One of the great things about the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the level of parity that exists between most teams who qualify. Over the past five years, 40 per cent of opening-round series have been won by the lower seed. So, we know there are going to be upsets this year, the question is which teams are most likely to pull them off?
If the math tells us that 40 per cent of opening-round series are won by the lower seed then odds are three of the eight series this season will be won by the lower seed. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the three low seeds most likely to advance past the first round according to our playoff projection model.
Lightning vs. Panthers
Odds: 56.2% Tampa Bay
The defending Stanley Cup champs are technically the underdog, finishing the season four points behind the Florida Panthers. However, our model gives Tampa Bay a 56 per cent chance of winning the series.
The main reason for this is that Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are expected to be back in the line-up for Game 1. Kucherov missed the entire season recovering from hip surgery, while Stamkos has been out since early April with a lower-body injury.
The Lightning also have the best goalie in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is poised to take home his second Vezina Trophy. That said, the Panthers did win five of eight games against the Lightning this season and are not a team to be taken lightly. Florida has a ton of team speed and ranks inside the top-three in the NHL in rush goals.
The Panthers have used that speed effectively against the Lightning this season, out-chancing Tampa Bay 51-35 off the rush.
The Lightning have built a team to win in the post-season with a terrific blend of skill and grit. Tampa Bay is one of the better forechecking teams in the NHL and will look to put pressure on Florida’s defencemen deep in the offensive zone.
It’s impossible to know for sure how the additions of Stamkos and Kucherov will impact this series but according to our model, it gives the Lightning the edge with the best statistical odds of any low seed in the first round.
Bruins vs. Capitals
Odds: 54.0% Boston
The Bruins and Capitals split their season series with four wins apiece. However, Boston is not the same team it was earlier this season.
The Bruins went 12-4-1 since acquiring Taylor Hall, Curtis Lazar, and Mike Reilly ahead of the trade deadline. Boston was one of the lowest-scoring even-strength teams in the NHL for much of the season, but since the addition of Hall, the Bruins rank seventh in even-strength goals per game.
With Boston having a second line that can produce offensively at a high rate, the Capitals will now have to worry about two elite offensive lines and in the season series they had their hands full with just one.
Boston’s top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak was dominant in the minutes they played together, outscoring the Capitals 10-3 while on the ice at even strength. Marchand in particular has feasted on the Caps this season scoring a team-high seven goals in eight games against Washington.
The Caps are also playing well heading into the playoffs, posting a 9-4-1 record since the trade deadline. Where Washington enjoyed a significant advantage over Boston during the season series was on special teams. The Caps finished with an 87.5 per cent penalty kill against Boston and scored nine power play goals, good for 30 per cent with the man advantage.
The addition of Anthony Mantha gives the Caps two lethal one-timer options on each side of the ice with Mantha in the right face-off circle and Alex Ovechkin in his office on the left side. That said, the simple threat of each of these players has opened up space for Washington’s leading goal scorer in the season series against Boston, T.J. Oshie.
Oshie plays the bumper spot in the middle of the ice and if the Bruins cheat to either side of the ice, Oshie is more than capable of making them pay.
Boston has closed the gap at even-strength and while the Capitals won the special teams battle in the regular season, both teams are dangerous with the man advantage. This could be one of the tightest series of all — the stats from the regular season certainly suggests that to be the case.
Jets vs. Oilers
Odds: 51.4% Edmonton
The lower-seeded Jets aren’t favourites to win like the Lightning and Bruins, however they are the next closest in terms of pulling off an upset.
Edmonton dominated the season series against Winnipeg, winning seven of nine games and Connor McDavid had a field day playing against the leakiest defensive team among all playoff teams. McDavid put up a mind-blowing 22 points against the Jets, who are the only team to finish bottom-10 in expected goals against and qualify for the post-season. Leon Draisaitl ranked second in season series points with 12 — the highest-scoring Winnipeg Jet was Nikolaj Ehlers with eight.
Aside from Connor Hellebuyck providing a minor miracle, there’s likely no way the Jets are shutting down McDavid and Draisaitl, which isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Winnipeg has depth at the forward position that Edmonton does not and if Ehlers draws back into the lineup for Game 1, that’s a potential X-factor for the Jets.
Ehlers is one of the best puck movers in the NHL, ranking top-10 in end-to-end rushes and controlled zone entries.
Ehlers was the Jets’ leading scorer in the season series against Edmonton despite playing in just seven of the nine games. As you can see from the graphic below, Ehlers is one of the most dynamic forwards in the game.
While the Oilers held a significant advantage in rush scoring chances against the Jets in the season series, out-chancing them 81-46, the Jets held the advantage in chances created off the cycle. Winnipeg finished the season series with 104 cycle chances compared to 79 by Edmonton. The more the Jets can pin the Oilers in their end and let their skilled top-9 forwards produce chances, the better their odds will be of pulling off an upset in the first round.
A few things will have to go right for the Jets to knock off the Oilers in this series. Hellebuyck will have to steal a game or two, something he’s more than capable of doing. Only seven goalies finished with a better goals saved above expected average than Hellebuyck this season and the goalie at the other end in this series, Mike Smith, wasn’t one of them.
An Ehlers return to the line-up would give the Jets a game-breaker capable of making a significant impact in this series. Finally, Adam Lowry and the third line will have to come out on the right side of the goal differential battle regardless of who they are matched up against.
There’s a lot Winnipeg will have to overcome to compensate for its defensive shortcomings against an explosive Edmonton offence, but it’s not out of the question it can win a few key battles in this series and come out on the winning end.