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It’s Christmas in the spring, the first round of the NHL playoffs are finally upon us. Let’s not waste any time, let’s break down every series and pick some winners.

Western Conference

Colorado Avalanche vs Nashville Predators

The Predators have been a great story this season. No one expected them to get a sniff of the playoffs this year after trading Viktor Arvidsson for peanuts, and their core getting a year older with very few players in a position to improve. Instead, their older core players all had career years, Juuse Saros was great again, and their younger players were way better than expected.

As a reward, they get to play the Colorado Avalanche. Yikes.

Surprisingly, the Avalanche don’t have the underlying numbers of a legitimate contender, their expected goals for percentage at 5-vs-5 is just 52 per cent, compared to Nashville’s 50.07 per cent, but the Avs are a potent offensive force that has been undeniable all season, and they greatly outperform their expected numbers.

It would be a colossal shock if the Predators pulled this off, the Avalanche are going to take it.

Colorado Avalanche to win the series -650

Calgary Flames vs Dallas Stars

Two of the most dominant lines in the NHL this season face off in what promises to be an amazing series. Elias Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau, and Matthew Tkachuk for the Flames, and Jason Robertson, Joe Pavelski, and Roope Hintz for the Stars, were the two most consistent lines this season, playing 964 and 786 minutes together. Both lines were over 60 per cent in expected goals for percentage, an absurd mark.

Aside from Jakob Markstrom, the difference in this series is going to be that while the Flames were a bit unlucky when the top line was off the ice this season, the depth remains very strong. The Dallas Stars without their top line were…bad.

The two top lines should essentially cancel each other out, and with those factors remover, the Flames hold a significant advantage.

Calgary Flames to win the series -300

Minnesota Wild vs St. Louis Blues

Two red-hot teams down the stretch meet in the first round, and on the surface this matchup looks very even.

The St. Louis Blues swept the season series, winning twice in overtime. That’s going to lead to a lot of people assuming that the Blues have the advantage here between two teams on roughly equal footing, but I’m not buying what the Blues are selling.

The Blues are one of the best teams at creating high danger passes with a pass preceding the shot, making their shots much more dangerous than average, but the overall combination of their play is less impressive.

The Blues have outscored their underlying numbers by a wide margin all season, a wider margin than any other playoff team, and I don’t think they’re that talented.

The Wild meanwhile have very strong underlying numbers both at even strength and overall. While the Wild have ranked seventh in the league in expected goals for percentage the last two months, the Blues ranked 22nd. The combination of Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Talbot also gives Minnesota options for optimal rest and performance.

I think Minnesota takes this one.

Minnesota Wild to win the series -150

Edmonton Oilers vs Los Angeles Kings

If there is a nightmare matchup for the Edmonton Oilers in the postseason that isn't a contender, this is it.

A year ago, Phillip Danault kept Auston Matthews to one goal in seven games, frustrated Mark Scheifele enough in one game to get himself suspended, held Kyle Connor to one goal in four games, and stole Mark Stone’s soul in the playoffs. It was a defensive performance for the ages, and now he gets to play with one of the best defensive centres of his generation in Anze Kopitar as well.

The Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but it’s likely that they’ll only have 8-10 minutes per night to try to sneak those guys out against the Kings without Danault or Kopitar on the ice, which is not ideal.

However, the Oilers are much improved under new head coach Jay Woodcroft, and the Kings are missing Drew Doughty who is out for the season. Still, I don’t trust Mike Smith. I know he’s been hot down the stretch, but we’ve seen this movie before.

Because of Smith, I think this series is a toss-up. It should go seven games, and the Oilers should win, but since Edmonton is so favoured, the Kings aren’t a bad bet at all.

Eastern Conference

Florida Panthers vs Washington Capitals

The Panthers. I mean come on. The Capitals are an inoffensive, middle-of-the-road team, but the Panthers are incredible, and their third string goalie allowing 10 goals in a meaningless game to end the season shouldn’t change your opinion at all.

Ovechkin looked pretty healthy having fun with Rangers fans in the press gallery at MSG in the Caps’ final game of the year, but he would have to be his 2010 self for a chance in this series.

Florida Panthers to win the series -335

Carolina Hurricanes vs Boston Bruins

I’ve been bullish on the Carolina Hurricanes for longer than they’ve been a good team, because it was clear what they were building and that they were focused on the right things. However, this is no easy matchup.

With Freddie Andersen out to start the series at least, the weight of being the favourite falls on Antti Raanta, and he didn’t have a great end to the season overall. The Hurricanes swept the season series, and ended the season with the strongest expected goals ratio in the league over the last two months, but you know who was second? Boston.

Despite how excellent Carolina is, I see this as the most likely upset in the first round of the playoffs. Boston it is.

Boston Bruins to win the series -105

New York Rangers vs Pittsburgh Penguins

Tristan Jarry is still out, but could be back any day. Even if he does come back, there’s a big goaltending mismatch in this one as Igor Shesterkin tends the goal for the Rangers.

And yet, I think the Penguins are going to win this series. The Rangers have been absurdly lucky all season long, from Chris Kreider’s outlier 50-goal season, to Shesterkin’s incredible year. The Penguins have been walking through the fire from the moment the puck dropped in game one.

Starting the season without Malkin and Crosby, lots of people expected them to miss the playoffs entirely, now those two are healthy and hungry to improve on four straight disappointing playoff years.

Pittsburgh Penguins to win the series -110

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Tampa Bay Lightning

Last year the Lightning coasted most of the season and turned it on for the playoffs. This year could be more of the same, with them posting middling underlying numbers overall, but I’m skeptical.

Three of the four conference finalists from last season straight up missed the playoffs, so while the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions have a pedigree that no one else can equal, I can’t imagine everyone is healthy and rested.

Two straight short offseasons and two straight compressed seasons brings a lot of wear and tear on the body of an NHLer, and when you combine that with the fact that this Toronto Maple Leafs team is the best edition we’ve seen, I lean Leafs here.

Could the Lighting have taken the regular season off again and suddenly turn it on and blitz through to a third straight Stanley Cup while making me look like a fool? Yes, absolutely. But how likely is it?

Somehow, I don’t believe the Matthews line will be held off the scoresheet this year.

Toronto Maple Leafs to win the series -120

Who wins the Stanley Cup?

This is the ultimate question at this time of the year, and there’s no shortage of amazing contending teams to choose from, but the combination of stellar overall play and strength of schedule, I keep looking in the direction of the Calgary Flames.

They have a great coach who has done it before in Darryl Sutter, they have a goaltender capable of stealing games in Jacob Markstrom, they have one of the best top lines in the league by all possible measures, and they have depth throughout the lineup that could easily score at higher rates in the postseason than the regular season.

On top of all that, the Flames play playoff hockey, and they don’t have to go through the murderer’s row that is the Eastern Conference. They may get to the Stanley Cup Final only needing to face one contender in the Avalanche, while a team like Toronto, Tampa Bay, or Carolina would need to face three each. That’s a huge advantage.

Calgary Flames to win the Stanley Cup +800