NHL

NHL Playoffs: First Round Preview and Predictions

Can the Leafs win another playoff series? Will the Avs advance? Our look at every first round series.

April 19, 2024

The NHL playoffs begin Saturday, with 16 teams vying for the coveted Stanley Cup. Below are previews and picks for every first-round series, accompanied with odds from Tipico Sportsbook.

 

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

Florida Panthers (-175 odds to win series) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (+145)

The Panthers clinched the top spot in the Atlantic Division with a win and a Bruins loss in each team’s regular-season finale Tuesday, but in doing so, Florida created a tougher first-round matchup for itself against the intrastate rival Lightning.

Tampa Bay finished with only 98 points to Florida’s 110, but the Lightning surged down the stretch, as the team beefed up its depth at the trade deadline and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy returned to form after missing the first six weeks of the season due to back surgery. The Panthers closed their season on a four-game winning streak, but they won only three of the preceding 12 games.

Both teams have elite talent at every position. Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov led the league with 144 points, while center Brayden Point joined him in the top 10 in goals, with 46 to Kucherov’s 44. Florida’s Sam Reinhart finished second in the NHL with 57 goals, while Aleksander Barkov is one of the game’s premier two-way centers and Matthew Tkachuk is the quintessential power forward.

Tampa’s Victor Hedman is the best defenseman in this series, but Florida’s Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad (despite a disappointing regular season) aren’t too far behind, and each team boasts a standout Russian goalie in Vasilevskiy and Sergei Bobrovsky, respectively. The Panthers have a clear edge in depth, but this series will likely be decided by which team’s stars play the best — especially in net.

Series Prediction: Lightning in 7

Boston Bruins (-127) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (+105)

The Maple Leafs finally won a playoff series in the 2023 postseason for the first time since 2004 by beating the Lightning in six games, while the Bruins were shocked as the top overall seed, famously losing to the Panthers in the first round after a record-breaking season. The four Atlantic Division teams have switched dance partners for this year’s opening round, as Boston finished second in the division with 109 points and Toronto cruised into third with 102.

Toronto has more skill, especially down the middle, where the Maple Leafs have the three best centers in the series (Auston Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander — when he isn’t playing wing). Matthews led the NHL with 69 goals, but the Maple Leafs just aren’t built for playoff hockey. Their forward group is among the softest in the league, their defensemen are underwhelming behind Morgan Rielly, and goaltending is probably Toronto’s biggest weakness.

While Boston lacks the strong center play often present in deep playoff runs, the Bruins check all the other boxes. The Bruins have star power (David Pastrnak), experience (Brad Marchand), a borderline dirty level of toughness, a deep blue line led by Charlie McAvoy, solid goaltending and a top-tier coach in Jim Montgomery.

Series Prediction: Bruins in 7


 

Metropolitan Division

New York Rangers (-460) vs. Washington Capitals (+340)

The Rangers took home the Presidents’ Trophy with a league-best 114 points in the regular season, largely on the back of elite special teams play. They finished in the top three in both power play percentage (26.4) and penalty kill percentage (84.5).

The Rangers had four players score double-digit goals on the man advantage, highlighted by Artemi Panarin who finished in the top five league-wide in both goals (49) and points (140) overall. Adam Fox, 2021 Norris Trophy winner, ranked sixth among blueliners with 73 points despite missing 10 games.

New York’s mediocre play at even strength is a weak point, but not when compared to Washington’s horrendous overall minus-37 goal differential, and the Rangers have the clear edge in net. Igor Shesterkin won seven of his last nine starts to finish tied for third in the NHL with 36 wins, and he has an outstanding 2.45 GAA and .929 save percentage in 28 career playoff starts.

The opportunistic Capitals excelled in close games in the regular season, and they made the postseason with 91 points thanks to a second-half surge from both Alex Ovechkin and the team’s power play. Ovechkin scored 23 of his 31 goals from Jan. 27 onward, and a Washington power play that ranked last for much of the season came alive to finish a respectable 18th.

Both teams have plenty of veterans with playoff experience, but the Rangers have a massive edge in team speed thanks to a greater infusion of youth throughout the lineup compared to the plodding Capitals. Their regular season resumes suggest this series should be one-way traffic, but the Rangers have historically struggled to pull away in playoff series, as just one of their 11 series wins since the 2012 postseason has come in fewer than six games. Washington will likely hang around for a few games before the favored Blueshirts close out the series.

Series Prediction: Rangers in 6

Carolina Hurricanes (-380) vs. New York Islanders (+290)

The top two teams from the Metropolitan Division were arguably the two best teams in the league this season, while the other two teams to sneak in look like the two worst teams to make the playoffs. The Hurricanes tied for second in the NHL with 44 regulation wins en route to 111 points. The Islanders had just 94 points, a mere 29 wins, a minus-17 goal differential and a penchant for blowing leads. This is a rematch of a first-round series that the Hurricanes won in six games last year.

Ilya Sorokin benefited from the Islanders parking the bus in front of him, to steal a soccer term, over the previous two seasons. The Islanders pushed for more offense in 2023-24 and Sorokin’s stats suffered, as his save percentage dipped to a career-low .909 while his GAA ballooned to 3.01. Semyon Varlamov, who was the starter for the Islanders’ deep playoff runs in 2020 and 2021, helped them make the playoffs with an 8-1-1 run down the stretch.

