Predicting NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs first round

Bradley Piros , Sports Editor

It’s been a very long six months for all of the 31 NHL teams, but come April only 16 teams make the playoffs, eight from the East and eight from the West. The NHL regular season capped off on Saturday with some teams still fighting to get in and others trying to move up in their division. After 82 games, it all comes down to this, the best playoffs in professional sports, the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I’m just here to make my picks for the first round.

Let’s start off in the east with the best team in the league Tampa Bay Lightning going against the second wildcard Columbus Blue Jackets. This is the only first round series I think that has the potential to be a sweep. Tampa Bay tied the all-time record with 62 regular season wins and scored the most goals out of any other team in the league over the course of 82 games. Nikita Kucherov has the most points in the league with 128, 87 of those being assists. And then there is their deadly power play unit with Brayden Point’s 20 PPG and Steven Stamkos’ 19. Overall, they have the best power play percentage at 28.2 percent. Their penalty kill is also first in the league at 85 percent and they’re also first in goals per game, averaging 3.89. I just don’t think the Blue Jackets will be able to keep up with that kind of offense and that’s why I have Tampa Bay winning in four.

Next up is the Boston Bruins going up against the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second year in a row. Last year the Bruins bested Toronto in the first round and that’s where they’ll meet up once again. The Bruins have the second best PPP in the playoffs at 25.9 percent but the Leafs have some serious goal scorers. Led by John Tavares’ 47 goals and followed by Auston Matthews’ 37, this team has no problem shooting the puck. That being said, the Bruins have one of the best defenses in the league including their captain Zdeno Chara, Matt Grzelcyk and Torey Krug. And with an offense led by Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron, I think Boston is an all-around solid team. I think this matchup will be the closest, but I have to go with the Bruins in seven.

Moving onto the defending champs in the Washington Capitals going up against the Carolina Hurricanes. While I don’t think they’re going to repeat, I do believe they have an easy trip to the second round. With Alex Ovechkin on the offense scoring 51 goals (first in the league) and possessing the deadliest slap shot in the league, there isn’t much the Hurricanes (or any team for that matter) can do to stop it. Seven Capitals players have scored at least 20 goals this season, so that’s not a problem and neither is their defense. Oh, and then there is their all-star goaltender in Braden Holtby behind it all. Once again another all-around great team. I think the Canes might steal a home game win so that’s why I’m going with Capitals in five.

The last matchup in the East is the New York Islanders going head to head with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins haven’t had the greatest of seasons, but they still have the individual talent to get through to the second round. New York, on the other hand, don’t really have any big-name players, just a bunch of guys working hard for each other. Matthew Barzal leads the team with 62 points while Anders Lee leads with 28 goals. They don’t have a lot of depth while the Penguins do. They have arguably the best player in the league Sidney Crosby and his 100-point season. They have Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist, all guys that have plenty of playoff experience and were part of that back-to-back Stanley Cup campaign. New York has home ice, but I’m still going with the Penguins in six.

Moving onto the Western Conference where there are five teams coming out of the Central Division (but that’s a topic for later). Let’s just say that with one game left, three teams could have won the division; it was that close. I’ll start with the best team in the Central in the Nashville Predators going up against the Dallas Stars. Dallas missed the playoffs last season but with the help of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn, they were able to make it back. Nashville, on the other hand, has been a constant in the playoffs as of late. They made it to the finals in 2017 but lost to the Penguins. They have the depth and talent to do it again with the likes of P.K. Subban, Ryan Johansen, Roman Josi and Filip Forseberg, again all guys that have been here before and know how to get things done. This matchup is full of heavy hitters and is one of my favorites. I think it’ll go all seven with Nashville coming out on top at home.

Next up is the only first round series I care about, the Winnipeg Jets vs. the St. Louis Blues. The Blues find themselves in the playoffs after being in last place on Jan. 2 while the Jets have been in and out of first place in the Central all season. It’s been a rollercoaster of a year for the Blues, including blowing two and three-goal leads to Ryan O’Reilly’s insane overtime goals. The Blues’ first line has been the reason for their late success. With O’Reilly, Braden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko combining for 199 points this season followed by a 41-point season from captain defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, it’s no secret that the Blues are hot. The Jets aren’t a team to sleep on, though. They made it to the Western Conference Finals last year and they have the depth to do it again. The team is lead by Blake Wheeler’s 91 points and Mark Scheifele’s 38 goals. Along with players like Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Bryan Little there is no lack of skill. These teams are very similar in skill and that’s why I think the series will go to whoever has the better goalkeeper. For the Jets you’ll see Connor Hellebuyck, while the Blues have rookie sensation and Calder Trophy hopeful, Jordan Binnington. Binnington is 24-5-1 since his NHL debut with only a 1.89 goals against average (first in the league), and he shows no sign of slowing down. This is going to be close, but I have my St. Louis Blues in six.

Onto the best team in the West, the Calgary Flames take on the Colorado Avalanche. The Flames are lead by one of the best young talents in the NHL, Jonny “Hockey” Gaudreau. He has 99 points on the season and leads his club with 36 goals. Add in the likes of Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, Mark Giordano and Mikael Backlund and you’re talking about a team that has a very good shot at going all the way. They match up against the second wildcard Avalanche. Lead by Nathan MacKinnon’s 99 points and 41 goals alongside 22-year-old Mikko Rantanen’s 31 goals and 56 assists and you can see why this offense is no joke. The problem is their lack of depth. This will be a great series showcasing some excellent young talent, but I have to go with the red-hot Flames in five as I just don’t think Colorado have enough left in the tank this year.

Last but certainly not least is the Pacific division matchup between the San Jose Sharks and the Vegas Golden Knights. Everyone knows about the unreal run from the Knights last year as they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural season, beating the Sharks along the way, but I don’t see them doing that again. They have the talent ranging from Jonathan Marchessault’s 25 goals and 34 assists to William Karlsson’s 24 goals and 32 assists. Then you have Reilly Smith, Alex Tuch, Paul Stastny, Cody Eakin and Max Pacioretty, all great players. Last year’s “Cinderella Story” was unprecedented and I believe a fluke. I’d like to see them prove me wrong, but they’ll be fighting off a veteran Sharks squad. Lead by Brent Burns’ 83 points, 16 goals and 67 assists, (most points by a defenseman) and Tomas Hertl’s 35 goals and 39 assists, this team knows what they are doing. Add in Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Joe Pavelski, Evander Kane, Joe Thornton and Erik Karlsson and this team has some serious depth. They have home ice and I think that will be the deciding factor. The “Shark Tank” is one of the toughest places to play in the league, and Vegas hasn’t been so hot on the road. For all those reasons, I have San Jose in seven.

It’s no easy task even making the playoffs with how much talent is in this league, but 16 teams managed their way in and every single one of them believes they have a chance at the cup. For all 16 of them, the road to hoisting the Stanley Cup starts here. Five of the first-round games are tonight with the remaining three series starting tomorrow night.