Welcome to the very best time of year to be a hockey fan. The regular season has its moments and the Stanley Cup Final is what it's all about. But the first round of the playoffs is pure adrenaline, hooked directly into a hockey fan's veins. Sixteen teams enter, and we get two weeks of mayhem until eight are left.
But which eight? Let's see if we can figure it out with a look at all of the first-round matchups.
#1 Nashville Predators vs. #WC Colorado Avalanche
In this corner: The Predators (53-18-11, 117 points, +57*), coming off the first Presidents' Trophy in team history. (*Unlike the NHL, our goals differential totals don't count shootout wins and losses since, you know, those aren't actually goals.)
And in this corner: The Avalanche (43-30-9, 95 points, +19), who made the playoffs in their final game just one year after one of the worst seasons of the cap era.
Head-to-head: The Predators won all four meetings.
Injury report: The Avalanche are missing starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov and defenseman Erik Johnson, both of whom are out long term and won't play in the series. The Predators are relatively healthy, which at this time of year means half the roster is probably hurt but they haven't told us about it.
Dominant narrative: David vs. Goliath. The Avalanche have been a great story, and they've spent the season proving doubters wrong. But when you battle all year to get the No. 1 seed, this is the sort of matchup you're hoping to get. If the Predators are the team we think they are, they should roll through this series easily, earning some rest before a much tougher test arrives in the second round.
The big question: Are the Avalanche just happy to be here? You could hardly blame them if they were; they could lose this series in four straight and the season would still be a resounding success.
One player to watch: Nathan MacKinnon. The Avalanche forward and former first overall pick finally had the breakout season that puts him among the league's elite stars, and he may win the Hart Trophy because of it. He's the kind of difference-maker who can take over a game, and the Avs may need him to do just that to have a shot at the upset here.
Key number: 296 – Powerplay opportunities drawn by the Avalanche on the season, the most in the league by a good margin (the next best team, Tampa Bay, had 276). Their powerplay was OK, but the sheer volume left them third in the league in powerplay goals scored. But will that continue in the postseason, when NHL referees are known for putting away their whistles?
Prediction: Predators in four.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: The Avs hang tough and make it closer than we'd think, with two of the games going into overtime.
#2 Winnipeg Jets vs. #3 Minnesota Wild
In this corner: The Jets (52-20-10, 114 points, +57), coming off the best season in both franchise and Winnipeg history.
And in this corner: The Wild (45-26-11, 101 points, +21), who continued Bruce Boudreau's streak of hitting at least 100 points in every full season he's coached.
Head-to-head: The Jets won three of the four matchups, including a 7-2 blowout back in November.
Injury report: The big name here is Minnesota's Ryan Suter, who's out for the year with a broken leg. The Jets' blueline is banged up, too, with Jacob Trouba and Toby Enstrom both missing time at the end of the season.
Dominant narrative: The Jets finally make The Leap. With all due respect to the Wild, they feel like supporting characters in this one. The Jets have been quietly hoarding young talent for years, so much so that experts were anointing them as future Cup champions years ago. But until this year, the future never arrived, and the team has still yet to win so much as a playoff game since returning to Winnipeg seven years ago. That will presumably change this year; now we see just how far they can go.
The big question: Are we overlooking the Wild? Well… yeah. We just did. And you can't really blame us, since everyone has been looking ahead to a second-round showdown between the Jets and Predators for most of the season's second half. But those are the sort of dream matchups that have a way of getting blown up before they happen, and the Wild are the sort of team that could do the detonating.
One player to watch: Patrik Laine. The Jets' young star is the heir apparent to Alexander Ovechkin as the league's most exciting sniper, racking up 80 goals over the last two seasons despite not turning 20 until next week. Also, it's fun to imagine just how terrible his playoff bread could get.
Key number: 40 – Goals scored by 33-year-old Wild center Eric Staal, who put together one of the best and most surprising seasons of the year. When you're being mentioned alongside Gordie Howe, that's pretty good. And remember, Staal knows a thing or two about surprising Stanley Cup runs.
