On Tuesday night, the second set of series in the 2023 playoffs begin. The HabsWorld writers provide their predictions on who they expect will win and why.
Lightning vs Maple Leafs
Norm Szcyrek predicts: Maple Leafs in 7 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Maple Leafs in 7 games
Peter Longo predicts: Lightning in 6 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Maple Leafs in 6 games
Allan Katz predicts: Maple Leafs in 6 games
(Norm) This will be a close, hard-fought series. Tampa has the big advantage of experience, having won the Stanley Cup twice in the past three seasons. Tampa also defeated Toronto in last season’s playoffs. This time, the Leafs have made some shrew trades including veterans Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari, and Luke Schenn. Along with these additions, Toronto has improved their defensive game, has a solid starting goalie in Ilya Samsonov, and has home-ice advantage. Toronto also had a 2-0-1 regular season record against the Bolts. I think this time, the Maple Leafs will get past the first round.
(Kevin) Last year, I wrote that the Lightning had a better blue line and goaltender, but that they’d have problems keeping up with Toronto’s scoring. 365 days later, the same two teams meet up in the same round but are also much different. The Lightning forwards have downgraded enough to question whether they can keep up. On the other hand, Toronto’s defence is much improved on paper. I’m still not a huge fan of Toronto’s goaltending, but should Samsonov provide even adequate goaltending, it might be enough for the Leafs to finally get through. The only question for me is that Tampa is just too good to go quietly, so the Leafs will have to overcome their Game 7 demons to make it happen. I think this is the year.
(Peter) There’s no denying Toronto is a potent offensive team in the regular season. And they have upgraded team depth with O’Reilly and Acciari. Even defence is improved with this year’s addition. Goaltending is suspect, to say the least. But the team only goes as far as the top six and as we’ve seen in countless years they struggle to perform in the playoffs. This season they are up against the perennial cup contenders featuring an equally potent offense. Tampa’s defence isn’t what it used to be, but is still as good or better than Toronto’s led by Conn Smythe winner Hedman. The difference maker in the series will be Conn Smythe winner Vasilevskiy – who can quickly get into Leafs’ heads with some early saves. It’ll be another early golf season for the Leafs.
(Brian) Eventually, Toronto’s losing streak in the playoffs has to end, right? They’ve loaded up for this playoff run, especially on the back end where the addition of Jake McCabe really balances things out. Yes, the Lightning have Andrei Vasilevskiy who, when on his game, can be a difference-maker. But the fact is that Tampa Bay hasn’t looked like a playoff-calibre team in a couple of months now and had the season lasted two more weeks, it’d probably be Florida in this matchup and not the Lightning. Tampa looks vulnerable and that should help the Maple Leafs take this series.
(Allan) There is no reason Toronto should lose to the Lightning. Well, actually, the fact that Toronto is a better plus-minus by 28 goals, and won six more games than Tampa isn’t all that impressive. The offences are equally strong and the Maple Leafs gave up fewer goals, but Tampa has the better goalie. The Maple Leafs’ biggest Achilles heel is that they are the Toronto Maple Laffs, best chokers for the last 50-plus years. Having said that Toronto is a very pretty, nice, though overcrowded city. Tampa is the Strip Joint Capital of the United States (I looked it up and it’s more Florida than just Tampa). Those two facts mean very little. Simply speaking the Maple Leafs have been due since the 1960s. Time for these poor souls to experience something different. The slightly better team will win 4 to 2, but WARNING; The Maple Leafs couldn’t possibly win the Cup since Torontonians have no idea how to riot.
Rangers vs Devils
Norm Szcyrek predicts: Rangers in 7 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Devils in 7 games
Peter Longo predicts: Rangers in 6 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Rangers in 7 games
Allan Katz predicts: Devils in 7 games
(Norm) These two rivals have not faced each other in the playoffs since 2012 when New Jersey took that series. This season, the Devils had a huge rebound going from the bottom five to the third highest points while winning their division. Much of that success goes to Jack Hughes, who exploded with 99 points in his fourth season. Nico Hischier also had a career season with 80 points. The Rangers were only five points behind the Devils and boast a strong lineup with Artemi Panarin scoring 92 points, while Mika Zibanejad added 39 goals. Their deadline acquisitions of Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko give them some Stanley Cup-winning experience to this roster. It will be a hard-fought series between these bitter rivals, but the Rangers will prevail.
