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Years since a Phillies catcher batted leadoff before Andrew Knapp did so Sunday

Stanley Cup preview: First impressions

Posted by Eric Fisher On April 11

There isn’t much separating most of the playoff teams in the standings, so there shouldn’t be too much separating them during the first round of the playoffs.

The Penguins (see Flyers-Penguins preview) are trying to become the first team to win three straight Stanley Cups since the Islanders won four straight from 1980-83. The Capitals are seeking their first Stanley Cup, but must get past the Blue Jackets, who are seeking their first playoff series victory.

In the Western Conference, former Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette is trying to get his Predators back to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to the Penguins last year. The Golden Knights were surprise division winners in their first year or existence, but they must get past the experienced Kings during the first round.

With so many teams so closely matched, it’s difficult to predict what will happen during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

BLUE JACKETS vs. CAPITALS

Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets rely on goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, the 2016-17 Vezina Trophy winner, in goal. Bobrovsky had a 2.42 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. His history in the playoffs, however, hasn’t been so good. He’s 3-10 with a 3.63 goals-against average and .887 save percentage. The Blue Jackets need Bobrovsky to play like he does during the regular season. The Blue Jackets have a solid defense. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski form the top pairing. The trade deadline addition of Ian Cole adds depth to a defense that also includes Jack Johnson, Ryan Murray and David Savard. The Blue Jackets also added forward Thomas Vanek and center Mark Letestu at the trade deadline, but the biggest acquisition for the offense was made last June, when they acquired forward Artemi Panarin (27 goals, 55 assists) from the Blackhawks. Panarin plays on the top line alongside rookie Pierre-Luc Dubois (20 goals, 28 assists), the No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Capitals: The Capitals are led, as always, by forward Alexander Ovechkin (left), who led the NHL in scoring with 49 goals. The problem for the Capitals is scoring depth. The second line of Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Andre Burakovsky could be the key to this series. If they produce, the Capitals will have a much better chance than if they don’t. The defense doesn’t stand out, which makes the goaltending an even bigger issue. Head coach Barry Trotz is going with goalie Philipp Grubauer in Game 1, but the fact that it was a tough call between Grubauer and Braden Holtby doesn’t bode well for the Capitals.

Analysis: The Blue Jackets have never won a playoff series, losing to the Red Wings in 2009 and the Penguins the past two seasons, but this may be the year they reach the second round. The future of Trotz hangs in the balance, which is never a good situation for a first-place team. Bobrovsky should give the Blue Jackets an edge in goal. The Blue Jackets have a better defense and they can put a lot of resources into stopping Ovechkin, although they need to avoid being shorthanded too often. Blue Jackets in 6

ATLANTIC DIVISION

DEVILS vs. LIGHTNING

Devils: After missing the playoffs for five straight years, the Devils return to the postseason as the fifth-place team in the Metropolitan Division, meaning they’ll take on the Atlantic Division-champion Lightning. The Devils are led by MVP candidate Taylor Hall (39 goals, 54 assists), who reaches the postseason for the first time in his 8-year career. Nico Hischier, th top overall pick in last year’s NHL Draft is second on the team in scoring with 20 goals and 32 assists. The Devils picked up burly forward Patrick Maroon to steady their second line. Travis Zajac centers the third line, and the fourth line features ex-Lightning center Brian Boyle and speedy Michael Grabner, acquired from the Rangers. Keith Kinkaid appears to have the edge over Cory Schneider in goal, although the Devils haven’t announced who will start Game 1.

Lightning: The Lightning are loaded. Nikita Kucherov (39 goals, 61 assists) and Steven Stamkos (27 goals, 59 assists) lead the way on offense, but the Lightning have plenty of depth. When Chris Kunitz and Ryan Callahan are on the fourth line, it speaks volumes about the quality of the top three lines. Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman (17 goals, 46 assists, plus-32) anchors a defensive corps that also includes former Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh. Former Flyer Braydon Coburn is part of the third pairing. Andrei Vasilevskiy (2.62 goals-against, .920 save percentage) is solid in goal.

Analysis: The Devils are one of the few teams that can almost match speed with the Lightning, but they can’t match them in talent. The Lightning will try to take away Hall’s production with their top two defensive pairs. The Devils don’t’ have anyone on their defense comparable to Hedman. Lightning in 5

MAPLE LEAFS vs. BRUINS

Maple Leafs: The Maple Leafs were upstarts last season when they took the Capitals to six games in a first-round series. This year they aren’t simply happy to be here. Mitchell Marner – non-Canadians are excused for saying “Who?” – leads the Maple Leafs with 69 points (22 goals, 47 assists). Auston Matthews, the top pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, is next with 34 goals and 29 assists. Patrick Marleau, acquired from the Sharks for leadership, scored 27 goals. Former Flyer James van Riemsdyk is on the third line, which says a lot about the Maple Leafs’ depth. Federik Andersen (2.81 goals-against, .917 save percentage) is solid in goal.

Bruins: The Bruins’ top line of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron consists of three 30-goal scorers. The challenge for the Maple Leafs will be to stop that line. If Rick Nash returns from a concussion, the second line of Nash, David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk could also cause problems. The third line, centered by David Backes, has been boosted by the late-season addition of Ryan Donato. The defense is solid, even if Zdeno Chara isn’t quite what he used to be. Tuukka Rask provides quality and playoff experience in goal.