Prediction: Jets in five.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: The Wild win Game 1 in overtime, giving everyone in Winnipeg just a little bit of doubt to chew on before the Jets find their footing.
#1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. #WC Los Angeles Kings
In this corner: The expansion Golden Knights (51-24-7, 109 points, +43), coming off what might stand as the most stunning season in the history of the NHL.
And in this corner: The Kings (45-29-8, 98 points, +35), returning to the playoffs after missing out last year. They haven't won a round since their 2014 Cup win.
Head-to-head: Both teams won the season series by going 2-1-1, because NHL won/loss records don't make sense.
Injury report: The big names on both sides are healthy, although the Kings could be missing Jake Muzzin and Alex Iafallo, while Vegas might be without Luca Sbisa and David Perron.
Dominant narrative: Cinderella vs. midnight. There's really no way to oversell what the Knights accomplished this year—they're the best expansion team we've ever seen, not just in the NHL but in all of pro sports history. Even with a full season to process it, it still doesn't make much sense. And that makes it awfully tempting to wonder if the story ends here, against a veteran Kings team that hasn't done much lately but still has a room full of Cup rings.
The big question: Does the Vegas Flu carry over to the playoffs? One big piece of the Knights' unexpected success was their excellent home record, and there was plenty of speculation as to why that would be. One theory was that visiting teams were enjoying the Vegas nightlife a little too much, and that makes some sense. But if so, does that carry over to a playoff series in which everyone figures to be laser-focused on doing whatever it takes to win?
One player to watch: Anze Kopitar. The Kings' center is a Hart Trophy candidate and one of the best two-way players in the league, and would normally be a guy you'd put out there against the other team's biggest star. But since the Knights are still a bit of an island of misfit toys, that decision isn't as clear cut as it would be in other matchups.
Key number: 23.4% – This season's shooting percentage for Vegas breakout star William Karlsson, who scored a career-high 43 goals despite never having more than nine in any previous season. That's led to plenty of questions about whether he'll come back to earth, and when. The Kings are hoping the answer is "soon."
Prediction: Kings in seven.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Every "expert" who does playoff predictions is morally bound to have at least one No. 1 seed losing, and this year that means the Knights will be a popular pick.
#2 Anaheim Ducks vs. #3 San Jose Sharks
In this corner: The Ducks (44-25-13, 101 points, +22), who survived a ton of early-season injury troubles to put together yet another solid season.
And in this corner: The Sharks (45-27-10, 100 points, +21), who had their best season since 2013-14 despite losing Patrick Marleau to free agency and Joe Thornton to a midseason injury.
Head-to-head: San Jose won three of four. But only one game in the season series, a 6-2 Sharks win, didn't require a shootout.
Injury report: The Ducks will start the series without key blueliner Cam Fowler and possibly Kevin Bieksa, while starting goalie John Gibson missed the last three games of the season. The Sharks will probably be missing Thornton, although there's been some mystery around when he may be able to return.
Dominant narrative: Closing windows. Both of these teams feature older cores that have been contending for years but have shown occasional signs of wearing down. We won't oversell it with any last-chance ultimatums, but the clock is ticking on both of these teams as currently constituted, and that will make a first-round exit sting for one of them.
The big question: Will whichever team wins be in any shape to go on a long run? These two teams don't like each other, and this series figures to be the sort of battle where nobody comes out in one piece.
One player to watch: Gibson. He's quietly been one of the best goalies in the league since becoming a starter three years ago. But at this point, we don't know whether he'll be able to play, and whether he'll be limited if he does. The Ducks do have a solid backup in former Vezina winner Ryan Miller, but at this point in his career he's not Gibson.
Key number: 231 – Goals scored by the Ducks this year, the fewest of any playoff-bound team. Some of that was the injuries, but this is a team that won't want to go up and down the ice. That makes the Sharks a decent matchup; neither team had a 70-point scorer this year.
