by Josh Brewster, Buffalo Sports Page NHL Expert
Since the 1967 expansion, on only two occasions has a Stanley Cup-losing finalist returned the next season to win it all, and in each case, it’s been a rematch. The feat has been accomplished only by the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins and 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers.
In 1982-83, the New York Islanders won their fourth straight title in defeating the Edmonton Oilers only to see the Oilers end their run 12 months later in capturing the 1983-84 Cup. In 2007-08, the Detroit Red Wings beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, only to lose in the Final to Sidney Crosby’s club in 2008-09.
This season, it is starting to look an awful lot like a rematch, but the East may have caught up with the Pens. Pittsburgh steadily built a strong campaign after early-season Cup-hangover fatigue faded…but are they still the East’s beast?
In the West, the Nashville Predators have been a team possessed, winning wire-to-wire en route to the top record (120 points) overall.
The prediction here is for a matchup between two towns the “purists” said the league should have never gone.
Don’t listen to the “purists.”
BREWSTER’S CUP PICK: NASHVILLE IN 6 OVER TAMPA BAY.
WINNIPEG IN 5
NASHVILLE IN 4
ANAHEIM IN 7
LA IN 6
COLUMBUS IN 7
PHILADELPHIA IN 7
BOSTON IN 6
TAMPA BAY IN 5
WINNIPEG JETS VS MINNESOTA WILD
Season Series: Jets 3-1-0; Wild 1-3-0
Goals for per game/Rank: 3.33/2nd
Goals against per game/Rank: 2.63/5th
Power Play %/Rank: 23.4/5th
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 81.8/9th
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 33/21
Recent Playoff History: 2014-15 L 1st Round
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Blake Wheeler 81GP: 23-68-91 (9th)
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: Patrik Laine 44G (2nd)
Key Injuries: D Tobias Enstrom, D Jacob Trouba, D Dmitri Kulikov
Goals for per game/Rank: 3.05/11th
Goals against per game/Rank: 2.79/11th
Power Play %/Rank: 20.4/18th
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 81.3/13th
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 42/8th
Recent Playoff History: L 1st Round 2016-17, 15-16
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Eric Staal (82GP: 42-34-76)
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: Eric Staal 42/4th
Key Injuries: D Ryan Suter, D Jared Spurgeon
OVERVIEW AND PREDICTION:
These natural geographic rivals meet in the playoffs for the first time.
The Winnipeg Jets’ explosive offense finally got the help it needed on the blueline and in the net. The defense, with a healthy Tyler Myers and a maturing Dustin Byfuglien, is heads above where it was last season, and Steve Mason’s arrival ironically fueled the emergence of Connor Hellebucyk as the starter, who set an NHL record for wins by an American goaltender with 44 (Tom Barrasso recorded 43). The Jets finished fifth overall in goals against, and it has made all the difference.
The league’s second-best offense comes at you with Patrik Laine (44G, 2nd overall), Blake Wheeler (91P), Nik Ehlers (29G), Mark Scheifele (60GP: 23G), rookie Kyle Connor (31G). Center Paul Stastny was a nice add at the deadline, an event to which GM Kevin Cheveldayoff finally got over his aversion.
The Jets enter the postseason with little playoff pedigree, having appeared only once in the postseason since arriving from Atlanta (where they played but one series). Therefore, despite 114 points, the Jets are a bit of a dark horse. In this series, however, their overpowering offense will be too much.
The Minnesota Wild is 25-10-8 since Zach Parise’s January 2 return.
It does not appear as though Minnesota will be able to overcome the loss of Ryan Suter. It’s that simple. Because even with him in the lineup, the Wild are overmatched.
Offensively, it’s been a good, though not great season for the Wild. Comeback player of the year Eric Staal centers a line with Nino Niederreiter (18G) and Jason Zucker (33G). The second line includes Parise (15G), Mikko Koivu (14G) and Mikael Granlund (21G).
Where the Jets may prove deadly is in the third line matchup, where the Jets feature Bryan Little (16G) and Mathieu Perreault (17G), who should gain an edge over Matt Cullen and Charlie Coyle (11G each).
In net, Devan Dubnyk has been good (35W; 2.52GAA; .918SV%) but Winnipeg’s Hellebucyk has been a cut above (44W; 2.36GAA; 924SV%).
