Starting Wednesday, the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup begins Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Perhaps the best postseason in all of sports kicks off Wednesday night when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin. There is no shortage of storylines. The Pittsburgh Penguins will going for their third consecutive Stanley Cup, unprecedented in the salary cap era. The Nashville Predators, who fell to the Penguins in the finals last season, are looking for their first Cup and won the Presidents Trophy as the best regular season team. The Toronto Maple Leafs will be pushing for their first Cup in 51 years.
The way the playoffs are set up, we might see the best matchups of the entire postseason in Round 2. Nashville-Winnipeg, Tampa-Boston and Pittsburgh-Washington could all be second round matchups, and all six are legitimate Cup contenders.
Disclaimer:Yes, I know this is limited interest, so you don’t have to read it, but several people asked me to do it. I try to put a gambling spin on it for those seeking action. And for those of you who do love hockey, before you drop your “you didn’t pick my team” bit...I didn’t pick MY team to get out of the first round. Or my second favorite team. The are projections based on a hopefully non-biased approach.
When it comes to winning the Cup, most champs have three things: Strong play and depth at the center position, a strong top two defensive pairings with at least one elite, high minute defensemen, and a goalie who might not necessarily be elite but is capable of playing at an elite level for a long enough stretch to win the Cup. Playoff pedigree is important, too. We will reference these traits throughout.
Regardless, let’s take a look at the first round matchups:
Tampa (No. 1 seed) vs. New Jersey (second wild card)
The breakdown: Early in the season, the Lightning looked unstoppable. They had four forward lines performing at a high level, were strong on defense and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was a shoo-in for the Vezina Trophy as best goalie. But the Lightning struggled down the stretch and the Devils played great, making them a trendy pick.
Players to watch:Nikita Kucherov, Tampa: He scored 100 points with 39 goals, one of just three players in the league to reach the century mark. If he plays at a high level, the Lightning will be tough. Taylor Hall, New Jersey: Hall scored 93 points himself with 39 goals. Only one other player on the team topped 50 points, so he was pretty much a one-man show.
Prediction: The Devils are getting a lot of attention, but the Lightning have too much depth and talent throughout the lineup.
The betting perspective: There is no real value on the Lightning at the series price of -330. But look at the individual game overs.
Boston (2) vs. Toronto (3)
The breakdown: The Leafs are one of the most intriguing teams in the league, and could easily make a run, but the Bruins are a tough matchup for Toronto and serious Cup contenders. The Bruins are better on defense, while Toronto has a slight edge at forward. It could be a simple as which goalie -- Boston’s Tukka Rask or Toronto’s Frederik Andersen -- plays the best. Both are capable of playing at an elite level.
Players to watch: Auston Matthews, Leafs: One of the most exciting young players in the game, Matthews produced 63 points in just 62 games. When he is on his game, he is simply dominant. He has lots of scoring help throughout the lineup and is already a star. Brad Marchand, Bruins: One of the best (and most irritating) in the game, Marchand is not afraid to push the envelope. He was amazing when healthy, with 85 points in just 68 games.
Prediction: The Leafs won the season series 3-1 but the Bruins might be better suited for the grind of a playoff series. At times the Leafs have had issues closing out games and that could come back to haunt them against a good Bruins squad. As much as I would love to pick the Leafs, the Bruins will be tough and will likely do it in 7.
The betting perspective: Both teams are decent prices to win the series, Boston at -145 and the Leafs are +125. Fair prices for both teams, whichever direction you go.
PREDICTED SECOND-ROUND MATCHUP: Tampa Bay vs. Boston
Washington (No. 1 seed) vs. Columbus (first wild card)
The breakdown: This one is about playoff demons; the Caps have never gotten past the second round in the Alex Ovechkin era. The Jackets have never won a playoff series. They play a tough style that should keep them in games, and if they get elite goaltending, they can upset the Caps, who lost a lot of talent off last year’s team.
Players to watch: Ovechkin, Capitals. Simply the best goal scorer in the game and one of the best of all-time. He was one goal short of yet another 50-goal campaign. Capable of carrying the team. Sergey Bobrovsky, Jackets. The goalie has been healthy the last two seasons and the Jackets have made the playoffs in both. He is capable of stealing games. His numbers were solid, with 37 wins, a 2.42 GAA and a solid .921 save percentage. If he brings his best, the Jackets can win this.
