1. Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg is a team that I predicted to make the playoffs at the start of the year despite little recognition from experts around the league. The Jets have a lethal offense, led by Blake Wheeler who recorded 91 points in 81 games, young star Patrik Laine, who had 44 goals in his second NHL season, and Mark Scheifele, who continues to arguably be the most underrated center in the NHL. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has also been a pleasant surprise, and will need to step up against the Wild who are in the top half of the league in goals per game. Hellebuyck will most certainly be a Vezina Trophy candidate posting a .923 save percentage and a 2.38 Goals Against Average. My one concern with the Jets is if they get past the first round, they will have to take on the Nashville Predators, arguably the best team in the NHL. I think they’ll be up to the task and have a great chance of mounting an upset and eventually going to the Stanley Cup Final.
2. Columbus Blue Jackets
When you have one of the top goalies in the NHL, anything is possible in the playoffs. Sergei Bobrovsky is yet again playing like one of the best goalies in the league, recording a .921 save percentage along with a 2.42 goals against average. Getting back center Nick Foligno will be a huge boost for the Jackets as he’ll have the responsibility of going out against Niklas Backstrom each night, one of the league’s best centers in round one. Defenseman Seth Jones is playing at a Norris Trophy level, which has helped elevate the play of the Blue Jackets tremendously. Furthermore, the pairing of Jones and young stud Zach Werenski has been terrific. They will have a very tough path having to play Washington and then most likely the defending Stanley Cup Champions in the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the Blue Jackets defense is much better than years past.
3. New Jersey Devils
The Devils have been an extremely pleasant surprise this season led by star forward Taylor Hall, who has 93 points in 76 games, and is potentially in discussion for the Hart Trophy. The Devils are the least likely out of the two teams I mentioned above to make a run, due to the fact that Tampa Bay is arguably the cup favorite and they would have to play the winner of Boston or Toronto if they happen to win. However, the Devils are playing great hockey and star rookie Nico Hischier has provided much needed offense to a team that struggled deeply at the center position last season. One thing the Devils have in their favor is that they are 3-0-0 against the Lighting this year. The Devils inexperience will most likely hurt them in the end, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they pulled off the upset in the first round.