NHL Playoffs Preview: First Round
Lord Stanley's Cup.
There is a mystique that surrounds the NHL Playoffs. From the handshake lines to not touching the conference championship trophies to the annual booing of Gary Bettman, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are without question the most exciting postseason in North American sport.
The reverence surrounding the Stanley Cup itself is extraordinary. Few will argue that the Stanley Cup, which dates back to 1892, is among the most beloved, if not the most beloved, trophy in all of sport. What you may not know, however, is that the Cup is not the official trophy of the NHL. The Stanley Cup has been the de facto trophy of the NHL Champion since 1926, and it has become synonymous with the league in the years since.
One noteworthy mention before I dive into the matchups is the omission of the Detroit Red Wings from this year's postseason. Every year since 1990 had featured the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but that streak has come to an end. The longest active streak in US professional sports, and the 3rd longest playoffs streak in NHL history, it is a shame that we will not be allowed to give the Joe Louis Arena one last playoff run. However, all good things must come to an end, and rest assured that the new Little Caesar's Arena will see plenty of playoff hockey for Detroit in the year's to come.
Now for the fun part. Here is my 2017 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview of Round 1:
ANAHEIM V. CALGARY
The Ducks were mighty in Anaheim once again, bringing a 5th straight division title to the frozen pond at the Honda Center. As such, they earned a seemingly favorable matchup in the 1st round against the Calgary Flames. The Flames, who missed the playoffs last year, beat out Nashville for the top Wild Card spot this year, and will be looking to prove that they belong in this year's postseason. These two teams have a history in the playoffs, as Calgary fell to Anaheim the last time they were in the playoffs in 2015. All of this being said, Anaheim has struggled in recent years at finding playoff success. Despite their top seed in 2016, they fell to Nashville in the 1st round 4 games to 3. What gives me the idea that Anaheim will succeed this year is a couple of things. First of all, the Ducks allowed 21 fewer goals than the Flames, while scoring a similar amount of goals. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Calgary has failed to defeat Anaheim in Anaheim in their last 28 tries. That amount of road futility will come into play with the Ducks holding home ice advantage. Anaheim will continue their success against Calgary in this round. Give me ANAHEIM 4-2.
EDMONTON V. SAN JOSE
This may be the most intriguing series in the Western Conference Playoffs. San Jose fell in the Stanley Cup Finals last year, and will be seeking to take the next step and raise the Cup in June. Edmonton, however, is making their first playoff appearance since 2006, breaking an NHL Record-tying 10 year playoff drought. For what it's worth, the Oilers fell in the Stanley Cup Finals to Carolina that year. The obvious X-Factor in this series will be Art Ross Trophy winner, Connor McDavid. The budding superstar was the only player with 100 points this season, netting 30 goals and assisting on an astounding 70 more. The Sharks will need to find a way to stop McDavid, and will be difficult in itself. San Jose lost the final 3 meetings of the season against Edmonton, although it is a new season come playoff time. Expect a thrilling, seven game series that will be among the best of the entire playoffs. With both teams having something to prove, I see Edmonton pulling it off. Give me EDMONTON 4-3.
CHICAGO V. NASHVILLE
Patrick Kane is a man among boys in the NHL. Just look at that face, that is the face of a man who doesn't mess around. The Blackhawks will be looking for redemption after falling in the 1st round to St. Louis in the 2016 Playoffs, 4-3. They certainly got off to a good start, winning the Central Division and finishing with the best record in the Western Conference. They will face a pesky Nashville Predators team which has had incredible success at home this season. Unfortunately for Nashville, Chicago has home ice for the series. I'm going to give you 4 reasons why the Blackhawks will win this series: Toews, Kane, Keith, and Quenneville. Those 4 men have been money in the playoffs over the last several years, tallying 3 Stanley Cup Championships along the way. After last year's early exit, I see no scenario where Nashville wins this series. It'll be CHICAGO 4-1.
MINNESOTA V. ST LOUIS
The Blues and the Wild have something in common: Both lost to the Dallas Stars in the 2016 playoffs. Minnesota lost in the 1st Round, and St. Louis in the 2nd. Both teams come into this series knowing full well that a potential 2nd round matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks looms large. Minnesota led the Western Conference with 266 goals scored and a goal differential of +58. St. Louis, on the other hand, scored only 235, and only managed a goal differential of +17. The Blues, however, won the season series 3-2, including picking up the only road win in the 5 games between these 2 teams. With this series looking as though it could get quite physical (see above picture), it appears that game 7 will be in play between the Blues and Wild. Home Ice belongs to Minnesota, so while it is not a sure thing, I'm going with MINNESOTA 4-3.
