NHL playoff bracket 2018: Western Conference series breakdowns, Stanley Cup predictions

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P.Okay. Subban, Blake Wheeler and Marc-Andre Fleury (Getty Pictures)

There are an excellent many variables that go into figuring out a Stanley Cup champion. A bunch of them are uncontrollable. Sure, expertise reigns supreme, however greater than any sport, fortune good or dangerous — pure, unadulterated luck — can swing a recreation or a whole series, virtually all of which is unpredictable.

So it could turn out to be a idiot’s errand to attempt to guess how the NHL’s second season will break down.

The Western Conference is a little more prime heavy than its East counterparts. The Predators captured the Presidents’ Trophy, the convention’s No. 1 seed and a division title — all franchise firsts — in a single fell swoop. If not for them, these honors would have gone to the Jets, who examine in because the NHL’s second-greatest workforce. Their challengers from the Pacific Division are a bit extra fickle, however any one of many Golden Knights, Kings, Geese and Sharks have opportunist really feel to their Stanley Cup possibilities.

Sporting Information’ NHL specialists Brandon Schlager, Evan Sporer and Jim Cerny predict the Western Conference playoffs and make their Stanley Cup picks under.

NHL playoff bracket

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NHL playoffs 2018: Western Conference predictions

Nashville Predators (C1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (WC2)

The backstory

The Predators can be the primary to warning towards choosing chalk within the Stanley Cup playoffs. In any case, it hasn’t been an ideal begin to 2018 for No. 1s in 1-sixteen conferences, and Nashville is aware of first hand seeding might be insignificant this time of yr, particularly in hockey. That stated, the Presidents’ Trophy champs look like one of many most secure bets to play into June, intent on ending what they began a yr in the past. The Avalanche, who accomplished one of many extra unbelievable one-yr turnarounds in current sports reminiscence, look to channel a few of the magic that helped the Predators pull off a sweep of prime-seeded Blackhawks in 2017. Query is: How a lot have they got left after spending the final two months preventing for his or her playoff lives?

The important thing participant

Nathan MacKinnon seems to carry the most effective case to win the Hart Trophy, however this series would really turn out to be his signature efficiency if he is capable of assist the Avalanche problem the deepest group within the NHL. Colorado is depleted by accidents, with beginning goalie Semyon Varlamov and No. 1 defenseman Erik Johnson out for the primary spherical. Extra doubtless, the Avs will fold sooner moderately than later, content material to construct on their historic turnaround. Nobody will blame them.

The large quantity

The Predators have thirteen — rely ’em, THIRTEEN — gamers who chipped in at the very least 10 objectives this season. That is 4 greater than the subsequent closest group. That sort of balanced scoring all the time is useful through the playoffs, when stars run cold and hot and unsung heroes emerge from the woodwork.

Brandon Schlager predicts: Predators in four
Evan Sporer predicts: Predators in 5
Jim Cerny predicts: Predators in 5

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Winnipeg Jets (C2) vs. Minnesota Wild (C3) 

The backstory

If the common season is an indicator, the Jets pose quite a few matchup complications for the damage-depleted Wild. Winnipeg took the season series three-1, outscoring Minnesota 14-10. Three of these video games got here earlier than December, although, and the division foes final met Jan. thirteen, a four-1 Wild win. Separated by about 450 miles, it would not be a shock if the battle between these playoffs’ northernmost franchises goes the space.

The important thing participant

With Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, we know the Jets can rating with the most effective of them. That is why Connor Hellebuyck would be the one to find out how deep Winnipeg performs into the spring. The 24-yr-previous netminder completed the season close to the highest of the NHL in each statistical class whereas balancing a heavy workload (his three,966 minutes are most within the league). He’ll be a Vezina finalist. Now Hellebuyck has to struggle fatigue in his first postseason to cease a balanced Wild offense led by resurgent forty-objective scorer Eric Staal.

The large quantity

26:forty seven. That is the typical ice time of Ryan Suter, second most within the NHL. The Wild’s uber-necessary No. 1 defenseman broke his proper fibula March 31 and is out for the rest of the season. No single participant can fill such a void, however Minnesota’s postseason hinges on discovering one of the best mixture to eat these minutes. A brunt of the duty falls to Matt Dumba, Suter’s main associate after Jared Spurgeon was injured, and Jonas Brodin, who assume prime-pair duties. Spurgeon’s return will assist, too, however the Wild’s protection corps has to band collectively as a unit if it intends to sluggish the Jets and their second-ranked offensive assault.