Prediction: Expectations are not as high in Washington this year after they went all in last year. Braden Holtby, their star goalie, struggled down the stretch but backup Phillipp Grubauer has been really good. Washington is much stronger up the middle, and that is a weakness for the Jackets. Could go either way, but this is likely a long series with the Caps pulling it off in seven. Really wanted to pick Columbus here but they seem to be one center away from making a deep run.
The betting perspective: Another with fair series prices for both teams. While I think Washington wins, Columbus at +115 offers better value. Also will lean toward unders in the games at Columbus, over in Washington.
Pittsburgh (2) vs. Philadelphia (3)
The breakdown: The Pens are chasing history, and after struggling early in the season, they got better as the year went on. They did that each of the last two years as well and it ended in titles. Both teams have struggled in goal at times this year, but at least Matt Murray has a pair of Stanley Cups. Big year for Philly with a Super Bowl, an NCAA title and playoff appearances for the Flyers and Sixers. Can the Flyers be next?
Players to watch: Murray, Penguins. He battled injury problems as well as ineffectiveness issues. He was 38th in the league in GAA. His .907 save percentage was 44th. Claude Giroux, Flyers: He had a career year with 102 points and 34 goals. He has been magnificent and if the Flyers are to win, he will have to be at his best.
Prediction: While Murray has not been good, the Flyers goalies have not been much better. Murray does have postseason success, however, and if he pulls it together, the Pens should move on.
The betting perspective: There is no value in the Pens at -225. Lean toward the single game overs until one of the goalies shows he can step up.
PREDICTED SECOND-ROUND MATCHUP: Washington vs. Pittsburgh
Nashville (1) vs. Colorado (wild card 2)
The breakdown: Nashville might be the most complete team in hockey and there is a reason the Preds won the President’s Trophy. They are made for the playoffs, are well-tested in the postseason and poised to make a deep run. The Avs are a great story and Nathan MacKinnon emerged as a superstar, with 97 points in just 74 games. But the Preds are on another level. Remember, last season they were the lowest seed and went on a remarkable run. Now they are the top dog, have added some key pieces and are favorites to win it all. Remember the elite defenders we taked about? The Preds have perhaps four guys who would be No. 1s on a lot of teams. They don't have that true No. 1 center -- Ryan Johansen is close -- but they have incredible depth at the position. If you are stabbing for potential weaknesses, it is a stretch, but that would be it.
Players to watch:Pekka Rinne, Predators. He posted top five numbers this season and can still carry a team at age 35. But he is capable of occasional struggles. The defense is so good in front of him it might not matter. The only way the Preds lose is if he has a bad stretch. MacKinnon, Avs: One of the best players you have probably never heard of. The 22-year-old always had promise, and he emerged this season and carried his team tean to the postseason. If not for a late injury he would be taking home a lot of postseason hardware.
Prediction: The Avs probably win a game, maybe two. But the Preds are too good and will move on.
The betting perspective: No value in the Preds here at -500. The price to win the Cup is low as well at +375, plus +150 to win the conference. Not really anything worth playing.
Winnipeg (2) vs. Minnesota (3)
The breakdown: The Jets quietly put together an outstanding season. They are loaded with young talent and have huge home-ice edge. What they don’t have is playoff success or experience. The Wild are fun to watch, but Bruce Boudreau’s teams notoriously struggle in the playoffs. This will be his 10th trip to the postseason. He has one trip to the conference finals despite having eight division winners in that time.
Players to watch:Connor Hellebuyck, Jets. On a team that features three 30-goal scorers -- Patrik Laine (40 goals), Nikolaj Ehlers (32) and Kyle Connor (31), plus a 91-point producer in Blake Wheeler, Hellebuyck might be the biggest reason for the Jets turnaround, setting a record for wins by an American born goalie. Devyn Dubnyk, Wild. He did not have a dominant regular season, but Dubnyk at his best can win games on his own. He will have to do that and hope the playoff jitters get to the Jets for the Wild to have a shot.
Prediction: The Wild will be missing stud defenseman Ryan Sutter, and that will be too much to overcome against an explosive Jets team.
The betting perspective: The Jets at 8-1 to win the Stanley Cup? Why not? Bold prediction time -- the winner of Nashville-Winnipeg wins the Stanley Cup.
