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NHL Playoffs 2024: Picks for every first-round series, predicting the Stanley Cup winner

NHL Playoffs 2024: Picks for every first-round series, predicting the Stanley Cup winner

It’s officially time for the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs to begin.

The New York Rangers secured the Presidents’ Trophy with the best record throughout the 2023-24 regular season. When the dust settled on the 2023-24 regular season, the Rangers finished with a 55-23-4 record (114 points) as they just edged out the Dallas Stars for the crown.

In the opening round, the lower-seeded wild card team faces off against the division winner with the best record. The other wild card team takes on the other division winner. The second and third-place teams from the divisions battle it out in the other playoff matchups. In the opening two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, home-ice advantage is given to the higher seed, which means that they had the better regular season record.

With the playoffs here, our NHL experts revealed their first-round predictions along with their Stanley Cup picks.

Western Conference

(1) Stars vs. (WC2) Golden Knights

Chris: This truly pains me to pick against the defending Stanley Cup champions, but it’s such a tough matchup. The Stars are one of the most dominant offenses throughout the NHL as they averaged 3.59 goals (third in the league) during the regular season. The scoring depth is astounding with Jason Robertson, Joe Pavelski, Roope Hintz, and Wyatt Johnston lighting the lamp on a consistent basis. Adding Chris Tanev to stabilize the blue line was a massive addition at the trade deadline. My only question mark lies in the crease for Dallas. We’ve seen goaltender Jake Oettinger thrive in the past, but it’s been an up-and-down campaign for the former first-round pick. Entering the postseason, Oettinger has tallied a 5-1-0 record, a 1.67 goals-against-average, and a .941 save percentage over his last six starts, so perhaps he has turned the corner. The Golden Knights will give the Stars everything they can handle after adding Tomas Hertl to a loaded group of centers at the trade deadline. Captain Mark Stone could also return at some point in this series, but the Stars are too well-rounded to go against. Pick — Stars beat Golden Knights 4-3

Austin:   This matchup could easily be a conference final, which it was last year, but instead we get to see it in the first round. The Stars worked all season to earn the top seed in the Western Conference, and their reward is a date with the defending Stanley Cup champs and the team that eliminated them from the 2023 postseason. This is a heavyweight battle, and it looks like the Golden Knights are getting healthy at the right time once again. Mark Stone has started practicing after missing extended time with a lacerated spleen, and he joins a loaded lineup that has added the likes of Noah Hanifin and Tomas Hertl since last year’s Stanley Cup run. Of course, this Dallas lineup also looks different from the one that fell to Vegas last summer. The signing of Matt Duchene has provided some extra pop to the Stars’ forward group, and Chris Tanev only solidifies the team’s blue line. As intimidating as the Golden Knights look on paper, the Stars are just as scary, and they have been the better team this season. Dallas gets its revenge in a hard-fought series. Pick — Stars beat Golden Knights 4-2

(2) Jets vs. (3) Avalanche

Chris: This might be the toughest series to predict out of the eight in the opening round. The Avalanche really faded over the last month of the regular season as they dropped seven of their last 11 games. As a result, Colorado was out of the race for the Central Division crown, and even lost out on home-ice advantage in this series. Still, Nathan MacKinnon just produced a Hart Trophy-caliber season, and this is still a well-rounded group that put the puck in the net more than any other team on a nightly basis (3.68 goals-per-game). It certainly won’t be an easy road in this series with likely Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck in between the pipes for the Jets. My biggest issue with the Jets is that I’m not sure if they have enough of a scoring punch to keep up with the Avalanche. This is going to be a very entertaining series, but I’ll go with the team that’s been there before. Pick — Avalanche beat Jets 4-2

