2018 Stanley Cup Conference Quarterfinals Preview

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Due to circumstances out of my control, today’s DC Sports Dork was published four hours after the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs. As a result, these opinions were as of before today’s (April 11th) sets of games took place.

New Jersey vs. Tampa Bay

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Julio Cortez/AP Photo

The first series up definitely is the most likely to be one-sided. Even though the New Jersey Devils are a much better hockey team than in previous seasons, they still have a few too many deficiencies throughout their roster for them to make it far this postseason. Tampa, on the other hand, has one of the most complete rosters in the league when it is being used to full capacity and when everyone is playing at their best.

What could make the Lightning vulnerable to a major upset has been the play of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The 23-year old former first round pick finally took the reigns as the go-to starter once Ben Bishop left for Dallas during free agency. At first, it looked like Vasilevskiy had the makings of not only a breakout star but also a Vezina trophy winning netminder. However, his form has cratered significantly since the turn of the calendar year and the Lightning have somewhat suffered as a result. They have gone on to win the Atlantic Division, but Tampa should have won the President’s Trophy with ease.

Another reason for their struggles has been one big problem that has been a complete problem for them all year: the Dan Girardi problem. His arrival did not limit the team’s collective talent along the blue line, but things really began to fall apart once Ryan McDonagh at the trade deadline. Just like Kevin Shattenkirk’s addition with the Capitals last season, the team should have been much better on paper. But because of one extra addition, all the defense pairs have had to be shuffled in such a way that not every defenseman is with their ideal partner.

For example, McDonagh and Girardi have been paired and have only delivered 47.6% puck possession in the 121 minutes the two have been paired together at even strength. Recently, Girardi has been playing with Victor Hedman and the results have been even worse at 43.0% puck possession in 219 even strength minutes. In the meantime, the likes of Mikhail Sergachev and Jake Dotchin are much better options to use instead of Girardi and they are being squandered to either playing the least amount of minutes among the team’s six or seven defensemen used every night or they are straight up healthy scratches.

It should be no coincidence that the Lightning was a much better team when Girardi was sheltered with Braydon Coburn along the team’s third pair. Head coach Jon Cooper has to make this happen again, otherwise, they will not only underachieve in the postseason, but they will squander everything that they have built on over the past four years of this current regime. You’ll just never know when you can have a collection of talent as good as what they have at the best points of their age curves ever again.

That all being said, I don’t think it should be so chaotic that New Jersey will find a way to win this series. There has been some chaos in goal as Keith Kinkaid is taking over for Corey Schneider. Along with that, there are so many rookies and 21-and-under players on this roster that may not have what it takes to hit the big time just yet. But it’s not like all of them are so bad that they can’t rise to the occasion at any time this series. Will Butcher has what it takes to remind people why he was so coveted as a college free agent. Nico Hirschier should also remind others why he was the number one overall pick in the draft. Most importantly, Taylor Hall finally has a chance to show the hockey world why he has been among the best forwards in the league in recent seasons.

However, there just isn’t loads of depth across the board with this Devils team to challenge a team like Tampa Bay in this series. You know how talented your top tier players are when you can smoothly transition from Steven Stamkos to Nikita Kucherov being the team’s best player. Also, it goes to show how talented the roster is. Any time you can have Yanni Gourde and Braydon Point supplant Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat on the team’s scoring leaderboard without skipping a beat is a sign of how deep you are up front. Yeah, this should be a smooth series for Jon Cooper regardless of the major flaws in his roster.

Lightning in Five

Toronto vs. Boston

Brad Marchand, Morgan Rielly

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

Next up has the potential to be the best series of the entire first round of the playoffs. Along with that, the usual narratives will pop up when two Original Six franchises meet up as Boston and Toronto will surely carry plenty of history between the two of them. But in the present, these are two very good hockey teams that have the chance to make a run towards the Stanley Cup if results and future opponents go their way.

For Boston, the Patrice Bergeron-Brad Marchand-David Pastrnak line has been among the best top line in the NHL over the past two seasons. But once they have acquired Rick Nash and Nick Holden to a team that has slowly added some talent across the board since their rebuild under general manager Don Sweeney, the Bruins have shown that they have a roster that can go as deep in the postseason as any in the league.

For Toronto, this is year two of their growth towards a long-term contender. With Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander in the fold, the Maple Leafs should always have a foundation to build some of the best teams in the sport for years to come. This year, they have added Patrick Marleau with mixed results and Ron Hainsey hasn’t really improved a defense corps that is still considered a work in progress.

