Ryan Knuppel  |  Sun 7th Apr   | NHL

The quest for the Cup begins this week. 16 teams are ready to battle it out in order to win hockey’s ultimate prize: the Stanley Cup. Here are all eight opening round matchups, as well as initial predictions for each series.

A1 Lightning vs. WC2 Blue Jackets

Season Series: Lightning lead 3-0-0

The Lightning (62-16-4) tied the 1995-96 Red Wings for the most wins in regular season history. Led by MVP-candidate and points leader Nikita Kucherov, along with stars Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, they have consistently been the best team in the league, both record-wise and statistically.

Opposing them are the Blue Jackets (47-31-4), whose acquisitions of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel have helped spark their run to the playoffs. Artemi Panarin (87 points) is the number one threat, followed by 40-goal scorer Cam Atkinson.

As solid as the Blue Jackets are, this is as tough a draw as you could have, possibly ever. The Lightning are the league’s best team top to bottom, and only once have they lost two games in a row in regulation. Beating them four times in the span of a week and a half might be too big of a task for the Jackets.

Prediction: Lightning in 5

A2 Bruins vs. A3 Maple Leafs

Season Series: Bruins lead 3-1-0

For the second straight year, the Bruins and Maple Leafs will duel in the first round, where Boston escaped in seven games. This year the Bruins (49-24-9) are arguably better, with an offense that ranks in the upper third and a defense that is top-five. Brad Marchand and his 100 points lead the pack, and David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron are healthy after suffering mid-season injuries.

As for the Maple Leafs (46-28-8), they’re coming into the playoffs sputtering, going 3-4-3 in their last 10 including three straight losses. They will try to outscore Boston with their lethal offense led by Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares, which ranks fourth in the league. But defense may be an issue for the Leafs, especially against a now-healthy Bruins team. Toronto is 20th in goals allowed and 24th in shots allowed.

These teams are very familiar with each other, and this has the potential to be the closest series we see. But I think history will repeat itself and the more well-rounded team will advance.

Prediction: Bruins in 7

M1 Capitals vs. WC1 Hurricanes

Season Series: Capitals lead 4-0-0

The defending Cup champion, Washington (48-26-8) is ready to defend their title. Led of course by another 50-goal campaign from Alex Ovechkin, the Caps have the fifth-ranked offense in hockey. However, the defense ranks a little below average.

On the other side are the Hurricanes (46-29-7), who are in the postseason for the first time since 2009. Sebastian Aho’s 83 points and Teuvo Teravainen’s 76 are the team-leaders, but Carolina is just 16th in goals. However, the Canes are possession darlings, ranking first in shots and third in shots allowed, part of a defense that is top-10 in hockey.

Even though the Caps swept the season series, I think Carolina matches up pretty well. A huge part of the Hurricanes’ success will come down to the goalie tandem of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, but upsets can happen all the time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and one will happen here.

Prediction: Hurricanes in 6

M2 Islanders vs. M3 Penguins

Season Series: Tied 2-1-1

One of the biggest surprises of the year, the Islanders (48-27-7) are in as a result of their stellar defense, which ranks first in the league in goals allowed. Matthew Barzal (62 points) leads a balanced offense, but one that is only 22nd in goals and 29th in shots.

Opposing them are the Penguins (44-26-12), who have a dangerous offense that is top-ten across the board, thanks to another 100-point season from Sidney Crosby. They’re average defensively and will have to rely on Crosby and company to win.

This is a series that may come down to experience. As fun as the Islanders‘ story has been, the Penguins have that big game experience that you need to win in the playoffs.

Prediction: Penguins in 6

P1 Flames vs. WC2 Avalanche

Season Series: Flames lead 3-0-0

The best team out west, the Flames (50-25-7), the Flames have a prolific offense led by Johnny Gaudreau that ranks second behind Tampa Bay. But their secret to success is on the other side, where they have a top-10 defense and the league’s lowest shots allowed total.

The Avalanche (38-30-14) will have their work cut out for them, but come in with some momentum, going 7-1-2 over their last 10. They still have an offense near the top-10, but struggle defensively, especially on the penalty kill. Nathan MacKinnon (99 points) and Mikko Rantanen (87) will need to carry them.

Just like the regular season, the Flames are deeper, more balanced, and have advantages across the board. I think Calgary dispatches the Avalanche fairly quickly to move to the next round.

Prediction: Flames in 4

P2 Sharks vs. P3 Golden Knights

Season Series: Golden Knights leads lead 2-1-1

The Sharks (46-27-9) were beginning to sputter, going 3-6-1 in their last 10, but won their last two. Brent Burns, Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture, and more lead a top-10 offense. Their biggest weakness is Martin Jones in net, as they rank just 21st in goals allowed despite having the second-fewest shots against.

Last year’s improbable story, the Golden Knights (43-32-7) also don’t come into the playoffs in great form, dropping seven of their last ten. They’re a great possession team, ranking second in shots and fifth in shots allowed. The addition of Mark Stone (73 points) has helped a Vegas offense that is still middle of the pack in scoring.

This is the series where goaltending will be the biggest factor. While Jones has struggled, Marc-Andre Fleury has been excellent. Fleury will make the big saves, and Vegas will advance to the second round once again.

Prediction: Golden Knights in 6

C1 Predators vs. WC1 Stars

Season Series: Predators lead 3-2-0

Two years removed from their Stanley Cup appearance, the Predators (47-29-6) have played well, going 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. Despite an average offense and a league-worst power play, Nashville has an elite defense highlighted by Roman Josi and P.K. Subban. Ryan Johansen is the leading scorer at 64 points.

Trying to knock off the Preds will be the Stars (43-32-7). Unlike previous years, Dallas has had trouble scoring but has been a stingy defensive group. Dallas is 28th in goals but second in goals allowed. Still, they have scorers like Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn to make things interesting.

These teams are very similar and rooted in defense. But Nashville’s elite playmakers on defense and deeper scoring lines give them the advantage.

Prediction: Predators in 5

C2 Jets vs. C3 Blues

Season Series: Jets lead 3-1-0

Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele lead a Jets (47-30-5) team that is top-10 in the league in scoring. They do fall off a little defensively and struggle on the penalty kill. After a breakout season last year, goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has been solid, albeit unspectacular.

The Blues (45-28-9) have been on a hot streak for months, and their exceptional second half ended with an 8-1-1 finish. St. Louis is still average by the numbers offensively, paced by Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko. The Blues, however, win with stellar defense, and the breakout play of goalie Jordan Binnington.

This is a series that will also come down to goaltending. If that’s the case, the advantage has to go to Binnington, and St. Louis can score enough to win. The Blues’ incredible run won’t be done just yet.

Prediction: Blues in 7

Ryan Knuppel