The best time of year is finally here. The Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It’s two months of pure passion, chaos, carnage, and joy…all rolled into one. It’s pure adrenaline. There is nothing else like it. It’s beautiful carnage.
Now, after a long season, the 16 teams are set with their goal still in tact; to be the last team standing and hoist the 35 pound Stanley Cup over their heads.
So who will it be? Who do you need to keep your eyes on and who should you pick to win? While we can’t answer all of your questions, we can give you some insights on what to expect and watch for in every match-up in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs New Jersey Devils
Lightning – The playoffs are back in the Bay. The winners of the Eastern Conference, Tampa Bay Lightning, make their return to the playoffs after missing out last year by a single point. They started the year a team possessed, leading the league in points almost the whole year until some recent struggles saw them barley capture the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference crown from the Bruins thanks to a Panthers victory over Boston on Sunday night. The Bolts are fast and skilled but not overly physical. However, they are no stranger to playoff hockey. They nearly went the distance, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, then made a return trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016 only to lose to the eventual champion in the Penguins. The current Lightning team will need to put some recent struggles behind them, but they did win a huge, playoff type game last week when they defeated the Bruins 4-0 in a must win game. If they can find what made them tick at the beginning of the season, the Lightning has what it takes to go all the way.
Who To Watch For – Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy. With all due respect to captain Steven Stamkos (who is currently dealing with some sort of injury) the Lightning rely mostly on these three. Kucherov is a elite goal scorer and has exceptional play-making skills as well, and he has come through in the clutch for the Lightning in playoffs past. Defenseman Victor Hedman is a smooth skater and puck mover who can score with a blast from the point; a valuable asset for the playoffs. While I don’t like using goalies here, Vasilevskiy needs to mentioned. The 23 year old Russian net minder is now through his first complete season as a starting NHL goalie and still determined pretty raw for his age and position. Vasy has made some playoff starts in the past, including one in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final as a 21 year old. He has cooled off as of late, and will need to regain his MVP like form if the Lightning want to make a serious push for the Cup.
Wild Card – Yanni Gourde. The undrafted, 26 year old rookie has made a name for himself this year and etched his name in the Lightning record book as he just set the franchise record for rookie scoring. Gourde scored 25 goals and 64 points during the regular season and is a high energy guy in the process. He can hit, score, and just ware you down, exactly the type of player you want for the playoffs.
Devils – The New Jersey Devils were not supposed to be here, but don’t tell that to them. Their first time back in the postseason since they made it to the Stanley Cup Final in the 2011-2012 season, the Devils are a unique team. After finishing last in the Eastern Conference last year and then winning the Draft lottery, they drafted forward Nico Hischier with the first overall selection in the 2018 NHL Draft. With low expectations, the Devils would keep Hischier around and injuries helped him gain more playing time, along with talented forward Taylor Hall whom the Devils acquired from the Oilers in June of 2016. The two, along with a cast of rookies and vets, started the season 9-2, their best start in franchise history, and remained consistent to finish in the last Wild Card spot in the East. They are an underdog no doubt, but they swept the season series (3-0) against the Lightning this year and their style of play could test Tampa right out of the gate.
Who To Watch For – Kyle Palmieri, Sami Vatanen, Taylor Hall. Already mentioned forward Nico Hischier will be one to keep an eye on, but the star of the show is Hall. Hall, and outcast in Edmonton, had a monster season (39 goals, 54 assists) and is getting his first taste ever of playoff hockey. His speed and shot is deadly and can quickly change the course of the game. Palmieri is one of the more underrated players in the game, and can do it all when healthy. Former Ducks defenseman Sami Vatanen can skate out of trouble with the puck and put offensive pressure on opponents from his defensive position.
Wild Card – Brian Boyle. Boyle, a nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy (award given to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey), was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia before the season. The former Lightning veteran played in 69 games this season, registering 23 points. While point production is not exactly Boyle’s game, he is a big, 6’6″ center who can lay the body and win crucial face-offs. Playing against one of his former teams and former teammates will only bring out the best in Boyle.
