2019 NHL Playoffs Preview

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, everyone! And no, I’m not talking about Christmas. I’m talking about the Stanley Cup Playoffs!

After a long, arduous season full of surprises and disappointments, we are getting set to begin the most exciting journey in sports.

Earlier this week, we uploaded a podcast episode with our NHL Playoff preview, analysis, and predictions, but we’ll break it down in short(er) form on this post! So, let’s jump right in, beginning with the Eastern Conference (because East bias, amirite?)

Eastern Conference

Tampa Bay Lightning (1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (WC)

So, after going all-in at the deadline, this is what Columbus gets. A matchup against the best team in the NHL over the last 20 years who tied the all-time record for wins in a season. If Columbus can pull this off, it would be the upset of the century. But, for both of us at Clappercast, we don’t see this happening.

Tampa Bay is far too dominant, deep, and quite frankly better than the Blue Jackets. While Columbus has been playing well lately and the patented Torts style of hockey does logically transition well into the playoffs, it is exhausting and hard on the players to be under the constant pressure and bombardment that the Lightning are likely to subject Columbus to.

The season series was 3-0 in favour of Tampa Bay, with Tampa holding a 17-3 goal differential in those 3 games. They have no signs of slowing down.

Columbus has also never been a strong playoff team, specifically goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Since joining the Blue Jackets, he has allowed less than 3 goals in a playoff game only once in 17 games. This was back in 2014 when he allowed 2 goals in a game against the Penguins. That will have to change if the Blue Jackets want to have any hope of staying competitive in this series.

Our Predictions:

Sean: Tampa Bay in 4

Burke: Tampa Bay in 5

Make or Break Player:

Sean: Ryan Dzingel. Tampa Bay is a deep team with contributions from all players in their lineup, not just their top line. They are easily capable of putting up 4+ goals per game. If Columbus has any hope of success in this series, they are going to need their depth players to contribute offensively as well. I pick Ryan Dzingel to be a guy who needs to step up in a big way to help supplement the contributions of Panarin, Atkinson, and Duchene.

Burke: Sergei Bobrovsky. As already written, Bobrovsky has never been a strong playoff performer. His statline in the playoffs is significantly worse than during the regular season, and against an team as offensively potent as the Lightning, Bob is going to have to stand on his head to keep the Lightning’s offense at bay. Added bonus, him playing well is going to boost the team’s confidence throughout the series.

Boston Bruins (2) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (3)

Here we have our annual Bruins-Leafs series that (so far) has had largely the same result each time. A highly competitive series that eventually ends in heartbreak for the Leafs in dramatic fashion. Will this year be any different? Unfortunately, we don’t think so. But, that doesn’t mean the Leafs will not push the Bruins to the brink in this series.

Boston is built for the playoffs. A tough, gritty team with a solid core that has been together for years and is oozing with intangibles. They are capable of shutting the other team down through close, physical play and controlling the pace. With leaders such as Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci in the lineup, this team has the experience to succeed in the playoffs. Boston also ices one of (if not the) best line in hockey, that being Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak, who are advanced stats darlings with their possession numbers.

Toronto, on the other hand, is an explosive, high-powered team focused on offense. Their star studded forward group has the potential to pot 4 or 5 goals in a game, no questions asked. But, they still have some holes in the lineup that will make it difficult to match up against the Bruins. Their bottom 6 forwards and defense are major question marks, though they do have the addition of Jake Muzzin and return of Jake Gardiner from injury to help bolster their proficiency in those areas. The loss of Matt Martin and Leo Komarov will also hurt them with depth and toughness through the playoffs, as those are important qualities for a team to have in playoff hockey.

This series is going to be close. We would not be surprised to have it go all 7 games, yet again.

Our Predictions:

Sean: Boston in 7

Burke: Boston in 6

Make or Break Player:

Sean and Burke: Auston Matthews. Last playoffs, Matthews was very quiet. Whether he was just outplayed by the line he was matched up against or he just had a bit of a slump, his production and visibility in games significantly dropped in the playoffs. He needs to step up and be a huge contributor, both on and off the ice, for the Maple Leafs to band together and overpower the Bruins.

Washington Capitals (1) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (WC)

The Capitals, who only have one jerk on the roster, are playing Carolina, who are essentially a bunch of jerks. Luckily for Washington, victory does not necessarily go to the team with the highest number of jerks on the roster.

Washington goes into this series with a huge edge in almost every roster evaluation category. Add on they are the defending cup champs who showed no signs of slowing down and this series is going to be a tough one for the Hurricanes to stay in.