Austin: Much like the above series, this is a brutal first-round matchup for both sides. The Jets and Avalanche both had great regular seasons, and one will be going home early. The tough part is figuring out which team that will be. The Avalanche are led by Nathan MacKinnon, who just tallied 140 points and seems to be playing a different game than everyone else right now. Add Mikko Rantanen, Cale Makar and Devon Toews into that mix, and Colorado has the edge at the top of the lineup. The issue for the Avs is that the goaltending situation is on shaky ground heading into the playoffs. Alexandar Georgiev has struggled, and Justus Annunen has about as much NHL experience as me. The Jets don’t have that issue in net. Connor Hellebuyck will likely win the Vezina Trophy, and he gives his team a massive advantage at that position. On top of that, Winnipeg has some solid depth that only got better with the additions of Sean Monahan and Tyler Toffoli ahead of the trade deadline. If the Jets’ shutdown line consisting of Adam Lowry between Nino Niederreiter and Mason Appleton can make life difficult on the Avs’ top players, this series will go in Winnipeg’s favor. Pick — Jets beat Avalanche 4-3

(1) Canucks vs. (WC1) Predators

Chris: The Canucks have come a long way in a calendar year, to say the least. Since bringing in Rick Tocchet, the Canucks have been a juggernaut, and are a very deep team. Vancouver did get goaltender Thatcher Demko back in the lineup over the regular season’s final week after missing time with a knee injury. Having Demko back in the crease is massive, and really makes life that much more difficult for the Predators. It’s been a very successful season for the Predators, but the Canucks are just too loaded from an offensive perspective. Pick — Canucks beat Predators 4-1

Austin: These two teams are fascinatingly similar. Overachieving rosters? Check. Norris Trophy candidates? Check. Jack Adams Award candidates? Check. Elite Swedish forward at the top of the lineup? Check. Goaltender capable of stealing a series? Check. That’s why this series might be closer than the standings would indicate. With Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson, and J.T. Miller leading the way, the Canucks have more than enough offensive firepower to advance. That said, no team generated expected goals at a higher rate than the Predators down the stretch. Filip Forsberg, Roman Josi, and Ryan O’Reilly were driving that bus, but all four lines were chipping in on offense. This series might ultimately be decided by which goalie blinks first. Juuse Saros and Thatcher Demko are two of the best in the business, and they can erase a lot of mistakes. Given the way they played down the stretch, as well as the wealth of playoff experience on the roster, I think the Predators pull off the upset against a highly skilled Canucks team. Pick — Predators beat Canucks 4-3

(2) Oilers vs. (3) Kings

Chris: The Kings nearly ended up facing the Stars, but were able to come back and defeat the Blackhawks in Game 82 to earn this matchup against the Oilers. While the Stars are a juggernaut, the Oilers are certainly no slouch. After dealing with a lower-body injury late in the regular season, Connor McDavid returned to the ice and even made some history in the process. The biggest question mark when it comes to Edmonton’s postseason chances has always lied in between the pipes. However, Stuart Skinner played extremely well over the final two months of the regular season. As long as that continues to be the case, I just think that the Oilers have too much firepower for the Kings to handle. Los Angeles is a middle-of-the-pack scoring team, and I believe that McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, and company will be a buzzsaw that the Kings aren’t ready for. Pick — Oilers beat Kings 4-1

Austin: It’s Groundhog Day all over again. In each of the last two years, the Oilers have eliminated the Kings in the first round. Is the third time the charm for Los Angeles? We’re about to find out. As is usually the case, the Oilers boast an explosive offense with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl capable of putting a touchdown on the scoreboard at a moment’s notice. They’re joined by now 50-goal-scorer Zach Hyman, who has dominated the netfront all season. The good news for the Kings is that they seem uniquely positioned to combat the high-powered Oilers. Los Angeles is content to drag the game into the mud, and it remains an elite defensive squad. The big problem for the Kings is that not even the 2002-03 New Jersey Devils could completely shut down McDavid and Co. They will get their chances and their goals. When Edmonton does light the lamp, who can Los Angeles rely on to answer the bell? Kevin Fiala and Adrian Kempe are talented players, but the Kings might lack the horses to keep up with the Oilers in this one. Pick — Oilers beat Kings 4-1

Eastern Conference

(1) Rangers vs. (WC2) Capitals

Chris:  The Rangers’ postseason hopes were dashed early on during the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but they certainly rebounded with a stellar 2024 regular season. Artemi Panarin had a sensational year in which he tallied his first career 100-point season with 120 points (49 goals & 71 assists). Panarin has been underwhelming at times throughout his playoff career, so the Rangers will definitely need Panarin to lead the way throughout the postseason from an offensive standpoint. Meanwhile, the Capitals drug themselves across the finish line to qualify for the postseason, but it’s hard to imagine the Capitals giving the Rangers a run for their money. As long as Igor Shesterkin has a solid performance in net, the Rangers should roll. Pick — Rangers beat Capitals 4-1