Boston Bruins vs Toronto Maple Leafs
Bruins – The Boston Bruins are arguably the hottest team in the NHL entering the playoffs. Only a loss on the last day of the regular season kept the Bruins from winning the Eastern Conference. When healthy and together, the first line of Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak is as deadly as they come. Boston will play a heavy, physical game to wear you down and then score after they run you out of gas in the offensive zone.
Who To Watch For – Their first line, Charlie McAvoy, Rick Nash. As mentioned before, the Bruins first line is their money maker. Bergeron is one of the best defensive forwards in the game, Marchand is a grade A agitator with a scoring touch, and Pastrnak is sniper. Rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy will be a star in this league and is your typical, heavy Bruins defenseman. Rick Nash, acquired from the Rangers at the trade deadline, has been known to disappear in the playoffs, but a new environment in Boston might be just what he needs.
Wild Card – Ryan Donato. This kid is the real deal. The 22 year old Harvard rookie appeared in 12 games with the Bruins at the end of the year and tallied 5 goals and 4 assists. He can provide some depth scoring with his hot shot.
Maple Leafs – The Maple Leafs have been in an interesting spot for most of the year; stuck in 3rd in the Atlantic with not much to play for down the stretch. The Lightning ran away with the division to start the year, then the Bruins followed suit. That left this pretty good Maple Leafs a little under the radar to finish the season and set up a very interesting playoff rematch from the 2012-2013 playoffs. In that series, the Leafs had a commanding Game 7 lead against the Bruins in the first round, only to squander it and lose in heart breaking fashion in overtime. This Leaf’s team is much different though, lead by a talented group of young forwards with the star being Auston Matthews. Toronto will look to play a quick transition game and cycle the puck in the zone to find the open passes. They are also red hot on the power play heading into the postseason, which could be key in a series that could see a bunch of penalties.
Who To Watch For – Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner. These kids are the cream of the crop and the straw that stirs the Leaf’s drink. Matthews, who scored 63 points in 62 games in the regular season, will be closely watched by Bruins center Patrice Bergeron. That should open up some ice for fast and skilled forwards like Marner and Nylander who will need to put up some points in order for the Leaf’s to advance.
Wild Card – Nazem Kadri. One of the few Maple Leaf’s players remaining from their 2013 playoff collapse, Kadri has the right tools to be versatile against the Bruins style of play. Rough and rugged, but with the ability to score, Kadri will be called upon and will need to come through, especially if Matthews and the young guns are shut down by the Bruins suffocating style.
Washington Capitals vs Columbus Blue Jackets
Capitals – It was yet another successful regular season for the Capitals, but now is the real test. Plagued by playoff failures, every year the question in Washington is “is this finally the year?” We will see. This years Capitals team seemed more human than years passed, although they won their division, they were less consistent. Starting goalie Braden Holtby struggled for a chunk of the season and the team relied on solid goal tending by number two net-minder Philipp Grubauer. But while some things were different, some stayed the same as captain Alex Ovechkin scored 49 goals, winning the Rocket Richard Trophy, awarded to the player with the most goals during the regular season, for the 7th time. Again, all this is regular season…and all the Capitals want to do now is silence their critics and have some playoff success.
Who To Watch For – Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Braden Holtby. Ovechkin can still do it all, hit you in the mouth, score some goals, and put some nasty moves on you. He just hasn’t had the playoff success. He will be determined in these playoffs after having a great regular season. Kuznetsov’s time to shine is now. The talented 25 year old hasn’t had the best of times in the playoffs either, and the Capitals are going to need him to take that next step when it matters most. Again, I dislike using goalies here but Holtby is a interesting story. One of the best goalies in the league having a down season, if the Blue Jackets put some pucks by him early, will the Capitals get hot under the collar and put in Grubauer? Holtby has been a staple with the Capitals for quite some time, but desperate times may cause for desperate measures.
