The NHL postseason is here.
How will the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs shake out? Is this the year the Toronto Maple Leafs end their championship drought? Can the Pittsburgh Penguins repeat? Will the Chicago Blackhawks keep their decade-long dynasty going? Keep reading to find out.
Atlantic Division Semifinals
1. Montreal Canadiens (47-26- 9—103 points) vs. 1WC. New York Rangers (48-26-6—102)
Usually teams do not fire their coach when they are leading their division.
That’s exactly what Montreal did on February 14, replacing Michel Therrien with Boston’s recently disposed bench boss Claude Julien. It took a few games for the Canadiens to hit their stride under Julien, but Montreal closed strongly to clinch the Atlantic Division regular season crown. Goaltender Carey Price proved key in the turnaround, amassing a 37-20- 5 record, with a 2.23 goals against average and .923 save percentage during the regular season. Price’s stellar play, along with a boosted defense led by Shea Weber (42 points, plus-20 rating) carried Montreal’s bounceback season.
If there is a weakness among the Habs, it’s a high-end offense. Captain Max Pacioretty (team-leading 35 goals, 67 points) is the leader, but huge contributions from former KHL standout Alexander Radulov (team-leading 36 assists) helped Montreal where it struggled most last year.
Though this year’s New York squad features many of the same players that were on their 2014 team that reached the Stanley Cup finals, this year’s Rangers flew a bit under the radar in the loaded Metropolitan Division. Even though its championship window might be closing, New York can still complete for a Stanley Cup thanks to a strong defense led by Ryan McDonagh (42 points, plus-20 rating) and rookie Brady Skjei, a balanced offense featuring four 20-plus goal scorers, J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, Michael Grabner (team-leading 27 goals) and Rick Nash, and veteran standout Henrik Lundqvist in goal (31-20- 4, 2.74 G.A.A., .910 S.P.). Lundqvist didn’t have his best season due to injuries, but with the Rangers earning a postseason spot early on, King Henrik should be rested and ready to roll during the playoffs.
Expect a low-scoring series between two teams that fiercely battled each other just three years ago in the playoffs. The Canadiens didn’t have Price for that series, but even with the 2015 Vezina Trophy winner in goal, I see the Rangers knocking off Montreal in seven games.
2. Ottawa Senators (44-28-10—98) vs. 3. Boston Bruins (44-31-7—95)
Much like its provincial rival Toronto, Ottawa is slightly ahead of schedule in the development of its young core. A huge reason for that is star blueliner Erik Karlsson, who had a stellar season racking up a team-leading 54 assists and 71 points for new coach Guy Boucher’s squad. Offensively, the Senators have some talented players like Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris (team-leading 27 goals) and Mark Stone, plus some solid defenseman to go along with Karlsson like Dion Phaneuf (team-leading 100 PIMs). Ottawa could prove a dark horse and make a lengthy postseason run due to its depth in goal; either Craig Anderson (25-11- 4, 2.28 G.A.A., .926 S.P.) or Mike Condon are quality options.
After two years of post-season near misses Boston is back in the playoffs with a squad still in transition. Patrice Bergeron remains the team’s most important player, but Brad Marchand is now the leader offensively (team-leading 39 goals, 85 points), while speedy second-year forward David Pastrnak is a matchup nightmare. Veteran goaltender Tuukka Rask shouldered the load all season in goal, posting a 37-20-5 record (2.23 G.A.A., .915 S.P.), but he sees a lot of rubber thanks the Bruins porous defense. As a 40-year-old Zdeno Chara remains the focal point on the blue line, but the currently injured Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo are eating up big minutes too. Boston will need this group to bend, but not break during the playoffs to survive and advance.
Ottawa versus Boston ranks as easily the weakest of the opening-round series. The two teams finished with just the sixth- and seventh-best records in the Eastern Conference. However, either team has the goaltending to make a deep run at least through the Atlantic Division playoffs. In this tight series, Boston should have just enough offense to outlast the Senators in six games.
