The quest for the 2018 Stanley Cup begins Wednesday. The top three teams in each division — Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central, Pacific — each earn automatic postseason berths, while the final four spots are given to two wild-card teams in each conference based on point totals. The division winners face the wild cards, while the teams that finish second in their division battle the team that finishes third. The format was meant to promote rivalries, but in recent years one of the unintended consequences was that really good teams have a harder road to the Stanley Cup than if the teams were seeded 1 to 8 in each conference.

That shouldn’t be true for the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, as we project the most likely outcome for the NHL postseason.

Our postseason probabilities are based on the win rates that fuel our weekly power rankings and take into account a team’s actual win-loss record; its expected win-loss record based on goals scored and allowed — also known as its Pythagorean winning percentage; and its expected win-loss record based on expected goals for and against, a metric created by hockey website Corsica, which takes into account the likelihood a shot becomes a goal based on distance, angle and whether the attempt was a rebound, on the rush or generated on the power play.

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First round

No. 1 Tampa Bay Lightning beat No. 4 New Jersey Devils
Pick: Lightning, 70 percent win probability

Nikita Kucherov led the Lightning in points (100) and helped the team outscore opponents, 73-53, at even strength during the regular season. His frequent linemate, Brayden Point, is no slouch, either. Point created 92 high-danger scoring chances at even strength, 10th-most among NHL players. The Devils, meanwhile, gave up the 10th-most even-strength scoring chances per 60 minutes during the regular season. This is a mismatch and the Lightning should move on easily.

No. 2 Boston Bruins beat No. 3 Toronto Maple Leafs
Pick: Bruins, 58 percent

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Boston’s top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak outscored opponents, 28-16, at even strength plus put 57 percent of all scoring chances in their favor. When deployed on the road they maintained their goal advantage by outscoring opponents, 18-10. Boston’s second line, featuring David Krejci, outscored opponents, 45-36. That could be overwhelming for a team such as Toronto, which allowed the ninth-most scoring chances against this season (30 per 60 minutes).

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No. 1 Washington Capitals beat No. 4 Columbus Blue Jackets
Pick: Capitals, 53 percent

Alex Ovechkin led the NHL in goals (49) and fired a league-high 173 shot attempts at net while on the power play and will be facing a Columbus penalty kill that allowed the second-most shot attempts (16 per 60 minutes) shorthanded. In what should be a close series, that seems like a potential tipping point.

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No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins beat No. 3 Philadelphia Flyers
Pick: Penguins, 58 percent

Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin get most of the press, but pest/net-front presence Patric Hornqvist has made creating high-danger scoring chances an art form. Hornqvist took 181 attempts in the slot or the crease in 2017-18, second only to Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk (183).

Among Philadelphia’s netminders — Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth, Petr Mrazek and Alex Lyon — only Neuvirth produced a higher save percentage than expected based on when and where the shot attempts originated, and he is uncertain for the start of the series.

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2017-18 Actual save percentage Expected save percentage
Alex Lyon .905 .908
Brian Elliott .909 .914
Michal Neuvirth .915 .910
Petr Mrazek .902 .909

No. 1 Nashville Predators beat No. 4 Colorado Avalanche
Pick: Predators, 71 percent

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Pekka Rinne is tied for the league lead in shutouts (eight) and has provided Nashville with a quality start — games in which he posted an above-average save percentage — 67 percent of the time, the highest among the 20 goaltenders with at least 50 starts. Jonathan Bernier’s save percentage, on the other hand, was significantly lower than it should have been once you factor in shot quality (.913 vs. .920).

No. 2 Winnipeg Jets beat No. 3 Minnesota Wild
Pick: Jets, 60 percent

Patrik Laine scored a career-high 44 goals for Winnipeg, which included a league-leading 20 goals with the man advantage. The 19-year-old now has 80 career goals in his first two seasons, joining Jimmy Carson and Dale Hawerchuck as the only players to score 80 or more goals in the NHL before turning 20 years old.

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Without Ryan Suter (fractured right ankle) and Jared Spurgeon (hamstring) to help stop him, the path out of the first round becomes much more difficult for the Wild. Top-pair Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin can only do so much: They were on the ice for 42 goals for and 30 against during the regular season but the rest of the team managed to get outscored, 71-63.

No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights beat No. 4 Los Angeles Kings
Pick: Golden Knights, 63 percent

Center William Karlsson scored 18 total goals for the Anaheim Ducks and Columbus Blue Jackets in his first three NHL seasons, then had a breakout year with 43 goals for Vegas in his fourth. His line, featuring Jon Marchessault and Reilly Smith, scored a league-leading 47 goals as a trio this year. Their second line with David Perron, James Neal and Erik Haula scored 26 goals.

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Former Selke winner Anze Kopitar can only defend against one of those lines at a time for the Kings, leaving the other with an easier time getting to the net.

No. 3 San Jose Sharks beat No. 2 Anaheim Ducks 
Pick: Sharks, 52 percent

The Sharks generate 65 scoring chances per 60 minutes on the power play, the third-most during the regular season. The Ducks, meanwhile, allow the eighth-highest rate of scoring chances on the penalty kill.

