The best postseason series in North American sports, the NHL's Stanley Cup Playoffs, gets underway on Wednesday night. That's right, I didn't stutter. It's far and away better than the MLB, NFL and NBA playoffs (in my opinion).
More than half of the league's 31 teams, 16 in total, have emerged from the regular season one step closer to the holy grail that is the Stanley Cup.
One of the best things about the league is the parity involved. There are seven different teams competing in the postseason compared to last year and every matchup holds the promise of an upset.
That includes the Vegas Golden Knights, the expansion team that incredibly holds the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference after putting up a historic 109-point season. They are looking to become the first expansion team since the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues, who recorded just 70 points in their first year, to make a Stanley Cup Final.
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It will be a brutal road to make the Final, but anything is possible come playoff time. So let's take a look at all the first-round series and see how they might shape up:
Western Conference First-Round Preview
Nashville Predators (#1 Central) vs. Colorado Avalanche (#2 Wild Card)
Prediction: Predators in 5
The Avalanche shocked everyone this year just by making the playoffs. This was a team expected to live in the cellar of the Western Conference, especially after trading away Matt Duchene. But on the back of Nathan MacKinnon, who put up by far the best season of his career with 39 goals and 58 assists, the Avalanche finished fourth in the Central Division.
Unfortunately for them, they'll be running into a buzzsaw that is the President's Trophy-winning Nashville Predators who are coming off a regulars season in which they put up a franchise-record 117 points. This is a team built on defense, possessing the best blue line in the league with the likes of P.K. Subban and Roman Josi. Not to mention goalie Pekka Rinne, who is a favorite to win the Vezina Trophy this year.
Winnipeg Jets (#2 Central) vs. Minnesota Wild (#3 Central)
Prediction: Jets in 6
The MTS Centre in Winnipeg will be absolutely bananas as the city will be experiencing just its third playoff game since the franchise's reboot in 2011. This is the most high-powered team in the Western Conference as the Jets racked up 277 goals this season and they might have the best one-two punch of right wingers the league has to offer.
Blake Wheeler recorded a career-high 91 points in his age 31 season to anchor Winnipeg's top line while second-year man and 19-year-old Patrik Laine finished second in the NHL with 44 goals. The Jets offense will be too much for the Wild to handle considering they will be without one of their top defenseman Ryan Suter, who suffered a broken leg.
Vegas Golden Knights (#1 Pacific) vs. Los Angeles Kings (#1 Wild Card)
Prediction: Kings in 7
There is no denying that the Vegas Golden Knights have put together one of the best stories of the 2017-18 NHL season. This is a team comprised of cast-offs that banned together and developed into one of the top units in the league. Center William Karlsson embodies it more than anyone, scoring 43 goals this year after recording just 18 in his first three in the league with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Anaheim Ducks.
However, the Knights have been pedestrian down the stretch, dropping seven of their final 13 games of the year. They'll be taking on a Kings team that is defensively sound, allowing the fewest goals in the league and has a championship core that won a pair of Cups in 2012 and 2014. Veterans like Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, who both had career years, will find a way to come up big when the lights shine brightest.
Anaheim Ducks (#2 Pacific) vs. San Jose Sharks (#3 Pacific)
Prediction: Ducks in 7
Both the Sharks and Ducks hold top-five penalty-killing units this league, which puts an added amount of stress upon 5-on-5 play. San Jose will be without veteran playmaker Joe Thornton, at least for the early portions of this season, which is only going to put more pressure on Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski.
They'll garner most of the attention from the NHL's fourth-best defense which allowed just 216 goals this year. Though most of the Ducks' success should be attributed to the play of goalie John Gibson, whose 2.43 goals against average kept Anaheim's season intact when injuries swept through the locker room.
When it comes to a toss-up series like this, I'm going with the hotter goalie as Gibson can outduel San Jose's Martin Jones.
Eastern Conference First-Round Preview
Tampa Bay Lightning (#1 Atlantic) vs. New Jersey Devils (#2 Wild Card)
Prediction: Lightning in 6
This might not be as easy as a series as it looks on paper considering the Lightning have the league's best offense. Star captain Steven Stamkos is questionable after missing four of the final seven regular-season games with a lower-body injury. It put a damper on the end of a season in which he recorded 86 points, his most since the 2011-12 season.
But it's been the Nikita Kucherov show for most of the year in Tampa Bay as the 24-year-old finished third in the league with 100 points (39 G, 61 A). The problem is that Tampa Bay has faltered a bit down the stretch, losing five of their final eight games. To make things more interesting, the Devils swept the season series from the Lightning and have been red-hot with wins in 10 of their last 14.
New Jersey is anchored by Taylor Hall, a contender for the Hart Trophy after putting up a career-high 39 goals and 54 assists for 93 points. However, that's really all the attacking prowess the Devils have as the team's second-leading scorer is 41 points behind Hall. It will be tight, but the Lightning should pull through.
Boston Bruins (#2 Atlantic) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (#3 Atlantic)
Prediction: Maple Leafs in 7
From the middle of December to the middle of March, there wasn't a hotter team in the league than the Boston Bruins. A 27-5-3 streak over 35 games throttled them toward the top of the Eastern Conference, but they might have peaked too early.
In the final month of the season, Boston has come back down to earth a bit, finishing the year 7-4-4 while letting the Atlantic Division title slip away in the final game of the season. They're meeting a Maple Leafs team anchored by a young dynamic trio of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. All of whom are 21 years old or younger and recorded at least 60 points on the season. Most impressively, Matthews missed 20 games this season due to injury and was still able to record 34 goals.
Toronto is 3-1 in four games against the Bruins this season and Mike Babcock is one of the best coaches the game has ever seen. He could find a way to pull off this upset.
Washington Capitals (#1 Metro) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (#1 Wild Card)
Prediction: Capitals in 6
Expectations are far lower for the Capitals compared to year's past, which might actually help the underachieving Eastern Conference power.
Alex Ovechkin can still control any game on any given night despite becoming an elder statesman of the league at 32. He led the NHL in goals scored (49) for the sixth time in the last seven seasons, further adding to his Hall of Fame resume. His presence along with Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov's will be enough to fuel the Capitals past the Blue Jackets, who have scored the second-fewest goals among playoff teams this year.
It also helps that Washington is playing its best hockey of the season at the perfect time, collecting wins in 12 of their final 15 games.
Pittsburgh Penguins (#2 Metro) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (#3 Metro)
Prediction: Penguins in 7
If you're a neutral hockey fan, this is the series you are going to want to watch. The Battle of Pennsylvania headlines the first-round matchups this postseason as there will be plenty of bad blood boiling over in an electric setting.
Though two points separated these teams in the regular season, the Penguins had the superior offense, racking up 21 more goals than the Flyers. Evgeni Malkin put up the best season since his MVP-winning 2011-12 campaign while Phil Kessel recorded 92 points, 12 more than his previous carer high. It allowed Sidney Crosby to be, well, Sidney Crosby as the Pens captain recorded 89 points for a second-straight season.
That trio will be enough to cancel out the mercurial Claude Giroux, who finished second in the league with 102 points (34 G, 68 A), though they won't go away so easily compared to the regular season. Pittsburgh scored five goals in each of the four games against the Flyers this year.