Tuesday, April 10, 2018

First round playoff preview

Welcome to the very best time of year to be a hockey fan. The regular season has its moments and the Stanley Cup Final is what it's all about. But the first round of the playoffs is pure adrenaline, hooked directly into a hockey fan's veins. Sixteen teams enter, and we get two weeks of mayhem until eight are left.

But which eight? Let's see if we can figure it out with a look at all of the first-round matchups.

Central Division

#1 Nashville Predators vs. #WC Colorado Avalanche

In this corner: The Predators (53-18-11, 117 points, +57*), coming off the first Presidents' Trophy in team history. (*Unlike the NHL, our goals differential totals don't count shootout wins and losses since, you know, those aren't actually goals.)

And in this corner: The Avalanche (43-30-9, 95 points, +19), who made the playoffs in their final game just one year after one of the worst seasons of the cap era.

Head-to-head: The Predators won all four meetings.

Injury report: The Avalanche are missing starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov and defenseman Erik Johnson, both of whom are out long term and won't play in the series. The Predators are relatively healthy, which at this time of year means half the roster is probably hurt but they haven't told us about it.

Dominant narrative: David vs. Goliath. The Avalanche have been a great story, and they've spent the season proving doubters wrong. But when you battle all year to get the No. 1 seed, this is the sort of matchup you're hoping to get. If the Predators are the team we think they are, they should roll through this series easily, earning some rest before a much tougher test arrives in the second round.

The big question: Are the Avalanche just happy to be here? You could hardly blame them if they were; they could lose this series in four straight and the season would still be a resounding success.

One player to watch: Nathan MacKinnon. The Avalanche forward and former first overall pick finally had the breakout season that puts him among the league's elite stars, and he may win the Hart Trophy because of it. He's the kind of difference-maker who can take over a game, and the Avs may need him to do just that to have a shot at the upset here.

Key number: 296 – Powerplay opportunities drawn by the Avalanche on the season, the most in the league by a good margin (the next best team, Tampa Bay, had 276). Their powerplay was OK, but the sheer volume left them third in the league in powerplay goals scored. But will that continue in the postseason, when NHL referees are known for putting away their whistles?

Prediction: Predators in four.

Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: The Avs hang tough and make it closer than we'd think, with two of the games going into overtime.

#2 Winnipeg Jets vs. #3 Minnesota Wild

In this corner: The Jets (52-20-10, 114 points, +57), coming off the best season in both franchise and Winnipeg history.

And in this corner: The Wild (45-26-11, 101 points, +21), who continued Bruce Boudreau's streak of hitting at least 100 points in every full season he's coached.

Head-to-head: The Jets won three of the four matchups, including a 7-2 blowout back in November.

Injury report: The big name here is Minnesota's Ryan Suter, who's out for the year with a broken leg. The Jets' blueline is banged up, too, with Jacob Trouba and Toby Enstrom both missing time at the end of the season.

Dominant narrative: The Jets finally make The Leap. With all due respect to the Wild, they feel like supporting characters in this one. The Jets have been quietly hoarding young talent for years, so much so that experts were anointing them as future Cup champions years ago. But until this year, the future never arrived, and the team has still yet to win so much as a playoff game since returning to Winnipeg seven years ago. That will presumably change this year; now we see just how far they can go.

The big question: Are we overlooking the Wild? Well… yeah. We just did. And you can't really blame us, since everyone has been looking ahead to a second-round showdown between the Jets and Predators for most of the season's second half. But those are the sort of dream matchups that have a way of getting blown up before they happen, and the Wild are the sort of team that could do the detonating.

One player to watch: Patrik Laine. The Jets' young star is the heir apparent to Alexander Ovechkin as the league's most exciting sniper, racking up 80 goals over the last two seasons despite not turning 20 until next week. Also, it's fun to imagine just how terrible his playoff bread could get.

Key number: 40 – Goals scored by 33-year-old Wild center Eric Staal, who put together one of the best and most surprising seasons of the year. When you're being mentioned alongside Gordie Howe, that's pretty good. And remember, Staal knows a thing or two about surprising Stanley Cup runs.

Prediction: Jets in five.

Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: The Wild win Game 1 in overtime, giving everyone in Winnipeg just a little bit of doubt to chew on before the Jets find their footing.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

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