Will this be the season the Capitals finally break through and win their first Stanley Cup? This is the third time in the past eight season that the Capitals have had the most points in the NHL, yet they haven’t made it past the second round since 1998.
Two obstacles in their way, assuming they get past the Leafs in the first round, are the defending-champion Penguins and the Blue Jackets, who meet in the first round. One of those teams will be waiting for the Capitals in the second round.
The Metropolitan Division, with four teams exceeding 100 points, is much stronger than the Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference. The three best teams in the conference may be the Capitals, Penguins and Blue Jackets, and it wouldn’t be shocking if the Rangers knock off two Atlantic Division teams to create an all-Metropolitan Division conference final.
The Western Conference seems more wide open. The Blackhawks finished with the most points, but the Ducks, Wild, Sharks are all capable of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, as are the eighth-seeded Predators.
Let’s take a peek inside the crystal puck and try to predict what will happen during the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
MAPLE LEAFS vs. CAPITALS
Maple Leafs: Rookie Auston Matthews lived up to the hype by scoring 40 goals, tied for second in the NHL behind Sidney Crosby. The Maple Leafs also received terrific production from former Flyer James van Riemsdyk (29 goals, 33 assists), Nazem Kadri (32, 29), William Nylander (22, 39), Mitchell Marner (19, 42) and Tyler Bozak (18, 37). Goalie Frederik Andersen (33-16-14, 2.67 goals-against average, .918 save percentage) will have to be extremely good to give the Leafs a chance against the Capitals.
Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin’s goal-scoring dropped to 33, but the Capitals have much more scoring depth this season than last season, when they were eliminated by the Penguins in the second round. T.J. Oshie matched Ovechkin with 33 goals, and Nicklas Backstrom (23 goals, 63 assists) led the team in points. Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams chiped in with 24 goals apiece, giving the Capitals five players with at least 23 goals. Evgeny Kuznetsov (19 goals, 40 assists) is another key player on offense, but the real difference for the Capitals might be the scoring from lower-line players such as Brett Connolly (15), Jay Beagle (13 goals) and the trio of Lars Eller, Daniel Winnick and Andre Burakovsky (12 apiece). The addition of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline didn’t pay off right away, but he helped the power play improve late in the season. Brooks Orpik, Dmitry Orlov, Matt Nisakanen, John Carlson and Karl Alzner round out a solid defense in front of the often-overlooked Braden Holtby (42-13-6, 2.07 goals-against average, .925 save percentage).
Analysis: The Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy for most points for the third time in the past eight seasons, but they have not advanced past the second round since 1998, which is the only time they reached the Stanley Cup Finals. The Capitals allowed the fewest goals (182) in the NHL this season. The Maple Leafs’ major accomplishment was making the playoffs. That’s not enough for the Capitals, who seem to have a decisive advantage in all areas of the ice. Capitals in 4
BLUE JACKETS vs. PENGUINS
Blue Jackets: Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, a former Flyer, is the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. Bobrovsky (41-17-5, 2.06 goals-against average, .931 save percentage) is also a candidate for the Hart Trophy as the league MVP. But Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets defense will have their hands full with the NHL’s top-scoring team. The Blue Jackets may be at less than full strength on the blue line. Jack Johnson (5 goals, 18 assists) and Seth Jones (12, 30) are important pieces, but rookie Zach Werenski (11, 36) missed the final four games of the regular season with an “upper body” injury, and Ryan Murray has a hand injury. The Blue Jackets’ top points producers are Cam Atkinson (35, 27), Alexander Wennberg (13, 46), Brandon Saad (24, 29), Nick Foligno (26, 25) and Sam Gagner (18, 32), who resurrected his career after a mediocre season with Flyers. But the most important player on the forward lines might be physical center Brandon Dubinsky, whom head coach John Tortorella will try to match up with Sidney Crosby.