It will be interesting to see which goalie coach Patrick Roy deploys to open the series, but the Islanders’ only chance is for their goalie(s) to steal this series. Armed with trade acquisition Jake Guentzel alongside fellow proven playoff performers Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, the Hurricanes are deeper, faster, and simply better.

Series Prediction: Hurricanes in 5

Western Conference

Central Division

Dallas Stars (-145) vs. Golden Knights (+117)

Dallas boasts arguably the best forward depth in the NHL with three strong lines, and Thomas Harley (15 goals) broke out as a second major weapon on the blue line alongside Miro Heiskanen. Jake Oettinger was the league’s hottest goalie down the stretch, winning 10 of his last 11 starts while allowing just 17 goals over that span to help the Stars finish atop the Western Conference with 113 points.

Vegas snagged the final Western Conference playoff spot with 98 points. Adin Hill got hot at the right time during Vegas’ run to the Stanley Cup last year, but he has had trouble building momentum this season while battling numerous lower body injuries.

The Golden Knights have championship pedigree, a deep blue line and a pair of highly productive forwards in Jack Eichel (68 points in 63 games) and Jonathan Marchessault (42 goals). But at the end of the day, Dallas’ superior depth and goaltending could prove to be the difference in this battle between two of the NHL’s most well-rounded rosters.

Series Prediction: Stars in 7

Winnipeg Jets (-165 odds at +1.5 games; no straight series odds available) vs. Colorado Avalanche (+135 at -1.5 games)

These teams finished just three points apart, with Winnipeg grabbing the second spot in the Central Division with 110 points and Colorado finishing third with 107. Nathan MacKinnon will likely win the Hart Trophy as the NHL MVP and Cale Makar already has a Conn Smythe Award (playoff MVP) from Colorado’s 2022 Stanley Cup run. MacKinnon finished the regular season fourth in goals (51) and second in points (140), Makar ranked second among defensemen with 90 points and Mikko Rantanen racked up 104 points, so there’s plenty of star power on the Avalanche.

The Jets are deeper, though, as they got double-digit goals from 13 different skaters, led by Kyle Connor’s 34 tallies in just 65 games. Most importantly, Winnipeg has a massive edge in net.

Connor Hellebuyck is likely to take home the Vezina Trophy after going 37-19-4 with a 2.39 GAA and .921 save percentage, while Alexandar Georgiev is a borderline top 20 goalie. Georgiev led the league with 38 wins despite an uninspiring 3.02 GAA and .897 save percentage, and he was dreadful down the stretch, allowing 26 goals on 163 shots for an .840 save percentage over his last six starts. The difference in net will likely be too large for Colorado to overcome.

Series Prediction: Jets in 7

Pacific Division

Vancouver Canucks vs. Nashville Predators (series odds unavailable)

The Canucks locked down the top seed in the Pacific Division with 109 points, while the Predators took the first wild card spot in the Western Conference with 99 points. Vancouver improved defensively this season while continuing to get elite offense from J.T. Miller (103 points), Elias Pettersson (89 points) and Quinn Hughes, who led all defensemen with 92 points.

Brock Boeser bounced back with a team-high 40 goals, Vancouver bolstered its forward group by trading for Elias Lindholm, and goalie Thatcher Demko went 35-14-2 with a 2.45 GAA and .918 save percentage. Demko missed over a month due to a knee injury but returned for two games to close out the regular season.

On the Nashville side, goalie Juuse Saros won 35 games and can steal a game or two, Filip Forsberg racked up 48 goals among his 94 points and Roman Josi ranked third among defensemen with 85 points. If Demko’s fully healthy and playing at pre-injury level, Vancouver has all the tools to not only win this series but make a deep run.

For Nashville to win this series, the Predators will need Saros to outplay Demko significantly.

Series Prediction: Canucks in 6

Edmonton Oilers (-190) vs. Los Angeles Kings (+155)

Oilers fans breathed a sigh of relief when the Golden Knights lost their regular-season finale Thursday, so Edmonton will draw the Kings in the first round instead, as the Oilers finished second in the Pacific with 104 points and the Kings third with 99. The Oilers will go as far as Connor McDavid (132 points) and Leon Draisaitl (106 points) will take them, and the two stars have a solid supporting cast led by Zach Hyman (54 goals) and Evan Bouchard, who finished fourth among defensemen with 82 points.

Edmonton’s Stuart Skinner isn’t a proven playoff performer in net, but you would certainly rather have him than LA’s underwhelming duo of Cam Talbot and David Rittich. The Kings have excellent depth, and Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty have championship experience from the team’s 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup runs, but LA hasn’t won a playoff series since its championship run a decade ago.

Edmonton’s star power will likely prove to be the difference in the third consecutive first-round meeting between these teams. The Oilers won in seven games in 2022 and in six games in 2023.

Series Prediction: Oilers in 5

Sasha Yodashkin
Sasha Yodashkin has been contributing NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB and Tennis content to RotoWire since 2015, with an emphasis on DFS. He is a huge New York sports fan who has been playing fantasy sports since middle school.
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