Ryan Knuppel  |  Mon 8th Apr   | NHL

Sixteen teams are ready to begin the fight for the Stanley Cup, hockey’s ultimate prize. The first round of the NHL playoffs begin on Wednesday, and some of these series are bound to go down to the very end. Here’s a brief look on each of the eight series, along with an early prediction.

A1 Lightning (-340) vs. WC2 Blue Jackets (+280)

Season Series: Lightning lead 3-0-0

The Lightning (62-16-4) were the best team in the league this year, plain and simple. Their 62 wins tied the 1995-96 Red Wings for the most wins in regular season history. They led the league with 325 goals, the most scored in a single season since that Detroit team, and boast three 40-goal scorers in Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point. They are the early favorites to hoist the Cup when it’s all said and done.

Opposing them are the Blue Jackets (47-31-4), who have had an up and down season. However, aggressive deadline moves that brought in forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel have helped spark their run to the playoffs, highlighted by a recent five-game winning streak. 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 (-160) vs. A3 Maple Leafs (+140)

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 even better, with a scoring attack that ranks in the upper third and a defense that is among the league’s best. Brad Marchand and his 100 points lead the pack, and David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron are healthy and ready to contribute 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 rely on their dynamic offense, led by Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares, to upset the Bruins. 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. Frederik Andersen, however, has playoff experience and is in the midst of a career year.

These teams are very familiar with each other, and this has the potential to be the closest series we see. But the biggest difference is in defense, where the Leafs had the highest expected goals against among all playoff teams, while Boston had one of the lowest. In addition, Andersen struggled down the stretch, while Tuukka Rask ended the year strong. History will repeat itself.

Prediction: Bruins in 7

M1 Capitals (-145) vs. WC1 Hurricanes (+125)

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. Two veteran centers, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeni Kuznetsov, are each over 70 points and make Washington a tough out. However, the defense ranks a little below average, unlike last year’s group.

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 the Hurricanes matches up pretty well. The difference may come down to possession, as Carolina shoots more than any other team and also prevents shots at a high rate. Meanwhile, Washington ranks in the bottom-third in shots for and middle of the pack in shots against. This will be the biggest upset of the first round.

Prediction: Hurricanes in 6

M2 Islanders (+120) vs. M3 Penguins (-140)

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. If the Islanders are going to win, their team defense along with the play of Robin Lehner will have to be on point.

Opposing them are the Penguins (44-26-12), one of the only road teams favored to win the series. Pittsburgh has 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, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, and more to beat New York’s stingy defense.

This is a series that will come down to one team’s offense versus another’s defense. It will be tightly contested, but I will give the slight edge to the veterans on Pittsburgh who can go to a rowdy arena on Long Island and come away unfazed and with the win.

Prediction: Penguins in 6

P1 Flames (-185) vs. WC2 Avalanche (+160)

Season Series: Flames lead 3-0-0

The best team out west, the Flames (50-25-7) have a prolific offense led by Johnny Gaudreau that ranks second behind Tampa Bay. They boast a conference-best +62 goal differential, thanks in large part to a top-10 defense with the league’s lowest shots allowed total. This defense is led by Mark Giordano, a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate.

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. In the three meetings between these teams this year, Calgary won every time, scoring a whopping 14 goals in total. I think Calgary dispatches the Avalanche fairly quickly to move to the next round.

Prediction: Flames in 4

P2 Sharks (-110) vs. P3 Golden Knights (-110)

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. The Knights are very similar to the team that made the Cup run last season.

This is the only pick ’em series in the first round, and one where goaltending will be the biggest factor. While Jones has struggled, Marc-Andre Fleury has been excellent. Fleury will make the big saves, the Knights will win the possession battle, and Vegas will advance to the second round once again.

Prediction: Golden Knights in 6

C1 Predators (-185) vs. WC1 Stars (+155)

Season Series: Predators lead 3-2-0

Two years removed from their Stanley Cup appearance, the Predators (47-29-6) surged at the end of the season to secure their second straight division title, going 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. Despite an offense that ranks in the middle of the pack and a league-worst power play, Nashville has an elite defense highlighted by Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, and Mattias Ekholm. It will be their stellar blue line that has to carry them once again.

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 due to their commitment to defense. The biggest factor, however, will come from Nashville’s playmaking ability from their defensemen, as well as their deep forward group that improved after the trade deadline. The Predators should be able to advance to the next round fairly easily.

Prediction: Predators in 5

C2 Jets (-105) vs. C3 Blues (-115)

Season Series: Jets lead 3-1-0

Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele lead a Jets (47-30-5) team, which 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. And

The Blues (45-28-9) have been on a hot streak for months. On January 3rd, they had a league-low 34 points, but since then have racked up 65 points, including nine wins in their final 12 games. 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 momentum and goaltending. If that’s the case, the advantage has to go to Binnington and the Blues, and St. Louis can score enough to win. The Blues’ incredible run won’t be done just yet.

Prediction: Blues in 7

Ryan Knuppel