The NHL postseason begins on Wednesday, and with it arrives a slew of fascinating questions: Can the Penguins three-peat? How will the Predators react to being the favorite, rather than an underdog? Is Vegas for real? Will Alex Ovechkin finally make it past the second round? And what’s up with Phil Kessel’s hair? To whet your appetites for playoff hockey, we’ve doled out superlatives for some of the most intriguing story lines of the first round.
Best Shot at Redemption: Toronto Maple Leafs
Michael Baumann: Before the Warriors blew a 3-1 series lead, the Toronto Maple Leafs blew a 4-1 third-period lead in Game 7 of their 2013 playoff series against Boston. Five years later, the 2018 Leafs aren’t the same fluky, snakebitten group that suffered a first-round exit that was more painful than staying home altogether. Only Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov, Jake Gardiner, and James van Riemsdyk remain from that club. But it’s also not the same group that’s kept hockey’s capital city without a Cup in more than 50 years—there are cosmic forces at work here that are outside the control of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Morgan Rielly. Through no fault of their own, the young Leafs won’t be allowed to feel safe until they’ve put the Bruins to the sword—that’s the cost of being 82 seconds from advancing, with a two-goal lead, and blowing it. Drop the first game or two, and the Leafs invite the familiar chorus of doubt. Go up early, and it’s just another opportunity to choke.
Last year, this core, with Matthews, Marner, and William Nylander as rookies, gave the Presidents’ Trophy–winning Caps all they could handle: six games, all decided by a single goal, five of them in overtime. This season, the Leafs are a year older and nine wins better, but enter the postseason with something to lose for the first time since their current top-line forwards were still learning to read. How they respond to that will determine how much we talk about 2013, and in what tone.
Most Exciting Playoff Debut: Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils
Megan Schuster: The explosive left winger is a three-time All-Star, sixth in the NHL in points this year, and the current favorite to win the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. And, after seven years of missing out on the playoffs—six of them in Edmonton—this spring will mark his first postseason appearance.
Just two years into his stint in New Jersey, Hall was the driving [insert boat license joke here] force behind the Devils’ playoff push, as they eventually landed the second wild-card spot. Hall scored 39 goals this season, finishing with a team-leading 93 points (his next closest teammate is 19-year-old Nico Hischier, the 2017 no. 1 overall pick, with 52 points). The Devils probably won’t make it far—they face the top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round—but Hall will at least get a playoff series under his belt, and that alone is cause for celebration.
Runner-up: Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets
If this wasn’t Laine’s second year in the league, I might have given him this award. He battled with Alex Ovechkin all season on the goal-scoring leaderboard (Ovi eventually won, with 49 goals to Laine’s 44). From February 16 through March 12—when the race between the two players really picked up steam—Laine tallied 16 goals in just 12 games, scoring at least a goal a game for all but one contest during that stretch.
Laine has the ability to completely take over a game, and the rest of the league has noticed. “Laine did Laine things again against us,” Dallas’s Jamie Benn said after a 4-2 loss to the Jets in March. Playing amid the Winnipeg Whiteout this week, the prolific Finn will need to do a lot of Laine things if the Jets want to advance past the Wild for their first playoff series win in franchise history.
Most Surprising Starting Goalie: Philipp Grubauer, Washington Capitals
Donnie Kwak: Capitals coach Barry Trotz is like the domestic partner who outsiders may envy, but whose foibles are visible only to those within his household—i.e., Caps fans. So, despite leading Washington to its fourth straight 100-point season and another division title, Trotz has detractors within the fan base who remain frustrated by his perceived deference to past-it veterans (defenseman Brooks Orpik, glaringly) and stubborn aversion to change.
Thus, it was a welcome surprise when it was announced on Tuesday that Grubauer, who started the season as the backup to 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby, would start Game 1 of the first round against Columbus. The news is less surprising when you consider the 26-year-old German started 10 of the Caps’ last 17 regular-season games—including the crucial 3-1 division clincher against Pittsburgh on April 1—posting a 7-3 record with a .925 save percentage and a 2.31 goals-against average. But this is stodgy, loyal-to-a-fault Trotz we’re talking about. Famously, neither the coach nor his star player, Alex Ovechkin, has advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Breaking the “same ol’ Caps” narrative this spring might start with Trotz leaving his comfort zone.
Coach on the Hottest Seat: Bruce Boudreau, Minnesota Wild
Schuster: While other coaches have merely adopted the hot seat, Boudreau was seemingly born into it, molded by it. His inability to win in the playoffs, despite being blessed with some dominant regular-season teams, has bounced him out of Washington, Anaheim, and, if things go poorly this postseason, potentially Minnesota.
