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Wyshynski: My Stanley Cup playoffs bracket — with Oilers winning it all

The Boston Bruins have given the NHL so much this season, from shattered records to David Pastrnak‘s wardrobe. As the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs arrive, they’ve given us something else: a time machine.

Most of us weren’t around when the Montreal Canadiens made the Stanley Cup Final every year in the 1950s, hoisting the chalice six times. I imagine the vibe at the start of every postseason was less “who will win the Cup?” than “can anyone not named the Montreal Canadiens win the Cup?”

This Bruins team shares that vibe. Every bracket, every pundit, every prognostication boils down to “will the team that set new records for regular-season success fall short of winning the Stanley Cup; and if so, at which team’s hand?”

Wonder no more. Here is how the Stanley Cup playoffs will play out, from the opening round through the last game of the Final … including the last loss of the Bruins’ season.

I apologize in advance for spoiling the next two months for you, as obviously all of this is going to happen exactly to script and none of these picks will be incorrect.

(Note: While some action from Monday night is referenced, all the picks were made before the start of the postseason.)

Jump ahead:
East: 1st | 2nd
Conference finals
West: 1st | 2nd
Conference finals
Stanley Cup Final

EAST FIRST ROUND

The scary thing about the Bruins after Game 1 is that they won the game (A) without center Patrice Bergeron and (B) vowing that they still had much to improve on because they had opening-night jitters. It’s scary because Boston never seemed like it was in too much danger vs. the Panthers, but that’s probably also a function of Linus Ullmark having perfected the art of goaltending Zen this season.

I still think the Panthers are a tougher out than some give them credit, especially since they’ve yet to unleash Sergei “Playoff Bob” Bobrovsky on the series in goal. Ultimately, the Bruins are too deep and too defensively stingy for Florida to oust them. As Matthew Tkachuk said, the Panthers are not as much underdogs as they are a team looking to spoil someone else’s victory party.

Winner: Bruins eliminate Panthers in six.


There are frankly too many people who believe this could be the Maple Leafs team that wins the franchise’s first playoff series since “Friends” was still in first-run episodes.

Toronto rejects consensus like a body rejects an incompatible organ. Yet I can’t help but join the chorus, singing the praises of a Maple Leafs team that “should” — and again, I absolutely hate using this term to describe Toronto in a first-round playoff series — eliminate the Lightning.

The Leafs were seventh in expected goals for and 10th in expected goals against, trumping the Lightning in both categories. They finished 13 points ahead of Tampa Bay without needing another Hart Trophy-worthy season from Auston Matthews. The Ryan O’Reilly acquisition was smart on several levels, not the least that he could be an exorcist for whatever playoff demons possess this hapless playoff team. GM Kyle Dubas rolled the dice on Ilya Samsonov being the solution in goal for the Leafs and ended up with the 10th-best goalie in goals saved above expected.

So Toronto is good. So is Tampa Bay. Just not as good as it used to be.

Yes, the Lightning still have the pillars: Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov (fourth in scoring in the NHL with 113 points), Brayden Point (51 goals) and especially Andrei Vasilevskiy. But attrition was eventually going to catch up with the Lightning. First it was the checking line — Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow — departing after the second straight Stanley Cup thanks to the expansion draft and free agency. After Tampa Bay lost to Colorado last June, the Lightning said goodbye to playoff heroes Ryan McDonagh and Ondrej Palat, as well as Jan Rutta.

Was it the loss of Rutta that has led to Hedman’s down season, like a champion golfer losing his caddie? The Lightning are allowing more high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes (13.0) than last season (10.8) when Hedman is on the ice. We’ve seen him kick into a higher gear before in the playoffs. Can that happen, or has a diminished blue line negatively impacted arguably the Lightning’s most important player in the postseason?

I’ll take the Leafs here. No, I don’t feel good about it. But if it’s ever going to happen, it’s going to happen now. And if it’s going to happen now, it certainly isn’t going to happen in a Game 7.

Winner: Maple Leafs eliminate Lightning in six.


