On Wednesday, the busiest and best time of the NHL season begins, the Stanley Cup playoffs. The first round will see eight series being played, four in the East and four in the West as the best teams in the league begin the quest for the hardest trophy to win in all of sports. Here’s a preview and prediction for how each series will shake out.

Western Conference

Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars

Thankfully for a Dallas Stars team that has had a rough go with injuries this season, it’s looking like everyone should be healthy in time for the first game. This includes key players like goaltender Ben Bishop and trade deadline acquisition Mats Zuccarello.

They’ll certainly need everyone healthy to compete with the perennially competitive Predators and even that probably won’t be enough. The Predators have one of, if not, the best blue lines in the NHL. For good measure, the Predators reinforced their forward group with big names like Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund for what they plan on being a deep postseason run.

Of course, all of this hinges on which version of Pekka Rinne shows up. Rinne has historically had poor showings in the playoffs, including being pulled in a game seven against the Winnipeg Jets last year. Despite this, the Predators should still be the favourites to win this series as the Stars don’t have the offensive depth to overpower the Predator’s top tier defence.

Mark Humphrey/The Associated Press

Prediction:

Predators in 6

Winnipeg Jets vs. St. Louis Blues

This will be the series to watch in the West.

The St. Louis Blues have been one of the best stories in the NHL for no shortage of reasons. They went from last place in the league to tied with the Jets for second place in the Central at 99 points in what seemed like a blink of an eye. This is largely thanks to the phenomenal play of rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington.

Almost certainly, it will take six or seven games to decide this series. If the Jets are able to get their offence going (including the infamously streaky Patrik Laine), it has the power to overpower an opponent and steal a series. That being said, the Blues have a strong defensive core and Binnington’s stellar season isn’t over yet.

This is by far the hardest series to predict of the first round. That being said, I think St. Louis rides their current momentum and is able to overcome a strong opponent in the Jets.

Prediction:

Blues in 7

Calgary Flames vs. Colorado Avalanche

The once high flying Avalanche find themselves in the playoffs by a margin of just four points and as a reward get to face the Calgary Flames in the postseason’s first round.

After a monumental collapse due to injury of key players and poor play, the Avalanche took almost all 82 games to secure a playoff spot. This highlighted the teams struggle to score without its top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon.

In a matchup with the Calgary Flames, they find a team that has a top line to match in Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm as well along with scoring depth that includes players like Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund. The Flames had a whopping five players score at least 70 points or more, including Norris favourite Mark Giordano who’s having a career year at age 35.

When it comes to goaltending, both of these teams are less than solid and the Flames goaltenders split time without a true starter being established. Goalies David Rittich and Mike Smith split the season almost evenly and the Flames are still yet to reveal who will start in game one of the series.

That hasn’t mattered for the Flames yet though as they posted the best record in the Western Conference behind the stellar play of Giordano, Tkachuk, Lindholm, Gaudreau and Monahan. It’s hard to imagine the Avalanche being able to limit those players offensive production while the deeper Flames blue line should have an easier time containing Colorado’s top line. Colorado just doesn’t have the depth to keep up in this series.

Prediction:

Flames in 5

San Jose Sharks vs. Las Vegas Golden Knights

In a rematch from last year’s second round, the Golden Knights will once again face the San Jose Sharks.

These are two teams that both have notable new faces on their teams since the last time they met in the post season including Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Paul Stastny and Gustav Nyquist. The Golden Knights found the star forward they were looking for while the Sharks added a generational talent to their already stacked defense corps and added some depth to their offense.

While both teams are much improved, it’ll be what was already there that will decide this series. Once again, Marc-Andre Fleury had a strong season, posting 35 wins with a .913 save percentage and a 2.51 goals against average. While Martin Jones had one more win than Fleury did in one more start, he posted a higher goals against average 2.94 and a lower save percentage at .896.

Like many of his former Pittsburgh teammates, Marc-Andre Fleury becomes an animal in the playoffs and proved last season that he can shut the door on opponents to the point where his team can only score a goal or two and still win. Martin Jones isn’t able to do the same on the level that Fleury does.