Brandon Schlager predicts: Jets in 6
Evan Sporer predicts: Jets in 5
Jim Cerny predicts: Jets in 5

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Vegas Golden Knights (P1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (WC1)

The backstory

The Golden Knights are already probably the most profitable enlargement franchise the NHL has ever seen, and arguably the most effective story in all of sports. Now that they have everybody’s consideration, all eyes are watching as Vegas transitions from zero expectations to Stanley Cup contender. A staff that is aware of a factor or two about profitable championships awaits within the first spherical. That is simply Los Angeles’ second playoff look since its final title in 2014, however most of the names engraved on that Cup stay on the roster. On the very least, they seem to be a formidable opponent led by respectable MVP and Norris candidates and a protection/goalie battery that may stifle a excessive-flying assault such because the one Vegas deploys. 

The important thing participant

Marc-Andre Fleury is the failsafe that permits the Golden Knights’ trademark excessive-flying offense to function. The protection performs with out nervousness. Forwards take extra dangers, as a result of they anticipate Fleury to bail them out of sticky conditions. The Flower hasn’t all the time been nice in postseason play (.908 save proportion), however he does personal three Stanley Cup rings. Little question, he will should steal a couple of video games to increase Vegas’ dream season. As Fleury goes, they may, too.

The large quantity

First-yr coach John Stevens has the Kings enjoying with a renewed sense of vigor and finesse, however their lockdown methods of previous are nonetheless very a lot a power of this staff. Los Angeles allowed the fewest objectives (202) and featured the NHL’s greatest penalty kill (eighty five %). That is in direct distinction to the Golden Knights, who wish to play north-south and may rating in bunches. Drew Doughty and Jonathan Fast nonetheless know methods to put an offense on lockdown.

Brandon Schlager predicts: Golden Knights in 7
Evan Sporer predicts: Kings in 6
Jim Cerny predicts: Kings in 6

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Anaheim Geese (P2) vs. San Jose Sharks (P3)

The backstory

The Sharks and Geese have shared a division the whole thing of their almost three many years of existence, however that is simply the second time the Pacific foes will meet within the Stanley Cup playoffs. The primary was 2009, when Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne and Chris Pronger knocked the Sharks out of the primary spherical. In reality, both the Geese or the Sharks have been among the many playoff area yearly since Anaheim gained the Stanley Cup in 2007. San Jose has made the postseason thirteen occasions within the final 14 years, nonetheless with out the franchise’s first championship. It is eleven of 14 for Anaheim.

The important thing participant

John Gibson’s unimaginable play down the stretch possible was the distinction within the Geese’ playoff berth. As he enters the series coping with one other damage (higher physique), how shortly — or quite, how shut — he returns to one hundred pc would tilt a decent matchup by some means. 

The large quantity

9 objectives and 14 factors. That is Evander Kane’s contribution in 17 video games with the Sharks. He is discovered a pleasant residence subsequent to Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi, enjoying with a brand new pep in his step lastly freed from all of that dropping in Winnipeg and Buffalo. In his first style of playoff hockey, Kane has an opportunity to be an actual distinction maker (and it might make him loads of moeny this offseason).

Brandon Schlager predicts: Sharks in 6
Evan Sporer predicts: Geese in 7
Jim Cerny predicts: Sharks in 7

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Stanley Cup Remaining picks

Brandon Schlager

Japanese Conference champion: Lightning over Penguins in 7 video games

Western Conference champion: Predators over Sharks in 5 video games

Stanley Cup champion: Predators over Lightning in 6 video games

I do know, I do know. Reeeeaaall unique. Two No. 1 seeds have not met within the Stanley Cup Last since 2001, when the Avalanche had Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Adam Foote, Raymond Bourque!, et al, the Devils had Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Alexander Mogilny, et al, and parity was very clearly a figment of Gary Bettman’s goals. Lately, there are 4 No. 1s, but it nonetheless hasn’t occurred within the 4 years this foolish playoff format has been in place. However hey, these have been my preseason Stanley Cup picks (I swear), so I am sticking to my weapons within the curiosity of consistency. Permit me to brag a bit of till this bracket is ripped to shreds.

In seriousness, the NHL is begging for this matchup. Two Sunbelt enlargement franchises in captive, thrilling vacation spot locales. Additionally they occur to be the 2 most nicely-rounded groups within the subject. The Predators are constructed from the again, out. Pekka Rinne is the Vezina shoo-in and this yr they could even have 4 Erik Karlssons in entrance of him. Signal me up for a nightly battle between that protection corps and the dynamic duo of Nikita Kucherov (keep in mind him?) and Steven Stamkos.