This series was perhaps the biggest divergence between the hockey punditry and sportsbooks. The former fancied the Islanders as a first-round upset pick; the latter still had the Hurricanes as a comfortable favorite.

Whatever happens, I think this series has been unfairly maligned. Some have deemed it boring or unwatchable hockey, in comparison to what we’re going to witness in other series. I guess it’s a testament to the current state of the NHL that even its most intransigent defensive standoffs have a spark of kinetic excitement. Compared to the defensive battles of the neutral zone trap years, Hurricanes vs. Islanders is like watching an Edmonton Oilers intrasquad scrimmage.

This was a tough draw for the Islanders, because the Hurricanes will do to them what the Islanders would rather be doing to one of the more skilled teams in the conference. Even with its offense diminished after the injuries to Max Pacioretty and Andrei Svechnikov, I think the Canes can scrounge up enough goals to advance past the Isles.

Winner: Hurricanes eliminate Islanders in seven.


I spoke with former Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko recently about the Battle of the Hudson. “It just puts hockey in the forefront in New York,” he said. “Things get a little ramped up when you’re playing your crosstown rival.”

This incarnation of the Battle feels a little bit like the 1994 edition. The Devils are on the glow-up, building with a young, talented core of homegrown players augmented by veteran acquisitions.

The Rangers have this mix of brilliant talent in their prime (Brian Leetch and Mike Richter then, Adam Fox and Igor Shesterkin now) and a gaggle of star players with championship rings (Mark Messier then, Patrick Kane now) desperate to win again and in the process snap a prolonged championship drought for the franchise (54 years then, 28 years now).

It feels like there’s more animosity among the fans than there is among the players, which might speak to the general degradation of rivalries in the modern NHL as much as it does a lack of history between these particular players. But all it takes is one visiting team victory or one overtime thriller or one Jacob Trouba hit and suddenly it’ll feel like old times.

The three keys for the Devils to win Round 1:

1. Don’t be overwhelmed by the moment. If you combined the Stanley Cup playoffs experience of Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Dawson Mercer, you’d have my Stanley Cup playoffs experience. Things get weird in the playoffs. Magic tricks that worked in the regular season don’t always work in the postseason. The trick is not to get frustrated by it.

2. Vitek Vanecek has to not lose the series. Shesterkin is the better goalie. No one is expecting Vanecek to be the reason the Devils win the series, but he can’t be the reason they lose it. Lest New Jersey has to put Mackenzie “Spot You Two Goals in the First” Blackwood into the fray.

3. Speed, speed and slightly more speed. The greatest trick the Devils ever pulled was convincing everyone they were a one-dimensional rush offense team. Instead, they were fourth in the NHL in expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (2.42). On their game, the Devils hoard the puck from opponents. The question is whether they can maintain that style in the Stanley Cup playoffs, when the tempo slows and the obstruction rolls.

Another reason this is like 1994: The pressure is squarely on the Rangers after last season’s conference finals appearance, the trade deadline buy-in, the creeping age of some of their elite players and the general impatience of their ownership. The Devils’ championship window is the size of a barn door given their core and what’s on the way in their system.

How this won’t be like 1994:

Winner: Devils eliminate Rangers in seven.


EAST SECOND ROUND

As a fervent believer of the Presidents’ Trophy curse, this would logically be where the Bruins meet their demise. In the NHL’s wild-card era, the team with the best regular-season record has been eliminated in the second round all but twice. Whether it’s the Lightning showing us all they’re still the Lightning or the Leafs with a gale-force wind in their sails after finally earning a playoff series win again, Boston is in for a battle in Round 2.

If this were anyone but the Bruins, I’d be inclined to put the Leafs in the conference finals. But the notion that Toronto could win in Boston — against this team — is a leap I can’t make. Not when Auston Matthews has eight points in 14 playoff games against Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and these tormentors. Not when Toronto curls into the fetal position when it sees the spoked B.

Besides, we’d love to see the conjecture about GM Kyle Dubas’ future with the Leafs winning a playoff round but losing to the Bruins. Heads will spin.

