The NHL’s best will compete from April to June to try and hoist the Stanley Cup in the 2019 playoffs, including Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames, Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, and Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators.
As any sports fan could tell you, there’s nothing quite like the playoffs.
The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs will kick off on April 10th and millions of avid hockey fanatics and newcomers of the sport of all shapes, ages and sizes around the world will be tuning in. Thirteen American and Three Canadian teams will represent their city in what has been called the most exhilarating playoff tournament in all of sports. While the Tampa Bay Lightning, dominant since the first week of the season, are the odds-on favorite to win, several underdogs like the Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues will look to rebound off struggling seasons and come away with hockey’s most coveted prize.
In this four-part article, we’ll break down some of the biggest hits and misses, NHL’s “Super 16” style, to look for in each playoff team. These assessments could be long-term points or just recently occurring towards the end of the regular season. We’ll open this first article with the champions of each division: the Tampa Bay Lightning, Calgary Flames, Washington Capitals, and Nashville Predators. The Capitals look to double up after winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, while none of the aforementioned teams have won the cup since 2004.
1. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (62-16-4), Atlantic Division Champion, Eastern Conference Champion, President’s Trophy Winner
The Tampa Bay Lightning have been the most dominant team on the ice this season, with a 21-point lead on any other team in the league (that translates to over 10 wins, for those keeping score at home). So, what, if any, improvements could Tampa Bay make to their near-perfect season?
Pro – Record-Shattering
The Lightning are first overall in the league and first in goals-for, powerplay and penalty kill. They have superstar forward Nikita Kucherov who has 41 goals and 87 assists for 128 points this season, the highest in the league, alongside his teammates Stamkos and Point with 90+ points. They have been consistently in the top ten in goals against, with contributions from Ryan McDonagh, who is 10th in blocked shots and second in plus/minus with a +38. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has the best record in the NHL at 39-10-4 with a .925 save percentage.
Con – The Boston Bruins?
While trying to dissect the close-to-perfect team can be a challenge, one that Tampa fans are familiar with could be the longtime rival Boston Bruins. The Bruins are playing their best hockey late in the season, going 20-6-2 in February and March. Tampa barely took their previous matchups, winning 3-2, losing 4-1, and winning 5-4, with the final game of the season ending with a win, 6-3.
In addition, the Bruins players are finally looking to be healthy and fully ready for the postseason. Boston lost to Tampa Bay last year in the second round of the playoffs 4-1, and a repeat of that matchup could be very possible, with the Bruins playing Toronto in the first round; Tampa will play Columbus. Also, Victor Hedman and Ryan Callahan sustained injuries and are uncertain if they will return for the playoffs.
2. CALGARY FLAMES (50-25-7), Pacific Division Champion, Western Conference Champion
Pro – Blazing Flames
The Calgary Flames’ superstars have shined brighter than most teams this season. “Johnny Hockey” Gaudreau is only 25 and having a career season with 36-63-99 points in his 6th year with the Flames, and a likely Hart Trophy finalist.
Captain Mark Giordano is also having a career year, averaging nearly a point per game. He and Mikael Backlund, who have played over a decade together on this team, are two of the top five in plus/minus. Finally, enter Calder finalist Matthew Tkachuk, with 34 goals and 77 points in his third season in the NHL. Stat-wise, the Flames are the best Canadian team in the league this season.
Con – Physically (Un)fit
The Flames, for all their offensive prowess, are dead-last in the league in hits per game. While it’s unfair to gauge a team’s chances based on a stat as simple as hitting, in 5-on-5 situations, there is a 32% increase in hitting during the playoffs (thanks to hockeygraphs.com for the statistics).
In addition, fights and penalties are far less frequent in the playoffs. Tandem that with Sam Bennett’s (who averages 1.7 hits per game) injury and the Flames’ average height at 5’10”, the Flames will need contributions from more than just their scorers to keep a solid playoff run a reality.