Carolina does have some promising signs, however, as they are one of the hottest teams in the 2019 calendar year and their youthful, energetic core led by Mister Game Seven himself Justin Williams could help give them some confidence, resilience, and a jump in their step through this series. It will be important for this team to keep their spirits high to retain this level of energy and fun best exemplified by their Storm Surge celebrations.

Washington has the depth, the experience, the high-calibre talent, and the knowledge of just what it takes to be successful in the journey to the Stanley Cup, and that will be one of the main factors in what we project to be a Washington victory in this series.

Our Predictions:

Sean: Washington in 5

Burke: Washington in 4

Make or Break Player:

Sean: Sebastian Aho. The Capitals are going to come out strong with their high end offensive weapons. Carolina will have to match that. As the driving force of the Hurricanes’ offense, Aho is going to need to put the team on his back early in this series to get his team into it. He is a gamechanger and will have to utilize that skillset to catch Ovechkin and company off guard. If he is able to take control in the first game or two and keep the Hurricanes in games, the rest of the roster will follow suit.

Burke: Petr Mrazec. Goalies win championships, plain and simple. Washington has elite goaltending from Braden Holtby and it is up to Petr Mrazec to channel everything he can into matching that. All it takes is getting hot at the right time, and that is what Petr will have to do. If he can, that will neutralize Washington’s top offensive weapons and give the team the confidence they need to play their game.

New York Islanders (2) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (3)

This series could go either way, honestly. We have the high performing Islanders, led by reigning cup champion coach Barry Trotz who completely surprised the hockey world by finishing second in the Metro Division off of stellar defense and out of this world goaltending from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. On the other hand, the perennial playoff and cup contender Pittsburgh Penguins making their (now) expected playoff appearance led by the all-time great Sidney Crosby and the stellar, consistent system that won them two consecutive Stanley Cups.

The Islanders are the hot team. They finished strong with amazing goaltending and team defense, winning the William Jennings Trophy for least goals given up over the regular season. The quality of possessing highly performing goalies is a major contributor to winning the Cup. Combined with a coaching staff containing recent Cup winners who know what it takes, offensive talent who can score big goals, and a bottom 6 forward core filled with the type of gritty role players who can give the team the much needed momentum swing as they wear down the opposing team’s best players, and you have a recipe for success.

However, you can never count out the Pittsburgh Penguins. They, quite simply, know how to win. The leadership provided by their core, the offensive potency provided by 2 or 3 scoring lines, and a solid goalie who makes the important saves are key factors to this team’s success. However, their defensive depth is a bit of a question mark at the moment, as the speed and skill qualities that are becoming prominent in the NHL recently are lost in some of their bigger, slower defenders (Gudbranson and Johnson). We will see how these types of players handle the playoffs, as the game does tend to slow down and favour the physical, grinding aspects of playstyles.

Our Predictions:

Sean: Pittsburgh in 6

Burke: New York in 6

Make or Break Player:

Sean: Jordan Eberle. His first appearance in the playoffs with Edmonton in 2016-2017 was lackluster at best. He was largely invisible and his playstyle did not translate well to the playoff game. His offense disappeared and his lack of aggression on the forecheck and backcheck cost his team goals and was a factor in why he got traded out of Edmonton. Coming off of a poor performance this regular season, it is time for Eberle to rebound and have a big impact for the Islanders this series. He will be tasked with providing the team with some much needed scoring depth to help match the second and third lines of the Penguins. He will also need to take notes from Clutterbuck, Martin, and Komarov, and learn to get a tad more involved with the physical side of the game, as this will serve him well in injecting himself into this series.

Burke: Phil Kessel. Last playoffs, though he was playing injured, Kessel was unimpressive. He didn’t contribute and his shot was nonexistent. This is a chance for him to rebound and contribute in a big way. Pittsburgh’s offensive depth is one of their best weapons when all are contributing, and making sure they are firing on all cylinders to find a way to throw the Islanders’ stellar goaltending off their game is going to be crucial to Pittsburgh prevailing over New York.

Western Conference

Calgary Flames (1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (WC)

The Flames have a major advantage going into this series. Quite simply, their roster is better, deeper, and built to succeed in the playoffs. They remind me a lot of the Boston Bruins, actually, with their depth and the Matthew Tkachuk/Brad Marchand factor. The Avalanche, while they ice what might be the most offensively potent line in the league in Mikko Rantanen – Nathan MacKinnon – Gabriel Landeskog are not very strong beyond that. Their lineup was good enough to get them into a playoff spot while down Landeskog and Rantanen, but over a 7 game playoff series, they may need more than that. Even with Rantanen and Landeskog back from injury.

