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Tonight, the first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs begins. Our HabsWorld writers provide their predictions on the series starting this weekend to see who will advance on to the next round.

East Division

Boston Bruins vs Washington Capitals

Norm Szcyrek predicts: Bruins in 7 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Bruins in 6 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Bruins in 7 games
Allan Katz predicts:  Capitals in 7 games

(Norm) These two teams split their games against each other this season with each team winning four times. Washington boasts a dynamic duo of Alex Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom. Ovechkin suffered a minor injury near the end of the season. Although he is expected to play in Game One, there is always some doubt about his effectiveness due to that injury. The Bruins top line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand counter the Caps top line for production and are better defensively. When Boston acquired Taylor Hall before the trade deadline, he fit in well on their second line, scoring fourteen points over sixteen games. The ever reckless Tom Wilson could be a factor, although he suffered an injury from a knee on knee collision in the second last game to cause him to leave that match. He did return three days later to play the final game.

On defence, all eyes will be on former Bruin Zdeno Chara to see how inspired he will be to play his former team. The two teams are evenly matched on defence with Boston’s Charlie McAvoy in the #1 role, and the Capitals’ John Carlson leading their squad. When it comes to goaltending, the Bruins have a huge advantage with Tuukka Rask. Washington had to split their goaltending duties when Ilya Samsonov was sidelined due to COVID-19. Backup Henrik Lundqvist was found to have a heart condition to take him out of the lineup back before the season started. Rookie Vitek Vanecek played well for the team but did falter down the stretch. In the end, the Bruins will advance to the next round, although this will be a close series.

(Brian) I really like the Taylor Hall addition for Boston as it gives them a legitimately dangerous second line which is particularly crucial given how Washington has two high-quality scoring lines. That is, at least, when everyone is healthy. Evgeny Kuznetsov is back on the CPRA list and his availability is in question. He should be back at some point but his absence will be felt early on. I give the Bruins the edge in goal as well. Unless they focus too much on running after Tom Wilson, this should be Boston’s series to lose.

(Kevin) Imagine a series featuring the Boston Bruins where we discuss the league’s most hated player and we aren’t speaking about Brad Marchand. This series is hard to call because there are so many wild cards to consider and they essentially split the regular season matchup. Marchand vs Wilson. Ovechkin against the Bergeron line. How will Kuznetsov, who suddenly appears to be an undesirable player, react in the playoffs? Can Boston’s young blue line handle the Capitals’ offence? Will Chara be pumped to be facing the Bruins in the playoffs? Can Mantha find another gear to add to Washington’s playoff arsenal? How will the very inexperienced Caps’ goaltending hold up? So many things can go wrong or right for both of these teams.

In the end, I prefer Washington’s offence, Boston’s team defence, and give the Bruins the edge due to Rask’s big-game experience.

(Allan) This is a weird one. Even though the Caps finished with more points – most predictions are for the Bruins. The Caps have two key players under COVID-19 protocol so that might be the reason. But it’s most important to gather all the information and put it in a computer (even if that computer is my brain) and come up with a scientific, rational, objective reason why one team will win over the other. I have done that and I still hate the Bruins almost as much as the Leafs and refuse to pick them. The Caps have some nice players, that’s enough. Caps win.

New York Islanders vs Pittsburgh Penguins

Norm Szcyrek predicts: Islanders in 5 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Islanders in 6 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Islanders in 7 games
Allan Katz predicts: Penguins in 6 games

(Norm) On paper, the Penguins top two forwards (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) easily surpass what the Islanders have up front. Malkin lost 23 games to a lower-body injury, but came back for the last four games and was productive scoring four points. The rest of their forwards support these centres well on offence. Mathew Barzal is the team’s scoring leader and although his supporting forwards do not score near his pace, they all play an excellent two-way game. Watch for Anthony Beauvillier in this first round, as he finished the season with eight points in his last seven games.

