Capitals in 5
A legacy of playoff failure and all the pressure in the world that is what the Washington Capitals have to carry with them into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. All season the Capitals have been the best team in the NHL, posting a franchise best 56 wins on the way to winning the President’s Trophy for the second time in franchise history. The last time they had the NHL’s best record in 2010, the Capitals were eliminated in the first round, blowing a 3-1 series lead. Something Washington hockey fans are all too familiar with having also blown a 3-1 lead last season. The Flyers finished strong and are perhaps the most surprising team in the playoffs. The Capitals are the NHL’s best team when even strength controlling the puck and scoring at a high rate. The Flyers penalty kill ranked 22nd giving Washington who comes into the series healthy a huge edge in most situations. The Flyers did take two of the four regular season match ups, with both wins were in overtime. The key for the Capitals will be Justin Williams who was signed just for this time a year. A three time Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe winner, Williams will be the difference as the Caps take command early and never look back.
Stars in 5
Once upon a time the Minnesota North Stars thrilled fans in the Twin Cities, now they shoot the lights out in Dallas, leaving behind the State of Hockey in 1993. The Wild were born out of expansion seven years later. This is the first playoff meeting for the two NHL teams that began play in the Land of Lakes. The Stars are one of the most exciting teams in the NHL with a league best 267 goals, led by Jamie Benn who finished second in scoring with 89 Despite entering the playoffs as the top seed in the West, the Stars are hardly looked at as a favorite because they also give up a lot of goals, allowing 210 on the season. Teams like the Stars tend to be vulnerable come the playoffs due to the more lock down defense minded style of play. The Wild however, won’t be the team that knocks the Stars out after losing four of five meetings with Dallas. Except for a month long stretch when John Torchetti replaced Mike Yeo behind the bench the Wild have been mediocre all season, and come into the playoffs losing their last five. Making matters worse the Stars have one of the league’s best power plays and the Wild are the worst of the 16 playoff teams on the penalty kill.
Penguins in 5
Old rivals meet again as the New York Rangers face the Pittsburgh Penguins for the third straight season. No team has been better that Penguins over the NHL’s last two months as they have won 17 of their last 22 games. The Penguins who started the season slowly got stronger as the season wore on, thanks in part to a rejuvenation under new coach Mike Sullivan. After getting off to a sluggish 15-10-3 start, the Penguins under Mike Johnston the Penguins have again looked like a Stanley Cup contender, posting a record of 33-12-5 since dropping their first five game under their new coach. The Rangers meanwhile limped to the finish line posting a record of 8-7-3 in their last 21 games since March 1st. The Rangers also dropped three of four meetings with the Penguins in the regular season, giving the team in black and gold a big upper hand. Injuries are a big concern for the Rangers as they begin the playoffs with several players banged up, including Dan Girardi, Mats Zuccarello, Viktor Stalberg and Captain Ryan McDonagh. Pittsburgh has its own injury concerns, with both goalies and Evegni Malkin missing several games at the end of the year. The Penguins though have the momentum and will finally skate past the wounded Rangers.
Blackhawks in 7
Each of these teams have the pieces in place to make a long playoff run, but only the Chicago Blackhawks have had any success in the playoffs, winning the Stanley Cup three times since 2010, including last season. The St. Louis Blues have not made it past the first round since 2012, and have suffered some gut wrenching postseason failures including a loss to the Wild after winning the Central Division last season. The Blues win on defense, with Brian Elliott having the league’s best save percentage at .930. Elliott shares time with Jake Allen and that is a crux of the problem. Allen is a fine goalie with a .920, but in the playoffs teams need to find one goalie and stick with them to get any momentum. The Blackhawks defensive depth is not what it was in their three Cup runs, especially with Duncan Keith the reigning Conn Smythe winner missing Game 1 serving a suspension for his sticking swinging incident on March 25th However, Patrick Kane is quite able of carrying the team on his own, as the league’s leading scorer. The Blues can beat the Blackhawks, winning three of five regular season matchups, but something always comes up short for St. Louis, and will again as the Blackhawks find a way to win a seventh game on the road.
