Those were great first-round playoff series we watched the past few weeks. The best teams showed depth, determination and who can win in overtime. This will be the last of the division play-ins before the conference finals. Without further delay, it’s time to decide which three teams in the U.S. have the best chance of advancing.
#1 Colorado Avalanche v. #2 Vegas Golden Knights
The first of two great series in the second round. Like the remaining two teams in the central division, the winner is a favorite to go to the finals and win the championship. Colorado’s in the best health possible compared to the last four years they’ve advanced to the second round, while Vegas’ Max Pacioretty is back at the best possible time.
The Avalanche were gifted additional rest after sweeping the St. Louis Blues. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer needed it more than anyone since he’s started most of their games. Nathan MacKinnon and captain Gabriel Landeskog combined for eight goals and nine assists, destroying any chance St. Louis had of winning one game. After a week off, Colorado can jump on Vegas early and pick up where they left off.
The Minnesota Wild wouldn’t have fared well against the Avalanche if they advanced. Vegas is the right opponent this round. The Golden Knights defense and scoring is enough to counter and test how ready MacKinnon, Grubauer and Landeskog are for the big stage. Robin Lehner should have a few starts in this series, a move Peter DeBoer should’ve made last round against the Wild. The Avalanche are one of two teams Vegas didn’t have a winning record against this regular season.
Key matchup: Cale Makar, Devon Toews, Samuel Girard and Ryan Graves v. Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault
The league’s third best offense v. the league’s third best defense will determine who advances. While Vegas has the league’s best defense and Colorado the best offense, it’s these two that determines who advances. Makar may leave after the season because of restricted free agency, and both Girard and Graves haven’t faced many top offenses in playoff rounds in their five years in the league (combined). On the flip side, Toews played some of his best defense with Barry Trotz in New York and helped the Islanders reach the conference finals last year.
Pacioretty’s return in time before game one is the boost Vegas needs and is a main talking point. His performance in game seven against the Wild led the Knights to ringing up six against a disciplined defense. Mark Stone’s passion combined with original franchise playmakers Karlsson and Marchessault is a lot to handle. It won’t be a surprise if Vegas wins at least three games.
Verdict: Colorado’s week off and Vegas struggling to close out a Minnesota team that took positive steps forward plays to the Avalanche’s favor. This is the healthiest coach Jared Bednar’s team has been in years in the second round. A young team this deep can swarm a defense at will, and Vegas has to be ready early.
Prediction: Colorado wins series 4-3
#3 Boston Bruins v. #4 New York Islanders
Boston and New York had a two sided series in the regular season. The Islanders were the better team in the first half, shutting down the Bruins’ dominant first line in almost every game. Boston looked much better in the second half once they acquired Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar, winning three of their final four games against New York.
Better play from Boston’s second line led the third line to increase productivity. Nick Ritchie is the top scorer, but Jake DeBrusk is playing with more confidence, something the Bruins wanted heading into the playoffs. Charlie Coyle is a dependable center with playoff experience. It’s important this line has as much production as the second line. It puts more pressure on the Islanders to play better defense against more than one line.
If New York has any chance against a surging Bruins team, they’ll need to see which goaltender plays best. Coach Barry Trotz switched to Ilya Sorokin against the Penguins when he won two games to even that series. We’ll see if Sorokin or Semyon Varlamov plays better the first two games. The Islanders have better depth and it’s possible Trotz knows how to attack Boston since he’s seen their updated roster four times before the playoffs.
Boston dispatched Washington in multiple overtime games, gaining additional rest. They could start slow and New York could take advantage, hitting them early and often. Both defenses are in the NHL’s top five. The Islander offense has to score more than three goals a night against a defense that’s much better than the one they faced last round.
Prediction: Boston wins series 4-2
#1 Carolina Hurricanes v. #3 Tampa Bay Lightning
This series defines great hockey; outstanding offense, phenomenal defense and great coaching. Somehow we knew at the beginning of the season these two teams would have a showdown to determine who would advance to the conference finals. Both Carolina and Tampa have offensive depth, great goaltending and penalty-killing defenses. The winner has a high chance of not just reaching the championship, but winning it all.
The Hurricanes may have one more shot at not just reaching the championship, but winning it. Andrei Svechnikov and Warren Foegele are restricted free agents the Seattle Kraken will target this offseason, and coach Rod Brind’Amour needs a contract extension. They will lose someone critical to their championship run in the future. One would think this motivates Carolina to push past Tampa Bay.
The Lightning players get a lot of the credit for their wins, chemistry and individual play, but coach Jon Cooper deserves more credit. Tampa’s collapse in a game three against the rival Panthers angered Cooper to the point where he pushed the team to play better collectively the last two of three games. Cooper’s creativity on the power-play shattered Florida’s defense and confused the goaltenders regarding shots and passes.
Key matchup: Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce v. Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat
Tampa’s defense was the focus of last round since Florida had one of, if not the best offense in the NHL. Tampa’s defense has a similar challenge, but it’s Carolina’s defense that will be tested more. In his first game against the Hurricanes this season, Nikita Kucherov will spearhead the Lightning offense, having Point, Stamkos and Palat with him on the power-play.
Carolina’s defensive quartet bottled up Nashville’s offensive playmakers on home ice their first two games. This series depends on how Slavin, Hamilton, Skjei and Pesce contain and shut down Tampa’s top four playmakers.
Verdict: Surprisingly, Tampa was the first team to finish their series last round. Carolina not sweeping a scrappy Predator team could be their undoing since the Lightning had more time off.
Prediction: Tampa Bay wins series 4-1
First round U.S. series records: 4-2