Saturday, April 13, 2024
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Stanley Cup Playoffs 2024: Predicting winners of every key postseason race, including Stars over Avalanche

With only about 30 games left in the NHL season, playoff races are really starting to heat up. Every game becomes a battle, and every point won or lost gets more precious. It’s one of the best times to be a hockey fan.

As we come upon the home stretch, there are a number of key playoff races, and not just for the wild card spots. Under the new playoff format, in which the No. 2 and No. 3 teams from each division meet in the first round, legitimate Stanley Cup contenders will be sent home. That makes winning the division even more important, and there are some good battles shaping up there.

Of course, the push just to make the playoffs in those wild card spots will create plenty of drama over these next couple months. That’s especially true in the Eastern Conference, where several teams who entered the season hoping to compete for a Stanley Cup are just fighting to stay above the cut line right now.

There is a lot still to be decided in the 2023-24 NHL standings, so let’s take our best shot at predicting which teams will wind up winning each of these key playoff races.

Atlantic Division

Contenders: Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers

Far be it from me to count out the Tampa Bay Lightning, but this has been a two-team race for a while. The Bruins and Panthers have been the class of this division, and now it’s just a matter of determining which team will wind up in first place at the end of 82 games.

Boston has fared better than expected this season, especially given the losses of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci in the offseason. The Bruins are still a strong defensive team, and their goaltending tandem of Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark only makes it that much harder to score on them. That said, the Bruins’ five-on-five numbers have slipped in 2023-24, and it has opened the door for the Panthers to pass them.

Florida has been an elite five-on-five team, and it has really become a juggernaut after sorting out the power play. The Panthers got off to somewhat of a slow start on the man advantage, but they are now sixth in the NHL at 25.1%. Similarly, 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs hero Matthew Tkachuk wasn’t operating at full steam for part of the season, but now he is red hot too. The Panthers are the best team in the Atlantic, and the standings will soon reflect that. Prediction: Florida Panthers

Metro Division

Contenders: New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers

This is an interesting divisional race because all three teams have shown a lot of reasons for optimism, but they also have their flaws. The Rangers have a six-point lead over the Hurricanes, which makes them the favorite here, but things can change quickly in the Metro.

New York is a somewhat middling five-on-five team, at least when it comes to expected goals, but that doesn’t matter with this group. Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider are all terrific finishers, and the Rangers’ power play is among the best in the league. Oddly enough, one of the weak spots has been goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who has been uncharacteristically leaking in 2023-24.

The Hurricanes are a strong possession team, and they can overwhelm teams at their best. However, they lack some elite offensive talent, and they’ve had goaltending issues of their own. The Flyers have been an incredible story this season, and young players like Owen Tippett, Joel Farabee and Morgan Frost have taken steps forward. Still, they may not have the horses to push for a division crown.

The Rangers already have a lead, and they have enough talent to protect it down the stretch — plus, I expect Shesterkin to find his groove at some point. His track record is just too good. The blueshirts hang on and avoid a first-round slugfest in the postseason. Prediction: Rangers

East Wild Card

Contenders: Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Eastern Conference wild card race is fascinating because there are a few teams with legitimate Stanley Cup hopes, and there’s a decent chance at least one of them misses the playoffs. Among those teams are the Lightning, who don’t look nearly as imposing as the 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup teams, but Nikita Kucherov is still a machine, and Andrei Vasilevskiy is capable of turning it on at any point.

Beyond Tampa, the most interesting clubs are the Maple Leafs and Devils. If either of those teams misses the playoffs, there will be a fan meltdown. Toronto has some truly elite players on the roster, but depth is a concern, and there are goaltending questions. Inconsistency has plagued the Leafs, and they could waste a year with Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner in their primes.

Speaking of inconsistencies, the Devils know about that all too well. In fairness, New Jersey has been dealt some poor injury luck, but the roster is still there to do some real damage. As has been the case for a couple seasons now, the Devils need to look at upgrading in goal, but I would expect general manager Tom Fitzgerald to be aggressive in doing just that.

The Red Wings are an x-factor here because they have some interesting pieces, like the combination of Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Larkin at the top of the lineup. However, Detroit still has some work to do on its blue line, and the team’s underlying numbers leave a lot to be desired.

As for the other two teams on this list, the Islanders and Penguins, including them on this list was pretty optimistic. The Isles are kept afloat by loser points, and the Pens are quickly circling the drain with three straight regulation losses.

I do think the Leafs will wind up passing the Lightning for third in the Atlantic, but the Bolts get in for one more playoff run, and the Devils will become a very scary wild card matchup for someone. Prediction: Lightning (WC1), Devils (WC2)

Central Division

Contenders: Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche, Winnipeg Jets

This is the most fun divisional race because of how close all three teams are in the standings. I expected the Stars and Avalanche to be here at this point in the season, but the Jets have forced themselves into this discussion with an exceptional season.