Prediction: Jets in 5.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS VS COLORADO AVALANCHE
Season Series: Predators 4-0-0; Avalanche 0-3-1
Goals for/Rank: 3.18/8th
Goals against/Rank: 2.49/2nd
Power Play %/Rank: 21.3/12th
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 81.9/6th
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 57/1st
Recent Playoff History: Eastern Conf. Champion (L SCF to PIT)
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Filip Forsberg 67GP: 26-38-64 (55th)
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: Viktor Arvidsson 29G/38th
Key Injuries: C Calle Jarnkrok, D Yanick Weber
Goals for/Rank: 3.11/10th
Goals against/Rank: 2.88/15th
Power Play %/Rank: 22%/8th
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 83.3%/4th
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 40/11th
Recent Playoff History: Out of playoffs each of last 3 seasons
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Nathan MacKinnon 74GP: 39-58-97 (5th)
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: Nathan MacKinnon 39G/10th
Key Injuries: D Erik Johnson, G Semyon Varlamov
OVERVIEW AND PREDICTION:
The President’s Trophy is one on a long list of agenda items for the Nashville Predators, who got a whiff of the Stanley Cup in their own building before the Penguins made off with the chalice.
Last year they entered as eight seed. This year a President’s Trophy. Check.
This is a team on a mission.
Astute move by GM David Poile when his participation as the third wheel in the Matt Duchene sweepstakes yielded center depth in Kyle Turris (13-29-42 in 65GP w/NSH), and aside from defensive prospect Sam Girard, the Preds didn’t give up a whole lot.
Pekka Rinne will likely walk off with a Vezina and the defensive corps is the NHL’s best. Making matters worse for opponents, it leads the NHL in goals scored by defensemen. This is why the threat in a big playoff game comes from the likes of P.K. Subban (16G), Roman Josi (14), Mattias Ekholm (10), Ryan Ellis (9) as much as it does from any of the forwards. When the space is tight in the postseason and you just want someone to tip a puck past the goalie from the low slot, the Predators more than any other club can generate the shots from the blueline where others can’t.
Jared Bednar’s Colorado Avalanche got over the loss of Matt Duchene just fine, thanks, powered by Nathan MacKinnon, another player to consider for the Hart in a wide open field. Mikko Rantanen (29G) and Gabe Landeskog (25) are very productive and Alex Kerfoot should be a secret weapon (19).
However, attempting to overcome the loss of starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov and number one defenseman Erik Johnson will be too much for Colorado, who snuck into the postseason on the last day of the regular season when it defeated St. Louis. Impressive, but going up against the West’s best will prove a grind.
Varlamov’s replacement, Jon Bernier, flamed out in the Ducks’ net during Games 5 and 6 against these same Preds 11 months ago.
Prediction: Sweep! Predators in 4.
ANAHEIM DUCKS VS SAN JOSE SHARKS
Season Series: Sharks 3-0-1; Ducks 1-1-2
Goals for/Rank: 2.82/19th
Goals against/Rank: 2.55/3rd
Power Play %/Rank: 17.8/23rd
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 83.2/5th
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 42/8th
Recent Playoff History: L West Final to NSH
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Rickard Rakell/77GP: 34-35-69 (39th)
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: Rickard Rakell 34G/19th
Key Injuries: D Cam Fowler, G John Gibson, D Kevin Bieksa
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Goals for/Rank: 3.01/13th
Goals against/Rank: 2.76/23rd
Power Play %/Rank: 20.6/16th
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 84.8/2nd
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 39/14
Recent Playoff History: L 1st Round 16-17; L SCF to PIT, 15-16
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Brent Burns 82GP: 12-55-67/42nd
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: Logan Couture 34G/17th
Key Injuries: C Joe Thornton
OVERVIEW AND PREDICTION:
These California rivals last met in the playoffs in an epic 2009 series won by Anaheim. In a memorable moment, Ryan Getzlaf and Joe Thornton brawled toe-to-toe before the Game 6 puck drop. Even after all these years, the two are front and center as grizzled old veterans. This series is as evenly-matched as any. Will the winner of this one have enough left in the tank to face LA or Vegas?
It’s surprising that the two teams haven’t met more often in the postseason.
Despite a 10-1-1 finish which landed them second place and home ice in Round 1, the Anaheim Ducks appear to be the underdog on the heels of the loss of number one D-man Cam Fowler (shoulder, out 2-6 weeks). The loss can’t be underestimated and Hampus Lindholm will have to take a big step up in his absence.
