By Kim Dunning
The National Hockey League finished up the regular season on Sunday. There are 16 teams that are vying for the most coveted professional sports trophy: the Stanley Cup.
The fun thing about the NHL playoffs is that no matter who gets into the playoffs, you can pretty much guarantee, the winner of the Stanley Cup is usually the least likely suspect, unless it is the Chicago Blackhawks.
Last year, no Canadian team made it into the playoffs. This is only the second time that has happened. This year, all Canadian teams except two made it in. These young Canadian teams are dangerous now but with the young talent they have, they will become even more dangerous as the years continue.
The first round starts on Wednesday night and airs on NBCSN and USA networks. Let’s take a look at the teams who have made the playoffs, this year.
The Eastern Conference
The Eastern Conference boasted one of the most dominate divisions this year in the Metropolitan Division. Four teams in the Metro had over 100 points. Sadly, because of a flawed playoff system, at least one 100+ point’s team will have a first round exit.
The Washington Capitals once again took the President’s Trophy for having the most points in the NHL, they had this last year and were considered the favorite for the Stanley Cup. This year, the Capitals will square off on Thursday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs are very lucky to have a playoff berth this year. They clinched the final playoff spot with 1 game left to go in the season. While most feel that the Caps will dominate the Leafs, there is a chance that these young kids like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will step up big and pull an upset. The thing about Toronto is they are a very young and unpredictable team. If the Leafs pull an upset, it will be nothing unusual for Washington to have an early post-season exit after a dominating regular season.
One of the more intriguing matchups of the first round is the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Pens finished second, slightly ahead of the Jackets. The Penguins are also the defending Stanley Cup Champions looking for a repeat for the first time since Detroit did it back in 1997/1998. The Jackets are a very physical young team with a veteran coach in John Tortorella. The Penguins are based upon speed, power plays and offense. They have a young net minder in Matt Murray who has struggled at times during the playoffs. This series could go either way. Pittsburgh may have a slight edge with having home ice advantage, but Columbus isn’t a team to be taken lightly. Columbus has playoff inexperience and Pittsburgh is the veteran team coming into this. This game could quite possibly go to 7-games.
The fourth and final Metropolitan team to start their first round is the New York Rangers. The Rangers surprisingly have struggled at home and have become the “road warriors” of the NHL playoffs. They will face the Atlantic Division winners, Montreal Canadians. This match-up has two great goaltenders in Cary Price (for Montreal) and Henrik Lundqvist (for New York). Both goalies can step it up and carry their team if need be. The Canadians made a mid-season coaching change and that seems to have complimented their team more. The Rangers have been bit in key positions with injuries. Montreal can be hot and cold and with them having home ice, the nudge should go to the Rangers in this series.
The final Eastern conference matchup features the Boston Bruins and the Ottawa Senators. The Bruins are back in the playoffs after a brief hiatus and the Senators are the home ice favorites in this one. The Bruins have the talent to keep up with Ottawa and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them take the series in less than 7-games. The Senators swept the Bruins in the regular season, but the Bruins have talented veterans in David Backes, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand that can step it up when the playoffs call for. This matchup seems kind of on the drab side, however this could be more exciting than the average hockey fan imagines.
The Western Conference
While the Western Conference during the regular season seemed to just coast along, there is a bigger difference than the Eastern Conference. The Western conference did not have as many ties as the top teams in the East did. The Western Conference road to the Stanley Cup is never boring nor is it ever disappointing.
The Chicago Blackhawks won the Central division and will play the Nashville Predators. Every NHL fan that isn’t a Blackhawks fan wants this upset. Chicago is a team that will coast through the regular season and turn it on hot when it comes to the post season. With Chicago getting bounced out in the first round last year, they will be looking for redemption on their way to the Cup that you can almost feel sorry for the Preds. The Predators aren’t a push-over team but they’ve been hot and cold all regular season. They are also looking to get further after their second round out courtesy of the San Jose Sharks.
The Minnesota Wild will start their first round quest against the St. Louis Blues. The Blues were the team that everyone thought would go to the Stanley Cup final last year after they knocked off Chicago. Both the Blues and Wild are looking to advance further than last year. The history between Minnesota teams and the Blues is still ingrained in the minds of the Wild and Blue fans and these teams do not like each other. Minnesota boast one of the top defenses in the league and the Blues came on strong after their fired their head coach. Mike Yeo, the interim coach for the Blues, has ties to Minnesota as well. So this series isn’t just for the advancement but maybe for bragging rights. Minnesota should be able to handle the Blues but this is one of those series you shouldn’t bet money on.
The Pacific Division winner Anaheim Ducks will face the Calgary Flames. When these two teams met in their regular season finale, fireworks were everywhere. Flames defenseman Mark Giodano’s knee-on-knee hit sidelined the Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler. This may have a carry-over into the playoffs as each team will be running high on emotions. The Flames have a younger group of guys that their veteran goaltender in Brian Elliott may have to pick up the slack for a game or two. They also have the very dangerous rookie, Johnny Gaudreau, that when he gets the puck you never know what’s going to happen. The Flames have struggled at the Honda Center, so with the Ducks having home ice advantage in this could spell a one and done for the Flames.
The final first round match-up is the defending Western Conference Champion, San Jose Sharks against the very young Edmonton Oilers. This series is a must watch because Conor McDavid is really that exciting. McDavid at only 20-years old won the Art Ross Trophy (for most points by a player in the entire NHL). This series is the young versus the old. San Jose is stacked with veterans who are hungry to go back and win the Cup that the Penguins stopped them from winning last year. Edmonton is looking to get back to the “glory days” when Wayne Gretzky played for them and took them too many championships. During the season, the Oilers owned the Sharks 3-1-1, and this again does not translate to the playoffs. The Sharks are not only older but they have a few key injuries in Joe Thorton and Logan Couture. This series may go to six or seven games but with the health and age of the Sharks, Edmonton could move on to the second round and once again have a very young, unpredictable team to watch.
The NHL playoffs are set for the first round. This is the most exciting time in the NHL as they are presented on the bigger stage with NBC and their affiliates covering the entire playoffs. Hockey playoffs are always non-stop action and so much can and will happen. Happy Playoff Hockey and Good luck if your team happens to be one of the 16.