When taking a look at the three rosters, the Stars are probably the most complete team of the bunch. Dallas has the deepest forward group in the NHL, and it could finish with eight 20-goal scorers at this rate. Behind them, Miro Heiskanen is strong No. 1 defenseman, and Thomas Harley has emerged as a potential star. If all else fails, Jake Oettinger can be counted on to erase some mistakes.

The Avalanche have been interesting to follow this season because they seem to be extremely top heavy, and Nathan MacKinnon has been carrying them at times. The Avs are two completely different teams with MacKinnon on the ice and MacKinnon on the bench. Cale Makar is playing at a Norris Trophy level, and Mikko Rantanen remains an offensive force. Outside of that trio, Colorado has struggled to find consistency, and it doesn’t help that Alexandar Georgiev has regressed between the pipes.

Winnipeg is just emerging from a bit of a slump, but it has been one of the league’s best teams all year. Gabriel Vilardi, a key player in the return for Pierre-Luc Dubois, has been a game-changer with 20 points in 31 games and strong on-ice impacts. The Jets have also gotten much better in the defensive end overall, and Connor Hellebuyck has thrived again. If there is a knock on this team it’s that a lack of truly elite offensive talent puts a ceiling on Winnipeg.

The Stars are just too good to bet against, so I have them just getting past the Avs and Jets for a Central Division title in what might be a photo finish. Prediction: Stars

Pacific Division

Contenders: Vancouver Canucks, Vegas Golden Knights, Edmonton Oilers

The Canucks do have a 10-point lead over the second-place Golden Knights, so this one might be pretty brief. Vancouver has piled up points at an incredible pace this season, and it has left some really talented teams in its dust. That said, there is a chance one of these teams could catch them.

The Canucks have been rolling under Rick Tocchet this season, with stars like Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson and Thatcher Demko leading the way. They rank first in goals scored and fourth in goals against. Vancouver has been running hot for a long time now, and a cooldown might be coming, but it has already banked a comfortable lead over its division opponents.

The defending champion Golden Knights have dealt with injuries to Jack Eichel and Adin Hill, but they have managed to keep rolling, nonetheless. Vegas is still a virtual lock to make the postseason, but winning the division is not necessarily this team’s focus. The Golden Knights have proven they can endure some regular season swoons before flipping a switch in the postseason. The difference this year is that the first-round matchup might be a lot scarier.

Unfortunately for whoever finishes second or third in this division, likely Vegas, the Oilers got off to a disastrously poor start. Otherwise, they might be atop the division and vying for a Presidents’ Trophy. They might finish atop the Pacific anyway because they have been winning at a torrid pace since new head coach Kris Knoblauch took over in November. Connor McDavid is not of this world, Leon Draisaitl is an incredible talent and Edmonton is finally getting good goaltending from Stuart Skinner. I don’t think the Oilers will win the division, but they might get close.

The Canucks will survive a late-season push from the Oilers and secure a division title, leaving the Golden Knights to deal with Connor McDavid and Co. in the most anticipated first-round matchup in recent memory. Prediction: Canucks

West Wild Card

Contenders: Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames, Seattle Kraken, Minnesota Wild

For a long time, it looked like five teams might be battling for one wild card spot in the West. Now, it looks like six might be battling for two since the Los Angeles Kings have completely collapsed over the last six weeks.

Out of this group, the Kings are still easily the safest bet to make the postseason. The roster is strong, the five-on-five numbers are good, and they have the highest point percentage. Still, Los Angeles has looked broken for a while, Cam Talbot has struggled after a strong start, and the vibes have been in sharp decline. The Kings could still pull it together and make a run at the Stanley Cup, but right now they just need to focus on simply making the playoffs.

The race between the Blues and Predators will be one to watch down the stretch as well. The two Central Division foes are, in some ways, opposite sides of the same coin. St. Louis has dreadful underlying numbers, but timely offense and strong goaltending have the team in a playoff spot. Nashville has surprisingly good five-on-five metrics, but offense and goaltending have let the team down. It’s possible the results start to match the process, and the Predators jump the Blues in the last 30 games or so.

The Flames deserve a paragraph of their own because they have actually been playing quality hockey since the New Year, and as a result, they’re just a few points out of the playoffs. The problem is that this roster has already started to get picked apart by contenders looking for upgrades. Elias Lindholm was already traded to the Canucks, and Jacob Markstrom is one of the best goalies on the trade market. Then, Chris Tanev and Noah Hanifin could get moved out. It’s hard to see Calgary sticking around as it continues to sell.

At this point, the Kraken and Wild are longshots. Maybe the Kraken put together another long winning streak, but I doubt it. Maybe Filip Gustavsson returns to his 2022-23 form and backstops the Wild on an incredible playoff push, but based on what I’ve seen so far this season, I doubt it.

The Kings manage to steady the ship a bit and claim the top wild card spot, the Predators do just enough to outlast the Blues in a close battle for the West’s final playoff berth. Prediction: Kings (WC1), Predators (WC2)

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