What to expect from Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

NHL Insider Frank Seravalli joins Eric Thomas on Sportsnet Central to highlight series to keep an eye on in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the teams under the most pressure to win, and more.

At long last we know the pairings in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and let me tell you, I am fired up. Sportsnet has put together thorough previews for those looking to go in depth on any individual series (linked below), but for our purposes today, it will be a quick overview of the who/what/where/when/why, followed by 100 per cent opinion, baby.

I do have an 8-0 first round prediction year under my belt, but hockey playoffs can be brutally hard to predict. It’s tough to even make out favourites/underdogs in series this year. I’m setting the over/under at 5.5 correct predictions, and aiming to hit that over.

Who: Two “built for play-off”-style teams about to get exactly the type of opposition they bargained for

What: The play-in series for the chance to face Colorado

Where: Minnesota with home ice, on SN360

When: Starts Monday at 9:30 ET and goes every other day

Why: Because catching Colorado was never an option and they’re both miles better than the Wild Card teams.

These two teams make for a crazy matchup because they’ve got a lot in common. For one, they were both built with playoffs in mind. Bill Guerin has said the Wild are meant to be able to hang in any style game, and can “beat you in an alley” if need be. The Doug Armstrong-built Blues are no different, so, congrats guys, everyone wins an alley-fight.

The common surprise though? These two Central Division forces don’t just slug it out, they score too. The Wild were fifth in NHL scoring this year, the Blues third.

How I see it: the Blues are more likely to win the series (excellent special teams), but if one of these teams is going to win the Stanley Cup, it’s more likely to be the Wild. That’s because Marc-Andre Fleury can do what Carey Price did for the Canadiens last season and get hot at the right time, and steal games and series. I know Binnington did it once, I know Ville Husso is their guy right now, but I still think Fleury's ceiling is the highest of the four available goalies.

I mentioned thinking the Blues being more likely to win the series; part of that is because I see the crease as a bit of a wash barring the en fuego version of Fleury. And since you can’t bet on any goalie being good ever, that damn unpredictable position, I’m going with….

St. Louis in 7

Who: The “I can’t believe they’re this good already” Rangers and the “I can’t believe they’re still good” Penguins

What: The fight for a chance at a legitimately deep run, as either team would be in coin-toss territory after this round vs. Carolina or Boston

Where: Opens at the most famous arena in the world MSG, on Sportsnet

When: Tuesday at 7pm ET, going every other day

Why: Because the Hurricanes won six straight to end the year and couldn’t be caught, while the Capitals dropped three-straight to end the year while Pittsburgh held on.

I said “I can’t believe they’re this good already” about the Rangers only because it wasn’t so long ago this team legitimately stunk, and the turnaround happened in short order. But I also mentioned it because for the first half of the year, I thought it was smoke and mirrors – the underlying numbers suggested as much, and it just seemed they got outplayed a lot but their Vezina-winning (soon) goaltender bailed them out.

But after the deadline, boy, they looked like a different team, and good news for them, they get to keep the great goalie. (The case “They wouldn’t be good if it weren’t for their goalie” remains a weird argument, given the goalie is in fact a player on the team.). Their schedule’s been softer, but boy, have they ever won a lot.

The Penguins remain the “not going to bet against them while Crosby and Malkin exist” team, and while they’ve not been the best version of themselves lately, they’ve got an edge in the experience of those best players.

I think the Rangers are the higher seed for a reason; it’s easy to see why they’ve done well this season. But the games are going to tighten up, and the Penguins still have the guys I expect to come through in the big moments, elite goaltending or not for the Rangers. I’m gonna keep betting on the greats until given plenty of reason to do otherwise.

