NASHVILLE VERSUS COLORADO
For the Colorado Avalanche, making the playoffs this season was by itself a huge accomplishment. That doesn’t mean they’re content going into this series, but they are major underdogs.
The Predators captured the Presidents’ Trophy with their 53-18-11 record and it’s not hard to see how that roster could lead to that result. They’re just such a deep team. When Mike Fisher came out of retirement to play out the rest of the year starting on March 2nd, he settled in as the team’s fourth line center. The 37-year-old might not be in his prime anymore, but to have someone of that caliber on the fourth line speaks to that depth.
The Predators finished the season tied for seventh in goals for, which might not sound that remarkable, but keep in mind that Filip Forsberg led this team with 64 points. If you look at the NHL as a whole, Forsberg was tied for 52nd place in the scoring race, so the Predators didn’t get that upper-tier offense by relying on one or a couple superstars.
Instead they got help from a number of different sources. Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, and Ryan Johansen were the most notable, but Craig Smith, Kevin Fiala, and Kyle Turris also contributed more than 40 points each. The Predators had 13 players record at least 10 goals while the league’s top offense, Tampa Bay, had 11 players that pulled off the same feat.
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While they have a well-rounded group of forwards though, the Predators truly shine elsewhere. Nashville has arguably the best top-four defensemen in the league in Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, and PK Subban. Throw in Matt Irwin and Alexei Emelin and that’s an incredibly strong defensive core.
Combined that with an elite goaltender in Pekka Rinne and it’s no wonder that the Predators were the second stingiest team in terms of goals allowed with just 2.49 per game. If Nashville is to go far this year, it’s going to be in large part thanks to Rinne and the defense. Those blueliners will be counted on to chip in offensively too.
Subban and Josi both finished the season with over 50 points and Ellis might have too if he wasn’t held back by injury. As it is, Ellis recorded nine goals and 32 points in 44 contests in 2017-18.
That’s all in contrast to Colorado, where the defense and goaltending are big question marks. It’s partially the product of bad luck though. Colorado will be without starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov and their top defenseman Erik Johnson for the duration of the first round. For a team that was already a long shot to win the series, missing those two key pieces is a huge issue.
With Varlamov out of commission, the Avalanche will need some heroics out of Jonathan Bernier. Thus far he’s been a mixed bag in 2017-18 with a 19-13-3 record, 2.85 GAA, and .913 save percentage in 37 contests. He has just five games worth of playoff experience, but the 29-year-old has been in the NHL for a while now, so he does at least have other experiences to lean on.
If there’s an area where the Avalanche have the edge though it’s when it comes to top lines. The Predators might have forward depth, but they don’t have an equivalent to the trio of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen. Those three have been incredibly effective this season with MacKinnon leading the charge in a potential Hart Trophy campaign with his 39 goals and 97 points in 74 contests. Rantanen, who was playing in his sophomore season, wasn’t that far behind with 29 goals and 84 points in 81 contests.
If Nashville can’t contain Colorado’s first line, then maybe the Avalanche can give them a run for their money. I just don’t see that ultimately happening though. My prediction is that Nashville takes this series in five games.
Please note that these line combinations need to be taken with a grain of salt as combinations can change on a game-by-game or even shift-by-shift basis in the playoffs.
Filip Forsberg is one of the hottest players in the league right now with five goals and nine points in his last five games. Not that he wasn't great throughout the campaign as he finished with 64 points in 67 contests.
Mattias Ekholm is going into the playoffs with no goals and three assists in his final 15 games. That kept him from setting a new career-high in points as he finished with 34 points compared to his 2015-16 total of 35. He did set a new personal-best in goals though with 10.
The Predators are almost entirely healthy going into the playoffs. The only sidelined player is Calle Jarnkrok (upper body) and he's regarded as day-to-day.
Nashville won the Presidents' Trophy for the first time in its franchise's history. Prior to this season, the Predators had never even won their division before.
