2018 Stanley Cup playoffs feature multiple thrilling matchups

The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is officially set, and there are plenty of exciting matchups to look forward to. Several teams surprised fans everywhere with a push for the postseason, while perennial contenders make their run for the ultimate prize. All eyes will be on the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are seeking the first Stanley Cup three-peat since the 1980-1983 New York Islanders.

In what should be the perfect example of a David vs. Goliath matchup, the East’s best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, will square off against the young, upstart New Jersey Devils. On paper, the Lightning should easily win this series. A lineup that features an MVP candidate in Nikita Kucherov, a top goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy, an unstoppable offense with contributions from Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde and a terrific defense led by Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev and Ryan McDonagh makes Tampa Bay the clear favorite to get out of the Eastern Conference.

However, the Devils beat the Lightning in all three of their regular-season head-to-head games and are by no means a team to overlook. With MVP candidate Taylor Hall at the team’s helm, the terrific youth contributions of Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt, paired with the veteran leadership of Cory Schneider in net, as well as Michael Grabner and Brian Boyle on the ice, the Devils will try their best to sink the Lightning. Anticipated as a high-scoring shootout, time can only tell if the young underdogs can upset the heavy favorites.

In an Original Six showdown, the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs are facing off with each other in what should be a thrilling first-round series. Both teams have overachieved so far this year, as Boston recorded 112 points, while Toronto set a franchise record with 105 points.

There is no shortage of depth on either team, as veteran leaders, champions and young stars are situated up and down the lineups. The Bruins will rely on seasoned players Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and David Krejci to lead the way. Charlie McAvoy, Ryan Donato, David Pastrnak and Danton Heinen will add to the lineup’s depth, featuring young speed and shutdown defense.

The Maple Leafs are led by second-year studs Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, and backed up by solid production in veterans James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau. Both teams have a terrific offense, efficient defense and reliable special teams.

Goaltending will be the X-factor in this series, as each game has the potential to be high-scoring and fast-paced. It is up to the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask and the Leafs’ Frederik Andersen to stonewall their opposition’s offense and advance their team’s legacy forward.

The Washington Capitals will face off against the Columbus Blue Jackets in what will be a thrilling inter-divisional playoff series. The Capitals won the Metropolitan Division for the third consecutive season and enter the postseason with a potent offensive unit. Alex Ovechkin led the league with 49 goals, while Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom each recorded 50 or more assists. The team’s offense was ranked top 10 in goals and power-play efficiency during the regular season, making it the focal point of the Capitals’ success.

As of late, the team’s biggest issue has been its goaltending. Braden Holtby has not played up to his standards and was forced to share the spotlight with backup Philipp Grubauer. The Blue Jackets reached the postseason for the second consecutive season, marking the first time in their franchise history.

Much of their regular-season success has rested on the shoulders of star forward Artemi Panarin, who led his team with 82 points in 81 games, and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who has continued to excel as the team’s No. 1 defender.

The team’s biggest issue is on special teams, ranking within the bottom 10 among teams for both power play and penalty kill efficiency. Despite the lack of depth compared to seasons prior, the Capitals still have enough players to soldier on. The goaltending and special teams will prove critical in deciding this series.

Perhaps the most anticipated first-round matchup will take place between Pennsylvania rivals. The Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers are getting set for another series full of goals, fights and hard hits that will be speckled with plenty of bad blood. The Penguins are set on defending their two consecutive titles, led by their superstar trio composed of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.

The defense is solid and the offense has a strong balance of four effective lines. A power play that ranks first in the NHL should definitely help.

The Flyers are led by Claude Giroux, who finished second in the league with 102 goals. He has a great supporting cast of offensive talent led by Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Sean Couturier. This series will depend on which team’s goaltending and special teams show up with championship intentions, as both teams are pretty even in those departments. This is another chapter in the teams’ 50-year rivalry and should be must-see television.

The first playoff matchup in the Western Conference will take place between the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche. Both teams have been among the best stories in the NHL this season. One year after the Predators were two wins away from winning the Stanley Cup as the 8th seed in the Western Conference, they enter these playoffs with the league’s best regular-season record.

A combination of a balanced offense led by Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen, an elite defense led by P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis and superb goaltending from Pekka Rinne, has made them clear championship contenders. The Avalanche snuck into the postseason after defeating the St. Louis Blues in the last game of the regular season. Coming off a disastrous 48-point campaign last season, the Avs nearly doubled total this season.

They are led by MVP candidate Nathan MacKinnon, along with strong special teams and contributions from Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. The goaltending is a question mark, as starter Semyon Varlamov is injured and will most likely not be healthy for the playoffs. Such a loss may prove costly in a matchup against a healthy, apex Predators lineup.

The matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild is one of the more surprising matchups this season. The Jets were one of the greatest stories of the season, transforming into an elite team that has the pieces to contend for years to come. Everything came to fruition this season, led by 19-year old phenomenon Patrik Laine, who finished second by the number of league goals scored. Contributions from Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers helped make the Jets a top-five offense. A strong defense and penalty kill made the Jets even stronger. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck emerged as a Vezina Trophy candidate with his superb save.

The Wild has comfortably remained in playoff contention for the entire season and has had a balanced attack in all phases. Led by Eric Staal, Mikael Granlund and star goaltender Devan Dubnyk, the Wild were quietly one of the league’s best teams despite a middle-of-the-pack offense, defense and special teams.

Their defense will be shorthanded, however, as reliable stalwart Ryan Suter is out for the entire season. The Jets are the league’s best home team, giving them quite the advantage. Lineup depth, speed and defense will be the keys in this series.

The newest team to enter the NHL, the Vegas Golden Knights, will face off against the playoff-tested Los Angeles Kings. There has not been a better hockey story this season than the Golden Knights. They defied every expectation in their inaugural season and consistently stayed atop of the Pacific Division. Their lineup is not flashy or elite by any means, but they have very solid players up and down the roster. William Karlsson led Vegas in scoring, while James Neal and David Perron helped lead the attack.

A solid defense added to their strength and the goaltending was sharp despite all the injuries. The Kings were on the bubble through the final stretch of the regular season, but managed to secure a wild-card spot. Playoff and championship experience could help them in this series, led by stalwarts Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty.

The goaltending from Jonathan Quick has been terrific, as always. The defense and penalty kill ranked first in the league. It is a matchup between the new kids on the block and the old-time winners. This matchup is fairly even and should be very exciting.

An all-California matchup sees the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks squaring off in the first round. The Ducks struggled until the second half of the season, when they really began to tear it up. Led by a strong, top-five defense and a solid offense, highlighted by Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell, the Ducks gave themselves a chance to remain championship contenders. They will prove to be a hard team to beat.

The Sharks are coming off a season in which they lost all-time great Patrick Marleau via free agency. His presence will surely be missed in the playoffs, but Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Brent Burns remain the leaders of this group. The addition of Evander Kane at the trade deadline was a terrific one, as he bolstered the team’s speed, physicality and net presence.

Both teams have an outstanding defense and penalty kill, as well as respectable goaltending. Just one point separated these two West Coast foes and this series should be fairly even and unpredictable.