It’s never easy to prognosticate. Especially when it comes to the best tournament in all of professional sports. Every Spring, sixteen teams play for the Stanley Cup. They will battle, do whatever it takes and sacrifice their bodies for Lord Stanley. It’s the team willing to go the extra mile and win those tenacious battles who comes out on top.
Ultimately, every player who participates in the NHL Playoffs will bleed for the cause. They are warriors who will do battle during each shift no matter the mental and physical toll. Only one team is crowned champions in mid-June when it’s over. If your team reaches the pinnacle, you have every reason to celebrate and also bring an oxygen mask and plenty of H2O because you’re gonna need it.
The playoffs are equally grueling for fans. Anxiety is through the roof. We’re all in it together. Maybe not literally. We all support different teams. In New York City, bitter rivals are the talk of the town. On one side in Manhattan, the Rangers will start in the Steel City with the Penguins. A familiar opponent they’ll have to go through a third consecutive year. In Brooklyn, the Islanders’ path begins in the Sunshine State against the Panthers. Is this the year captain John Tavares leads the once proud franchise out of the Round One? Or will ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr get the last laugh?
In the postseason, anything’s possible. The Capitals had the best regular season winning the President’s Trophy with a ridiculous 120 points. They won 56 games and only lost 18 times in regulation. The pressure is on Alexander Ovechkin to finally advance past the second round and beyond. It’s Cup or bust for these Caps led by a collection of talent including leading scorer Evgeny Kuznetsov, record-tying goalie Braden Holtby and Mr. Geico, Nicklas Backstrom. They have added proven playoff performer Justin Williams along with T.J. Oshie. Coach Barry Trotz has only reached the Conference Final once doing so with Nashville. Are the Caps ready for prime time?
The Pens are considered favorites due to the strong finish in the regular season. Sidney Crosby is back with a vengeance, leading a more balanced club that boasts more speed and tenacity. Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel have been tormentors and Kris Letang has dominated games. They won 14 of 16 down the stretch without Evgeni Malkin, who still isn’t ready. What happens when he is? How will Mike Sullivan play it? Marc-Andre Fleury could be back for Game 1 against the Rangers. Is he still mad at Henrik Lundqvist? Is he 100 percent?
The Rangers have their work cut out. Lundqvist has faced more shots on average (29.9) and higher danger chances than at any other point of his career. At times, he’s broken down while during others, the King has flashed the leather that’s made him one of the league’s premier netminders. Is he ready to carry a flawed team to another run? He’ll need plenty of help. It could be the guys up front who play a bigger role. Eric Staal returns to the postseason for the first time since ’09. Playing alongside brother Marc Staal, he should have plenty of motivation. Younger brother Marc must shoulder the burden until Ryan McDonagh can return. Keith Yandle will never be more vital. He can earn a new contract with a money performance.
These are just some of the story lines of what should be another unpredictable postseason. For some, the journey starts Wednesday night. Three series get underway much later. At 7 EST, the Red Wings face the battered Lightning in a first round rematch. What can Tampa bring minus Steven Stamkos, Ben Bishop, Anton Stralman and possibly Tyler Johnson? Victor Hedman and Ryan Callahan are also question marks. The Red Wings have gone from Petr Mrazek to Jimmy Howard but that’s not the story. Pavel Datsyuk might be playing his final hockey in the NHL. He wants to go home to be with his teenage daughter in Russia. What a loss it would be for the league. He’s only been one of the most amazing, intelligent, two-way puck wizards who has been a joy to watch. Here’s hoping he gives us one last moment to remember him by.
In a odd year, there are no Canadian teams in this year’s tournament. That’s right. For the first time since 1970, not one Canadian team made the 16-team field. Montreal had a down year with MVP Carey Price going down. In a rebuilding year, Toronto finished last overall and will compete with Edmonton for the Auston Matthews lottery. Calgary and Vancouver went from playoff teams to incomplete. Winnipeg suffered the same fate but never stopped competing. Ottawa also took a couple of steps back which caused fiery owner Eugene Melnyk to fire another coach. So, Dave Cameron is out after getting them in last year. Bryan Murray retired. It’ll be very odd without one Canadian participant. It’s not positive for the game.