This is the first time that the Predators and Avalanche have faced each other in a playoff series. They did play four times in the 2017-18 campaign though, with Nashville sweeping the season series.
These lines have been made to reflect the Avalanche's major injuries.
If Nathan MacKinnon isn't considered hot right now, that's only because he's being held to a different standard given how good he's been all season. If you look at him from Feb. 20 to the end of the season though, he's been especially effective with 15 goals and 36 points in 24 games.
Erik Johnson suffered a fractured patella and as of March 31st, he was projected to miss six-to-eight weeks. In other words, he won't play in the first round. Starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov (knee) has also been ruled out for the series.
In order to make the playoffs this season, the Avalanche enjoyed a 47-point improvement compared to 2016-17. That's obviously an amazing improvement, although it’s also worth mentioning that the Avalanche had the worst regular season record among those that made the playoffs at 43-30-9.
The Avalanche had the fourth-best penalty kill in the league with their 83.3% success rate. Nashville ranked sixth at 81.9%, so these are teams that can get away with some undisciplined play. That's good for them given that the Predators ranked first in total minor penalties (320) while the Avalanche were 10th (290).
VEGAS VERSUS LOS ANGELES
I’ll be honest: I have a soft spot for Vegas. How could you not? They’re basically a Disney movie. Primarily a collection of players that other teams decided not to protect in an expansion team that had zero expectations that somehow manages to win its division despite a string of injuries (particularly to goaltenders) all while being led by a coach in Gerard Gallant that was fired by the Panthers just a quarter of the way through 2016-17 despite leading Florida to a division title just a season prior.
After that division win, the Golden Knights have the home ice advantage in their series against the Los Angeles Kings and with that, they are technically the favorites, but there are still going to be a lot of people that doubt them. Regular season success is one thing, but can an expansion team really measure up in the playoffs?
While Los Angeles only secured a Wild Card seed with its 45-29-8 record and the Kings haven’t been past the first round since 2014, they are a pretty strong team to test the Golden Knights. Although it’s been a while since the Kings’ glory years, key players from that era still remain.
Drew Doughty is still an elite defenseman, Jonathan Quick is a top-tier goaltender, Anze Kopitar is one of the league’s top forwards, and Jeff Carter – while he was hurt for most of the years – is once again a major scoring threat now that he’s healthy.
Much of that goes without saying, though Kopitar being called a top forward would have been hard to swallow just a season ago as he struggled (by his standards) with 12 goals and 52 points in 76 contests. He’s a big part of the reason the Kings got to the playoffs in 2018 though as he’s coming off a 35-goal and 92-point campaign. Dustin Brown also had a dramatic comeback in 2017-18, finishing with 28 goals and 61 points in 81 games.
The Kings’ scoring depth is somewhat suspect though. After Kopitar and Brown, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are their only other forwards with at least 40 points. Pearson and Toffoli haven’t developed quite as well as the Kings probably would have liked, but their ability to chip in as secondary scorers will be vital in this series.
That’s because Vegas has so many offensive weapons. William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault were big surprises this season with 78 and 75 points respectively, but the Golden Knights have two other players that at least reached the 60-point milestone in David Perron and Reilly Smith. Then there’s Erik Haula, who finished with 29 goals and 55 points in 76 contests and James Neal, who had 25 goals and 44 points in 71 games.
Thanks in large part to that group, Vegas finished the season fifth in goals while Los Angeles was 16th overall.
When healthy, Marc-Andre Fleury also played like a top-tier goaltender this season, posting a 29-13-4 record, 2.24 GAA, and .927 save percentage in 46 starts. It will be very interesting to see how he does in the playoffs. He played a big role in the Penguins’ run to the Stanley Cup championship in 2017, posting a 9-6 record, 2.56 GAA, and .924 save percentage in the playoffs. However, he was kept on a short leash and Matt Murray played amazingly in the postseason, which led to Fleury being on the bench when the Penguins’ won the Cup.
