It’s Stanley Cup Playoffs time.
The Boston Bruins enter the postseason as the Presidents’ Trophy winners thanks to their historic 135-point season. In the West, the Vegas Golden Knights captured the top seed.
In the opening round, the lower-seeded wild card team faces off against the division winner with the best record. The other wild card team takes on the other division winner. The second and third place teams from the divisions battle it out in the other playoff matchups. In the opening two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, home ice advantage is given to the higher seed, which means that they had the better regular season record.
With the playoffs here, our NHL experts revealed their first-round predictions along with their Stanley Cup picks.
(1) Golden Knights vs. (WC2) Jets
Chris: After missing the playoffs a season ago, the Golden Knights rebounded in a big way during the regular season. Vegas tallied the most points in the West and did that without having captain Mark Stone for the second half of the season due to a back injury. This will be Jack Eichel’s first career playoff appearance, and I expect him to dominate on the big stage. He enters the postseason riding a nine-game point streak with 11 assists during that stretch. The Golden Knights won all three meetings against the Jets during the regular season and outscored them 13-8 in those games. I do believe that the Jets are going to steal a few games, but will fall just a little short. Pick — Golden Knights beat Jets 4-2
Austin: The Golden Knights went 14-3-3 down the stretch, but they controlled just 46.9% of the five-on-five expected goals, per Natural Stat Trick. The Jets went 11-8-1 in that same span, but they were much better at five-on-five, controlling 56.5% of the expected goals. Even if Mark Stone is back in the lineup for the Golden Knights, the Jets have the biggest advantage in this series. Connor Hellebuyck is a top-three goaltender in the NHL, and he is capable of carrying Winnipeg past Vegas on his own. While Logan Thompson, Laurent Brossoit and Jonathan Quick have been anywhere from solid to really good for the Golden Knights, can you bet on that trio in the playoffs? I’d rather roll the dice with Hellebuyck and pick the Jets to pull off the upset. Pick — Jets beat Golden Knights 4-3
(2) Oilers vs. (3) Kings
Chris: This is simple: Connor. McDavid. He’s has put together a season for the ages as he recorded a mind-boggling 153 points, and led the way for the Oilers. These two teams split their four meetings during the regular season, so it’s going to likely be a tight series. While the Kings surpassed expectations, I just think that McDavid and company will be too much for them. Pick — Oilers beat Kings 4-2
Austin: The Oilers have an explosive offense that features a 60-goal scorer, a 50-goal scorer and two 30-goal scorers. Edmonton might give up a little more the other way, but the defense has improved drastically with the addition of Mattias Ekholm, and Stuart Skinner has become a reliable starting goaltender. On the other side, the Kings have been one of the best defensive teams in hockey all season, allowing the second fewest expected goals at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick. The battle between elite defensive forwards Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault and peak Connor McDavid will be a lot of fun to watch. The biggest x-factor in this series will be each side’s goaltending situation. If the Kings’ goaltending was in a better place, I would be more tempted to pick them, but the Oilers just have too much firepower. Pick — Oilers beat Kings 4-2
(1) Avalanche vs. (WC1) Kraken
Chris: In just their second NHL season, the Kraken are headed to the postseason for the first time. Their reward? Getting to face the defending Stanley Cup champions in the opening round. The Avalanche have dealth with a ton of injuries, but they still won the Central Division and are getting hot at the right time. They’ll be without captain Gabriel Landeskog for the entire postseason, but Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar bring a ton of firepower that Seattle just doesn’t possess. Sure, this isn’t the same loaded Avalanche roster from a season ago, but they’re clearly the better team here. Pick — Avalanche beat Kraken 4-1
Austin: Seattle has solid depth, and the scoring is balanced throughout all four lines, but the team may not have enough firepower to match the talent that fills Colorado’s bench. The biggest issue for the Kraken is in goal. Philipp Grubauer and Martin Jones have combined for one of the league’s worst save percentages again this year, and that is a major problem against this Avs team. For Colorado, Alexandar Georgiev has never started a playoff game, but he is coming off a much stronger regular season than either goalie in Seattle. It’ll be fun to see playoff hockey in Climate Pledge Arena, but Colorado will spoil the party rather quickly. Pick — Avalanche beat Kraken 4-1
(2) Stars vs. (3) Wild