Panthers in 6
Two teams that have each gone two decades without winning a playoff series meet looking to The New York Islanders have the NHL’s longest playoff drought, not winning a series since 1993 Patrick Division Finals months before the Florida Panthers first game. The Panthers are celebrating the anniversary of the surprise run to the Finals in 1996 in just their third season they have not won a series since and are making just their third trip to playoffs since 2000. When the Islanders last won a playoff series they made a shocking run to the Campbell Conference Finals, beating the two time champion Penguins. The 2016 Panthers have someone who knows all about that series in the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr who at the age 44 led Florida in scoring. The Islanders leading scorer John Tavares was still in diapers in 1993. The Panthers do have won two of the last three Calder Trophy winners with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad and won two of three regular season meetings. The Islanders who have had rouble developing a hockey atmosphere in Brooklyn will be missing Goalie Jaroslav Halak who is still recovering from a groin injury. The Panthers meanwhile with the Kevin Spacy mask and the Jagr mullet have the juice and the energy and the series edge.
Ducks in 6
Two teams took different paths to the playoffs as the Anaheim Ducks take on the Nashville Predators. The Predators started the season strong, winning six of their first seven games. The Ducks meanwhile looked all but finished after winning just once in their first ten games. These two teams have not met since the early part of the season with Nashville taking two of three meetings. Those games mean almost nothing now since the Ducks flipped the script in December and focused on defense and ended up winning the Pacific Division. No doubt Anaheim has been the Western Conference’s best team since Christmas, posting a record of 34-10-5. They have been especially strong at home, with just five regulation losses at Honda Center over the same period. The Predators have a solid defense that can frustrate teams into bad mistakes, but their Goalie Pekka Rinne has struggled down the stretch, with a .900 save percentage since the start of March. The Predators do come in with a better offensive team with five players having 50-point season led by Filip Forsberg. The Ducks allowed the fewest goals with the 1-2 punch of Frederik Anderson and John Gibson taking the William Jennings Trophy. The Ducks also had the best power play and penalty kill all things that bode well for a long playoff run.
Red Wings in 6
The more things change, the more things stay the same for the Detroit Red Wings, who have made the playoffs for the 25th straight season. Many of today’s NHL’s best players were still crawling on the floor the last time the Wings were watching the first round in 1990, thought this year they needed help as the Bruins collapse kept their streak alive. For the second straight season the Red Wings will be taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. Last year Detroit gave Tampa all they could handle before dropping the last two games as the Lightning went on to the Stanley Cup Finals. This year Tampa will be hard pressed for another great run as they have run head first into the injury bug. Already without their top goal scorer Steven Stamkos who is recovering from a blood clot the Lightning lost Anton Stralman to a broken leg on March 25th. Tyler Johnson, Ryan Callahan, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman are also skating at less than 1005 for Tampa. Ben Bishop was terrific all season in goal, but Tampa’s loss in man power is too much to overcome as the Red Wings who split four games with the reigning Eastern Conference Champions advance to the second round.
Kings in 7
The Los Angeles Kings live rent free in the minds of the San Jose Sharks, that was clear two years ago when they rallied from down 3-0 to win their series in seven games. The Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup for the second time in three years, as the Sharks spent all of last season suffering a hangover. The Sharks bounced back nicely this season with a strong defense and goaltending led by Martin Jones who had previously been Jonathan Quick’s back up in Los Angeles. The Kings also missed the playoffs last season, but are back rested and looked prime for another deep run. Quick had another stellar season for the Kings, with a 31-16-3 record with a 2.18 GAA and a .920 save percentage. The Kings in their last three trips to the playoffs have either won the Stanley Cup or gone to Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. The Kings have more offensive options and have some of the best two way players in the league led by Tyler Toffoli and Anze Kopitar who ranked first and second in the league with +/-. The Sharks do have a physical edge with Brent Burns, but in the end too many factors seem to favor the Kings who take the Sharks down in another seven game war.