After a wild regular season full of Atlantic Division dominance, up-and-down acts from teams like the Oilers, and offensive resurgence across the board, we’ve reached the pinnacle of the NHL calendar: the start of the playoffs. Ahead of Monday’s puck drop, The Ringer’s hockey heads got together to preview the players they’re most excited to watch this postseason, the teams they can’t wait to see get eliminated, and their picks to take home the Stanley Cup.
1. What is your tweet-length preview of the Stanley Cup playoffs?
Michael Baumann: Make two Cups, one for whoever comes out of the Atlantic, and one for everyone else.
Cory McConnell: The West has one good team, and that team is probably going to win the Stanley Cup.
Katie Baker: Finally, the Vegas Golden Knights are giving somebody new a chance!
Megan Schuster: Just this, always:
why watch overtime playoff hockey when you can simply snort cocaine and ride a motorcycle out of a helicopter
— Jon Bois (@jon_bois) April 17, 2014
2. Which player(s) are you most excited to watch?
Baker: Igor Shesterkin (because I’m always excited to watch him); Brad Marchand (because he’s a messy bitch who lives for drama); Aaron Ekblad (because I wrote about him when he was a wee lad); Adam Fox (to see if he’ll remain the coolest cucumber in the league even during the postseason); Auston Matthews (because his time is now) and while he’s not a player, Darryl Sutter’s press conferences.
Baumann: “I’m ready to see Contract Year Johnny Gaudreau under the lights,” I thought to myself before remembering that Connor McDavid is going to participate in these playoffs.
Schuster: When Connor McDavid is in the playoffs, he is the only answer.
McConnell: I feel like I say this every year, but Evgeni Malkin. This could be the last ride for the Penguins’ core of Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Kris LeTang, and coming off a season plagued by injuries and inconsistent play, Malkin’s got a lot to prove to a new ownership group. There’s every reason to believe that the Pens could flame out early for a fourth year in a row—Malkin coming out of the gates firing on all cylinders against the Rangers could prevent that.
3. Which team are you hoping gets bounced the earliest?
McConnell: How about the guys who employ the most-suspended player of all time (no, actually not Tom Wilson)? Though Brad Marchand recently was voted in the NHL Player Poll as the guy players least enjoy playing against but would like to have on their team, even his begrudging defenders have to be tired of his antics after he was suspended twice more in this season alone. Here’s hoping the ’Canes take care of business.
Baumann: I think this is the year that the Maple Leafs’ first-round-exit hex goes from hilarious to pitiable and/or unsettling. So, for purely partisan reasons: Pittsburgh. Crosby and Malkin have had their playoff fun; let them get swept.
Schuster: Much as I agree with your Pittsburgh hatred, Michael, I have to respectfully disagree about the Maple Leafs—give me Toronto Sadness every year and I’ll bask in it happily until my final days.
Baker: Sorry, L.A. Kings! I just want the Oilers well-rested so that their intra-province matchup with the Calgary Flames can be as cantankerous as possible.
4. Does anyone outside the Atlantic stand a chance?
Schuster: Of course—hockey playoffs are always full of surprises, random puck bounces, and matchups that can swing against the favored team(s) in an instant. That said, whichever team does emerge from the Atlantic will be extremely battle-tested and a squad that the rest of the league should handle with caution.
McConnell: The Atlantic has three legit contenders in the Leafs, Panthers, and Lightning. But of the teams I’ve watched this year, the Avalanche are the most terrifying.
Baumann: Part of me thinks whoever comes out of the Atlantic is going to be so worn down that Carolina or Colorado or Calgary can bum-rush them later in the playoffs.
Baker: It’s now or never for the Colorado Avalanche! I’d be down for a final between them and the Panthers, and I feel like the mighty West would pull it out.
5. Which first-round matchup will be the best?
Baker: I’m not proud of this, but I could just really use a tumultuous, back-and-forth, vicious seven-game series between the Leafs and the Lightning—one that features lots of cool goals, but most of all a heaping dose of Jon Cooper being snarky to the Toronto media and vice versa.
McConnell: Leafs-Lightning has the juiciest story lines. The Leafs look the best they have in the Auston Matthews era, and the Lightning are trying to three-peat as Cup winners, which basically never happens. If the Leafs go on a deep run, they could end up playing two teams from Florida and one team from North Carolina. It’s one of the most storied franchises going up against the boat parade guys, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Baumann: Tampa Bay–Toronto. This might end up being the best matchup of the entire postseason, that’s how loaded these teams are.
Schuster: I’m going to zag here and do a homer pick in Wild-Blues. As a Minnesota resident, this is a nightmare matchup for me, personally: The Wild played St. Louis three times this season and lost all three (one in regulation and two in overtime), including a rather embarrassing drubbing during a frigid Winter Classic. Minnesota will have home-ice advantage in this round, and these teams never faced off at the Xcel Energy Center this year, so maybe that will shift the vibes? But either way this is going to be a hard-fought series.
6. Who is your pick to take home the Conn Smythe?
Baumann: Claude Giroux will once again become the best player in the world.
Baker: My silly heart hopes Shesterkin; my rational mind says Nathan MacKinnon.
McConnell: I’m going to go with the tried and true logic of “best forward on the best team,” so, MacKinnon.
Schuster: I feel so boring saying this, but Jonathan Huberdeau. The second-leading scorer in the NHL this year, on the league’s best team—I know MacKinnon is the betting front-runner, but if Florida lives up to its potential, this will be Huberdeau’s to lose.
7. And which team will win the Cup?
McConnell: The Colorado Avalanche. They’re competing in a relatively more tame Western Conference bracket, and could meet an Eastern opponent in the Stanley Cup final who will have been through an absolute gauntlet to get there. The Avalanche have looked dangerous for a while, and this is the year they can go all the way.
Schuster: I don’t think Calgary should win this—if we’re going by regular-season performance and who looked the most juggernauty across 82 games, the answer is either the Panthers or Avalanche. But as I said earlier there’s a certain element of randomness to the NHL playoffs each year, and if the Flames can make it past the Oilers in a potential incredible second-round series, then why not go all the way?
Baumann: Florida survives the Atlantic Division gauntlet and gets Joe Thornton his ring.
Baker: The Avalanche, because that Joe Sakic Energy is simply too strong.
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