Metropolitan Division Semifinals
1. Washington Capitals (55-19-8—118) vs. 2WC. Toronto Maple Leafs (40-27-15—95)
With perhaps its best team ever, Washington is the betting favorite to come out of a tightly contested Eastern Conference. The back-to- back Presidents Trophy winners feature elite offensive talents in Nicklas Backstrom (team-leading 63 assists, 86 points), Alex Ovechkin (team-leading 33 goals) and Evgeny Kuznetsov, plus a much-improved defense featuring Matt Niskanen, John Carlson and huge in-season acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk (56 points). Last year’s Vezina trophy winner Braden Holtby (42-13- 6, 2.07 G.A.A., .925 S.P.) seems poised to backstop a deep playoff run. Washington has all the tools to finally win a Stanley Cup, with the lone exception of a previous long spring experience to lean on.
Thanks to a 26-point jump in the standings Toronto enters the playoffs as the most unexpected postseason participant. The Maple Leafs are maturing faster than anyone expected, thanks in large part to the breakout years of four key young players: Auston Matthews (team-leading 40 goals, 69 points), Mitch Marner (team-leading 42 assists), William Nylander and defenseman Morgan Rielly. Those four mark the core of a potential long-term contender, and they were bolstered in a big way in the off-season thanks to a trade for goaltender Frederik Andersen (33-16- 14, 2.67 G.A.A., .918 S.P.). Andersen’s health could be an issue going forward. The Leafs backed into the playoffs, losing three of their last four games to slip into the second wild card slot and a dreaded matchup with the Capitals.
By earning the Eastern Conference’s top overall seed Washington avoided the perilous 2-3 matchup in their own division and will easily be the biggest favorite in the opening round. The Capitals heavily overmatch Toronto, and Washington should waltz past the Maple Leafs in five games.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11—111) vs. 3. Columbus Blue Jackets (50-24-8—108)
Last year’s defending Stanley Cup champions enter the playoffs as a solid bet to repeat. Pittsburgh’s perennial stars, Sidney Crosby (NHL leading 44 goals and 89 points) and Evgeni Malkin (72 points in 62 games), had terrific seasons, and the Penguins remain as deep as anyone offensively. Young Matt Murray (32-10-4, 2.41 G.A.A., .923 S.P.) or Marc-Andre Fleury should provide plenty of goaltending support for Pittsburgh, but this year’s squad is missing a huge piece from its magical 2016 run: defenseman Kris Letang. Without its leader on the blue line Pittsburgh will lean hard on the emergent Justin Schultz (51 points, team-leading plus-27 rating), Ian Cole, Trevor Daley and Brian Dumoulin). If the defense holds up, the Penguins could go far again this spring.
After two disappointing years in a row, Columbus is back in the playoffs in a big way for 2017. The Blue Jackets feature a well-balanced squad, with plenty of offense led by Cam Atkinson (team-leading 35 goals, 62 points), Nick Foligno and Brandon Saad, and an up-and-coming defense featuring Zach Werenski, Seth Jones (42 points), Jack Johnson and David Savard. What makes Columbus a true Cup contender is their red-hot backstop in goal, Sergei Bobrovsky (41-17- 5), who led the NHL is goals against average (2.06) and save percentage (.932). Plus Columbus is perhaps the team that matches up best with Pittsburgh in this year’s playoffs. An opening-round upset is possible.
Pittsburgh and Columbus has the makings of the best series of the opening round. The Blue Jackets have the type of team that could give the Penguins’ stars fits. Still, Pittsburgh’s offensive advantage should be just enough to pull the Penguins through in seven games.