That touches on a quirk of Vegas though. The team might be new, but it’s not a group of rookies. Fleury and Neal were in the Stanley Cup Final last year. Then there are guys like Perron, who has 42 playoff contests to his name. I’d give the Kings the edge in terms of playoff experience, but it’s not as if this is a clean case of the grizzled veterans against the fresh faced up-and-comers.
At the end of the day, the further Vegas goes in the playoffs, the better this story becomes. However, the gap between the Golden Knights and the Kings isn’t that big, which is further highlighted by their season series, which was split 2-2.
I can see this one going to seven games, but I believe in the end, the Golden Knights will get past the Kings. Los Angeles has some elite players that they’ll have to overcome, but when you talk about a complete package, I see the Golden Knights as being closer to that than Los Angeles.
Shea Theodore finished the campaign on a high note by scoring two goals and nine points in his last 11 games. This was his first full season and he had six goals and 29 points in 61 contests overall.
James Neal is one of those players who scores in bunches and it's bit a little while since his last big run of goals. He has found the back of the net just three goals in his last 24 contests. He's recorded a modest 10 points over that span.
Mikhail Grabovski (concussion) and David Clarkson (back) obviously aren't expected to play at all in the postseason. The Golden Knights also have been without Clayton Stoner (abdomen) and he remains out indefinitely.
The Golden Knights were the first modern-era expansion team in the big four North American sports to win its division in its expansion season (that doesn't include teams from mergers or in all-expansion divisions).
One thing Vegas did really well was pull off come-from-behind wins. The Golden Knights had a 6-17-2 record when trailing after 40 minutes. That might not sound good, but it was the second highest winning percentage in the NHL for that scenario. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning had a better record when trailing after two periods (9-20-1).
Dustin Brown is an easy pick here. He had that four-goal game on Apr. 5th, but he's also recorded eight goals and 11 points in his last 12 contests. He set a new career-high this season with 61 points, which is an amazing comeback after he recorded just 118 points in 323 games over his previous four campaigns.
It might be a little bit of a stretch to list Tyler Toffoli here, but he has been limited to a goal and five points in his last 11 contests, so he's left a bit to be desired. Overall, he had 24 goals and 47 points in 82 games this season.
Los Angeles has a handful of injured players, but none of them appear to be too serious. Torrey Mitchell missed the Kings' final two games due to an illness, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him available for Game 1. They might also get Alex Iafallo (upper body) back after he missed four straight games.
It's not clear how close Jake Muzzin (upper body) is though. He last played on March 26 and hasn't resumed practicing yet, though he has been skating. Derek Forbort (lower body) is believed to be further from his return than Muzzin, but even Forbort might end up returning before the end of the series.
The Kings are returning to the playoffs after a one-year absence. They haven't won a playoff series though since 2014 when they won the Cup for the second time in the span of three years.
Los Angeles allowed fewer goals than any other team in 2017-18 (a 202 GA). The Kings tended to be at their worst in the first period where they allowed 79 goals, but they surrendered just 58 markers in each of the second and third frames. Meanwhile, the Kings' offense tends to heat up as the game progresses as they recorded 52 goals for in the first period, 79 in the second, and 97 in the third. They outscored the competition 9-7 in overtime.
WINNIPEG VERSUS MINNESOTA
Since Ryan Suter and Zach Parise signed matching 13-year, $98 million contracts with the Wild in the summer of 2012, the team has made the playoffs for sixth straight seasons, but they haven’t done much once they get there. Over that stretch, Minnesota has only won two postseason series and suffered first round exits in 2016 and 2017. Will this year be any different? It’s always possible, but the Wild certainly aren’t favored to beat Winnipeg.
The biggest road block for the Wild is the fact that Suter won’t participate in the series after underdoing ankle surgery. Suter was arguably Minnesota’s best player this season with six goals and 51 points while averaging 26:47 minutes per game. His absence has left a big void on the blueline to say the least. Complicating things further is that Jared Spurgeon, who ranked second behind Suter in minutes per game at 24:32, is dealing with a hamstring injury and is questionable for the start of the series.
