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Expect a wild NHL postseason with the Flames, not the Lightning, as the Stanley Cup favorites

The Calgary Flames had a league-high five players with at least 70 points. (Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

If there is a clear takeaway from the NHL’s regular season, it’s that not much separates a number of this year’s playoff teams. Even the one team that’s clearly above the rest should not be considered the most likely to lift the Stanley Cup.

The team everyone will be talking about is the Tampa Bay Lightning. Jon Cooper, a surefire Jack Adams Award finalist as the NHL’s best coach, guided his team to a 62-16-4 record, earning it the Presidents’ Trophy and a tie with the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins in a season. Its top scorer, forward Nikita Kucherov, an obvious MVP candidate, had 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists), the most by any skater since 1995-96. Andrei Vasilevskiy should also be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league’s top goaltender.

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Yet being the top team doesn’t mean having an easy road to the Stanley Cup finals. Since 2005-06 — the start of the salary cap era — just two of 13 Presidents’ Trophy winners have hoisted the Cup. Four teams with the best regular season record have lost in the first round, and four more have lost in the second. Three of those second-round exits have occurred in the past three years.

Presidents’ Trophy winner
Playoff result
Detroit Red Wings
Lost in the first round
Buffalo Sabres
Lost in the conference finals
Detroit Red Wings
Won the Stanley Cup
San Jose Sharks
Lost in the first round
Washington Capitals
Lost in the first round
Vancouver Canucks
Lost in the Stanley Cup final
Vancouver Canucks
Lost in the first round
Chicago Blackhawks
Won the Stanley Cup
Boston Bruins
Lost in the second round
New York Rangers
Lost in the conference finals
Washington Capitals
Lost in the second round
Washington Capitals
Lost in the second round
Nashville Predators
Lost in the second round

Sure, the Lightning is still one of the most likely teams to win it all this year, but the numbers aren’t overwhelmingly in its favor. In fact, given the quality of competition in both conferences, the Calgary Flames should be considered the Stanley Cup favorites.

Consider the field in the Eastern Conference. The Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup last year. The Boston Bruins put up 107 points, tied with the Flames for the most of any team not based in Tampa. Columbus was aggressive at the trade deadline, adding two high-profile pieces in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. The Islanders had a historic turnaround defensively. Pittsburgh, despite injuries, still boasts Sidney Crosby. And Toronto’s roster has seven players with at least 20 goals, including star center John Tavares, who had 47 in his first season with the Maple Leafs.

Our postseason probabilities take into account a team’s actual win-loss record with more weight given toward the end of the season after the trade deadline; 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 defunct hockey website Corsica. The last stat 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.

Here is a first-round preview — and the teams most likely to move on to the second round.


Tampa Bay Lightning (No. 1 Atlantic Division) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (No. 2 wild card)

Prediction: Lightning wins the series, 4-1

In addition to Duchene and Dzingel, Columbus added defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid. More significantly in terms of how the franchise is approaching the playoffs — the Blue Jackets have never advanced out of the first round — Columbus held on to top-line forward Artemi Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. In terms of the playoffs, their strengths line up well to neutralize Tampa Bay.

Columbus was the least-penalized team in the league this season, limiting the opportunities for Tampa Bay’s league-leading power play. The Blue Jackets are also stingy with the scoring chances they allow (seventh best). And the team’s top line of Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson has been more productive than Tampa Bay’s best line featuring Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point.

Forward trio vs. opponents
Even-strength goals
Even-strength scoring chances
Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson (Columbus)
55 to 48
421 to 320
Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point (Tampa Bay)
37 to 27
308 to 265

However, the edge still belongs with Tampa Bay, especially in net. Vasilevskiy was 26 goals better than an average netminder facing the same number of shot attempts. Bobrovsky was five goals better than an average netminder.

Boston Bruins (No. 2 Atlantic) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (No. 3 Atlantic)

Prediction: Bruins win the series, 4-3

In a first-round rematch from last year between Original Six teams, the Bruins should get the better of the Maple Leafs again.

Boston’s regular season success was fueled largely by a defense that allowed the third-fewest high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes at even strength. And when those chances did get through, Boston’s netminders stopped 445 of 518 (86 percent) of them. The league average is 83 percent.

The Bruins might ice the most complete forward trio in the NHL. Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron combined to score 34 even-strength goals over 484 minutes as a line this year, and Bergeron, a four-time Selke winner as the league’s best defensive forward, might add a fifth to his trophy case.

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Toronto brought in Tavares to try to push the team to the next level. The Mississauga, Ontario, native set career highs in goals (47) and points (88) during his first year with the club and generated more scoring chances at even strength than anyone in the league aside from Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher. Tavares’s teammate Auston Matthews was fourth.

Washington Capitals (No. 1 Metropolitan) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (No. 1 wild card)

Prediction: Capitals win the series, 4-3

The defending champions got a tough draw. Carolina generated the most high-danger chances in the NHL this season at even strength (14 per 60 minutes) and the seventh most on the power play (23 per 60 minutes). The Hurricanes are also good at preventing such chances: They allowed the sixth-fewest scoring chances allowed (25 per 60 minutes) at even strength and the lowest rate on the penalty kill (39 per 60).

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The Hurricanes also have four 20-goal scorers, with two, Sebastian Aho and former Capitals forward Justin Williams, on the same line with Nino Niederreiter. That line outscores opponents 13-9 with a 148-to-90 edge in scoring chances over 254 even-strength minutes.

