By WAYNE REDSHAW
The NHL’s second season – the battle for Lord Stanley’s spittoon, better known as the Stanley Cup – begins tonight on four fronts and the big question is: who will be left standing to cart the jug off the ice when it’s all over in late June or thereabouts?
Sixteen teams are in the hunt including three Canadian-based clubs and only eight will survive after the first round. In this first segment (PART ONE) I preview the four series that open tonight.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs Toronto Maple Leafs
The Lightning have carted off the Cup the past two seasons and many experts figure Tampa is primed for a three-peat. I don’t and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the Maple Leafs prevail. Granted Toronto has gone 55 years since they last won the Cup. Furthermore, the club hasn’t won a series dating back to 2004 and past five seasons after qualifying for the Stanley Cup derby they have bowed out in the first round.
This time around I think the Leafs are primed. They are coming off a record-setting regular season for wins (54) and points (115). They also had 13 players set NHL career highs in points. And Auston Matthews was the Leafs top sniper finishing with 60 goals, the most in the NHL in years.
Another reason I’m picking the Leafs is I’m not totally impressed with Tampa. I spent four and a half months in the Tampa Bay area this winter so being a hockey buff, I watched most of the Lightning’s games. They were spotty and inconsistent. Goaltender Andre Vasilevskiy, I thought, gave up some weak goals and defensively the team as a whole was guilty of too many give-aways. They just didn’t look like the same team that won back-to-back Cups.
Steven Stamkos was by far Tampa’s best player game after game. Nikita Kucherov, who led the Lightning in points in last year’s playoffs, was a-passenger in a lot of games I viewed. And Brayden Point certainly didn’t have a banner year. Like most of his mates he was spotty.
Losing the complete third line from last season through the expansion draft and free agency didn’t help matters for the Lightning. They had replacements but they weren’t enough. Now in facing the Leafs in the first round, I can’t see Tampa Bay advancing. The Leafs have too much firepower with the likes of Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares in the lineup. If there is a weak link in Toronto I would say it’s between the pipes. There have been times where Jack Campbell has been unbeatable and other games where he has left a lot to be desired yielding some soft goals.
Prediction: Leafs in seven games.
Boston Bruins vs Carolina Hurricanes
Carolina won all three meetings against the Bruins in the regular season and when the battle-smoke clears the Hurricanes should advance. The Hurricanes finished first in the Metropolitan Division and third overall in the League.
Boston finished as the first wild card so not having home ice advantage could hurt. Goaltending is another question mark. Like Tampa Bay, the Bruins encountered a hot and cold season.
The Bruins are led by David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. They will need all hands on deck to get past the Hurricanes.
The big question for Carolina is when will goaltender Freddie Andersen return to the lineup? Andersen had a stellar regular season so hopefully he’s not on the injured shelf too long. Overall, they have a nice core on defence and have Sebastian Aho leading the way offensively.
Prediction: The Hurricanes in six games
St, Louis Blues vs Minnesota Wild
This series could be the most evenly matched series of the entire first round. Minnesota had more points 113 to 109. However, St. Louis had more wins 43 to 37. That means the Wild were involved in more close encounters and platoon hockey is much different than the regular season.
St. Louis has an edge on the blue line but I like the Wild’s goaltending more and that could be a determining factor.
Prediction. Wild in seven games.
Los Angeles Kings vs Edmonton Oilers
I just think the Oilers have too much firepower with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl leading the way. And their power play is potent. If the Kings visit the penalty box too often the Oilers will cash in.
If there is a weak link with the Oilers it is between the pipes with Mike Smith. They didn’t address goaltending before the trade deadline. But if they keep the puck away from their own end, they should advance. I don’t think the the Kings have enough depth.
They have Jonathan Quick in goal to keep them respectable. But up front other than Anze Kopitarv they lack big guns.
Prediction: Oilers in five games.
(Wayne Redshaw has covered sports in Niagara for over 50 years, 33 and a half at the Welland Tribune. He was publisher of FORE! Golfers Only for 12 years and also wrote for many newspapers and magazines in Canada and the United States.)