Breaking the Ice on the NHL Playoffs: The Contenders and Pretenders
Put your razor down, the Spring Fling is here.
The NHL prides itself on parity and an “anyone can win” environment, and this year, the scriptwriters really outdid themselves. Three teams — New Jersey, Colorado and Vegas — that opened the season at 100-1 or longer to win the Stanley Cup are in the playoffs. Winnipeg, which opened the season at +6600, finished with the second-most points in the league.
Among the favorites, Nashville looks hell-bent on getting back to the Finals, Boston and Tampa are juggernauts and the Penguins are in the hunt for a third cup in a row.
Let’s set it up.
Nashville Predators (1st, Central) vs. Colorado Avalanche (2nd Wild Card)
Winnipeg Jets (2nd, Central) vs. Minnesota Wild (3rd, Central)
Vegas Golden Knights (1st, Pacific) vs. Los Angeles Kings (1st Wild Card)
Anaheim Ducks (2nd, Pacific) vs. San Jose Sharks (3rd, Pacific)
Washington Capitals (1st, Metropolitan) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (1st Wild Card)
Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd, Metropolitan) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (3rd, Metropolitan)
Tampa Bay Lightning (1st, Atlantic) vs. New Jersey Devils (2nd, Wild Card)
Boston Bruins (2nd, Atlantic) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (3rd, Atlantic)
The Cream of the Crop
Nashville Predators (+475)
The Predators took a little while to get going but are deserved favorites heading into the dance after capturing the Presidents’ Trophy. The Preds have the league’s best defense, a ton of scoring depth up front and their goaltender, Pekka Rinne, finished the season with a .937 even-strength save percentage. Everything seems to have fallen into place for another run from Nashville, but the Winnipeg Jets could provide a serious threat if they face the Predators in the second round.
Boston Bruins (+750)
The Bruins are the peripheral-stat darlings of the NHL and have the best line in hockey: Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. The B’s will miss Brandon Carlo, but they’ve already overcome so many injuries this season that losing the defenseman shouldn’t worry them. The Bruins are going to be really hard to beat four times out of seven, and if you’re looking for a favorite to back, they are here for you.
Tampa Bay Lightning (+550)
After a blistering start, Tampa came back down to earth, relatively speaking, down the stretch. There are very few holes in the Lightning’s lineup, but how first-year starter Andrei Vasilevskiy holds up in goal could be a concern. He’s played a ton of games this season.
Winnipeg Jets (+1000)
Winnipeg put together a terrific season and gave the Predators a good run for the Central Division crown. The Jets finished fourth in Corsi For % (a barometer for possession that measures the amount of shot attempts for vs. shot attempts allowed, also known as CF%), so they can skate with any team in the league. They finished tied for first in regulation/overtime wins (48) and second in points (114), and their reward is a potential meeting with the top overall seed in the second round. What a fair playoff format we have here.
Vegas Golden Knights (+700)
The Knights’ storybook season will continue through April and possibly beyond. Pretty crazy. The best news for Vegas is that it will not have to deal with Nashville or Winnipeg until the Western Conference Finals. The Pacific Division is still dangerous, and the Knights’ first-round series with the Kings could prove tricky. The Knights’ offense ran hot for most of the season — and it’s a good group — but a two-game cold streak in the playoffs could be curtains for a team that relies on its shooters.
Pittsburgh Penguins (+900)
Even though we’ve seen this act from the Penguins before, something feels a little different this season. Still, they are very dangerous, and Sidney Crosby remains very good. So does Evgeni Malkin. If the Penguins get good goaltending from Matt Murray, who has been battling injuries and lack of form this season, they will be a threat to three-peat.
Washington Capitals (+1400)
Like the Penguins, something feels a little different about the Caps this season even though they did win the Metropolitan Division. They’ve got plenty of gamebreakers, and a lack of expectations could be a good thing for them. Things will be complicated in goal for Barry Trotz’s team, as Braden Holtby has been outplayed by understudy Philipp Grubauer. If Trotz hands the keys to the latter and he stays hot, who knows? Maybe this could finally be the year the Capitals get past the second round.
Laying in the Weeds
Toronto Maple Leafs (+1200)
Toronto has a very potent offense, a good goaltender and great special teams. Also, head coach Mike Babcock made some good adjustments down the stretch, optimizing his lineup. Getting by Boston and then Tampa in the first two rounds is a very big ask, though.
Minnesota Wild (+2500)
The Wild are one of the best defensive teams, top-to-bottom, in the NHL. They led the league with only 1.95 expected goals against (xGA) per 60 minutes, according to Corsica.Hockey. A first-round tilt with Winnipeg will likely end their season, especially without star rearguard Ryan Suter, but the Wild’s formula for success could spell trouble for Winnipeg’s dynamic offense.
Columbus Blue Jackets (+2500)
There were certainly some shaky moments for the Jackets this season, but they’ve qualified for the dance and that’s a big deal for a franchise still looking for its first series win. The Blue Jackets have a handful of stars on both sides of the ice, so they could be a sneaky pick to get through the Metro.
San Jose Sharks (+2500)
Another season, another playoff berth for the Sharkies. San Jose has missed the postseason only twice since 1997-98, but it has never hoisted Lord Stanley. The Pacific Division bracket is wide open, and the Ducks will provide a stern test in the opening round.
Anaheim Ducks (+1400)
Anaheim’s season has been a roller coaster. The Ducks had to deal with a laundry list of injuries to key players throughout the season, but thanks to great goaltending from John Gibson, they were able to tread water and get into the tournament. When they’re healthy, the Ducks are probably the best team in the Pacific Division and are not a bad dart at their current price.
Also in the Playoffs
Los Angeles Kings (+2500)
The Kings regressed in the second half of the season but still put together an impressive against-the-odds campaign. They finished two points shy of the century mark, but their underlying metrics leave something to be desired. Los Angeles produced just 2.17 xGF per 60 minutes and was just mediocre in preventing scoring chances. In short: The Kings need Jonathan Quick to steal a lot of games to get rolling.
Philadelphia Flyers (+3300)
They didn’t clinch until Game 82, but that won’t matter once the puck drops. The Flyers game plan is pretty simple, they play a safe style and hope that Claude Giroux, who finished second in the NHL with 102 points this season, does something magical. They’d love to be the team that derails the Penguins dynasty — and they should compete in that series — but they don’t have the depth to hang with the big boys.
New Jersey Devils (+3300)
A very nice story. Taylor Hall is a game-breaker who could keep the Devils involved against Tampa Bay, but it would take some extraordinary performances from Hall and out-of-form goaltender Cory Schneider to pull off the mega shocker.
Colorado Avalanche (+4000)
Just happy as hell to be here. Nathan MacKinnon is an absolute pleasure to watch and he could give most teams fits, but the Predators aren’t most teams.
All odds current as of Sunday evening.
Photo: Charles LeClaire, USA Today Sports