(Kevin) This is my pick for the most fun series of the first round. It’s a clash of styles that promises to entertain. The Rangers are a bit old school. Talented forwards that wait for their opportunities and pick their spots. A blue line with a younger group, but a group that’s been there already. And what can be said of the Shesterkin that hasn’t already been said? One of the best in the league. They face a group that hasn’t been here yet, but one that’s full of kids playing a new way more up-tempo game. They have some important game-breakers in Hughes, Bratt, and Hamilton, but the depth might not be as solid as New York’s. The only real question mark in the whole series is Vanecek. Can he hold up? Then consider that the Devils are coming into the series hot, going 7-3 to end the season whereas the Rangers haven’t been great of late, going 5-2-3. This is a coin toss for me.
(Peter) The Devils put together an impressive regular season built on offense from young stars in the making. But the playoffs are a different animal where the refs put their whistles away and the game becomes a much tighter contest. Both teams have good goaltending that can steal a game on any night. But the Rangers are also a talented bunch with a little more veteran group and have added some playoff performers with Kane and Tarasenko at the deadline. If this were 2025 the Devils would win, but in 2023 it’s the Rangers all the way.
(Brian) While the odd team proves to be the exception, teams that get to playoffs the first time typically don’t get too far. This is the first postseason go-round for many of New Jersey’s players so there will be an early learning curve which is an advantage for New York. Add that to the Rangers having the goalie advantage and that’s enough to be the difference in a seventh game. The Devils are good but I think they come up just short here.
(Allan) The Rangers were partially built by the Habs’ vice president Jeff Gorton and should be ahead of the Devils in their rebuild, but the younger, greener, smaller, faster Devils outplayed the Rangers not only for the season but also for the last ten games. The Habs could be where the Devils are the season after next. With that slight info, I’m going with speed despite it being the first round of the playoffs.
Jets vs Golden Knights
Norm Szcyrek predicts: Golden Knights in 5 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Golden Knights in 6 games
Peter Longo predicts: Jets in 5 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Golden Knights in 6 games
Allan Katz predicts: Jets in 6 games
(Norm) Winnipeg wrapped up the regular season on a strong pack winning five of their last six games. Connor Hellebuyck is the team’s rock, who had another strong season in net. Up front, the team was les by Kyle Connor who scored 80 points, and defenceman Josh Morrissey with 76 points, a career season. Vegas not only won their division but did so while rotating five different goalies due to injuries. Their main goaltending duo has been former Jet Laurent Brossoit, along with Logan Thompson. This will be the first playoffs for Jack Eichel, who no doubt will be ready to light the lamp. Vegas plays such a strong overall team game that I cannot foresee the Jets being able to counter effectively; I predict the Knights will advance into the second round.
(Kevin) The standings suggest this series should be a short one in favour of the Knights, with a 16-point advantage. However, remove the overtime loss points and that advantage immediately shrinks to 10. A quick look shows that both teams’ strengths are not allowing the opposition to score, with Vegas being much better offensively to balance it out. The roster shakedown gives Winnipeg a decided edge in net and Vegas a decided edge on the blue line. Up front, it’s a battle between Winnipeg’s often overrated offence against Vegas’ somewhat underrated group. What’s interesting in that comparison is that while Vegas is a better scoring team, I’d say Connor is the one player that could be a game-breaker. It’s always hard when gut feeling and brain don’t agree. I’m going to follow the brain on this one.