The Flames have incredible scoring depth, featuring five 70-point scorers led by Johnny Gaudreau’s 99 points. They have scoring, they have size, they have grit and toughness, and they have defense. The question mark on their end is goaltending. Although David Rittich started the season strong and propelled the Flames into an early division lead, he did not sustain that and Mike Smith did not perform extremely well the rest of the way in. We know Smith is capable of high-quality performances in the playoffs from his time with the Coyotes, but that was 7 years ago now.

The Avalanche, as mentioned, have one of the most offensively dynamic lines in the league but are not overly deep beyond that. This does not serve them well to match up against the Flames and the Avalanche will have to rely on playing shut down hockey to stay in the games long enough for their top line to do some damage. Luckily, Colorado has benefitted in recent weeks from stellar goaltending by Philipp Grubauer, and he will have to remain strong throughout these playoffs.

Our Predictions:

Sean: Calgary in 6

Burke: Calgary in 5

Make or Break Player:

Sean: James Neal. I’ve been trying to pick players from the team I predict will lose, but I think Neal will be a player who can have a major impact on the direction of this series. With this being this Flames team’s first real foray into the playoffs, a player with the career and playoff experience of James Neal will be critical for transitioning his teammates into playoff hockey. Although he had a weak regular season, now is the perfect time for him to bounce back offensively while becoming a major leader in the dressing room.

Burke: Tyson Barrie. Tyson is the Avalanche’s best defender and in order to match what Mark Giordano brings to the Flames’ lineup, Tyson will have to step up in a big way. He can be an offensive catalyst for the Avalanche, helping to promote production from players not named Rantanen, MacKinnon, or Landeskog. Additionally, he is a bit questionable defensively at times and is prone to making bad plays and excessive turnovers. He will need to get his game under control and be a leader both offensively and defensively to contribute to the Avalanche’s success.

Nashville Predators (1) vs. Dallas Stars (WC)

This series will be fun to watch. It is a great matchup, really, with Dallas being known for their offensive prowess led by the likes of Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, and Tyler Seguin, and Nashville boasting stellar goaltending and one of the deepest defensive corps in the league. And that is not to say either team is a slouch in the other side of the game, as Nashville has done wonders recently with boosting their offense and Dallas has finally addressed many of their defensive woes and goaltending issues. In fact, with Nashville’s tandem of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros against Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin in Dallas, this series might have the strongest goaltending matchup of the entire playoffs.

With the experience they have and components to the roster that they possess, Nashville is built for success. Two goalies who are at the pinnacle of their position, arguably the best defense in the league, and enough offense to make sure they win games have contributed to their immense success over the last four seasons. It is no surprise that they remain perennial contenders. And, last season their series against the Jets was considered by many to be the best of the playoffs as it was an incredibly hard fought battle. With mostly the same roster as they had then, though this time with more experience and a few tweaks for the better, what else could we expect than more success in Smashville?

It’s taken a while for the Dallas Stars but they finally have addressed their weak defensive lineup and underperforming goalie carousel with the development of John Klingberg and addition of Miro Heiskanen, Ben Bishop, and Anton Khudobin. This team is set to be competitive for the next few years as they continue to bolster their forwards and develop their defense.

Our Predictions:

Sean: Nashville in 6

Burke: Nashville in 5

Make or Break Player:

Sean and Burke: Ben Bishop. Goaltending has been a long-time question mark for the Stars and through this regular season, they finally seem to have addressed it. But, before we speak too soon, we need to see Ben Bishop maintain his sub 2.00 GAA in the playoffs by being the best player on the Dallas Stars. If he can do that, then Dallas will be a very tough opponent for the Predators to beat as the Stars’ offensive instincts can be let loose with confidence. If Bishop falters, they at least have a solid backup goalie, but it can be tricky to be dealing with goalie uncertainty in the playoffs.

San Jose Sharks (2) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (3)

A rematch from last year (the first playoff rematch in history for the Knights, HISTORIC), this series is set to be a high-powered, exciting, fast, and free flowing matchup from two of the best teams out of the Pacific. Both teams will be looking to rebound, as they did not play up to expectations over the last couple weeks of the regular season. Vegas’ play style is best suited for the playoffs, as their aggressive trap is perfectly designed to let their two-way forwards thrive utilizing excellent stick work, speed, and gap control to negate San Jose’s possession time. San Jose is a big, fast, and demanding team led by the two best offensive defensemen in the NHL.

