The opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is officially in the books and it was nothing short of astonishing. We saw five Game 7s on Sunday decide which teams would be moving on.
The top-seeded Florida Panthers got a little more of a test from the Washington Capitals than many may have envisioned with the Capitals jumping out to a 2-1 series lead. However, Florida was able to rally back for three consecutive victories, which included two game-winning overtime goals from winger Carter Verhaeghe.
The conference semifinals begin on Tuesday night. In the Western Conference, the No. 1 seeded Avalanche will take on the No. 3 seed St. Louis Blues, while the No. 1 seed Calgary Flames will face off against the No. 2 seed Edmonton Oilers in the battle of Alberta.
With the next round set to get underway, our NHL experts revealed their predictions for the conference semifinals.
(1) Avalanche vs. (3) Blues
Chris: The Blues definitely have my attention after their impressive series win over the Wild in the opening round. Goaltender Jordan Binnington found his 2019 Stanley Cup-winning form and produced a 1.67 goals-against-average in three starts against the Wild. The Blues are definitely going to win a few games in this series, but I can’t go against the Avalanche and all of their firepower. After all, the Avalanche absolutely dominated the Predators to the tune of 5.25 goals-per-game. Star defenseman Cale Makar produced a mind-boggling 10 points (three goals and seven assists) in just four games. Even if Binnington continues to play well, I still don’t think it’ll be enough. Pick — Avalanche beat Blues 4-2
Austin: Last season, the Blues met the Avalanche in the first round, and Colorado swept them with relative ease. St. Louis should be able to get on the board this time around because it is a much better team, proved by them taking out the Minnesota Wild in six games. However, I doubt the Blues will be able to get four wins in this series. Perhaps the most stark contrast between these two teams comes on the blue line. St. Louis doesn’t have anyone who can stack up with the likes of Makar and Devon Toews. The Blues have much more offensive firepower than the Predators, and this series might be an entertaining one with two teams attacking one another off the rush, but the Avs will continue their march to the Stanley Cup Final. Pick — Avalanche beat Blues 4-2
(1) Flames vs. (2) Oilers
Chris: This may be the most exciting series of this round. Oilers star Connor McDavid and Flames star Johnny Gaudreau were absolutely sensational and won their respective series for their teams. For the first time in his career, McDavid got out of the opening round. On the other hand, Gaudreau was able to shed the label that he doesn’t show up in the postseason. This series has the potential to be a longer one. Still, I have the Flames getting to the Stanley Cup Final and I’m not going away from that now. The difference lies between the pipes. Give me Jacob Markstrom, who had an insane 1.53 goals-against-average against the Stars, over Mike Smith any day. Pick — Flames beat Oilers 4-2
Austin: The Flames were one shot away from getting goalied in the first round against the Stars. Calgary controlled a whopping 60.03% of the expected goals at five-on-five in that series, but the team needed overtime in Game 7 to reach the second round. Jake Oettinger was exceptional for Dallas, and I like the Flames’ chances if they play like that against the Oilers. That said, Mike Smith was good for Edmonton last round, and McDavid played like the best player in the world with 14 points in seven games. Additionally, the combination of McDavid and Evander Kane has produced excellent results. This might be the toughest series to predict because there are good reasons to like both teams, but the Flames have been the better team for a while now, and I’m betting on that trend continuing. Pick — Flames beat Oilers 4-2
(1) Panthers vs. (3) Lightning
Chris: I truly thought that the Maple Leafs had what it took to take down the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning. However, we saw in Game 7 what that championship pedigree is all about. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy showed up in a big way when his team needed him most. Now we have the battle of Florida up for grabs. While it was impressive to see the Lightning defeat the high-octane Maple Leafs, I don’t think a three-peat is in the card for Tampa Bay. This Panthers team is insanely deep from an offensive standpoint and I just don’t see the Lightning being able to slow them down. It’ll be a long series, without a doubt, and a seven-game marathon wouldn’t surprise me. On top of all the firepower that the Panthers have, the Lightning could be shorthanded for a portion of the series as star center Brayden Point is dealing with a lower-body injury that he suffered against the Maple Leafs. If he misses a game or two, the Lightning are in trouble. Pick — Panthers beat Lightning 4-3
Austin: The Battle of Florida is back, and it promises to be even better than last season. It is incredibly difficult to pick against the Lightning for the second series in a row, but this Panthers roster makes it a little easier. Florida’s depth ultimately put it over the top against Washington, and while that gap is a lot smaller against Tampa Bay, it still exists. The health of Bolts Point is a major x-factor here, but even if he is able to suit up, the Panthers’ ability to roll three lines without sacrificing any offense gets them through to the Eastern Conference Finals. Let’s just hope this series goes the distance before that happens. Pick — Panthers beat Lightning 4-3
(1) Hurricanes vs. (2) Rangers
Chris: Both the Hurricanes and Rangers had to grind out a seven-game series in order to advance in the opening round. It’s not going to surprise me in the slightest if we this series goes seven games. The biggest reason I took the Bruins over the Hurricanes in the First Round was due to the potential absence of goaltender Frederik Andersen. However, Antti Raanta had a very strong series and made a believer out of me. It’s looking doubtful that Andersen will be in net this round. On the other hand, Vezina Trophy frontrunner Igor Shesterkin struggled mightily against the Penguins and was even pulled on multiple occasions in the series. Both teams have two of the more dangerous forward groups around, but I think this game comes down to the goaltending. I don’t expect Shesterkin to continue to struggle and we’ll see the brick wall that was in net during the regular season. With that being said, I’m going with the Rangers in what should be a fantastic series. Pick — Rangers beat Hurricanes 4-3
Austin: How many times will I pick against the Rangers due to weak underlying numbers only to see them throw it right back in my face? Well, at least one more. In their seven-game series against the Penguins, the Rangers controlled just 37.69% of the expected goals at five-on-five. That was the worst mark of all 16 playoff teams. That doesn’t bode well for New York as the team is about to face one of the best possession teams in the NHL. While the two teams might match up well in terms of high-end firepower, the Hurricanes are simply deeper. Unless Louis Domingue takes the ice for Carolina, this is where New York’s run ends. Pick — Hurricanes beat Rangers 4-2