Penguins: Sidney Crosby (left) led the NHL in goals (44) and was second in points (45). Evgeni Malkin (33 goals, 39 assists) and Phil Kessel (23,47) are also dangerous, and opponents can’t look past Conor Sheary (23, 30), Justin Schultz (12, 39), Patric Hornqvist (21, 23) and third-line center Nick Bonino (18, 19). Malkin, who hasn’t played since March 17 due to an “upper body” injury, is expected to return for the series. But the status of forward Chris Kunitz and Carl Hagelin is less certain. The Penguins will not have defenseman Kris Letang (herniated disc in neck) during the postseason, which increases the importance of former Flyer Mark Streit. The Penguins will have to play solid team defense to compensate for Letang’s absence, and goalie Matt Murray will have to be as good as he was during last year’s run to the Stanley Cup.
Analysis: This series matches the highest-scoring team in the NHL with the second-stingiest team in the NHL. Health could play a major role, particularly with regard to the Blue Jackets’ defensemen. Columbus needs everyone at full strength to combat the Penguins’ talented forward lines. The absence of Letang may hurt the Penguins down the road, but their defense should be able to contain the Blue Jackets. Neither team finished strong, but the Blue Jackets’ 5-game losing streak late in the season could be cause for concern. Bobrovsky gives the Blue Jackets an edge in goal, but playoff experience is on the side of the defending champions. Penguins in 7
RANGERS vs. CANADIENS
Rangers: The Rangers, as always, are led by goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Although “King Henrik” wasn’t lights out this season (31-20-4, 2.74 goals-against average, .910 save percentage), he remains the crucial component for the Rangers’ playoff success. The Rangers’ other strength is their depth along the forward lines, which prevents other teams from being able to focus on one line. Ten forwards scored in double figures this season, with four scoring at least 22. Chris Kreider led the team with 28 goals, with Michael Grabner, whom I wanted the Flyers to sign last offseason (no, I won’t let this go), right behind him with 27. Rich Nash and J.T. Miller were next with 23 and 22 goals, respectively. Mats Zuccarello led the Rangers with 44 assists, followed by Derek Stepan (38) and Miller (34). If the Rangers have a weakness, it’s the quality of their depth on defense. After Ryan McDonough, the defense is fairly pedestrian, with Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Kevin Klein the best-known of the other defensemen. The lack of quality depth on defense makes Lundqvist’s performance even more important.
Canadiens: Carey Price (37-20-5, 2.23 goals-against average, .923 save percentage) is always the most important player for the Canadiens, but, with Henrik Lundqvist in the other net, Montreal won’t have its customary advantage in goals. The Canadiens’ have a terrific top line in Max Pacioretty (35 goals, 32 assists), Alexander Radulov (18, 36) and Phillip Danault (13, 27), but there isn’t too much offense beyond that n the forward lines. Paul Byron (22 goals) is the only player besides Pacioretty with more than 18 goals. The Canadiens do get scoring from defenseman Shea Weber, who has 17 goals, but 12 of those goals have come on the power play. The Canadiens scored the second-fewest goals of Eastern Conference playoff teams. Weber and Andrei Markov (6, 30) former an excellent top defensive pairing.
Analysis: The duel between Price and Lundqvist may determine the winner of what should be a low-scoring series. The Canadiens have turned their season around after Claude Julien replaced Michel Therrien as head coach. The Rangers, despite finishing fourth in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division, finished just one point behind the Atlantic Division-champion Canadiens. The Rangers’ depth on defense could be a concern against a team with more balanced scoring, but it might not be a significant factor against the top-heavy Canadiens, who rely on one line for a lot of their scoring. The scoring depth along the Rangers’ forward lines could be the difference in this series. Rangers in 6
BRUINS vs. SENATORS
Bruins: Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak powered the Bruins with 39 and 34 goals, respectively. Marchand also led the Bruins in assists with 46, followed by defenseman Torey Krug (43) and Pasternak (36). Patrice Bergeron (21 goals, 32 assists) remains one of the best two-way center in the NHL. David Krejci (23, 31) and David Backes (17, 11) provide talent and experience. Zdeno Chara (10, 19) has declined, but he’s still pretty darn good. Krug was injured in the penultimate game of the regular season. Brandon Carlo was injured in the final game of the season. Neither Krug nor Carlo had missed a game all year, so, if they’re not available against the Senators, that could be a major blow to the Bruins’ chances of advancing. Tuukka Rask (37-20-5, 2.23 goals-against average, .915 save percentage) is solid in goal.