Winner: Bruins eliminate Maple Leafs in six.


I picked Carolina to make it out of the East before the season. I think the Hurricanes are going to remember this as the one that got away. This is where the losses of Max Pacioretty and Andrei Svechnikov catch up with the Canes. The Devils were 2-1-1 in the regular season against Carolina, with a plus-1 goal differential. I do think the Hurricanes can play the Devils tough, particularly if they unleash Jordan Staal against the Jack Hughes line. I don’t think the Hurricanes have the offensive weaponry to overcome the Devils in a battle of two teams that love to possess the puck.

It could go the distance, because that’s just how the Hurricanes roll. Let’s call it Devils in seven on an Ondrej Palat game winner, aka why they signed him.

Winner: Devils eliminate Hurricanes in seven.


EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

I had half a mind to pick the Devils in this series, and not just because I grew up at the Meadowlands wearing a black-and-red Claude Lemieux jersey to home games. The fact is that two of the Devils’ three losses to the Bruins this season were by one goal. Their speed and puck possession gave Boston trouble … but they were still losses.

This is a classic “learn to crawl before you walk” series for the Devils, the one that we’ll look back on years from now as being a vital teachable moment before achieving their championship dreams. But for now, they are but the students while the Bruins are the masters — and, in turn, the Eastern Conference champions, becoming the first Presidents’ Trophy winner in 10 seasons to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

Winner: Bruins eliminate Devils in six.

WEST FIRST ROUND

When Nathan MacKinnon addressed the loss of captain Gabriel Landeskog for the postseason — after he missed the entire regular season due to injury — he said, “It kills us. … Hopefully we can survive without him.”

Glad to see the Stanley Cup win didn’t take the emo out of MacKinnon …

The loss of Landeskog, the failure to sufficiently replace Nazem Kadri and a few other changes mean this Avalanche team is not last year’s Avalanche team. But I don’t think that matters against the Kraken in Round 1.

I don’t like how things have trended in the last 25 games for Seattle. While the Kraken remain one of the NHL’s better defensive teams at 5-on-5, their team save percentage subverted that and ranked 29th in the NHL. Which sounds uncomfortably like last season’s primary malfunction when they were near the league’s basement. While they were still chugging along offensively, their expected goals for ranked 15th in the last 25 games.

What I hope for with the Kraken is a competitive, fun series that hopefully includes a win on home ice. Playoff success (and failure) is what mints new fans. Seeing Jared McCann or Matty Beniers throw the fish after the first Stanley Cup playoffs triumph in franchise history would be a win in itself after last season.

But if the remaining Avs are healthy enough, I think they roll past the second-year franchise. As MacKinnon reminded us in the regular-season finale against Nashville, he can absolutely will this team to victories on his own.

Winner: Avalanche eliminate Kraken in five.


The Stars and Wild feel like two teams destined to go seven games, even after the Wild’s Game 1 double-overtime stunner — a costly loss for Dallas in every way. It’s now a steeper climb for the Stars potentially without Joe Pavelski, who left Game 1 after a nasty hit from Matt Dumba that resulted in a roughing minor. But the Stars have shown their depth of talent goes beyond their top line — and that top line could still work with Tyler Seguin in the middle.

But on top of the series deficit and the Pavelski injury, the concern for Dallas has to be how many infusions of momentum the Wild still have. Joel Eriksson Ek coming back. John Klingberg coming back. A flip to Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, if necessary.

That said, I’m sticking with the Stars, as Jake Oettinger gave me no reason to waver.

Winner: Stars eliminate Wild in seven.


I have some questions about this matchup, in no particular order:

  • So is this the Laurent Brossoit or Nate Schmidt revenge series?

  • Isn’t it weird that the absence of a single playoff game on Jack Eichel‘s résumé was always trumpeted by his critics; and then he finally makes it this season, and no one really makes a big deal about it?

  • How is Mark Stone‘s back?

  • Can the Vegas offense off the rush be the difference in the series, given that Winnipeg can be vulnerable against it?

