If the first round of the 2018 NHL playoffs is just the appetizer, what does that make the second round? The entree has to be reserved for the Stanley Cup Final … unless that’s your dessert and the Western and Eastern Final is your entree. Does that make the semifinal round the salad before the good stuff comes out?
If that’s the case, this is one monster salad that has the works. I’m talking golf ball-sized bacon bits, french fries for lettuce and roasted duck chopped into the thousand island dressing.
Don’t fill your gullet too much, though. You still have the main course to chomp through.
The first round provided some excitement, whether you correctly predicted it or not — I am on the winning side, going 7-for-8 on my Rd. 1 predictions. That one team that I picked incorrectly went well out of their way to make me look silly. Not only did the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Los Angeles Kings, they did it in just four games.
Can Vegas Seriously Continue This Unheralded Season?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Time to stop doubting them. All season long, the Golden Knights have been doubted. When will they crash back down to reality? When will the rest of the Pacific Division catch up and surpass them? I was a nonbeliever when making my picks last round — never again.
These are the Golden Knights. They are winners. They are Stanley Cup contenders. You can put them in the same boat as Pittsburgh, Nashville or Winnipeg. However, they have quite the battle coming up with the San Jose Sharks.
Since it’s impossible to draw any playoff meetings between the two opponents, all we have is this season’s head-to-head. The Knights posted an impressive 3-0-1 record against San Jose, outscoring them 14-11. The most recent meeting occurred on March 31, with the Sharks in the midst of a battle for second place in the division. William Karlsson’s third period, shorthanded goal propelled Vegas to the 3-2 win on his second point of the night. Although there were five goals scored in the game, it was a battle of the goaltenders, with Martin Jones (35 saves on 38 shots) and Marc-Andre Fleury (29 saves on 31 shots) both boasting impressive performances.
San Jose has the drive to get back to the Stanley Cup Final, which they did in 2016, while Vegas has not shown any signs of slowing down. Predicting a victor in this series may be the most difficult of any this round, but one thing is certain: it’s time to stop taking Vegas lightly.
Can Washington Finally Get Past the Penguins?
No (sorry Caps fans). You would be an insane person to assume that the outcome will be different if the same routine is run through every season (see the image to the right). After losing to the Penguins last postseason, they now possess a 1-9 record in the playoffs when playing Pittsburgh. That one time? The 1994 Eastern quarterfinals when Caps netminder Don Beaupre stopped 101 of 108 Penguins shots while Joe Juneau and Michal Pivonka combined for 14 points in the six-game series.
Unless Braden Holtby, Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom can combine for this type of raucous domination, the Capitals just don’t have what it takes to beat the Penguins.
It’s not just a knock on the current makeup of the Capitals, though. The Penguins are back-to-back Stanley Cup champions; picking against them in any series is a fool’s errand at this point. Looking at just this postseason, the Penguins’ usual suspects from a year ago are making a difference yet again. Jake Guentzel (6G-7A–13P) and Sidney Crosby (6G-7A–13P) lead the postseason in scoring, while a committee is getting it done in front of goaltender Matt Murray — Kris Letang leads all Pittsburgh defensemen with 24:45 average time on ice (20th in the NHL).
This will definitely still be an excellent matchup to watch as Washington always brings their A-game against their division rivals … and vice versa. That’s why there was 25 goals scored in four meetings this season, including a 7-4 Pittsburgh victory on Feb. 2. No matter the result, there will be plenty of entertaining moments for both sides.
What’s the Series to Watch?
Nashville vs. Winnipeg. At the beginning of the 2017-18 season, it’s doubtful anyone could have predicted that the two strongest contenders out of the Western Conference would be the Predators and Jets. Just six months later, they appear to be the class of not even just the Central Division, but the entire league.
Both teams are coming off impressive first round victories — although Colorado put up a bigger fight than some predicted — and the two Central leaders have been destined for this moment all season. Both teams have Vezina Trophy finalists who put on outstanding displays in Rd. 1 in Pekka Rinne and Connor Hellebuyck. The two rivals have potent offenses, as both averaged more than three goals per game in the first round. And the defensive matchup … well, it just may be the two best in the league.
There were some impressive plays on both squads in the first round and that is surely not going to stop when they begin Game 1.
Which Game Wins: Grit or Speed?
Speed. If this question were posed 15 years ago, the answer would be flipped. But the overwhelming creativity and quick outs of the defensive zone will be the key to winning the series.
The 2018 NHL playoffs fancy a quicker game than even the 2013 and 2014 NHL playoffs. It’s about breaking out faster, getting the shot off quicker and reaching loose pucks with a head of steam. The Lightning, who finished the regular season as the league’s highest scoring team (edging the Jets by 17 goals), are a goal factory working on overtime, cranking out prime chances faster than its competitors can react. With the likes of Nikita Kucherov, who tallied five goals and 10 points in five games against the New Jersey Devils, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, the Lightning are a quick-strike team that cannot be contained.
Sure, the Bruins are no slouches when it comes to scoring goals —they actually scored more goals per game (4.00) last round than Tampa Bay (3.60). However, the Bruins are a nasty, gritty team that accumulated the seventh most penalty minutes (778) this season. They also finished eighth in total hits (1,914). They are a jarring team that suffocates opposing forwards when they enter the zone.
The Lightning have a supreme defensive system, too, and this is why the series may come down to special teams. Although the Bruins were splendid on the penalty kill during the regular season (83.7 percent, third in the league), they were a measly 11 for 15 against Toronto in the quarterfinals. The Lightning are a hard-working team that draws a lot of penalties —second most power plays in the regular season with 276 opportunities —and backs it up with a power play that ranked third in the NHL this season (23.9).
Although the Bruins can handle themselves on both sides of special teams, it’s the Lightning who will control the series if it becomes a battle of power play chances.
Rd. 2 Predictions
Nashville Predators vs. Winnipeg Jets: Predators in 6. The Jets have one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the league, but they are battling a team that is ahead of even them. Of the 16 players that appeared in at least five of the six first round games, only three went pointless (Alexei Emelin, Mike Fisher and Matt Irwin). They also have a playoff-proven goaltender in Rinne, who is just one postseason removed from a .930 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against average with two shutouts. Hellebuyck is certainly capable of emulating these numbers, but the slight edge goes to the guy who has had the chance to prove it many times before.
Vegas Golden Knights vs. San Jose Sharks: Sharks in 7. Both teams have the ability to take control of the series in any way. Whether it’s high scoring, physical or a goaltender showdown, this matchup may very well be a last-man-standing situation. I’m picking the Sharks simply because they have been a Western Conference Final pick of mine since the start, but I make this pick with 51 percent certainty. What would be shocking at this point is if my prediction involving the Golden Knights was actually correct.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Boston Bruins: Lightning in 6. The Bruins are a formidable foe and likely the toughest Tampa Bay will face on their way to the Stanley Cup Final. However, the offensive firepower combined with the exceptional defense anchored by Vezina finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy will just be too much for the Bruins to overcome.
Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: Penguins in 5. The Capitals’ only hope to get over the hump that is their division rival? Pray another team beats them before the second round. I was a believer when I picked the Capitals last playoffs; never again until history stops repeating itself.
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