Stanley Cup Playoffs welcome new challengers, familiar foes

MICHAEL MILLER [CC BY-SA 4.0] / COMMONS
Hockey’s annual postseason tournament promises a wild ride through the spring

The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs got underway last Wednesday night, as a total of 16 teams will battle it out over the next two months to see who will hoist Lord Stanley in early June.

This year’s playing field is especially packed with bright young stars in their early 20s as well as the usual playoff stars fans have come to know over the years.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are vying for a third straight title, but face stiff competition to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in over 30 years.

No matter what happens, this year’s playoffs promise to be as intense and drama-filled as they always are every spring.

 

Eastern Conference

 

Columbus Blue Jackets (4) vs. Washington Capitals (1)

 

The Capitals are fresh off their third straight Metropolitan Division crown, but come into this year’s playoffs with significantly less pressure and expectations on them to win it all than in past years. Washington, a team that won the President’s Trophy in 2015-2016 and 2016-2017, has now made the playoffs four straight years and ten of its last 11 seasons. They were division champions in eight of those years. Despite all of these regular season accomplishments, the team has absolutely nothing to show for it in the postseason, failing to advance to the conference finals a single time in that span.

As usual, the Capitals will possess the most skilled player on the ice in the series in winger Alex Ovechkin, who once again captured the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy this season by leading the NHL with 49 goals scored. Ovechkin has won the trophy seven times in his career, including five in the last six years. He will lead a potent scoring attack along with star center Nicklas Backstrom, who tallied 71 points this year. It’s fair to say that the Capitals are starting to inch closer to the end of this championship-caliber window, as both players are now in their early 30s and nearing the end of their respective contracts.

Defensively, Washington struggled early on in the season, but showed signs of improvement after some midseason trade acquisitions. John Carlson, who was the leader in points and assists amongst all NHL defensemen this season, will have a big impact on both ends of the ice. The Capitals have endured some instability in the net, as neither Braden Holtby nor Philipp Grubauer have solidified themself as the starting goalie heading into the playoffs. Both have enjoyed varying levels of success this season, but have failed to show much consistency.

The Blue Jackets are looking for their first playoff series win in franchise history, after advancing to the postseason for the second year in a row as a wild card team. Columbus is led by goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who had another solid in the net with a 2.42 goals against average and five shutouts. He is capable of getting hot in a seven-game series, putting the team on his back, and leading it to victory.

The Blue Jackets have the edge on Washington defensively and also come into the series as the hottest scoring team in the league, with more goals than anyone else since the trade deadline in late February. Left winger Artemi Panarin led the team in both goals and assists, finishing with a total of 82 points on the season.

Nonetheless, Columbus still had the worst power play percentage, 17.2 percent, amongst all postseason teams. They also struggled mightily with a 76.2 percent penalty kill, which was fifth-worst in the NHL.

 

Philadelphia Flyers (3) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2)

The Penguins are looking to become the first team to win three consecutive Stanley Cups in 35 years, after advancing to the playoffs for the 12th straight season. Pittsburgh enters the series as the third-best scoring team in the NHL, thanks to Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin, who all finished in the top 10 in points.

Goalie Matt Murray has had a very up-and-down campaign, but has the ability to completely take over a series like he’s done many times before. Murray was sensational in last year’s playoffs with a 1.95 goals against average. If he gets hot again, there’s no reason why this team can’t make another long run and capture their sixth Stanley Cup.

The Flyers finished third in the Metropolitan Division and are back in the playoffs following a one-year absence. Center Claude Giroux, a legitimate MVP candidate who was second in the league with 102 points, has been playing at another level lately with 19 goals in his previous 29 games. He is joined by fellow offensive weapons Jake Voracek and Sean Couturier.

20-year-old Ivan Provorov, the top goal scoring defenseman in the league, headlines a mediocre Philadelphia defense. There are some question marks surrounding goalie Brian Elliott, who has only played two games since a two-month absence late in the season due to an injury.

 

New Jersey Devils (4) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (1)

 

The Lightning won the Atlantic Division for the first time since 2003-2004 and finished the season as the NHL’s top scoring team. They are led by the one-two punch of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, who combined for 66 goals scored.

Victor Hedman is the team’s best defenseman and a strong candidate to win the Norris Trophy. He also contributed 63 points on the other end.

Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had a solid season overall, despite battling some fatigue in the final weeks. He should be rested up and ready to go for the playoffs, where he owns a .920 career save percentage in 12 games.

The Devils have enjoyed an incredible turnaround this season after finishing last year as the worst team in the Eastern Conference. They are returning to postseason play for the first time since 2012, when they fell to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals.

New Jersey is a very young team with minimal playoff experience. The team’s best overall player is left winger Taylor Hall, a 26-year-old who finished with 93 points on the season and scored 39 goals. To put things into perspective, Hall has 41 more points than the next best player on the roster.

The Devils are near the top of the league in both the power play and penalty kill.

Goaltender Keith Kinkaid took over the starting job in the middle of the season and has been playing at a very high level as of late, with a 7-0-1 mark and .931 save percentage in his last eight games.

 

Toronto Maple Leafs (3) vs. Boston Bruins (2)

 

It was a milestone season for the Maple Leafs, whose 49 wins and 105 points were both new franchise records. They are making just their third appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs in the last 13 years, which included a first-round exit last year at the hands of the Capitals.

Toronto’s attack, the third best in the league, is centered around Auston Matthews, a 20-year old phenom who scored 34 goals in just 62 games. The team has an extensive amount of depth, including eight forwards that eclipsed 40 points on the season.

Goalie Frederik Andersen played a huge role in the Maple Leafs giving up the eleventh fewest goals, despite playing behind a defense that allowed an alarmingly large number of shots and chances.