  • Will the Knights slice an F-14 in half again during the pregame ceremony?

  • Is Nikolaj Ehlers healthy enough to be the X factor in the series? And if not, are Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois going to bring their offensive systems back online for the playoffs?

  • Seriously, how is Mark Stone’s back?

  • Is the positive trend line for the Jets’ defense (seventh in expected goals against in their last 25 games) combined with the outstanding goaltending of Connor Hellebuyck enough to hold off the Knights and continue a bizarre season with an opening-round series win? [Raises hand, makes enthusiastic noises] “Wait, wait I know the answer to this one: yes.”

Winner: Jets eliminate Golden Knights in six.


The last time the Oilers were victorious in a Game 1 was in 2017, so Monday’s result against Los Angeles should come as no surprise. They’re far from perfect, and that loss was indicative of their flaws.

But I’ve believed in Edmonton all season and continue to do so. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can carry this team on their own, but Edmonton has a deep bench of scorers. Mattias Ekholm had a transformative effect on their blue line.

It’s not going to be easy against the Kings, who have an envious collection of franchise icons, effective veterans and young role players. But if the Oilers are who I think they are, they’ll pass this difficult test.

Winner: Oilers eliminate Kings in six.


WEST SECOND ROUND

The Stars go from playing a team in a perpetual search for a No. 1 center to a team with Nathan MacKinnon in the middle. Earlier this season, coach Pete DeBoer used the Joe Pavelski line against MacKinnon in a move that didn’t benefit Dallas offensively or defensively. Instead, I expect the Stars to use a “by committee” defense and copious amounts of Esa Lindell to try to handle MacKinnon.

In the end, it’s the Stars’ depth at forward and advantage in goal with Jake Oettinger that enables them to eliminate the short-handed champs.

Winner: Stars eliminate Avalanche in six.


Party like it’s still the Smythe Division, baby!

The last time these two teams met in the postseason was in 2021, when the Oilers got Hellebuyck’d. The Jets goalie stopped 151 of 159 shots and pitched a Game 2 shutout in a sweep of Edmonton. So that’s concerning. But this Oilers team is deeper than that Oilers team, and McDavid and Draisaitl were still finding their postseason sea legs back then.

The Oilers ground the Jets to advance to the Western Conference finals for the second straight season.

Winner: Oilers eliminate Jets in five.


WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

Picking against the Stars here means picking against one of my favorite trends in the NHL, which is Peter DeBoer taking over a team and leading it to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season there. It happened with the Devils in 2012 and it happened with the San Jose Sharks in 2016.

(It didn’t happen with the Vegas Golden Knights in 2020 because he took over during the season. Instead, they just made the conference finals. That’s how the magic works.)

This would be a terrific conference finals. Two teams with high-end stars and a truculent supporting cast. Oettinger vs. Connor and Leon, with a trip to the Cup Final on the line? Yes please. The Oilers were my Stanley Cup pick. I’m not about to pull the ripcord in the conference finals, despite being really impressed with this Dallas club.

Winner: Oilers eliminate Stars in seven.

STANLEY CUP FINAL

I think the most fascinating Stanley Cup Final on the board would be the Maple Leafs trying to win their first Stanley Cup since 1967 against Connor McDavid seeking his first ring. This is clearly the next best option: A record-shattering, regular-season juggernaut tries to go wire-to-wire to win the Stanley Cup against a generational talent finally getting his turn on the grandest stage.

To quote Gorilla Monsoon: This is the irresistible force vs. the immovable object. This is McDavid and Draisaitl against Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Linus Ullmark, Jim Montgomery and every other gear in the Bruins machine trying to slow them down.

I’ve said since the start of the season that two generational talents on the same team will figure it out eventually. Gretzky and Messier. Mario and Jagr. Sid and Geno. And now, Connor and Leon, turning the 2022-23 Boston Bruins into the 2007 New England Patriots — winning everything but the big prize at the end.

The Edmonton Oilers are your Stanley Cup champions. As often happens, the Presidents’ Trophy winners are not.

Winner: Oilers win the Cup in six.

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