2024 NHL Playoffs First Round Preview

2024 NHL Playoffs First Round Preview

This article is part of our NHL Picks series.

2024 NHL Playoffs First Round Preview

Ahh, it's the most wonderful time of the year! There's nothing like playoff hockey. It's electrifying, and the first round is always so compelling. The buildings are loud, the players are in beast mode and the tensions are high. As we gear up for another exciting spring of postseason hockey, let's take a look at each first-round matchup to see what the best NHL bets are. Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook. 

New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals

On paper, this looks like the most lopsided matchup in the entire first round. The Rangers won the Presidents' Trophy, and the Caps snuck in as an eight-seed despite a -37 goal differential that's the worst as a playoff team since 1994. The Rangers have every reason to beat the Caps. They set franchise records for wins (55) and points (114), and went 26-7-1 in their final 34 games of the regular season. 

The Caps needed an empty netter on a desperate Flyers team to grab their spot in game 82. They sold at the deadline, have had a laundry list of significant injuries, and are playing a lineup with a lot of Hershey Bears. Comparing the forward groups, the Rangers have the edge. Artemi Panarin had the best regular season of his career, setting personal bests with 49 goals and 120 points. Former No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere took his game to another level this year, and veterans Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Vincent Trocheck are all consistent contributors. 

Alex Ovechkin popped off for 23 goals in his last 36 games after only potting eight through the first 43. Dylan Strome had a career year in his own right stepping up in the absence of Nicklas Backstrom, and youngsters Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre got their first meaningful major league minutes after winning the Calder Cup with Hershey last season. The Rangers have the edge on the blue line too. Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba lead a formidable unit that plays a tough playoff style year round. 

The Caps are banged up on the back end. Rasmus Sandin and Nick Jensen suffered injuries in the last few games of the regular season, so John Carlson will have to play even bigger minutes after leading the NHL in ice time. The Rangers probably have the edge in net, too. Igor Shesterkin and Jonathan Quick are one of the best 1-2 punches in the league. But the Caps wouldn't be here without Charlie Lindgren playing out of his mind. It's a mismatch on paper, yes, but I think the Caps make this more difficult than most expect them to.  

New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals series spread

Capitals +1.5 games (+155) 

New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals series score

Rangers 4-3 (+450)

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Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

This is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing matchups in the first round. It's a battle for Florida between two of the top teams of the past five years. The Bolts won two Cups in that span, while the Cats have won a Presidents' Trophy and an Eastern Conference crown. The Panthers basically blitzkrieged the league this season, finishing with a league-best +68 goal differential. They can bully teams with toughness and grit. They can win high-scoring track meets and low-event slogs. They're deep at every position. Sergei Bobrovsky is playing some of the best hockey of his career between the pipes. 

It's hard to count out Tampa Bay, though. Andrei Vasilevskiy is perhaps the most dominant netminder in the world when his game is on. Nikita Kucherov won the Art Ross with an absurd 144-point season. Brayden Point is playing at an elite level and Steven Stamkos is still a deadly sharpshooter. Victor Hedman will need to play even bigger minutes with Mikhail Sergachev sidelined with injury. This is the third playoff meeting in four seasons between these two. The Lightning won in six games in 2021's first round to start its run at back-to-back Cups. The Bolts also swept the Panthers in the second round in 2022, but the Cats avoided them on their way to the Cup Final last year. This will be must-see TV every moment of what will likely be a pretty long, tough series.  

Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning series best bet

Panthers (-180) 

Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning series total games

6 games (+205)

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Carolina Hurricanes vs. New York Islanders

This might be the most boring matchup in the first round. The Hurricanes have been knocking on the door for several seasons now. They made some good moves at the deadline, namely acquiring Jake Guentzel from Pittsburgh, and seem poised to make a deep run (again) after getting swept in the Eastern Conference Final last season. 

The Islanders went on a heater down the stretch to lock up the third spot in the Metro Division. They've got great goaltending with Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov. The Hurricanes are basically better and deeper at every other position, though, and if Frederik Andersen can just stay healthy, they could even have an edge in net, too. 