This will undoubtedly be a close series, but the Golden Knights defensive play and goaltending will be what win it for them. However, it’s also entirely possible that Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski are able to take control of the series and win it for San Jose. Either way, this will be a very competitive series that is unlikely to end early.

Prediction:

Golden Knights in 6

Eastern Conference

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

This series could go one of two ways:

  1. The Columbus Blue Jackets get thrashed
  2. Both teams ride on stellar goaltending and the series will go down to the wire

Either way though, the series will probably end the same way. The Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the most dominant regular season teams in the history of the NHL and have a chip on their shoulder from losing in game seven of the Eastern Conference Final. They will undoubtedly be out for blood this year and Columbus won’t be enough to stop them.

Columbus doesn’t have the star power to match the Lightning and offence by committee is unlikely to work against a deep Tampa Bay Lightning team and particularly defensive corps. While both goalies are stellar, the players that Sergei Bobrovsky will be facing puts him at an immediate disadvantage to Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Tampa Bay has the personnel advantage in every position over Columbus, despite the acquisitions that they made at the NHL Trade Deadline. Based on the play of the Lightning over the past 82 games, it’s hard to picture a first round exit for them, especially at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Prediction:

Tampa Bay in 5

Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

For the second year in a row, the Maple Leafs will be facing the Boston Bruins in the postseason’s first round.

This is certainly a short stick for the Maple Leafs to draw as the Bruins are easily one of the most difficult first-round opponents they could face. There is more hope for the Maple Leafs this year though they have one of the most explosive offences in the league that has only improved with the addition of John Tavares.

That being said, this matchup is still in favour of the Bruins until proven otherwise. The Bruins have plenty of scoring of their own in David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and 100 point scorer Brad Marchand. The Bruins also made excellent forward depth acquisitions at the trade deadline in Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle and have a far superior defensive core.

This series will rely on the Maple Leafs defensemen being able to contain one of the most deadly postseason lines in hockey or the Maple Leafs being able to outrun the Boston Bruins offensively. In a seven game series, both strategies will fail for the Maple Leafs eventually.

Prediction:

Bruins in 7

Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes

For a team making the playoffs for the first time in ten years, the defending Stanley Cup champions aren’t who you want to face in the first round.

The Hurricanes will certainly have their hands full with the top tier offence and goaltending of the Washington Capitals and frankly won’t be able to keep up, although this series will be closer than most people think.

The Hurricanes have certainly gelled as a team over the Storm Surge and ending the team’s extended playoff drought. Like their fans, they are currently riding a high of excitement and won’t be pushovers in the playoffs.

The Hurricanes’ defensive core is impressively deep and should prove to keep this series closer than expected for many. However, a Cinderella story won’t be able to beat a proven champion team in a seven-game series. The Hurricanes simply don’t have the offensive firepower or goaltending to match the Washington Capitals. Carolina is a young team and while this may change soon as forwards like Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas continue to develop, the Capitals are already where they hope to one day be.

Prediction:

Capitals in 6

New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The surprisingly successful season of the New York Islanders ends with a matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After losing captain and star player John Tavares to free agency, not much was expected of the New York Islanders this season. Stellar coaching from Barry Trotz and a William M. Jennings trophy winning performance by goaltenders Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner propelled the Islanders to a 103 point season which was just one point back of the Metro-winning Capitals.

Between their unexpected success, new coach and the inspiring comeback of Robin Lehner, the Islanders have been quite a story to follow this season. This story won’t end with a Stanley Cup though if the Penguins have anything to say about it.

If there’s one thing that’s seemingly always true about the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s that when they get to the playoffs, their entire team flips a switch and suddenly plays at a brand new level. It doesn’t matter who they’re facing, it doesn’t matter how the regular season went, you can always expect to face the Penguins at their best during the playoffs.

A common theme of these predictions has been that nothing will expose the shortcomings and weaknesses of a team like a seven-game series. Simply put, the Islanders are outmatched offensively and won’t be able to keep up with postseason Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel and Evgeni Malkin.

Prediction:

Penguins in 6

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