The blue line is not the Lightning’s power, however the prime pair of Norris entrance-runner Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman continues to be considered one of one of the best lockdown partnerships within the league. Throw in newcomer Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev, who led all rookie defensemen with forty factors, as anchors and unexpectedly Tampa can roll out three formidable pairs in entrance of Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’s untested within the playoffs however nonetheless among the best goalies within the NHL. They will must be on level. Nashville added Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino and a wholesome Ryan Johansen on prime of its Stanley Cup roster from a yr in the past. They’ve a prime six of succesful facilities alone, with out factoring in Filip Forsberg and Victor Arvidsson.

Received all that? I have never even talked about the teaching matchup between Jon Cooper and Peter Laviolette, two of one of the best tacticians within the recreation. Stanley Cups aren’t gained on paper. Extra probably, what occurs over the subsequent two months will defy logic. That is nothing greater than an informed guess.

Conn Smythe winner: Filip Forsberg

Evan Sporer

Japanese Conference champion: Lightning over Penguins in 6 video games

Western Conference champion: Jets over Geese in 6 video games

Stanley Cup champion: Jets over Lightning in 6 video games

How about two groups that have been outdoors of the playoff image a yr in the past going head-to-head for the Stanley Cup a yr later? How about guys like Stamkos, Kucherov, Level, and Wheeler, Scheifele, Laine buzzing across the offensive zone? How about two of one of the best, younger goaltenders within the recreation in Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy? Prime to backside, these may be the 2 most full groups within the NHL. Ought to they attain the Cup Remaining,  they might have each traversed extremely troublesome roads, no favors executed for them by the playoff format. Tampa Bay completed with the very best objectives-for proportion within the NHL (fifty seven.18) and Winnipeg fourth within the league and second within the West (fifty four.seventy two).

This is able to be an absolute warfare, and in addition an entire showcase of the place hockey is trending, in its purest, greatest, most entertaining type. These are two free-flowing offensive groups that emphasize skating and talent over grit and physicality. That is to not say there will not be any checks thrown on this series (see: Byfuglien, Dustin) however the level is these two groups can play. 

So what makes the distinction in this sort of series? Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice has two unbelievable facilities in Paul Stastny and Bryan Little relating to defensive assignments. Heck, he can really feel very snug throwing the Scheifele line out towards anybody. After which there’s the Jets’ fourth line with Adam Lowry down the center. It is one of many ingenious issues about how this group was constructed: Whereas there is a clear pecking order, and every line brings totally different strengths, there is not a gaggle that you simply fear an excessive amount of about getting caught on the market.

That is going to be the mannequin shifting ahead. The Jets are within the final place to winnow with guys like Laine and Connor on entry-degree offers, and a deadline acquisition like Stastny. And when it is all stated and accomplished, they will parade the Stanley Cup down the gray, dreary streets of Winnipeg, the place the Jets will get the final chuckle.

Conn Smythe winner: Blake Wheeler

Jim Cerny

Japanese Conference champion: Lightning over Penguins in 6 video games 

Western Conference champion: Predators over Kings in 6 video games

Stanley Cup champion: Predators over Lightning in 6 video games

Two disclaimers to start out. Predicting a Stanley Cup Last when a lot can and can happen over the subsequent six weeks is a reasonably troublesome crapshoot. And I did not go into this in search of the “straightforward” Stanley Cup Remaining decide of the respective prime seeds; however regardless of how a lot I attempt to keep away from it, I maintain coming again to the Predators and Lightning. They’re the most effective groups of their respective conferences, and I consider every will carve an identical path to the Ultimate.

I see Nashville taking out Colorado with relative ease earlier than profitable a seven-recreation struggle with Winnipeg within the second spherical. The Preds will then advance to a second consecutive Stanley Cup Ultimate look by beating the Kings in six video games.

Likewise, Tampa Bay will beat New Jersey in 5 video games to start out the event after which be pushed to the seven-recreation restrict earlier than defeating Toronto in Spherical 2. To succeed in their second Remaining in 4 years, the Lightning will beat the 2-time defending Cup champion Penguins in six video games.

So far as this Remaining goes, the Predators will win the 2018 Stanley Cup due to their deep protection corps and the excellent play of goaltender Rinne — one of the best protection/goalie tandem Tampa Bay will face this publish-season.

Conn Smythe winner: Pekka Rinne