Jacob Hebda | Staff Writer
Despite the winter-like conditions in Pittsburgh, the city is about to heat up as the Penguins prepare for another playoff run. However, the Pens will have to overcome a fair share of obstacles if they want to three-peat at Stanley Cup champs.
With Marc-Andre Fleury now in Las Vegas, Pittsburgh lacks the elite goalie depth that proved crucial in its last two Cup runs. Following the February trade of Ian Cole, there are questions about the reliability of the Pens’ defense, too. And, as usual, the Penguins will face stiff competition from the rest of the league’s top teams.
Regardless, Sidney Crosby’s team has found a way to win in each of the past two postseasons, and it seeks to do it again this April. If the Penguins were to win the Stanley Cup this summer, it would be the first time that the same franchise won the Cup three years in a row since the New York Islanders did it in 1980, 1981 and 1982.
Whatever happens, excitement is guaranteed, as there’s nothing like playoff hockey. Let’s take a look at the teams battling for the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup this year.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Matchups —
Atlantic No. 1 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. East Wild Card No. 2 New Jersey Devils —
The Lightning entered the year as a popular pick to take home the Cup, and their performance this season has only reaffirmed those high expectations. Stacked with stars Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman — just to name a few — the Lightning seem poised for a deep run.
However, they face a first round matchup with the Devils, led by Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall. The Devils are inexperienced, but have enough young talent to give the Lightning a run for their money early on this postseason.
TBL-NJD: TBL, 4-2
Atlantic No. 2 Boston Bruins vs. Atlantic No. 3 Toronto Maple Leafs —
The Bruins will be the heavy favorite against the Leafs, as they are arguably the best all-around team in the league. They are skilled both offensively and defensively, play a physical game and have an elite veteran goalie in Tuukka Rask. Simply put, Boston will be hard to beat in a seven-game series.
Toronto, meanwhile, is a young but incredibly talented team. It will be tough to take down the Bruins, but with Cup-winning head coach Mike Babcock and a skilled core consisting of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Frederik Andersen, the Leafs are capable of a surprise.
BOS-TOR: TOR, 4-3
Metropolitan No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. East Wild Card No. 1 Columbus Blue Jackets —
The Capitals are in a familiar spot atop the Metropolitan Division, where they find themselves for the third straight year. However, the Blue Jackets may be the toughest first round opponent Washington has faced in recent seasons.
If Sergei Bobrovsky plays well in net for the Jackets, Columbus can pull off the upset. It’s easy to pick against the Capitals considering their repeated postseason shortcomings, but with Alex Ovechkin leading the way, Washington still remains among the top Cup contenders.
WAS-CBJ: WAS, 4-3
Metropolitan No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Metropolitan No. 3 Philadelphia Flyers —
The last time the Battle of Pennsylvania took place in the playoffs, things got ugly. Tempers are likely to flare at some point, but this series likely won’t be nearly as heated as that infamous 2012 showdown. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia possess some of the NHL’s most elite offensive talent, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Claude Giroux each among the top 10 scorers league-wide.
The Penguins are the favorite, but if the Flyers can slow Pittsburgh’s offensive firepower, they have a chance to take down the defending champs. Ultimately, though, the series will be determined by how well Philadelphia’s goaltender platoon of Brian Elliott, Petr Mrazek and Michal Neuvirth plays.
PIT-PHI: PIT, 4-2
Western Conference Quarterfinal Matchups —
Central No. 1 Nashville Predators vs. West Wild Card No. 2 Colorado Avalanche —
The big question here will be whether Colorado’s likely starting goalie Jonathan Bernier can stop enough shots to keep his team in the game. If he does, the Nathan MacKinnon-led Avalanche could shock the Presidents Trophy-winning Predators.
However, a much more likely scenario is Nashville easily handling Colorado. The Predators are a deep team with an elite goalie in Pekka Rinne. Especially considering the experience gained from last year’s Cup run, Nashville seems like the safe pick here.
NSH-COL: NSH, 4-1
Central No. 2 Winnipeg Jets vs. Central No. 3 Minnesota Wild —
After two years of sitting out the postseason, the Jets had the second-most points in the NHL this season. Much of that success had to do with young goalie Connor Hellebuyck’s emergence. If he holds his own in the cage, Winnipeg should win this series.
The Wild are without stud defenseman Ryan Suter, which could spell trouble as they try to slow down one of the NHL’s better offenses. With veteran stars Eric Staal and Zach Parise, though, Minnesota should be able to put up a good fight, but it probably won’t be enough.
WPG-MIN: WPG, 4-3
Pacific No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. West Wild Card No. 1 Los Angeles Kings —
This should prove to be one of the most intriguing first round matchups. With two Cups since 2012, the Kings are among the top dynasties of this decade. The Golden Knights, meanwhile, have stunned the sports world by becoming the first NHL expansion team to qualify for the playoffs.
This matchup also pits one of the league’s top offensive teams in Vegas against one of the best defensive teams in the Kings. The teams split their season series this year, so this could come down to which veteran goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury or Jonathan Quick, plays better.
VGK-LAK: LAK, 4-3
Pacific No. 2 San Jose Sharks vs. Pacific No. 3 Anaheim Ducks —
The outcome of this series is largely contingent on how well the Ducks’ goalies play. With John Gibson potentially out for Anaheim’s playoff opener, it will be up to veteran Ryan Miller to hold down the fort. He filled in well for Gibson down the final stretch of the regular season, but the postseason is a different animal. If he struggles, the high-scoring Sharks offense could pounce on the opportunity.
Both teams have enough talent and experience to advance far in this year’s postseason, so the goalie play of Gibson and Miller, as well as that of Sharks netminder Martin Jones, could prove especially important in this series.
SJ-ANA: SJ, 4-3
The Duke Stanley Cup Predictions:
Staff Writer Jacob Hebda: TBL 4, NSH 2
News Editor Raymond Arke: PIT 4, VGK 1
Sports Editor Adam Lindner: PIT 4, NSH 1
Editor-in-Chief Zach Landau: PIT 4, VGK 3
Photo Editor Kailey Love: WAS 4, NSH 2
Layout and Features Editor Hallie Lauer: PIT 4, ANA 2
Opinions Editor Ollie Gratzinger: TOR 4, ANA 2
Asst. A&E Editor Josiah Martin: BOS 4, MIN 2
Asst. News Editor Gabriella DiPietro PIT 4, LAK 3
Ad Manager Madison Pastrick: PIT 4, VGK 2