(Peter) There’s no question that Winnipeg has the advantage with Connor Hellebuyck with Vegas having a rotating cast of goaltenders this year. It’s a guess as to whom will play in this series for them. Vegas has the edge in team depth and if this were the third round of the playoffs – when the players are tired and beaten up – that might be the difference maker. But Winnipeg’s top lines are stronger anchored by Scheifele and Dubois with some strong wingers in Connor, Wheeler, and Ehlers in the group. In this first round, coming off a few days’ rest these top lines will control the play and Hellebuyck will make up for any poor shifts.
(Brian) I think Vegas has a decidedly better roster than Winnipeg, especially with the Jets scuffling as much as they did in the second half and Mark Stone ‘magically recovering’ from his back injury in time for Game 1. Can Hellebuyck steal a series for them? He’s capable of it, especially with Brossoit, Jonathan Quick, and Adin Hill (who just came back) the healthy options for the Golden Knights in net. But while Hellebuyck could (and should) get them a game or two, I don’t expect much from the rest of Winnipeg in this series.
(Allan) No matter what happens in this series at the end of the day one team will live in a much more interesting city than the other. So Vegas wins whether they win or lose. The Jets have the better goalie and deserve to win just by living in an ice bowl 10 months a year. Pity and goaltending lead the Jets to the next round.
Kraken vs Avalanche
Norm Szcyrek predicts: Avalanche in 5 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Avalanche in 6 games
Peter Longo predicts: Avalanche in 4 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Avalanche in 5 games
Allan Katz predicts: Avalanche in 5 games
(Norm) The Kraken have surprised many hockey pundits this season to make it to the postseason in only their 2nd year as an expansion franchise yet earning 100 points. What’s even more surprising, is they did it by generating the fourth-highest scoring offence in the NHL, without having a top-twenty scorer. Forward Jared McCann lead the team with 40 goals and 70 points, while defenceman Vince Dunn contributed 64 points. The reigning champion Avalanche squad has missed their captain, Gabriel Landeskog for the full season. However, superstars Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen picked up the slack by scoring 111 and 105 points respectively, for their best seasons. Defenceman Cale Makar and forward Valeri Nichuskin have both been hampered with injuries this season, but are healthy now and expected to make big contributions again. I don’t expect Seattle to put up much of a fight in the first round, as Colorado will advance with relative ease.
(Kevin) Feels like the Avalanche went half-effort for most of the year and then just turned it on recently and ended up with the division title. This obviously isn’t true as they ended tied with Vegas for the most wins in the conference, but I think it’s an indication of the expectations in Colorado this season. At the other end of the spectrum, the Kraken find themselves in the playoffs in just their second year of existence and they are clearly playing with house money as they skate up to challenge the defending champions in their first effort. As expected, the roster comparison gives the edge to the Avalanche at both forward and defence, but it’s a little close between the pipes as I’d give a slight edge to Grubauer over Georgiev. The only way Seattle stands a chance is if Colorado chokes on the pressure that Seattle simply doesn’t have. Seems unlikely. I do think Seattle is better than given credit for and make this a fun series.
(Peter) Colorado suffered the usual post-Stanley Cup hangover and didn’t really get things going until February. They finished the season strong with a 23-5-2 record washing away any doubts that they were going to be a contender again. They have it all, offence, defence, goaltending, and with the exception of Landeskog, everyone is healthy. Seattle was a great story for the regular season, but they are going to bow out quickly to the Avalanche.
(Brian) This is the easiest series to call in the playoffs. Seattle lacks the high-end firepower to keep up with Colorado and their goaltending was simply dreadful this season. For context, Montreal’s goaltending – which wasn’t all that great this year – was better than Seattle’s as Grubauer continues to struggle and Martin Jones was somehow worse. I’m not overly confident in Alexandar Georgiev which means it shouldn’t be a sweep but this should be over quickly.
(Allan) The series should not be close. A fellow named Artturi will be one reason the Avalanche win. This team, the Kraken, could be the Habs next year, not quite ready for prime-time players but in the action regardless. As a now-fired G.M. once said, “It’s the playoffs, anything can happen.” In this case, he’s wrong. The story is the Avalanche are beaten up. The fact is so is everyone. The Avalanche will kill the Kraken.