NHL playoff preview
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It’s playoff season, and that means the quest for the toughest trophy in sports begins now. Over the course of the next two months, the NHL’s finest will battle it out in grueling seven-game contests, each in a bid to claim the coveted Stanley Cup. The Black & White hockey analysts Tiger Bjornlund and Justin Baker weigh in on their playoff predictions.
The East: Time to Break the Curse?
The story in the East will be the Capitals finally breaking away from their past playoff struggles. Washington will face an uncompromising second round matchup against either Pittsburgh or Columbus, but improved defensive depth in the form of trade deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk and newfound consistent scoring in the third and fourth offensive lines will help the Caps avoid a repeat of last year’s second round playoff exit against the always dangerous Penguins.
Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs: Capitals in 5. The President’s trophy-winning Caps should have no problems with a Toronto team that squeaked into the playoffs. Toronto relies heavily on rookies like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander for scoring, but these young guns will most likely struggle in their first taste of ultra-defensive playoff hockey, especially against the best defensive team and goalie in the league. Expect a decisive Caps victory, giving them plenty of time to rest before their next opponent.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets: Penguins in 6. The defending Stanley Cup champions ride a high-flying speedy offense behind centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin—a style that carried them past the Caps last year. The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, are heading into the playoffs stone cold—having lost six of their last seven games. If the Jackets are to have any chance, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky will have to be at the top of his game, but even that will likely not be enough against all the offensive firepower of the Penguins.
Ottawa Senators vs. Boston Bruins: Bruins in 7. This series will be a bitter battle until the end. The two squads played to a virtual stalemate last week (Ottawa won in a shootout), so expect an even matchup. Ultimately, though, Boston’s grit, physical play and playoff experience coming from veterans such as left wing Brad Marchand and center Patrice Bergeron will propel them past the Senators, who look to improve their success in the coming years behind young captain Erik Karlsson. Another interesting storyline is the Bruins’ addition of defenseman Charlie McAvoy, who was signed last week straight out of Boston University and will be forced into the playoff lineup due to injury to Torey Krug. Look for the dynamic skater to have an immediate impact.
Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers: Rangers in 7. The key to this series is not to get caught up in the seedings. Though the Canadiens have home ice advantage, the Rangers actually finished the season with virtually the same record (not to mention their tougher schedule). Additionally, Habs captain Max Pacioretty is recovering from an eye injury suffered at practice April 10 and though he will play, TSN reports say he won’t be at full capacity. The Canadiens are going to need all the help they can get to beat a highly experienced Rangers team, and it’s likely they will come up short.
Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: Capitals in 6. The Capitals spent the season building for this series by adding speed and depth to their forward corps, and they will finally shed their playoff demons this year.
Boston Bruins vs. New York Rangers: Bruins in 7. The Bruins are a playoff team, and their size and physicality will propel them into the conference finals.
Washington Capitals vs. Boston Bruins: Caps in 5. The Caps’ speed will be too much for the Bruins team to handle, so look for this to be a much easier series than Pittsburgh.
Eastern Conference Champion: Washington Capitals
The West: McDavid vs. Tarasenko
With some of league’s most dominant young players on display, the West is poised for a talent-filled and surprising playoffs. Expect superstars like Oilers center Connor McDavid and Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko to provide some high-scoring playoff hockey. Ultimately, we’re sticking with our earlier prediction and picking the Blues to emerge on top.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators: Blackhawks in 5. The Blackhawks have it all: prolific scorers, top-notch leadership, dynamic defensemen, solid goaltending and a wealth of playoff experience. Superstars Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin and Duncan Keith will have their way with an inexperienced Predators defense, and the Blackhawks will advance without trouble.
Minnesota Wild vs. St. Louis Blues: Blues in 6. If there’s one thing we Caps fans are familiar with, it’s early playoff exits with good teams, and many of those exits came with head coach Bruce Boudreau at the helm. Well, Boudreau is back in the playoffs with his third NHL team and up to his old tricks. However, he is facing one of the stingiest defenses in the league behind Blues head coach Mike Yeo, who took over in February. The Blues will ride scoring depth, a hot goalie in Jake Allen and the explosiveness of Tarasenko to a well-earned victory against Boudreau’s Wild.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Calgary Flames: Flames in 7. This series is one that could certainly go either way. The Ducks won the Pacific behind strong performances from key offensive players like center Ryan Getzlaf, who was third in the league in assists, with 58. Corey Perry, Rickard Rakell and Ryan Kesler all had productive campaigns for the Ducks, whose well-rounded roster seems to mark them as a strong playoff contender. However, the Ducks (46-23-13) only had one more win than the Flames (45-33-4), who could pull off an upset given a strong showing from center Mikael Backlund and left wing Johnny Gaudreau.
Edmonton Oilers vs. San Jose Sharks: Oilers in 6. Edmonton will be carried by the play of 20-year-old Connor McDavid, who in his second season is already the favorite for MVP. The speedy McDavid, paired with wingers Leon Draisatl and Patrick Maroon, will continue his incredible scoring pace of more than 1.2 points per game into the playoffs. Look for him to make an active San Jose defense—including offensive threats Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic—pay in the transition game, with Sharks goalie Martin Jones left facing multiple odd-man rushes each game. It’ll be a high-scoring series, but one that eventually favors the Oilers.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues: Blues in 7. The playoff-tested Blackhawks are certainly a tough team to beat, but if anyone can, it’s the Blues. The Blues have enough firepower and strong goaltending to go toe-to-toe with the ever-present Hawks, and will hang on to win this one in a hard-fought game seven in Chicago.
Edmonton Oilers vs. Calgary Flames: Oilers in 5. The Flames, worn out from a seven-game series, will not be equipped to handle McDavid and the skillful Oilers.
Edmonton Oilers vs. St. Louis Blues: Blues in 6. The Blues will be the first team that can successfully exploit Edmonton’s defensive weaknesses and their big, physical team will be able to somewhat contain McDavid.
Western Conference Champion: St. Louis Blues
The Finals: Washington Finally Wins it All, Caps in 6
The Capitals are not known for playoff longevity, and the wear-and-tear of playing until June will be new for a Caps squad used to leaving in round two. However, the same applies for the Blues, who have lost in the first round in three of their last four playoffs appearances.
Washington seems to have more starpower than Yeo’s Blues, as the Caps’ recent signings and trades have ostensibly put them in a cup-or-bust situation this year, with players such as Shattenkirk, TJ Oshie, and Justin Williams set to become unrestricted free agents in the coming offseason. Nevertheless, the trade deadline acquisition of former Blues defenseman Shattenkirk onto an already talented Caps team has created the deepest, and perhaps most playoff-ready Caps roster in history.
Both teams thrive on excellent defense, but the Caps have the tools to do that more effectively in the playoffs. Goalie Braden Holtby has the best playoff save percentage in NHL history and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue that success this year.
The deciding factor in this series may be scoring depth. It’s a near certainty that Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin and Vladimir Tarasenko will score heavily for their respective teams, but the contributions of second and third-tier players like Evgeny Kuznetsov for the Caps and Robby Fabbri for the Blues will have to make up the rest of the scoring. Kuznetsov struggled in last year’s playoffs and Fabbri excelled, but that may not replicate this year, since Kuznetsov has been hot lately and Fabbri has battled injuries this year. Also, the Caps added scoring depth to their bottom lines in Lars Eller and Brett Connolly, who will help ease the burden on their stars. Therefore, this factor will favor the Caps.
The only obstacle in Washington’s path to the cup is a curse, but this may finally be the year that the league’s most perennially dominant team wins a much-deserved cup.