MONTREAL V. NEW YORK RANGERS
The only Original Six matchup in the 1st Round pits the winners of the Atlantic Division, the Montreal Canadiens, against the New York Rangers, who actually won one more game than Montreal during the regular season. This is the 16th playoff series all time between the Habs and the Rangers, with New York having won 8 to Montreal's 7. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, New York got the better hand, defeating Montreal in the Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2, in 2014 (New York would lose to Los Angeles in the Stanley Cup Finals). Montreal, however, is the New York Yankees of the NHL, having won 24 Stanley Cup Championships, by far the most of any team. The Canadiens swept the season series against the Rangers, including winning twice at Madison Square Garden. Despite scoring 30 fewer goals than New York, what matters most in this series will be Montreal Goaltender Carey Price. Montreal hasn't been to a Stanley Cup Final since 1993, and it will be a dogfight to get to the 2nd Round. New York will put up an extraordinary effort, but I see the Canadiens getting the upper hand in Game 7. A great series will conclude seeing Montreal coming out on top. MONTREAL 4-3.
OTTAWA V. BOSTON
This peculiar matchup will see two teams that failed to make the playoffs in 2016. Ottawa swept all 4 games against Boston, yet they allowed 2 more goals during the season than they scored. Boston, on the other hand, scored 22 more goals than they allowed. Otherwise, this series looks to be pretty even. There is no playoff history between these two teams, which is surprising to hear. Both teams won 44 games, and were neck and neck down the stretch in the Atlantic Division. Home Ice belongs to the Senators in this series, but I have a hunch that it won't go back to Ottawa for a Game 7. The Bruins are in the playoffs for the first time since their loss to Montreal in the 2014 Playoffs. Despite having replaced their coach mid-season, I'm going with BOSTON 4-2.
WASHINGTON V. TORONTO
Say what you want about Alex Ovechkin, the guy can score goals. The Captain of the Washington Capitals has been around the block and seen a lot of regular season success whither away when the playoffs roll around. This is the 2nd straight President's Trophy for Washington, having accumulated the most points in the league once again, winning 118 points this season. Washington holds the best goal differential in the NHL at +81, and they allowed an NHL Low 182 goals, due in no small part to Starting Goaltender Braden Holtby. Toronto is making their first playoff appearance since 2013, featuring a slew of great young talent that includes rookie sensation Auston Matthews. If it were any team other than Washington in this position, I would be quick to say that it would be a potential sweep, and that the Maple Leafs could play their best hockey of the season and still have absolutely no shot. Considering the Caps track record, though, I hesitate to commit wholeheartedly to this prediction. I wouldn't be surprised if Matthews and Company shocked us all and took down the President's Trophy winners, but I don't think it will happen. WASHINGTON 4-1.
PITTSBURGH V. COLUMBUS
Also known as "There Will Be Blood On Ice." This series will be violent, plain and simple. This rivalry is becoming bitter on both sides, but there has always been a strong disdain of the Penguins by Blue Jackets fans, including yours truly. Pittsburgh is the reigning, defending Stanley Cup Champions, and they will start their quest to repeat against an upstart Columbus team. The Blue Jackets came out of nowhere to become one of the best teams in the NHL this season, at one point winning 16 straight games and winning a team record 50 games and 108 points. Sergei Bobrovsky returned to Vezina Trophy winning form, leading the league in wins and spending the entire season near the top of the league in goals against and save percentage. With emerging young talent, this will likely not be the last time we see the Blue Jackets near the top of the standings for years to come. However, they cooled down the stretch, while the Penguins surged to take the 2nd seed away from Columbus. Perhaps the most evenly matched series in the 1st round, both teams won twice against each other, won 50 games overall, and had similar goal differentials (Columbus was +54 to Pittsburgh's +48). There is plenty of animosity to go around. Sidney Crosby has always struggled against Brandon Dubinsky, and Dubinsky has never hesitated to show his ill feelings towards the Penguin Captain. Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella, seemingly the favorite for the Jack Adams Award for best coach of the year, doesn't hide his long standing hatred for Pittsburgh, having referred to them as "whiners" several times in the past. This series will go 7 games, no question. Interesting to note that the home team won all 4 meetings of the regular season series. My bold prediction of the 1st round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs is that Game 7 of this series will be the first road victory of the series this season. Columbus will win their first playoff series in team history, likely doing so in Overtime of Game 7. I'm calling it now. COLUMBUS 4-3.
The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is always exciting, and usually features some even matchups, along with a couple surprises. Here's to the beginning of a great couple of months of hockey! May the beards begin!!