It is the best time of year if you’re a hockey fan whose team happens to be fortunate enough to play now. For 16 teams and its fans, that is the case. Sixteen have the chance to win the Stanley Cup.
Realistically, it’s probably less than half. But this year is wide open. Especially out West. Anything can happen. It might not be Chicago or Anaheim. It could be Calgary or Edmonton or even the Blues. You never know.
In the East, the Capitals are the team with all the pressure. They won the President’s Trophy again clinching home ice throughout the tournament. But that’s only good if they go far. I don’t mean win a round and then get picked off in the Metropolitan Division Final. That won’t be good enough this time. They are the heavy favorite to advance to a second ever Stanley Cup Final. They haven’t been there since 1998.
There are no Red Wings this time. Their amazing consistency and playoff streak ending at 26 in the final year of The Joe. For the first time since 1990, Detroit won’t be part of the postseason. They were the answer to a trivia question as the only team post-lockout to make the playoffs every year winning a Cup in 2008 and losing to the Pens in an epic seven-game rematch.
Alex Ovechkin must pick it up. He only scored 33 times this season with 17 on the power play. Is he saving it for the best playoffs of his career? Washington hopes so. Braden Holtby is the most accomplished goalie to never advance past the second round along with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Co. Do they have what it takes? It depends on Evgeny Kuznetsov and a talented core including Marcus Johansson with a D headed by John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and huge pickup Kevin Shattenkirk.
Sidney Crosby headlines the defending champion Penguins. Fresh off a Hart caliber season in which he led everyone with 44 goals and had 89 points, he gets Evgeni Malkin back for the first round. But the Pens will be minus indispensable defenseman Kris Letang. So can a make shift D built around Justin Schultz with pesky forwards such as Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and ever dangerous Phil Kessel make up for it? What about Jake Guentzel? Matt Murray is the goalie.
Best storylines are Hart front runner Connor McDavid, who hit 100 points on the final night with assists numbers 69 and 70 to go with 30 goals. He has Edmonton dreaming big like they did in 2006. Cam Talbot won 42 games and should be up for the Vezina. How will Cam and McDavid do in their first go round? Is this what they gave Milan Lucic all that money for?
Auston Matthews was even better than advertised scoring 40 goals with 29 assists in his rookie season to get the Maple Leafs back to the postseason for the first time since 2013. The last time they were in, Kessel wore the Maple Leaf and they collapsed against the Bruins in epic fashion. That was then. This is now. Does a very young and talented team featuring talented first-year players Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Connor Brown along with old reliable hats James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak have enough to make the Caps sweat? They’re D is depleted. They could be without Morgan Rielly. Jake Gardiner will get a ton of ice-time. Frederik Andersen is expected to be ready.
Whatever happens with the Leafs, it’s already been a special season. They aren’t supposed to be here. But here is Mike Babcock a year ahead of schedule with a balanced team also featuring Nazem Kadri. If they do make some noise, figure Kadri to be a reason why.
There are five Canadian teams in. That includes the Canadiens, Leafs and Senators in the East along with the Oilers and Flames out West. A much better outlook for Canada. They’re hoping 1993 becomes a thing of the past. That’s the last time a Canadian team won. The ’93 Habs led by Patrick Roy. Alain Vigneault’s Canucks are the last team from Canada to play for the Cup losing to the Bruins in 2011. The Senators in ’07. Then the ’06 Oilers and then the ’04 Flames featuring a younger Jarome Iginla.
What about the Wild? Who are they? Are they the team that rose up the Central led by Devan Dubnyk and leading scorer Mikael Granlund or the one that was inconsistent down the stretch finishing a distant second to Chicago with St. Louis waiting in the wing? Bruce Boudreau is a good regular season coach. He has never gotten it done when it counts. It depends on Dubnyk and some of the other skaters including Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Nino Niederreiter, Ryan Suter, Charlie Coyle, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba.
The Sharks have the same look the Rangers did a year ago. Bruised and battered. They don’t resemble the same team that made the team’s first Stanley Cup appearance. No Joe Thornton to start. But Logan Couture is back. Is it too much on Martin Jones, who struggled the final month? Can Brent Burns rediscover his magic touch? Joe Pavelski is always money in the playoffs because he’s so good in front of the net. But I don’t like them this time.
A long bet is the Predators. They have P.K. Subban and Roman Josi is finally healthy. Filip Forsberg is scoring in bunches. Ryan Johansen is setting them up. Viktor Arvidsson is the player no one knows about. But they face the Blackhawks. Chicago isn’t lock down defensively but boasts the tandem of Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin. Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. What’s Artem Anisimov’s status? They’ll miss him. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson remain the big three on the D. Corey Crawford mans the net. But he’s not great but very good. Might be better than Pekka Rinne, who might be near the end.
The Ducks are playing well entering. They will be minus Cam Fowler on the back end. But with John Gibson healthy and Ryan Getzlaf turning back the clock, there’s a lot to like. Corey Perry is heating up. Richard Rakell scores big goals and is tough in front. Ryan Kesler is dominant again looking like he might win the Selke over Patrice Bergeron. They don’t score a ton. But can a physical tough forechecking team coached by Randy Carlyle win again 10 years later?
Anaheim has a tough match-up in the Flames, who hate their guts. Calgary doesn’t score much either. But possess dangerous American Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund. Rookie Matthew Tkachuk is a chip off the old block like Dad. He is made for the playoffs. He’ll battle anyone and has the scoring touch too. The Flames largely depend on the blue line led by Dougie Hamilton and Mark Giordano. They can bring it as can T.J. Brodie, who finished strong. Michael Ferland can score goals now along with fight. Michael Frolik is a good secondary scorer. But is Brian Elliott up to the challenge?
Here are our first round picks starting with the Eastern Conference:
(M1) Washington Capitals over (W2) Toronto Maple Leafs in 5
(M2) Pittsburgh Penguins over (M3) Columbus Blue Jackets in 6
(A1) Montreal Canadiens over (W1) New York Rangers in 6
(A3) Boston Bruins over (A2) Ottawa Senators in 6
Here are our Western picks:
(C1) Chicago Blackhawks over (W2) Nashville Predators in 6
(C3) St. Louis Blues over (C2) Minnesota Wild in 6
(P1) Anaheim Ducks over (W2) Calgary Flames in 6
(P2) Edmonton Oilers over (P3) San Jose Sharks in 5
The Conference Semifinals:
(M1) Washington Capitals over (M2) Pittsburgh Penguins in 6
(A3) Boston Bruins over (A1) Montreal Canadiens in 7
(C1) Chicago Blackhawks over (C3) St. Louis Blues in 7
(P1) Anaheim Ducks over (P2) Edmonton Oilers in 6
The Conference Finals:
(M1) Washington Capitals over (A3) Boston Bruins in 5
(P1) Anaheim Ducks over (C1) Chicago Blackhawks in 6
Stanley Cup Champion:
Anaheim Ducks defeat Washington Capitals in 6
Conn Smythe Winner-Ryan Getzlaf