Those injuries put more pressure on goaltender Devan Dubnyk, but whether or not he’ll rise to the occasion remains to be seen. He was pretty hit-and-miss in 2017-18 and ended up with a 35-16-7 record, 2.52 GAA, and .918 save percentage in 60 contests. Those aren’t bad numbers, but it is a step down from what he accomplished in 2016-17. He’s also been a mixed bag in the Wild’s past playoff runs. He was terrible in 2016, but then excelled in the 2017 playoffs, but couldn’t get any offensive support in that first round exit.
When it comes to the Wild’s offense this year, they do have some serious weapons. Eric Staal, Mikael Granlund, and Jason Zucker all finished with more than 60 points while Staal and Zucker also contributed 42 and 33 goals respectively.
If you want to talk about forwards though, Winnipeg has the clear edge. The Jets averaged 3.33 goals per game in the regular season, which was good for second in the league behind only Tampa Bay.
Blake Wheeler led the charge with 23 goals and 91 points in 81 games while Patrik Laine had a big sophomore season with 44 goals and 70 points. It’ll be particularly interesting to see how Laine does in his first playoff series. As is the case with a lot of goal scorers, his markers tend to come in bunches and he hasn’t been connecting lately with just one goal in his last 10 games. So is he cold going into the playoffs or is he due?
The Jets also have a fair amount of offensive depth as Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers each had 60 points while Kyle Connor found the back of the net 31 times. The Jets had seven players with at least 40 points and five with at least 20 goals. By contrast, the Wild had three players reach the 20-goal milestone, although they did at least have six players get to the 40-point mark.
The Wild’s X-Factor is probably goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. He had a strong regular season with a 44-11-9 record, 2.36 GAA, and .924 save percentage in 67 contests and he was pretty consistent throughout the campaign. In no month did he post a GAA worse than 2.63 or a save percentage below .911. This was his breakout season though and the 24-year-old has never played in the postseason before, so how he responds to the heightened pressure will play a big role in defining this series.
Ultimately, I do expect the Wild to put up a decent fight and perhaps they’ll end up surprising me by taking this series, but without Suter, I just don’t believe they’ll come through. I’m picking the Jets to win this series in six games.
Jacob Trouba-Josh Morrissey
Kyle Connor's first full NHL campaign was one to remember. There was a lot of talented rookies this season, so his 57 points in 76 contests was only good for fourth place, but he led the rookie class in goals with 31. He was also on fire to round out the campaign with nine goals and 16 points in his last 13 games.
When Patrik Laine is at his best then he'll put up unreal numbers, but he hasn't been at that level recently. At one point he had a shot at the Rocket Richard Trophy, but he limped to the finish line with a goal and an assist in 10 games. The Jets are naturally hoping that he'll heat up again during his first playoff run.
In terms of forwards, Winnipeg is relatively healthy with the exception of Matt Hendricks (lower body), who will probably miss the first round. The Jets' defensive situation is a touch murkier.
We haven't heard anything about Dmitry Kulikov since March 19th when it was announced that he had decided against back surgery. He last played on March 8th. It's also not clear if Toby Enstrom (lower body) will be available at all. He hasn't played since March 23rd and got into just 43 games. The good news is that Jacob Trouba (ankle) should be good for the start of the playoffs.
Since moving to Winnipeg for the start of the 2011-12 campaign, this is the second time that the Jets have made the playoffs. Their 114-point regular season record was also the best from this version of the Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets' 3.33 goals for per game was the second-best in the NHL behind Tampa Bay. The Jets were hot starters, scoring an NHL-high 92 goals in the first period.
The Wild's defensive injuries make it a bit hard to predict their blueliner pairings, so these might prove to be pretty off.
Zach Parise didn't make his season debut until Jan. 2 and then it took him a while to get going. He had just one assist in his first seven contests and three points through 13 games. He really took off after that though and finished with seven goals and nine points in his final nine contests.
