In order to win what is often considered one of the most difficult trophies in all of professional sports, hockey players put everything on the line for two months hoping to etch their names into the history books. A team must win four best-of-seven series in order to be crowned champion. The long and difficult road that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs began on April 11 and featured 16 teams, all vying for the famous trophy. The first round of the NHL playoffs featured eight series and 43 games in 16 different cities. There is no lack of storylines going into this year’s playoffs. The Las Vegas Golden Knights look to be the first expansion team ever to win a Stanley Cup in their first season, while the Pittsburgh Penguins are attempting to win their third Cup in a row, a feat which hasn’t been done since the New York Islanders won four in row from 1979 to 1983.
The Las Vegas Golden Knights made history on April 17, when they became the first expansion team in their inaugural season to sweep their first-round opponents. With an expansion draft, the Golden Knights were able to select a variety of players, young and experienced, to form a well-rounded team. With this team they beat the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, outscoring them 6 to 3 over four games. The series’ star was goaltender Marc Andre Fleury who posted two shutouts while only allowing three goals in four games. The Golden Knights will take on the San Jose Sharks for the Pacific Division title. The Sharks’ balanced team scoring and strong defensive efforts helped them sweep the Anaheim Ducks in four games. The matchup between the Golden Knights and Sharks, two teams who dominated the first round, will take place later this week and will likely feature strong defensive efforts, and world-class goaltending.
On the other side of the Western Conference, we have the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets, the two top seeds in the Conference, playing the Colorado Avalanche and the Minnesota Wild respectively. For Nashville, runners-up in last year’s Stanley Cup Finals, this year offers a chance at redemption after falling just short in 2017. All-star defenseman P.K. Subban and the Predators took one step closer to the finals with a 5-0 win last Sunday in Colorado. The Avalanche, a young team led by Nathan Mackinnon, managed to take two games from the Predators before failing to score in the sixth game.
The Winnipeg Jets, with a little more ease, won their first round in five games, outscoring the Wild 16-9 with goaltender Connor Hellebuyck posting two shutouts in the final two games. This is the first year the Jets have won their first round series, and only the second time since the franchise moved to Winnipeg in 2011 that they have qualified for the playoffs. The last time was in 2014, when they got swept by the Ducks. The Predators will play the Jets in a highly anticipated matchup of the league’s top teams, after the conclusion of the Boston-Toronto series.
In the Eastern Conference, the Atlantic Division featured the only series to make it to seven games. The Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs will be playing a Game 7 on Wednesday night at TD Garden in Boston. The Maple Leafs, facing elimination on Monday night, managed to force a Game 7 by beating Boston 3-1 after being down 1-0 in the second period with a goal from Boston’s Jake DeBrusk. Leafs goalie Craig Anderson produced a 32-save performance, allowing his team to rally and score two goals in the second and an empty net late in the third.
The story of the other series in the Atlantic was not quite as exciting. The Tampa Bay Lighting, one of the favorites to challenge for the cup this year, ousted the New Jersey Devils in five games. The Lightning, led by forward Nikita Kucherov, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, and a strong penalty kill, looked in control throughout the series. The New Jersey Devils showed little fight throughout the series, save in Game 3 where they won 5-3 on home ice. Going into the series, the Devils were always underdogs, as they just managed to squeak into the playoffs as the second wild card team. Furthermore, history was not on their side, as the second wildcard team has yet to win a Stanley Cup, and rarely makes it passed the first round. The Lightning await the winner of the Boston-Toronto series.
The third Eastern Conference featured the battle of Pennsylvania, which followed a much different narrative, as five of the six games were decided by three or more goals. This rivalry extends beyond hockey, as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are constantly vying for the most successful teams in the state. With regards to hockey, in recent years Pittsburgh has had the upper hand, but given recent events, Philadelphia definitely has football in control. The Pittsburgh Penguins on their quest for a three-peat, got off to a rocking start with captain and back-to-back playoff MVP, Sidney Crosby scoring a hat trick as the Penguins cruised to a 7-0 series opener. The Flyers would eventually bounce back, but ultimately the Penguins were too much, as was evident in Game 6 when the Penguins won 8-5, with forward Jake Guentzel scoring four goals in 12 minutes. The Flyers, undone by their lack of quality goaltending, conceded 28 goals in the series, the most of any team this playoffs.
In the final Eastern Conference series, the Washington Capitals took on the Columbus Blue Jackets. Many pundits saw this as a close series, and at first it appeared that the Blue Jackets would advance after taking a commanding 2-0 series lead. However, the Capitals stormed back to win four games in a row and claim their place in the second round. Lead by Alex Ovechkin with five goals and goaltender Braden Holtby, who went undefeated in the series, the Capitals overcame the strong team play of the Blue Jackets, led by rising star Artemi Panarin. The series loss leaves the Blue Jackets as the only team never to have won a playoff series in franchise history.
The Penguins will face the Capitals in the second round of the playoffs for the third time in a row. The Capitals have never made it past this round, despite often having home-ice advantage and stacked teams. Whether it is Ovi and The Capitals or Crosby and the Pens, the winner of the series has a good chance of taking home the Cup, as both of the teams have all-star players, depth, and spectacular goalkeepers.
Given the Penguins’ experience and recent Stanley Cup victories, it is fairly clear that they are favorites to win the cup. However, I predict that because of current injuries to Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, the Penguins will fall to the Lightning in the conference finals, after beating the Capitals in a draining series. On the other side of the league, in the Western Conference, although they are an expansion team, I believe the Vegas Golden Knights will make it to the finals and beat the Lightning, as long as goaltender Marc Andre Fleury is able to keep his current form and the Knights continue to score with three lines.