But once you add that both teams have seen strong goaltending this season, this series will be full of quality matchups across the board and it will be quite challenging in determining a definitive winner. This tiebreaker for this series could come down to the team’s depth in the blue line, but Toronto still seems to have the edge when it comes to their talent up front and the way they are able to use it.

While Boston has some depth of their own, Toronto’s effectiveness in their checking line of Marleau, Leo Komarov, and Nazem Kadri could be the key to the series. While they were able to handle Washington’s top line last postseason, the rest of their lines were not able to handle of the Capitals either. It will be up to the scoring first line of Marner, James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak to get the job done offensively so they can free up Matthews’ line and the rest of the Maple Leafs on the ice. If they can’t do that, Boston’s depth in defense should be able to get the job done. That is where my intuition has been since they have been able to not have their PDO limit their potential and that is the prediction I am sticking towards.

Bruins in Seven

Columbus vs. Washington

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AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

We now guide our attention towards a Metropolitan division that has been completely scatterbrained all season long. You can definitely see signs of each team having what it takes to make it to the Stanley Cup Final, but otherwise, each of these teams has flaws that are just too glaring for them to be trusted. For Washington, it is their miserable offseason that has completely weakened the depth of their roster across the board while Columbus seems to lack a middle six forward group that is able to provide attention away from their top line.

Whichever team is able to show the least with their weaknesses is able to make it past the second round. As much as I want to give it to Columbus, they will certainly have to earn it from a Capitals team that just feels like they are on the tail end of a dynasty that was supposed to happen. Instead, they are facing the fact that their prized $6.5 million goaltenders haven’t been good enough to be counted upon to start in the postseason. Then again, it’s not like Sergei Bobrovsky has been great during postseason play (88.7% save percentage, 21.4% quality start percentage in 18 games) so maybe Philipp Grubauer has a shot of winning the netminding battle. Along with that, Washington has been a changed hockey team once they’ve added Michael Kempny and Jakub Jerabek and forced the aging Brooks Orpik down to the third pair.

However, I still wouldn’t fully trust this team to make a deep run towards the Stanley Cup, because they time and again make some of the dumbest roster decisions you will see in the NHL. Even before Kempny and Jerabek arrived, Washington was deploying an up-and-coming defenseman in Christian Djoos and delivered the best puck possession numbers out of any Capitals defenseman. Instead of rewarding him with more playing time, head coach Barry Trotz decided to healthy scratch him to the point where not only is there no chance of him becoming a regular in the playoffs, but his development as an NHL player has been stunted dramatically. At 23 years old, it is critical beyond belief for Djoos to play now instead of stay glued to the press box in order for him to have a viable NHL career.

Along with that, Trotz has time and again played Devante Smith-Pelly despite the fact that he has racked up fourth line scoring numbers throughout the majority of his career. Along with that, the likes of Brett Connolly and Shane Gersich have proven to be better options this season than him. Oh, and I haven’t even included a Nathan Walker, who may never develop into a high scoring winger now that he is 24 years old and struggling to stay on any NHL team. However, Walker provided solid relative puck possession at a time when Washington was searching too far and wide for answers within the bottom six forward group.

Because of that, I just refuse to trust Barry Trotz in critical roster decisions anymore and it will be flat out embarrassing for him to be outcoached by John Tortorella.

Blue Jackets in Seven

Philadelphia vs. Pittsburgh

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AP Photo/Matt Slocum

When two Pennsylvania teams come together, nothing boring ever happens. It’s in the 11th commandment from History of the World, Part 1. But even if these two teams weren’t so close to each other and never had so much history between the two, I still think this will be among the most intriguing series of the first round.

For starts, both teams have what it takes to be quite good defensively if they ever have any form of stability in goal. But because that is not the case, I’m not here to say that this has the makings of the same encounter those two teams have met in 2012, but I also wouldn’t completely write it off either. After all, Andrew MacDonald and [insert Pittsburgh’s sixth-best defensemen here] are playing on these teams respective blue lines somehow.

It’s really the battle of the forwards that could end up determining this series. After all, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux each had sensational seasons that are clearly outperforming what their expectations are at the respective stages of their careers. Sidney Crosby and Jakub Voracek certainly haven’t been bad either, but they have taken back seats to the other players mentioned above despite not seeing their reputations worsen along the way.

But if anything else, it just seems like there is a bit more certainty to how Pittsburgh will perform based off of the experience of players across the lineup. In the long run, the Flyers have a shot at being a very good hockey team, but this season will depend on how well Travis Konecny and Nolan Patrick perform in their first postseason series. If they do great, it will open up great opportunities for their linemates to succeed and ease off the pressure of their top line teammates to carry the whole team on their backs.