Wild Card – Tom Wilson. If Tom Wilson is coming your way, move. This guy lives for the bone crushing hits. He can energize the crowd and take over a game with his antics, but sometimes he can go a little to far and get his team into penalty trouble.
Blue Jackets – Columbus is the type of team you would expect to be made for playoff hockey. The problem is they have had zero playoff success. This is the 3rd time in 5 years the Jackets have reached the postseason, the first two times they were bounced by the Penguins in the first round. While not something to be embarrassed about, the Blue Jackets have more to show. They are a heavy team with some skilled young forwards and a talented blue line. They went through a slump during the regular season where they couldn’t buy a goal, but if they can get some by Holtby or Grubauer in the first round, they can use their style of play to wear you down and drag the game out.
Who To Watch For – Artemi Panarin, Seth Jones, Nick Foligno. In what might have been the most shocking trade of the off-season, the Blue Jackets landed The Breadman, Artemi Panarin. The Blackhawks gave him up knowing the talented 26 year old was going to get paid based on his offensive talents, and he hasn’t disappoint since as he put up a franchise single season points record in his first year as a Blue Jacket (27 goals, 55 assists). His scoring touch will be needed in the playoffs. Seth Jones leads a talented defense that will join the rush when needed and can contribute in the points department as well as shutting down the oppositions best forwards. Captain Nick Foligno should be good to go by the puck drop of the first game (lower body injury) and that is good news for his team that relies on his physical play and leadership.
Wild Card – Pierre-Luc Dubois. The Blue Jackets were questioned when they selected Pierre-Luc Dubois with the 3rd overall pick in the 2016 draft, but the 19 year old rookie has come into his own this year. Playing a big mans game at 6’3″, 207lbs, Dubois has fit in nicely with Panarin on the top line of the Blue Jackets for most of the season. Look for the two to keep the cannon firing in Columbus during the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs Philadelphia Flyers
Penguins – Do these guys get tired of winning? The Penguins are back, and the back to back Stanley Cup Champions have their eyes set on a three-peat. Standing in their way is their heated rivals, Philadelphia Flyers. These two teams meet in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it…was…fun. The two teams combined for 45 goals during the first 4 games and Game 3 went completely off the rails. Then the head coaches got kicked out of Game 5 after some more shenanigans. It was old time hockey. It’s probably safe to say this series won’t be like that one six years ago, but you never know with these two teams. The Penguins are now champions, and a much more disciplined team. Their all around well balanced attack should scare not only the rest of the Eastern teams, bu the Western teams as well.
Who To Watch For – Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin. The big three. These players are superstars and they make the Penguins tick. If the Flyers have any chance of upsetting the defending champs, they have to contain these three.
Wild Card – Patric Hornqvist. It’s hard to call a player on the Penguins undervalued, but if you could you might say that of Hornqvist. He is a rugged player that is built for in-your-face playoff hockey, and he is also the player that scored the Cup clinching goal in game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final last year…against his former team. How’s that for clutch.
Flyers – Maybe it was in the cards for the Flyers that they would end up here. To start the off-season, the Flyers won big at the 2018 Draft lottery, despite barley missing the playoffs, and won the 2nd overall pick in the draft, with just a 2.4% chance, and drafted rookie Nolan Patrick with the pick. With the Flyers depth, they have been able to bring Nolan along slowly and he is sure to be a future star. Speaking of stars, their captain Claude Giroux netted his first regular season hat trick of his career on the final day of the regular season, which put him at 102 points to finish the season. The Flyers are a unique mix of old and young, skill and brawn, and they are looking forward to a first round tilt with their heated rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
Who To Watch For – Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, Travis Konecny. The Flyers lean on their captain Claude Giroux for a big part of their offense, and he has shown in the past he enjoys the playoffs against the Penguins, but they also have a good mix of talented forwards. Couturier has developed his defensive game very nicely and will look to play a shut down role against the Penguins top players. Simmonds goes to the dirty areas on the ice and makes the opposition work for every inch of it, and he won’t hesitate to make a huge hit or drop the gloves. Konecny is much of the same, with a blend of Giroux as well.