I struggled to find a suitable player for this category with the Wild. There are players that haven't produced much recently, but they were players that hadn't really done much all campaign. Some of them though were significant disappointments, like Charlie Coyle. After setting a new career-high in 2016-17 with 56 points, he regressed to 37 points in 66 games this season. He also hasn't been particularly effectively lately with no goals and two assists in his last nine contests.
The Wild suffered a huge blow when it was announced on April 2nd that Ryan Suter would require season-ending ankle surgery, but he's not their only sidelined player. Forward Luke Kunin will also miss the playoffs due to an ACL tear in his left knee.
On a more positive note, Jared Spurgeon (hamstring) might be back in the not too distant future as he is day-to-day. Gustav Olofsson is technically day-to-day too, but he has a concussion so there's no telling how long he'll be sidelined for.
The Wild advanced to the playoffs for the sixth straight year. However, they haven't gotten past the first round since 2015 and haven't gotten past the second round since 2003.
It can be pretty hard to close the gap on the Wild when they get to an early lead. They had a 24-1-3 record in 2017-18 in games where they led after 20 minutes. All teams are favorable under those circumstances, but the Wild's .857 winning percentage was tied for the sixth best in the NHL.
ANAHEIM VERSUS SAN JOSE
There are teams going into the playoffs with some major players sidelined and both of these squads are examples of that.
San Jose is healthy overall, but the glaring exception is Joe Thornton, who hasn’t played since Jan. 23rd. He’s not expected to be ready for Game 1 of the series, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye on his status because he might be back before the first round is over. Obviously his absence will be felt by the Sharks, especially seeing as he was doing well when healthy with 13 goals and 36 points in 47 games.
The Sharks aren’t exactly swimming in offensive weapons, but they do have threats even in Thornton’s absence. Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture each finished above the 60-point milestone while Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier each chipped in over 20 goals. Then of course there’s defenseman Brent Burns, who had 12 goals and 67 points in 82 games.
The Sharks also made a big splash at the trade deadline, adding Evander Kane from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Daniel O'Regan and two conditional picks. Kane has been a bit of a hit-and-miss player throughout his career, but he seems to have meshed well with the Sharks, scoring nine goals and 14 points in 17 games since the trade. He has the potential to be a major impact player in this series and perhaps prove to be the difference between San Jose and Anaheim.
The Sharks will likely need that offensive support because Martin Jones has been all over the place this season. He finished with a 30-22-6 record, 2.55 GAA, and .915 save percentage in 60 starts, which is okay, but he had some extreme and fairly lengthy hot-and-cold streaks. It doesn’t help that he’s entering this series on a sour note as he has a 1-4-0 record, 3.70 GAA, and .874 save percentage in his last five starts.
Not that the Sharks are alone in their goaltending issues. Ducks goalie John Gibson had a fairly strong season with a 31-18-7 record, 2.43 GAA, and .926 save percentage in 60 starts, but he dealt with injury issues in the second half of the campaign and he’s questionable going into this series. At least the Ducks have a solid Plan B in Ryan Miller though. While he’s not a first choice to lean on at the age of 37, he was solid in relief of Gibson this season, posting a 12-6-6 record, 2.35 GAA, and .928 save percentage in 28 contests. Miller’s presence certainly helps mitigate the potential loss of Gibson, but it doesn’t entirely erase the problem.
Gibson isn’t even the Ducks’ biggest injury issue though. Anaheim lost Cam Fowler to a shoulder injury and might not be available at all in this series. Fowler averaged 24:51 minutes per game when healthy, so his absence is a huge deal.
Injuries have been a theme for the Ducks this season though. No one on the team played more than 80 games and only seven players even reached the 70-game mark. Ryan Getzlaf only played in 56 games and Ryan Kesler was limited to 44 games as he couldn’t make his season debut until Dec. 27. At least Getzlaf was effective when healthy though; the same can’t be said about Kesler. He hasn’t done much offensively this season with eight goals and 14 points in 44 games. Even his work on the draw has been underwhelming by his standards as Kesler won 53.4% of his faceoffs, compared to his average of 57% since joining Anaheim.