Otherwise, Pittsburgh should be able to swallow the Flyers whole, just because of what Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel can do on their own. But in all fairness, it is also what the likes of Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel, and Carl Hagelin can do as well. Along with that Kris Letang is genuinely healthy and that can only spell doom if he can stay that way over the course of the postseason.

Now Letang does have to carry his blue line a lot on both the offensive and defensive side of the rink as does Shayne Ghostesbehere and Ivan Provorov for the Flyers. So that’s why there’s a sense that these two teams can create high scoring games all series. However, I actually do think this will be a much more well-rounded series since both teams are in the top ten in the NHL in even strength shot prevention. But while there is some intrigue as to how this series could play out, I do expect little surprise as to what the outcome of this series will be.

Penguins in Six

Minnesota vs. Winnipeg

Connor Hellebuyck, Mikael Granlund, Jacob Trouba

AP Photo/Jim Mone

If we stick with the past, we can argue that the Winnipeg Jets will not have a chance in advancing past the first round because they’ve never done it before and that Minnesota will not have a chance in advancing past because head coach Bruce Boudreau always seems to blow it during these occasions. At the end of the day, one of these narratives has to change. For starts, the Jets are the far better team which either means they are among the best teams in the league catching fire at the right time or Bruce Boudreau will pull a masterstroke guiding a slightly worse Wild team in a much tougher division past this series.

From Winnipeg’s side of things, their young players have really begun to take hold of the franchise after so many years hoping just Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien and former Jet Andrew Ladd could get the job done for them alone. This time a new generation that involves Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba, arguably the most talented third line in the league in Joel Armia, Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry and skilled players like Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor have reigned supreme this season. Oh, and there’s some Finnish dude named Patrick Laine that has gone on become one of the best players in hockey.

This is a different hockey team with a different identity and, thus, a different attitude from the team to the city this season. So surely, they are going to roll over an unmatched Minnesota team, right? Well, not so fast.

For starts, Minnesota’s top defense-first line is their top line of Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker. Being able to handle tough assignments while racking up huge offensive numbers has been their bread and butter for some time and they could end up being a handful if they end up getting matched up against Winnipeg’s top unit.

However, this series is going to mostly be at Winnipeg’s barn and, thus, head coach Paul Maurice will have last change most of this series. If it were up to him, he would put his third line checking unit on Minnesota’s top line and free up the rest of his lines to unleash chaos the rest of the game.

Otherwise, this series could swing differently if Devan Dubnyk were to outplay Hellebuyck in the battle of netminders. While the young American is having his breakout season at 25, there has been little goaltenders that have played as well as Dubnyk over the past four seasons. Along with that, the 31-year old has 21 games of NHL experience under his belt and would like to improve on his 90.3% save percentage and 38.1% quality start percentage. If he were able to do so, this series can go much longer than people anticipate. Otherwise, I expect nothing much out of the ordinary between these two teams.

Jets in Six

Colorado vs. Nashville

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AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Somehow, Colorado was able to make it to the postseason for the first time in four years after a resounding win over St. Louis. Whether it was because the Blues decided to not show up to the party or the Avalanche found the inner strength to pull off one more, they are where they belong. That alone is a reward for the improvement in their young players and making a commitment towards a youth movement in the past season rather than relying on aging and expensive.

However, their reward for such an achievement will be facing the President’s trophy winning Nashville Predators. This may be a step too far ahead for the Avalanche as they are still among the worst teams in the league in puck possession. As was discussed last week, plenty of that was to do with the savage injury history along the team’s blue line. But somehow, they were able to out-perform a Blues team that seriously need to look themselves in the mirror if they ever want to become the Stanley Cup contenders they are supposed to be with Vladimir Tarasenko, Jayden Schwartz and Alex Pietrangelo in the fold. But that is neither here nor there.

Simply put, Nashville is the better team by a comfortable distance and the only thing standing in their way is getting ravaged by injuries or bad goaltending at the worst time. Remember, it was just two years ago where we all wondered if Pekka Rinne was washed up for good. Now, he is a world-beating goaltender again that may end up claiming the Vezina trophy and all of this is going down while he is 35 years old.

But even if Rinne is not playing well, a defense that features P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm will surely stimy some of the best offenses in the league. However, the likes of Nathan Mackinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog will do their best to live up to the challenge.