On defence, both squads have a good mix of blueliners. The edge goes to the Islanders who play a better overall game. In goal, I prefer New York’s Semyon Varlamov over either goalie in the Penguins tandem of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith, both of whom have had nagging injuries near the end of the season. The Penguins have struggled in the postseason the last two years, and I do not expect that trend to change against an opponent that plays a better team game with a superior five on five style.

(Brian) We know from what has happened the last couple of years that the Islanders are going to grind this down to some low-scoring games. I know the Penguins have the better offence but the Islanders have the better goalies and it’s not even close. If it’s a bunch of 2-1 games (and I think it will be), it’s hard to see Pittsburgh coming out on the winning end of some goalie duels. I’m also not certain that Jeff Carter is going to keep scoring at a 53-goal pace as he did coming over from Los Angeles which really bolstered their second line.

(Kevin) The Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t been able to match their regular season success when the playoffs come around since beating the Philadelphia Flyers three years ago. Last year, they were upset by the Habs after being swept by this very same Islanders team two years ago. For the Islanders, being written off to start the playoffs is nothing new. After beating the Pens two years ago, they handled both the Capitals and Flyers last year. So how to compare these two teams this year?

For starters, the Islanders remain a defence-first team which the Penguins struggle against, so I’m not sure how much stock to put into the Pens 5-3 regular season series win. The Pens remain a team that relies on Crosby. They’ve acquired Jeff Carter to help their centre depth, and have some more experienced depth up front, but have they really addressed the real problem that is the blueline and goaltending? My answer to this last question is no, so I have quite a hard time choosing the Penguins here. Once the playoffs begin, the emotions run higher, so how do the Pens overcome a bad goal allowed at a critical moment? For a team that now has a history of crumbling in that moment, they really have not addressed it, whereas the Islanders have had talented kids at the ready to replace some of their departed talent. They remain a resilient bunch with just enough talent up front to hurt a team trying to open things up. This is my upset pick of the round.

(Allan) Pens are a plus-40 for the season, but the Islanders – at plus-28 are impressive too. Pens are 8-2-0 = 16 points and the Islanders are 3-4-3 = 9 points in the last ten games. So it seems like the Islanders have a small chance for an upset. But let’s be honest here Penguins are a lot cuter than Islands and they also have Crosby. No upset here. Penguins win. Islanders throw two upsets, but not enough.

West Division

Vegas Golden Knights vs Minnesota Wild

Norm Szcyrek predicts: Golden Knights in 4 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Golden Knights in 7 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Golden Knights in 5 games
Allan Katz predicts: Golden Knights in 7 games

(Norm) Minnesota was a big surprise this season, especially to rise to third place in their division. Much of the thanks goes to rookie forward Kirill Kaprizov, who led the team in goals and points. The rest of their forward lineup is solid and the team’s decision to move towards a youth movement two seasons ago has started to show positive results. On defence, the Wild have an edge. Veterans Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba are a solid trio. In goal, it’s likely veteran Cam Talbot will start this series, although rookie Kaapo Kahkonen had a good start but finished poorly.

Vegas counters up front with Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and Chandler Stephenson, all of whom are excellent in both ends of the ice. Their second line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith are also excellent. When adding the bottom six forwards, the edge goes to Vegas. On defence, their top three are Alex Pietrangelo, Alec Martinez and Shea Theodore. Pietrangelo struggled in his first season for the Golden Knights due to an injury and a positive COVID-19 result. In goal, Marc-Andre Fleury had a fantastic bounce-back season, which was very timely since Robin Lehner’s play dropped off a lot, partially due to an injury. Fleury should be the starting goalie for Game One, and his experience gives Vegas the edge in that category.

(Brian) I know the Wild gave Vegas fits during the regular season. They match up well and I expect them to really give the Golden Knights a run here. I’m a bit worried about how Kirill Kaprizov’s game will fit in the playoffs which are a lot tighter and physical and he’s a better fit when things are free-flowing. Vegas is a little banged up but they’ll actually be allowed to use the depth they have as there are no more salary cap limitations that forced them to dress just 15 skaters recently.  That’s enough to give them the slight edge.