Chris: The Wild and Stars were both battling with the Avalanche for the Central Division crown down the stretch. However, the Stars are definitely the better team in my eyes. They’re an offensive juggernaut that ranked seventh in goals-per-game (3.41) throughout the regular season. Jason Robertson has become one of the league’s most lethal goal scorers and the amount of depth that the Stars have is out of this world. For the Wild, it’ll be interesting to see who gets the start between the pipes out of Marc-Andre Fleury and Filip Gustavsson. Gustavsson makes more sense, as he’s had a much stronger campaign, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if head coach Dean Evason goes with the veteran in Fleury to start the series. If that turns out to be the case, how long will Fleury’s leash be? I do believe that we’ll see both goalies in this series, and that’s not a recipe for success. Pick — Stars beat Wild 4-2
Austin: The Stars have played like a top-10 team all season, and when they are at their best, they look like a real Stanley Cup contender. The Wild have been more inconsistent, and they don’t come into the playoffs at the top of their game. After a few years of being a one-trick pony, Dallas has gotten scoring from more than just its top line. Jamie Benn has found his game again, and Miro Heiskanen has added some offensive pop to his game on the blue line. Outside of Kirill Kaprizov and Matt Boldy, Minnesota has struggled to find regular goal-scoring this season, and that means goaltending has been forced to carry the load at times. Filip Gustavsson has done just that, and he has earned the right to be the Game 1 starter for the Wild. He could steal a series. The downside for Minnesota is that Dallas has a goaltender who can do the same thing in Jake Oettinger. The Stars have been the better team in a lot of ways, and I don’t expect that to change over the next two weeks. Pick — Stars defeat Wild 4-1
(1) Bruins vs. (WC2) Panthers
Chris: The Bruins recorded the most points in a single season in NHL history. Star forward David Pastrnak racked up a career-high 61 goals and kept opposing defenses scratching their heads. On top of that, Linus Ullmark was tremendous between the pipes. While the Panthers are certainly no slouch, it’s hard to imagine the Bruins seeing a ton of resistance in this matchup. I’ll say the Panthers steal a game at home, but the Bruins will definitely cruise to victory in the series. Pick — Bruins beat Panthers 4-1
Austin: The Panthers played their best hockey down the stretch and climbed into playoff position after looking dead in the water for most of the season. That would normally make them a dangerous team, except they are going up against a Bruins team that just set the record for wins and points in a single season. There might have been a two-week stretch in the middle of the season where Boston wasn’t playing like the best team in the league, but that is it. The Bruins were second in goals (301) and first in goals allowed (174), and that was no fluke. They were really that dominant. Matthew Tkachuk has been brilliant for the Panthers this season, and Carter Verhaeghe and Aleksander Barkov give Florida some very real threats up front. That said, the Panthers just don’t have enough horses — or the goaltending — to beat the Bruins in a seven-game series. Pick — Bruins beat Panthers 4-2
(2) Maple Leafs vs. (3) Lightning
Chris: I’m ready to say it: They’re finally going to get the job done. Yes, I realize it’s crazy to count out the Lightning, but I just think that this year’s Maple Leafs squad is different. Toronto’s dynamic duo of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner was lethal throughout the regular season, and I don’t expect that to change against Tampa Bay. Now the Maple Leafs will need to receive some stellar goaltending since Andrei Vasilevsky will likely provide that on the other side. It’ll be a back-and-forth series, but I believe that the Maple Leafs will finally make it out of the opening round for the first time since 2004. Pick — Maple Leafs beat Lightning 4-2
Austin: Am I going to buy into the Maple Leafs only for them to possibly make me look like a fool? Yes. The Maple Leafs have simply been better than the Lightning this season, and that was especially true in the last 20 games. In that stretch, the Leafs went 12-5-3 while Tampa went 9-10-1, and the underlying numbers also favored Toronto. There is always the chance that the Bolts are able to return to championship form in the playoffs. Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy know exactly what it takes to win at this time of year. On top of that, this is a Toronto team that hasn’t been out of the first round since “Shrek 2” was sweeping the nation. Despite that recent history, the Leafs are in position to get the job done this time around. If Toronto can’t get over the hump this year, I’m not sure when it will happen. Pick — Maple Leafs beat Lightning 4-2
(1) Hurricanes vs. (WC2) Islanders