Pittsburgh in 7

Who: The Perfection Line versus that team that’s always really good

What: Two teams in the “If they get goaltending, look out” camp poised for a Conference Final appearance

Where: Kicks off in Carolina, and SN360 for the rest of us

When: Monday at 7pm ET, alternating days

Why: Because the Canes quietly just sorta claimed the Metro Division with 116 points like it was no big deal, and the Bruins couldn’t do quite enough to catch Tampa down the stretch

There was a lot of talk heading into Game 82 for Tampa Bay and Boston, on who they would rather face, Toronto or Carolina. Boston rested just about all of its roster, which led to some people saying “they must want Carolina.”

Have you seen Carolina? I don’t think they wanted Carolina, I think they just wanted to be at their rested best for whoever it may be.

The Canes are a loaded team but are being overlooked for one reason: questions about their goaltending. It’s at this point I’d like to point out that their tandem won the Jennings Trophy for the best goals-against average in the NHL.

So at that position, it comes down to injuries. Can one of Andersen/Raanta be healthy enough to play at their best? If so, you have to like the Canes' odds.

The Bruins are the Bruins as long as Marchand/Bergeron/Pastrnak exist, and they still exist. Charlie MacAvoy has been great this season, and they have a good goaltending duo themselves, if unproven.

I like the Canes' D corps and team defence better than Boston’s in the end though, and it’s still playoff hockey. If the Bruins struggle to score like I suspect they might, I’m not betting on that “good goaltending duo” of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman to carry them through, as they’re just too unproven.

Carolina in 7

Who: The Presidents' Trophy winners and another NHL team

What: A true test of hockey’s randomness, in that there’s a clearly superior team in this series, but the puck bounces funny and injuries happen and the sport can be unfair.

Where: Again, Presidents' Trophy, so, Florida (also SN360)

When: They start Tuesday at 7:30

Why: It’s not often winning the regular season gets you a 100-point-earning opponent in Round 1, but the Cats get the Caps because the bottom half of the East was an abomination this year, so the top half piled up points.

I know it’s crazy to be dismissive of a team that won the Stanely Cup a few years ago, against a team that hasn’t won a playoff series going back to 1996. But the Caps superstar, Alex Ovechkin, is at best going to be playing through some nagging pain in Round 1. Their goaltending is a red flag, and they’ve struggled to win hockey games lately.

The Panthers' ability to score goals is the best of any team in recent memory, and they’ve got the ability to grind on teams physically too. Sure their goaltending is a question mark, but provided they can get comparable saves to what they got in the regular season, this one is all Cats.

Florida in 5

Who: The two-time defending Cup champions who won five of their last six by scoring just under six goals per game in those contests and … **double checks notes** the series (betting) favourite, the Leafs?

What: Two teams who got a fairly raw deal by drawing a tough opponent despite great regular seasons, looking to claw their way through the toughest quarter of the bracket

Where: In Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, and on Sportsnet/CBC

When: At 7:30pm ET on Monday, and alternating days

Why: Because Tampa was strangely mediocre for stretches of this past season despite being an obviously not-mediocre team, and the Leafs filled in nicely around their prime-age core to put together their best regular season in franchise history

For years, the gamble of the Kyle Dubas-era Leafs was that at some point, speed and skill and smarts would triumph over the more brutish aspects of the game, physical hockey and intimidation and good old fashioned net-front puck battles. That bet, well, has not paid out to date. As a result, the Leafs have added more of those physical elements to their game to complement their speed and skill, but will that combination be enough?

The Lightning have been the perfect mix of those styles for years, which leaves them with very few questions about their group. They can get it done, period. If there are any, they might be: Are they worn down after back-to-back Cups in under two years and a congested regular season? Have the Leafs' stars found a new gear, and in turn, can Tampa find a way to slow them down like their previous first-round opponents? Is their depth good enough if they take on an injury or two?

