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
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS VS WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Season Series: Capitals 3-1-0; Blue Jackets 1-3-0
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Goals for/Rank: 2.88/17th
Goals against/Rank: 2.76/10th
Power Play %/Rank: 17.2/25th
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 76.2/27th
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 51/2nd
Recent Playoff History: L 1st Round 2016-17; Out of playoffs 2 prior
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Artemi Panarin 81GP: 27-55-82/20th
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: Artemi Panarin 27G/46th
Key Injuries: LW Nick Foligno
Goals for/Rank: 3.12/9th
Goals against/Rank: 2.90/16th
Power Play %/Rank: 22.5/7th
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 80.3/15th
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 39/14th
Recent Playoff History: L 2nd Round each of last 3 seasons
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Alex Ovechkin 82GP: 49-38-87 (11th)
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: Alex Ovechkin 49G/1st (Richard Trophy)
Key Injuries: C Jay Beagle
OVERVIEW AND PREDICTION:
Game 82 Tank Job: The Columbus Blue Jackets couldn’t have been more disinterested in winning its final game at Nashville. Seth Jones took a seat, as did Zach Werenski, centers Alex Wennberg and Artemi Panarin, who just happens to be the Jackets’ top scorer. Why take the chance that you’d finish third in the division, only to be fed to the Pittsburgh Penguins?
The tactic had the desired effect as the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Predators toppled the Jackets, which landed John Tortorella’s club a shot at the Capitals instead.
The Blue Jackets mirror the Flyers and Preds in that a substantial portion of its offense (17th) is generated by defensemen (51 goals, 2nd overall in goals by D). Jones is a budding Norris candidate and Werenski followed up a very strong rookie campaign (11G) with 16 as a sophomore. Adding former Penguin Ian Cole to the defense brings a two-time Cup winner into the dressing room.
Offensively, Panarin handled the pressure of being a part of a big trade (Brandon Saad) and is dangerous as a playmaker and a shooter and kept pace with his production from his first two seasons in Chicago. Panarin assumed a leadership role. The Jackets hope that Alex Wennberg (8G) and Boone Jenner (13G) can find their touch playing with productive deadline acquisition Thomas Vanek (7G in 19GP w/CBJ).
It’s all about Bob in the nets, where Sergei Bobrovsky notched 37 wins and five shutouts.
The Washington Capitals know full well that game number 83 is where their season starts.
This season, they enter the postseason with a goaltending controversy. Would it be Braden Holtby or Phillipp Grubauer? Turns out a change is at hand, and why not for a Capitals team seeking a playoff reboot? Grubauer (2.35GAA and .923SV%) took charge in January, never let go, and gets the start in Game 1.
Alex Ovechkin won his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy (49G) and the surrounding cast hasn’t changed much. The Caps hope the necessary change comes in terms of the team’s mindset. They need a big postseason from Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nick Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, who dipped from 33 to 18 goals.
The Metro-winning Caps were 17-8-3 against their own division.
It just seems that the Blue Jackets are trending upward and the Capitals are waiting for the other skate to drop. The postseason is the real season, they say, and they don’t say it any louder than they say it in Washington.
Prediction: Blue Jackets in 7.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS VS PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
Season Series: Penguins 4-0-0; Flyers 0-2-2
Goals for/Rank: 3.29/3rd
Goals against/Rank: 3.02/20th
Power Play %/Rank: 26.1/1st
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 80/17th
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 38/16th
Recent Playoff History: Defending Champ: 2 Consecutive Stanley Cups
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Evgeni Malkin 78GP: 42-56-98 (4th)
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: Evgeni Malkin 42/5th
Key Injuries: C Derek Brassard
Goals for/Rank: 3.04/12th
Goals against/Rank: 2.88/18th
Power Play %/Rank: 20.7/17th
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 75.8/29th
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 50/3rd
Recent Playoff History: Out of playoffs
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Claude Giroux 82GP: 34-68-102 (2nd)
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: Claude Giroux 34G/17th
Key Injuries: D John Oduya, G Michal Neuvirth
OVERVIEW AND PREDICTION:
We haven’t seen a battle of Pennsylvania since the contentious 2012 Eastern Conference, which the Flyers won in six games.
Another non-playoff team makes its way back into the dance. Not much was expected from the Philadelphia Flyers, whose offense and defense alike weren’t deep enough, they said seven months ago.
Philly got some in-house solutions after losing a lot of offense with the trade of Brayden Schenn, but the core stepped to the fore and Claude Giroux bounced back with an MVP-caliber season (82GP: 34-68-102), second to Connor McDavid in the Art Ross Race. Sean Coutourier (31G) celebrated a career year, as did Jakub Voracek (85P) and Travis Konecny (24G).
Defensively, Shayne Gostisbehere (13-52-65) and sophomore Ivan Provorov (17G) led the blueline in surprising everyone, becoming one of the most productive D-corps in the NHL.
In goal, Brian Elliott exorcised a number of demons as he bounced back from a tough finish in Calgary, and put forth a similar season to that of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Murray. The Penguins finished 20th in goals against, the Flyers, 18th. Goaltending may be a wash despite Murray’s two Cups.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins can pull off a third straight Cup in the age of free agency and salary caps, it will be a minor miracle. Enter Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin—not to mention Phil Kessel, who accounted for 105 of the team’s 277 goals. Set all the stats aside, because the element of heart and soul that Crosby and Malkin possess is the real story. The duo always brings its best when the chips are down, gets a bit of help from Kessel, and that certain something, that “it,” may vault the Pens back to another final.
Pat Hornqvist (29G), Jake Guentzel (22) and Connor Sheary (18) will be expected to fill the skates of the departed Chris Kunitz (TBL) and Nick Bonino (NSH).