Prediction: Sharks in seven.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Now that I've said that both teams can't score, they'll have at least one game where they combine for double-digit goals.
#1 Washington Capitals vs. #WC Columbus Blue Jackets
In this corner: The Capitals (49-26-7, 105 points, +18), who didn't win the Presidents' Trophy for the first time since 2015 but did take home their third straight Metro crown.
And in this corner: The Blue Jackets (45-30-7, 97 points, +10), who made the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in franchise history. They've never won a round.
Head-to-head: The Capitals won three of four.
Injury report: The Blue Jackets are expecting captain Nick Foligno to return from a late-season injury. For Washington, T.J. Oshie and Jay Beagle are banged up but should play.
Dominant narrative: Do you believe in ghosts? The Capitals were very good during the regular season. But they're always good in the regular season, and it's never translated to a deep playoff run. Some see that as evidence that the team is somehow flawed. Others see an inevitable result of a parity-driven league where somebody's going to luck into worse-than-expected results in a short series. Which is it? It may not matter. These things can become self-fulfilling, which means when the team inevitably hits a patch of postseason adversity, everyone will be waiting for them to crumble.
The big question: Did the Blue Jackets want this matchup? They had a chance to avoid it with a win in their final game, and instead rested several regulars. That's led to speculation that they preferred playing the Capitals to facing the Penguins. And if so, you wonder what it is that they think they've figured out about Washington.
One player to watch: Sergei Bobrovsky. You could pick the goaltender for just about every series, but especially this one. For all the talk about the Capitals' character or heart or whatever else, many of their early exits happened to coincide with running into hot goalies. Bobrovsky is one of the league's best, and he could swing the series—especially with the Capitals working through a bit of a goaltending controversy between veteran star Braden Holtby and young backup Philipp Grubauer.
Key number: 17.2% – The Blue Jackets powerplay rate, the worst of any playoff team. At one point midway through the season they were the league's worst unit, period. But they've been better since, and were clicking down the stretch, going 7-for-15 in their last five. And remember, at one point last season the Columbus powerplay was unstoppable. Which version shows up for this series could go a long way to deciding who wins.
Prediction: Capitals in six.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Grubauer starts the series, loses the job, and then regains it by the end.
#2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #3 Philadelphia Flyers
In this corner: The Penguins (47-29-6, 100 points, +22), looking for their third straight Cup.
And in this corner: The Flyers (42-26-14, 98 points, +13), looking to win their first series since 2012.
Head-to-head: The Penguins won all four matchups.
Injury report: The Penguins are hoping Derick Brassard will return from a groin injury. All the key Flyers are healthy.
Dominant narrative: The quest for the three-peat. The Penguins have a chance to do something here that, really, should probably be impossible. Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers never won three straight Cups. Neither did Mario Lemieux and the Penguins. Neither did Gordie Howe's Red Wings or Bobby Orr's Bruins. But Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are going to pull it off in the salary cap era, when parity reigns? There's no way. And yet… well, who's going to stop them?
The big question: Remember when these two teams met in 2012? Is there any chance we can get a series that's even half that much fun?
One player to watch: Claude Giroux. That 2012 series was also the one that saw the hockey world briefly decide that Giroux belonged in the "best player in the world" conversation. That take didn't really age well, and Giroux has looked like a declining player ever since. But this year, he switched from center to wing and had the best season of his career. Now the Penguins need to figure out a way to stop him.
Key number: 75.8% – The Flyers' penalty kill rate, which ranks dead last among playoff teams. Meanwhile, the Penguins have the league's best powerplay, at 26.2%. That's a massive special teams mismatch, and it will make it absolutely crucial that the Flyers stay out of the penalty box.
Prediction: Penguins in six.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Phil Kessel, who never gets it done in the playoffs, continues to always get it done in the playoffs—this time, by scoring the first playoff overtime goal of his career.
#1 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. #WC New Jersey Devils
In this corner: Tampa Bay (54-23-5, 113 points, +56), which spent nearly the entire year as the Stanley Cup favorite before a slight wobble late in the season.
