The 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin tonight, and that old devil "not enough hours in the day" has resulted in me not yet being done writing the post that I intended to publish as my way of heralding them. So instead I am going to take the easy way out and publish my first round predictions!
You may say that's not really the easy way out, since all of my predictions could end up being wrong and that would open me up to mockery and invite people to question whether I know what I'm talking about.
But whatever. I think it's easy because it doesn't take long. And because when you're typing away about things that haven't happened, you don't need to jump down rabbit holes checking your facts. So here I go!
And fyi, for each match-up the highest seeded team is the one named first.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
Tampa Bay is the top seed in the East and had the best record in the league for much of the season. It led the NHL in goals and tied for second in goal differential. Is is insanely deep at forward, and after the trade deadline acquisition of Ryan McDonagh it also has impressive depth on the blueline. Meanwhile, New Jersey is the bottom seed in the East and relies heavily on one forward line... However, the Lightning wavered noticeably down the stretch, especially in goal, whereas the Devils won eight of their last ten and enter the post-season playing their best and Keith Kincaid is performing lights out in net. Plus, the Devils beat the Lightning all three times they played them this season. So this series ain't a gimme... But don't get too cocky, Jersey fans, because Tampa Bay is the better team and has more playoff experience and also has a chip on its shoulder. This series will be more interesting than Bolts fans like myself want it to be, but the Bolts will prevail. Lightning in six
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
It's odd that this Maple Leafs squad has more points than any other in the franchise's storied history, yet only finished third in the Atlantic Division. And it's unfair of the NHL's brain-dead division-bracketing post-season scheme that they are forced to play the Bruins -- arguably the league's best team -- in Round One rather than be bracketed to face them in Round Two like they would have in the not-long-ago days when common sense prevailed. Of course, the Leafs are stacked with talent and could certainly win this one, but the Bruins just seem too stacked and sure of themselves and supremely coached to bow out this early, no matter who they face. There will be no first round exit for a team whose top line features three forwards who each play Selke-like D and each scored 30+ goals. Bruins in six
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
It's the Battle of Pennsylvania, featuring two teams who despise each other and overcame dismal early stretches, including a 10-game losing streak by Philly. It also features at least two players who belong in the Hart Trophy conversation (Claude Giroux and Evgeni Malkin). But come on. We are talking about a team that has won back-to-back Stanley Cups and has a legit chance to win its third straight, versus an organization that hasn't had decent goaltending since the Clinton Administration and hasn't won a Cup since the Ford Administration. Penguins in five
Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
I am going against my own brain on this one. Columbus finished the year on fire, whereas Washington seemed to get away with over-relying on special teams and outperforming its underlying numbers, i.e. the exact things that tend to bite you in the arse come playoff time. Columbus has a stellar #1 goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky, whereas Braden Holtby has struggled so mightily that he has surrendered the starting role to Philipp Grubauer... But you know what? I think it will help the Caps if Grubauer starts in net for them, because he is not haunted by the ghosts of playoffs past that surely plague the mind of Holtby when you consider his history of post-season meltdowns. I also think the Caps will play much looser now that they are no longer saddled with astronomical expectations. They will have their hands full in this series, but they will see to it that the Blue Jackets have theirs full as well. Ovechkin & Co. will advance. Capitals in seven
Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche
Um, no. The Avs did a great job reaching the playoffs one year after being the worst team in the league and all that, and it's nice that Nathan McKinnon strapped them to his back and dragged them here and possibly earned himself a Hart Trophy in the process. But no. Break out the brooms. Predators in four
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
The Jets are deep especially on offense but also on defense and finally have solid goaltending, with Connor Hellebuyck posting a .924 save percentage and setting a new NHL single-season record for wins by a US-born goalie. Meanwhile, the Wild were a great story with their stellar second half of the season. Unfortunately for the Wild, however, key defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter went down with injuries late in the campaign. The Peg is about to see its team advance past the first round for the first time since the Jets 1.0 got past Calgary 31 years ago. Jets in five
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Los Angeles Kings
The Golden Knights won the Pacific Division and were the greatest story of the year up to now, but the midnight bell is about to toll and Cinderella's slipper is about to shatter beneath the force of a Drew Doughty backcheck. The Kings are the lower seed in this series, but they are a playoff-seasoned squad with a Stanley Cup pedigree and they have been rejuvenated under the more scoring-friendly coaching of John Stevens -- Anze Kopitar finished the season with a career-high 92 points, for Chrissakes! LA is gonna win and people are gonna call it a surprise, but I won't. Kings in six
Anaheim Ducks vs. San Jose Sharks
Can you say evenly matched? They don't come any more evenly matched than these two. Give me five minutes to make a case for Anaheim, and I will convince myself that they are going to win this series and that they qualify as a dark horse for the conference title. Give me five minutes to make a case for San Jose, and I will convince myself of the same thing for them. But since I have to pick one or the other, I am going to predict San Jose. And if you demand that I give a reason, I will say that it's because Anaheim is more reliant on John Gibson's netminding than San Jose is on Martin Jones's and right now Gibson's health is the more questionable of those two. Sharks in seven