Stanley Cup playoff preview: Can the Predators make it back to the Final?
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Predators (53-18-11) vs. Avalanche (43-30-9)
Season series: Predators 4-0-0 (one win in OT)
The skinny: The Predators won’t sneak up on anybody this year. But can the Avalanche be this year’s Preds, fighting their way into the playoffs and upsetting the top seed in the West? Probably not. The Avs boast a Hart Trophy candidate in Nathan MacKinnon, who led their remarkable turnaround from a horrid 48-point season, but Nashville is the deepest and best team in the league. Veteran goalie Pekka Rinne should win the Vezina Trophy, PK Subban could win the Norris, and Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson are game-breaking forwards.
X-factor: The Preds acquired Ryan Hartman from the Hawks because they feel he’s a “playoff type of player.” Hartman had a dreadful playoff debut last spring, but his mix of grit and skill should make him an effective playoff performer.
Prediction: Predators in 5.
Jets (52-20-10) vs. Wild (45-26-11)
Season series: Jets 3-1-0
The skinny: The Jets, in their latest incarnation, have never won a playoff game. In fact, this is only the second time they’ve made the playoffs since the Atlanta Thrashers moved north for the 2011-12 season, the other time being a sweep at the hands of the Ducks in 2015. So the Wild, led by a resurgent Eric Staal (42 goals), have a huge experience advantage. But the Jets are legitimate Cup contenders, with the likes of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Paul Stastny in their top six. If Connor Hellebuyck’s regular-season brilliance carries into the playoffs, the Jets should have little trouble.
X-factor: Minnesota’s chances suffered a possibly fatal blow when defenseman Ryan Suter broke his ankle last week. As if the Jets offense weren’t hard enough to contain.
Prediction: Jets in 5
Golden Knights (51-24-7) vs. Kings (45-29-8)
Season series: Both 2-1-1
The skinny: The Knights are one of the most unlikely success stories in sports history, an expansion team that led its division wire-to-wire and posted 109 points. They’re fast and they’re deep, led by breakout center William Karlsson (43 goals) and veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (.927 save percentage). The Kings counter the speedy Knights with their familiar physical, defensive style that helped them win two Cups earlier in the decade; they’re the stingiest team in the league. If the Kings can dictate the tempo, they can neutralize the Knights’ speed advantage.
X-factor: Anze Kopitar always has been one of the league’s most underrated players, a Jonathan Toews-like two-way center who became an offensive juggernaut this season (his 92 points are 40 more than he had last season).
Prediction: Kings in 7
Ducks (44-25-13) vs. Sharks (45-27-10)
Season series: Sharks 3-0-1 (two wins in OT)
The skinny: Maybe the most evenly matched series of the first round, with two of the Sharks’ regular-season wins coming in overtime or a shootout. The red-hot Ducks went 10-1-1 over the last 12 games to pass the Sharks in the standings and take home-ice advantage. With Joe Thornton still working his way back from knee surgery in January, the Sharks acquired Evander Kane at the trade deadline. He had nine goals and five assists in 17 games with San Jose, bolstering the top line.
X-factor: Ducks goaltender John Gibson is another Vezina candidate, but he missed the last three games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. Veteran Ryan Miller is his backup.
Prediction: Ducks in 7
Lightning (54-23-5) vs. Devils (44-29-9)
Season series: Devils 3-0-0 (one win in OT)
The skinny: Just about everybody figured the Lightning — with a healthy Steven Stamkos, a Hart candidate in Nikita Kucherov and a Norris candidate in Victor Hedman — would rebound from last season’s disappointment. Few saw the Devils coming, however. Taylor Hall might be the Hart favorite; his 93 points are 41 more than anyone else on the team. Both teams have speed to burn, so this should be an entertaining matchup.
X-factor: Cory Schneider’s groin injury in January paved the way for longtime backup Keith Kinkaid to become an unlikely hero and the No. 1 goalie. He went 11-1-1 in his last 13 starts. But Kinkaid has never played in the playoffs in his four NHL seasons, and played just four playoff games in four years in the minors going 1-3.
Prediction: Lightning in 6
Bruins (50-20-12) vs. Maple Leafs (49-26-7)
Season series: Leafs 3-1-0 (one win in OT)
The skinny: A rematch of the unforgettable 2013 first-round series which saw the Bruins erase a 4-1 deficit in the last 5:29 of the third period of Game 7 (they went on to lose to the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final). After three down years, the Bruins have retooled, with youngsters such as winger David Pastrnak and defenseman Charlie McAvoy rejuvenating an aging core of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Zdeno Chara. The Leafs are young, fast and fun, led by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. They have with the league’s second-best power play.
X-factor: The Leafs acquired veteran Patrick Marleau, who has 68 goals in 177 career playoff games, for this time of year. He could be a calming influence for the young Leafs.
Prediction: Bruins in 6
Capitals (49-26-7) vs. Blue Jackets (45-30-7)
Season series: Capitals 3-1-0
The skinny: Alex Ovechkin’s quest to get past the second round for the first time begins with a very difficult matchup. Both teams are red hot, with the Capitals going 12-3-0 and the Jackets going 13-2-2 down the stretch. Ovechkin isn’t the only Russian scoring machine on the ice, either. Former Hawks winger Artemi Panarin had 14 goals and 26 assists in his last 28 games to put up a career-high 82 points.
X-factor: Braden Holtby has been in the top four in Vezina voting for three straight years (he won in 2016), but fourth-year backup Philipp Grubauer seized the job with his stellar play will get the Game 1 start for the Caps, just his second-ever playoff start.
Prediction: Caps in 7
Penguins (47-29-6) vs. Flyers (42-26-14)
Season series: Penguins 4-0-0 (two wins in OT)
The skinny: Last season, the Penguins became the first team to repeat as champions since the Red Wings in 1997-1998. Now they hope to become the first team to win three straight Cups since the Islanders won four from 1980-83. So they have experience, but do they have enough gas left in the tank for another grueling two-month playoff run? With Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel spread across three lines, no team can match the Penguins’ scoring depth.
X-factor: Sean Couturier emerged as a Selke Trophy candidate as an elite two-way center (76 points), bumping Claude Giroux to the wing and propelling Giroux to a 102-point season. But Couturier can only shut down one of Pittsburgh’s scoring lines at a time.
Prediction: Penguins in 5