NHL First Round Playoff Preview

by Sean Murphy

The NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us with the action getting underway with Game 1 between the Bruins and Capitals on Saturday evening.

Here's a quick preview of each opening round series.

(Odds courtesy BetOnline)

North Division

Maple Leafs (-280) vs. Canadiens (+235)


For the first time in 42 years the Leafs and Canadiens will renew their storied rivalry in the playoffs, this time as the 1 vs. 4 matchup in the North Division. The Leafs took seven of nine regular season meetings and enter the series as heavy favorites. You would be hard-pressed to find an advantage for the Habs in this series but perhaps goaltending could be the great equalizer? Canadiens goaltender Carey Price has proven he can steal a series in the past but let's face it, he had a disastrous regular season and was outperformed by backup Jake Allen, who could very well earn the Game 1 start in this series. Jack Campbell took over the Leafs starting job after Frederik Andersen got hurt and while Andersen is back, he's unlikely to wrestle back the number one role. For things to go Montreal's way it will need to get elite production from its forward group that has only been good in fits and starts this season. Keeping pace with the Leafs vaunted offense will be a tall task indeed and I ultimately expect the Habs to fall short. Prediction: Leafs in six.

Oilers (-200) vs. Jets (+170)

This would have been an intriguing matchup a few weeks ago but with the Jets going in the tank down the stretch, excitement has waned a bit. The Oilers didn't let up an ounce in the closing weeks of the regular season and are well-positioned to outgun a Jets squad that has sorely missed the production of Nik Ehlers since he went down with a season-ending injury. Winnipeg does have the talent and experience to go on a deep playoff run but it's going to be difficult for them to take flight (pun intended) from a standing start. Note that the Jets entered Friday's regular season finale against Toronto having won just twice since April 17th, scoring fewer than three goals in nine of their last 11 contests. The Oilers are hungry for an elusive playoff series win and have the personnel in place to end their drought here in 2021. In the face of an army of doubters, goaltender Mike Smith has proven to be Edmonton's unsung hero this season and should help them advance past the down-trodden Jets in relatively short order. Prediction: Oilers in five.

Central Division

Hurricanes (-255) vs. Predators (+215)


Carolina not surprisingly dominated the regular season series between these two teams, taking six of eight meetings. A true Stanley Cup contender, the 'Canes will be looking to erase the memory of an early playoff exit (in unceremonious fashion) at the hands of the Bruins last year. While the Predators have one of the most underrated goaltenders in hockey in Juuse Saros, I'm not convinced they have enough offensive firepower to keep pace with the deep Carolina offense. Home ice will mean something in this series as the 'Canes went 20-8 in Raleigh during the regular season, outscoring opponents by an average margin of 1.3 goals per game. While the Preds went 18-10 at home, they check in 13-15 in a visitors role. Prediction: Hurricanes in five.

Lightning (-150) vs. Panthers (+130)

It looks like it will be all hands on deck for the Lightning as they welcome back Nikita Kucherov and Steve Stamkos from injury in round one against the in-state rival Panthers. Victor Hedman will require offseason surgery but all indications are that he'll be back on the ice for the series-opener as well. The Panthers did take five of eight regular season meetings between these two teams and while they have the offense to keep up with the Bolts, I'm not sure Sergei Bobrovsky can match saves with all-world counterpart Andrei Vasilevskiy. This is also a series where Florida missed defensive anchor Aaron Ekblad and key secondary scorer Vincent Trocheck, who now skates with the Hurricanes. This has the makings of a long series but I'll give the slight edge to the defending champions. Prediction: Lightning in seven.

East Division

Penguins (-145) vs. Islanders (+125)


Pittsburgh had its way with New York during the regular season, taking six of eight meetings. The stretch run was a disaster for the Islanders as they dropped seven of their last 10 games to set up this difficult opening round date. With that being said, the Isles core remains intact from the team that staged a 4-0 sweep over the favored Penguins two years ago. I wouldn't be quick to dismiss a Barry Trotz-coached squad that defends well and also has two top-rate goaltenders at its disposal. The issue is up front where someone other than Mat Barzal will need to step up and contribute - something we just didn't see much of during the regular season. I may sound like a broken record but scoring depth is paramount at this time of year and the Pens have it. Prediction: Penguins in six.

Capitals (+145) vs. Bruins (-165)

The Bruins are favored in this series despite finishing behind the Capitals in the East Division standings. In fact, Boston is the favorite to come out of the East Division. I would have had this series priced a little tighter but can understand the logic behind the B's being favored in spite of the 4-4 regular season split between these two. While Boston's top line of Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak has been firing on all cylinders, the Caps have been struggling to even ice a healthy roster with key cogs such as Ovechkin, Carlson and Kuznetsov in and out of the lineup. Washington's 19-9 road record is certainly a feather in its cap entering this series as is the fact that it managed to go 12-5 down the stretch despite being undermanned. Perhaps the Caps spat with the Rangers will be looked back on as a galvanizing turning point. Prediction: Bruins in seven.

West Division

Avalanche (-400) vs. Blues (+320)


Colorado won its way into top spot in the West Division thanks to sweeping a two-game set against the Kings at the end of the regular season. It did so without the services of Nathan MacKinnon but I would count on him to be back on the ice for the start of this series. St. Louis dropped five of the first six meetings in this series during the regular season before answering with a couple of victories on home ice in late April. It will be hard-pressed to steal more than a game, if that, against the Stanley Cup favorites here, however. We saw a glimpse of Colorado's incredible depth as it scored 11 goals - without MacKinnon - in consecutive wins over the Kings earlier this week. The Avs defense is the real undervalued commodity here though, noting that they've allowed just 2.4 goals per game overall and 1.9 goals per game on home ice this season. The Blues don't have the goaltending or consistency up front to keep pace. Prediction: Colorado in four.

Golden Knights (-240) vs. Wild (+200)

This has the makings of an incredible series between the veteran-laden Knights and the upstart Wild. Vegas led the West Division for much of the season - deservedly so - but a late season loss to the Avs cost them the top seed. Few teams displayed the consistency of the Knights over the course of the season as they went 21-7 at home and 19-9 on the road. It is worth noting that the Wild have managed to take four of the last seven meetings in Las Vegas. Minnesota seemed to find its identity this year, somewhat surprisingly as a high-octane offensive squad. If you haven't seen much of the Wild this season you're in for a treat. Rookie standout Kirill Kaprizov is cut from the same mold as superstar Artemi Panarin, breaking into the league as a 24-year old this season and pacing the Wild offense. Minnesota checks in averaging 3.4 goals per game compared to Vegas' 3.2. Prediction: Vegas in seven. 

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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