It's been a very long six months for all of the 31 National Hockey League teams, but come April only 16 teams make the playoffs, eight from the East and eight from the West. I'm just here to make my picks for the first round.
The Columbus Blue Jackets were hot down the stretch of the regular season and they rode that momentum to steal a 1-0 lead in this series. This is the only first round series I think that has the potential to be a sweep.
Josh Anderson had a goal and an assist, and Nick Foligno and David Savard also tallied for the Blue Jackets, who lost all three regular-season meetings with the Lightning by a combined score of 17-3. The catalyst for this dominance came in the form of Art Ross Trophy victor Nikita Kucherov, tying his team's total with 128 points, which is also the most since 1995-1996 when the Pittsburgh Penguins' duo of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr garnered 161 and 149 points respectively.
The Tampa Bay Lightning has a lot of work to do if they want to even the series up before it heads to the Nationwide Arena in Columbus. On paper, the Bruins have a much better group of defencemen than Toronto. Past year the Bruins bested Toronto in the first round and that's where they'll meet up once again. For starters, they need Braden Holtby to be better in the playoffs. Led by John Tavares' 47 goals and followed by Auston Matthews' 37, this team has no problem shooting the puck. New York's stingy defense earned the Jennings Trophy by allowing the fewest goals in the league this season.
"I thought Andy was a big part of getting our engine going".
Predators defensemen Roman Josi and P.K. Subban each scored goals, and Pekka Rinne stopped 26 shots. It was the second time in the period a NY player hit a goal post as Matt Martin did it in the opening minute. Oh, and then there is their all-star goaltender in Braden Holtby behind it all. They finished 8th this season in GA/GP (2.70), which is on par with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning had some of the best players in the NHL this season, with 3 players in the top 12 for points and goals made, as well as goalie Andrei Vaseilevski leading the league in wins, this season. You could easily argue both are better than any team coming out of the Central bracket. If there's one team that will figure it out and bounce back, it's the Lightning. Nashville, on the other hand, has been a constant in the playoffs as of late.
Things won't get easier for them either. Winnipeg was the more aggressive team throughout most of the first game, outhitting the Blues 36-21. Four unanswered goals later, the Lightning found themselves with a rather bad taste in their mouth otherwise known as a Game 1 loss.
The Islanders led three times in regulation with the Penguins managing to tie it each time.
Bet on the game or on the Lightning, Blue Jackets to win the Stanley Cup at DraftKings and get a free $20 bet when you sign up. With O'Reilly, Braden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko combining for 199 points this season followed by a 41-point season from captain defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, it's no secret that the Blues are hot. They ultimately lose in the finals to Tampa Bay, but I would personally be surprised to see them make it out of the Western Conference. The Jets have struggled with injuries as well as the recent absences on the stat sheet of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. Along with players like Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Bryan Little there is no lack of skill. The team that won the trophy has gone on to win the Stanley Cup only eight times.
How do you see the series playing out? This is going to be close, but I have my St. Louis Blues in six. The Stars aren't exactly the league's deepest team, so Tolvanen's skill could also create dividends if Laviolette made a decision to take the very mild risk of inserting the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. He is the +650 favourite to lead the post season as top goal scorer. But the lack of goal scoring could be problematic. Maybe they can grind out a Round 1 series win against a generally low-scoring Stars team, but maybe not, as special teams might just move the needle.
Home ice advantage continued to play a major role for the Vegas Golden Knights as they did not drop a game at T-Mobile Arena for the first two rounds against the San Jose Sharks or Colorado Avalanche. The Lightning finished with the number one seed in the National Hockey League this year, and they looked poised to strike and win their second Stanley Cup final in franchise history. We know what we're capable of doing.
Joe Pavelski also scored a goal, and Erik Karlsson added two assists for the Sharks.
Now, it's too early to say that the Lightning are going to emulate the New York Rangers and fail in their mission to win the Stanley Cup.