With the first round of the NHL playoffs in the books, The Canadian Press takes a look at the four series that will determine the conference finalists.
(1) Tampa Bay Lightning versus (2) Boston Bruins
The Lightning and Bruins battled for top spot in the division until the final day of the regular season, and this series could be just as close. Tampa brushed aside the New Jersey Devils in five games in the first round, while Boston led Toronto 3-1 before the Maple Leafs pushed the Bruins to a Game 7. Both teams possess powerful forward groups. Tampa is paced by Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, while Boston might just own the best line in hockey with David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. The Lightning also have Norris Trophy nominee Victor Hedman patrolling the blue line, while Vezina Trophy hopeful Andrei Vasilevskiy had a .941 save percentage in the first round. Zdeno Chara keeps on ticking for Boston’s defence at 41 years of age, while Torey Krug was a beast at both ends of the ice against Toronto. The key for the physical Bruins will be goalie Tuukka Rask, who struggled at times against the Leafs with a pedestrian .899 save percentage.
Head-to-head season series: Lightning 1-3-0; Bruins 3-1-0
Pick: Boston in seven
(1) Washington Capitals versus (2) Pittsburgh Penguins
You again? The Capitals and Penguins are meeting in the second round of the playoffs for the third straight season. Pittsburgh won the two previous series, and is 9-1 all-time against Washington in the post-season. The Penguins handled the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the opening round, while the Capitals stormed back from an 0-2 deficit against Columbus to beat the Blue Jackets in six. Sidney Crosby and linemate Jake Guentzel wreaked havoc against Philadelphia with 13 points apiece (six goals, seven assists) for Pittsburgh. Alex Ovechkin scored five times versus Columbus, and along with his teammates will be hungry to dethrone the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions — a franchise that has won seven consecutive playoff meetings with Washington dating back to 1995.
Head-to-head season series: Penguins 2-2-0; Capitals 2-2-0
Pick: Pittsburgh in 6
(1) Nashville Predators versus (2) Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg finished second in the NHL standings with 113 points before disposing of the Minnesota Wild in five games for the city’s first victory in a playoff series since 1987. The Jets’ reward? Starting the second round on the road against Presidents’ Trophy winners. After earning 117 points in the regular season, the Predators beat the Colorado Avalanche in six games to open their playoffs. Nashville is deep down the middle, has a strong blue line led by Norris Trophy nominee P.K. Subban, and is backstopped by Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne. Winnipeg, meanwhile, is just as dangerous with Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele up front, Dustin Byfuglien on defence, and a Vezina Trophy hopeful of its own in Connor Hellebuyck. With Winnipeg’s raucous white-clad crowd and Nashville’s equally rabid home arena, this could very well be the best series of the entire playoffs.
Head-to-head season series: Predators 3-1-1; Jets 2-3-0
Pick: Nashville in 7
(1) Vegas Golden Knights versus (3) San Jose Sharks
The expansion Golden Knights continue to defy the odds. After a stunning regular season, Vegas was expected to be in tough against the heavier, more experienced Los Angeles Kings in the first round. All the Knights did was sweep L.A., allowing just three goals in the process. Veteran netminder Marc-Andre Fleury had a .977 save percentage in the series with two shutouts. The Sharks, meanwhile, were also thought to be in tough in their matchup with the Anaheim Ducks, but instead disposed of their California rivals in four straight. San Jose goalie Martin Jones was almost as good as Fleury in the first round, finishing with a .970 save percentage to go along with one shutout. Will the Knights keep their impressive run going? Or will the Sharks take another step towards getting back to the Cup final after losing to Pittsburgh in 2016?
Head-to-head season series: Vegas 3-0-1; San Jose 1-2-1
Pick: Sharks in 6
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press