This is what comes after March Madness. It is April Madness. Every year at this time, the NHL starts their 4 round - 16 team tournament to determine who will hoist Lord Stanley's Cup. There is always the occasional upset, teams get hot at the right time and sets the stage for thrilling (and heartbreaking) moments to take place. Each series is a best-of-7, with continuous 5-on-5 overtime which is quite different from how tie games are decided during the regular season. It is just good old fashioned old school hockey at its best - and the teams and players that shine in the NHL's second season are the ones that are remembered forever. Let us now have a look at all 8 series in the opening round and what my predictions are of who wins in how many games:
1. Nashville Predators vs 4. Colorado Avalanche
The Preds have to be the odds-on favorites to get back and represent the West in the Finals. "Smashville" will be back in effect and one could argue that this years team is actually stronger, given the extra depth they now have at centre, with the acquisition of Kyle Turris earlier in the season. Their 1st round opponent, the Colorado Avalanche, squeaked into the postseason in their final game of the regular season beating the St. Louis Blues in a winner-plays-Nashville scenario. They are a good young team that has come a long way, but nowhere in the class of a team like the Predators. The goaltending is a mismatch, with one of the best in Pekka Rinne going up against a playoff unproven tandem in Jonathan Bernier and Semyon Varlamov. With so much parity in the NHL these days, rarely do you see a matchup where one team is clearly better than the other. But this is one of them.
Prediction: PREDATORS IN 4
2. Winnipeg Jets vs 3. Minnesota Wild
These are 2 great hockey cities that had their teams taken away only to got them back years later, finding themselves in familiar territory. The Jets are considered to be the other heavy favourite to go on a deep playoff run and no question that whoever comes out of this division will probably go to the finals. Do not sleep on the Wild, who are looking upwards in a very tough division with both the Jets and Preds ahead of them, but don't be surprised if they take Winnipeg deep into this series and possibly knock them off in an upset. That said, these are 2 good teams that should go the distance with the edge going to home ice advantage in a 7th game with one of them having more depth up the middle.
Prediction: JETS IN 7
1.Vegas Golden Knights vs 4. Los Angeles Kings
Never has there been a team finishing so high in the standings and being completely overlooked as a contender for the Cup. But never has there ever been a 1st-year expansion team be this successful and everyone (I among them) have been doubting the Golden Knights all year, as they continue to prove us all wrong. This Kings team they face have a lot more playoff experience as a group and that should be the difference in this series. Despite the fact that they missed the playoffs 2 of the last 3 years before now going through somewhat of a transition, Los Angeles still has a good handful of the core that won 2 Stanley Cups earlier in the decade still playing in their prime, which should be the difference maker.
Prediction: KINGS IN 6
2. Anaheim Ducks vs 3. San Jose Sharks
The Ducks won their last 5 games to not only finish in the 2-3 bracket in this division, they also passed the Sharks to gain home ice advantage in the 1st Round against them as San Jose lost 5 of their last 6. Even having not played a playoff series against each other in almost a decade, these 2 teams are no strangers to each other in this longtime California rivalry. Led by their deep defensive corps, the Ducks look to go on another long playoff run after reaching the Conference Finals 2 of the last 3 years. The Sharks, who have been contenders for an eternity it seems try to go deep themselves again after reaching the finals 2 years ago. This should be more of a throwback physical series than the rest, which favours Anaheim and their personnel. With the Sharks Joe Thornton status being up in the air, these 2 teams seem to be going in opposite directions.
Prediction: DUCKS IN 6
1. Tampa Bay Lightning vs WC2 New Jersey Devils
With a healthy Steven Stamkos and his linemate Nikita Kucherov scoring 100 points, the Bolts came back to life this season after having an injury-riddled campaign, which led to missing out on the big dance by 1 point a year ago. This is a team, let us not forget, that went to the Stanley Cup Finals followed by a return trip to the Conference Finals before last year and look to have the complete package at all positions being at the top of the standings all year. The Devils are making their 1st postseason appearance since going to the Stanley Cup finals in 2012 but this is a "New" Jersey team, that like Tampa, emphasize skill and speed with a bunch of youngsters led by Taylor Hall, who has had a monstrous season like we have never seen before. Problem is, once you get past Hall and his 93 points only one other player on the team even has 50. Depth will no doubt be exposed in this series.
Prediction: LIGHTNING IN 5
2. Boston Bruins vs 3. Toronto Maple Leafs
The first thing that comes to mind with a lot of fans is how this is a rematch from the unforgettable 7-game series these teams played 5 years ago in 2013 and the infamous "3rd Period Collapse". Fact is there are only 5 players left on each side from that series: Boston still has Marchand, Bergeron, Krejci, Chara and Rask while the holdovers on Toronto are Van Riemsdyk, Bozak, Kadri, Komarov and Gardiner. Hard to believe these are the only players left, but such is life in a salary cap world with so much yearly turnover. There's a sense from Leafs Nation that winning this series would be sweet revenge, while on the Bruins side they just feel really good about their chances regardless of who they play since catching fire in mid-November and never looked back. This will be a tough, physical series yet with a lot of skill and two of the best goalies in the league as well. Both teams have a lot of talent but it says here that when it comes to scoring, speed and skill the Leafs are one line deeper up front.
Prediction: LEAFS IN 6
1. Washington Capitals vs 4. Columbus Blue Jackets
For the past decade, the Capitals have been annual Stanley Cup contenders. Qualifying for the postseason 10 out of the last 11 years, they haven't even made it to the Conference Finals losing in the 2nd Round 6 times and in the 1st Round 4 times. This year however, nobody is talking about them going far and are almost flying under the radar. Ovechkin and the Caps biggest problem is getting past arch enemy Sidney Crosby and the 2-time defending champions Pittsburgh Penguins, who they have lost to in the 2nd Round the last 2 years. They may have to go through that again, but should not overlook what is a very good Blue Jackets team, who outside of newly acquired Artemi Panarin lack in the star-quality player department up front. Columbus is a very good defensive team with one of the best in between the pipes, Sergei Bobrovsky will need him to steal a couple of games to win this series and keep the scores low to get by the Cup-starved Caps. If not, do not look for an "upset" happening here.
Prediction: CAPITALS IN 7
2. Pittsburgh Penguins vs 3. Philadelphia Flyers
Ah yes, the battle of Pennsylvania. At first glance, this looks like a no-contest for the 2-time defending Stanley Cup Champion, but not so fast; Philly can score, defend, and have only lost 1 game in regulation in their past 11. This is a matchup we all want to see, as like the Sharks-Ducks series, although they haven't met in a postseason series in almost a decade there is no love lost between these 2 longtime inner-state rivals. It could get bloody, it could get ugly, and most of all it could go either way. Pittsburgh has shown no signs of a Cup "hangover", and are looking to become the 1st team to 3-peat as champions in 35 years. The Flyers meanwhile did not know if they would get in until clinching a spot in their final game of the regular season, which should give them plenty of momentum. This should be one to watch - and it could have more surprises than you think with a Philadelphia team that has a 100 point player in Claude Giroux, who seems to be a man on a mission these days.
Prediction: FLYERS IN 7