For hockey fans, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. However, before conjuring up memories of the Andy Williams’ Christmas classic, please be advised that we are referring to the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the potential for exciting finishes and possible upsets, players are eager to seize the opportunities to steal a game in net or score the winner in double-overtime.
This year is certainly not devoid of star power. Perennial icons like Crosby, Malkin and Ovechkin will once again take the ice on the NHL’s grandest stage. However, these names are not the only ones that will be seen and heard throughout the next couple of months. As we prepare for each series’ opening face-off , let’s take a look at the Ten Players Most Likely to Succeed in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
10.) Eric Staal, Forward, Minnesota Wild — (82 GP, 42 G, 34 A, 76 PTS)
Coming off of a great showing in 2016-17, Staal produced even more points this season as Minnesota’s top scorer. His 42 goals placed him fourth in the league. Despite having played in only 10 playoff games in the last nine seasons, Staal has been playing with a postseason mindset similar to that which he had during his Stanley Cup run with Carolina in 2006. If he can get off to a hot start, he might be able to lead the Wild to a deeper playoff run than most expect.
9.) Marc-Andre Fleury, Goaltender, Vegas Golden Knights — (46 GP, 29-13-4, 2.24 GAA, .927 SV%)
Fleury is unquestionably the most experienced goaltender amongst the 16 starters in net. He is also the undisputed face of the franchise. The expansion Golden Knights have already exceeded expectations by breaking records and qualifying for the playoffs. One might say that they are playing with ‘house money.’ However, having an experienced goaltender like Fleury between the pipes all but ensures that there are expectations in Las Vegas to win now. The three-time Stanley Cup champion has 115 post-season games on his resume. If Fleury can harness some of the heat of the Vegas sun, he might be helping the Knights make a run at their first Cup, and his own fourth.
8.) Anze Kopitar, Forward, Los Angeles Kings — (82 GP, 35 G, 57 A, 92 PTS)
The Kings forward is more than capable of leading the Kings to an opening round upset of conference-rival, Vegas. Kopitar finished the season seventh in league scoring. His 92 points were an increase of 40 from the previous season (when the Kings missed the playoffs for the second time in three years.) He carried the offensive workload with Jeff Carter out most of the season with an injury. He also helped Dustin Brown to become a scoring threat, once again. His play was a big reason for the Kings’ playoff run. If Los Angeles is to make a deep playoff run, they will need Kopitar to be a force every step of the way.
7.) Patrice Bergeron, Forward, Boston Bruins — (64 GP, 30 G, 33 A, 63 PTS)
While Brad Marchand has made a strong case for the Hart Trophy (and rightfully so), Bergeron might be the most important player as it relates to the Bruins playoff success. His numbers offensively balance one of the best lines in hockey with Marchand and David Pastrnak. He is still one of the best on faceoffs and the defensive side of the game. The 32-year-old logged the second most ice time of any Bruins forward at 19:26 per game, which is above his career average. Prior to missing more than 15 games due to injury, Bergeron was considered a prime contender for the Hart. If he can reclaim some of that early-season magic, the surprising Bruins might just be the favorites in the Eastern Conference.
6.) Alexander Ovechkin , Forward, Washington Capitals — (82 GP, 49 G, 38 A, 87 PTS)
In 2018, Ovechkin proved that he’s still got it. He led the league in goals for the seventh time in his career. Ovi can still change a game, even at 32 years old. This will be his 10th playoff appearance as he searches for his first Stanley Cup. The 87 points he produced this season were the most since the 2009-10 campaign and his scored 18.9 percent of his team’s goals. The Capitals finished the season as one of the league’s hottest teams. Ovechkin knows that his window for hoisting Lord Stanley is closing. Therefore, look for him to have a strong playoff showing.
5.) Taylor Hall, Forward, New Jersey Devils — (76 GP, 39 G, 54 A, 93 PTS)
At one time, Hall was considered the future star of the Edmonton Oilers. While he is realizing his potential, he is doing so as a member of the New Jersey Devils. In his second season with the Devils, he is a legitimate contender for the Hart Trophy. He put up career numbers in both goals and points. Hall enters the post-season with 17 points his final 10 games. In fact, he failed to hit the scoresheet only four times in the Devils’ final 40 games. In what will be his first appearance in the playoffs, Hall could carry that momentum into more-than-a-few upset victories.
4.) Claude Giroux, Centre, Philadelphia Flyers — (82 GP, 34 G, 68 A, 102 PTS)
Despite declining numbers over the past four seasons, Giroux unquestionably turned in a performance worthy of Hart Trophy consideration this season. He was just one of three players to crack 100 points, doing so for the first time in his career. The 30-year-old centre contributed to over 40 percent of Philadelphia’s offense. He put up the sixth most power play points with 36. Giroux has the talent to help lead Philadelphia to an upset victory over the Penguins in Round One. Should he do so, Giroux might have the momentum to make the Flyers a darkhorse Cup contender.
3.) Pekka Rinne, Goaltender, Nashville Predators — (59 GP, 42-13-4, 2.31 GAA, .927 SV%)
It has often been said that the best asset to an NHL playoff team is a hot goaltender. Should that statement hold true, the Nashville Predators will be tough to beat. Rinne does have one of the best lineups in the league in front of him. However, that should not take away from the impact he could have in the playoffs. The 35-year-old set a career high for wins and statistically had his best season since 2010-11. The Predators likely won’t need him to win too many games on his own. However, if needed to do so, he has the capability to do just that. Last season he had a 1.76 GAA as he helped guide Nashville to the Cup final. If he can either equal or better that feat, Nashville might be the favorites to secure the Stanley Cup.
2.) Nathan MacKinnon, Centre, Colorado Avalanche (74 GP, 39 G, 58 A, 97 PTS)
Despite missing time with an injury, MacKinnon scored 39 goals and amassed 97 points for the Avalanche this season. The No. 1 draft pick in 2013 was the primary driving force behind Colorado’s late-season surge. MacKinnon averaged 1.31 points per game in 2017-18. His 1.3 primary assists per 60 minutes at even strength rank as the fifth-best mark among players skating at least 500 minutes. Colorado does face a tough task, drawing Nashville in the first round. However, a hot start from MacKinnon could make this a much more interesting series than originally thought.
1.) Nikita Kucherov, Forward, Tampa Bay Lightning (80 GP, 39 G, 61 A, 100 PTS)
Kucherov is considered the favorite for MVP. Therefore, it is hard to argue his place at the top of this list. He led all vote-getters when the Professional Hockey Writers Association released its midseason tally for the Hart Trophy. NHL.com even named him its top pick for MVP with votes from 13 of 19 writers. Despite the accolades, Kucherov is a deserving favorite. He finished the season with 39 goals and 100 points. The top-seeded Lightning are considered the favorites in the East. Kucherov’s superb play is the main reason for that. Should he continue his dominant play into the playoffs, Tampa Bay will be an extremely difficult team to beat.
–Mike D’Abate is a Managing Editor and National Columnist for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the NFL and NHL. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC