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NHL Playoff Preview: Examining the First Round Matchups

The NHL regular season has all but concluded (save for some Canadian division teams, who still have a handful of regular season games left to play) and the playoff matchups are set; with that, the chase for the Stanley Cup begins, starting with Boston and Washington Saturday night. The playoffs will begin divisionally, with the top seed playing the fourth seed in the division and the second seed playing the third. As is usual, though, with hockey, expect a handful of upsets here and there. That being said, let’s check out the first round matchups:

Canadian Division:

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Montreal Canadiens

The Maple Leafs and the Canadiens will face off in the first round in a Original Six matchup that will surely bring some provincial animosity. During the regular season, Toronto went 7-2-1 against Montreal, which may signify a lopsided battle. The Maple Leafs also feature the league’s leading goal scorer in Auston Matthews, who potted 41 goals in 51 games. Positionally, keep an eye out for both teams goaltenders; with Freddy Andersen injured most of the year and just getting back to full health, the Maple Leafs will likely turn to Jack Campbell, who played in 21 games and sported an excellent .923 save percentage. For Montreal, goaltender Carey Price is someone who could always play a big role when it comes to the playoffs. Despite Price’s reputation, however, it still seems that Toronto has the edge. The Maple Leafs finished in first place in the division with a five point cushion, while the Canadiens snagged the last spot despite lackluster play over the past month. With their forward depth and high end offensive players, Toronto will go into the series as the favorite.

Edmonton Oilers vs. Winnipeg Jets

The main name that will highlight this series is Oilers superstar Connor McDavid. Despite playing in just 55 games so far, McDavid has amassed an incredible 104 points for a near 2.00 points per game average. Edmonton also features last years’ Art Ross Trophy winner in Leon Draisaitl, who currently sits second in the league behind McDavid with 83 points. In head to head matchups, the Oilers went 7-2-0 against the Winnipeg Jets, and it seemed like the Jets had no answer for the Oilers’ stars. Winnipeg, however, has plenty of playoff veterans like Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Paul Statsny, and great center depth with the latter two and youngster Pierre-Luc Dubois. Jets’ goalie Connor Hellebyuck, last year’s Vezina Trophy winner, should also be a big factor in the series. With two very differently built teams, this matchup looks like a tossup. If McDavid and Draisaitl take over, though, the Jets could find themselves struggling to contain the dynamic duo.

Central Division:

Carolina Hurricanes vs. Nashville Predators

Carolina surprisingly locked down the number one seed in the Central Division this season and was the third best team in the league. With young stars at forward such as Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Teavu Teravainen, and high end defensemen like Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin, they’re a team that is built well all around. The Nashville Predators, on the other hand, were a team that struggled in the first half and looked to be destined for the NHL Draft Lottery. Their turnaround following that poor start, though, has been incredibly impressive, and most of the credit goes to goaltender Juuse Saros, who ended the season with a 2.28 goals against average and a .927 save percentage. Carolina’s likely starting goaltender, Petr Mrazek, also posted impressive numbers (2.06 GAA, .923 SV%), albeit in an injury shortened season (12 games played). In terms of the season series, the Hurricanes had the edge with a 6-2-0 record; with their depth and coach Rod Brind’Amour, they go into the series with the slight advantage. 

Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

In the first ever Battle of Florida playoff series, this one could be the most exciting matchup of the bunch. Florida has completed a massive turnaround after missing the playoff and losing two top offensive players (Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov) in the offseason, and won the season series with a 5-2-1 record. For Tampa Bay, they finished the season just 5 points behind Carolina’s first place finish despite top scorer Nikita Kucherov missing the entire regular season and captain Steven Stamkos also missing significant time due to injury. Both teams have quality forwards depth; for Florida, however, missing top defenseman Aaron Ekblad could hurt. On Tampa’s end, their top defenseman Victor Hedman will still make a big impact despite fighting through a nagging injury. What could put the Lightning over the edge, though, is goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who could be this year’s Vezina Winner. If he’s on his game, it could be a tough series for the Panthers. 

East Division

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Islanders

The Pittsburgh Penguins turned out an impressive regular season, finishing at the top of a tough East Division despite being one of the top teams in man games lost. With veterans like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin down the middle, and Kris Letang and Brian Dumolin on the backend, it’s not hard to see them going far this postseason. They’ll have to contend, though, with a gritty New York Islanders team who feature one of the game’s best coaches in Barry Trotz. The Islanders will look to play a defensive, shut down style of hockey, which will be key against Pittsburgh’s top forwards. They’ll be helped by goaltender Semyon Varlomov, who finished this season with a 2.04 goals against average and .929 save percentage. Pittsburgh won the season series 6-2-0, but don’t be surprised if this is a close matchup, despite the 1 vs. 4 seed attached to it.

Washington Capitals vs. Boston Bruins

This series may be the closest one of them all when it comes to team matchups; it was a tight battle during the regular season, with Boston edging out Washington 4-2-2. With high powered forwards on each end, it also has the potential to be an offensive, back and forth set of games. For Boston, the trade for Taylor Hall has uplifted their top six, and their second line featuring Hall, David Krecji, and Craig Smith has really shined. In addition to that line, their top line (often dubbed the “Perfection Line”) of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak will also be hard to contain. For Washington, sniper Alex Ovechkin will get plenty of attention, as will winger TJ Oshie and newly acquired Anthony Mantha. Also keep an eye out for defenseman John Carlson, who will run an extremely efficient power play. Goaltending wise, Boston is more set positionally than Washington. They’ll run with playoff veteran Tuuka Rask, while Washington has to decide whether to start Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek. Regardless of who starts, this one will be a tight matchup and could go either way.

West Division

Colorado Avalanche vs. St. Louis Blues

After wrapping up the President’s Trophy for best record in the league, Colorado will go into these playoffs blazing hot. Despite the lopsided seeding, though, the Blues will also go into the postseason on a hot streak, as they have an 8-1-3 record their past ten games. With Colorado’s star power, though, it could be a tough series for the Blues; Colorado finished with a 5-3-0 record against St. Louis, who will have to contain the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, and Mikko Rantanen. For the Blues, they’ll be led by center and captain Ryan O’Reilly and also have top winger Vladimir Tarasenko back from injury. When it comes to the goalies, 2018 Stanley Cup winner Jordan Binnington will be in net and has plenty of big game experience. The Avalanche’s Philipp Grubauer (1.95 GAA, .922 SV%), who could be a Vezina finalist, will backstop the team, and could push Colorado over the edge.

Vegas Golden Knights vs. Minnesota Wild

Vegas has been one of the best teams in the NHL all year, narrowly missing out of the President’s Trophy this year. Up and down, they’re an excellently built team, with forwards such as Mark Stone, William Karlsson, and Max Pacioretty, defensemen such as Shea Theodore and Alex Piertrangelo, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. They’ll have to contend with up and coming star rookie Kirill Kaprizov, who leads the Wild’s offensive attack. Although wingers like Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala bring the goal scoring touch, where Minnesota lacks forward wise is the center position, which could hurt them come playoff time. Overall, while Minnesota certainly has the pieces to upset the Golden Knights, Vegas’ depth could prove tough to overcome. It should be noted, however, that the Wild have the season series advantage at 5-1-2, Vegas’ worst record against a division opponent.

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