Neither of these teams were particularly special offensively in the regular season as San Jose finished in 13th place in terms of goals per game at 3.01 while Anaheim tied for 18th place at 2.82. Between Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Rickard Rakell, Adam Henrique, Pavelski, Couture, Kane, and – if healthy – Thornton though, there isn’t a shortage of forwards who are talented enough to step up and be the hero of this series.
This feels like a series of X-Factors and that makes it a little hard to pin down. To me this is one of those series where you’d get as much consulting a coin flip on who will win as you would asking a person, but I have to choose a side and so I will take San Jose over Anaheim in seven games. I’m banking on Kane having a big showing, especially with his contract up after this run, and I think Thornton could end up giving the Sharks a late surge should he return.
Hampus Lindholm-Josh Manson
Andrew Cogliano isn't typically a major offensive contributor, but he has been playing like one lately. He rounded out the campaign with five goals and nine points in his last 11 contests. That resulted in him finishing with 12 goals and 35 points in 80 games this season.
This has just been a pretty rough campaign for Ryan Kesler overall. He couldn't make his season debut until Dec. 27th, and he never quite got into the swing of things. Interestingly enough though, he has grown worse as he's gotten more games under his belt. He had five goals and seven points in his first 15 contests compared to three goals and seven points in his final 29 games. It is worth emphasizing that Ryan Kesler hasn't been 100%, even since his return, so his struggles are understandable even if they still hurt the Ducks.
The Ducks are expected to be without Patrick Eaves for the playoffs due to Gullain-Barre Syndrome, but they might get other injured players back.
The big question is the status of John Gibson. He's day-to-day with an upper-body injury and dealt with a sprinkling of injuries throughout the second half of the campaign. It's not clear yet if the goaltender will be available for Game 1. We're also waiting on news regarding defenseman Kevin Bieksa, who underwent hand surgery. As of March 16th, he was expected to miss two-to-five weeks, so we're a little more than three weeks into that timetable.
Defenseman Cam Fowler isn't going to be ready for the start of the playoffs after sustaining a shoulder injury. He was projected to miss two-to-six weeks as of April 3rd, so in a best case scenario, maybe he'll return towards the end of the first round.
This is Anaheim's sixth consecutive trip to the playoffs. This is also the second time they faced the San Jose Sharks. In 2009 they best the Sharks in six games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
Among the teams that made the playoffs, the Ducks had the worst offense with just 235 goals for. They still had a plus-19 goals differential though, which puts them ahead of playoff participants Columbus (+12), Philadelphia (+8), and New Jersey (+4).
It's not clear when Thornton will be back, but obviously his return would have a big impact on the line combinations.
Some people might forget, but Brent Burns actually got off to a pretty slow start this season compared to what we've come to expect from him. He had no goals and seven assists in his first 19 games, but he took off after that and never looked back. He's been particularly effective lately with two goals and 14 points in his last 13 contests. In 2017-18, he had 12 goals and 67 points in 82 games.
Martin Jones has kind of been all over the place this season. Lately, he has a 1-4-0 record, 3.70 GAA, and .874 save percentage in five starts. Obviously, the Sharks need better from him going forward.
When it comes to the Sharks' injuries, the big question is Joe Thornton, who hasn't played since Jan. 23rd due to a knee issue. He's not expected to be available for Game 1 of the first round, but he has resumed practicing so we might see him at some point during the series.
Eric Fehr hasn't played since March 24th after aggravating a pre-existing injury. It's not clear if he has a chance of returning for Game 1.
San Jose has made the playoffs in 18 of the last 20 years. The only other team to reach the playoffs as often during that span are the Detroit Red Wings.
The Sharks' ranked second in the NHL with a 84.8% success rate on the penalty kill. Not that they abused that as the Sharks were also tied for the third-least minor penalties in the NHL with 265.