Sharks

NHL playoff predictions 2019: Who'll be left standing with Stanley Cup?

NHL playoff predictions 2019: Who'll be left standing with Stanley Cup?

The best postseason tournament in all of professional sports is about to begin.

The NHL regular season is over and done with. The playoffs matchups are set.

And. Here. We. Go.

This year has the potential to be one of the wilder playoffs in recent memory. On one side of the bracket -- the East -- there's a select group of teams in a tier unto themselves. One of those teams -- the Lightning -- just tied the NHL record for most wins in a season, and posted a plus-103 goal differential. No other team finished better than plus-62.

They're your prohibitive favorites, but face arguably the toughest path to the Cup Final of any division winner.

In the Western Conference, well, it's anybody's guess who will make it out alive. Can the upstart Flames finish off an already successful season with a dream finish? Which heavyweight makes it out of the Central? Can the Sharks finally get over the hump?

Here's how I see it all playing out:

First-round predictions

Western Conference

Flames over Avalanche in six
Golden Knights over Sharks in six
Predators over Stars in five
Jets over Blues in seven

Eastern Conference

Lightning over Blue Jackets in four
Bruins over Maple Leafs in six
Capitals over Hurricanes in seven
Penguins over Islanders in six

That's right, I expect seven of the eight semifinalists from a year ago to make it back to that round once again. The only team that fails to do so? San Jose.

The Sharks are playing their worst hockey of the season. They're banged up -- who knows what to expect out of Erik Karlsson, and Timo Meier's recent injury couldn't have come at a worse time. Oh, and they can't make it out of the first few minutes of a game without being scored on.

[RELATED: Sharks feeling confident heading into series vs. Vegas]

The Knights have had San Jose's number since coming into the league. It pains me to say it, but I don't see reason why that will change.

Second-round predictions

Western Conference

Knights over Flames in seven
Predators over Jets in seven

Eastern Conference

Bruins over Lightning in seven
Penguins over Capitals in seven

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and each of these winners, minus the Knights, has had an entire year to chill.

As great as the Lightning have been -- and I mean great -- I'm going out on a limb and predicting the Bruins avenge their second-round elimination at the hands of Tampa Bay last year. I like whichever team emerges from this series to go all the way.

Same goes for the Penguins and Predators -- the vengeance part, that is.

Calgary's somewhat surprising season ends in a dramatic Game 7 loss to a team that has played in far more big games in recent memory.

Conference finals predictions

Western Conference:

Predators over Knights in six

Eastern Conference:

Bruins over Penguins in six

Vegas' luck finally runs out. Marc-Andre Fleury, still not at full strength, fails to provide the kind of staunch goaltending that proved so vital to the Golden Knights' dramatic run a year ago. Pekka Rinne, meanwhile, steals a couple games and gets some of the critics off his back. Nashville makes it back to the Cup Final for the first time since losing to the Penguins two years ago.

Pittsburgh won't meet them there, though. Worn down from an extremely physical series with the Capitals, the Penguins don't have the requisite energy to keep up with the Bruins' multi-layered attack. Boston's depth proves to be the deciding factor this late in the postseason grind.

Stanley Cup Final prediction

Bruins over Predators in six

I know, I know. Hasn't the city of Boston won enough lately?

When it rains, it pours.

In a battle of attrition, the Bruins do just enough to become champions. Nashville's defense has their hands full with Boston's top line, and the Bruins' 3rd-ranked power play vastly outperforms that of the Predators, which ranked dead last in the league during the regular season.

David Pastrnak scores the series-winner in Nashville in overtime of Game 6. The Cup eludes P.K. Subban at least one more year.

Watch Sharks' Joe Thornton, Capitals' Tom Wilson talk trash on benches

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AP

Watch Sharks' Joe Thornton, Capitals' Tom Wilson talk trash on benches

The ice got a little hot Tuesday night in San Jose. Towards the end of the Sharks' 5-2 blowout loss against the Capitals, tempers began to flare. 

Sharks winger Evander Kane was ejected for elbowing Washington defenseman Radko Gudas in the head with slightly over five minutes left in the third period. Gudas' teammates Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin each took exception, with Wilson hitting Kane. 

Kane and Wilson were seen chirping all the way to their respective benches, with Kane exiting the game.

It didn't stop there, too. Sharks center Joe Thornton chimed in before Wilson hit him with a "kiss the ring" comeback. 

[RELATED: Kane fined $5K for elbowing Gudas in Sharks' blowout loss]

Kane avoided suspension, but received the maximum fine of $5,000 for his hit on Gudas. 

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Sharks must handle challenging road trip better than last time around

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AP

Sharks must handle challenging road trip better than last time around

Just four days into December, the Sharks are facing a new level of adversity. They suffered a disappointing loss to the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night and are dealing with some injuries at forward that are keeping the position in flux.

To top it all off, San Jose is about to begin a four-game road trip, three games of which are against Eastern Conference teams. And the last time the Sharks went on a roadie out east, things didn't exactly go well.

In order for the Sharks to keep their good fortunes going, they must pass this test.

"Good teams, tough buildings, a big test," head coach Peter DeBoer said after Tuesday's loss when asked about the upcoming trip. "Our last time on an extended trip we didn't handle it well. So, hopefully, we're in a different place this time."

When you look at the big picture, the Sharks are in a better place than they were at the end of October, when they went 1-3-1 on their east-coast swing. San Jose staged a big rebound in November, showing it could win games in different ways and stand toe-to-toe with just about anyone. After going 4-8-1 in October, the Sharks went 11-4-0 in November and reinserted themselves back into the pack with the other competitive Pacific Division teams.

Nevertheless, the Sharks' upcoming trip -- which kicks off Thursday in Carolina against the Hurricanes and includes a back-to-back against the Lightning and Panthers -- isn't going to be a cakewalk. After the rough outing San Jose's defense had Tuesday against the Capitals, the trip looks even more daunting.

"It's not getting any easier," Brenden Dillon admitted Tuesday. "We're going into some tough buildings. A couple of back-to-backs here with Tampa and Florida. I think we're seeing if we don't play to our identity, if we don't play the right way, what happens."

The Sharks' defense isn't the only area of concern following the loss to Washington. San Jose was starting to see some production from its bottom six at the end of November, but injuries to Tomas Hertl and Antti Suomela are forcing the Sharks to shuffle up their lines yet again. Even with fourth-liners Dylan Gambrell and Noah Gregor finding their stride and contributing more, San Jose's mission to have a four-line team on the ice every night remains an ongoing project.

[RELATED: Kane fined $5K for elbowing Gudas in Sharks' blowout loss]

This isn't to say that the Sharks can't rebound from their loss to the Capitals and have a successful road trip. Their resilience was on display just last week when they bounced back from a tough loss to the Jets to win back-to-back games against the Kings and Coyotes. Plus, Carolina is the only team on the trip that currently has more points than San Jose, and the Hurricanes have lost three of their last four games, including a 2-0 shutout at the hands of the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night. 

Still, though, the Sharks can't afford to play as they did against the Caps on their upcoming road trip. San Jose is about to encounter a major test, and class is in session starting Thursday.