Wild Card – The young defense. The Flyers have a interesting mix of young defensemen, and how they all play against the Penguins will go a long way into who gets out of this series and moves on to the next. They have physical defensmen in Radko Gudas, Robert Hagg, and Brandon Manning. Then they have offensive defensemen in Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, and Travis Sanheim. They will each be put to the test and be called upon to deliver either a huge hit, or a big time goal.
Nashville Predators vs Colorado Avalanche
Predators – The defending Western Conference Champions are back in the playoffs and appear to be on a mission to take the Cup a year after they were 2 games away from it. These Predators are loaded from top to bottom on offense and on defense and with their improbable playoff run from last year still fresh on their minds, the sky is the limit for this team. Last year the role was reversed for this club as they came into the playoffs as the last Wild Card seed in the West, this year they won the Presidents Trophy (team with the most points at the end of the regular season) and will have home ice throughout the playoffs. Nashville is a party town, and when the Predators are in the postseason, Smashville is a hockey town.
Who To Watch For – Filip Forsberg, PK Subban, Nick Bonino. The Predators top scoring forward is Filip Forsberg and he can score in bunches. Quick and shifty, Forsberg can maneuver in tight spaces and fit the puck just about anywhere. PK Subban might be the flashiest defenseman in the league, and that plays right into the Predators offensive game plan. They might have the most active defense core in the league meaning they will jump in on the play and give the defense fits. When the Predators lost in the Final last year, much was made about their lack of center depth after they lost key players down the stretch. They addressed that by adding Nick Bonino in the offseason. He can win crucial face-offs and put in some timely points, and he is not stranger to the playoffs either after coming over from the Penguins.
Wild Card – Eeli Tolvanen. A true wild card, Tolvanen was added to the already loaded Predators roster before the end of the regular season from the KHL. Tolvanen was selected 30th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft from the Sioux City Musketeers in the USHL where he put up 92 points in 101 games. He was also selected to the KHL All-Star game as an 18 year old and put up 21 goals and 38 points while in the KHL. It is unknown how much he will actually play in the playoffs with how stacked the Predators are, but if he does, look out. The kid is the real deal and will be a player to watch out for not only in these playoffs but years to come.
Colorado – What a turnaround season for the Colorado Avalanche. A year after the club finished with a league worst 48 total points, the Avalanche are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2014. It didn’t come easy, the Avs needed to win their final game of the regular season against their rival Blues to get in, but did so in dramatic fashion with a 5-2 victory. It’s been with speed, youth, and timely goal-tending that has propelled the Avalanche this far, and they will need all of that if they expect to get past the Predators in the first round.
Who To Watch For – Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen. The top line for the Avalanche is what makes them tick, and it’s these three. MacKinnon, outside from Connor McDavid, might be the fastest skater in the league with the puck and can stop on a dime and rip one past the goalie. While he does that, you’ll probably find captain Gabe Landeskog in front of the net, wrecking havoc and creating space for their other line mate, Rantanen. The things the 21 year old Rantanen can do is endless with his big frame (6’4″, 211 lbs) and powerful shot and work ethic. If this line gets going, a first round upset of the Predators is not out of the question.
Wild Card – Nikita Zadorov. Number one defenseman Erik Johnson remains out with a fractured kneecap, and that has left a hole that big Nikita Zadorov has filled well. Known for his physical play (lead the NHL with 278 hits in the regular season) Zadorov can be counted on to level the opposition and start some trouble. Something that will be beneficial to his team during the grind of a best of 7 playoff series.
Winnipeg Jets vs Minnesota Wild
Jets – The Whiteout in Winnipeg is back. If you haven’t seen a Winnipeg Jets playoff game, don’t worry there haven’t been many of them yet, but you’re in for a treat. This is only the second time the current Jets have made the playoffs, and they are yet to win a single postseason game. But this Jets team looks to change that narrative, dramatically. A fast, skilled, and physical team, the Jets check all the boxes that should lead to a deep playoff run.
