The first round of the NHL playoffs begins Wednesday when the Columbus Blue Jackets visit the Tampa Bay Lightning (7 p.m. ET, USA) and the New York Islanders host the Pittsburgh Penguins (7:30 p.m., NBCSN).
Also on Wednesday: the St. Louis Blues at the Winnipeg Jets (8 p.m., NHL Network); the Dallas Stars at the Nashville Predators (9:30 p.m., USA) and the Vegas Golden Knights at the San Jose Sharks (10:30 p.m., NBCSN).
On Thursday, the rest of the series begin with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Boston Bruins (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN); the Carolina Hurricanes at the Washington Capitals (7 p.m., USA) and the Colorado Avalanche at the Calgary Flames (10 p.m., NBCSN).
(Check out our full Stanley Cup predictions here.)
USA TODAY Sports’ NHL staff makes its predictions for the first round.
(1) TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING VS. (WC2) COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Kevin Allen: Lightning in 4: The Blue Jackets’ effort to make the playoffs should be applauded. But their trade deadline boldness only earned them the opportunity to be humbled by the 62-win Lightning in the first round of the playoffs.
Jimmy Hascup: Lightning in 5. There is no better way for Sergei Bobrovsky to change the narrative of his playoff performances (.891 save percentage in 24 games). But the Lightning are too good and too deep.
Mike Brehm: Lightning in 5. The Lightning dominated the Blue Jackets in the regular season and the Blue Jackets have never won a playoff series. Those trends will continue, and the Blue Jackets could look very different next season.
Jace Evans: Lightning in 5. The Blue Jackets’ all-in effort before the trade deadline appears to have produced mixed results. That failure to find another gear sees them slotted into a matchup with one of the great regular-season teams in NHL history.
(2) BOSTON BRUINS VS. (3) TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Allen: Maple Leafs in 6: Everyone is writing off the Maple Leafs. But let’s not forget they have John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Look for goalie Frederik Andersen to be the difference.
Hascup: Bruins in 7. Might be the most entertaining first-round series, and, yes, a repeat of their last two playoffs matchups results.
Brehm: Bruins in 7. The Bruins were playing much better down the stretch and could end this earlier, but these teams’ last two playoff meetings lasted seven games, so why not again? Maybe even the Bruins will have another big third period to make the difference.
Evans: Bruins in 7. The Bruins might have the best line in hockey. The Maple Leafs have a top-five offense with seven 20-goal scorers. There’s little that separates these teams on the ice, but the Bruins hold home ice and the mental edge after last year.
(1) WASHINGTON CAPITALS VS. (WC1) CAROLINA HURRICANES
Allen: Capitals in 6. Want to believe in the ‘Canes but the Capitals were a playoff beast just 10 months ago. The Caps have the edge in every category.
Hascup: Capitals in 5. Washington beat Carolina in all four matchups this season. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Capitals win a second consecutive Stanley Cup, while the Hurricanes are still too inexperienced.
Brehm: Capitals in 5. Odd fact: The Hurricanes have three playoff appearances this century, yet they have won nine series. That’s as many series wins as the Capitals have had over the last nine seasons. But the Capitals have the experience of last season’s championship run, greater depth and a season sweep going for them.
Evans: Capitals in 6. The defending champs enter the postseason with little pressure as the hockey world’s attention in the East centers on the Lightning and another Bruins-Maple Leafs series. But this squad may actually be more complete than last year’s title-winning group as it features seven 20-goal scorers – led by Alex Ovechkin’s league-leading 51 tallies – and zero questions about who the playoff starter in goal will be.
(2) NEW YORK ISLANDERS VS. (3) PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Allen: Penguins in 7: The Islanders are the NHL’s No. 1 defensive team, but there’s a reason why the Penguins have made the playoffs every season since 2007. The Penguins’ winning culture and experience makes them a sleeper in this year’s playoff pool.