PREDICTED SECOND-ROUND MATCHUP: Winnipeg vs. Nashville
Las Vegas (1) vs. Los Angeles (wild card 1)
The breakdown: The Golden Knights are one of the best stories in sports, making it to the playoffs in their first year of existence. The Kings have playoff pedigree and a goalie in Jonathan Quick who can carry a team by himself.
Players to watch: William Karlsson, Vegas: He was simply amazing in his first year with the Knights, with 43 goals. He thrived with the move to the desert, and will be a big factor. Jeff Carter, Kings: He was injured and played just 27 games, but had 22 points in those and the Kings have been a different team since his return.
Prediction: It’s hard not to root for the Knights, but this Kings team knows how to win once it gets to the postseason and will be a tough matchup for the Knights. Should be close, but LA pulls off the upset..
The betting perspective: It’s not much of an upset; the Kings are only +105. But there is good value in that.
Anaheim (2) vs. San Jose (3)
The breakdown: The Sharks quietly overcame some rough patches and still have much of the roster that made it to the Cup two years ago. Anaheim is always solid and got steady goaltending from John Gibson down the stretch to finish strongly.
Players to watch: Joe Thornton, Sharks: He is not expected to play Game 1, but should return from a knee injury at some point. If he does and plays at a high level, the Sharks could win this. Rickard Rickell, Ducks: He emerged as a really good goal scorer this season with 35 to go with 69 points and he will be a big key for the Ducks.
Prediction: The Ducks are the safest pick, but the Sharks are capable of raising their game in the postseason and a lot of these players have been there before. Thornton comes back, makes an impact and the Sharks surprise in 7.
The betting perspective: San Jose at +105 is the play.
PREDICTED SECOND-ROUND MATCHUP: LA vs. San Jose
Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander says he is “a little bit behind schedule” due to offseason shoulder inflammation that could prevent him from being ready to pitch on opening day.
Verlander, who turns 41 next week, called the injury “a little hiccup’’ on Wednesday but added he will be “really cautious on how I’m building up.’’
The three-time Cy Young Award winner spoke on the first official day for pitchers and catchers at Astros camp.
“I’m a couple of weeks behind,’’ Verlander said. “I guess my body doesn’t respond at 40 as it does at 25. ... Let’s see how things go. If it ends up a little late, it’s a little late. If it’s on time, it’s on time. I’m not trying to rush.’’
General manager Dana Brown said he wasn't worried about Verlander's status, saying the right-hander planned to play catch Wednesday.
“Some of these guys when they ramp up, they feel some soreness,” Brown said. "I think he’s going to be fine. I’m not concerned at all.’’
Brown added that if Verlander was “shut down, it would be more concerning.’’
Verlander is back in West Palm Beach after spending last spring training with the New York Mets. He signed an $86.7 million, two-year deal with New York ahead of the 2023 season but was traded back to Houston on Aug. 2. He helped the Astros win their sixth AL West crown in seven seasons before they lost to Texas in the AL Championship Series.
Verlander won the 2022 AL Cy Young with Houston after missing 2021 due to Tommy John surgery.
"I usually shut it down for a while,’’ Verlander said of his offseason. “This time when I shut it down and picked it back up, my shoulder didn’t feel so great. So I kind of had to take a step back in my build-up. I’ve always been somebody who luckily could just pick up a ball and start throwing it. It wasn’t quite as easy, so I’ve had to slow down a bit.“
Verlander said he won’t give an exact timetable on when he will pitch. Houston's spring training opener is Feb. 24th against the Washington Nationals.
“Let’s not look ahead,’’ Verlander said. “It’s literally a day-by-day, week-by-week thing. It’s a little more slow-paced, a little more thought-out, build-up approach and not with a date in mind.’’
Verlander says he hasn't contemplated retirement yet and spoke this season with former teammate Kenny Rogers, who pitched in the majors until he was 43.
“It’s not like I come into this season like I’m going to be 41 in four days and the clock’s ticking,’’ Verlander said. “I have the same process I’ve always had — head down, work hard, reset and come back next year and you keep doing that.
"I’ve talked to friends. I’ve talked to Kenny Rogers this offseason. He took me under his wing my rookie year. He made adjustments when he was in his 40s. One of the things he told me is you’ll just know. The game will tell you or you tell yourself. You’ll lose the fire. You’re not competitive. Neither one has happened yet, thank goodness. I’ll keep playing as long as I can.’’