If there is a clear takeaway from the NHL’s regular season it is that not much separates a number of this year’s playoff teams. And even the one team that’s clearly head and shoulders above the rest should not be considered the most likely to lift the Stanley Cup when the playoffs end.
The team everyone will be talking about is the Tampa Bay Lightning. Jon Cooper, a surefire Jack Adams finalist as the NHL’s best coach, guided his team to a 62-16-4 record, earning them the Presidents’ Trophy and tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most victories during the regular season. Their top scorer, forward Nikita Kucherov, a slam-dunk most valuable player candidate, had 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists), the most by any skater since 1995-96. Andrei Vasilevskiy should also be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league’s top goaltender.
Yet being the top team doesn’t mean it will be a cake walk to the Stanley Cup finals. Since 2005-06 — the start of the league’s salary cap era — just two out of 13 Presidents’ Trophy winners have hoisted the Cup. Four teams with the best regular-season record have lost in the first round and four more have lost in the second. Three of those have occurred in the last three years.
This isn’t to say the Lightning aren’t one of the most likely teams to win it all this year — they are — but the numbers aren’t overwhelmingly in their favor. In fact, due to the quality of competition in both conferences, the Calgary Flames should be considered the Stanley Cup favorites.
Shocking? Maybe, but consider the field in the Eastern Conference. The Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup last year. The Boston Bruins put up 107 points, tied with the Flames for the most of any team not named the Lightning. Columbus was very aggressive at the trade deadline adding two high-profile pieces in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. The Islanders had a historic turnaround defensively. Pittsburgh, despite injuries, still boasts Sidney Crosby. And Toronto’s roster carries seven players with at least 20 goals, including star center John Tavares, who had 47 in his first season with the Maple Leafs.
Our postseason probabilities take into account a team’s actual win-loss record with more weight given toward the end of the season after the trade deadline; its expected win-loss record based on goals scored and allowed — also known as its Pythagorean winning percentage; and its expected win-loss record based on expected goals for and against, a metric created by the now defunct hockey website Corsica. The latter stat takes into account the likelihood a shot becomes a goal based on distance, angle and whether the attempt was a rebound, on the rush or generated on the power play.
Here is a first-round preview — and the teams most likely to move on to the second round.
Tampa Bay Lightning (No. 1 Atlantic Division) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (No. 2 Wild Card)
Prediction: Lightning win the series, 4-1
In addition to Duchene and Dzingel, Columbus also added defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid. More significantly in terms of how the franchise is approaching the playoffs — in which the Blue Jackets have never advanced past Round 1 — Columbus held on to top-line forward Artemi Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, two unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. In terms of the playoffs, their strengths line up well to neutralize Tampa Bay.
Columbus was the least penalized team in the league this season, limiting the opportunities for Tampa’s league-leading power play. The Blue Jackets are also stingy with the scoring chances they allow (seventh-best). And the team’s top line of Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson has been more productive than Tampa’s best line featuring Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point.
However, the edge still belongs with Tampa Bay, especially in net. Vasilevskiy was 26 goals better than an average netminder facing the same number of shot attempts. Bobrovsky, by comparison, was five goals better than an average netminder.
Boston Bruins (No. 2 Atlantic) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (No. 3 Atlantic)
Prediction: Bruins win the series, 4-3
A first-round rematch from last year between two Original Six teams, the Bruins should get the better of the Maple Leafs again this year.
Boston’s regular-season success was fueled largely by a defense that allowed the third-fewest high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes at even strength. And when those chances did get through, Boston’s netminders stopped 445 of 518 (86 percent) of them. League average is 83 percent.
Plus, the Bruins might ice the most complete forward trio in the NHL. Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron combined to score 34 even-strength goals over 484 minutes as a line this year and Bergeron, a four-time Selke winner as the league’s best defensive forward, might add a fifth award to his trophy case.
Toronto, meanwhile, brought in Tavares to try to push the team to the next level. The Mississauga native set career highs in goals (47) and points (88) during his first year with the club and generated more scoring chances at even strength than anyone in the league aside from Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher. Tavares’s teammate, Austin Matthews, was fourth.
Washington Capitals (No. 1 Metropolitan) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (No. 1 Wild Card)
Prediction: Capitals win the series, 4-3
The defending champions got a tough draw with the Hurricanes. Carolina generates the most high-danger chances in the NHL this season at even strength (14 per 60 minutes) and the seventh-most on the power play (23 per 60 minutes). They are also good at suppressing their opponents from doing the same: sixth-fewest scoring chances allowed (25 per 60 minutes) at even strength and the lowest rate allowed on the penalty kill (39 per 60).
The Hurricanes also have four 20-goal scorers with two, Sebastian Aho and former Capital Justin Williams, sharing time with Nino Niederreiter. That line outscores opponents 13 to 9 with a 148 to 90 edge in scoring chances over 254 even-strength minutes.
But the Capitals have Alex Ovechkin, fresh off his record eighth Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL goal-scoring leader (51). He, along with linemates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson combined for 15 even-strength goals as a trio in 218 minutes during the regular season. Washington’s second line of Jakub Vrana, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie outscored opponents 14 to 8 this season over 212 minutes, with half of those goals coming from the slot or crease.