The Canes boast a +63 goal differential, which is second in the league behind the Panthers, and they've scored 216 total goals which is fourth best. The Islanders will put up a good fight just because they play a tough style under Patrick Roy, but the Eastern Conference is the Hurricanes' to lose this year. These teams met in the first round last year, too, with the Canes winning in six. I think this is wrapped up quicker than that.  

Carolina Hurricanes vs. New York Islanders series spread

Hurricanes -1.5 games (-155)

Carolina Hurricanes vs. New York Islanders series total games

5 Games (+235)

Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Legendary matchup. Two Original Six teams. Bitter rivals. Cornerstone cities in the hockey universe. Can the Leafs exorcize their past playoff demons that have haunted them whenever they've faced the Bruins? They've been here before. In 2018, they came back from down 3-1 in the first round only to lose in Game 7. In 2019, the Leafs had a 3-2 lead after five games in the first round, but again lost in seven. 

The Bruins have won seven games in a row overall in this rivalry. They've got better goaltending, a better defensive core, and they still have the offensive firepower to go toe-to-toe with the Leafs' big guns. Auston Matthews just won his third Rocket Richard trophy with 69 goals in the regular season, but he needs a lot of help. 

William Nylander had a career year this season, though, finishing 10th in league scoring, so he'll need to step up big if the Leafs are going to have a chance. The Leafs are starting to resemble the Caps of the early Ovechkin years. Tons of regular-season success, no postseason prowess. Evgeny Kuznetsov led the playoffs in scoring when the Caps finally won their Cup in 2018. Ovechkin still balled out that spring, too. If Nylander plays the difference maker that he's capable of being, the Leafs get the edge. But it'll be close.  

Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs series best bet

Maple Leafs (+105) 

Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs series total games

7 Games (+200)

Dallas Stars vs. Vegas Golden Knights

What an awful beat it is for the Stars to draw the defending Cup champs as the eight-seed. Dallas missed out on the Presidents' Trophy by just one point. The Stars have been dominant since day one of this season. They had a +64 goal differential in the regular season. Jake Oettinger is a top-10 goaltender in the world, and on any given night, he can be one of the best. 

The Stars can roll four forward lines competitively and have tons of offensive weapons, and their defense is both stingy in their own end and dangerous in the O zone. They never really had much of a lapse this season either. No extended losing streaks. No real points of concern. They're rolling. 

The Golden Knights have been wobbly of late. Mark Stone is still on the shelf recovering from a lacerated spleen, but he just started skating. Deadline acquisition Tomas Hertl recently returned from injury and is getting up to speed. Jack Eichel seems to be healthy again after some late-season dings. Another deadline gem Noah Hanifin is also fitting in nicely on the blue line. And then there's the likes of Alex Pietrangelo, last year's Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Chandler Stephenson, Nicolas Roy and Alec Martinez, who were all pivotal in Vegas' Cup run last year. The Golden Knights swept the season series between these teams, so they pose one of the worst matchups for the Stars. Either of these teams could compete for a Cup, so the fact that they're meeting in the first round is scary.  

Dallas Stars vs. Vegas Golden Knights series best bet

Stars (-140) 

Dallas Stars vs. Vegas Golden Knights series total games

7 Games (+200)

Vancouver Canucks vs. Nashville Predators

Two of the most surprising teams this season are meeting in a first-round matchup. The Canucks came out hot to start the year and never looked back, remaining at the top of the Pacific Division from nearly start to finish. They lost just nine games in regulation at home this season. 

Thatcher Demko should be in the Vezina conversation, but he had a late-season knee injury that kept him out of action for most of March and April. His health will be a major determinant of how well the Canucks fare in this series. Quinn Hughes is likely to win the Norris. He registered 92 points with an unholy 75 assists. J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson both had All-Star seasons, and the Canucks have a strong supporting cast to complement these stars. 

