With a truly exciting NCAA College basketball tournament coming to an end yesterday, a new tournament and Bracket Challenge begins: The 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. Buckle up fans, the fastest sport in the world now takes Center Stage for the next couple of months. And I guarantee that it will be just as competitive and exciting as this year’s College Hoops tournament.
The two hottest teams entering this year’s playoffs are the Tampa Bay Lightning and the St Louis Blues. The St Louis Blues had the league’s fewest points on January 2nd with 34. However, they rebounded with the addition of rookie netminder Jordan Binnington and a coaching change (Craig Berube). The Blues just missed winning the Central Division by 1 point.
The Tampa Bay Lightning won the league’s Presidents’ Trophy (best record during the regular season) and tied an NHL record for wins in a season with 62. They now share the record with the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. Surprisingly, that Red Wings team lost in the Conference Finals to the Colorado Avalanche that season.
Presidents’ Trophy Curse?
The last five Presidents’ Trophy winners failed to make it into the Stanley Cup Finals. Since the creation of the Presidents’ Trophy in 1985, only 8 of the 32 winners (25%) went on to win the Stanley Cup. And 21 of the 32 winners (65.6%) never reached the Stanley Cup Finals. I decided to team up with former Kansas City Blade/San Jose Shark winger J.F. Quintin for predictions in this preview.
4 Columbus vs #1 Tampa Bay
Commentary: The Columbus Blue Jackets rallied towards the end of the season to make the playoffs. Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is good enough to secure one win in this series vs a very talented Lightning team. The Lightning have the #1 Power Play and the better goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy. J.F. and I are in complete agreement on this one.
- My prediction: Tampa Bay in 5 games
- J.F’s prediction: Tampa Bay in 5 games
3 Toronto vs #2 Boston
Commentary: This should prove to be one of the better first round matchups. Expect lots of goal scoring. Boston ended the season strong. The Maple Leafs struggled down the stretch going 3-4-3 in the final ten games. Will the addition of John Taveras get the Leafs over the hump? J.F. and I are in disagreement on this series.
- My prediction: Boston in 7 games
- J.F’s prediction: Toronto in 6 games
4 Carolina vs #1 Washington
Commentary: The defending Stanley Cup Champions and the Carolina Hurricanes both ended the season strong. The Capitals have the difference maker in clutch goal scorer Alex Ovechkin and a better goaltender in Braden Holtby. I think the Caps advance, J.F. is taking the upset special.
- My prediction: Washington in 7 games
- J.F’s prediction: Carolina in 7 games
3 Pittsburgh vs #2 NY Islanders
Commentary: The New York Islanders surprised many by making the playoffs this year under new head coach Barry Trotz. Especially after losing a key offensive weapon with John Taveras in free agency in the off season. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts for this Islanders team. The opposite is true with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins have loads of talent but ran hot and cold all season. I think Sid the Kid Crosby is enough to push the Pens into the next round.
- My prediction: Pittsburgh in 6 games
- J.F’s prediction: Pittsburgh in 4 games
4 Dallas vs #1 Nashville
Commentary: The Nashville Predators narrowly won the Central Division after a late season decline by the Winnipeg Jets. The Predators are always tough on their home ice and Pekka Rinne has been one of the league’s top netminders the past three seasons. I don’t feel that this is one of Nashville’s better teams. They sport the league’s worst Power Play (12.9%) and have trouble scoring at even strength at times. On the other hand, the Dallas Stars finished the season strong. Like the Predators, they sometimes struggle scoring goals. But the key here is that the Stars #1 goaltender Ben Bishop is now healthy and won 9 of his last 10 starts. J.F. likes the Preds, I’m going with the Stars to pull off the first-round upset.
- My prediction: Dallas in 6 games
- J.F’s prediction: Nashville in 5 games
3 St Louis vs #2 Winnipeg
Commentary: These two teams meet up in the first round heading in opposite directions. As mentioned earlier, the Blues were one of the top teams in the second half of the season. Winnipeg limped home down the stretch. J.F. and I are in complete agreement on this one, only differing in the number of games it will take.
- My prediction: St Louis is 6 games
- J.F’s prediction: St Louis in 5 games
4 Colorado vs #1 Calgary
Commentary: The Colorado Avalanche started the season strong, then slumped due to shaky goaltending, only to rally towards the end of the season to secure the last Wild Card spot in the West. Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames surprised the hockey world by producing the best record in the Western Conference. I heard reports last summer that this Flames squad thought that they would be a serious Stanley Cup contender this year after not making the playoffs last season. They convinced James “The Real Deal” Neal to sign with them. However, Neal wasn’t much of a factor all season due to injuries, but he is now healthy. The Avalanche can score, they have a good Power Play, the only question will be their goaltending. Likewise, the Calgary Flames lack proven playoff goaltending. However, I just don’t see this Flames team flaming out in the first round.
- My prediction: Calgary is 5 games
- J.F’s prediction: Calgary in 7 games
3 Vegas vs #2 San Jose
Commentary: The Vegas Golden Knights were the surprise story last year making the Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural season. However, the Golden Knights seemed to suffer from Stanley Cup Finals hangover and got off to a poor start early on. On paper, this Golden Knights team is more talented than last year’s team with the additions of Mark Stone, Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty. But the core group from last season Stanley Cup Finals squad underperformed as a whole. For this reason, I am not sure which Golden Knights team will show up in the first round. San Jose bolstered their team with the additions of Erik Karlsson and Gustav Nyquist. The Sharks can score, they have playoff experience and grit. The only question will be their goaltending. J.F. likes the Sharks. I like the Golden Knights. Why? Three words: Marc Andre Fleury.
- My prediction: Vegas in 6 games
- J.F’s prediction: San Jose in 6 games
Who will raise Lord Stanley’s Cup?
I have been high on the Tampa Bay Lightning all season and I made them my Stanley Cup favorite a month ago. Tampa Bay has everything you need to win a Cup. They have great team speed, offensive skill, great special teams ( #1 Power Play, #1 Penalty Kill), great goaltending and a great quarterback on the back line in Victor Hedman. J.F. Quintin thinks otherwise: “The Lightning aren’t a playoff championship type team yet. Not enough toughness and grit. The West Coast teams are faster and bigger.”
Who is J.F.’s Stanley Cup favorite? He likes the Calgary Flames and the Pittsburgh Penguins to reach the Stanley Cup Finals with Calgary winning it all. As for who I think will face the Lightning in the Stanley Cup Finals from the Western Conference, that remains a mystery. I think there are four or five teams (Calgary, St Louis, Vegas, San Jose and Nashville) that can make the Finals. Whoever has the hottest goaltending and the most heart will be the team that advances. The first round of the playoffs will give us a big clue.