While the Caps and Pens are overwhelming favorites to come out of the East, there are at least five teams who can win the West. They include preseason Stanley Cup pick Anaheim along with Pacific rival Los Angeles. Assuming the Kings beat the Sharks and the Ducks handle the Wild, they would have to go through each other just to make the Conference Final.
The Stars are back in the postseason finishing with the most points (109) in the West to gain home ice. They’re still without Tyler Seguin but are led by Hart candidate Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, former Hawk Patrick Sharp and rover John Klingberg. Can vet coach Lindy Ruff balance out goalies Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen to full effect? Dallas hit a slump but recovered nicely. They also didn’t lose to defending champion Chicago. A potential road block in the second round.
The Hawks boast Art Ross winner Patrick Kane, whose 46 goals and 60 assists for 106 points led the league. Kane and Calder favorite Artemi Panarin have formed a potent line with Artem Anisimov. Jonathan Toews gets to work with old pal Andrew Ladd and Marian Hossa. Duncan Keith will serve the final game of a suspension but be back for the rest of what should be a very competitive series against the Blues. Chicago boasts money performer Brent Seabrook but the holes in the blue line along with Corey Crawford a question mark could hurt their chances.
Is this the year St. Louis overcomes their kryptonite? Vladimir Tarasenko leads a deep roster featuring Alex Steen, David Backes, Paul Stastny, Troy Brouwer, Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo. There’s a lot to like with newcomers Robby Fabri and Colton Parayko. Brian Elliott is the starter this time over Jake Allen. They both are capable but must deliver for vet coach Ken Hitchcock. Game 1 is tonight at 9:30 PM.
All three Central teams could come out and draw either Californian teams. That’s if Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns don’t get revenge on the talented guys from Hollywood. Of all the first round match-ups, the best one is Sharks versus Kings. We all know what happened two years ago. San Jose dominated by winning the first three but then LA reeled off four in a row to stun the Sharks. They would be true survivors coming back to stun the Ducks and then doing the same to the Hawks before becoming overtime Kings against the Rangers for their second crown. With proven performers Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Marian Gaborik, Jeff Carter, Jake Muzzin, Milan Lucic, Dustin Brown and Tyler Toffoli, they are loaded. There’s also the cool Vincent Lecavalier story with the vet trying to write a Hollywood script.
Jonathan Quick is also the league’s best postseason goalie. He had a big regular season too winning 40 games while somehow flying under the radar for the Vezina. An award that should be Holtby’s due to tying Martin Brodeur’s single season record with 48 wins. San Jose coach Pete DeBoer says it’ll be Martin Jones to start. Wouldn’t it be fitting if an ex-King helped the Sharks finally overcome their most hated rival? James Reimer is in reserve. The Battle of California should be intense.
Honestly, I don’t see either the Wild or Predators having much of a chance. That said, the Wild are proven with Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville and Ryan Suter. But they’ll need big performances from Thomas Vanek, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Devan Dubnyk to have a chance against Dallas. The Preds face the Ducks, who have been a different team since January. They score a lot more goals thanks to a big second half from Ryan Kesler, who just might carry them very far. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are always factors. But it’s key additions such as Jamie McGinn and David Perron who have made Bruce Boudreau’s club more complete. Keep an eye on Richard Rackell. Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm anchor the D which includes Cam Fowler. Which goalie do they go with? John Gibson or Frederik Andersen. Gibson is the guy I’d roll with.
Are you ready?
2016 NHL PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
(M1) Capitals over (WC2) Flyers in 6
Analysis: The Flyers made it thanks to Steve Mason and clutch performances from Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Shayne Gostisbehere. They’ll test the Caps but don’t have enough. A commendable job by Dave Hakstol. Imagine if they pull the upset. God bless Ed Snider.
