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2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs Rd. 1 Storylines and Predictions

Oftentimes, the best movies don’t give away the farm in the trailers. You want some mystery before you enter the theater, hoping to be surprised with what comes on screen. Is this how we want to approach the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs?

Maybe … but likely not. You want to know the action beforehand to keep your eyes peeled for what could be tales you’ll be recounting throughout the summer months. Many times, the best drama occurs in the first round.

Relate this back to a movie: do you want the best of the show to be in the first 20 minutes? No, but you do want something that grabs your attention, pulls you in and captivates you for the rest of the show. That’s what the quarterfinal round does; you see the tremendous action every night and you are starved for more as the few days before the second round starts rolls around.

When you’re preparing for the summer blockbuster, you are likely watching trailers, reading early critic reviews and looking for any content surrounding that film. You do the same for the NHL postseason. So here’s a primer to prepare you for the long months ahead as you spend hours every night on the couch, likely on the edge, being captivated by every dramatic turn.

And as any good moviegoer does, I provide you with my predictions for the spring’s finest feature you’ll be watching again and again.

Which Goalies Will Steal the Show?

pekka rinne
Photo: Andrew Nelles / Tennessean.com

Pekka Rinne. After a run to the Stanley Cup Final last year, Rinne followed up with a marvelous 2017-18 campaign. The 35-year-old proved that age doesn’t matter when you’re a proven winner, posting a dazzling 42-13-4 record, .927 save percentage and 2.31 goals-against average. Rinne and his team are set to prove they belong in the Stanley Cup conversation, and they’ll do that against a Colorado Avalanche team that Rinne went 3-0-0 against this season, stopping 71 of 76 shots for a .922 save percentage.

Tuukka Rask. Rask has proven to be an elite goaltender in the past, taking his team to the 2013 Stanley Cup Final with a measly 1.88 GAA and a remarkable .940 save percentage with three shutouts. He is the type of goalie that can put his team on his back and carry them through rough times (and shine when his team is playing well). He’ll be playing against the high-flying Maple Leafs, who have put their 2013 collapse in Boston in the rearview mirror. Rask will remind the hockey-mad city at every turn, though, as he has posted a 20-10-2 regular season and playoff record against the Leafs, including two shutouts and a GAA a tad over 2.00.

Connor Hellebuyck. Going into the year, Hellebuyck was slated to play about half the games as Steve Mason was signed to carry a portion of the load. By the end of the first month, Hellebuyck took control. The Jets eclipsed all regular season records for the franchise, thanks in large part to the Canadian goaltender amassing nearly insurmountable numbers. His 2.36 GAA was eighth in the league, .924 save percentage was 10th and he finished with six shutouts (third best in the league). Although he has not played a minute of NHL playoff hockey, he’ll be one to watch in the first round. If the Wild have trouble stopping the potent Jets offense, they’ll have an even more difficult task of slipping multiple pucks past Hellebuyck.

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Who’s Going to be Game Changers?

Nathan MacKinnon. A likely Hart Trophy candidate, MacKinnon will be leading the Avalanche’s charge against the NHL’s best regular season team. The 22-year-old center was just one goal shy of 40 and three points shy of 100, earning himself the reputation of “superstar” entering the playoffs. The Predators will be one of the tallest tasks to take down in the postseason, but if the Avalanche’s golden boy can find his scoring touch early, he may be difficult to stop. In his rookie season, MacKinnon was electric in the postseason, posting eight assists and 10 points in a seven-game loss to the Wild.

Harry How / Getty Images

Anze Kopitar. After an abysmal 52-point, no-playoffs performance last season, Kopitar returned to form with a 57-assist, 92-point season (both career highs). He was the rallying point for his team all season long, as the new-look Kings attempt to take down the division-leading Vegas Golden Knights. In both years the Kings won the Stanley Cup, 2012 and 2014, Kopitar was a point-per-game player, accumulating a total 46 points in 46 games. He was also important down the stretch this season against the Golden Knights, contributing two goals and five points in a home-and-home series on Feb. 26 and 27, both wins for the Kings.

