The Tampa Bay Lightning have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were the best team in the NHL during the regular season.
They closed the regular season with a 6-3 victory over the Boston Bruins, their closest rival in the Eastern Conference. It was their 62nd victory of the season, and they ended the year with 128 points, 21 more than the Bruins and the Calgary Flames.
As well as the Lightning have played, it won't mean a thing if they don't win the Stanley Cup. There is no doubt about a team that included Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy, but they still have to prove it during the two-month marathon that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe pointed out that 10 teams have had 120 or more points in NHL history, and only four of them have won the Stanley Cup. Those four championships were won by the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s (1972-73 Habs, as well as '76 through '78 versions).
Among the teams that failed were the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings that put together a 62-13-7 record for 131 points, but lost in the conference finals. The 2005-06 Red Wings, 2009-10 Washington Capitals and the 2015-16 Capitals also shockingly lost early-round playoff series despite their regular season success.
The Lightning start the postseason with a matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus, the No. 2 wild-card team in the Eastern Conference, clinched the playoffs Friday night with a shootout victory over the New York Rangers. While there was celebration in the Columbus locker room, the Blue Jackets don't figure to have a long run in the NHL playoffs unless they can pull off one of the biggest shockers in recent NHL history.
Artemi Panarin, Can Anderson, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Seth Jones and Sergei Bobrovsky certainly have talent, but the thought of them winning more than a game against the Lightning seems hard to fathom. If Bobrovsky (2.58 goals-against average, .913 save percentage, 37-24-1 record) plays lights out, a second win may be possible. But that's where it ends.
The Blue Jackets finished one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes, who made the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, and that one point is significant. The Hurricanes will face the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, a team that finished the regular season with 104 points, 24 fewer than the Lightning. Beating the Caps and Alex Ovechkin won't be easy, but the Hurricanes have a better chance of beating Washington than Columbus does of beating Tampa Bay.
The other two Eastern Conference series will see the Bruins meeting the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second straight season, and the surprising New York Islanders taking on Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Bruins beat the Maple Leafs in seven games last year, and another long series seems likely. However, the Maple Leafs stumbled down the stretch and their defense has been inconsistent, while the Bruins were strong after the All-Star game and bypassed the Leafs in February.
Still, if Toronto can figure out its defensive woes and John Tavares and Auston Matthews are sharp, they could give the Bruins a difficult time. However, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and David Krejci give the Bruins an edge, and Boston also has home-ice advantage.
The Islanders were expected to be a mediocre team this season after losing Tavares in the offseason to Toronto, but new head coach Barry Trotz introduced an air-tight defensive system and the Islanders were competitive all season.
If Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel take the opposition lightly at all, the Islanders will have an excellent chance to survive and advance.
The Flames are the top team in the Western Conference, and they will meet the Colorado Avalanche in the first round. While Calgary is a clear favorite with Johnny Gaudreau (team-high 99 points), Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Norris Trophy favorite Mark Giordano (+39 rating), the Avs have the speed and talent with Nathan McKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Carl Soderberg to cause problems.
It would not be a shock to see the Avs force this series to six or seven games, and if they push it to the limit, anything could happen in the seventh game.
The Nashville Predators beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2 in the final game of the season and won the Central Division crown by a point over the Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues.
The Preds will meet the No. 1 wild-card Dallas Stars in the first round. Dallas played excellent defense in the second half of the season and surged to a playoff spot behind the play of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn and John Klingberg along with goalies Ben Bishop and Anton Khuodobin.
The Stars represent a legitimate threat to the Preds, a hot-and-cold team throughout the second half. Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Roman Josi can dominate when the team is on its game, and head coach Peter Laviolette has seen his team go 7-2-1 down the stretch.
The Blues and Winnipeg will meet in another first-round series, and the former have been dynamic since the early part of January. Winnipeg struggled throughout much of the final month, and St. Louis may have a big edge even though the Jets have home-ice advantage.
The last Western Conference series features the San Jose Sharks and the Vegas Golden Knights. Brent Burns, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Erik Karlsson will try to lead the Sharks, while Reilly Smith. Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson will try to lead the second-year team to the same kind of glory it had last year when it reached the Stanley Cup Final.
The NHL released its first-round schedule Sunday morning, and the playoffs will get underway with five games Wednesday and three more Thursday.
The Lightning will host Game 1 against Columbus at 7 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised by the USA Network. The Islanders will host the Penguins in another Wednesday matchup at 7:30 p.m. at the Nassau Coliseum, and that game will be broadcast by NBCSN.
The Central Division champion Predators will host the Stars in Game 1 Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on USA, and the Jets will host the Blues Wednesday at 8 p.m. on the NHL Network. The last of the Wednesday opening-round games will see the Sharks host the Golden Knights at 10:30 p.m. on NBCSN.
