NHL Round One Preview: Who Is This Year’s Nashville Predators?
Best Underdog To Reach The Cup Finals
Last year, the Nashville Predators, despite entering the playoffs as the second Wild Card in the Western Conference, made their way to their first Stanley Cup Finals in franchise history. The Predators are no underdog this year (and actually open as the favourite on Sports Interaction to win the Stanley Cup). This year’s Predators is another team from the Western Conference, with recent playoff success and an excellent ensemble of veteran players.
The best underdog to wager to reach the Cup Finals is the Los Angeles Kings. Coming in as the first Wild Card, the Kings are +1100 to win the Western Conference and +2000 to win the Stanley Cup. The Kings are no strangers to entering the playoffs as underdogs. In their two Stanley Cup runs (2012 and 2014), the Kings entered the playoffs as underdogs in their first-round matchups.
Their 2012 playoff run is particularly impressive. Coming in as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, the Kings decimated the Western Conference (going 12-2) before beating the New Jersey Devils 4-2 to capture their first Stanley Cup.
Nine players on the Kings roster remain from their 2014 Stanley Cup run. Their experience in the postseason gives them an advantage over the Vegas Golden Knights. While the experience is a good starting point, the Kings will only go as far as Jonathan Quick takes them. When Quick is hot in the playoffs, scoring on the Kings is near impossible. Quick posted a GAA of 1.41 in the Kings first Stanley Cup run and owns nine postseason shutouts in 81 games.
While the Predators are heavy favourites to win the West, the NHL has the remarkable propensity for playoff upsets. In a seven-game series, the Kings just need Quick to outplay Pekka Rinne and get one or two good games out of their offence, to beat the Predators.
Out of all the teams with odds greater than +1000 to win their Conference, the experience and goaltending of the Kings make them the best underdog to wager.
Eastern Conference First Round Predictions
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
As great as the Tampa Bay Lightning played all season, they consistently struggled against the New Jersey Devils. The Devils won all three games this season against Tampa Bay,
Tampa Bay had 31 more shots in the three games, scored twice as many power play goals and owned a better penalty kill. The Devils were lucky to win one game against Tampa Bay, let alone go undefeated against the top seed in the Eastern Conference this year.
Tampa Bay is the favourite in this series and deservedly so. The Lightning finished the season with the top offence in the NHL (New Jersey finished 14th). The Lightning are better on defence, have more depth and greater playoff experience. The biggest weakness in Tampa’s game is their penalty kill. The Lightning ranked 28th in killing penalties at home. This issue would be more glaring, if not for New Jersey’s 27th road power play.
Now that it is the playoffs, the Devils cannot get lucky to beat the Lightning. Being outshot, having a weaker defence and playing worse special teams is something that cannot be overcome by luck to win a seven-game series. The Devils may steal a game at home or if Steven Stamkos is injured, but overall the Lightning should dispatch the Devils with relative ease.
Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Starting their series on Thursday, two Metropolitan Division foes clash in Washington, as the Capitals hope to continue their success against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Capitals went 3-1-0 against the Blue Jackets this season, although the Blue Jackets won the last meeting 5-1 in Columbus. The Capitals have advanced to the second round of the playoffs the previous three seasons, while Columbus has yet to win a playoff series in franchise history.
One aspect in favour of the Capitals is the lack of media attention on the team entering the playoffs. The last two years, the Capitals finished tops in the Eastern Conference and entered the playoffs as the Cup favourite. Both years ended in second round disappointment against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Less pressure may help Alexander Ovechkin and company, play more akin to their regular season style leading to greater success.
This year feels different. The Capitals are no world-beater this year. They rank in the eight to 12 range for most major statistical categories. The team’s balance has helped them this season. They were 33-14-5 against the East this season and 17-8-3 against their division. Washington also enters as the hotter team, going 8-2 over their last ten (which includes a 5-0 record on the road).
If Columbus’ goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky was better than 7-10-4 with a 3.02 GAA and .900 save percentage against the Capitals in his career, they would have a chance. However, his struggles against his division rival cannot be ignored. The Capitals have a bit of a goaltender controversy but should work it out before the series starts. Worst case scenario, one of the goaltenders struggles and the other comes in the carries the Caps to a Round One victory.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
The battle of Pennsylvania starts on Wednesday night when the Pittsburgh Penguins host the Philadelphia Flyers. Pittsburgh bullied the Flyers this season, winning all four meetings and outscoring the Flyers 20-11. Pittsburgh finished the season with a 30-9-2 record at home, best in the Eastern Conference. While Philadelphia had some moments of greatness this season (especially a strong February), their 42 wins are the fewest of any playoff team this season.
The Flyers below-average penalty kill is also a significant factor in this series. As weak as the Penguins defence has played at times this season (the Penguins gave up the most goals of any playoff team this season), their power play unit is tops in the NHL.
