The 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs are set to begin, so settle in for two months of unpredictable chaos, madness and excitement. Some of the big stories worth watching include the Washington Capitals' pursuit of a repeat, Tampa Bay's quest to finally get over the hump and Sergei Bobrovsky's attempt to solve his postseason demons. All of these are among our 20 biggest storylines to watch in the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Winning the Stanley Cup once is incredibly difficult. Winning it two years in a row is even harder. It is something that has been done only three times since 1990, and the Capitals are going to try to add to that list. They still have all of the superstars that made their 2018 championship possible and made some smart additions at the trade deadline to bring in Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen to sure up the defense. They have all of the ingredients at their disposal to do it.
After experiencing repeated playoff heartbreak over the past four years, the Lightning are back and better than ever this season. They completed one of the best regular seasons in NHL history, and they enter the playoffs as the clear favorites to win the Stanley Cup. If they do not reach at least the Stanley Cup Final with this roster, it will be their biggest postseason disappointment yet.
So much to watch with the Golden Knights. Will they have their over-the-top pregame performances? Will they be able to make another run to the Stanley Cup Final? Can they actually win it all in Year 2? You have to like their chances not only because of the strength of their roster but also because their path through the Pacific Division bracket features two teams with significant question marks in goal. That is a good position to have an advantage in this time of year.
The only thing Thornton's Hall of Fame career is missing is his name on the Stanley Cup, and this might be his last best shot to do it. He is not getting any younger, it is not known how much longer he is going to play in the NHL, and the San Jose Sharks went all in on this season to try to get a championship. They will need a healthy Erik Karlsson to get there and for Martin Jones to get his act together in net after a miserable regular season.
A Canadian-0based NHL team has not won the Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens did so all the way back in 1993. There are three Canadian teams that have a chance to do it this season with Calgary, Toronto and Winnipeg all punching their tickets to the playoffs. The Flames, having finished the year with the best record in the Western Conference, seem to be the team with the best chance to do it, but they have major questions in goal. The Maple Leafs have to get through their archnemesis in Boston, while the Jets have been trending in the wrong direction down the stretch.
If they do not, there is going to be some intense scrutiny in Toronto. Not only do the Maple Leafs need to win as a team, but coach Mike Babcock also needs to advance for the sake of his own reputation. There have been 23 different coaches who have won a playoff series since a Babcock-coached team has, while he has made it out of the first round just once since 2010. That is not what you want from the highest-paid coach in the NHL.
Nobody expected the New York Islanders to be here. After missing the playoffs in each of the past two seasons and then losing John Tavares in free agency, expectations were as low as humanly possible for them at the start of the year. But they defied the odds all year and put together one of the most incredible one-year turnarounds in recent NHL history, going from the worst defensive team in the league a year ago to the best this season. How long can their goalies continue their great play and will they find enough offense? Those going to be the big questions for them.
Do not sleep on this team, even though it has to face the defending Stanley Cup champions in Round 1. Carolina has been one of the league's best teams since Jan. 1 and is the type of team that is going to make life miserable for anybody it plays. The Hurricanes are fast, they are aggressive and they are not going to be an easy out, especially if the goaltending from Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney holds up.
The success or failure of the Columbus Blue Jackets' decision to go all in at the trade deadline is dependent on only one thing: starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. If he plays well, they will have a chance. If he does not, they will get crushed in Round 1 by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The problem with this is Bobrovsky is, statistically speaking, the worst postseason goalie in the NHL with an .891 career save percentage in the playoffs. No other active goalie with at least 20 postseason games played has a save percentage lower than .903. If the Blue Jackets are going to win their first-ever playoff series, they need "Playoff Bob" to reverse his career-long trend.
The Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks are the two best teams in the Western Conference and should be considered the favorites to represent the conference in the Stanley Cup Final. But both teams are badly flawed at one of the most important positions on the ice: goalie. The Martin Jones and Aaron Dell duo in San Jose produced the worst team save percentage in the NHL during the regular season, while Calgary is relying on the unproven David Rittich. If he falters, the only other option is Mike Smith who was one of the few goalies in the league as bad as the Jones-Dell duo.