Not only does Anaheim struggle to reduce the amount of shots they face on the penalty kill, it puts itself in man-down situations often. This season, no team had a worse penalty differential than the Ducks, who took 278 penalties and drew only 225.

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Second round

No. 1 Tampa Bay Lightning beat No. 2 Boston Bruins
Pick: Lightning, 56 percent

Having Steven Stamkos back in the lineup will help against Boston. Yes, that sounds obvious, but with the former Rocket Richard winner on the ice the Lightning outscore opponents, 68-46. He also leads the team in goals scored per 60 minutes (3.4) on the power play, almost double that of Kucherov (1.7). But Tampa Bay showed it could score against Boston at even strength, too.

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During their regular-season matchups, six different players scored an even-strength goal against the Bruins with defenseman Victor Hedman and forward J.T. Miller each scoring twice. Miller and Stamkos also each chipped in a power-play goal.

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No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins beat No. 1 Washington Capitals

Pick: Penguins, 52 percent 

This isn’t the byproduct of postseasons past — Pittsburgh is truly the better team. Based on expected goals for and against — a metric created by hockey metrics website Corsica, which takes into account the likelihood a shot becomes a goal based on distance, angle and whether the attempt was a rebound, on the rush or generated on the power play — Pittsburgh’s actual goal differential (plus-22) is very close to its expected goal differential (plus-24). Washington’s on the other hand, is a mirror image.

This projects as another second-round exit for Washington.

No. 1 Nashville Predators beat No. 2 Winnipeg Jets
Pick: Predators, 55 percent

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Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson lead the team with 61 points apiece and have helped the Predators outscore opponents, 36-18, at even strength when those two share the ice. This Nashville team is also deep and doesn’t need one of its two stars on the ice to hold an advantage: The Predators outscored opponents, 99-81, when Forsberg and Arvidsson were both on the bench.

The Jets also don’t operate as well on the road as they do from home. For example, they score 3.4 even-strength goals per 60 minutes with the benefit of last change, but that drops to 2.6 per 60 when the away team. The Predators not only don’t suffer the same fate, they have actually improved their scoring output on the road this season.

Goals per 60 minutes Scoring chance per 60 minutes High-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes
2017-18 Home Away Home Away Home Away
Nashville Predators 2.8 3.0 26.7 28.8 10.3 11.0
Winnipeg Jets 3.4 2.6 29.6 27.8 12.0 9.8

No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights beat No. 3 San Jose Sharks
Pick: Golden Knights, 61 percent

The Golden Knights might be new to the NHL but their netminder, Marc-Andre Fleury, is no stranger to the postseason. The three-time Stanley Cup champion posted a .927 save percentage during the regular season when the quality of shots he faced would have projected him to have a save percentage of .915.

Plus, Fleury has been better at stopping the high-danger chances than both of San Jose’s goaltenders, Martin Jones and Aaron Dell.

Conference finals

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No. 1 Nashville Predators beat No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights
Pick: Predators, 55 percent

Nashville’s defenders give the team offensive firepower from the blue line. Subban scored 59 points in 2017-18, the eighth-most at the position, and Roman Josi created 89 scoring chances on his own, the ninth-most on the team. In fact, Nashville’s blue liners average 0.63 primary points — goals or first assists — per 60 minutes at even strength, second only to the Lightning.

Vegas allowed 33 different defensemen to score against them with five scoring two or more goals in a game, posting a 18-15-4 record in those contests that ended in regulation or overtime.

No. 1 Tampa Bay Lightning beat No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins
Pick: Lightning, 63 percent

Pittsburgh’s power play was the best in the NHL (26 percent) but the Lightning allow just 20 high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes on the penalty kill, the fifth-fewest during the regular season. Plus, netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy had a .866 save percentage against opposing power plays, the eighth-best mark in 2017-18. By taking away the Penguins’ biggest advantage, the Lightning should prevail in a battle between two loaded rosters.

Stanley Cup Finals

No. 1 Tampa Bay Lightning beat No. 1 Nashville Predators
Pick: Lightning, 51 percent

Nashville made it this far in 2017, but was ultimately bested by the Penguins’ superstars. Crosby had a series-leading seven points en route to another Conn Smythe Trophy. Malkin and Phil Kessel had four points each, and role players like Jake Guentzel (four goals), Chris Kunitz (six assists) and Connor Sheary (three points) provided much-needed secondary scoring. And you could argue this year’s Lightning team is more talented than the Pittsburgh team Nashville faced in last year’s finals.

According to game score, a statistic created by Bill James for baseball that has since been adapted for hockey, incorporating much of what we see on the ice — goals, shot attempts, faceoffs and penalties — into a single number, last year’s Penguins averaged a 1.81 game score per 60 minutes, slightly higher than the one produced by Nashville during the regular season (1.72). This year’s Lightning produce an average game score of 1.98, higher than the 2017-18 Predators (1.78).