Who To Watch For – Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler. The Jets are another team that is loaded across the board. Patrik Laine turns 20 in 9 days, but he is already an established superstar in the league. He can score from anywhere and his shot rivals that of Alex Ovechkin’s. Scheifele is a true student of the game and will do whatever it takes for his team to win. His obsession with the game of hockey is uncanny and makes him thrive to be the best in every situation. Captain of the Jets, Blake Wheeler, might actually be underrated on this team, and that’s just absurd. With 91 points in 81 games this year, Wheeler moved around in the lineup due to injuries and did what the team needed to be successful.
Wild Card – Dustin Byfuglien. Big Buff is just that, 6’5″ 260lbs, and he uses it. Byfuglien can set the tone of a game, and a series, as long as he doesn’t go too far and get his team into penalty trouble.
Wild – While Winnipeg might have the Whiteout, Minnesota is the State of Hockey. But it has been sort of a Wild year (sorry) for Minnesota. Injuries plagued the team for most of the season and they could never quite find their consistency. All that aside, they found the playoffs for their 6th straight year. While not the most fun offensive game to watch, the Wild run a structured game and score a lot of goals from re-directs and rebounds. Problem is their steady number one defenseman, Ryan Suter, broke his leg in the final week of the season. If the Wild can overcome the injury to Suter and figure it out defensively, they could give their rivals just North of the Border a tough time.
Who To Watch For – Eric Staal, Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise. The resurgence of Eric Staal is just what the doctor ordered during the regular season, and they will need him to continue his scoring ways in the postseason as well. Granlund is slick with the puck and has a nack for big playoff goals. Zach Parise would literally put his body through a wall if he had to for the Wild, but let’s hope he doesn’t since the former Devils Captain is healthy and rolling for the first time all year.
Wild Card – Matt Dumba. With the Wild defense depleted by the loss of Suter and possibly Jared Spurgeon, it is now Dumba who will be relied upon in crucial minutes.
Vegas Golden Knights vs Los Angeles Kings
Golden Knights – Yes, this is the Vegas Golden Knights that literally just entered the league this year. They have shattered just about every record there is for an expansion team, and they did so half way through the season. The Golden Knights finished first in their division and won the Pacific Division crown with 109 points, the first true expansion team to do so in all major sports. Their speed and team unity helped them stay atop their division basically the whole year. If you haven’t seen them play yet, you are in for a treat. The crazy thing is, it is not out of the question that these Golden Knights could make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. They are tenacious on the puck and their quickness will really put the Kings and the rest to the test.
Who To Watch For – William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Deryk Engelland. The man they call Wild Bill, William Karlsson, has thrived under the Golden Knights game. The 25 year old forward put up a career high 43 goals in the regular season, with his previous high being 9 goals two years ago with his former team, the Columbus Blue Jackets. Marchessault is just one of many of the players on this team that were outcasts by their former clubs, he is quick with a great shot release that helped him put up 27 goals and 75 points in the regular season. Engelland, a Las Vegas native, is more known for his rough and rugged play. He gave a very emotional speech to open the Golden Knights season at home after the tragedy that happened in Vegas just prior to the season. He is a leader on the back end and for his team in general.
Wild Card – Marc-Andre Fleury. While there are plenty of feel good stories and players on this team, it might just be the former Penguins net-minder that has the best one. After watching Matt Murray take over in goal in Pittsburgh, Fleury was the odd goalie out in Pittsburgh and was selected by the Golden Knights first in their expansion draft. He was the backbone for his team when healthy and lead the Golden Knights with 29 wins. He is a reliable performer as well and could lead the Golden Knights on an improbable run.
