By WAYNE REDSHAW
Is it possible that the Stanley Cup could wind up in the Sunshine State for the third straight year?
Yes that is possible but not in the trophy showcase of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning won’t be around when the curtain falls on the 2021-22 season in late June or thereabouts. The Lightning looked downright pathetic, especially on the power play in getting embarrassed 5-0 by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the series opener Monday night.
However, while Tampa Bay will be long gone come late June there’s a good chance another Florida-based team – the Florida Panthers – could be drinking out of the Cup.
But before we get too far ahead, let’s look at the remaining eight teams who begin their quest in the opening round of the playoffs tonight in Part 2 of my Stanley Cup Predictions.
Washington Capitals vs Florida Panthers
The Panthers should have no problem disposing of the Washington Capitals in this series. The Panthers are simply loaded with talent both offensively and defensively.
Florida Panthers became the first team to average more than four goals per game since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins. The Panthers finished with 337 goals. They had four players with 30-plus goals this season. That foursome included Aleksander Barko 39, Sam Reinhardt 33, Anthony Duclair 31 and Jonathon Huberdeau 30. Huberdeau also established a new NHL record for the most assists compiled by a left winger with 85. The acquisition of Claude Giroux just before the trade deadline should also help the Panthers’ cause, especially with the experience he brings to the table
Besides depth up front, the Panthers are solid on the blueline anchored by Aaron Ekblad, who is expected to be back in the lineup since substaining a leg injury in mid-March.
Goaltending, which is an important element in the playoffs, should be no problem with Sergei Bobrovsky.
As for the Capitals, Alex Ovechkin could be back in the Caps lineup for the series opener. But the Caps are going to need more than Ovechkin, who hit 50 goals, if they are going to advance. In my opinion Washington’s age is becoming a factor.
Prediction: Panthers in four games
Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Rangers
This could be a short series too. The Rangers were a pleasant surprise this season. They have a good mix of young players that have blended in with some veterans. Chris Kreider popped in 52 goals. But there were others who contributed to the cause like Mike Zibanejad, Richard Strome and Artemi Panarin. Then on defence, Adam Fox was their leader.
Between the pipes the Rangers relied on Igor Shesterkin and he delivered big time.
Looking at Penguins this marks the 16th consecutive season that they have qualified for the playoffs. But after the first round, they should be gone. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang remain the main core of Pittsburgh. They also have some young talented players who can put the puck in the net. However, as a team overall, the good old days are behind them. And their goaltending is very suspect.
Prediction: Rangers in five games.
Dallas Stars vs Calgary Flames
The Calgary Flames are Canada’s third team in this year’s Cup hunt and I think they could go a long way. The Flames topped the Pacific division compiling a 50-21-11 record. They are a well-balanced squad with Johnny Gaudreau at the controls. He recorded career-highs 40 goals and 75 assists for 115 points. He has some excellent support from a cast starting with Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm, Tyler Toffoli, Mikael Bucklund and Blake Coleman.
Jacob Markstrom handled the bulk of the goaltending chores for the Flames and is expected to get the call for the playoffs.
As for the Stars they will be heard from in this series with the likes of Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz,Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin in the lineup. Yet the Stars can’t match the Flames.
Prediction: Flames in five games,
Nashville Predators vs Colorado Avalanche
Nashville won three of four meetings with Colorado which included the final three. However, regular season and the playoffs are a completely different seasons. I like the Avalanche to prevail.
This series will feature two of the best defencemen in the league in the Preds’ Roman Josi and the Avs’ Cale Maker.
Both teams also feature some of the NHL’s top forwards with Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Nazem Kadri suiting up for the Avalanche and Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg for the Predators to name just a few.
I think Colorado has far more firepower up front and a stronger defence. In goal a big edge goes to the Colorado as the Preds’ No. 1 starter Jusse Saros is sidelined with an injury and will miss at least the first two games. Meanwhile, Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper is healthy and ready to go.
Prediction: Avalanche in four straight 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.)