Capitals in 7
This is for the Washington Capitals it is now or never. For too long they have been one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, yet have not made it to the Conference Finals in nearly 20 years, as Alex Ovechkin has yet to find that signature moment in the playoffs. Sure, Ovechkin can dazzle in the regular season, but the playoffs he has often been ordinary. Making matters worse, he has always come up short when he has come up against Sidney Crosby, Evegni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins, losing both playoff matchups including a second round meeting last season. In fact, in nine postseason meeting the Penguins are 8-1 all-time against Washington, including rallying from down 3-1 twice. The reigning Stanley Cup Champions looked strong in their first round matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets, taking the series in five games, while the Capitals had a dog fight, needing six games to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, with five games going into overtime. Though in fairness the Leafs have a lot more upside than the Jackets despite their records this season. The Maple Leafs may have one of the most talented teams in the league thanks to Auston Matthews who in a few short years will be one of the best players in the NHL. The NHL’s ridiculous playoff format really takes away from the gravity of this matchup as a second round meeting may not get the attention it deserves. These are the two top teams in the NHL and the winner will be the favorite to win the Stanley Cup moving forward. You could have even made that argument somewhat last year, with the Penguins late seasons surge and the Capitals full season dominance. This could be another series full of close one goal games and overtime for Washington, so they could find themselves more battle ready following their win in Toronto. The two teams split four meetings in the regular season, with the home team winning all four games, though both of Pittsburgh’s wins were in overtime. Defense will ultimately decide this battle of heavyweights, and that is why the midseason acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk will pay off as the Capitals slay their demon and move forward in a seven-game war.
Predators in 6
It was upsets galore in the Central Division as the Nashville Predators who were the NHL’s second Wild Card team dominated the Chicago Blackhawks, who were the top seed in the Western Conference sweeping them in four straight games by a combined score 13-3. The St. Louis Blues were nearly as strong in their upset of the Minnesota Wild as Jake Allen made big save after big save to win the series in five games. Nashville entered the season with great expectations, after the acquisition of P.K. Subban. However, through much of the first half the Predators struggled through much of the first half of the season, as some began to wonder if Pekka Rinne’s best days were behind him, like too many pucks landing in the net. When crunch time arrived, the Predators were up to challenge, with their veteran goalie. In the opener against Chicago, Pekka Rinne stopped all 29 shots in a 1-0 win at the United Center. Rinne would also shutout the Blackhawks in Game 2, as Nashville stomped crushed Chicago 5-0. In the four-game sweep, the Finnish goalie allowed just three goals on 126 shots. The Blues also had a second half turnaround. Sitting with a 24-21-5 record at the end of January, following a trip to the Western Conference Finals the Blues fired Coach Ken Hitchcock and named Mike Yeo as their bench boss for the rest of the season. Yeo was hired as an assistant to replace Hitchcock following the season. The move sparked the Blues to life as they won seven of their next eight and got back in playoff contention. Like the Predators, the Blues got terrific goaltending in the first round, as Jake Allen at time stood on his head making 51 saves as the Blues stole Game 1 in Minnesota 2-1 in overtime. That win set the trend for the entire series, as Allen helped St. Louis take a 3-0 series lead, before advancing in five games. In the regular season, Nashville won the season series 3-2. The Predators were cup contenders at the start of the year. Though not always looking like it in the regular season, their take down of Chicago shows they are a force and will win this series in six games.
Rangers in 6
As their first round series came to an end, the New York Rangers appeared to be hitting their stride, winning a critical overtime game on the road and taking Game 6 against the Montreal Canadiens at Madison Square Garden 3-1. The Rangers were getting strong goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist who at times looked to be wearing down in the regular season. However, thus far in the playoffs he has returned to form that made him one of the top goaltenders in the world. If not for the King, the Rangers most certainly would have been crowned by the Habs. Right from the start of the playoffs Henrik Lundqvist showed he was at the top of his game, as he blanked Les Canadiens in the opener 2-0, stopping 27 shots. His play was crucial in the Rangers win in Game 4 as the Habs rallied to take a 2-1 series lead. The Senators meanwhile come in after beating the Boston Bruins in six games, but it was not the most riveting series, as neither team was particularly impressive. The Senators lost two of three games at home, and were fortunate that the Bruins were flat at home, Ottawa won three games at TD Garden. Craig Anderson was not sharp, and can only thank the Bruins lack of firepower for the Senators ability to survive the first round. The Senators do have a solid defense, though it clear that Erik Karlsson is not 100% as he tries to play through a hairline heel fracture. The Rangers, meanwhile are as healthy as team can be this time of year. In the regular season, the Senators beat the Rangers twice in three meetings, down the final meeting won by Ottawa was rather meaningless at the end of the season, with the Rangers resting several players. Overall the Rangers had a better season, with a record of 48-28-6, and 102 points compared to the Senators 44-28-10, record with 98 points. Despite this Ottawa has home ice, due to the NHL’s bewildering playoff format. Though that suits the Rangers just fine as they were the top road team in the NHL this season, look for New York to continue their success on the road and reach the Eastern Conference Finals in six games.
Ducks in 5
There is no doubt that the Edmonton Oilers are back, as they took out the reigning Western Conference Champion San Jose Sharks in six games. The Oilers led by 20-year old Connor McDavid, the NHL’s likely Hart Trophy winner given to the league’s MVP, after scoring 100 points to lead the league in scoring. McDavid and the rest of the Oilers showed veteran poise against San Jose, especially when they recovered from blowing a 2-0 lead in Game 1 and a humiliating 7-0 loss in Game 4. The Oilers showed real grit in Game 5, rallying from down 3-1 in the second period to win in overtime. The Anaheim Ducks did not have such a trying time as they quickly extinguished the Calgary Flames in four games. The Oilers were able to take advantage of the Sharks who ended the season in a slump and were clearly team that was beat up at the end of the season, after the series was over it was revealed that Joe Thornton was playing with a torn ACL. The Ducks on the other hand were on fire at the end of the season, posting a NHL best 14-2-3 record since March 1st, before heading into the playoffs to sweep away the Flames. The Ducks success in the first round was without Cam Fowler, who is expected to return for the start of the second round. The Oilers won the season series against Anaheim 3-2, but two wins came in overtime. One thing Edmonton has to be concerned with was the lapses of discipline, as they often took bad penalties, especially early in the series against the Sharks. The Oilers also were quicker than the Sharks, who when getting leads later in the series tried to sit back on the lead, likely in part due to fatigue. Anaheim won’t have that same problem as they have players like Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler that can keep up the Oilers youth. The Ducks are also stronger and more resilient as they rallied from down 4-1 in their Game 3 win in Calgary. Like the Penguins last year, the Ducks are team that got hot at the right time and could be on their way to something big as they win in five.