Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round X-Factors

2018 NHL Playoff Race

My favorite part of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the heroes that seemingly come out of nowhere. Each and every spring, someone emerges that steals the hearts of their fanbase and helps propel their team to new heights. In 2006, Fernando Pisani helped push an eighth seeded Oilers team to the Stanley Cup Final. Devante Smith-Pelly was huge for the Capitals last spring, while Michael Ryder stepped up big for the Bruins in 2011.

You never know who will steal the show, which helps make the Stanley Cup Playoffs the greatest theater in all of professional sports. Tonight, the journey begins as five series open up, starting in Tampa Bay at 7:00 pm. Sit back and enjoy the show, this is the greatest tournament in all of sports.

Today, we take a look at the X-factor in each of the eight series. Who is the most important player in the series for each team? Let’s begin, shall we? (A look at my predictions from earlier this week)

Tampa Bay Vs. Columbus

The Pick: Lightning in five

Tampa Bay’s X-Factor – Victor Hedman: Although the Blue Jackets were up-and-down all season long, they still have some serious firepower up front. If Tampa Bay wants to shut them down and make quick work of the Jackets, they’ll need their defense clicking. Hedman, without doubt, is their top defender and would make a huge difference. His health is a major factor this spring.

Columbus’ X-Factor – Sergei Bobrovsky: A great goaltender can steal you a series. Each of the last two “greatest teams of this generation” ran into a great goaltender that forced them out in round one. Dwayne Roloson did it to Detroit in 2006, then Jaroslav Halak turned the trick four years later against the Caps. Will Bob do it this spring? Remains to be seen, but if he plays up to his potential then this series gets really interesting really fast.

Boston Vs. Toronto:

The Pick: Bruins in six

Boston’s X-Factor – Zdeno Chara: Sure, Chara is getting up there in age and he’s not the same defender he was even five years ago. That said, Big Z has still be a thorn in the side of the Maple Leafs since Toronto’s reemergence. The Leafs can only win this series one way, out-gunning the Bruins. If Chara can continue his dominance of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, then this series is already over.

Toronto’s X-Factor – Jake Gardiner: Gardiner is arguably the most underappreciated player in Toronto. Yes, he has warts in his game, but his ability to push the pace and move the puck is key to the Leafs’ attack. Gardiner has been battling health issues and it is no shock that the Leafs have struggled without him. They need him healthy and playing well if they want a chance here.

Washington Vs. Carolina:

The Pick: Capitals in six

Washington’s X-Factor – Brett Connolly: The big difference in this series, and the reason why I took the Caps, is their depth. Carolina quietly has put together a very strong top end to their offense, but they simply don’t have the depth to keep up with the Capitals in my opinion. Connolly has been a huge part of that depth with the Capitals, and if he gets going then it will be very hard for Carolina’s offense to keep up.

Carolina’s X-Factor – Petr Mrazek: If Carolina wants to dethrone the defending Champions, they are going to need a longtime weakness to be a strength, goaltending. Mrazek is the expected starter for the opening round of the playoffs, and while he has had a decent seasons this is relatively new territory for him. Can he hold off the Washington barrage? Carolina’s season depends on the answer.

New York Islanders Vs. Pittsburgh:

The Pick: Penguins in seven

Pittsburgh’s X-Factor – Justin Schultz: The Penguin defense has been in shambles this season due to injury, with key pieces missing length amounts of time. After a nightmare start to his career, Justin Schultz has emerged as a top-four puck-moving defender in Pittsburgh. He’s missed a lot of time this season, and the Penguin offense suffered because of it. If he’s able to play his game and get the puck up to guys like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Islanders will have trouble containing them.

New York’s X-Factor – Matthew Barzal: Welcome to the playoffs, Mr. Barzal. John Tavares is no longer around to shield Barzal from the top defensive assignments, and predictably Barzal took a step back this season. That said, he’s still an electric player and for my money is New York’s most skilled option. That said, if the Penguins can shut him down then this series will be quick. Barzal has to drive the offense for New York.

Calgary Vs. Colorado:

The Pick: Flames in five

Calgary’s X-Factor – Mike Smith: Smith has simply not been when the Flames were hoping for when they traded for him two summers ago, but he’s getting the net tomorrow night in Game one. Smith’s game would scare me as a Flame fan, because if he is off the mark then this series could be an upset special. Bad goaltending has sunk great teams before. Is this the next case?

Colorado’s X-Factor – Tyson Jost: Look, we know Colorado’s top-line is one of the best in the league and that they will get theirs in this series. If the Avs even want a prayer in this series, though, they’ll need some depth players to step up. Jost has been inconsistent this season, but I love his skill and think he could thrive in a back-and-forth series.

San Jose Vs. Vegas:

The Pick: Golden Knights in seven

Vegas’ X-Factor – Brayden McNabb: San Jose’s offense is still one of the best of NHL, and they’ll be a handful for the Vegas team. We know the Golden Knights can score, but what about the defense? Brayden McNabb is going to be tasked with leading the Vegas defense in this opening series, and he’ll need to be on top of his game to give Vegas a chance. If not, it will be open season on Marc-Andre Fleury.

San Jose’s X-Factor – Martin Jones: Jones needs to be better, plain and simple. His sub-.900 save percentage is a big concern coming into this series and could sink this San Jose team. If Jones doesn’t flip the switch, then Vegas won’t need seven games for another series victory.

Nashville Vs. Dallas:

The Pick: Predators in six

Nashville’s X-Factor – Wayne Simmonds: Last spring, we saw Tom Wilson have a huge impact for Washington. Simmonds isn’t as physical as Wilson, but as a power-froward with some offensive pop to his game, Simmonds can be a real factor. Depth will decide this series, and I think Simmonds could be huge for a Nashville team that paid a big price to get him at the deadline.

Dallas’s X-Factor – Ben Bishop: Just like Sergei Bobrovsky, Bishop has the ability to steal a series all on his own. Dallas has the mobility on defense and they have the top-end talent, but they can’t match Nashville’s depth. Their secret weapon to combat that? Arguably the hottest goaltender in the NHL. If Bishop is locked in, Nashville is on upset alert.

Winnipeg Vs. St. Louis:

The Pick: Blues in seven

Winnipeg’s X-Factor – Dustin Byfuglien: Big Buff is the most unique player in the sport, being a true top-pairing defender that has both the old-school and new-school traits in his game. When he is on his game, few players can impact a series like he can. Big Buff has been dealing with injury lately, however, and hasn’t been himself lately. If he can’t play his game, Winnipeg’s strength on defense becomes a weakness.

St. Louis’ X-Factor – Alexander Steen: Once seen as a core piece with the Blues, Steen has settled into a bottom-six role this season under Craig Berube. He’s smart and responsible, but also has some offensive pop still in that stick. Steen will get the lesser match-ups as attention turns to St. Louis’ big guns, giving him a chance to really impact this series.

Photo Credit: By Lisa Gansky from New York, NY, USA (IMG_2410) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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