The Flyers allowed four power play goals on eight power plays to the Penguins in their last three games. Even if Penguins goaltender Matt Murray is not at his best (possible, but with just one game played in the previous week, he should play well), the Flyers cannot contain the Penguins explosive offence. Take the Penguins to sweep their first playoff series since 2009.
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Arguably the biggest matchup of the first round, the Toronto Maple Leafs will try to redeem themselves for the 2013 playoff collapse when they square up against the Boston Bruins on Thursday night. The Leafs went 3-1-0 against Boston this season, with their three wins coming without Auston Matthews in their lineup.
The Leafs success this year against Boston is a bit surprising. The Bruins match up well against the Leafs. Their two-way forwards stifled the Leafs for years and forced them out of their typical style of play. However, it was not the offence that carried the Leafs to a season series win over Boston this season, it was their defence and goaltending.
Andersen went 2-1-0 against Boston this season, with a GAA of 2.67 (or 0.14 lower than his season average). Andersen should be fresh entering the series, playing just two games in the month of April. The Bruins goaltender, Tuukka Rask, is not looking so sharp entering the series. Rask dropped his last three games, allowing 11 goals. Rask went 1-2-0 against Toronto this season with a .905 save percentage (.12 lower than his season average).
The Leafs, healthy and moderately rested, have a good chance to beat Boston. With Rask struggling to end the year and the Bruins playing a busy schedule to wrap up the season, they may start the series slowly. A slow start gives the Leafs an opportunity to steal a game on the road and return home, where they set a franchise record for wins in a season.
Western Conference Preview
Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche
While credit is due to the Colorado Avalanche improving so much this season, they have little chance at upsetting the Nashville Predators in the first round of the playoffs. In their last ten meetings, Nashville is 10-0-0 against the Avalanche, with only one game going to overtime.
The Predators outscored the Avalanche 42-22 in those ten wins. Unless Nathan MacKinnon plays at an MVP-level, there is not much chance Colorado even wins a game in this series. Take the Predators to win the series in a sweeping fashion.
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Los Angeles Kings
Possibly the best West Conference series of the first round, the Golden Knights play their first playoff game in franchise history against the Kings on Wednesday night. The two teams split the season series, each winning one game on the road and one at home.
The Kings have the playoff experience over the Golden Knights and with their roster mostly healthy entering the postseason have a good chance at upsetting Vegas in Round One. The Kings finished the regular season with the best defence in the National Hockey League allowing a league-low 2.48 goals per game and killing 85.0% of penalties.
Vegas cooled off later in the season, including back-to-back losses to the Kings just over a month ago. The Kings’ proximity to Vegas may help the team avoid the dreaded “Vegas Flu,” which plagued many visiting teams this season.
As great of a story has been this season, the team is still dealing with injuries and just does not have the personnel to consistently competent over a seven-game series. The Knights should win a few games, but the Kings with their stellar defence and a healthy Jonathan Quick are prepared to make a run at their third Stanley Cup this decade.
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
The Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild start their playoff series on Wednesday night. The Wild own the longest active post-season streak in the Western Conference but outside of experience deserve their underdog designation against the Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets won the season series 3-1-0, but the teams split their last ten meetings going back to April 2016. The most impressive part of the Jets three wins is how early this came in the season. The Jets’ three wins came in October/November, well before they looked like a legitimate contender.
The Jets enter the playoffs on fire, winning 11 of their previous 12 games, while Minnesota finished their year flat, going just 4-2-4. The Jets home-ice advantage is huge in this matchup. The Jets won an NHL best 32 games at home. They went 20-4-1 against Western Conference teams in their building and 2-0 against Minnesota.
The Jets fans may travel for this series. As Minnesota is the closest NHL team to Winnipeg geographically, there could be a large contingent of Jets fans in Minnesota. Overall, the Jets have the firepower on offence and steady goaltending needed to handle Minnesota without too much trouble in Round One.
San Jose Sharks vs. Anaheim Ducks
Maybe the two teams everyone is sleeping on entering the postseason, the Sharks and Ducks, meet for their first (of what could be a seven-game series) on Thursday night in Anaheim. Only one-point separated these two clubs at the end of the season.
The Sharks won the season series 3-0-1. The teams have not played since February 11 or before the Sharks acquired Evander Kane to shore up their offence. Kane netted nine goals and 14 points for the Sharks (in 17 games), helping the Sharks win eight straight games in March.
Anaheim is always a tough out in the playoffs. Their fourth-ranked defence and physical style of play are built for playoff success. However, their offensive struggles are hard to overlook. The Ducks rank 24th in power play this season while the Sharks finished the year with the second-best penalty kill in the National Hockey League.
With how well these divisional foes match up, this series will likely go the distance. The Sharks were the better road team this season. Add in the questionable health of Ducks starting goaltender John Gibson, and the Sharks have just enough of an edge over Anaheim to win in seven games.
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