But the Capitals have Alex Ovechkin, fresh off his record eighth Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the NHL goal-scoring leader (51). He, along with linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson, combined for 10 even-strength goals as a trio in 233 minutes during the regular season. Washington’s second line of Jakub Vrana, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie scored two goals this season in 93 minutes, but the combo of Kuznetsov and Vrana with any other forward has yielded 23 goals with nine coming from the slot or crease.

New York Islanders (No. 2 Metropolitan) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (No. 3 Metropolitan)

Prediction: Islanders win the series, 4-2

During last year’s Stanley Cup run with the Capitals, Coach Barry Trotz found a way to neutralize Pittsburgh’s most potent weapons. Sure, Crosby’s line scored three even-strength goals against Washington in the playoffs, but it allowed five. Evgeni Malkin was limited to one power-play goal and Phil Kessel had none, allowing the Capitals to win the series in six games.

New York’s defensive improvement suggests Trotz’s team could do the same again this year. In 2017-18, the Islanders allowed 293 goals, the most any squad gave up since 2006-07, with 174 originating from high-danger areas such as the slot and the crease. This year, the Islanders allowed a league-low 191 goals, with just 110 coming from high-danger areas.


Nashville Predators (No. 1 Central) vs. Dallas Stars (No. 1 wild card)

Prediction: Stars win the series, 4-2

Dallas deserves more consideration as a contender. Its netminder, Ben Bishop, leads the NHL in save percentage (.933), and his high-danger save percentage at even strength (.881) is the highest among goaltenders facing at least as many shots. Bishop turned away 34 of 38 high-danger shots on the penalty kill (.895 save rate), the second-best production after the Philadelphia Flyers’ Carter Hart.

Nashville relies on contributions from its defensemen to score, a tactic that might not pay off against Bishop. The Predators’ blue-liners combined for 43 goals, with 34 of those coming at even strength. Roman Josi leads the defensemen with 13. However, those blue-liners still convert only one out of every 22 shot attempts (5 percent), leaving them vulnerable to a good defensive team such as Dallas that not only limits high-quality chances (sixth best in 2018-19) but also blocks a lot of shots (1,291, fifth most in the NHL this year).

Winnipeg Jets (No. 2 Central) vs. St. Louis Blues (No. 3 Central)

Prediction: Blues win the series, 4-2

The Blues are coming in hot. Heading into the All-Star Game, they were sixth in the Central Division (22-22-5, 49 points). But they finished the season 23-6-4 (50 points), earning third place in the Central. Jordan Binnington finished with a 24-5-1 record, a .927 save percentage and an NHL-leading 1.89 goals against average. The team made Binnington’s job easier with just 2,345 shots allowed across the whole season, fourth fewest in the NHL. But Binnington did his part, too, stopping 181 of 212 high-danger chances (.854 save rate).

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And good luck to the Jets, who will need to stop St. Louis’s top line of Brayden Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko, a trio that outscored opponents 23-14 with a 104-66 edge in high-danger chances over 322 even-strength minutes this season. Winnipeg allowed an above-average rate of high-danger chances, and its netminder, Connor Hellebuyck, faced 498 shots from the slot and the crease, fifth most among goaltenders, and stopped 398 of them for a .799 save percentage. League average was .819 during the 2018-19 regular season.

Calgary Flames (No. 1 Pacific) vs. Colorado Avalanche (No. 2 wild card)

Prediction: Flames win the series, 4-1

Mark Giordano, a Norris Trophy hopeful who finished second in the NHL in scoring among defensemen with 74 points (17 goals, 57 assists), skates more than 24 minutes per night and is one of five players on the team with at least 70 points; Johnny Gaudreau (99), Sean Monahan (82), Elias Lindholm (78) and Matthew Tkachuk (77) are the others. No other team has more than four.

Three of those players — Gaudreau, Monahan and Lindholm — form Calgary’s top line, and when on the ice with Giordano they outscored opponents 31-19, with more than half of those goals (19) coming from the high-danger areas such as the slot or crease.

That kind of ability will tax Colorado’s defensive pairings. Samuel Girard and Erik Johnson shared 938 even-strength minutes together this season and were out-chanced 182-143 in high-danger areas. Nikita Zadorov and Tyson Barrie broke even at 49-48, and Ian Cole and Patrik Nemeth were slightly underwater at 22-25.

San Jose Sharks (No. 2 Pacific) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (No. 3 Pacific)

Prediction: Golden Knights win the series, 4-2

Vegas is a different team with Mark Stone, acquired from the Ottawa Senators in February. The Golden Knights went on a 10-1-1 tear after he unpacked his bags, and his fixture on the second line gives Vegas a steady group of top-six forwards. The top line, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, scored 39 goals as a group this season with 19 coming from high-danger areas and the second line of Stone, Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny has nine goals (six from the slot or crease) over 13 games.

Marc-Andre Fleury had a down year in terms of save percentage, but he was still worth five goals more than an average goaltender during the regular season. His performance on the penalty kill, stopping 59 of 76 high-danger chances, is also encouraging, considering San Jose’s power play was one of the most efficient in the NHL (24 percent, sixth-best) with the second-most scoring chances created per 60 minutes (58).

But the Sharks can’t get opportunities without drawing penalties, and the Golden Knights were among the least-penalized teams of 2018-19 (shorthanded 230 times, tied for eighth fewest).

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