(M2) Penguins over (M3) Rangers in 7
Analysis: This one should be very close. The Rangers need money performances from Lundqvist, Brassard, Zuccarello, Stepan, Kreider, the Staal brothers and Yandle. The Pens’ speed could be too much along with special teams. Hagelin gets the winner in a cruel twist of fate.
(A1) Panthers over (WC1) Islanders in 7
Analysis: In the match-up they wanted, the Islanders will need to be at their best to deal with the Panthers’ speed. Barkov, Huberdeau, Trocheck (injured), Smith and Jokinen are all very fast and skilled around the net. Jagr controls it. Ekblad is probably the best defenseman on either team. But the Isles are banking on a healthy Hamonic to neutralize the Cats. Luongo is more proven than Greiss. He also is a former Islander.
(A3) Red Wings over (A2) Lightning in 6
Analysis: Originally, I had the Bolts but all the injuries could be too much to overcome. Especially if it’s Vasilevskiy in net if Bishop is out. I like Tampa’s style better and coaching. But wonder what they have left. Datsyuk and Zetterberg might have one more good series in them. It’ll be close.
Pens over Caps in 7
Analysis: If they are healthier by this point, that means Fleury and Malkin are factors. The Caps have more depth. My heart says Washington but my head says Pittsburgh.
Panthers over Wings in 5
Analysis: I just don’t see Detroit matching up here. Florida has the better scorers, system and goalie even though Luongo can be had.
Pens over Panthers in 6
Analysis: Jagr against his first team where he won back-to-back Cups with Lemieux. And it would be a really good series full of skating, scoring and fore-checking. No boring hockey. I just like the chemistry of the Pens better.
(C1) Stars over (WC2) Wild in 5
Analysis: Too much talent. The Stars should dominate possession, shots attempted and scoring chances. Unless they get dragged down by a slower Wild tempo, I can’t see it.
(C2) Blues over (C3) Blackhawks in 7
Analysis: A match-up so delicious, it brings back memories of the old Norris. At some point, the Blues have to figure it out. I like their D better and believe they have enough scoring and grit to finally take down the Hawks in a long series.
(P1) Ducks over (WC2) Predators in 4
Analysis: I’m trying to convince myself this isn’t a total mismatch. But it sure seems like it. Even with the Preds’ scoring up due to Johansen, Forsberg and Neal, the Ducks play a grinding style that wears opponents down. They are tenacious. Nashville would need Rinne to stand on his head and for Weber and Josi to have unbelievable series.
(P3) Sharks over (P2) Kings in 7
Analysis: Why am I doing this? I swore I wouldn’t. The Kings are deeper and more battle tested. But there’s something about this year’s Sharks that makes me believe they can win this time. Thornton is playing amazing. So is Pavelski. Burns is the true caveman. They will need clutch saves from Jones or Reimer if he gets in. Marleau’s final go round in teal? I really am an idiot.
Stars over Blues in 6
Analysis: I was tempted to go with St. Louis. But just feel some how, some way, the Stars finally get it done and are back playing in a Conference Final led by the best captain. Benn is the West’s best player. Not Kane. Not Toews. Not even Kopitar.
Ducks over Sharks in 6
Analysis: I would love nothing better than seeing the Sharks beat both Californian rivals. I just can’t see it. The Ducks’ style is such that anyone can score the goals. Their goaltending is too good.
Ducks over Stars in 6
Analysis: What it comes down to is I believe the Ducks are the deepest team out West. This group is ready to win now. If they don’t, just can Boudreau and trade Getzlaf. Joking.
Stanley Cup Final
Ducks over Pens in 5
Analysis: It’s my belief that if it’s anyone aside from the Caps, the East is going to get smoked. No disrespect to the Pens. They just don’t match up. If they do make it, that would be a great run under Sullivan. Shows that sometimes, changing coaches can work. But also, don’t forget the Ducks didn’t fire Boudreau when things were bad. Sometimes, the best moves are the ones you don’t make.
Conn Smythe Winner-Ryan Kesler