The Bruins fell just one point short of capturing the Atlantic Division title this season, due to a critical loss in the final game on the schedule. Boston ripped off some outstanding stretches of play throughout the season, on the strength of a well-balanced roster of talented youngsters and impactful veterans. Overall, the team has a wealth of experience playing in high-pressure games, as evidenced by two appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals since 2010.

Boston boasts a lethal front line made up of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, all of whom scored over 30 goals.

The Bruins conceded the fourth least goals in the NHL this year, with a unit led by 6’9 defenseman and 41-year old veteran Zdeno Chara.

Goaltender Tuukka Rask endured a frustrating start to the season, but has since rebounded in a huge way. The Bruins are 31-6-3 in his last 40 starts, following the early-season slump.

 

Western Conference

 

Colorado Avalanche (4) vs. Nashville Predators (1)

 

After advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals last season and falling short as a wild card team, the Predators came out this year and proved that the magical run was no fluke by winning the Presidents’ Trophy. The NHL’s top team had a massive +56 goal differential.

The Predators finished in the top 10 in scoring in the regular season, with players such as Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson.

They also boast the league’s second best defense and some of the top defenseman, such as P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis.

Behind that, goalie Pekka Rinne has emerged as one of the top players in the league at his position, standing near the top of every major statistical category this season.

The Avalanche managed to sneak into the playoffs by winning their final game of the regular season. Similar to the Devils, Colorado has shocked the hockey world with this run, just one year removed from holding the worst record in the NHL (by a significant margin).

Colorado has a top-heavy attack, with Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen leading the top line and combining for over 180 points.

The team suffered a huge loss when starting goalkeeper Semyon Varlamov sustained a season-ending injury on March 31, and will have to turn to backup Jonathan Bernier as a result.

Colorado will also have to play without its top defenseman Erik Johnson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury.

 

Minnesota Wild (3) vs. Winnipeg Jets (2)

 

Winnipeg enters this series still searching for its first playoff game victory in franchise history, which extends back to 1999. The Jets finished second in the Central Division, earning them the home-ice advantage for at least the first round.

They’ve enjoyed their best season ever and were the runner up in both goals scored and total points. In addition, they have a top-10 power play and penalty kill.

Some notable players on their attack include Blake Wheeler, the league leader in assists, and 19-year-old sensation Patrik Laine, who scored 44 goals. Laine has more goals than any other player in the sport over the last two seasons.

The Jets were one of the most improved teams defensively and definitely have the goaltending advantage in the series, as no other goalie in the league had more wins than Connor Hellebuyck this season. With that being said, this is his first taste of playoff hockey, so inexperience could play a factor.

The Minnesota Wild are preparing for their sixth consecutive playoff run, having never advanced out of the second round during that stretch. They will hope to finally get over the hump this year and make a deep run late into the spring.

Eric Staal and Jason Zucker are the two names to know on Minnesota’s attack. Both had excellent seasons for the league’s eleventh-best scoring team.

Minnesota endured a huge loss when their top defenseman Ryan Suter sustained a season-ending ankle injury at the end of March. Suter had not missed a regular season game in three years before that.

The rest of the team will be forced to pick up the slack in front of 11-year veteran goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

 

Los Angeles Kings (4) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (1)

The Golden Knights have been the talk of the NHL for the entire season, ultimately setting the record for the most wins in a season (51) by an expansion team in its first year.

This series will be a battle of veteran goalkeepers, pitting Marc-Andre Fleury against Jonathan Quick. Both netminders have a tremendous amount of playoff experience and five Stanley Cups between them. Each has single-handedly carried their teams through a series on multiple occasions in the past.

The Kings were the top defensive team in the regular season, allowing the fewest number of goals and with the league’s best penalty kill.

Los Angeles clearly has the upper hand when it comes to experience, possessing a core of players that have won two Stanley Cups in the last seven years. Players like Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli have been mainstays on the roster for many years and always seem to take their game to the next level in the spring.

Vegas, on the other hand, depends on its speed and depth as a top-five scoring team. Center William Karlsson burst onto the scene with a 43-goal campaign for the Knights. The team has a half dozen players that reached the 20-goal plateau this season.

 

San Jose Sharks (3) vs. Anaheim Ducks (2)

 

This battle of Northern California versus Southern California may very well be the most even match-up among the field in the opening round. San Jose ended the regular season on a troublesome 1-4-1 run, which cost them home ice for this series and opened the door for the Ducks to slide up to second place in the Pacific Division.

This was the first time in six seasons that Anaheim failed to win the division. They have lost in the conference finals twice in the last three years and are looking to get over the hump and win it all, like they did for the first time in 2007.

The Sharks worked through inconsistency in their attack early in the season, but really stepped it up a notch in the second half of the year. Since the calendar turned to 2018, the Sharks have scored the third most goals in the league. It’s no coincidence that forward Evander Kane was acquired around this time in a late-February trade from Buffalo. He has provided an unbelievable jolt to this team with 14 points in 17 games. This will be Kane’s first playoff appearance in 10-year career.

San Jose has gotten great contributions from its usual suspects, such as team captain Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Brent Burns.

Only two other teams in the league generated more points from their defensemen than San Jose. The Sharks enjoy the luxury of having a player like Burns, one of the top defenseman in the league and the team leader in points with 67. He is an incredibly dynamic player all over the ice.

 

Similarly, Anaheim benefitted from a midseason trade, picking up center Adam Henrique who scored 20 goals in 57 games. In addition, longtime veteran forward Ryan Getzlaf notched 50 assists in a mere 56 games to pace the attack.

Goalie John Gibson is a dependable presence between the pipes, but his health can be a concern at times with nagging injuries. He missed the last three games in the regular season.

 

 

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org