(Kevin) Minnesota dominated the season series with a 5-1-2 record but how much does that mean? Overall, the Knights have better top-end talent, better forward depth, a better blue line, and better goaltending than the Wild. The better team on paper wins this one and that’s Vegas.

(Allan) Wild might almost pull off an upset, but for some reason, the Hockey Gods have blessed the Knights with incredible success. I go with Stone/Pacioretty over Kaprizov/Fiala if only because I have no idea what a Fiala is. (Guessing here it’s some type of mid-eastern bread or Greek dessert pastry.) Goaltending looks like a standoff so an upset is possible. I just hate to make a case against the Hockey Gods’ team. Probably should. Knights win … with difficulty.

Central Divison

Tampa Bay Lightning vs Florida Panthers

Norm Szcyrek predicts: Panthers in 7 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Lightning in 5 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Panthers in 6 games
Allan Katz predicts: Panthers in 5 games

(Norm) Florida had a surprising rebound season, with the fourth-best record in the NHL after missing the postseason last year. The arrival of head coach Joel Quenneville should take a lot of credit for this turnaround. Top forwards Alex Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are one of the best pairings in the league. Huberdeau missed the last game of the season which is a concern. Sam Bennett arrived before the trade deadline and had a huge impact scoring sixteen points in ten games. He was scoreless only once, but he missed two of the last three games due to an undisclosed injury. Florida’s top defenceman Aaron Ekblad was lost to a broken leg back on March 28th. He is not going to start in the first round but may appear in the playoffs if Florida advances. In his absence, MacKenzie Weegar (selected with the draft pick the Habs sent them for George Parros) stepped up to pick up the slack and managed to score 16 points in 18 games without Ekblad. In goal, it’s expected that veteran Sergei Bobrovsky will get the start in game one. If he falters, Chris Driedger will likely get his chance, as he outplayed Bobrovsky with the fifth-best save percentage and goals-against average in the NHL, among goalies starting at least 20 games.

The Lightning missed the presence of Nikita Kucherov, who has recovered from offseason hip surgery and is expected to play in round one. Captain Steven Stamkos missed the last eighteen games due to injury but is also expected to be ready to go. The rest of the Tampa forwards give the team solid depth. On the blueline, top defenceman Victor Hedman is nursing an injury, and rumours are saying he will require offseason surgery to correct it. Veteran Ryan McDonagh is also day to day with an injury. Former Hab Mikhail Sergachev will be expected to play big minutes. In goal, Andrei Vasilevsky had a stellar season again. Florida had the edge over Tampa, winning five out of eight games. This series could go either way as both teams are evenly matched. I expect these teams to go the distance with the Panthers being the eventual victors.

(Brian) The Panthers have been one of the biggest surprises of the season. They have two legitimate stars up front and a future Hall of Fame coach in Joel Quenneville. But Tampa Bay was still one of the better teams this season and are now getting Nikita Kucherov (who missed the entire year) and Steven Stamkos (who hasn’t played in more than a month) back. It’s hard not to view them as a Stanley Cup contender right now so they should be able to make it through this series without much difficulty.

(Kevin) In what might be the most intriguing matchup of the first round, we are set to witness the first Battle of Florida! The Panthers are such a deep team at every position but they are relatively battle untested. In comparison, their state rivals had a decent season but they are the defending champions and are getting all kinds of help come the start of this series, regardless of who thinks what about cap circumvention and whatnot. My heart most certainly wants to see the Panthers win this series, but it’s hard to bet against the Lightning all things considered. I think the physicality of the Lightning will be too much, but this is my one pick that will be from the heart.

(Allan) We all know why so many teams are picking the Thunderbolts. BUT let’s be honest here, TWO NHL TEAMS in FLORIDA is insane. When I think of Tampa Bay I think of Mosquitoes and Strippers. Yet, when I think of Florida I think of Crazy People and Chads (this reference is for intelligent people only, everyone else just move on). But here’s the bottom line, Tampa Bay is an easy choice based on their history and the slightly better Panthers will use this as a motivation to take them out. Might take more than five, but Miami wins.