Central Division Semifinals
1. Chicago Blackhawks (50-23-9—109) vs. 2WC. Nashville Predators (41-29-12—94)
Normally Chicago takes its time during the regular season to find its stride before going on deep playoff runs. Not in 2016-17. The Blackhawks were unquestionably the best team in the always-strong Central Division, and in the Western Conference. The big reason for Chicago’s strong play is its surprising depth at all positions. The Blackhawks have a core of great forwards, starting with Patrick Kane (team-leading 34 goals, 55 assists and 89 points), Jonathan Toews and the ageless Marian Hossa. Duncan Keith (47 assists, team-leading plus-22 rating) and Brent Seabrook each had great seasons on defense, while Brian Campbell played great at age 37. Corey Crawford had another fine campaign in goal (32-18- 4, 2.55 G.A.A., .918 S.P.), while backup Scott Darling will likely be starting on another squad in 2017-18. All the pieces are in place for the Blackhawks to claim their fourth Stanley Cup in seven seasons.
In its first year since 2005-06 without former captain Shea Weber, Nashville struggled at times defensively. The Predators had plenty of offense in Ryan Johansen (team-leading 47 assists, 61 points), Filip Forsberg and the surprising Viktor Arvidsson (team-leading 31 goals each). But without P.K. Subban for a full season (40 points), Nashville leaned more than it probably wanted on Roman Josi (49 points) and Ryan Ellis for minutes on defense. Pekka Rinne bounced back after a tough start to post a 31-win campaign (31-19- 9, 2.42 G.A.A., .918 S.P.), helped by the addition of rookie Juuse Saros, but for whatever reason this Nashville team does not seem as dangerous as it has been in past years.
A couple of years ago I picked Nashville to upset Chicago in the first round, and without the heroics of then-rookie Darling (who was formerly in the Predators’ system), it would have happened. This year the Blackhawks are just playing too well to falter here, and Chicago should roll in six games.
2. Minnesota Wild (49-25-8—106) vs. 3. St. Louis Blues (46-29-7—99)
For a while this season Minnesota was the story of the NHL. They were well out in front of the always hotly contested Central Division, riding a wave of success under new coach Bruce Boudreau. On offense the Wild rode the breakout year of Mikael Granlund (team-leading 43 assists, 69 points), plus bounce-back years for players like Eric Staal (team-leading 28 goals), to find another gear on offense that’s been lacking in previous seasons. Perennial All-Star Ryan Suter (40 points, team leading plus-34 rating) anchors the defense, while unheralded players like Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin were effective on the blue line. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk (40-19-5, 2.25 G.A.A., .923 S.P.) was dominant at times this season and could backstop a long playoff run this spring.
For St. Louis, it’s been a tale of two halves of the season. In the first half the Blues plodded along on the fringes of the playoffs, with its goaltending a mess and its offense missing key pieces like David Backes (who signed with Boston last summer) and Kevin Shattenkirk (who was traded to Washington in-season). However, after a coaching change promoted former Minnesota bench boss Mike Yeo, goaltender Jake Allen (33-20- 5, 2.42 G.A.A., .915 S.P.) finally found his “A” game. The offense, led by sniper Vladimir Tarasenko (team-leading 39 goals and 75 points), and a defense led by two-way standout Alex Pietrangelo (48 points) also perked up. The Blues are perhaps not as deep as they have been in previous years, but this squad still has the assets to do damage.
Minnesota and St. Louis should prove to be an epic first round battle. The Wild feel they are on the cusp of something special, while the Blues are just a year removed from a berth in the Conference finals. Thanks to superior depth and goaltending, I like Minnesota to win this series in six games.
Pacific Division Semifinals
1. Anaheim Ducks (46-23-13—105) vs. 1WC. Calgary Flames (45-33-4—94)
After a rather quiet regular season, perennial favorite Anaheim enters the postseason lacking its usual buzz. Yet, the veteran Ducks are as good a pick as any team (other than maybe Chicago) to come out of the Western Conference. The dynamic duo of Ryan Getzlaf (team-leading 58 assists and 73 points) and Corey Perry are still the team leaders, while Ryan Kesler (58 points) was terrific all season. The Ducks are also deep on defense, even without the currently injured Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm headline a stable of quality defenders. Anaheim’s biggest question mark is in goal. With Frederik Andersen in Toronto the Ducks’ net is officially John Gibson’s, and he responded with a decent season posting a 25-16- 9 record (2.22 G.A.A., .924 S.P.). However, there are concerns about whether he can carry the load over the long postseason haul. Jonathan Bernier is the backup.