And in this corner: New Jersey Devils (44-29-9, 97 points, +3), crossing over from the Metro as a wildcard.
Head-to-head: The Devils swept three one-goal games.
Dominant narrative: David vs. Goliath, part two. This is basically the Eastern Conference version of the Predators/Avalanche matchup. You've got the runaway favorite against the scrappy underdog that nobody expected to be here, and everyone will be looking ahead to the bigger matchup in the next round. Maybe that all leads to an easy Tampa win. But the potential for an upset scare feels real here.
Injury report: Tampa star Steven Stamkos is banged up and missed time at the end of the season, but is expected to play. New Jersey's Marcus Johansson is nearing a return from a concussion.
The big question: Who's in net for New Jersey? Cory Schneider is the big name with the big contract, but Keith Kinkaid took over the job down the stretch, winning seven of his last eight. Schneider has playoff experience (although not as much as you might think), while Kinkaid has never played a postseason minute. The way the season ended, you have to figure Kinkaid gets the start, but how much will John Hynes trust him?
One player to watch: Nikita Kucherov. Remember him? Midway through the season, we'd already engraved his name on the Hart Trophy. Then all the attention shifted elsewhere, and Kucherov somehow feels like an under-the-radar guy even though he finished the year with 100 points. Here's betting that it won't take him long to reintroduce himself.
Key number: 0 – Playoff games for Taylor Hall, eight years into his career. That finally ends this week. What begins this week: People crapping on Hall for not being a big-game performer when he goes three shifts without scoring in his first playoff game.
Prediction: Lightning in seven.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: I'm going to go ahead and pencil this series in as the one that gets blown up by a goaltender interference controversy. Probably during the game that's airing on the Golf Network.
#2 Boston Bruins vs. #3 Toronto Maple Leafs
In this corner: The Bruins (50-20-12, 112 points, +56), who had a chance to be the East's top seed and coughed it up with a home loss to the Panthers on Sunday night.
And in this corner: The Maple Leafs (49-26-7, 105 points, +40), who've been stuck in third place in the Atlantic for so long that barely anyone seems to have noticed that they just set the franchise record for points.
Head-to-head: The Leafs took three of four.
Dominant narrative: It was 4-1. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, the Leafs infamously coughed up a big Game 7 lead to the Bruins in one of the worst collapses in modern NHL history. In theory, it has little to do with this series—the Leafs basically rebuilt their entire organization in the five years since, so there are only a few players from that series who are even still on the roster. But the memory will hang over this series, especially when the Leafs are protecting leads.
Injury report: The Bruins are pretty beaten up, with Brandon Carlo out for the season, Rick Nash trying to return from a concussion, and Sean Kuraly and Riley Nash questionable. The Leafs are basically healthy.
The big question: Just how good is Boston? After a shaky start had the team sitting at 6-7-4 through its first 17, the Bruins were basically the best team in the league for the next 60 games. They faltered a bit in their last five, which cost them the top spot. But all the advanced stats and underlying metrics point to this being a very good team that should absolutely be among the top tier of Cup favorites. Now they just have to prove it when it counts.
One player to watch: Nazem Kadri. The longtime Leaf has somewhat quietly emerged as just about the ideal second-line center, posting back-to-back 30-goal seasons while taking on tough defensive matchups. He's basically evolved into a poor man's Patrice Bergeron mixed with the pest-like qualities of a poor man's Brad Marchand. Unfortunately for the Leafs, they're facing the real Bergeron and Marchand, so they'll need Kadri to be at his very best to have a chance.
Key number: 25 – Wins in one-goal games by the Maple Leafs, tied for the most in the league; their .658 winning percentage in one-goal games was second only to Tampa. That doesn't really fit the narrative that they're a young team that loves to run-and-gun but can't play tight or defend a lead.
Prediction: Bruins in six.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Marchand does something suspension-worthy during the series, doesn't get suspended, and we have to listen to anti-Canada conspiracy theories for the next week.