Hascup: Penguins in 6. The Islanders were a sensational story this year, but it’s hard to bet against the experience of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
Brehm: Penguins in 7. Coach Barry Trotz finally got past the Penguins last season, but that was with a better Capitals team. Though the Islanders are stingy defensively, the Penguins have too many offensive threats.
Evans: Penguins in 7. Almost universally picked to miss the playoffs after losing John Tavares, the Islanders responded by putting up their most points since 1984. The Islanders could push the Penguins to the brink thanks to a league-best defense, but the Pens have more difference-makers on offense and their overall experience will win out.
RANKINGS: Sizing up the playoff teams 1-16
UPSET: Who can beat the 62-win Lightning
SCHEDULE: Dates, times, TV for first round of NHL playoffs
(1) CALGARY FLAMES VS. (WC2) COLORADO AVALANCHE
Allen: Flames in 7. The Avs were one of the NHL’s hottest teams down the stretch, but the Flames were impressive start to finish. The Flames rank tied second in goal-scoring (3.52 per game) and ninth in goals-against (3.72). That’s a winning formula.
Hascup: Flames in 5. If the Flames’ goaltending were more reliable, I’d call for a sweep.
Brehm: Flames in 5. Look for Johnny Gaudreau to build on his 99-point season and for Mark Giordano to show why he’s the Norris Trophy front-runner.
Evans: Flames in 6. While there are some questions regarding who exactly the goalie will be, this team is still the only squad outside the Lightning to finish in the top 10 in both goals for and against. Colorado has excellent top-end talent that could help steal some games in the face of Calgary’s net questions.
(2) SAN JOSE SHARKS VS. (3) VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Allen: Golden Knights in 6. If goaltending is still king in the playoffs, then the Golden Knights have have a distinct advantage. The Sharks are a dangerous offensive team, but they give up too many goals to be effective in the playoffs.
Hascup: Golden Knights in 6. Did not end the season strong, but Marc-Andre Fleury should be well-rested and his team, now with Mark Stone, will be looking to win one more series than last year when they lost in the Final.
Brehm: Sharks in 7. Both teams struggled lately, but the Sharks did so partly because of an Erik Karlsson injury. He returned in the finale and will help the Sharks’ offense, which already is formidable with four 30-goal scorers and a rejuvenated Joe Thornton. Sharks goalie Martin Jones will have to play better.
Evans: Golden Knights in 7. While Erik Karlsson is back, the Sharks stumbled to the finish in winning just three of their final 12 games. More concerning for the Sharks is their goaltending; Martin Jones’ .896 save percentage in 62 games just isn’t good enough for a team with title aspirations – and backup Aaron Dell’s mark was somehow even worse.
(1) NASHVILLE PREDATORS VS. (WC1) DALLAS STARS
Allen: Predators in 7: The Preds will need their home-ice advantage to take down a Stars team that knows how to keep the puck out of their net. The Predators are not a top offensive team, but they score more often than the Stars.
Hascup: Predators in 6. Defense vs. defense. It’s hard to see the Stars and their 28th-ranked offense scoring enough against an experienced Predators group with the third-best defense.
Brehm: Stars in 6. A hot goalie can overcome a better opponent, and Ben Bishop has four shutouts since March 5. The Predators’ league-worst power play won’t help them.
Evans: Predators in 6. Goalie Ben Bishop – the NHL’s save percentage leader – should be able to steal some games for the Stars, but they lack the Predators’ overall depth.
(2) WINNIPEG JETS VS. (3) ST. LOUIS BLUES
Allen: Blues in 7: The Jets boast more talent, but the Blues have played at a higher level than the Jets for a while.
Hascup: Jets in 7. Toss-up series. Give me the team that has offensive firepower and reached the conference final last year.
Brehm: Blues in 6. Interim coach Craig Berube has a .651 winning percentage since his November hiring. Blues rookie Jordan Binnington should be able to outplay Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who was inconsistent at times.
Evans: Jets in 7. The Blues’ turnaround has been one of the best stories of the NHL’s second half, but the Jets are a strong group with home-ice advantage.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NHL playoffs 2019: First-round predictions