After soaring to the Western Conference Final a year ago, the Winnipeg Jets entered the season as one of the heavy favorites to win it all. For the first half of the season, the optimism behind them looked justified. But Winnipeg has not been the same team in the second half and is entering the playoffs looking vulnerable enough to be destined for an early defeat instead of a team that is primed for a Stanley Cup run.
The Stars were one of the most top-heavy teams in the NHL during the regular season, getting a significant chunk of their offense from the trio of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov. Those three are great, but they need more if they are going to be a threat in the playoffs. They acquired Mats Zuccarello from the New York Rangers in an effort to address that depth but immediately lost him to injury just after the trade. He is an outstanding all-around player, and the Stars are going to need him to provide a secondary scoring boost.
Predators general manager David Poile is one of the most aggressive traders in the NHL, and he was back at it over the past two years, adding Kyle Turris, Mikael Granlund, Wayne Simmonds and Brian Boyle. So far they have all struggled. Turris had a miserable season in his first full year with the team, while Granlund, Simmonds and Boyle (their three trade deadline acquisitions this season) have combined for just seven goals since joining the team. Five of those goals belong to Boyle alone. Granlund and Simmonds have been pretty significant disappointments so far, and that cannot continue if the Predators are going to go far.
Kessel has been one of the NHL's most productive postseason performers throughout his career and was a key cog in the Pittsburgh Penguins' back-to-back Stanley Cups during the 2016 and 2017 postseasons. But the 2018 postseason was a disappointing one for him, and he faced a ton of criticism for it. Despite some struggles during the regular season, he still averaged more than a point per game and started to show some signs down the stretch that he is ready to go on a goal-scoring binge. If he does, the Penguins will be difficult to beat.
Rask is always the scapegoat in Boston when things go poorly in the playoffs, and he has not done much to inspire confidence with his play down the stretch. Given that the Bruins have an outstanding backup in Jaroslav Halak, who has matched Rask save-for-save this season, you have to wonder when, or if, coach Bruce Cassidy will consider going to him — or when he will be tempted to do that.
Every year there is always one player on the Stanley Cup-winning team — or any team that goes far — who comes out of nowhere to make a big impact. Last year it was Devante Smith-Pelly for the Washington Capitals. If we have learned anything from Stanley Cup Playoff history, it is that you can be sure someone you were not expecting is going to play a significant role in a championship run.
Around the start of the calendar year, the St. Louis Blues had the worst record in the Western Conference and looked to be a team going through the motions,just waiting for their miserable season to end. But thanks to the hiring of Craig Berube behind the bench, the arrival of new starting goalie Jordan Binnington and a healthy Vladimir Tarasenko, they roll into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league. With Nashville and Winnipeg back into the playoffs around them, there is plenty of opportunity on the table for the Blues to do something special.
Rantanen was one of the three star forwards who carried the Avalanche offense during the season and after missing the stretch run of the regular season, he is nearing a return for their Round 1 series against the Calgary Flames. He is one of the best offensive players in the league and, alongside Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, is one of the reasons for optimism in Colorado.
The NHL's current playoff format is a hot-button topic because of the matchups it creates. By putting all of the playoff teams in a divisional bracket, instead of seeding them one through eight (and then reseeding them at the start of each round) like the league used to, we now see some of the league's top teams meet in the first or second round. In recent years we've seen the literal two best teams in the league play in the second round. It is great for the development and continuation of rivalries, but it almost always guarantees that a top team exits the playoffs by the end of the second round. Based on the strength of the Atlantic Division this year, three of the league's six best teams (Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto) will be done by the end of the second round.
The beauty of the Stanley Cup playoffs is the unpredictable chaos they provide. All it takes for a stunning upset is an out-of-this-world goaltending performance or a herculean effort from a superstar to flip everything around. In recent years we saw an expansion team reach the Stanley Cup Final, Erik Karlsson drag the Ottawa Senators to within one goal of the Stanley Cup Final, a No. 8 seed (the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings) win it all and Jaroslav Halak author one of the great goaltending performances in playoff history when he led an undermanned Canadiens team over the Presidents' Trophy winners and then defending Stanley Cup champions in back-to-back rounds in 2010. Anything. Can. Happen.