The Bruins will host the Maple Leafs in Game 1 of that Eastern Conference series Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The Caps and Hurricanes will meet in Washington Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on USA, and the Flames will host the Avalanche at 10 p.m. in the last of the Thursday series openers on NBCSN.
Here's the link to the full first-round schedule, per NHL.com.
First-Round Schedule and Television Information (All Times Eastern)
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Game 1: Blue Jackets at Lightning at 7 p.m. on USA
Game 2: Blue Jackets at Lightning at 7 p.m. on CNBC
Game 3: Lightning at Blue Jackets at 7 p.m. on NBCSN
Game 4: Lightning at Blue Jackets at 7 p.m. on CNBC
*Game 5: Blue Jackets at Lightning at TBD
*Game 6: Lightning at Blue Jackets at TBD
*Game 7: Blue Jackets at Lightning at TBD
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Game 1: Maple Leafs at Bruins at 7 p.m. on NBCSN
Game 2: Maple Leafs at Bruins at 8 p.m. on NBC
Game 3: Bruins at Maple Leafs at 7 p.m. on CBC
Game 4: Bruins at Maple Leafs at 7 p.m. on CBC
*Game 5: Maple Leafs at Bruins at TBD
*Game 6: Bruins at Maple Leafs at TBD
*Game 7: Maple Leafs at Bruins at TBD
Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Game 1: Hurricanes at Capitals at 7:30 p.m. on USA
Game 2: Hurricanes at Capitals at 3 p.m. on NBC
Game 3: Capitals at Hurricanes at 7 p.m. on CNBC
Game 4: Capitals at Hurricanes at 7 p.m. on SN360
*Game 5: Hurricanes at Capitals at TBD
*Game 6: Capitals at Hurricanes at TBD
*Game 7: Hurricanes at Capitals at TBD
New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Game 1: Penguins at Islanders at 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Game 2: Penguins at Islanders at 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Game 3: Islanders at Penguins at 12 p.m. on NBC
Game 4: Islanders at Penguins at 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
*Game 5: Penguins at Islanders at TBD
*Game 6: Islanders at Penguins at TBD
*Game 7: Penguins at Islanders at TBD
Calgary Flames vs. Colorado Avalanche
Game 1: Avalanche at Flames at 10 p.m. on SN
Game 2: Avalanche at Flames at 10:30 p.m. on SN
Game 3: Flames at Avalanche at 10 p.m. on CNBC
Game 4: Flames at Avalanche at 10 p.m. on NBCSN
*Game 5: Avalanche at Flames at TBD
*Game 6: Flames at Avalanche at TBD
*Game 7: Avalanche at Flames at TBD
San Jose Sharks vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Game 1: Golden Knights at Sharks at 10:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Game 2: Golden Knights at Sharks at 10:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Game 3: Sharks at Golden Knights at 10 p.m. on NBCSN
Game 4: Sharks at Golden Knights at 10:30 p.m. on NBCSN
*Game 5: Golden Knights at Sharks at TBD
*Game 6: Sharks at Golden Knights at TBD
*Game 7: Golden Knights at Sharks at TBD
Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars
Game 1: Stars at Predators at 9:30 p.m. on USA
Game 2: Stars at Predators at 6 p.m. on CNBC
Game 3: Predators at Stars at 9:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Game 4: Predators at Stars at 8 p.m. on USA
*Game 5: Stars at Predators at TBD
*Game 6: Predators at Stars at TBD
*Game 7: Stars at Predators at TBD
Winnipeg Jets vs. St. Louis Blues
Game 1: Blues at Jets at 8 p.m. on SN
Game 2: Blues at Jets at 9:30 p.m. on SN
Game 3: Jets at Blues at 7:30 p.m. on CNBC
Game 4: Jets at Blues at 9:30 p.m. on CNBC
*Game 5: Blues at Jets at TBD
*Game 6: Jets at Blues at TBD
*Game 7: Blues at Jets at TBD
Tampa Bay over Columbus, 4-1. Lightning too powerful, efficient and determined.
Boston over Toronto, 4-1. Maple Leafs have slipped defensively. Only hope is to outscore savvy Bruins.
Washington over Carolina, 4-2. Storm Surge wins a couple of games at home, but Caps survive and advance.
Pittsburgh over N.Y. Islanders, 4-3. Crosby makes the difference in Game 7.
Colorado over Calgary, 4-3. NHL is more likely to feature a 1-8 upset than NBA, and speedy Avs pull off surprise this year.
Dallas over Nashville, 4-2. Not a shocker with the way the second half of the season has gone.
St. Louis over Winnipeg, 4-1. Jets have lost their mojo while Blues are as hot as any Western Conference team in the league since January.
Vegas over San Jose, 4-3. Golden Knights have the scoring depth and the confidence to win first-round matchup.