The Penguins’ defense is still mobile with decent but not great production with Kris Letang (51P) having a bounceback year, but Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz, Jamie Oleksiak and Brian Dumolin will need to play at a higher level to overcome the loss of Ian Cole (CBJ) and Ron Hainsey (TOR).
Prediction: How about a surprise? Philly shocks the champs. Flyers in 7.
BOSTON BRUINS VS TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Season Series: Leafs 3-1-0; Bruins 1-2-1
Goals for/Rank: 3.26/6th
Goals against/Rank: 2.57/4th
Power Play %/Rank: 23.6/4th
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 83.7/3rd
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 34/20th
Recent Playoff History: L 1st Round last season, out of playoffs 2 prior
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Brad Marchand 68GP: 34-51-85/15th
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: David Pastrnak 35G/15th
Key Injuries: LW Rick Nash, C Riley Nash, D Brandon Carlo
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Goals for/Rank: 3.29/4th
Goals against/Rank: 2.81/20th
Power Play %/Rank: 25/2nd
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 81.4/11th
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 32/22nd
Recent Playoff History: L 1st Round 2016-17
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Mitch Marner 82GP: 22-47-69/37th
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: Auston Matthews 34/18th
Key Injuries: None
OVERVIEW AND PREDICTION:
Depth and defense make the Boston Bruins think that they can topple the young, fast Maple Leafs, who took the Capitals to seven games last season before losing.
The explosiveness on offense favors the Leafs, with Auston Matthews (34G), James van Riemsdyk (36), Nazem Kadri (32), Patrick Marleau (27), Mitch Marner (22) and William Nylander (20).
In this tight-as-a-drum series, the Bruins counter with four-time Selke winner Patrice Bergeron, and the league’s most talented hatchet guy, Brad Marchand (85P) plus David Pastrnak (35G) and substantial depth including newly-landed Rick Nash, who should return from injury, and Reilly Nash (no relation) (15G) plus rookies Danton Heinen and Jake DeBrusk (both 16G).
Boston possesses an edge in the net, it seems, with Tuukka Rask (34W; .917SV%; 2.36GAA) helping the B’s finish 4th overall.
The Toronto Maple Leafs rank 20th in goals against, but goaltender Frederik Andersen is by no means the weaker link. The defense fails the Leafs at times, and often they need to win high-scoring games, but Andersen (38W; .918SV%; 2.81GAA) has been more of a workhorse, playing twelve more games than Rask. As far as who’s between the pipes, it’s a tossup, but in terms of defensive corps, we’ve got to give the edge to Boston.
Top-notch special teams by Boston may give the Leafs some head-scratching moments. Watch for frustration on the Leafs’ powerful power play.
Prediction: Boston in 6 in a very tight series.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING VS NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Season Series: Lightning 0-2-1; Devils 3-0-0
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Goals for/Rank: 3.54/1st
Goals against/Rank: 2.85/13th
Power Play %/Rank: 23.9/3rd
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 76.1/28th
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 48/5
Recent Playoff History: Out of playoffs 2016-17
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Nikita Kucherov 82GP: 39-61-100/3rd
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: Nikita Kucherov 39G/11th
Key Injuries: C Steven Stamkos
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Goals for/Rank: 2.96/15th
Goals against/Rank: 2.93/17th
Power Play %/Rank: 21.4/10th
Penalty Kill%/Rank: 81.8/8th
Goals by Defensemen/Rank: 31/25
Recent Playoff History: Out of playoffs 5 consecutive seasons
Leading Point Scorer/Rank: Taylor Hall 76GP: 39-54-93 (6th)
Leading Goal Scorer/Rank: Taylor Hall 39G/9th
Key Injuries: LW Marcus Johansson
OVERVIEW AND PREDICTION:
This series features two legitimate Hart Trophy candidates.
The New Jersey Devils were paid in kind for the investment they made in Taylor Hall (76GP: 39-54-93). The Tampa Bay Lightning got a Hart-caliber season from Nikita Kucherov (3rd overall in scoring: 80: 39-61-100). That’s where the similarities end, however, and it seems that the difference between good and great is at hand here in this matchup.
Tampa is simply too explosive a club for the Devils to handle and this series may be a quick one.
The Devils, to be sure, had a bounce-back season with few expecting a playoff run. First round pick C Nico Hischier (20G) and D Will Butcher (44P) led a surprisingly uptempo club. RW Kyle Palmieri (24G in 62GP) and Miles Wood (19) were productive, but depth is an issue.
As for defense, the Devils just don’t have as many top-notch blueliners as do the Lightning. Sami Vatanen can move the puck, Andy Greene and Damon Severson provide some depth, but the disparity between the two clubs is pronounced.
For the Lightning, Steven Stamkos emerged from an injury-plagued 2016-17 (17GP), appearing this season in 78 games (27-59-86, 12th overall). Brayden Point exploded for 32 goals in his sophomore season and rookie Yanni Gourde scored 25. The list goes on, well into the depth ranks with J.T. Miller, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn and others similarly productive.
2012 1st round pick G Andrei Vasilevskiy (44W; .920SV%; 2.62) proved GM Steve Yzerman right for making him the starter after dealing away Ben Bishop.
The not-so-secret sauce that will vault the Lightning past the Devils is its defensive corps, led by certain Norris nominee Viktor Hedman. The defense scored 48 times, good for fifth overall. Yzerman tossed Jon Drouin to Montreal and got stud rookie Mikhail Sergachev for his blueline to go along with newcomer Ryan McDonagh and other former Rangers, Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman. It’s a deep defense to go along with a deep offense and the Lightning should roll through this round.
Prediction: Devils win Game 3, but otherwise the Lightning roll. Tampa Bay in 5.
Josh’s Western Conference preview is here.