2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview

The 2016-17 NHL playoffs begin on Wednesday as 16 teams begin their quest for the Stanley Cup. This year’s playoffs look much different from last year’s in the East, with only three Eastern Conference teams from last year appearing. The Western Conference is very similar this year with only the Stars and Kings falling out, being replaced with the Flames and Oilers. One of the returning Eastern Conference teams are the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who are looking to become the first team to repeat as champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings.

The first round includes some high-profile matchups that will be sure to entertain. Here’s what to watch for in each of the first round series.

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

No. 1 Montreal Canadiens (47-26-9, 103 points) vs. WC New York Rangers (48-28-6, 102 points)

Thanks to the Metropolitan Division’s dominance this season (having three of the four best records in the whole league), the Rangers are stuck with the first wild card spot and find themselves facing the Atlantic champion Canadiens. This year is the 11th time in the past 12 seasons the Rangers have made the playoffs, but they have only reached the Cup finals once in that span, losing to the Los Angeles Kings in five games in 2014. The last Rangers team to win the Stanley Cup was the Mark Messier-led group in 1994.

After Carey Price’s season-ending MCL sprain at the beginning of last season, the Canadiens did not make an appearance in the playoffs. With Price back in net, the Habs are back in the playoffs with a top seed and home-ice advantage. Montreal are looking for revenge on the Rangers after New York beat them in the conference finals back in 2014. The last Stanley Cup victory for Montreal was the year before their first-round counterparts in 1993.

The key matchup in this series will be between the posts. Two of the best goalies in the NHL, Price and Henrik Lunqvist, will be facing off. At 35 years old, this looks like it could be one of Lundqvist’s last chances at a Cup. The Rangers’ blue line offers little reinforcement, however, with Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei as the only consistent defensemen they could play and the likes of Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein, and Marc Staal all struggling this season. If Montreal’s forwards can get in behind and create goals, the Rangers will have a hard time winning this series.

Prediction: Canadiens in six

No. 2 Ottawa Senators (44-28-10, 98 points) vs. No. 3 Boston Bruins (44-31-7, 95 points)

The Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs were able to barely beat out the Tampa Bay Lightning for the bottom two playoff spots in the Atlantic and wild card, respectively. Had Steven Stamkos not gotten injured and played the whole season, it’s very possible only one of those two teams would have made the playoffs, with the other going to the Lightning. Hypotheticals aside, the Bruins’ matchup with the Senators is the lowest combined-points first-round series this season (193 points between the two). Boston won the Cup back in 2011, but have missed out on the playoffs the last two seasons.

Ever since they lost in the Stanley Cup finals to the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, the Senators have only won one playoff series. They have also missed the playoffs four times in that span, including last season. The only team in the playoffs with a negative goal differential, the Senators are up against the numbers in this series.

The key player to this series is Ottawa captain Erik Karlsson. A two-time Norris Trophy winner, Karlsson may very well be the best player in this series, but he missed five of the Sens’ last seven games. He is cleared to play in Game 1, but if his foot injury plagues him and his gameplay, it will be a huge blow to both Ottawa’s defensive presence and offensive production.

Prediction: Senators in seven

Metropolitan Division

No. 1 Washington Capitals (55-19-8, 118 points) vs. WC Toronto Maple Leafs (40-27-15, 95 points)

Coming off winning the President’s Trophy (best record in the NHL) for the second year in a row, the Washington Capitals are heavily favored to win both the Eastern Conference and the Stanley Cup this year. This is, however, a team notorious for collapsing in the playoffs, having never won a Stanley Cup in their 41-year history.

The Maple Leafs made a huge turnaround this season, going from the league’s worst record all the way to a playoff team. Toronto’s turnaround can be attributed to their “Rookie Three-Headed Dragon” of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, all of whom tallied more than 60 points (69 for Matthews, 61 for Marner and Nylander). This young Toronto team is in position to build itself over the next few years toward winning its first Stanley Cup since 1967.

Despite the Caps’ “curse” and the Leafs’ turnaround, it’s hard to picture such a young Toronto taking down an all-around juggernaut like Washington. The key matchup is in net, with Braden Holtby looking strong and sound as always. Whether or not Frederik Andersen can channel some inner-goalie-beast and play well (despite leaving Saturday’s game against the Penguins after a collision) against players like Alexander Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov will determine the fate of this series.

Prediction: Capitals in five

No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins (50-20-11, 111 points) vs. No. 3 Columbus Blue Jackets (50-24-8, 108 points)

Perhaps even more surprising than the Maple Leafs’ rise this season was the emergence of the Blue Jackets. After finishing at the bottom of the Metro in 2015-16 with the fourth-worst record in the league, Columbus made a complete turnaround and finished with the fourth-best record this season. Their success can be attributed to the outstanding play of Sergei Bobrovsky, who finished this season top of the league in goals against average and save percentage.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins finished as the highest-scoring team in the NHL as well as having the league’s second-best record. The end of their season was marred with injuries, however, with Chris Kunitz and Carl Hagelin both out for an extended period of time and Kris Letang being out for the playoffs entirely.