Injured late in the season, starting G John Gibson is skating again and should return.
Getzlaf (50A), Rickard Rakell (34G), Adam Henrique (21G w/ANA) and Ondrej Kase (20) good but not great offense. Similar to the Predators, the Ducks will try to activate their offense with help from a very productive defense.
As for the San Jose Sharks, the acquisition of Evander Kane (9-5-14 in 17 GP w/SJS) has been golden and Joe Pavelski (22G) and Logan Couture (34G) have burned Anaheim many times over a long rivalry. Tomas Hertl (22G), Timo Meier (21G) and Chris Tierney (17G) are secret weapons on offense.
The Sharks’ defense is nearly as productive as Anaheim’s and Brent Burns exploded for 12 goals during the second half. Marc-Eduard Vlasic (11G) remains underrated, and Brenden Dillon and Justin Braun add quality depth.
Joe Thornton will likely return in time from injury, as will Ducks’ goalie Gibson, who’s backed up by Ryan Miller. It says here that Gibson’s presence (he won’t be nominated for the Vezina but should be) will give Anaheim an edge in a long series with many twists and turns.
Prediction: Almost too close to call. We’ll go with home ice. Ducks in 7.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS VS LOS ANGELES KINGS
Season Series: Knights 2-1-1; Kings 2-1-1
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Goals for/Rank: 3.27/5th
Goals against/Rank: 2.74/8th
Power Play %/Rank: 21.4/11th
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 81.4/10th
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 37/17
Recent Playoff History: n/a
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: William Karlsson 82GP: 43-35-78/25th
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: William Karlsson 43G/3rd
Key Injuries: LW David Perron
LOS ANGELES KINGS
Goals for/Rank: 2.89/16th
Goals against/Rank: 2.46/1st
Power Play %/Rank: 20.4/17th
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 85/1st
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 40/11
Recent Playoff History: Out of playoffs 16-17
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Anze Kopitar 82GP: 35-57-92/8th
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: Anze Kopitar 35G/16th
Key Injuries: D Jake Muzzin
OVERVIEW AND PREDICTION:
You almost want to label the Vegas Golden Knights a dark horse. Not because of their record, but because there’s no playoff pedigree to which to refer.
As for the Los Angeles Kings, two Stanley Cups with many of the same nucleus players still in tow looms large. And their nucleus has gotten even better since their championships. Anze Kopitar is getting a lot of Hart talk, while Dustin Brown (28G) has played better than ever, Jeff Carter is still a great shooter, defenseman Drew Doughty won a Norris and goalie Jon Quick just won his second Jennings Trophy.
So we have an interesting matchup between the most impressive expansion team in modern sports history and a two-time Cup winner. A key regular season moment came when the Kings scorched the Golden Knights twice, sweeping a February home-and-home series.
For this series, the drama starts in goal: Marc-Andre Fleury (2.24GAA; .927SV%) and Quick (2.40GAA; .921SV%) have five Stanley Cups between them and both are likely Vezina nominees. Quick is the game’s best, and not just the best “money goalie”–whatever that means—he’s simply got the best lateral movement of any netminder and it gives him a big edge.
Amongst the forward ranks, Vegas’ William Karlsson’s major breakthrough season of 43 goals was a revelation after the former Ducks’ first rounder scored just six for the Blue Jackets last season, who then let him walk away in the expansion draft.
Coach Gerard Gallant has his club moving as a five-man unit at all times, at top speed most of the time. Erik Haula (29G), Jon Marchessault (27G) and James Neal (25G) lead a potent offense that added Tomas Tatar late in the season. As for execution and team play, the Kings will have their hands full trying to contain the Knights.
It says here, however, that they will.
Defenseman Drew Doughty could take home another Norris. No one controls a game’s pace from the blueline better than Doughty, and when he wants to get creative in the offensive zone, he’s a thoroughbred who’s hard to stop.
When we add up the playoff experience at hand with the Kings, including Kopitar and Carter, it stands to reason that if the Kings can shoot with accuracy early in the series, it’ll be the Golden Knights who will be playing from behind, and the Kings are deadly in the third period.
Prediction: LA wins at home in Game 6.
Read Josh’s Eastern Conference Preview here.