Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers
The Penguins are heading into playoffs red-hot, having won eight of their last 10. They have more offensive star power than the Rangers, which could be the key factor in this series. Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby is back to his old self, and Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist provide a solid supporting cast. Pittsburgh will likely be without Evgeni Malkin for at least the start of the first round. On the other hand, the team is optimistic that goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury will be ready to play in the first round. Kris Letang scored 67 points in 71 games for Pittsburgh and is a solid offensive-defenseman. The Rangers will be without captain Ryan McDonagh for at least the start of the series due to an upper-body injury, which is a serious blow to the team’s defense. The Rangers got a combined 172 points from its top forwards Mats Zuccarello (61), Derick Brassard (58) and Derek Stepan (53), but will need former superstar Rick Nash to step up his production. Nash, whose production typically festers in the postseason, only scored 15 goals this season, the lowest total in his career. Of course, Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist still has the ability to steal games, which is why having Fleury back is so important for the Penguins. Pittsburgh having the superior offense, as well as home ice advantage, should be enough for them to win.
Prediction: Penguins win series, 4-2.
Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders
The Islanders opted to face the Panthers instead of the Penguins, as evidenced by the weak lineup they put on the ice against the Philadelphia Flyers in the final game of the regular season. This is no easy match-up for them, though. Florida boasts a balanced offense that includes the rejuvenated Jaromir Jagr, Aleksander Barkov, Jussi Jokinen and Jonathan Huberdeau. The Isles have a slight offensive advantage with their elite franchise captain John Tavares at the helm, who scored at least 70 points for the third time in his career. He’s supported by Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Brock Nelson. The Panthers have a clear advantage in net, however, with Roberto Luongo. New York will likely be without Jaroslav Halak for the first round, and will rely on backup goaltender Thomas Greiss. While the Islanders have the offensively gifted Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy on defense, they could be without defensive-stalwart Travis Hamonic, which could cost them the series.
Prediction: Panthers win series, 4-3.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings
After falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Lightning will look to renew their battle against the team it began against in last year’s first round: Detroit. The Lightning won that series in seven games. Tampa will likely be without its franchise player, Steven Stamkos, for the postseason due to a blood clot. They still have Nikita Kucherov and his team-leading 66 points. The Lightning will need Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson to regain their 2015-season form in order to replace Stamkos’ production. Victor Hedman is one of the best offensive-defensemen in the league, and goaltender Ben Bishop had another stellar year. It may be too much for Detroit, whose leading scorer, Henrik Zetterberg, only had 50 points. He and Pavel Datsyuk aren’t the players they used to be, and Gustav Nyquist has regressed as well. Goaltender Petr Mrazek will likely be called upon over Jimmy Howard for the Wings. Tampa Bay seems to hold the advantage everywhere, including home ice.
Prediction: Lightning win series, 4-1.
Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
The Capitals were far and away the best team in the regular season, with 120 points. They’ve become known as a team that falls short in the playoffs, however, but they may have never been as deep as this year. Alex Ovechkin potted another 50 goals this season for the Caps, but 23-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov led the team in points with 77, including 57 assists. The team has further offensive depth with Niklas Backstrom, Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie. John Carlson and Matt Niskanen provide the Caps with a good one-two punch on defense. Washington’s Braden Holtby was one of the league’s best goaltenders this year and picked up 48 wins. The Flyers’ best offensive players, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, both had a good year but regressed. Goaltender Steve Mason had a solid year, but he’s not on Holtby’s level. The Caps shouldn’t have too much of an issue here.
Prediction: Capitals win series, 4-1.
Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild
The Wild were a team that nobody thought would make it to the playoffs, before a coaching transition from Mike Yeo to John Torchetti turned the team around. Veteran forwards Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu are backed by young studs like Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle, both of whom hit the 20-goal mark. The team still has its iron-man, Ryan Suter, who will eat up a ton of minutes and contribute some offense. Devan Dubnyk had a solid season in his first full year with Minnesota. On the other hand, the Stars had the best offense in the NHL with 267 goals. Jamie Benn is backed by Patrick Sharp and Jason Spezza. Dallas may also get its other superstar, Tyler Seguin, back during the series, who had suffered an Achilles injury. The Stars got 58 points from John Klingberg on defense as well. Goaltending is the team’s concern, as it also allowed 230 goals. It’s still up in the air if Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen will be in the net for Dallas, but whoever it is, they’ll need to play well.
Prediction: Stars win series, 4-3.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues
The defending Stanley Cup champions, the Blackhawks, will look to kick off another run with a first round victory over the Blues. Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane finished with the most points in the league with 106, and is known for stepping up his game in the playoffs. Rookie sensation Artemi Panarin adds a new element to the Hawks’ postseason offense, having scored 30 goals and 47 assists. Captain Jonathan Toews had a solid season as well. Defenseman Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were both a part of the Hawks’ three Stanley Cups in the past six seasons and contribute offensively, as well as play shutdown defense. Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko scored 40 goals, but the Blues’ depth tails off behind him. They are very solid defensively, with Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo, but it won’t be enough to hold down Chicago.
Prediction: Blackhawks win series, 4-2.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators
With the help of solid offensive depth, the Ducks finished atop the Pacific Division this season with 103 points. , . The team’s longtime stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry delivered as usual with 63 and 62 points respectively, and will likely use their chemistry well in the postseason. Ryan Kesler is an excellent two-way forward; he can play solid defense in addition to offense, as evidenced by the 53 points he put up. The Ducks have strong defense as well, having allowed the fewest goals in the league with 192. As a result, goaltenders Frederik Andersen and John Gibson won the William M. Jennings Trophy. It’s unclear who the Ducks will put in the net for the first game, but it’ll likely be Gibson. The Predators have a well-established goaltender in Pekka Rinne, who is usually near the top of the NHL in most categories. He struggled this year, so the Preds will need him to regain his form if they are to have a chance of upsetting Anaheim. The team has one of the best offensive-defensemen tandems in the league in Roman Josi and Shea Weber. They’ll need offensive production from them, as well as forwards Filip Forsberg and James Neal if Rinne falters.
Prediction: Ducks win series, 4-3.
Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks
The Sharks will be looking to redeem their fall from two years ago, when the Kings reverse-sweeped them in the 2014 first round. The Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup that year against the Rangers. The Sharks have more offensive depth than they did two years ago; Forwards Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Tomas Hertl, Joel Ward and defenseman Brent Burns all scored over 20 goals. Joe Thornton was just one shy, but led the team in points with 82, and Logan Couture missed 30 games due to an injury. Martin Jones and James Reimer will split goaltending duties unless one of them pulls away as the clear starting goaltender for the Sharks this postseason. Either way, the Kings have an advantage in the net with Jonathan Quick, who hit the 40-win plateau this season. Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Milan Lucic match the Sharks’ offensive depth. Defensemen Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin can also contribute offensively as well. The X-factor, though, may be that Sharks defensive-defenseman extraordinaire Marc-Edouard Vlasic will be returning from injury, which had previously caused San Jose’s 2014 collapse.
Prediction: Sharks win series, 4-2.