We’re down to the final four in the 2018 NHL playoffs. Here’s a brief preview and predictions for the Eastern and Western Conference Finals.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs Washington Capitals. The Lightning advanced to the Eastern Conference Final by eliminating the Boston Bruins in five games.Meanwhile, the Capitals reached the Conference Final for the first time in 20 years by defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.
Any lingering concerns over the Lightning’s late-season struggles potentially affecting their postseason were erased by the quick work they made of the Bruins and the New Jersey Devils. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has been sturdy thus far between the pipes. The Bolts are stronger in the faceoff circle, their defensive play has significantly improve while their overall depth – led by Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point – has been difficult to contain.
The Capitals continue to get stellar postseason goaltending from Braden Holtby. They’re enter this series tied for first with the Winnipeg Jets for most goals (43) thus far. Their best skaters – Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson – continue to lead the way offensively. They’re also getting more contributions from their secondary scorers this time around.
The Capitals gained a huge psychological lift by finally reaching the Conference final for the first time in two decades and beating the Penguins for the first time in 24 years. However, that won’t be enough to overcome a very deep Lightning roster. Tampa Bay has too many weapons at their disposal. Lightning in six.
Winnipeg Jets vs Vegas Golden Knights. The Jets reached the Western Conference Final by downing the Nashville Predators in a hard-fought seven games. The Golden Knights continued their incredible inaugural season by beating the San Jose Sharks in six games.
Anyone who last fall predicted these two clubs would be among the best teams in the regular season and also face each other in the conference final is either a genius or a lucky fool. Regardless, both clubs deserve to be here.
Led by Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Paul Stastny and Dustin Byfuglien, the Jets are tied with the Capitals for most goals (43) among the playoff clubs. Their power play (25.0 percent) remains quite potent. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has proven to be a big-game postseason performer.
Stellar goaltending by Marc-Andre Fleury, an aggressive forecheck and a solid penalty kill have been key to the Golden Knights’ playoff success. Their swift-skating offense, led by Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, can pounce quickly on their opponent’s defensive mistakes.
The expansion Golden Knights reaching the Stanley Cup Final would be an incredible story. However, they’ll face a stiff challenge attempting to neutralize Winnipeg’s scoring punch. At the risk of underrating Vegas, the Jets offensive depth should make the difference in this series. Jets in six.
The opening round of the 2018 NHL Playoffs is finally over and the match-ups are set for the second round. Here’s a brief preview and predictions for each series. For those keeping track, I was six for eight in the opening round.
Nashville Predators vs Winnipeg Jets. The Predators had their hands full with the Colorado Avalanche but finally eliminated the plucky underdog in six games. The Jets made short work of the Minnesota Wild in five games.
This series could be the best of the second round. Both clubs carry considerable depth in talent, finishing first and second respectively in the Western Conference standings. The Predators struggled at times to contain Colorado’s best forwards in the opening round, while the Jets’ penalty kill was average at best against the Wild. The 2018 Presidents’ Trophy winning Predators have the edge in experience, having marched to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, while most of the Jets have only one or two playoff rounds under their belts. That could tilt this series in favor of Nashville. Prediction: Predators in seven.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs Boston Bruins: The Lightning downed the rebuilding New Jersey Devils in five games. The Bruins emerged victorious over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the only opening-round series to go seven games.
This contest features the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins won the regular-season series 3-1, but of course that stat goes out the window in the playoffs. Both clubs carry potent offenses but they also have their weaknesses. Inconsistent goaltending by Tuukka Rask and sloppy defense contributed to the Bruins’ struggles against the Leafs, while the Lightning have also had defensive issues, especially on the penalty kill and in the faceoff circle. The Bolts’ scoring punch(led by Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos) and the improved play of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy should enable them to defeat the Bruins. Prediction: Lightning in six.
Vegas Golden Knights vs San Jose Sharks. The expansion Golden Knights’ became the first team in its inaugural season to sweep an opening-round series by bouncing the Los Angeles Kings in four straight. The Sharks, meanwhile, dispatched the Anaheim Ducks in four games.