Artemi Panarin. Known as “The Bread Man,” Panarin has been the offensive dynamo the Blue Jackets were hoping to receive when they acquired him from Chicago last summer. His dangling and dishing skills are second to none in this league, as he finished 20th with 82 points. If there is a player who is a shoot-first and pass-first player, it’s the Jackets’ biggest offensive threat. He’s a game breaker, as he has the seventh most points in the NHL since 2015-16, his first North American season. If anyone can match Ovechkin goal-to-goal and point-to-point in a seven-game series, Panarin is it.

What’s the Best Storyline in Rd. 1?

The goaltending situation in Washington. Going into the season, there was no question as to who would be taking the crease in Game 1 of Washington’s first playoff series. However, zero shutouts and a 2.99 GAA later, Braden Holtby will begin on the bench. A 73-game starter in 2014-15, Holtby started just 54 games for the Capitals this season, his lowest total in four seasons. Philipp Grubauer, Holtby’s backup for the better part of five seasons, appeared in a career-high 35 games this season, earning 15 wins and three shutouts to go along with a 2.35 GAA and .923 save percentage. What’s more, the Danish netminder finished the season as one of the league’s strongest goaltenders, posting a 7-2-0 record to go along with two shutouts, stopping 259 of 280 shots — some wins came against playoff teams Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Jose and Winnipeg. Because of Holtby’s demise and Grubauer’s ability to take charge, head coach Barry Trotz named Grubauer the team’s starter for Game 1. This will be the 26-year-old’s second career postseason start.

Holtby may reclaim his crease if Grubauer falters or if the Capitals even lose a game, but for now, it’s Grubauer’s job to lose.

Will the Golden Knights Be Victorious?

Image: Getty

No … maybe. The Golden Knights were outstanding against their Pacific Division foes, posting a 20-6-3 record throughout the season. However, against the Kings, they were just 2-1-1 and were slightly outscored 11-10. It doesn’t get much tighter than that.

The Golden Knights are already a successful first year franchise, breaking inaugural season records all over the place (the most important being the first modern-era franchise to win its division). There really isn’t much more the Knights could have done during the regular season … except maybe finish the season stronger than 6-5-2.

They have plenty of players who have succeeded in the playoffs, including former Penguins Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal. It’s not a matter of playoff experience that could doom them, it’s the fact that they are playing an opponent who has proven time and again to have playoff success right off the bat. Sure, the Kings haven’t advanced past the first round since winning the Cup in 2014, but the core remains of a feisty group that can play a strong defensive game and add a balanced scoring attack. What the Knights equal in playoff experience, the Kings surpass with playoff experience together. Plus, as mentioned previously, Vegas wasn’t exactly setting the world afire to end the season as they were October through February.

However, the Golden Knights have been proving naysayers incorrect all season long. What’s one more way to shut us up? They have the pieces in place to make a deep run and continue their historical pace past the regular season.

Which Series is a Can’t-Miss?

Flyers vs. Penguins. The Penguins will be embarking on a journey that no team has been able to accomplish since the New York Islanders of the 1980s; win a third consecutive Stanley Cup championship. Isn’t it fitting that the first team that stands in their way is their cross-state rival?

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The battle for the Commonwealth has been a rivalry that has brewed for some time. These teams have been associated with some crazy playoff drama over the years and this series will be no exception. You have Hart Trophy candidates Claude Giroux and Evgeni Malkin facing off, while Selke Trophy candidate Sean Couturier looks to stop playoff-performer Sidney Crosby dead in his tracks. Let’s not forget that Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray, the young star who already has two Cup rings, will be on display against Brian Elliott, Philadelphia’s starter who once filled his backpack with St. Louis Blues teammates, then hiked up the playoff mountain to the Western Conference Final.

Sure, this rivalry has been a bit overhyped by NBC Sports over the years, but it’s not without reason. The nastiness has occurred in the past and it’s likely to happen again at some point. It goes without saying the tremendous skill that pulsates through both lineups make this a marquee matchup. Whether this series goes four or seven games, it will be a spectacle every time these two hit the ice.

Rd. 1 Predictions

Western Conference

p.k. subban
David Zalubowski, The Associated Press

Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche: Predators in 5. Although the Avalanche had an emotional win to get into the playoffs, they’re facing a team that many are picking to make it to the Stanley Cup Final. It will be a hard-fought four wins for the Predators, but the organizational depth will come up large against an inexperienced Colorado team.

Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild: Jets in 4. Many factors settle into why I am confident the Jets will prevail. Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, the Wild’s top defensive pairing, will miss significant time with injuries. The Wild are coached by Bruce Boudreau, who continues to be a great regular season coach (503-243-99) and one of the worst postseason coaches (42-43, lost three out of four second round series and once in the conference finals). On the other end, the Jets are big, fast and control games from beginning to end. The franchise is not only looking to win its first postseason game this year, but make its first Stanley Cup Final appearance. If the star players can shine (Hellebuyck, Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele and others), it will be difficult to stop them.

Vegas Golden Knights vs. Los Angeles Kings: Kings in 6. The Golden Knights have been the Cinderella story of the NHL this season; head coach Gerard Gallant will win the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year and many others will be recognized all summer. However, the fairy tale has to end at some point and the Kings are just the ones to do it. Their extensive experience in big-game situations will trump Vegas’ will to continue their unprecedented successes.

Anaheim Ducks vs. San Jose Sharks: Sharks in 7. Is there a more even-matched series? It took until the final week of the season for the Ducks to surpass the Sharks as the second seed in the Pacific as Anaheim finished just one point better (101 points) than San Jose. Each team comes in with a significant injury, as Joe Thornton won’t go for the Bay Area team and Cam Fowler won’t go for Orange County — consider that a wash. The goaltenders (Martin Jones, SJS; John Gibson, ANA) may just be the deciding factor. Keeping Gibson’s significant injury history in mind, the slight edge goes to the hungry Sharks, who have been itching to get back to the Stanley Cup Final. However, if this series goes seven games, it’s really a coin flip as to who advances.

Eastern Conference

Keith Kinkaid Yanni Gourde
Getty Images

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils: Lightning in 6. Although the Lightning finished the season with a 6-6-1 record, they are still one of the teams to beat in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs. They have everything you could want in a team: superior goaltending, elite offense and a stingy defense. Their biggest hurdle in facing the Devils will be to stop the diabolical offensive explosion that is Taylor Hall, who finished the season with 93 points, which was 41 points ahead of anyone else on the roster. However, the Lightning were just one of two Eastern Conference teams to not allow a goal to Hall all season (three meetings). If they can keep him off the scoreboard, and continue to score at an alarming rate (290 goals for; tops in the NHL), it won’t matter who is in net for the Devils. Tampa Bay has its eyes set on a Stanley Cup Final appearance.

Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs: Bruins in 7. Although the Bruins appear to be the class of the East (in some eyes), the Maple Leafs are no slouches. This young team seems primed for a continuous playoff streak for years to come, as young guns Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and others have their eyes on getting further than their first round exit one year ago. However, the Maple Leafs received yet another tough draw and the Bruins’ suffocating defensive play has the ability to end forwards’ scoring chances before they even start. With the Leaf-killer Rask in net, surrounded by scorers David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, the Leafs have a difficult task ahead. Their chance for playoff greatness will have to wait another season.

Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets: Capitals in 7. The Capitals are as strong as they come, and Columbus again is rewarded for a strong season with playing a Stanley Cup hopeful. However, the Capitals’ firepower, as well as Sergei Bobrovsky’s dreadful playoff numbers (3-10, 3.63 GAA and .887 save percentage), give the Capitals the edge. If Panarin can lead the league in points after the first round, though, the Blue Jackets may just pull off a great upset.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers: Penguins in 5. Although picking the Penguins to win in five games seems like a confident pick, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Philadelphia uses a strong team defensive game that shuts down the Penguins’ dynamic offense. Flyers coach Dave Hakstol knows how to rally his troops and can make them mold their game to a specific style in a matter of days. However, the Penguins have already defended their crown once and it would be a shock if they exited in the quarterfinal round … no matter the opponent.

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Jeff Ponder

The author Jeff Ponder

Jeff brings a wealth of hockey retail experience to xHockeyProducts, as well as a vast knowledge of marketing and content development. Jeff is also a former hockey reporter for various media outlets in the St. Louis area and has attended numerous NHL Entry Drafts. He has played hockey since the age of 10.

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