After a 2017 first-round that set a record for games decided in overtime (18) the 2018 first round saw five games get decided after regulation (with four in the Capitals-Blue Jackets series). Only one lower-seeded team advanced to Round 2 in 2018, setting up a clash of must-watch matchups.
The second round begins Thursday when the Washington Capitals host the Pittsburgh Penguins at 7 p.m. ET (NBC Sports Network).
Here’s how the USA TODAY Sports NHL staff sees it playing out.
(1) NASHVILLE PREDATORS VS. (2) WINNIPEG JETS
Kevin Allen: Predators in 6. As impressed as we are with the Jets’ pure talent, the Predators are a more complete team. They have offensive depth, a skilled defense, the likely Vezina Trophy winner (Pekka Rinne) and experienced gained by reaching the Stanley Cup Final last season.
Jimmy Hascup: Predators in 7. The high-flying Jets will test the Predators, who get the nod here because of a Game 7 at home.
Mike Brehm: Predators in 7. This will be the best series of the entire playoffs. Give Nashville the edge in defense, a slight one in goaltending and enough offense to keep pace with the Jets’ high-flying scorers.
Jace Evans: Jets in 6. Pekka Rinne struggled at times against the Avalanche, posting a .909 save percentage. The Predators can’t afford a similar performance from Rinne against the Jets, especially when Connor Hellebuyck shined with a .924 SV in Round 1.
(1) VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS VS. (3) SAN JOSE SHARKS
Allen: Golden Knights in 7. No reason to stop believing in the Golden Knights’ remarkable season. San Jose goalie Martin Jones can match Marc-Andre Fleury’s save count, but the Golden Knights’ relentless pursuit of the puck will be the difference.
Hascup: Golden Knights in 6. Proved the playoffs won’t overwhelm them. San Jose won’t be able to keep up with Vegas’ relentlessness and all-around depth.
Brehm: Golden Knights in 7. Vegas is practically unbeatable at home. That and the fact that they never give up on the puck will help them in a long series.
Evans: Golden Knights in 7. With both teams boasting balanced scoring, the bet is the Golden Knights will advance thanks to having home ice – the magic they’ve flashed all year doesn’t hurt them, either.
(1) TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING VS. (2) BOSTON BRUINS
Allen: Lightning in 6. In the first part of the season, the Lightning looked as if they could win the Stanley Cup. Nothing has changed. This is a full-service team, a squad hungry for a chance to win it all.
Hascup: Bruins in 7. Round 1 wasn’t easy but that, along with a commitment to a 200-foot game, will help the Bruins against a team with more firepower.
Brehm: Bruins in 6. The Lightning looked like world-beaters in the first round and the Bruins showed flaws against the Maple Leafs. But I picked Boston for the Cup and am sticking with it. With two days off, the Bruins can regroup.
Evans: Lightning in 6. In a five-game win over the Devils, the Lightning flashed the combination of high-end skill (Nikita Kucherov’s 10 points) and depth (10 different players scored a goal) that helped make them the best team in the Eastern Conference. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy also appeared to find his game again.
(1) WASHINGTON CAPITALS VS. (2) PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Allen: Penguins in 7. Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin are out for Pittsburgh. The Capitals are oozing with confidence. But it’s hard to pick against a Penguins team that has won nine consecutive playoff series over three seasons.
Hascup: Capitals in 7. The Penguins were lucky that the Flyers’ goaltending was worse in the first round. Matt Murray has been below average all season, and Braden Holtby has shown he’s still a frontline goalie. That will be the difference.
Brehm: Penguins in 7. All signs point to the Capitals. The Penguins have key injuries, Washington’s John Carlson is increasing his free agent value and Braden Holtby is playing better than Murray. But gut instinct says Sidney Crosby torments the Caps again.
Evans: Penguins in 6. The Penguins showed against the Flyers that they’re just as potent offensively as ever, even as Evgeni Malkin dealt with an injury late in the series that will keep him out at least for Game 1. That’s bad news for a Capitals team that is not as strong defensively as the teams that also lost to the Penguins the past two years.
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