There have been two oddities that have made these franchises quite differently than in recent seasons. For Nashville, the puck possession dominance has actually been handed to their sheltered second line of Kyle Turris, Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala instead of their always vaunted top line. For Colorado, it has been the role of the checking line being handed over to the Carl Soderberg-Matt Nieto-Blake Comeau line instead of any line you see Landeskog be on. It has truly worked wonders for those respective lines in which the zone starts have clearly affected the way their goalscoring has been.

So that’s really that about these two team because bluntly, miracles will have to happen for this Avalanche team to win this series. Hockey is such a stupid sport that it is possible, but all I’m saying is that the odds are quite slim.

Predators in Five

Anaheim vs. San Jose

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The Associated Press

We now take a look at the Pacific Division that just seems to be all over the place in terms of predicting its long-term future. Just when you thought Conor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers were going to run roughshod throughout the next decade or so, they have fallen apart miserably and have let newest edition Vegas take over their place. Along with that, Calgary ended up getting worse in spite of adding Travis Hamonic, Jaromir Jagr, and Mike Smith to their roster in hopes of improving their league-wide standing. What has been left are mainstays that just don’t seem to go away with Anaheim and San Jose being among the biggest examples.

Both of these teams are no longer the best forms of themselves, but both should be admired for finding every way possible for still being relevant in the NHL. In Anaheim’s case, it is drafting and developing John Gibson into the world-class netminder he has become. His performances have been so strong that if the NHL players were allowed to play in the previous Olympics, he would probably be team USA’s starting goaltender over Jonathan Quick and Ben Bishop. For San Jose, it is being able to get some of their role players healthy and developing necessary depth on offense once the two Joes began to age or develop long-term injuries. In this season’s case, Logan Couture has really stepped up into the star player he is while it has been fantastic to see Joonas Donskoi and Tomas Hertl return to form and full fitness.

That all being said, out of all the first round playoff series, this one could be the most boring. We’ve just been there done that with these teams before. Both have been looking to make one last run at a Stanley Cup final and it just feels like it is this point where you feel like this is as far as you can go. But because Gary Bettman is a disgrace for not correctly having playoff matchups happen at the correct time points due to seeding, we are stuck with these two going against each other instead of some Central Division team giving them the treatment they deserve.

So I guess I have to pick a winner somehow between these two decaying franchises. I’m going to go with San Jose because this group has made it just a bit further in the postseason in recent seasons and their puck possession is better by a pretty comfortable distance. Anaheim has struggled all season long with creating offensive depth and beyond Rickard Rakell, it is quite difficult to see any young legs coming in and stepping up for them. Also, come on, Randy Carlyle is coaching one of these teams. Do you seriously think he is going to make another run towards a Conference Finals and fooling us all again the exact same way Mike Yeo has to all of us? Somewhere along the line, common sense has to prevail. That is unless Gibson decides to win the Conn Smythe trophy all on his own.

Sharks in Six

Los Angeles vs. Vegas

Anze Kopitar, Erik Haula

AP Photo/Mark J Terrill

Lastly, we turn our attention to the two-time Stanley Cup champions against the one true feel-good story of the entire NHL season. Simply put, expansion teams have no business being this good at this stage of their history. And yet, here we are witnessing Vegas win the Pacific Division and making all doubters into believers. At the end of the day, the Golden Knights were the third best team in the entire NHL based off of my power rankings.

And yet, somehow, I still doubt them. That is not to say that I don’t believe in any accomplishments that they have done so far this season. But the sad truth is, playoff hockey is downright stupid and the best teams don’t find a way to win each postseason series because of the most insurmountable or incomprehensible things. For Vegas’ case, it will be because of the performances of Marc Andre Fleury that will determine how far this team will go because it is uncertain how much his injuries have really affected his performances. Even when he hasn’t played and Malcolm Subban has performed quite poorly in his place, Vegas’ offense has been able to carry them through.

However, the Golden Knights will have to overcome Jonathan Quick, who has shown that he can perform well. But at the same time, Quick has shown that he can perform quite terribly and his performances will be the key to whether or not Los Angeles can pull the upset. That is because, despite all of John Stevens’ good intentions, this is a different hockey team that can be a bit too loose in defense. Stevens’ systems have tried their best to make this Kings team a more open bunch, but instead, he has created a little less structure across the rest of the rink. Things could play out well if Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter can step up in a way that we haven’t seen since 2014, but otherwise, they could be in real trouble.

That’s where I can count on this Vegas team to come through. There just seems to be a bit more certainty with them as to how they will perform. They are the better puck possession team and their PDO has never been so wild that regressions should have happened across the board. How far they will go will be a story that will have to be written once we get there. But until then, let’s enjoy this ride because stories like this are just meant to be viewed in real time.

Golden Knights in Seven

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