Senators: The Senators rely on a lower-scoring style under head coach Guy Boucher. Ottawa gave up two more goals than they scored (212) this season, the only playoff team to allow goals than it scored. The Senators’ top player is defenseman Erik Karlsson (17 goals, 54 assists), who was sixth in the NHL in assists. Because of the Senators’ style, few players have eye-popping statistics. Or, do the Senators play a conservative style because they don’t have players capable of eye-popping statistics. Mike Hoffman (26, 35), Kyle Turris (27, 28) and Mark Stone (22, 32) are the only Senators with more than 17 goals. Goalie Craig Anderson (25-11-4, 2.28 goals-against average, .926 save percentage) must not allow bad goals or else the Senators may be forced to abandon their style. Former Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf provides physical play and leadership on defense.
Analysis: The Senators won all four regular-season meetings between these teams, but their lack of offense is troubling. Being outscored by the opposition isn’t a good sign. Claude Julien was an excellent coach, but the Bruins have played better since Julien was replaced by Bruce Cassidy. The Senators’ defense gets a lot of attention, but the Bruins actually allowed two fewer goals during the regular season. The winner of this series could depend on how quickly Krug and Carlo return. I’m going to go with a hunch and say they’ll return in the nick of time. Bruins in 7
PREDATORS vs. BLACKHAWKS
Predators: The Predators can’t match up with the Blackhawks’ superstars, but they can match up in depth. Twelve Predators scored in double figures, including defensemen Ryan Ellis (16), Roman Josi (12 goals) and P.K. Subban (10). Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg lead in goals with 31 apiece. Ryan Johnsen leads the Predators in assists with 47, 10 more than Josi. Veterans Mike Fisher (18 goals, 24 assists) and James Neal (23, 18) provide experience and depth. Mattias Eckholm joins Josi, Subban and Ellis in forming the backbone of a terrific defensive corps in front of goalie Pekka Rinne (31-19-9, 2.42 goals-against average, .918 save percentage.
Blackhawks: Patrick Kane finished tied for second in the NHL in points (89). Kane led the Blackhawks in goals (34) and assists (55). Artemi Panarin (31 goals, 43 assists) and captain Jonathan Toews (21, 37), left, also were dangerous threats. Marian Hossa (26, 19), Artem Anisimov (22, 23) and Richard Panik (22, 22) provide quality depth along the forward lines. Duncan Keith (6, 47) and Brent Seabrook (3, 36) continue to anchor the defense, which also includes veterans Niklas Hjalmarsson (5, 13) and Brian Campbell (5, 12). Corey Crawford (32-18-4, .255 goals-against, .918 save percentage) is consistent, if not spectacular.
Analysis: The Blackhawks have a huge edge in playoff and championship experience. They also had the most points in the Western Conference and played particularly well during the second half of the season. But the Predators are a dangerous team. They have good scoring depth, an excellent defense and a potential game-stealing goalie in Rinne, who has yet to have a spectacular postseason. An upset is not out of the question, giving Predators head coach Peter Laviolette a measure of revenge for the Blackhawks’ victory over the Flyers during the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals when Laviolette was the Flyers’ coach. Predators in 7
BLUES vs. WILD
Blues: Valdimir Tarasenko (39 goals, 36 assists) is far and away the most dangerous scorer for the Blue. Patrik Berglund is the only other player with more than 20 goals. The Blue receive some help on offense from defensemen Alex Pietrangelo (14, 34) and Colton Parayko (4, 31). The Blues’ top hope for an upset is goalie Jake Allen (33-20-5, 2.42 goals-against average, .915 save percentage).
Wild: The Wild scored the most goals in the Western Conference (266) and allowed the third-fewest goals (208) in the conference. That’s a good combination. Mikael Granlund led the Wild in scoring (26 goals, 43 assists), followed by the resurgent Eric Staal (28, 37). Mikko Koivu (18, 40) led the Wild in assists, and Nino Niederreiter (25, 32) and Jason Zucker (22, 25) also provid scoring. Zach Parise (19, 23) and Jason Pominville (13, 34) aren’t as prominent on the scoresheet, but both provide experience and depth. Ryan Suter (9, 31) anchors the defense in front of goalie Devan Dubnyk (40-19-5, 2.25 goal-against average, .923 save percentage).