My gut is that if these two teams played a healthy best-of-99 game series it might end 50-49, so I’m gonna lean on tentpole beliefs for the prediction: the best players in NHL history almost always breakthrough in the post-season, at some point. Sometimes it takes time like with Ovechkin, but it gets there. We’re waiting on Nathan MacKinnon and Connor McDavid too, but I believe it’s coming. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are just too good at hockey not to do the same. The Leafs have advantages in the underlying numbers and the special teams and they’ve got home ice advantage, so please allow me to present myself for my public whipping…

Toronto in 7

Who: The Western Conference champ and favourite versus a team you might beat, but lord, are they gonna make you pay to do it

What: Another playoff series where the question is: can superior skill and talent win in the playoffs, where the style gets a little nastier

Where: Denver, CO (and Sportsnet East)

When: Tuesday at 9:30, then alternating from there

Why: Because, inexplicably, the Preds blew a 4-0 lead in Game 82 against the ARIZONA COYOTES to end up with the Avalanche instead of the Flames

The only real soft spot in the Avalanche lineup might be around their third line that’s only just OK and not all that physical, which I only bring up because everywhere else they’re an absolute menacing force of a team. Their D can score and skate and added some muscle, their forwards are tenacious and talented, and they were just points off winning the Presidents' Trophy. They now bear the weight of expectations, but they’ve got the squad that should be able to handle that.

The Predators – who had a surprisingly good season – are left to do what all less talented teams do in the playoffs: aim to make it hell for the more skilled side, and see just how bad they want it. The Preds were about as physical a team as any in the league this year; we’ll learn if the Avs have the interest in hanging with them in that style of game.

I think Nathan MacKinnon would eat glass to win a Stanley Cup, and he represents the culture of that team to me. Expectations are high for the Avs, and if Jusse Saros is injured and doesn’t play every game (or does and isn’t the best version of himself), this could be a short series. But I think the Preds won’t make it easy, so…

Colorado in 6

Who: A team that’s “built for the playoffs” with Cup aspirations, and the Stars, who would like to get three extra games of home ticket revenue, ideally

What: Another chance for the Stars to prove to the world that the playoffs really are a whole new season, while the Flames aim to point out “yeah not really”

Where: In the Saddledome, and Sportsnet/CBC

When: Tuesday at 10

Why: Nashville blew it in Game 82, which likely didn’t effect Dallas’s season length much, just the length of their flights

OK that was all very dismissive of the Stars, who have one of the best lines in hockey in Jason Robertson, Joe Pavelski, and Roope Hintz. They’re actually a really well-built team, if only the players that you tend to think of as the “stars” for the Stars – Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov – played like they were paid. But alas, at this point in their careers, they do not. Jake Oettenger has been good in goal for them, but obviously does not inspire confidence given his inexperience.

There’s lots to like in Dallas, but I can justify the tone here by explaining that it’s much more about Calgary than anything else. It’s hard to find a weak spot in their lineup. Maybe Johnny Gaudreau will struggle in the playoffs again, but there’s still more than enough to pick up the Flames there even if he does falter.

They can defend and score and get saves, and I don’t see this one as particularly close. Beating anyone in the NHL four times straight is hard though, and the Stars won 46 games this year so…

Calgary in 5

Who: A team with two of earth’s best hockey players versus the most successful “rebuild” attempt in the NHL in forever

What: It’s the NHL’s 12th and 14th ranked teams by standings points, but a weaker Pacific Division earned both groups a running start to get deeper into the post-season

Where: Edmonton, one of three playoff series that’s kicking off in Canada, which is kinda cool for those of us up north, (and Sportsnet/CBC)

When: Monday at 10pm

Why: The clock ran out before anyone (namely Vegas) could catch the Kings, and the Oilers took care of business down the stretch.

My belief that “the best players eventually find a way through” applies here with Draisaitl and McDavid. But I also think that Mike Smith is one of those guys who can burn you, but can also get red hot, which in the playoffs isn’t such a bad thing for a team that’s outside of the favourites. I could see a great run from him doing big things for the Oilers.

The Kings feel like a team who can rest on this season being a success – they got into the playoffs after recently bottoming out, and they can build on that. The Oilers, at this point, are after more than that, and I think this will all be reflected in the outcome. And so,

Edmonton in 5

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