Monday, May 20, 2024

Who will advance in NHL playoffs? Picks and predictions for every NHL first round series

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The first round of the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs have a familiar look, starting with the opening game.

The Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders will meet one year after the Hurricanes beat the Islanders in six games in 2023. The defending champion Vegas Golden Knights are facing the Dallas Stars after beating them in the Western Conference final last season. The Edmonton Oilers have ousted the Los Angeles Kings in the first round the last two seasons.

The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning are meeting for the third time in four years and the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins have had some memorable playoff series.

USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Brehm and Jace Evans give their predictions on the eight first-round series:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals

Brehm: Rangers in 6. Capitals goalie Charlie Lindgren might be able to steal a couple games, as he did during the season series, but the Rangers have too much talent.

Evans: Rangers in 5. The Capitals making the playoffs with a minus-37 goal differential was a fun story, but you don’t get the sixth-worst mark in the league without some serious flaws in your game. The league’s best team should be able to expose those.

Carolina Hurricanes vs. New York Islanders

Brehm: Hurricanes in 6. I have the Hurricanes winning the Stanley Cup. This series is their first step.

Evans: Hurricanes in 4. No team in the playoffs had less regulation wins than the Islanders (29). No team in the East had more regulation wins than the Hurricanes (44).

Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

Brehm: Panthers in 6. NHL leading scorer Nikita Kucherov will be hard to slow down, but the Panthers have the better defense (especially with Tampa Bay’s Mikhail Sergachev still out) and Sergei Bobrovsky had a Vezina Trophy-caliber season.

Evans: Panthers in 6. Tampa Bay can score with the best teams in the league, but can it keep the puck out of its net? The blue line is diminished from what it once was and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has been inconsistent. Not exactly the combo you want against a team that can come at you in waves.

Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Brehm: Bruins in 7. If these teams meet in the playoffs, it has to go to seven games, right? Give the Bruins the edge in defense and goaltending in this series.

Evans: Maple Leafs in 6. The Bruins obviously hold a lot of purchase in the minds of Maple Leafs fans, but this team just isn’t as formidable as past Boston squads. The Maple Leafs would seem to have the advantage down the middle, considering their No. 1 center is Auston Matthews and he nearly scored 70 goals.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas Stars vs. Vegas Golden Knights

Brehm: Stars in 7. The Golden Knights had an interesting final week, rallying from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Colorado Avalanche, then losing to the Anaheim Ducks to set up this playoff meeting. But the Stars have been consistently good all season.

Evans: Stars in 6. The defending champs roared out of the gate, starting 11-0-1 and reaching 20-5-5. But Vegas closed the season a pedestrian 25-24-3. If captain Mark Stone could return, maybe that changes things, but the Golden Knights just don’t seem to be playing well enough to take down a team of Dallas’ caliber.

Winnipeg Jets vs. Colorado Avalanche

Brehm: Jets in 6. The Jets have won eight in a row, including a 7-0 win vs. Colorado, while the Avalanche slumped down the stretch. Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar are formidable, but the Jets shut down Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the 2021 playoffs with superior defense and goaltending.

Evans: Avalanche in 7. Connor Hellebuyck could steal any series if he’s on top of his game. The Avs get the edge because their top offensive players are that special and they have championship experience.

Vancouver Canucks vs. Nashville Predators

Brehm: Canucks in 7. It will be fun to see Norris Trophy candidates Quinn Hughes and Roman Josi in action, but the Canucks win out with more top-end talent.

Evans: Predators in 6. The Canucks have more elite players but less playoff experience. Few teams were better in the second half than the Preds.

Edmonton Oilers vs. Los Angeles Kings

Brehm: Oilers in 6. The Oilers have won the last two series and have the talent to do it again. You win with defense in this league, but Edmonton has too much offense.

Evans: Oilers in 5. The Oilers have the best player in the league and another top-10 talent at the top of their lineup. The Kings are a solid group but it’s hard to envision a world where Edmonton doesn’t beat them a third consecutive season.

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