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Stanley Cup Preview: Who Will Prevail in Round 1

Adam Proteau looks at all eight first-round playoff matchups and leans into who he thinks will win as the Stanley Cup playoffs get underway on Monday.
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Other than the first day of the NHL’s regular season – when every team has, at least, on paper, hope to be a winner – the first day of the Stanley Cup playoffs is the best day of the hockey calendar. Sixteen teams have earned a spot in the sport’s top tournament, and now it’s about having good health, and peaking as a unit now that the games truly matter.

Rather than overwhelm you with a barrage of numbers and storylines, we’ll try and keep the predictions for the first round brief and to the point. Of course, it should go without saying that upsets in all rounds are possible. What follows is an informed guess on what one writer sees as the likely results of the first eight playoff series.

Eastern Conference, Atlantic Division

Florida (1) vs. Washington (8)

The Winner: Florida, in five games

The Why: Because the Panthers are deeper and more talented at all positions. Because the Capitals were a 20-6-7 team as of New Year’s Eve, then went 24-20-5 the rest of the season. Because Florida added the best player (forward Claude Giroux) at the trade deadline, and because Washington’s power play ranked in the bottom-third of the league this year. The Caps may have more experience winning playoff series than the Panthers, it would be considered a monstrous upset if Florida didn’t, relatively easily, win this showdown.

Toronto (2) vs. Tampa Bay (3)

The Winner: Toronto, in six games

The Why: The Maple Leafs have well-chronicled playoff demons to exorcise, and this year may very well be the year they actually do it. The defending, back-to-back Cup champions in Tampa Bay present an immense obstacle for Toronto, with Lightning superstars Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy all playing excellently, and amazing depth that rivals, if not beats the Leafs’ in every category. For that reason, many see the Bolts as the real favorite of this series, but that may give Toronto the extra motivation it needs to come out on top. Auston Matthews is the best player on either team in this matchup, and if he is allowed by the officials to show his skill, Tampa may be in bigger trouble than Lightning fans realize.

Eastern Conference, Metropolitan Division

Carolina (1) vs. Boston (7)

The Winner: Carolina, in seven games

The Why: They won’t have No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen to begin their series against Boston, but the Hurricanes won seven of 10 games this year because they have one of the fastest, most-talented lineups from top to bottom of their skater group. The Bruins aren’t going to lie down and make it easy for anybody, but Carolina head coach Rod Brind’Amour almost always has his players amped and prepared for a challenge, and neither of Boston’s two goalies have even a single game of playoff experience. The Canes will be one of the more difficult “outs” in this post-season, and the Bruins probably don’t have enough firepower to keep up with them.

New York Rangers (2) vs. Pittsburgh (3)

The Winner: Pittsburgh, in seven games

The Why: You’d think the Rangers would be a heavy favorite in this battle, and you’d be right, given they’ve got the Vezina Trophy frontrunner in Igor Shesterkin, the best defenseman in defending Norris Trophy champion Adam Fox, and the best forward in Artemi Panarin. But – and this is Total Hunch City – it’s possible that the Penguins squeeze out one more epic performance from superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and shock the Blueshirts in a long and brutal series. It’s true Pittsburgh won just one of four games against the Rangers this year, but the playoffs regularly produces results that are different than the regular season. The Pens may rally around No. 2 goalie Casey DeSmith, who’ll start in place of injured starter Tristan Jarry for at least the first two games, and if they do, Malkin and Crosby may carry them to a shocking series victory.

Western Conference, Central Division

Colorado (1) vs. Nashville (8)

The Winner: Colorado, in four games

The Why: The unfortunate Predators might have had a shot at winning one or two games against the powerful Avalanche if star goalie Jusse Saros was fully healthy, but that’s not the case as the series begins, and for that reason, a sweep is a real possibility here. Backup netminder David Rittich (3.57 goals-against average, .886 save percentage in 17 appearances this season) is going to be mauled by Colorado’s embarrassment of offensive riches. This is likely to get ugly, real quick. Nashville will have two home post-season games to celebrate, but not much else..

Minnesota (2) vs. St. Louis (3)

The Winner: St. Louis, in seven games

The Why: The Blues and Wild finished with very similar numbers in many categories: St. Louis generated 311 goals-for this year; Minnesota had 310 goals. The Blues had 43 regulation-time wins, while the Wild had 37. But it was Minnesota that finished with a slightly better record, and secured home ice advantage for this series. Still, for as good as the Wild can be, don’t sleep on the Blues. Despite losing three of its final six regular-season games, St. Louis prior to that had won nine games in a row – including two overtime wins over Minnesota. In Ville Husso and Jordan Binnington, the Blues have got two goalies who can be difference-makers, and they also remain laden with Cup-winning experience in a way the Wild do not. It’s going to be close, but the Blues may have just that little bit extra to keep them alive, and send home Minnesota in Round One.

Western Conference, Pacific Division

Calgary (1) vs. Dallas (7)

The Winner: Calgary, in five games

The Why: The Stars were this writer’s pre-season pick to go far in the playoffs, but the way Dallas stumbled through the end of the regular season disabused him of that notion. Also, let’s give the Flames deserved credit for being one of the most dominant squads in the game this season: Calgary was in the top six on offense, the top three on defense, the top 10 on the power play, and the top six on the penalty kill. Give Flames head coach Darryl Sutter his due – he’s done well at structuring his game plan to suit Calgary’s strengths, and he’s pushed his younger talents to raise their games. Dallas has the better defense corps of the two teams, but the Flames have better netminding and more dynamic offense-minded forwards. Sorry, Stars fans, but this should be relatively easy for Calgary.

Edmonton (2) vs. Los Angeles (3)

The Winner: Los Angeles, in six games

The Why: The Oilers rebounded nicely after firing head coach Dave Tippett in February, ending their season on a 19-4-2 run and locking up home ice advantage in the first round. That said, there remains cause for concern, particularly because they’re taking on a Kings team that is on the rise and that has far less pressure on it to win a round. Los Angeles still has players who have the most experience in this series winning playoff games (most notably, center Anze Kopitar and goalie Jonathan Quick), and Edmonton has the least-accomplished competitors on the goaltending front. The Oilers’ power play is lethal at 26.0 percent, but their penalty kill is merely pedestrian at 79.4 percent. Meanwhile, the Kings have quality forwards in Phillip Danault and Viktor Arvidsson who can make life very difficult on Edmonton’s defenders. L.A. is in a good spot to pull off an upset. It may not even take them seven games to do it.

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