What to watch for in the NHL playoffs
After 2,542 regular season National Hockey League games over the last seven months, the fun really begins now as the “second season” is underway. For passionate hockey fans like myself, the start of the playoffs equates to nightly appointment viewing of two-to-three games leading to serious sleep deprivation. Sixteen teams will now fight for the chance to hoist the Stanley Cup in mid-June. Here’s a sneak peek at some of the keys to this year’s playoffs, one of the most exciting post-season tournaments in all of sports.
Eastern Conference Preview
Will Lightning Strike?
While Tampa Bay Lightning fans may be dreaming of a championship celebration outside Amalie Arena for the first time since 2004 after a historic 62-win regular season, hold off the confetti. Since the NHL began awarding the President’s Trophy in 1985-86 to the team with the best record during the regular season, only eight of those clubs have captured the Stanley Cup. On paper, the Lightning is unrivaled. The reality, however, dictates that regular season success doesn’t always equate to post-season prowess.
Carolina in My Mind
Let’s tip our caps to our home-state entry in the playoffs, the Carolina Hurricanes, who are back in the post-season for the first time since 200 after winning 31 of their last 45 games. Led by first-year head coach Rod Brind’Amour, captain Justin Williams, rising young stars such as Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Nino Niederreiter, Andrei Svechnikov, one of the youngest and most talented defensive corps in the NHL, and the underrated goaltending tandem of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, Carolina has a bright future. But a daunting first-round date with defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals stands in the way.
Series to Watch:
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
This ‘Original Six’ rivalry dates back to 1926, and it shows. These two teams do not like each other, and that’s putting it mildly. The two rosters are loaded with elite, high-end players such as Austin Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastranak, as well as a balance of speed, grit, and solid goaltending. Momentum and home ice advantage are keys in the playoffs, which is why I think Boston prevails in seven games.
Five to Watch:
Mitch Marner (Toronto Maple Leafs) – This complete two-way player continues to blossom into one of the game’s most talented and clutch performers.
Matt Duchesne (Columbus Blue Jackets) – Acquired at the trade deadline from Ottawa, Duchesne has a lot to prove and is months away from a potentially hefty free agency pay day.
Brad Marchand (Boston Bruins) – Teammates love him; opponents despise him. Look for this pesky, talented forward to come up big when he has an opportunity to shine.
Niklas Backstrom (Washington Capitals) – While opponents key on Alexander Ovechkin, look for Backstrom to (not so) quietly produce when the game is on the line.
Barry Trotz (New York Islanders) – My only non-player entry in this category because of the head coach’s ability to get the absolute highest productivity from his players on any roster he has ever coached.
Western Conference Preview
Series to Watch:
San Jose Sharks – Vegas Golden Knights
These teams met in the second round of last year’s playoffs with Vegas advancing in six games en route to the Stanley Cup Finals. While this matchup lacks the historical context of the 93-year old Bruins-Leafs matchup, this rivalry has emerged as one of the most spirited in the NHL. Expect this one to go the distance, with Vegas escaping in seven games.
Five to Watch:
Jordin Binnington (St. Louis Blues) – This rookie netminder emerged as St. Louis’ starter down the stretch and the Blues rode his stunning 24 wins in 30 appearances. If St. Louis is to advance, they need Binnington to continue his roll.
Joe Thornton (San Jose Sharks) – This 39-year old wonder is back in the playoffs after missing the 2018 tournament with a knee injury. He still has the fire and desire to win and his ability to “lead by example” will help elevate the Sharks as they prepare for a long post-season push.
Mark Stone (Vegas Golden Knights) – Acquired by Vegas at the trade deadline, Stone immediately signed a long-term deal to stay in the desert and is fueled by the desire to realize something special in his new home after several playoff-less seasons in Ottawa.
Mark Giordano (Calgary Flames) – The Calgary captain logs over 24 minutes played per game and is among the top offensive defensemen in the game. On a young team, he is a veteran leader that helped the Flames reach 107 points during the regular season.
Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators) – The reining Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goaltender, Rinne is rested for the playoffs after a more balanced workload in Music City this season. He gives the Predators a chance to win every single night.
Stanley Cup Prediction
Led by Alexander Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, John Carlson, and Braden Holtby, the Capitals follow in their footsteps of a year ago and bring the Stanley Cup back to D.C. with a six-game series win over the Nashville Predators.
Jeff Schwartzenberg enjoyed a 15-year career as a Marketing and Communications executive with the New York Rangers and Nashville Predators and can now be heard on Friday mornings discussing hockey on 98.1 The Score.