The first round of the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs is now history, and it was a thrilling opening round indeed, with five Games 7 and an overall highly-competitive product. Now, we’re on to Round Two, and there should be no shortage of excitement.
In the first round, this writer’s predictions went six-for-eight. Not shabby. Now, let’s try and do at least as well in the second round:
Florida vs. Tampa Bay
The Winner: Florida, in six games
The Why: The battle of the sunshine state promises to be a fast-tempo, highly-skilled affair, with the Panthers aiming to make it to the Eastern Final for the first time since 1995-96, and only the second time in franchise history, and the Lightning coming off a tough battle against Toronto and still seeking to win their third consecutive Cup. Star Bolts goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy did not look like himself in Round One until the overtime portion of Game 6 against the Leafs, but in Game 7, he definitely looked more confident and was one of the chief reasons Tampa sent Toronto home.
The Panthers, on the other hand, got a scare from Washington in the first round, before their abundance of talent took over and eliminated the Capitals. They’re as deep, if not deeper than the Lightning, and they can play any way their opponent chooses to. Florida needs a better showing from goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to dispose of Tampa Bay, but Bobrovsky will have help from the Panthers’ defense corps. It won’t be easy, but Florida does have the horses to ride past the Bolts and eliminate the defending champs.
Carolina vs. New York Rangers
The Winner: Carolina, in seven games
The Why: Both the Hurricanes and Bruins needed a seventh game to win their first-round series, and this showdown has the potential to be another drawn-out battle. Even if the Hurricanes get back starting goaltender Frederik Andersen from the injured reserve, you’d have to give the goaltending edge to the Rangers and Hart Trophy finalist Igor Shesterkin.
Carolina’s group of defensemen has a slight edge over the Blueshirts’ D-men, and it’s pretty much even between their groups of forwards. This is another series that should go the full seven games.
In the end, I like the Hurricanes because of their speed, defensive depth and coaching. Carolina bench boss Rod Brind’Amour almost always has his players ready to compete at the start of games, and I think that gives the Canes a slight difference in the big picture.
Colorado Avalanche vs. St. Louis Blues
The Winner: Colorado, in six games
The Why: The Avalanche steamrolled the Nashville Predators in a Round One sweep, and although the Blues, who upset the slightly-more-favored Minnesota Wild in the first round, are going to make it more difficult for Colorado in Round Two, the Avs simply have too much talent for St. Louis to overcome.
This is not to suggest the Blues can’t make it a seven-game series, get a couple lucky bounces in Game 7, and shock the Avalanche to complete the upset. The only way that happens is if St. Louis gets standout performances in net from Jordan Binnington, clutch goals from experienced vets including winger David Perron, and the Blues’ defense stymies the Avs’ waves of offensive dynamos long enough to take the lead and hold it.
I think St. Louis can do all of those things, but not all at once. That may leave the Avs all the opening they need to exploit it and move on to the Western Conference Final. The depth of talent and determination from Colorado is, on paper, more than any other second-round team. It will be all St. Louis can do to keep pace with them.
Calgary Flames vs. Edmonton Oilers
The Winner: Calgary, in five games
The Why: At long last, the Battle of Alberta has become a reality. Both teams were nearly eliminated in the first time, both needed seven games to stay alive in the post-season. This time around, it could be a battle of goaltenders, with Flames star Jacob Markstrom having a clear advantage over Oilers counterpart Mike Smith.
Otherwise, the two Albertan teams match up closely, and although superstars Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid are the two most talented individuals in the series, there won’t be any blowouts, and Calgary’s top line will present much trouble for Edmonton’s back end. If Calgary comes out of the gate strong, head coach Darryl Sutter will have the killer instinct installed in his team and they ought to be able to close out the Oilers relatively quickly. Going to be a lot of emotion in this series, though - maybe the most emotion of any series that will be played this spring and summer.