Prediction: Islanders win the series, 4-2
During last year’s Stanley Cup run with the Capitals, Coach Barry Trotz found a way to neutralize Pittsburgh’s most-potent weapons. Sure, Sidney Crosby’s line scored three even-strength goals against Washington in the playoffs, but they allowed five goals against, too. Evgeni Malkin was limited to one power-play goal and Phil Kessel had none, allowing the Capitals to win the series in six games.
New York’s defensive improvement this season suggest’s Trotz’s team could do the same again this year. In 2017-18, the Islanders allowed 293 goals, the most any squad gave up since the Philadelphia Flyers permitted 297 in 2006-07, with 174 of those originating from high-danger areas such as the slot and the crease. This year, the Islanders have allowed a league-low 191 goals against, with just 110 coming from high-danger areas.
Prediction: Stars win the series, 4-2
Dallas deserves more consideration as a contender. Their netminder, Ben Bishop, leads the NHL in save percentage (.933) and his high-danger save percentage at even strength (.881) is also the highest among goaltenders facing at least as many shots. Plus, Bishop turned away 34 of 38 high-danger shots against on the penalty kill (.895 save rate), the second-best performance after the Philadelphia Flyers’ Carter Hart.
Nashville, meanwhile, relies on contributions from its defensemen to score goals, a tactic that might not pay off against a goaltender like Bishop. The Predators’ blueliners combined for 43 goals this season with 34 of those coming at even strength. Roman Josi leads the team’s defensemen with 13. However, those defensemen still convert only one out of every 22 shot attempts (5 percent) they take, leaving them vulnerable to a good defensive team like Dallas that not only limits high-quality chances (sixth-best in 2018-19) but also blocks a lot of shots (1,291, fifth-most in the NHL this year).
Winnipeg Jets (No. 2 Central) vs. St. Louis Blues (No. 3 Central)
Prediction: Blues win the series, 4-2
The Blues are coming in hot. Heading into the All-Star Game, they sat sixth in the Central Division (22-22-5, 49 points) yet finished the season 23-6-4 (50 points), earning the third-place spot in the Central Division. Goaltender Jordan Binnington finished with a 24-5-1 record, .927 overall save percentage and NHL-leading 1.89 goals against average. The team made Binnington’s job easier with just 2,345 shots allowed across the whole season, fourth fewest in the NHL. But Binnington did his part, too, stopping 181 of 212 high-danger chances faced overall (.854 save rate).
And good luck to the Jets, who will need to stop St. Louis’s top line of Brayden Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko, a trio that outscored opponents 23 to 14 with a 104 to 66 edge in high-danger chances over 322 even-strength minutes this season. Winnipeg allowed an above-average rate of high-danger chances and their netminder, Connor Hellebuyck, faced 498 total shots from the slot and the crease this year, the fifth-most among goaltenders, stopping 398 of them for a .799 save percentage. League average was .819 during the 2018-19 regular season.
Calgary Flames (No. 1 Pacific) vs. Colorado Avalanche (No. 1 Wild Card)
Prediction: Flames win the series, 4-1
Mark Giordano, a Norris Trophy hopeful who finished second in the NHL in scoring among defensemen with 74 points (17 goals, 57 assists), skates over 24 minutes per night, and is one of five players on the team with at least 70 points: Johnny Gaudreau (99), Sean Monahan (82), Elias Lindholm (78) and Matthew Tkachuk (77) are the others. No other team has more than four.
Three of those players — Gaudreau, Monahan and Lindholm — form Calgary’s top line and when on the ice with Giordano have outscored opponents 31 to 19 this year, with more than half of those goals scored (19) coming from the high-danger areas such as the slot or crease.
That kind of ability will tax Colorado’s defensive pairings. Samuel Girard and Erik Johnson shared 938 even-strength minutes together this season and were out-chanced 182 to 143 in the high-danger areas. Nikita Zadorov and Tyson Barrie broke even, 49 to 48, and Ian Cole and Patrik Nemeth were slightly underwater at 22 to 25.
San Jose Sharks (No. 2 Pacific) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (No. 3 Pacific)
Prediction: Golden Knights win the series, 4-2
Vegas is a different team with Mark Stone, acquired from the Ottawa Senators in February. The Golden Knights went on a 10-1-1 tear after he unpacked his bags and his fixture on the second line gives Vegas a steady group of top-six forwards. The top line, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, scored 39 goals as a group this season with 19 coming from high-danger areas and the second line of Stone, Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny have nine goals (six from the slot or crease) over 13 games.
Marc-Andre Fleury had a down year in terms of save percentage but he was still worth five goals more than an average goaltender during the regular season. His performance on the penalty kill, stopping 59 of 76 high-danger chances in 2018-19, is also encouraging considering San Jose’s power play is one of the most-efficient in the NHL this year (24 percent, sixth-best) with the second-most scoring chances created per 60 minutes (58).
However, the Sharks can’t get opportunities without drawing penalties, and the Golden knights are among the least-penalized teams of 2018-19 (short handed 230 times, tied for eighth fewest).