Austin: Anything can happen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but this matchup is really pushing the boundaries of “anything.” These Capitals and their minus-37 goal differential might be the worst team to make the playoffs in my lifetime. Beating any other team in this playoff field would be a tall task for them, but knocking off the President’s Trophy winners seems especially far-fetched. The Rangers have some filthy offensive weapons with Artemi Panarin coming off a 120-point season, and he is surrounded by Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafreniere. Simply put, the Caps don’t have a fraction of that offense. As fun as it will be to see Alex Ovechkin in the playoffs once again, that’s not enough for Washington to pull off the upset. If Charlie Lindgren can keep his awe-inspiring play between the pipes going, the Capitals might have a puncher’s chance. The kicker there is that the Rangers have the 2022 Vezina Trophy winner, Igor Shesterkin, in the crease. I’d be surprised if this becomes a long series. Pick — Rangers beat Capitals 4-0

(2) Hurricanes vs. (3) Islanders

Chris: The Hurricanes have added quite a bit of talent over the last calendar year, and look primed for a deep Stanley Cup run. Jake Guentzel has been tremendous since coming over from the Penguins at the trade deadline. Skating with a line alongside Sebastian Aho and Seth Jarvis has really elevated Guentzel’s game to another level. The Hurricanes also are one of the few teams in the playoff field that have the luxury of two top-tier netminders in Frederik Andersen and Pyotr Kochetkov. Andersen will presumably be the starter for Game 1, but even if he struggles, head coach Rod Brind’Amour can turn to Kochetkov, who played extremely well when Anderson was out of the lineup earlier this season. Pick — Hurricanes beat Islanders 4-1

Austin: In one corner, the Hurricanes are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender that only upgraded as the season progressed. In the other corner is an underwhelming Islanders team that needed a crazy late-season push just to get here. Carolina has been trying to get over the postseason hump for a few years now, and this seems like the year to do it. The Canes’ defense is still borderline impenetrable, and Frederik Andersen returned late in the regular season and looked like a goaltender ready to dominate the postseason. The only question about the Hurricanes was their finishing talent, and that was addressed with the trade deadline acquisitions of Jake Guentzel and Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Islanders, on the other hand, were a bit of a mess throughout the season. They made a coaching change, going from Lane Lambert to Patrick Roy, and their defensive numbers did take a notable step forward with Roy behind the bench. On top of that, the Islanders goaltending duo of Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov might be the best in the playoffs. The narrow path to victory for New York is clear. Play lockdown defense and have the goalie stand on his head. It could happen, but I’m not betting on it. Pick — Hurricanes beat Islanders 4-1

(1) Panthers vs. (WC1) Lightning

Chris:  The battle for bragging rights in the Sunshine State is arguably one of the more intriguing series of the first round. The Panthers looked like arguably the top team in the East entering the final month of the season, but they did have caught a slide entering the final two weeks. However, Florida did enough down the stretch to edge out Boston for the Atlantic Division crown. On the other hand, the Lightning are proven playoff contenders that are paced by NHL points leader Nikita Kucherov. Obviously, having a goaltender that is battle-tested like Andrei Vasilevskiy is a huge plus, but I just think that the Panthers are a talented enough team to solve Vasilevskiy to win what could be a lengthy series. Pick — Panthers beat Lightning 4-3

Austin: The Battle of Florida always delivers, and for the first time in recent memory, I think the Panthers have the clear upper hand. After their incredible run to the Stanley Cup Final last year, the Panthers have been among the NHL’s very best in 2023-24. Whether it’s generating scoring chances or suppressing scoring chances, Florida has been excellent at five-on-five. The same cannot be said for the Lightning, a team that was slightly underwater with its expected goals share. Despite that clear edge in favor of the Panthers, it’s not hard to imagine the Bolts springing the upset. Tampa has a championship pedigree, a dominant power play, and one of the best goalies on this rotating rock. That can be a recipe for success in the playoffs. It also helps that Nikita Kucherov just dropped 44 goals and 100 assists on the rest of the league. All that said, the Panthers found out what it takes to go on a deep postseason run last year. Players like Matthew Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov, and Sam Reinhart won’t be intimidated by the rings on the other side. The Panthers finally get the electric monkey off their back. Pick — Panthers beat Lightning 4-2