3. WASHINGTON CAPITALS (48-26-8), Metropolitan Division Champion
The defending Stanley Cup champions look hungry to keep the Cup in Washington, even after losing head coach Barry Trotz in the offseason. Captain Alex Ovechkin only continues to prove that he is one of the greatest Russian players in history, getting his eighth 50+ goal season in 14 years.
Pro – Consistency
Despite some panicking earlier in January (cue the seven-game losing streak), the Capitals are right where they were at this time last year. How close, you ask? Their record at the end of 2018 closed at 49-26-7; they are now 48-26-8. Their Goals For: 5th this season, 9th last season. Goals Against: 17th this season, 15th last season. Powerplay: 20.8% efficiency this year, 22.5% last year… you get the picture.
Despite Tampa likely being the primary opponent to defeat to go far in the playoffs, the Capitals are very familiar with the notion of regular season record not transcribing to postseason records (cue 2015-2017). The Caps have their same key players in the Great 8, Kusnetzov, Oshie, Holtby, and Backstrom, to name a few. While a familiar second round could have Pittsburgh and Washington duking it out for the fourth year straight, don’t count out a back-to-back run. And just for fun, Caps fans, you don’t have to play against Carl Hagelin in the playoffs.
Con – Keep-Out
The Capitals, as mentioned, are 17th in the Goals Allowed stat, ranking only above Toronto and San Jose in playoff teams. They are also 24th on the penalty kill at 78.9% and tied for 17th in combined save percentage at .904%. While these numbers are on par with their finish last season, the Caps will need a defensive performance in the playoffs paralleled to teams like Arizona or Tampa Bay to reach Lord Stanley again.
Finally, Michael Kempny, lauded as one of their most intelligent blue-liners, is out indefinitely with a leg injury, and it seems long-term.
4. NASHVILLE PREDATORS (47-29-6), Central Division Champion
The Nashville Predators have rebuilt their franchise better than most teams in the league, as this is the fifth consecutive season they have qualified for the playoffs. The Predators made it to the Cup Final back in 2017, going 14-8. They took the President’s Trophy last season but were upset in the second round by the Winnipeg Jets, and after some big trade deadline additions will look to get back into a deep run again this postseason.
Pro – The Trade Deadline
The Predators had arguably the most successful trade deadline transactions in 2019 after very little rumors circulated around the club. Prior to the deadline, the Preds simply moved players from the AHL and ECHL and grabbed former Predator Cody McLeod from New York. On February 25th, however, the Predators made headlines with two massive trades. Here’s a full rundown of what they gave and received:
- Predators acquired forward Mikael Granlund (16-38-54) from Minnesota for forward Kevin Fiala (13-26-39) in a 1-for-1 trade.
- Predators acquired forward Wayne Simmonds (17-13-30) from Philadelphia for forward Ryan Hartman (12-14-26) and a conditional 2020 fourth-round pick.
While those don’t sound like the most explosive trades on paper, Simmonds and Granlund still provide physicality and depth scoring on the forward lines that they lacked with Austin Watson’s tumultuous season sidelining him. Combined with Rocco Grimaldi and Brian Boyle, the trades will assuredly give the Predators enough of a boost to compete in this year’s playoffs with the league’s hottest teams, including a second against either Winnipeg or St. Louis.
Con – Consistency
The Predators have been starting to decline at the worst possible time under the worst possible circumstances. First look to their power play: 5/39 in their last 15 games at an abysmal 12.8%. In those 15 games, they are 41-36 goals in for/against with a 10-4-1 record. Last year’s Vezina winner Pekka Rinne has gone 12-7-1 post-All-Star game after going 18-12-3 in the first half of the season.
The four Division champions have spectacularly displayed what it takes to be the best of the best all season, but that elite level of play will need to continue to lift Lord Stanley’s Trophy towards the rafters. Stay tuned to read over the remaining twelve teams, with the Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, Winnipeg Jets, and San Jose Sharks on deck in part 2.
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