Discussion was building around Boudreau’s job security at the start of the season until center Eric Staal decided to go thermonuclear for 42 goals and 76 points and the Wild started winning. Minnesota’s playoff berth may have bought Boudreau more time, but a tough series against the Jets is looming and if his team peters out like it did in last year’s first round against the Blues, Boudreau could once again find himself answering uncomfortable questions.
Best Series for Those Who Like Goals, and Anarchy: Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia
Cory McConnell: Remember some of the final scores in the 2012 Penguins-Flyers series, which Philly took in six? 8-5, 8-4, 10-3. Ridiculous. (Here’s a primer on the intrastate rivalry from my colleague Michael Baumann.) The 2018 rematch features much of the same offensive talent for both teams, with four of the league’s top-10 points leaders taking part (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel for Pittsburgh; Claude Giroux for Philly). In net, Brian Elliott and Matt Murray have looked shaky during the regular season, while Philadelphia and Pittsburgh rank 14th and 20th in GAA, respectively. There’s a huge special teams disparity too: The Penguins have the top-ranked power play in the league, while the Flyers rank 29th on the penalty kill. Expect to hear lots of “Party Hard”—and uh, whatever this is.
Series That Is Least Exciting on Paper but Will Probably Still Go Seven Games: Anaheim vs. San Jose
Kwak: Though it feels like they’ve played each other in the postseason many times, the Ducks and the Sharks have only one previous playoff matchup, back in 2009. The Ducks won that series, and will probably win this one, too, thanks to a home-ice advantage that helped them to a 14-1-2 record in their last 17 regular-season games at the Honda Center. Anaheim winger Rickard Rakell has been a revelation this season, and Evander Kane has found new life—and his first-ever playoff appearance—in San Jose after being acquired by the Sharks at the deadline. Otherwise, it’ll be resident Anaheim a-holes Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler against been-there-forever Sharks Joe Thornton (who may miss the opener), Joe Pavelski, and Brent Burns. Just watch Game 7, you’ll be fine.
Best Matchup in the Biggest Mismatch: Nathan MacKinnon vs. Nashville’s Defense
Kwak: The Colorado Avalanche, the NHL’s worst team last year, clinched a playoff berth this season by winning their very last game. They don’t have a prayer of beating the top-seeded Predators, who won the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best regular-season record after reaching the Stanley Cup final last spring. But the Avs do have MacKinnon. The 2013 no. 1 overall pick was until this season better known as a hometown chum of Sidney Crosby rather than as an actual MVP-level peer. Now, fresh off a 97-point campaign, MacKinnon will lead Colorado’s attack against the Preds’ vaunted back line, which features the battle-tested likes of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and P.K. Subban. MacKinnon tallied two goals and an assist in three regular-season matchups against the Preds, all Nashville victories. Expect a similar outcome in this series.
Best Team for a Neutral Fan to Root For: Vegas Golden Knights
Schuster: Remember last fall, when the Vegas expansion team was in the midst of a shocking 8-1 start, and tweets like this were meant to be tongue-in-cheek?
It'll be tricky for Vegas to trade James Neal at the deadline to a contender when they're loading up for a Cup run themselves— Filipovic Forsberg (@DimFilipovic) October 11, 2017
What a time! I’ll always remember it fondly, but now it’s time to come to grips with the fact the Golden Knights very well may be gearing up for a run through the West. So if your favorite team (*cough* Rangers *cough* Blackhawks) isn’t part of this year’s postseason action, let me give you a few reasons you should adopt the Knights for the next few weeks:
1. They’re good! The Vegas front office, led by general manager George McPhee, absolutely killed it in the expansion draft, landing a ragtag group of players who have surprised many with breakout years. Forwards William Karlsson, Jon Marchessault, and David Perron all tallied career-best seasons in points, and the team’s second-line combination of James Neal, Erik Haula, and Alex Tuch has been a consistent threat. Plus, with the back-to-being-reliable Marc-Andre Fleury in net, Vegas can never really be counted out of any game.
2. They’re fun! Here is a list of things the Golden Knights have as in-arena entertainment: a Gila monster, a glow-in-the-dark drumline, an Excalibur-themed opening skit, and a freaking castle.
3. Why not? I’m not saying they’re going to be last year’s Predators (they’re most certainly NOT going to be last year’s Predators), but who doesn’t want to see the Golden Knights upset some of the more established franchises in the league? Most of the guys on this team are playing with chips on their shoulders because they were left exposed by their respective teams in the expansion draft, and they’ve got axes to grind. Who wouldn’t want to root for that kind of mentality in the playoffs?