Who emerges as the new top dog? Our team chimes in:
With the Lightning eliminated, who's the Stanley Cup favorite now?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Interesting question. "With the Lightning eliminated..." Hmmm, now, which team was the catalyst for such an odd query? Oh, that's right: The burgeoning juggernaut known as the Columbus Blue Jackets.
This isn't about the sweep of the Lightning. This is about the past 12 games since the Jackets cleared toxicity from their dressing room with a team meeting during a Western Canadian road trip. They've won 11 of those 12, giving up two or fewer goals in nine of them. They have elite offensive talents in Artemi Panarin (87 points), Cam Atkinson (41 goals) and Matt Duchene (7 points vs. Tampa). They have young standouts like Pierre-Luc Dubois and Josh Anderson. They've got the kind of franchise defenseman every Cup winner seems to have in Seth Jones. They have a bunch of Nick Foligno types. And if the first round is any indication, one of the best regular-season goalies (Sergei Bobrovsky) might have finally figured out this playoff thing.
No, I don't think they're going to crank a power play at 50 percent, nor will they be able to sneak up on anyone going forward. But I'm willing to buy that a team that hovered around the top 10 in most metrics this season, dramatically improved itself at the trade deadline and put together an incredible three weeks can keep this going. Sound the cannon. This might turn out to be something special. (Or it's me once again hoping that Jarmo Kekalainen is ultimately rewarded for shooting his shot.)
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: The Washington Capitals. It's cheap to pick the reigning champs, but since the first round has been absolutely unpredictable, we have to revert back to some logical wisdom. And logical wisdom tells us that the team with an easy path typically ends up in the Stanley Cup Final. Two of the Capitals' biggest threats, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Lightning, are already eliminated. The Boston Bruins are scary, but they'll likely end up in a seven-game slugfest with the Toronto Maple Leafs, which could wear them out. The Carolina Hurricanes showed swagger by getting a big home win to pull the series to 2-1, but now they're without two of their top six forwards for the foreseeable future; the Capitals should be able to prey. To get past the next round, of course, the Caps would need to go through their old coach, Barry Trotz. It would be tricky, but the Caps have more offensive firepower and the ability to break open games. That could crack New York's stifling defensive structure.
Chris Peters, NHL draft and prospects writer: The Vegas Golden Knights. The depth, the goaltending, the unstoppable Mark Stone. There's a lot to like there. They can play any way that's needed: Fast, heavy, tough, finesse -- whatever, they've got the personnel to do it. Stone, Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny have been incredible to start the series and show no signs of slowing down. The pucks are going in for those guys at an alarming rate. You can't expect it to be that easy going forward, but that's when you could see others like William Karlsson and Reilly Smith step things up. There are some moderate concerns about the team's depth, but it is not an issue at this point with how well Stone's line has played. Nashville looks like their biggest threat to me, despite being on the wrong end of Wednesday night in Dallas. After seeing what Columbus did to Tampa Bay, however, it suddenly feels like anything could happen now.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: The Vegas Golden Knights. Heading into the postseason, when we were all filling out our brackets, there was some understandable apprehension in picking them to go far purely because of the brutal road map that faced them. It looked like they'd most likely have to go on the road against both the San Jose Sharks and then the Calgary Flames, whom you could argue were the two scariest opponents in the entire conference. But over the course of the past week or so, that path has really started to clear out for them.
Most importantly, they've taken care of their own business, bouncing back to thoroughly thrash San Jose since dropping the opening game of the series. The Knights have continued where they left off in the regular season, dominating at 5-on-5 by controlling 54.2 percent of the shot attempts and 58.6 percent of the high-danger chances and outscoring the Sharks 10-4. Quickly looking over at the other end of the bracket, Calgary is having a much tougher time than most anticipated against the Colorado Avalanche in its own opening-round matchup. Even if it finds a way to eventually squeeze past them, Colorado has laid out the blueprint for how to beat the Flames. That very plan perfectly meshes with what Vegas does best, which is using their team speed to create chances off the rush. Just like that, the likelihood of a repeat run suddenly looks more and more feasible with each passing day.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN the Magazine researcher: How about the New York Islanders? Goalie Robin Lehner is saving 95.4 percent of shots faced, the second-best rate since 1968. It gets even better in high-danger chances, with a save percentage of .962. After winning Game 1 in overtime, the Isles had to come back against the Penguins three times, answering quickly in Games 2, 3 and 4. The Penguins only led for 4:43 of the series. Less than five minutes. Matt Barzal was a wizard at setting up scoring chances with five assists, and he set up Jordan Eberle three times. The top three lines have scored timely goals for this team. There are still flaws, such as a 43.7 Corsi Close percentage and 17 penalties committed, but having the hottest goalie in the playoffs can get you pretty far (2018 Marc-Andre Fleury?). And all this without mentioning their Cup-winning coach, Barry Trotz.