By Steve Silverman
The puck drops Wednesday night in three series, and so the NHL’s death march to the Stanley Cup begins.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins get right into the hatred with a match-up against their arch-rivals from across the state of Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Flyers overcame an early-season 10-game losing streak and climbed back into the playoffs under the watchful eye of head coach Dave Hakstol.
They also had a little bit of help from Claude Giroux, who had one of the best bounce-back seasons in recent memory as he went from scoring 58 points in 2016-17 to a career-best 102 points this year.
Giroux had never scored more than 93 points in any season and had been on a downward trend since 2013-14 when he scored 86 points. He scored 73, 67 and 58 points over the next three seasons.
Giroux started percolating again this season, and got plenty of help from Jakub Voracek with 85 points and Sean Couturier with 76 points.
The Flyers can put the puck in the net, and they should have an opportunity to do that quite a bit against the Penguins. Pittsburgh gave up 250 goals this year, and the defense appears to have slipped quite a bit from the last two years.
Could they pick it up in that area in the playoffs? It seems unlikely, even if goalie Matt Murray gets back to top form. The Penguins defense leaves the net-minder in a vulnerable position too much of the time. Still, they will come at Flyers with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, and they can light it up as well as any team when they get off to a hot start.
This should be the highest scoring series of the first round, and we see the Flyers handling the favored Penguins without going into a panic. The Flyers win this thrilling series in six games.
Rematch: Bruins vs Maple Leafs
These two teams got together in 2013 and played a spectacular seven-game series. Well, at least the finish was overwhelming, and it was thrilling from a Boston point of view while it was brutal from Toronto’s perspective.
The Bruins built a 3-1 lead in that series, but the Maple Leafs were undaunted and rallied to tie the series at three games each. The seventh game in Boston appeared to favor Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Zdeno Chara, but the Maple Leafs led 2-1 after two periods and stretched the advantage to 4-1 near the midpoint of the third period.
That’s when the Bruins mounted a comeback for the ages, getting a goal from Nathan Horton to come within two. Late goals from Milan Lucic and Bergeron tied the score before the end of regulation and turned TD Garden into a cacophony of noise.
It didn’t take long for Bergeron to score the winner in overtime, and ruin the hopes of long-suffering Toronto fans. The Leafs have not won a playoff series since 2004 when they defeated the Ottawa Senators in seven games, and they haven’t won a Stanley Cup since, gulp, 1967.
The Leafs and Bruins are a near-toss up in this series, with Boston having a slight edge because of the home-ice advantage. The Bruins are still firing away with Bergeron, Chara, Krejci, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask, but they have a slew of young talent making key contributions. David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen are among the youngsters that the Leafs will have to contend with.
Toronto is loaded on the offensive end with Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk.
The two x-factors in the series could be Rick Nash for the Bruins and Patrick Marleau for the Leafs. Nash was acquired at the trade deadline and made a quick contribution before being sidelined for the last three weeks of the regular season. Marleau scored 27 goals for the Maple Leafs, including five on the power play and five game winners.
We are expecting another seven-game series, and perhaps more heartbreak for the Leafs and their fans, as Bergeron either scores or sets up the series-decider in over time.
First round picks
Tampa Bay Lightning over New Jersey Devils in 7 -– Tight series leaves Bolts shaken
Boston Bruins over Toronto Maple Leafs in 7 — Stop if you’ve seen this before. Bergy scores series-winner in OT
Washington Capitals over Columbus Blue Jackets in 6 — Caps get rid of Tortorella without trouble.
Philadelphia Flyers over Pittsburgh Penguins in 6 — Flyers take advantage of shaky Pittsburgh defense.
Nashville Predators over Colorado Avalanche in 5 — Hungry Preds take first step back to SCF by hammering Avs.
Winnipeg Jets over Minnesota wild in 4 — Jets have star power in Wheeler and Laine, while Wild injured.
Los Angeles Kings over Vegas Golden Knights in 6 — Expansion team learns that playoffs are a different animal.
San Jose Sharks over Anaheim Ducks — Sharks take advantage of Ducks’ home-ice disadvantage.
Daily Playoff Power Ratings
Here is the first of our daily playoff power ratings. We start off in regular-season point order, but our rankings will be adjusted after each day. Teams are upgraded (or downwgraded) for road wins or home losses, big-margin games (wins by three or more goals), shutouts and overtime wins.
Look for big changes on a regular basis over the first two rounds
1. Nashville – Big dogs on the hunt
2. Winnipeg – Most underrated team in the playoffs; loaded with firepower
3. Tampa Bay – Trying to get back to early-season form
4. Boston – No weakness when playing well
5. Vegas – Upstarts may have bigger challenge in the playoffs
6. Washington – No longer Great 8 expectations. Can Caps, Ovechkin finally come through?
7. Toronto – Babcock can provide leadership when leafs need it most
8. Minn – Battered and bruised at this point vs. superior opponent.
9. Anaheim – Need to play consistently at home.
10. Pittsburgh – Two-time defending champs need to shore up the D.
11 San Jose – Will go as far as Burns can take them
12. Los Angeles – Must play nasty and relentless hockey.
13. Philadelphia – Can light the lamp with the best teams
14. Columbus – Tortorella will feel the heat.
15. New Jersey – Devils need Taylor Hall to have explosive opening series.
16. Colorado – Great job to make playoffs; in tough vs. Predators.
Follow @profootballboy on Twitter to see these rankings updated every day.