How nice would it be to finally get Jumbo Joe a Stanley Cup? He came oh so close a few seasons ago, but the pesky Penguins thwarted that attempt. Over the past season and a half, Sharks GM Doug Wilson has made a huge push towards making his already strong roster even better by adding the likes of Evander Kane and Erik Karlsson.

The team now has one of the best defensive corps in the NHL, led by Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. But, their goaltending is a massive question mark. But, the Sharks have one of the worst SV% numbers in the league and Martin Jones is statistically one of the worst starters. It doesn’t matter how good the forwards and defense are, if you have a goalie letting in too many goals or bad shots, the confidence of the team will get zapped as they are constantly trying to play from behind and cover the goalie’s mistakes.

The surprise of last season, the Golden Knights went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Although they lost, they remained largely the same roster they had before, but now they added Max Pacioretty and two-way forward extraordinaire Mark Stone to make another push. This team is quite simply built for success in the playoffs. They are aggressive, dominant, potent in all aspects of the game, and know how to take control of the pace of play and force the opponent to play into their game with their utilization of speed, both skating and thinking. It looks promising for Vegas to maintain playoff success and push through San Jose if they can be the quick, high scoring team they have shown themselves to be many times before.

Our Predictions:

Sean: Vegas in 6

Burke: Vegas in 6

Make or Break Player:

Sean: Martin Jones. As mentioned, he is one of the worst starters in the NHL. Even if he can be an average NHL goalie in the playoffs, that will boost the team’s performance in front of him to help them counter Vegas’ play style. If he continues to perform as he did in the regular season, we can expect Vegas to prevail quite easily. But if Jones makes some big saves early and gets the team’s confidence going, that will let the Sharks push the Knights back and succeed.

Burke: Erik Karlsson. He’s been injured for a lot of the season, unfortunately, but he still remains an important piece of this team as he returns for the playoffs. We’ve seen what he can do back when he led the Senators to the Eastern Conference Final a few seasons ago, and that is the player that San Jose needs to show up to help counter the Golden Knights.

Winnipeg Jets (2) vs. St. Louis Blues (3)

What a turnaround story for the Blues this season. From last in the NHL at the beginning of January to battling for the division lead on the last day of the season (and actually holding it until Nashville and Winnipeg both won after the Blues played). The massive change after firing Mike Yeo and replacing him with Craig Berube and the out-of-this-world goaltending from rookie Jordan Binnington has led this team to be the St. Louis Blues that we mostly expected heading into this season. They match up well against the Winnipeg Jets, who are an offensively dynamic team led by some of the most prolific scorers in the NHL. Goaltending is also a strong suit for the team, as Connor Hellebuyck has become a perennial Vezina candidate in the last couple seasons.

For Winnipeg, they began to trail off quite significantly by the end of the season and were noticeably struggling. The loss of Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey were noticeable on the Jets’ defense, as that showed a bit of a depth issue on the Jets’ roster. Now that these two are back and ready to play, we will see if the team can rebound. Last year’s playoffs showed us just how good this team could be as they prevailed in a difficult series against the Predators. The patience with which this roster was built has created a team with 3 forward lines full of offensive threats, which bodes well against any team. If Winnipeg can find some of the magic that has led to their amazing performances the last couple seasons, they should be well-off in this series.

The Blues, as mentioned, had a magical turnaround this season and are riding high with confidence from that. A team that is being backstopped by rookie sensation Jordan Binnington also possesses some of the strongest defenders in the NHL. A team as close as this Blues team will be hard to beat, as the energy, streak, and hot goalie factors all play well into St. Louis’ favour. If they can continue playing off of this confidence, they are more than capable of prevailing in this series.

Our Predictions:

Sean: St. Louis in 7

Burke: Winnipeg in 6

Make or Break Player:

Sean and Burke: Patrik Laine. He’s had a rough year, except for his 18 goal November. That is the Patrik Laine that needs to show up in this series. His deadly shot must be utilized by the Jets to create offense and challenge the Blues’ hot goaltending. Although he is more of a one-dimensional player, we have seen promise that he can be useful elsewhere and for Winnipeg’s sake, he needs to step up in all facets of his game. If he does not, Winnipeg luckily has many other weapons to use, but a few goals by Laine would make it a lot easier.

And there you have it, our thoughts on the first round of the 2019 NHL Playoffs! For the full discussion of our thoughts, predictions, and analysis, check out our NHL Playoff Preview podcast episode.

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