The NHL playoffs rarely go according to script. Last year, two out of the four Wild Card teams won in the first round – the Predators and Rangers — and Nashville went on to the Stanley Cup Finals, even though they were the last team to qualify for the postseason.
The 2016 playoffs saw something similar, with the Islanders and Predators moving on as Wild Card teams, and in 2015, the Wild beat Central champs St. Louis in round one.
The moral of the story is that the NHL playoffs are unpredictable, a lot more so than other leagues, like the NBA.
So I decided to compare this season´s odds from different sources and choose the online betting sites listed at MyTopSportsbooks.com for the simple reason that their reviews are based on their first-hand experiences making their information most trustworthy. We noticed that they have the top-three teams (in terms of regular-season points) as the top three 2018 Stanley Cup favorites. Nashville is first on the list at +350, followed by Tampa Bay and Boston at about +600, depending on the site.
The two-time defending champion Penguins are only fifth at +850, behind the storybook Vegas Golden Knights at +700.
Is that realistic?
If the season ended today, the playoff matchups would be as follows …
#1 Washington vs WC1 New Jersey
#2 Pittsburgh vs #3 Columbus
#1 Boston vs WC2 Philadelphia
#2 Tampa Bay vs #3 Toronto
#1 Nashville vs WC2 Colorado
#2 Winnipeg vs #3 Minnesota
#1 Vegas vs WC1 Anaheim
#2 San Jose vs #3 Los Angeles
Here’s who should be coming out of each division.
This feels like Washington’s year. They are flying under the radar more so than in years past; expectations are decidedly lower after so many playoff failures, and that’s exactly when some teams make their run. (See San Jose in 2016.)
One essential element for a deep playoff push is a hot goaltender, and Braden Holtby actually has really good playoff stats. It’s been the team around him that’s struggled. In 59 career games, he has a .932 SV% and minuscule 2.00 GAA.
With Ovechkin (46 goals) still the best sniper in the league, and Evgeni Kuznetsov and Nick Backstrom forming one of the best one-two punches down the middle, this team has the top-tier talent to keep up with anyone, and it’s only a matter of time before that talent comes through in the playoffs (right?).
Atlantic: Tampa Bay
Both Boston and Tampa are banged up, but Steven Stamkos should be ok come playoff time, and when fully intact, Tampa has been the best team in the NHL most of the year. Nikita Kucherov (98 points to date) emerged as a legitimate Hart Trophy contender, and Andrei Vasilevsky leads the league in wins (43) and shutouts (8).
Even if they lose the division race to Boston, they have the forward depth to deal with the Leafs in the first round and a much better D corp than the young Buds.
It’s impossible to pick against this Nashville team right now, despite the NHL’s propensity for upsets. The Blackhawks’ recent dynasty showed that experience is one of the traits that can help break through the unpredictability of the playoffs, as did the 2016-17 Penguins. The Preds are not only the top team in the West with 113 points, they have largely the same roster that just made a run to the finals.
The fact that they’re going to have home-ice advantage in an eventual matchup with the Jets is huge. Winnipeg is almost unbeatable at home, but mediocre on the road (20-13-8). A likely first-round matchup with the Avalanche now looks softer after Colorado starter Semyon Varlamov suffered a season-ending hip injury.
Pacific: Los Angeles
The Kings could still, realistically, fall anywhere from second in the Pacific to the first Wild Card. If they do end up a Wild Card team, they would face Vegas in the first round. The Golden Knights are a great story and have formed a formidable team out of spare parts, but you have to like that matchup for LA.
The Kings have a wealth of playoff experience between Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, and Jonathan Quick. They also beat Vegas the last two times they played (4-1, 3-2) and Jeff Carter has returned from injury with a vengeance, piling up 13 goals in just 18 games.
No one in the Pacific looks unbeatable (LA included), so the veteran Kings – who have been just as good on the road as at home — are as good a bet as any.