After a year hiatus Calgary is back in the playoffs thanks to a heroic playoff stretch run. Goaltender Brian Elliott got red hot late in the year, posting a 26-18- 3 record (2.55 G.A.A., .910 S.P.), while backup Chad Johnson was good all season long. The Flames feature some talented young offensive players like Johnny Gaudreau (team-leading 43 assists, 61 points), Sean Monahan (team-leading 27 goals) and Mikael Backlund, that play in front quality defenders like Dougie Hamilton (50 points), Mark Giordano (plus-22 rating) and T. J. Brodie. However, the big difference this year is the tenacity forward Mathew Tkachuk (48 points, 105 PIMs) added to the Flames’ lineup. Calgary has become a tough team that’s no fun to play against.
Anaheim will be a clear favorite in this opening-round series. The seasoned Ducks removed coach Bruce Boudreau after he couldn’t guide a talented team to a title. Now the onus is on Randy Carlyle to deliver what he did for Anaheim 10 years ago. Calgary can much up to the Ducks physically, but Anaheim should survive and advance in seven games.
2. Edmonton Oilers (47-26-9—103) vs. 3. San Jose Sharks (46-29-7—99)
Edmonton is back in the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, and a lot has changed during that lengthy absence. The Oilers finally found the right formula of talent and grit to compete against the league’s best teams. A clear reason for that was the drafting of wunderkind forward Connor McDavid (NHL-leading 70 assists, 100 points), arguably the Most Valuable Player in the league this season. He helped many of Edmonton’s other forwards slot into more natural roles. McDavid leads an explosive offensive squad that includes Leon Draisaitl (77 points) and Jordan Eberle and the pugnacious Milan Lucic. On defense, the controversial trade for Adam Larsson bolstered a maturing group that includes Oscar Klefbom (38 points) and Andrej Sekara. However, the biggest reason why Edmonton is finally postseason-bound is the stellar play of goaltender Cam Talbot (42-22- 8, 2.39 G.A.A., .919 S.P.), who along with Washington’s Braden Holtby led the NHL in wins.
A year after finally breaking through and reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, San Jose could be poised for a return trip. Not much has changed on a talented squad led by a core of Joe Pavelski (29 goals, 68 points), Logan Couture, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. However, the straw that stirs San Jose’s drink is all-world defenseman Brent Burns (29 goals, team-leading 76 points and plus-19 rating). A contender for both the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman and the NHL’s MVP award, Burns has been nothing short of sensational this season for the Sharks. San Jose’s other difference-maker is goaltender Martin Jones (35-23- 6, 2.40 G.A.A., .912 S.P.), who carried this team through four rounds of playoff hockey last season and could do so again this spring.
This has the makings of a classic series pitting veteran and battle-tested San Jose, which knows its Stanley Cup championship window is rapidly closing against the league’s most exciting upstarts. This will likely be the fastest series of the opening round and the hockey should be intense. I like the Sharks’ experience over Edmonton’s youth in a six-game series, but this one could easily go either way.
A quick look at the rest of the playoffs:
Atlantic Division Finals: Rangers over Bruins in six games.
Metropolitan Division Finals: Pittsburgh beats Washington in seven games.
Eastern Conference Finals: Pittsburgh over the Rangers in five games.
Central Division Finals: Chicago over Minnesota in six games.
Pacific Division Finals: San Jose over Anaheim in seven games.
Western Conference Finals: Chicago over San Jose in five games.
STANLEY CUP FINALS
Chicago over Pittsburgh in six games