After an upset-filled first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the 2019 NHL postseason already has a much different look from last season.
All four division winners were eliminated in the first round for the first time. Plus all four teams from last season’s conference finals are out, including the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, who fell at home in Game 7 to a Carolina Hurricanes team that is in the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Also gone are the 62-win Tampa Bay Lightning, victims of a shocking four-game sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Vegas Golden Knights blew a 3-1 series lead and a 3-0 Game 7 lead against the San Jose Sharks on a controversial penalty. And the Winnipeg Jets were knocked off by a St. Louis Blues team that had been in last place on Jan. 3.
Will the upsets continue or will sanity return to the second round? USA TODAY Sports’ NHL panel picks who will advance to the conference final.
Kevin Allen: Islanders in 6. The Hurricanes have overflowing confidence and momentum, but they are going up against a defensive-minded Islanders team that held the Penguins to 1.5 goals per game. The Islanders’ penalty killing is good enough, their goaltending is first rate, their offense is underrated and coach Barry Trotz is 10 months removed from leading a team to a Stanley Cup championship. But this won’t be easy.
Jimmy Hascup, Hurricanes in 6. The Islanders were first in goals-against during the regular season, but their offense, power play and penalty kill all ranked 17th or worse, so it’s not as if the Hurricanes are meeting a juggernaut. Carolina has shown it can dominate game flow, and coach Rod Brind’Amour adapted well to the Capitals. The Hurricanes defense’s ability to move the puck proved to be a weapon (which was something the Penguins couldn’t really do in Round 1). Adding injured forwards Micheal Ferlund and Andrei Svechnikov at some point in this series would only help the Hurricanes ’cause.
Mike Brehm: Hurricanes in 6. The Hurricanes knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champions and now they will take on the coach of that team. Former Capitals coach Barry Trotz has the Islanders playing the type of defense you need to go far. But the Hurricanes are a resilient, tight, fun team that controlled play against Washington. They have played flawlessly at home, and they should be able to grab one game on the road.
Jace Evans: Islanders in 7. The Islanders have gotten plenty of rest after sweeping the Penguins. Their opponent waged a seven-game war against the defending champion Capitals. The Hurricanes are relentless team, but the Isles have home ice and the best team defense left standing.
Kevin Allen: Bruins in 6. The Blue Jackets won’t surprise the Bruins like they did the Lightning. The Blue Jackets have considerable momentum, a fired-up fan base and a team average 4.75 goals per game after the first round. The Bruins have a team that has been consistently top-notch all season. It’s not bothered by adversity and usually finds a way to win big games.
Jimmy Hascup: Blue Jackets in 6. After an easy first-round series, the Blue Jackets will be more tested in this one. Ultimately, they are peaking at the right time, and their star players — forwards Matt Duchene and Artemi Panarin and defensemen Seth Jones Zach Werenski — are leading the way. They play a tight-checking, physical style similar to the Bruins, but their depth is better and I like how goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has played in the second half.
Mike Brehm: Bruins in 7. Everyone underestimated the Blue Jackets in the first round, but the Bruins are grittier than the Lightning and should be able to prevail in a long series. Boston’s do-everything top line will be the key, but the Bruins also showed in Game 7 that they can get scoring from other lines. Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask looked very good in his last two games.
Jace Evans: Blue Jackets in 6. Columbus’ sweep of the Lightning hardly seemed like a fluke as the Blue Jackets reached a new level. That could be trouble for a Bruins squad that just had to go through seven games against the Maple Leafs in the first round again. Boston faced a similar scenario last season, and fell to a rested Tampa team in five.
Kevin Allen: Stars in 6. The Stars’ line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov is the best line left in the playoffs. Goalie Jordan Binnington has been the Blues’ MVP since January, but Dallas goalie Ben Bishop has been more impressive during the playoffs. Bishop had a .945 save percentage and 1.90 goals-against average in the first round. The Blues’ power play was sharp against the Jets, but the Stars’ penalty killing was perfect against the Predators.
Jimmy Hascup: Stars in 7. Dallas’ commitment to defense has been impressive, and that generally works in the playoffs. But it’s the Mats Zuccarello addition that could be a difference-making move as it has given them more than one threatening line. Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov combined for seven goals and 18 points in the first round and they will be hard to contain in this round.
Mike Brehm: Blues in 6. The Stars have a great first line, but the Blues, outside of one game, held a deeper Jets team in check in the first round. Jordan Binnington had a .879 save percentage against the Stars during the regular season, but he’s capable of keeping his team in games. The Blues’ power play will provide a bigger challenge than the terrible Predators one that the Stars faced in the first round.
Jace Evans: Blues in 6. It will be a battle of goalies. Jordan Binnington will need to be in top form again if the Blues – who have home ice – are to shut down the dynamic trio of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov.
Kevin Allen: Sharks in 6. Don’t you have to believe in the Sharks after the dramatic come-from-behind win against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 7? This could be the second round’s most entertaining series. Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon is one of the top five players in the game and both of these teams feature a dynamic offensive attack. It may take five goals to win a couple of these games. The X-factor for the Sharks will be goalie Martin Jones. He needs a save percentage of .911 or better for the Sharks to win.
Jimmy Hascup: Sharks in 6. The Avalanche have been a great story, but San Jose — with some help from the referees, maybe? — just won three in a row to defeat the Golden Knights in seven games. The Sharks simply are the more complete team (their third-line center is Joe Thornton compared to JT Compher in Colorado), with the experience that’s crucial in the playoffs.
Mike Brehm: Avalanche in 6. The Sharks couldn’t shut down the Golden Knights’ top players and the Avalanche offense is even more dynamic with Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. Avalanche goalie Philipp Grubauer and the team defense were solid in shutting down the Calgary Flames’ stars. Jones was great in Game 6 and late in Game 7, but will he be able to repeat that for a full series?
Jace Evans: Sharks in 7. The Sharks’ win over the Golden Knights in Game 7 was so unbelievable you almost have to think a higher power was at play – perhaps the Hockey Gods wanting a Stanley Cup for Joe Thornton? The Sharks managed a stunning breakthrough to the second round, and a team that many had pegged at various points throughout the season as a legitimate Cup contender might be rounding into one if Martin Jones keeps trending in the right direction.