadelphia finished the year with 98 points, the most since 2011-2012. This is definitely the strongest Flyers team the league has seen in recent years, but it won’t be easy for them against the Penguins. Pittsburgh remains one of the league’s deepest teams, with five 20+ goal scorers and a lethal power play. Matt Murray has certainly struggled in his first full year as a starter, but the Penguins won the Stanley Cup the last two years in large part thanks to his stellar goaltending. Flyers-Penguins is one of the NHL’s best rivalries, and this first round matchup should be no different.
Washington (1) vs. Columbus (wild card)
Blue Jackets – Nick Foligno (lower body, expected to return for Game One), Markus Nutivaara (illness, likely to return for Game One)
Capitals – TJ Oshie (lower body, likely to play in Game One), Braden Holtby (unlikely to play in Game One due to a need for rest), Jay Beagle (upper body, uncertain for Game One)
Capitals-Blue Jackets is a tale of two teams who can’t quite move forward in the playoffs. The Capitals were bounced from the postseason in each of the last three seasons, while Columbus hasn’t made it out of the first round any of the three times the team has made the playoffs. It’s on Columbus to prove to the rest of the NHL they’re as much of a contender as anyone, but, honestly, everyone expects Washington to choke at some point. Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (.921 save percentage, 38 quality starts) should be able to go toe-to-toe with Washington’s Braden Holtby – if the Capitals goaltender doesn’t miss even more time due to ‘rest’. Look for fellow countrymen Artemi Panarin and Alex Ovechkin to pace each other goal-for-goal in this series, though Columbus’ lack of elite center talent Washington thrives on.
Boston (2) vs. Toronto (3)
Bruins – Brandon Carlo (ankle, will miss rest of season), Rick Nash (concussion, sidelined since 3/19, expected to return for Game One), Riley Nash (ear, questionable for Game One return)
Maple Leafs – None
So two of the Eastern Conference’s top four teams have to play each other in the first round. Kind of a bummer that one of these teams won’t advance, but it should be an exciting series – both teams are in the top ten in the league goals for, and the Bruins sport the third best goals against stat in the NHL. The Bruins won the regular season series 3-1 In 2017-2018, but these Maple Leafs can no longer be underestimated. The league now knows Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander are the real deal, and their speed and creativity will be a lot for Boston’s defense to handle in a seven-game series. The few remaining players who were on Toronto’s roster for the disastrous Game 7 collapse in 2013 have come into their own, and Jake Gardiner and Morgan Riley (52 points each) play a dangerous two-way game from the blue line. Toronto’s center depth matched up with Boston nicely when many teams have a hard time playing against the one-two combination of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. The Bruins themselves are on the mend from some late-season injuries – once both Riley and Rick Nash return to the lineup, the Bruins’ bottom six will fill out nicely. Questions remain over Riley Nash’s ear injury – he may not play in Game One after all, and he’s anchored Boston’s third line all season. When healthy, this is the deepest Boston team in years – if they can stay healthy for more than a few games at a time.
Tampa Bay (1) vs. New Jersey (wild card)
Devils – Marcus Johansson (concussion, no timetable for return)
Lightning – Steven Stamkos (lower body, missed the last three games but should return for Game One)
Lightning-Devils is a very similar matchup to its counterpart in the Western Conference – the wild card team (New Jersey), propelled to the playoffs by elite and MVP-worthy performances by one player (Taylor Hall), goes up against the conference’s behemoth (Tampa Bay). That’s not to say New Jersey has zero chance of advancing – they are the most exciting Devils team since 2012 – but Tampa Bay may be the league’s deepest team, first in the league in goals for and third in goals against, with six skaters scoring 50+ points on the season. The Devils must hope to contain the offensive threats of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos… as well as the rest of the Lightning roster. New Jersey goalie Corey Schneider is in the midst of a down year – he’ll need to step up in a big way for the Devils to compete in this series.