(2) Bruins vs. (3) Maple Leafs

Chris: Perhaps I’ll regret this, but I’m siding with the Maple Leafs in this series. Toronto is absolutely loaded at the top, and Auston Matthews has been a proven playoff producer in each of the last two seasons. Yes, it’s noteworthy that the Bruins won all four matchups during the regular season, but the Bruins limped into the postseason and should be facing the Lightning rather than the Maple Leafs. One of the biggest storylines in this series could be the talent drop-off after David Pastrnak. Sure, Pastrnak tallied 110 points on the season, but they didn’t have anyone else that even touched the 70-point mark. If the Maple Leafs defense can do enough to limit Pastrnak’s opportunities, this could be a series that Toronto can steal. Pick — Maple Leafs beat Bruins 4-3

Austin: As Maple Leafs fans know all too well, this matchup has always gone the Bruins’ way in recent history. If Toronto is going to get over this hurdle, it has to find a way to consistently beat one of the best defensive teams and one of the best goaltending duos in the game today. Letting Auston Matthews shoot the puck early and often might be a good start in that regard. Matthews scored 69 goals in the regular season, and the Leafs’ star power doesn’t end there with William Nylander, Mitch Marner and John Tavares rounding out the “Core Four.” Of course, that core hasn’t done much against the Bruins, a team that keeps plugging along despite key offseason losses. Even after losing Patrice Bergeron, Boston was able to remain atop the NHL due to David Pastrnak being a stone cold killer, superb team defense, and rock-solid goaltending. All that said, the Bruins have looked more vulnerable than usual this year, with their five-on-five play sagging a bit. If the Maple Leafs can seize the opportunity, they’ll exorcise this New England demon in dramatic fashion. Pick — Maple Leafs beat Bruins 4-3

Stanley Cup winner

Chris: I’ve always been a proponent of sticking with my preseason Stanley Cup pick barring something catastrophic happening with that team. The Hurricanes were my pick at the start of the 2023-24 season, and I see no reason not to ride the wave. When the trade deadline rolled around, the Hurricanes did something that they traditionally shy away from — making a splash. Carolina acquired star winger Jake Guentzel and forward Evgeny Kuznetsov to bolster a forward group that was already quite talented. Guentzel has been sensational since arriving in Raleigh, and makes this team all the more dangerous. The likes of the Rangers, Panthers, and Bruins are certainly worthy foes, but it’s worth noting that the Hurricanes were nipping at the Rangers’ heels down the stretch after not having goaltender Frederik Anderson for the majority of the year. From a Western Conference standpoint, the Stars are definitely capable of making a deep run if they can get past the scrappy Golden Knights in the opening round. These would certainly be the two best teams in my book, but I trust the goaltending and scoring depth of the Hurricanes way more in a series. Pick — Hurricanes beat Stars 4-3

Austin: The Stanley Cup Playoffs are often a war of attrition, and the Stars have a unique combination of high-end talent and depth. The forward group is littered with big names like Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, Joe Pavelski, Matt Duchene, Wyatt Johnston and Jamie Benn. The blue line, led by shutdown expert Miro Heiskanen and budding star Thomas Harly, only got better when Dallas snagged Chris Tanev from the Calgary Flames last month. The Stars’ only clear flaw for most of the season was in goal, with Jake Oettinger struggling. Well, in the closing weeks of the regular season, Oettinger finally looked like himself again and is red hot heading into the postseason. Now you’d need the Hubble telescope to find an issue with this team. There is a non-zero chance Dallas has to go through the Golden Knights, Oilers and Avalanche just to reach the Stanley Cup Final. That’s an arduous path, but no team is better positioned to navigate it than the Stars. On the other side of the bracket, the Hurricanes’ upgrades pay off, and they finally get over the hump to reach the Final. Unfortunately for them, they run into a loaded and battle-tested Stars lineup. Pick — Stars beat Hurricanes 4-2




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