The NHL regular season has ended, every spot is clinched and the only thing left to settle at this point is the first round matchups. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are exciting this season for a couple of reasons. First , after no Canadian teams made the playoffs last season, five out of seven made it this season including the Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
These teams have two of the most exciting players in hockey right now in Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, who is a shoo-in for the Calder Memorial Award (rookie of the year). Then you have the perennial favorites in the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks who have the Cup or bust type of mentality going this season.
Since we won’t know all the final matchups until late in the day Sunday, this article will instead look at the top three teams in each conference and one dark horse candidate to make the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Washington Capitals are once again the Presidents’ Trophy winners, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot if they don’t make it past the second round. The Capitals have not made it past the second round in the last decade even after winning their division seven times in that span.
This season, anything other than a Stanley Cup win will be a bust. Alex Ovechkin is one of the best players in the entire league and has never won a championship, and the Capitals traded for Kevin Shattenkirk — one of the elite defensemen in the league — as a playoff rental, not with the hope of signing him long-term. If the Capitals don’t at least make it to the Finals this season, expect some sort of structural change out of Washington for continued playoff failures.
The Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup Champions and looked primed to compete with the Capitals and potentially knock them out just like last season. Any team with Sidney Crosby is a dangerous team to play because he can single handedly change the course of a game.
Injuries will determine their fate in the playoffs. Their star defenseman Kris Letang is out for another four to six months and it will be a challenge for the Penguins to win it all without him, but they have some other players coming off injury that will look to shore up their defense for another run.
Finally, the Columbus Blue Jackets, were the surprise team in the East this season after finishing eighth in the Metropolitan last season. So three of the five best teams in the NHL (and the three best teams in the East) will knock each other out in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The biggest advantage that the Blue Jackets have going into the playoffs is Sergei Bobrovsky, their goalie, who has the best save percentage in the league. Championships are built on goaltending and Bobrovsky looks to give the Blue Jackets the edge they need in their matchup against the Penguins.
It’s hard to look at a team that won their division as a dark horse candidate for the Stanley Cups, but that’s exactly what the Montreal Canadiens are this season. As a reward for winning their division they get to play the New York Rangers who almost have a better record than them.
Montreal is not an offensive juggernaut but relies on a stifling defense to get the job done. If the Canadiens can knock off the Rangers, who they’ve beat three times already this season, they will have a much easier second round matchup against Ottawa or the Maple Leafs before taking on the Metropolitan champion in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Chicago Blackhawks are the top team in the West again and are a big threat to win their fourth Stanley Cup in the last decade. Though the Blackhawks have a lot of rookies on their team this season, they still have one of the most playoff-seasoned teams (they did win a Cup just two years ago, after all). Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are all proven champions and bring that sense of stability to the younger guys on the team. That experience and the tandem of Corey Crawford and Scott Darling in between the pipes give Chicago the best leg up in the West, and they will have home ice for the entire Western side of the playoffs.
The Minnesota Wild are the second-best team in the West in terms of points, but have struggled in the second half of the season. Though they are currently riding a four-game winning streak, those wins have come against some of the bottom dwellers in the NHL.
The recipe to their success will be to continue to make it almost impossible for teams to even shoot the puck (a staple of Head Coach Bruce Boudreau’s teams) and dominate the neutral zone, something they did very well early in this season when they were the hottest team in the NHL.
The Anaheim Ducks, the winners of the Pacific division, started their playoff run with bad news. Their All-Star defensemen Cam Fowler will miss two-to-six weeks after taking a knee-to-knee hit late last week.
Fowler was their top-scoring defensmen and led the Ducks in total ice time so his loss will be felt in their playoff run. The Ducks are built for the postseason though with a team that relishes the opportunity to make their opponents hurt with big hits and physical play. They should come out of their series against Calgary relatively unscathed and push for the Conference Finals against the Edmonton Oilers.
My pick for the darkhorse in the West is the St. Louis Blues. Hear me out before you start screaming about the Oilers having McDavid or the Sharks wanting blood after falling just short of a Cup last season. The Blues are the third seed in the Central Division, but are one of the hottest teams in the last two months.
In the beginning of February the Blues fired their Head Coach Ken Hitchcock bringing in Mike Yeo to take over full time. Since then the Blues have gone 20–8–2, behind only Chicago, Washington and Pittsburgh in total points in that stretch. Jake Allen has improved his save percentage from a poor .905 to a .951 since Yeo took over, which is the best percentage in the league in the last two months. They have one of the strongest power plays in the league and the best penalty kill unit in the NHL. Though they sit behind some of the top contenders, the Blues have made themselves a threat in the playoffs.
My final prediction for who will win it all this year is the Washington Capitals for one reason. If not now, when?