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NHL Playoff Schedule 2018: 1st-Round Slate, Ranking Top Stanley Cup Contenders

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistApril 10, 2018

Nikita Kucherov triggers Tampa Bay's high-scoring offense.
Nikita Kucherov triggers Tampa Bay's high-scoring offense.Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

The 82-game preliminary is over, and 16 teams are left to compete for the NHL's biggest prize. The Stanley Cup playoffs get underway Wednesday with three games, and the other five series will begin Thursday.

The playoffs are a two-month grind that combines hitting, nastiness and spectacular team play that often results in best-of-seven series that go to the limit. 

Teams like the Presidents' Trophy-winning Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins would appear to have the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup since they were the four most successful teams in the regular season.

However, the NHL postseason has proved in recent years that any team in the tournament can find itself, get hot and string series wins together. The Preds are the latest example because they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last year after finishing as the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

It seems the Colorado Avalanche would have a difficult time matching that achievement after earning the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs with a victory over the St. Louis Blues in the final game of the regular season. The Avs have to play the Preds, and that appears to be an overwhelming task.

However, the New Jersey Devils may have quite a bit of life to their game as the eighth-place qualifier in the Eastern Conference.

Devils Insiders @DevilsInsiders

This is just STUPID from Taylor Hall. Another one. #NJDevils https://t.co/zFYraRhxVF

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The Devils played quite well down the stretch, as they outlasted the Florida Panthers to earn that postseason position. The Devils don't have a lot of big-time talent leading the way, with the exception of top scorer Taylor Hall.

The former No. 1 draft choice of the Edmonton Oilers in 2010 has been a solid player throughout his career, but he became a superstar this year and did a superb job of leading his team with 39 goals and 54 assists. He had seven game-winning goals and was a sniper on the power play with 12 markers. 

Nico Hischier was the Devils' second-leading scorer with 52 points, and that 41-point gap between the two explains just how important Hall is to the Devils.

While Hall was commanding the New Jersey offense, goaltender Keith Kinkaid was stringing together a series of outstanding performances in net. Kinkaid has a 2.77 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage.

The Devils have drawn the Eastern Conference's top seed in the Tampa Bay Lightning and obviously face a tough task. Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and defenseman Victor Hedman are capable of filling up the net, but the Lightning could get pushed hard by the Devils.

The other first-round series in the East include the Boston Bruins having home-ice advantage over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins meeting the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Washington Capitals facing off against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Pittsburgh and Washington have home ice in their respective series.

In addition to the Preds and Avalanche meeting in the Western Conference, the Winnipeg Jets host the Minnesota Wild, the Anaheim Ducks will meet the San Jose Sharks, and the first-year expansion Vegas Golden Knights will meet the Los Angeles Kings. Anaheim and Vegas have home ice in their series.

       

The Predators go into the Stanley Cup playoffs as the top regular-season team.
The Predators go into the Stanley Cup playoffs as the top regular-season team.Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

Ranking Top Stanley Cup Contenders

1. Nashville Predators
2. Winnipeg Jets
3. Boston Bruins
4. Tampa Bay Lightning
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
6. Washington Capitals
7. Vegas Golden Knights
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
9. Los Angeles Kings
10. Anaheim Ducks (tie)
10. San Jose Sharks (tie)

The Preds have the proper combination of motivation, skill, goaltending and coaching to get the job done and hoist the Stanley Cup in June. After making it to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago and losing in six games to the Penguins, the Preds have been spurred on by that defeat all season. 

They are a tough, skilled and opportunistic team led by Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, P.K. Subban and Roman Josi. Pekka Rinne has an excellent chance to win the Vezina Trophy this year, and head coach Peter Laviolette will keep the team focused on the task at hand and will not allow his team to let up at any point.

The Jets may be as good or better than the Preds, but they are new to the playoffs.

They made the playoffs in 2015 and once when they played as the Atlanta Thrashers, and the franchise has yet to win a series. That should change this time around as stars like Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, rookie Kyle Connor and Dustin Byfuglien give them an edge over most opponents.

The Bruins started the season slowly before finding their stride in late November. Head coach Bruce Cassidy has a team of established veteran stars with Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and Brad Marchand combining with youngsters such as Charlie McAvoy, Ryan Donato and Danton Heinen. If Tuukka Rask can provide stellar goaltending, the Bruins' depth and chemistry will make them a difficult team to beat.

The Lightning's defense was excellent throughout the first half of the season, but goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has been vulnerable in recent weeks.

The Penguins may not be as strong as they were in either of the last two years, but playoff hockey often turns Sidney Crosby into a beast. While he is still considered one of the three best players in the leaguealong with Connor McDavid and Alex OvechkinCrosby was the Pens' third-leading scorer behind Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel this season.

If Crosby plays to his accustomed level and goalie Matt Murray returns to top form, the Penguins must be respected.

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