Thursday, April 12, 2018

NHL Playoffs Predictions 2017-18: Round One

The first round of the NHL playoffs have a few interesting match-ups this year, including one in which I dislike both teams playing. There are also many regional rivalries, yet just two Canadian teams.

Here's how I think they'll go.

Western Conference:

Nashville Predators (1) vs Colorado Avalanche (WC2):
The best team in the league, one with no glaring weakness, plays a bunch of kids, no defense and a backup goalie. Simply put, the Avs don't stand a chance. They might win one on the strength of MVP candidate Nathan MacKinnon, but a defense made up of Roman Josi, Mathias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, Alexei Emelin, Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber won't let him dominate like he did in the regular season twice in two weeks. And Jonathan Bernier loses the goalie duel to likely Vezina winner Pekka Rinne before the puck even drops.

Nashville in 5.

Winnipeg Jets (2) vs Minnesota Wild (3):
The Jets are no joke. They have one of the most potent offenses in the league, one of the best defenses, and goalie Connor Hellebuyck is two years ahead of my predictions as a star starter. The team itself may not have won a single playoff game in its current iteration (and that includes a decade as the Atlanta Thrashers, by the way), but they have guys who've had the experience of grinding out a Stanley Cup Final in captain Blake Wheeler and the league's most feared defender Dustin Byfuglien. The Wild have... a fine defense, and the league's most consistent goalie of the past four seasons in Devan Dubnyk. Head coach Bruce Boudreau often looks outmatched in the postseason. Dubnyk might steal one, but he can't steal two from these guys, let alone four.

Jets in 5.

Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs Los Angeles Kings (WC1):
Well, well, well. First off, it looks like the players may indeed have been sick of Darryl Sutter's message, as they bounced back from consecutive postseason misses to face their newest rivals - and the league's biggest surprise. Goalie Jonathan Quick is back to his old self, as is star defenseman Drew Doughty, former captain Dustin Brown is scoring again and Anze Kopitar has posted his best year so far, which will likely earn him a couple of MVP votes. However, the Golden Knights are the better team, way more balanced, better coached, and their net is just as safe with Marc-André Fleury standing between the posts. I could see the Kings playing extremely physically and slowing down the G-Knights, winning a couple of games along the way. This series could cost the Knights a Conference Final, as I see them coming out too battered and bruised to continue much further.

Vegas in 6.

Anaheim Ducks (2) vs San Jose Sharks (3):
If you've read any of these posts from me in the past, you know I trust the Sharks do to one thing right: choke in the postseason. I don't care that they added ball of anger Evander Kane at the trade deadline, he's just one more loser to add to a full stable, effectively taking up Patrick Marleau's spot as the second-line goal scorer who can't carry his team when it needs it. The Ducks have an aggressive and relatively talented defense that will crush San Jose's forwards at every opportunity, and the best goaltending tandem in the postseason in John Gibson and Ryan Miller (although the latter's far removed from his 2009-10 peak form). They also have three lines of 230-pound guys who can score as well as they can decapitate, unless Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler lose their cool, which usually only happens when they lose... which should be starting Game 2 of the second round.

Ducks in 7.

Eastern Conference:

Tampa Bay Lightning (1) vs New Jersey Devils (WC2):
Let's make something clear: the Bolts are the second-best team in the league, and the Devils don't belong in the Final 16 - especially not if they're going to start their backup Keith Kincaid over underachieving starter Corey Schneider. Taylor Hall will win the Hart Trophy and might get his team one W, but when the next scorer was 41 points behind him on his team and he's facing a defense comprised of Norris candidate Victor Hedman, former New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh and future Norris hoarder Mikhail Sergachev and a bunch of guys who are just as good as he is on offense (Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde), it's going to spell B-E-A-T-D-O-W-N.

Bolts in 5.

Boston Bruins (2) vs Toronto Maple Leafs (3):
If there was a way to have neither team advance, I would definitely root for that. Yes, the Leafs have talent up front in Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and the rest of the kids, and Frederik Andersen is a fine netminder, but the Bs - against all odds - have still "got it". That means Patrice Bergeron remains among the best and most effective centermen in the world and Brad Marchand is still a pest who is as likely of scoring a hat trick as he is to get suspended for three games for a boneheaded move. But Boston now also has David Pastrnak, an offensive talent they have lacked since the 1988-90 heyday of Cam Neely. The Bruins' defense is still very suspect, but the Pittsburgh Penguins have just won two straight Cups with not just a "no-name" defense, but the worst d-corps of the postseason. And, like the Pens of the past couple of years, the Bs are solid in net with Tuukka Rask.

Bruins in 7.

Washington Capitals (1) vs Columbus Blue Jackets (WC1):
This is an unfair match-up, as neither of these teams deserve to be out in the first round; the Jackets are NOT a Wild Card team by any stretch of the imagination. They have a top-tier coach in John Tortorella, the stingiest goalie in the league in Sergei Bobrovsky (in the regular season, at least), the best young defense in the game headlined by Zach Werenski, Seth Jones and Ryan Murray, and a balanced attack that features a superstar with a chip on his shoulder, Artemi Panarin, as well as 35-goal sniper Cam Atkinson. And yet, the Caps managed to win their division with a team that, on paper, was depleted compared to that of years past; Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom are elite forwards, but the defense has lost too many important players to be considered solid, and the team enters the playoffs with their backup, Philipp Grubauer, playing better than their starter, Braden Holtby. The goalie controvery is likely what will once again sink the Caps. I would really like for Ovechkin to get that elusive Cup to shut his critics up, but it won't be this year.

Jackets in 6.

Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs Philadelphia Flyers (3):
Normally, I would call this "Flyers in 7". I would talk about Pittsburgh's shitty defense, their fragile players (chief among them Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby), I would say that the Flyers have a knack for getting under Crosby's skin, and I'd poke fun at them and predict they'll fail, especially against world-class players like Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. Except that with two back-to-back Cups - both of which came from a wide range of memorable runs from the likes of Fleury, Matt Murray, Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin and the young guns, despite Crosby's two unwarranted Conn Smythe wins - this team has shown it can and will find ways to win. And against this particular Flyers team, the Pens are much better coached (Mike Sullivan trumps Dave Hakstoll any day of the week), and a team cannot hope to contain Pittsburgh with Brian Elliott in net - not four times in a possible seven-game span, anyway. And those are words I would say even if Malkin hadn't been having an MVP-level season, which he is.

Pens in 6.

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