Analysis: The Bruins have been the NHL’s hottest team since December. There’s a feeling that the Maple Leafs are a team on the rise, but the Bruins are the pick here – barely – due to playoff experience. Bruins in 7

WESTERN CONFERENCE

CENTRAL DIVISION

AVALANCHE  vs. PREDATORS

Avalanche: The Avalanche, who qualified for the playoffs by defeating the Blues in their final regular-season game, are led by MVP candidate Nathan McKinnon (38 goals, 58 assists). McKinnon is joined on the top line by Gabriel Landeskog (25 goals, 37 assists) and Mikko Rantanen (29 goals, 55 assists). Mark Alt, claimed on waivers from the Flyers, is part of the third defense pairing. With Semyon Varlamov sidelined by a “lower body” injury, former Kings goalie Jonathan Bernier will start Game 1.

Predators: Guided by former Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette (left), the Predators compiled the most points in the NHL. The Predators are build from the goal and out. Pekka Rinne (42-13-4, 2.31 goals-against, .927 save percentage) could win the Vezina Trophy. Defenseman P.K. Subban could be in the Norris Trophy conversation, with his effectiveness on the power play adding to his credentials. Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis form an underrated defensive pairing. Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson form the top line, but the rest of the forward lines are balanced and effective. Nick Bonino, signed away from the Penguins, and Ryan Hartman, acquired from the Blackhawks, anchor one line,w with Kyle Turris centering another line. Center Mike Fisher came out of retirement to solidify the fourth line, which includes former Flyer Scott Hartnell.

Analysis: The Predators lost to the Penguins in last season’s Stanley Cup Finals. Nobody should be surprised if Peter Laviolette’s squad returns to the finals this year. The Predators will concentrate on limiting McKinnon’s opportunities. This appears to be a bad matchup for the Avalanche. Predators in 4

WILD vs. JETS

Wild: The Wild knew what they had in the first line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund, but nobody could have envisioned veteran center Eric Staal (42 goals, 34 assists) resurrecting his career to this extent. Former Penguins Matt Cullen provides plenty of playoff experience on the third line. With Ryan Suter lost for the season due to a broken ankle, the Wild need defenseman Jared Spurgeon to be fully recovered from a hamstring injury that caused him to miss the final 12 games of the regular season. Devan Dubnyk (2.52 goals-against, .918 save percentage) is solid in goal.

Jets: Patrik Laine, 19, led the Jets with 44 goals, including 20 on the power play. Blake Wheeler also piled up power–play points, with his 40 ranking second in the NHL. Wheeler, who scored 23 goals, tied Claude Giroux for the NHL-lead in assists with 68. Laine plays aside Paul Statsny. Connor Hellebuyck starts in goal ahead of former Flyer Steve Mason.

Analysis: The Wild have much more playoff experience, including in goal. If the Wild can avoid being shorthanded too often, they can limit the Jets’ offense. The Wild would be my pick except for concern over Spurgeon’s hamstring. Jets in 7

PACIFIC DIVISION

KINGS vs. GOLDEN KNIGHTS

Kings: Anze Kopitar, an outstanding defensive player, set career highs in goals (35), assists (57) and points (92). Kopitar centers Tanner Pearson and Dustin Brown on the top line. Jeff Carter scored 13 goals and registered nine assists in just 27 games. That total includes a hat trick against the Coyotes on March 29. If Carter rounds into form for the playoffs, the Kings’ second line, which includes Tyler Toffoli, could be dangerous. Fourth-line forward Nate Thompson was a nice pickup ahead of the trade deadline, as was defenseman Dion Phaneuf. Drew Doughty remains an elite defenseman. Jonathan Quick remains an elite goalie.

Golden Knights: The Golden Knights were surprise winners of the Pacific Division. One reason they finished first is goalie Marc-Andre Fluery, who posted a career-best .927 save percentage. Another reason is center William Karlsson, who emerged from obscurity with 43 goals and 35 assists. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare plays a fourth-line role similar to what he did with the Flyers.

Analysis: The Golden Knights are a terrific story. Unfortunately for the Knights, the Kings have the defense to negate the high-scoring Golden Knights’ offense. It’s playoff hockey. Defense and goaltending win in the playoffs. Fleury has been terrific this season, but Quick is just as good. The Kings lead the NHL in penalty-killing at 85 percent. Defense and experience will prove to be the difference. Kings in 6

SHARKS vs. DUCKS

Sharks: Evander Kane, acquired from the Sabres at the trade deadline, joines Joe Pavelski and Joona Donskoi on the top line. Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl add value to the second line, but the key for the Sharks’ offense may be defenseman Brent Burns (12 goals, 55 assists). Although Burns gets most of the attention on the back line, defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a terrific defensive-minded defenseman. The Sharks hope to get veteran center Joe Thornton (knee injury back in the lineup for the first time since Jan. 23. Martin Jones is the No. 1 goalie.

Ducks: The Ducks have a terrific top line in Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Rickard Rakell. Limited to 56 games, Getzlaf only scored 11 goals this season, but he is nearly a point-per-game player during the postseason. Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverbert make the second line dangerous, and Adam Henrique and Ondrej Kase do the same thing for the third line. Defenseman Cam Fowler will miss this series due to a shoulder injury sustained at the beginning of the month. The Ducks must hope that Francois Beauchemin and company can hold down the fort. Starting goalie John Gibson missed the final three games of the regular season. If he’s not ready for the start of the series, Ryan Miller is an excellent backup.

Analysis: The Sharks and Ducks are developing quite a California rivalry. The Ducks have had the edge in this matchup, but the injury to Fowler could tip the series in the Sharks’ favor. In the end, the Ducks might have too much offensive firepower for the Sharks. Ducks in 7

SECOND ROUND

Eastern Conference

Blue Jackets over Penguins

Lightning over Bruins

Western Conference

Predators over Jets

Kings over Ducks

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

Lighting over Bruins

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

Predators over Kings

STANLEY CUP FINALS

Predators over Lightning

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