With March Madness wrapping up this week, it’s time for a whole new group of seasonal fans to come off of the hardwood and onto the frozen pond as the National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs begin a new iteration this week. Sixteen teams will begin their quest for the greatest prize in hockey, and with new faces and old faces ready to collide, the stage is set for a fun month of springtime hockey.
Coming into the playoffs with the highest expectations has to be the Tampa Bay Lightning, who was head and shoulders above the competition in the regular season with 65 wins, the most since the 1995-1996 Detroit Red Wings, and 128 points. The catalyst for this dominance came in the form of Art Ross Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov, tying his team’s total with 128 points, which is also the most since 1995-1996 when the Pittsburgh Penguins’ duo of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr garnered 161 and 149 points respectively.
Having such a season puts a lot of pressure on the Bolts. As the postseason brings out the best in every team, it’ll be interesting to see if the ceiling of the rest of the Eastern Conference can surpass that of Tampa Bay. They’ll open up against the Columbus Blue Jackets, who they went 3-0 against this year and outscored 17-3 in those games. It’s hard to imagine that the fortunes of the Blue Jackets will be reversed against the relentless Lightning in the postseason.
Also coming out of the East with high expectations are the Washington Capitals, last year’s Stanley Cup champions, who knocked off the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals on the road to their first hoisting of Lord Stanley’s fabled cup. The Caps had one of the strongest finishes they could have asked for, going 14-5-1 in their last 20 contests to clinch the Metropolitan Division. Their first-round opponent, the Carolina Hurricanes, also had a strong finish. After going 15-17-5 to start the season, they accumulated 62 points during the 2019 portion of their schedule, third most in the league, to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
While the Capitals have all of the pieces in place to make a run for a repeat this season, including Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin, Carolina’s done well in its three playoff appearances over the past 16 seasons, losing in the Cup final in 2002, winning the Cup in 2006 and losing in the Conference Finals in 2009. While I don’t expect Carolina’s magical run to continue for long, don’t count out the ‘Canes too early.
The other matchups from the East will be the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the New York Islanders and the Boston Bruins vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Penguins come in as one of the top offensive teams in the league going up against the Islanders, who allowed the fewest goals on the season. Toronto has been hampered by the Bruins in two of its last three playoff appearances and will be looking to get over the hump against their Atlantic Division rivals.
The top dogs in the Western Conference are the Pacific Division champion Calgary Flames, who come in with 107 points this year and have guaranteed themselves home-ice advantage for the first three rounds. The Flames haven’t been able to make it out of the first round since 2015, but the Colorado Avalanche hasn’t since 2008. The Avs didn’t fare well against the Flames during the regular season, going 0-2-1 and giving up almost five goals a game to the best from the West. Expect something similar in round one.
The San Jose Sharks come in behind the Flames as the two seed and drew the Vegas Golden Knights in their opening round matchup. The two teams will be looking to repeat and avenge last season’s second round, when the surging Knights knocked off the Sharks in six games in their first season.
The Sharks come in with plenty of goalie woes, as their tandem of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell has the 52nd and 58th worst even-strength save percentages of the 58 goalies measured. San Jose has had to counteract that with an explosive offense that sits tied for second in goals for but ranks last in goals against among playoff teams. Vegas may not have the same magic that it had last year, but its additions of Mark Stone before the trade deadline and Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny over the offseason give the team a star-studded second line that still hasn’t played up to its potential. Whichever unit gets hot first, either the Sharks’ goaltending or the Knights’ second line, may prove to be the deciding factor in this series.
From the top of the Central Division come the Nashville Predators who will meet the Dallas Stars to start their playoff journey. Unlike in previous years, while still solid, the Predators have limped into the playoffs and have struggled offensively during the year. Unfortunately for them those holes may be magnified against the defense-heavy Stars, who with Vezina Trophy candidate Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin combining for the Western Conference’s lowest goals against average, make one of the most intimidating brick walls between the pipes in the playoffs.
The final showdown will see the St. Louis Blues versus their Central Division rivals, the Winnipeg Jets. The two teams finished in a tie with 99 points apiece. Despite that similarity the two made their way to the playoffs in completely different manners. Whereas Winnipeg started off hot and limped its way into extra hockey with a 15-18-4 record in 2019, St. Louis looked like it was bound to be a dumpster fire before going 25-12-2 in its last 39 games to come within one game of capturing the division. This surge came on the back of rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, who came into the league on Jan. 7 and went on to record a 23-5-1 record. The Jets have struggled with injuries as well as the recent absences on the stat sheet of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. While the Jets remain a massive threat, the Blues may have caught fire at just the right time to make a run.
The next month is bound to be an entertaining one for even the most casual hockey fan, and with 16 victories separating one of these teams from hoisting the Stanley Cup, the road to that ultimate prize for 15 of these teams will end in disappointment.