Analysis: Allen could steal this series, particularly if Dubnyk falters. But the Wild should be able to limit Tarasenko’s damage by dedicating resources to containing him. Having former Wild head coach Mike Yeo replace Ken Hitchcock as Blues head coach at the beginning of February adds a twist to this first-round series, but the Wild’s goal-scoring depth should be enough to prevail. Wild in 6
FLAMES vs. DUCKS
Flames: Johnny Gaudreau, from Salem, N.J., led the Flames with 61 points (18 goals, 43 assists). Sean Monahan (27, 31) and Mikael Backland (22, 31) are the only two Flames with more than 20 goals, but the Flames have 12 players who reached double digits in goals, including defenseman Dougie Hamilton (13, 37) and rookie Matthew Tkachuk (13, 35). Former Blue goalie Brian Elliott (26-18-3, 2.55 goals-against average, .910 save percentage) could be a key for the Flames. If Elliott struggles, Chad Johnson (18-15-1, 2.59, .910) is waiting in the wings.
Ducks: If you asked a casual fan who led the Ducks in goals this season, the likely answer would be Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler or Corey Perry. All three answers are incorrect. Rickard Rakell led the Ducks in goals (33). The aforementioned trio wasn’t even second. Jakob Silfverberg was second with 23. Getzlaf (15 goals, 58 assists) led the Ducks in points, followed by Kesler (22, 36) and Perry (19, 34), but they did not led in goals – and that’s probably a positive omen for the Ducks. What’s not a positive sign is that defenseman Cam Fowlder (11, 28) will miss 2-6 weeks after a knee-to-knee hit by Flames defenseman Mark Giordano in the regular-season finale. The Ducks may have difficulty compensating for Fowler’s absence. Kevin Bieksa is a steady hand on defense. Right wing Patrick Eaves scored 11 goals in 20 games after being acquired at the trade deadline. John Gibson (25-16-9, 2.22 goals-against average, .924 save percentage) and Jonathan Bernier (21-7-4, 2.50, .915) form a formidable goalie tandem.
Analysis: The loss of Fowler hurts the Ducks, but not enough to cost them a series with the Flames. The Ducks earned points in their final 14 games (11-0-3) and have not lost to the Flames in their last 25 meetings in Anaheim. Plus, the Ducks probably have the advantage in goal. Ducks in 5
SHARKS vs. OILERS
Sharks: The Sharks are seeing a return to the Stanley Cup Finals after losing there to the Penguins last season. A problem for the Sharks may be the health of Logan Couture (25 goals, 27 assists) and Joe Thornton (7, 43), both of whom missed a stretch of games to close out the regular season. Joe Pavelski (29, 39) and Patrick Marleau (27, 19) provide offensive punch, but it will be more difficult without Couture and Thornton. The Sharks’ most productive player is defenseman Brent Burns (29, 47), who also led the NHL in blocked shots. Aside from the players already mentioned, no Shark had more than 11 goals.
Oilers: Second-year center Connor McDavid led the NHL with 100 points. He led the Oilers in goals (30) and assists (70). But the Oilders also had scoring depth. Leon Draisaitl (29 goals, 48 assists), Jordan Eberle (20, 31), Milan Lucic (23, 27) and Patrick Maroon (27, 15) each registered more than 20 goals. Adam Larsson, acquired from the Devils leads Oilers defensemen in plus/minus rating (plus-21). Goalie Cam Talbot (42-22-8, 2.39 goals-against average, .919 save percentage), the former backup to Henrik Lundqvist with the Rangers, has carried a heavy load this season.
Analysis: The Sharks have experience on their side, but they could be wearing down after going all the way to the Cup finals last season. The Oilers made a remarkable turnaround this season, improving by 33 points in the standings. Former Sharks head coach Todd McLellan, coaches the Oilers. Could his insight into the Sharks provide an advantage for his team? I’m going to take youth over experience. Oilers in 6
Rangers over Bruins
Capitals over Penguins
Capitals over Rangers
Wild over Predators
Ducks over Oilers
Ducks over Wild
STANLEY CUP FINALS
Capitals over Ducks