This should be an entertaining series between two clubs that used their speed to oust their slower opponents in the previous round. The goaltending duel between the Golden Knights’ Marc-Andre Fleury and the Sharks’ Martin Jones could become a factor in this series. Special teams could also play a big role, as Vegas had the best penalty-killing percentage (92.3) of the opening round while the Sharks had the third-best power-play (30.0). While the Sharks have more postseason experience as a team, it’s foolhardy to underestimate the Golden Knights. Prediction: Golden Knights in six.
Washington Capitals vs Pittsburgh Penguins. The Capitals rallied from a 2-0 series deficit to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets in six games. The defending Cup champion Penguins needed six games to beat the Philadelphia Flyers.
For the third straight year and the fourth time since 2009, the Capitals and Penguins face off in the second round. While the Penguins won each of those previous series, the Capitals enter this one riding the momentum of their opening-round rally over the Blue Jackets. Pittsburgh was the highest-scoring team in the first round but the Capitals finished right behind them. Much of the focus will be on Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, but goaltending could be the key to this series. The Penguins’ Matt Murray gave up 13 goals to the Flyers and looked a little shaky at times, while Capitals netminder Braden Holtby sported a 1.92 GAA and .932 SP against the Blue Jackets. If Holtby remains hot, the Capitals could prevail. Prediction: Capitals in seven.
Second-round playoff opening dates confirmed, Messier Leadership Award nominees revealed, Francois Beauchemin to retire. Details and more in your NHL morning coffee headlines.
NHL.COM: The dates for the opening games of the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs have been revealed.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will face the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of their series in Washington at 7 pm ET on Thursday, April 26, while Game 1 of the San Jose Sharks-Vegas Golden Knights series begins at 10 pm ET in Las Vegas.
Game 1 of the Nashville Predators- Winnipeg Jets series opens at 8 pm ET on Friday, April 27 in Nashville.
The Tampa Bay Lightning await tonight’s winner of Game 7 between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs. If the Bruins win, the opening game will take place at 3 pm ET on Saturday, April 28 in Tampa Bay. If the Leafs advance, they’ll face the Lightning in Tampa Bay at 8 pm ET on Saturday.
Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland, Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds and Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler are this year’s nominees for the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award.
TSN: Maple Leafs forward Leo Komarov is cleared to play in Game 7 tonight against the Bruins, but it remains to be seen he’ll be dressed for that contest. Komarov hasn’t played since suffering a lower-body injury in Game 2.
Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin is listed as day-to-day heading into his club’s upcoming series with the Washington Capitals (Photo via NHL Images).
PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE: Penguins forwards Evgeni Malkin (lower-body injury) and Patric Hornqvist (upper-body) are listed as day-to-day heading into their series with the Capitals.
NHL.COM: Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski played through an undisclosed injury suffered during a game against the Bruins on Oct. 30. Werenski wouldn’t say if the injury requires surgery.
NJ.COM: New Jersey Devils defenseman Sami Vatanen admitted he suffered a concussion following a hit from Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov in Game 4 of their opening-round series. He missed Game 5 of that series and will continue working out and rehabbing in New Jersey until fully recovered.
CBS SPORTS: Minnesota Wild forward Joel Eriksson Ek suffered an undisclosed minor injury during his club’s opening-round series against the Winnipeg Jets. He’s not expected to undergo surgery.
ARIZONA SPORTS: Former Coyotes captain Shane Doan is auctioning a signed jersey in an effort to support the families affected by the Humboldt Broncos bus crash that killed 16 people.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: Follow this link if you want to bid for Doan’s jersey. As of 6 am ET today, the largest bid was $2,000.00. The auction concludes Friday.
98.5 FM SPORTS MONTREAL: After 14 seasons, long-time NHL defenseman Francois Beauchemin has announced his retirement. Beauchemin tallied 76 goals and 212 assists for 288 points in 903 regular-season games, adding 10 goals and 39 points in 101 playoff contests. He spent the bulk of his career with the Anaheim Ducks, winning a Stanley Cup with them in 2007.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: Best wishes to Beauchemin and his family in his future endeavors.