It's the first day of the playoffs, and the Canucks are in Edmonton to play the Oilers.
It's too bad those two things are unrelated. Vancouver and Edmonton make history on Saturday as the first teams ever to play a regular-season game on the same day that an NHL playoff game takes place. The Canucks and Oilers square off at 12:30 p.m. on Sportsnet, then the Bruins and Capitals get the postseason rolling with a 4:15 start time.
The playoff matchups are now all set, which means you can fill out your bracket at nhl.com/bracket
till just before puck drop of the Bruins-Capitals game.
I had an interesting chat with NHL marketing exec Casey Hall a couple of weeks ago about the Bracket Challenge — which started when the league re-aligned its divisions for the 2013-14. So far, they've yet to see a perfect bracket — particularly since contestants are also required to pick the number of games for all eight first-round series, and the total number of goals scored in the Stanley Cup Final.
I wonder if the challenge will go any better for fans this year, given that we have so much data about head-to-head matchups between the division rivals that will meet in the first two rounds?
My bracket is usually up in flames by the end of the first round. I generally assume that there will be two or three upsets — but I rarely seem to pick the right ones!
This year, I'm going against what seem to be the popular picks by taking Florida to beat Tampa Bay in the first-ever Battle of the Sunshine State, and taking St. Louis to beat Colorado.
I think I'm on an island with that Blues pick, but I believe in the curse of the Presidents' Trophy and I think the Blues are hungry to prove that what they showed in their loss to Vancouver last year isn't who they really are. Last season, they limped into the playoffs after Covid ran through their team during their training camp in St. Louis. This year, they hid in the weeds for much of the season, but finished strong with three wins. And you don't think captain Ryan O'Reilly, who signed an offer sheet earlier in his career when he couldn't get paid by the Avs, isn't motivated to upset this juggernaut? I can't bet against him when he's motivated.
As for the Panthers, I like how everything has come together for them this season, and fully expect Sam Bennett to raise his game by yet another level when the playoffs begin — after putting up 15 points in his 10 games in Florida since the trade deadline.
I love their goaltending depth: Sergei Bobrovsky has been just fine in the later stages of the season, and they've got Chris Driedger and Spencer Knight that they can turn to if necessary.
Bob is set to start Game 1, which brings me flashbacks of two years ago, when the Lightning got swept by the Blue Jackets. And the coaching matchup favours the Panthers as well: Joel Quenneville got the better of Jon Cooper when he was with the Blackhawks, in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.
So here are my picks for Round 1:
Bos - Wash: Boston in 6
NYI - Pitt: Pittsburgh in 7
Mtl - Tor: Toronto in 6
Wpg - Edm: Edmonton in 5
Nash - Car: Carolina in 5
TBL - Fla: Florida in 7
StL - Col: St. Louis in 6
Min - VGK: Vegas in 6
As for Saturday's game, Mikko Koskinen is expected to start in goal for the Oilers but other than that, it's pretty much all hands on deck in the club's final tune-up. Their first-round series against the Jets doesn't start till next Wednesday.
Yes, that means the Canucks will be getting another dose of Connor McDavid.
"I talked to him about whether this is a game he wants to play and he said, 'I want this game because it's one game in a week and I want to make sure I'm sharp," said Oilers coach Dave Tippett
on Friday, about McDavid.
"We want our players dialed in to make sure they're at their best come Wednesday night. We'll do everything in our power to make sure that's the case."
He'd never admit it, but after torching the Canucks for 13 points during last week's four-game series, I wonder if this year's runaway Art Ross Trophy winner is looking to add to his point totals.
Going into Saturday's game, Winnipeg was McDavid's No. 1 prey this year. He scored 22 points in nine games against the Jets, followed by 21 against the Canucks and the Senators and 18 points in 10 games against the Flames.
With 104 points in 55 games, he's 21 points ahead of his teammate Leon Draisaitl in the NHL scoring race — and 35 points ahead of third-place Brad Marchand, who has 69 points. Take away McDavid's 33 goals and his 71 assists alone would be enough to put him ahead of everyone but Draisaitl.
I hesitate to even bring this up, but he'd need an eight-goal game to catch Auston Matthews for the Rocket Richard Trophy.
Once the Oilers finish up on Saturday, just the three games between the Canucks and Flames remain on the NHL's regular-season schedule. Vancouver's leading goal-scorer is Brock Boeser, with 20, and Johnny Gaudreau leads the Flames with 19. I think Matthews is safe from them.
The Canucks are on a back-to-back, kicking off that final series against the Flames starting Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at Rogers Arena. So Nate Schmidt's getting a bit of a rest on Saturday.
For Jalen Chatfield, it'll be his first time back in the lineup since Vancouver's two games in Toronto on April 29 and May 1. He has appeared in 15 games this season and recorded one assist.
Saturday marks Chatfield's 25th birthday, which is significant from a free-agency standpoint. Because he has completed at least three professional seasons (four, in his case) and played fewer than 80 NHL games, he'll become a Group 6 unrestricted free agent at the end of the year.
The Canucks signed Chatfield in 2017, as a free agent out of the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. Though he had previously been called up a few times, this year marked the first time he saw any NHL game action.