Dylan Spilko gives the Rangers the edge of the Penguins.
Dylan Spilko gives the Rangers the edge of the Penguins.@NYRangers on Twitter

NHL Playoffs: Dylan Spilko previews and picks Lightning vs Maple Leafs, Penguins vs Rangers

The Lightning and Rangers are stronger in net and that gives them the edge.

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The NHL playoffs have officially arrived.

With the action set to start on Monday night, I took a look at the top value picks out of all of the first-round matchups. Here are my favorite choices to advance to the second round.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

The back-to-back Stanley Cup champions will face off against a Toronto team that captured a franchise-best 54 wins and 115 points this season. Despite the Maple Leafs entering the series as the odds-on favorite, they might’ve received the most daunting first-round matchup out of any team in the Eastern Conference.

The Lightning are just as well-rounded as any playoff team as they are top-seven in both offense (3.48 goals per game) and defense (2.78 goals allowed per game). With 40-goal scorer Steven Stamkos, Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman, young star Brayden Point and a now-healthy Nikita Kucherov (31 points over his last 16 games), the Lightning are loaded.

The real difference maker will be 2021 Conn Smythe Trophy victor Andrei Vasilevskiy, who boasted the second-most wins out of any NHL goalie in the regular season. Vasilevskiy’s 28.4 Goals Saved Above Expected is the second-best mark in the league.

Tampa Bay’s netminder will be tasked with stopping Toronto’s juggernaut offense, which delivers an average of 3.8 goals per game. Combine the Maple Leafs’ brilliant five-on-five production and its league-leading 27.3% clip on the power play, and you have a team that can light the lamp at will.

However, defense and goaltending all point to an advantage for the Lightning despite Toronto piling on 315 goals in 82 games this season. Even though goalie Jack Campbell produced a career-best regular season, the Maple Leafs’ mark of 3.07 goals allowed per contest ranks as the worst out of any playoff team.

Tampa Bay can afford to lean on Vasilevskiy, while Toronto isn’t necessarily afforded that luxury with Campbell in the crease.

Toronto is certainly a valid road block for Tampa Bay’s quest to win three straight Stanley Cups for the first time since the New York Islanders did so from 1982-84. Still, the Maple Leafs haven’t made it past the first round going back to 2004.

I am not sold on Toronto being talented enough in the net to vanquish Tampa Bay. This series could possibly go the distance, but familiarity with playoff success and a goaltending advantage should push the Lightning to the second round.

The pick: Tampa Bay Lighting to win the series (+100)

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers

The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers will begin first-round play on Tuesday in what should be an entertaining seven-game bout between two Metropolitan Division rivals.

The Penguins finished their regular season with six-fewer wins than the Rangers, concluding the 82-game slate with 103 points and edging out the Washington Capitals to avoid a nightmare first-round matchup with the Florida Panthers. Pittsburgh will boast its usual suspects, such as the ageless Sidney Crosby (84 points in 69 games), 40-goal forward Jake Guentzel and 68-point defenseman Kris Letang.

The Penguins have a veteran-filled lineup that’s 11th in the league in goals per game, while its defensive marks aren’t too shabby either (2.67 goals allowed per game, good enough for fifth-best in NHL). The real issue with Pittsburgh, similar to Toronto, is the questions that will come in goal. Starting goalie Tristan Jarry, who last played against the New York Islanders on April 14, is week-to-week with an injury. That opens the door for the less-proven Casey DeSmith, a netminder that went 11-6-3 this season with a 2.79 goals against average.

Meanwhile on New York’s side, Vezina Trophy favorite Igor Shesterkin is the lifeline of the Rangers’ playoff hopes. Shesterkin’s otherworldly regular season hasn’t gone unnoticed after he tallied impressive marks through 55 games. He accumulated a record of 36-13-6 and totaled league-leading numbers in save percentage (.935) and goals against average (2.07).

New York owned the NHL’s fourth-best power play in the regular season, led by resurgent forward Chris Kreider. Kreider’s 26 power play goals was the league’s top mark and he finished third in the NHL with 52 goals. With a supporting cast that includes Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Adam Fox, the star power is there for the Rangers.

New York’s formerly-poor five-on-five play has improved since the trade deadline and the Rangers are well-equipped to play just about any team in the East. New York also bested Pittsburgh in the regular season, claiming three wins in four games and outscoring the Penguins 11-4 in the process.

I expect Pittsburgh to give New York a run for its money, but backed by its improved metrics on both ends of the ice, along with elite goaltending, the Rangers should find themselves heading off to the next round to face either Boston or Carolina.

The pick: New York Rangers to win the series (-110)

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