Chris: The Hurricanes have been bitten by the injury bug this year. Max Pacioretty returned for five games before tearing his Achilles all over again. In March, Andrei Svechnikov was lost for the season due to a knee injury. Carolina certainly doesn’t have quite as many weapons as New York, but should still have enough to get out of the opening round, though. If Islanders star Mathew Barzal is actually healthy and consistently plays in the series, the Islanders have a much better chance to knock out the Canes. I still think it’ll be tightly contested, but the Hurricanes will come out on top regardless. Pick — Hurricanes beat Islanders 4-2
Austin: If you’re a fan of low-scoring playoff hockey, then this will probably be the series for you. Neither of these teams really filled the net in 2022-23. The Hurricanes and Islanders aren’t afraid to let shots fly from the point, which makes life a little easier on opposing goaltenders. To Carolina’s credit, it is able to create quite a few slot shots off of rebounds, but those rebounds may not be there against an all-world goaltender like Ilya Sorokin. Therein lies the biggest issue for the Canes. Sorokin has the ability to steal games for the Isles, and Carolina is without a pair of strong finishers in Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty. It sounds like Mat Barzal will return to the Islanders’ lineup in Game 1, and this has potential to be a tight series. The Hurricanes’ depth wins out, but the Isles will put up a solid fight. Pick — Hurricanes beat Islanders 4-3
(2) Devils vs. (3) Rangers
Chris: Pencil this one in as the most entertaining series that the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs has to offer. Falling into the No. 2 spot in the Metro Division isn’t an ideal scenario for a Devils team that doesn’t possess a ton of playoff experience. Still, it’ll be great to see Jack Hughes on the big stage for the first time. I just think that the Rangers will have too much firepower from a forward standpoint. On top of that, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin gives New York a huge advantage in the crease. Pick — Rangers beat Devils 4-3
Austin: Let’s hope this series is able to live up to the hype. These two rivals have been among the NHL’s best all season, and there will be starpower littered all over the ice. For the second straight season, the Rangers outplayed somewhat pedestrian underlying numbers at five-on-five, as stars like Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Adam Fox torched opponents. The Devils, on the other hand, were dominant at five-on-five all year as Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier all took big steps forward. New Jersey has the starpower and depth necessary to take down its biggest rival, but Igor Shesterkin might be a rather large speed bump. Shesterkin’s spectacular performance in the 2022 playoffs took the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Final, and he has been elite over the last six weeks. Even though Shesterkin gives me a lot of pause, I’ve been thoroughly impressed by the Devils every step of the way this season, so I’m sticking with them in this series. Pick — Devils beat Rangers 4-3
Stanley Cup winner
Chris: This was my prediction prior to the season getting underway and I’m sticking to it. It’s not going to be an easy road for the Rangers to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. New York is likely going to have to take down Boston at some point in order to reach the Stanley Cup Final, and that’s quite a tall task. However, the Rangers beefed up their forward group for this time of year. It won’t come as a huge surprise if Patrick Kane goes on a heater during the postseason. From a Western Conference standpoint, I’d love to go with the Avalanche getting back to the Stanley Cup Final, but the loss of Gabriel Landeskog is just too monumental. I believe it will finally be Connor McDavid’s time to get to the pinnacle of the sport. Seeing these two offenses do battle would be quite the treat. II just think that the combination of a top six that include Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, Vladimir Tarasenko and Kane and an elite goaltender in Igor Shesterkin will be too much for the Oilers to overcome. Pick — Rangers beat Oilers 4-3
Austin: This is Connor McDavid’s moment. I cannot be convinced otherwise. He’s been on a mission all season, and it seems like he finally has a great supporting cast around him. The acquisition of Mattias Ekholm and the emergence of Stuart Skinner have made the Oilers a much more complete team. Edmonton may have to dethrone the Avalanche in the process of reaching the Stanley Cup Final, but the teams are much more evenly matched than they were last season. In the Eastern Conference, the Devils and Bruins were two of the best teams from start to finish in the regular season, and I expect them to meet in the conference finals, where New Jersey will end Boston’s historic season. A Stanley Cup Final featuring Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Jack Hughes and Timo Meier is a hockey fan’s fever dream, and there’s a good chance we get it. In that matchup, McDavid leads the Oilers to their first Stanley Cup since 1990. Pick — Oilers beat Devils 4-3