The Predators won't go quietly into that good night, though. Juuse Saros gives them a chance to win on any given night, and I think he will steal at least a game or two all on his own. Filip Forsberg had the best year of his career and is flourishing in Andrew Brunette's system. Roman Josi is still one of the most complete defenseman in the world, and Ryan McDonagh offers tons of Cup-winning experience from his time in Tampa. Ryan O'Reilly won a Cup in St. Louis, too, so the Preds do have a lot of experience coming into this one. I think that can help give them the edge, so I like them in the upset.  

Vancouver Canucks vs. Nashville Predators series best bet

Predators (+130) 

Vancouver Canucks vs. Nashville Predators series total games

6 Games (+210)

Winnipeg Jets vs. Colorado Avalanche

Sheesh. This is the type of matchup that should be in the Western Conference Final, not in the first round. I think these teams are the top contenders in the West along with the Oilers and Stars. They're Central Division rivals. The Jets swept the season's series and outscored the Avs , 17-4, in three games this year. They closed the regular season on an eight-game win streak, which included a 7-0 win over Colorado, too. 

Connor Hellebuyck is a world-class netminder. The Jets can suffocate teams defensively, allowing the least amount of goals in the entire league. Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele are studs, and trade acquisitions Sean Monahan and Tyler Toffoli are exceptional supporting characters. Josh Morrissey is one of the better all-around D men in the game, too. 

The Avs are basically the polar opposite. They're an offensive dynamo that led the league in goals scored in the regular season. Nathan MacKinnon has been playing like a man possessed, and is a top candidate for the Hart Trophy. Mikko Rantanen finished Top 10 in scoring in his own right, and the Avs' forward group is as deep as it comes. It's not like the Avs' D core sucks… I mean, they have Cale Makar. And if he's not enough, they also have Devon Toews. This series will come down to the Avs' goaltending. Can Alexandar Georgiev step up to the level his team needs? It's hard to bet against MacKinnon and Makar, they're that good. But Hellebuyck is giving JS Giguere vibes, if you know what I mean. 

Winnipeg Jets vs. Colorado Avalanche series best bet

Jets (+115) 

Winnipeg Jets vs. Colorado Avalanche series total games

7 games (+200)

Edmonton Oilers vs. Los Angeles Kings

This will be the third straight year these teams meet in the first round, with the Oilers winning both prior series. Edmonton also won the regular-season series, 3-1. These teams had similar situations this season, just at different times. 

The Oilers started the year with one of the league's worst records, which kicked Jay Woodcroft to the curb and brought Chris Knoblauch in behind the bench. The Oilers have been one of the best teams in the league since. The Kings were sputtering early in 2024, which saw Todd McClellan get fired. Jim Hiller led the Kings to a 21-12-1 record since that coaching change. 

We almost don't need to elaborate about the Oilers at this point. Connor McDavid. Leon Draisaitl. Those names speak for themselves. But it's worth noting that it's not the same Oilers as years past. This team can lock it down defensively, win low-scoring games, come from behind, and then also put up big numbers. It's a complete, deep team with one goal: win the Cup. Anything short of that would be a bust. 

The Kings shouldn't have quite as high hopes, but they have some reason to believe. They've got a deep forward group led by Anze Kopitar, with star power in Adrian Kempe and Kevin Fiala. Drew Doughty heads up a dynamic blue line that can play tight defense and also chip in on offense. Both teams have big question marks in net. Stuart Skinner is the go-to guy for Edmonton as of now, but he needs to prove that he can be consistently relied upon. Cam Talbot overachieved this season for the Kings, as did David Rittich, but those aren't exactly marque names in the world-class goalie conversation. This should be an interesting battle. 

Edmonton Oilers vs. Los Angeles Kings - Series

Oilers 4-2 (+600) 

Edmonton Oilers vs. Los Angeles Kings series total games

6 games (+210)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Grant Leonard
Former Junior B ice hockey player, and current believer that the Washington Capitals' aging core still has another Cup run left in the tank. Writing about hockey and sports betting for RotoWire since 2022.
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