Kings – The Kings are anxiously awaiting to give the Golden Knights their first taste of playoff hockey. A hard hitting, grind you out type of team, the Kings know a thing or two about winning in the playoffs. They rely on their goalie, Jonathan Quick to make timely saves and then try to send a man streaking up the middle on a fast break. If that doesn’t work they will enter the zone and cycle the puck and get to the dirt areas to beat you. They could have a tough time against the speed of the Golden Knights, but if they can get some early goals in, they could grind out a few victories and maybe even pull of what some might not consider that big of an upset. Either way, it looks like they will more than likely become one of the Golden Knights first true rivals in what should shape out to be an interesting first round match-up.
Who To Watch For – Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty. The three have been with the Kings for 2 Stanley Cups and some down years in between, but they are the Kings. Kopitar is one of the best defensive forwards in the game and has had a terrific offensive year as well. Many thought Dustin Brown’s game was fading out, but a resurgence year for him offensively helped the Kings get back to the playoffs. Doughty is about as stable as they come on the back end. He can move the puck and take the body, and will jump in offensively to score goals. He can do it all and will be called upon often to try and contain the quick Golden Knights.
Wild Card – Dion Phaneuf. Coming over from the Senators in a mid season trade, Phaneuf has helped the Kings in a big way stabilize their defense. Known for his huge hits, Phaneuf will be sure to pester the Golden Knights, if he can catch them at least.
Anaheim Ducks vs San Jose Sharks
Ducks – An injury riddled season kept the Ducks from the top of the pack for most of the season. But an 8-1-1 finish in their last 10 games helped them reach 2nd in the Pacific Division on the very last day of the regular season. The Ducks are a team that is no stranger to the playoffs as this is their 6th straight postseason. Their style of game is built for the postseason as they have big forwards and tough defensemen and will wear you down. While they have had some recent success in the playoffs, they haven’t lived up to the hype based on their roster make up and this could finally be the year they make the push for their 2nd Cup since winning their first in 2006-2007.
Who To Watch For – Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Rickard Rakell. This has been Getzlaf and Perry’s team since the two won the Cup together as rookies in the 2007 season. They both play a mean game and know what it takes to score goals and frustrate the opposition at the same time. Often their line mate, Rickard Rakell is a goal scorer. While Perry and Getzlaf terrorize the other team with their slick passes and North and South game, Rakell can pick a spot on the net and hit it usually with ease.
Wild Card – Josh Manson. Another player made, and named, for the playoffs, Manson is a tough customer. His can provide big hits and has thrown in some timely offense from his defensive position as well. Look for Manson to be a big reason if the Ducks can make a playoff push.
Sharks – A very good year by the Sharks has been somewhat overshadowed by the success of teams around them. With the Golden Knights in first place in their Pacific Division for most of the year, the Sharks were comfortable in 2nd until the very last day of the regular season. Once again, injuries hurt this Sharks team as they lost the veteran center Joe Thornton on a fluky play late in a game and his status is still up in the air for the playoffs. Although they didn’t finish where they wanted, not a lot was expected of this Sharks team and they are happy to be in the playoffs. They won’t have to travel very far in their first round tilt with their California rival. The two evenly matched teams play a similar style to one another, so it could be a very interesting and long series.
Who To Watch For – Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Logan Couture. Pavelski, the one they call Captain America, is the do it all captain for the Sharks. He will be relied upon even more with Thornton possibly out of the line up. Burns is unlike any defenseman in the league. While his defensive game might not be the absolute best at times, he makes up for it with his offensive game. If he can get his slick wrist shot through bodies, it either finds the back of the net, or Joe Pavelski’s stick for the re-direct. When the Sharks made their push to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, Logan Couture was a big reason why. He lead the Sharks with 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists) and if he can repeat that playoff magic, the Sharks could be swimming into June.
Wild Card – Evander Kane. The 26 year old forward came over to the Sharks in a sneaky good trade at the trade deadline. Since then, Kane has been a man possessed, scoring 9 goals in 17 games with the Sharks, including his first career hat trick. While he is sometimes pegged with a bad reputation, Kane is a gifted player that can score goals and pop you in the mouth whenever he is near. This is his first ever taste of playoff action and you can bet he will be hellbent on making an impact.