Let the upsets begin.
The Stanley Cup playoffs start on Monday, which means that whatever happened in the regular season is now rendered moot.
It doesn’t matter how many goals Auston Matthews scored or how many points Connor McDavid and Leon Draisailt put up or how many wins the Calgary Flames had over the past 82 games. What matters now is what they do when the games truly matter.
In the next few months, we’ll find out whether the Flames are for real, whether McDavid and Draisaitl can produce when the checking gets tighter and whether the Toronto — or anyone else — can prevent Tampa Bay Lightning from three-peating as champions.
First, however, they all have to get past the first round.
That’s no easy task, even with Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton all starting with home-ice advantage. Last year, there were five first-round upsets. This year, with all eight playoff teams in the East reaching 100 points, don’t be surprised if that number rises.
In other words, buckle up. The next several weeks should be wild.
Florida Panthers (1st in Atlantic)
vs. Washington Capitals (2nd East wild card)
The Panthers finished with the best record in the entire NHL. And they did it with a No. 1-ranked offence that should look familiar to Capitals fans, with four of their players hitting the 30-goal mark. That being said, don’t assume Florida are the favourites to go all the way. The last time they advanced to the second round was way back in 1996, coincidentally the same year when they went to the Stanley Cup final. The eighth-seeded Capitals, meanwhile, are no slouch. Only three years removed from winning the Stanley Cup, they finished with 100 points this season, mostly because of Alex Ovechkin, who turned back the clock with another 50-goal and 90-point season at the age of 36.
Prediction: Panthers in 6
Carolina Hurricanes (1st in Metropolitan)
vs. Boston Bruins (1st East wild card)
The emerging rivalry — they are meeting for the third time in four years — should be a battle between two of the stingiest defensive teams in the East. Carolina gave the up the fewest goals in the entire NHL, allowed the fewest shots and had the best penalty kill. But that was with Frederik Andersen standing between the pipes. With Andersen’s injury status for Game 1 (and the rest of the series) unclear, Boston could have the edge in net, where 23-year-old Jeremy Swayman looks to build upon a breakout season where he finished in the top-5 wth a 2.41 goals-against average. He isn’t Tuukka Rask. But with four-time Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron leading an offence where David Pastrnak scored 40 goals and Brad Marchand had 80 points in 70 games, he might not have to be.
Prediction: Bruins in 7
Toronto Maple Leafs (2nd in Atlantic)
vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (3rd in Atlantic)
As a reward for having the best regular season in franchise history, Toronto gets the two-time defending champs in the first round. Life ain’t fair. Then again, if the Maple Leafs hope to actually go on a Cup run one of these days, they probably are going to have to show that they can beat the best teams in the league. A lot of the series will focus on whether Toronto’s Big 4 of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander can outplay Tampa Bay’s Big 3 of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point. But the match-up to watch will be in net, where Andrei Vasilevskiy is coming off another Vezina-worthy year and where Jack Campbell is looking to rebound after a tough second-half to the season.
Prediction: Leafs in 7
New York Rangers (2nd in Metropolitan)
vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (3rd in Metropolitan)
With Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang both heading to free agency, this is looking like it could be Sidney Crosby’s Last Dance. Not that the 34-year-old is showing signs of slowing down. Crosby comes into the playoffs having led Pittsburgh with 84 points in 69 games — a 100-point pace. But he’ll have his hands full with the younger and deeper Rangers, where Chris Kreider led the team with 52 goals, Artemi Panarin had 96 points and Mika Zibanejad had 81 points. Of course, New York’s rise back to prominence has a lot to do with Vezina Trophy favourite — and Hart Trophy candidate — Igor Shesterkin, whose 2.07 GAA is unreal at a time when scoring is so high. With Pittsburgh’s Tristan Jarry still out with a lower-body injury, the advantage in net could be enough to sway the series.
Prediction: Rangers in 5
Colorado Avalanche (1st in Central)
vs. Nashville Predators (2nd West wild card)
If there’s a one-sided playoff matchup to be found in Round One, this might be it. Colorado, which had four players in the top-20 in scoring, including defenceman Cale Makar (28 goals and 86 points), was one of the best teams in the NHL for pretty much the entire season. Simply put, they are built to win the Stanley Cup. And though Nashville has punched above its weight, mostly because of Roman Josi’s MVP-worthy season, the fact that goalie Juuse Saros is questionable for Game 1 means this series could end before it even begins. As Flames head coach Darryl Sutter famously said of whoever had the misfortune of getting Colorado in the first round: “It’s going to be a waste of eight days.”
Prediction: Colorado in 4
Calgary Flames (1st in Pacific)
vs. Dallas Stars ((1st West wild card)
There’s a reason why many have picked the Flames as a Stanley Cup favourite out of the West. Whether it’s their goalie, they’re game-breaking forwards or a team-first philosophy that is the personification of the man behind the bench, Calgary appears to have no weaknesses and no worries heading into the playoffs. In other words, they should have no trouble with Dallas, which earned its wild card spot ahead of Vegas after grinding its way through a league-high 28 one-goal wins. That hard-nosed approach will have to be on display if the Stars hope to contain Calgary’s top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk, which earned Best Line status after combining for 124 goals and 301 points.
Prediction: Calgary in 5
Edmonton Oilers (2nd in Pacific)
vs. Los Angeles Kings (3rd in Pacific)
Led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who each topped 110-points, the Oilers will try to rebound after getting swept in last year’s playoffs against an ageing Kings team that is without Drew Doughty for the playoffs. Los Angeles doesn’t have an offensive weapon that can compare with Edmonton’s dynamic duo, but they do have a couple of two-way centres in Anze Kopitar and Philip Danault, who are more than capable in keeping McDavid and Draisaitl in check. Of course, the real battle should be between the two grey beards in net. Jonathan Quick hasn’t played in the post-season since 2018, but the two-time Stanley Cup champion has a knack for shining at this time of year. At the other end is 40-year-old Mike Smith, who is hoping he’s saved some gas in the tank for a long run.
Prediction: Los Angeles in 7
St. Louis Blues (2nd in Central)
vs. Minnesota Wild (3rd in Central)
Get ready to flip your coin. This one is going to be a close one. The series might not seem like it will be the flashiest. But considering both teams combined to score 28 goals in three regular-season games against each other this year, it could be the most competitive. The Blues had nine players hit the 20-goal mark this year, including Vladimir Tarasenko, who led the team with 34 goals and 82 points. The Wild, meanwhile, relied mostly on Kirill Kaprizov, who finished with 47 goals and 108 points, for its offence. But the team’s real strength is in net, where Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Talbot give Minnesota arguably the best 1-2 punch. Then again, St. Louis’ tandem of Jordan Binnington and Ville Husso did combine for a .912 save percentage.
Prediction: Minnesota in 7