This appears to be the most evenly matched series in the first round, and the regular season outings between the Pens and Blue Jackets agree; they split the season series 2-2. Even so, it’s hard not to view Columbus as the underdogs against the defending champs and one of the best players in the world in Sidney Crosby. If the end of the Jackets’ season is any indication of how they’ll play (they lost six straight before winning their final game), Pittsburgh will be able to wrap this series up.

Prediction: Penguins in seven

Western Conference

Pacific Division

No. 1 Anaheim Ducks (46-23-13, 105 points) vs. WC Calgary Flames (45-33-4, 94 points)

The always-physical Ducks are looking to avenge their first-round exit from last year’s playoffs, this year again with the top seed in the Pacific and home-ice advantage. A devastating knee injury to No. 1 defensemen Cam Fowler against — of course — the Flames on April 4 will keep him benched for 2-6 weeks, meaning he will be likely not play in the first round. If Josh Manson’s response to Mark Giordano’s knee-to-knee hit that injured Fowler is any indication of how the series will go, look for the Ducks to hit harder and even more frequently than they are already accustomed to.

The Flames have only made the playoffs once in the past seven seasons. n 2015, they beat the Vancouver Canucks in the first round only to lose to — again, of course — the Ducks in the conference semifinals. Calgary also haven’t won a regular season game in Anaheim since 2004 a a very bad omen to have against a team with home-ice advantage.

The 11-point gap between these two teams is deceiving, considering the Ducks only won one more game than the Flames. The Ducks’ 17 road wins rank as the lowest among playoff teams (tied with the Nashville Predators). Without Fowler to command the blue line, they could find themselves conceding a lot of goals on the road (and at home, for that matter) to sharp Calgary scorers like Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. Whoever Anaheim puts in goal, whether that be John Gibson or red-hot Jonathan Bernier, will have to be the Ducks’ saving grace if they want to make it out of the first round.

Prediction: Flames in seven

No. 2 Edmonton Oilers (47-26-9, 103 points) vs. No. 3 San Jose Sharks (46-29-7, 99 points)

Last season, the Oilers finished with the second-worst record in the NHL. A year later, they finished second in the Pacific. The Oilers dazzled this season, due in large part to 20-year-old captain Connor McDavid. He only played 45 games last year due to a broken clavicle, but came back to lead the league in scoring with 100 points (30 goals, 70 assists). This is the first time in 11 years the Oilers have made the playoffs, so some postseason rustiness and inexperience could plague this young team.

After losing in the Cup finals last season to the Penguins, the Sharks were determined this year to make a run back to the playoffs. Their journey there looked similar to their last, with the Oilers and Kings swapping postseason positions while San Jose was still seated in third in the Pacific.

Team health will be the determinant in this series. Late-season injuries to Logan Couture and Joe Thornton could potentially derail the Sharks’ chances. The Oilers, on the other hand, are all healthy. Defenseman Brent Burns, who led the team in scoring this season with 76 points (29 goals, 47 assists), will have to focus defensively on a head-to-head matchup with McDavid if the Sharks want to continue their quest for the Cup again.

Prediction: Oilers in seven

Central Division

No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks (50-23-9, 109 points) vs. WC Nashville Predators (41-29-12, 94 points)

The Blackhawks made the playoffs for the ninth straight season and are looking to avenge their first round exit last season at the hands of the St. Louis Blues. The last two times they faced the Predators in the first round were in 2010 and 2015; both years ended in Stanley Cups for the Hawks.

The Preds were a preseason favorite to win the Western Conference, but they finished this season with the second wild card spot and a first round series with their division rival. Nashville needs a healthy Roman Josi to play, as well as a focused performance from P.K. Subban, to stand a chance in this series.

The numbers for this series heavily favor Chicago. They won the season series against Nashville, winning four of five games, and boast an 11-1 record under Joel Quenneville in series with home-ice advantage. The key matchup will be Chicago’s second line (Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov, and Patrick Kane) and Nashville’s key defensemen (Mattias Ekholm, Subban, and Josi if he plays). The Preds will have to stop that high-scoring line, or else Chicago will take the series.

Prediction: Blackhawks in six

No. 2 Minnesota Wild (49-25-8, 106 points) vs. No. 3 St. Louis Blues (46-29-7, 99 points)

The Wild are likely thankful they don’t have to play against the Blackhawks in the first round, the team that has knocked them out three of the last four playoffs. After bringing in Bruce Boudreau to coach this season, Minnesota tallied a franchise-record 106 points and finished second in the Central.

St. Louis went from losing to the Wild in the first round of the 2015 playoffs to making the conference finals last season for the first time since 2001, losing to the Sharks in six games. Head coach Mike Yeo is up against his former team in the first round, hoping to lead the Blues beyond last year’s finish.

The key matchup includes the two goalies, Devan Dubnyk for Minnesota and Jake Allen for St. Louis. Dubnyk (40-19-5) dominates Allen (33-20-5) on paper, with a goals against average of 2.25–lower than Allen’s 2.42–and a save percentage of .923 to his counterpart’s .915. Considering the Blues also traded away their best defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk, at the trade deadline, Allen will have a very hard time against the second-highest scoring team in the NHL.

Prediction: Wild in six