Here are the 2017 playoff rankings, based on a final four of Capitals-Rangers and Blackhawks-Oilers with a final of Capitals-Blackhawks and Stanley Cup champ of Capitals. I will group the first-round matchups by the divisional brackets, making it easier to show the conference semifinals
Last season, no Canadian teams made the playoffs; this year, five of the six are in the postseason. Four of the five teams that finished at the bottom of the NHL in 2015-16 qualify for the playoffs this year. That shows how quickly tides can turn in this league. The reigning champs, Pittsburgh, aim for back-to-back titles, while the 2015-16 champs, Chicago, go for their fourth Cup in eighth years.
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EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS
Washington vs. Toronto
The Capitals come into the playoffs off their second straight President's Trophy, leading the league in wins, raising expectations. Washington got off to a string start and was never really challenged for the top spot in the East or the Metro Division. Other than a slight bobble in March, it was smooth sailing for the Caps, who showed they were pushing all their chips into a run this year, filling the one weakness – a PP QB – when the traded a first round and other assets for Kevin Shattenkirk, who helped Washington finish third in the league in PP%. Their offense may not be as strong as last year but is still solid, the D with Shattenkirk is better while excellent netminding led the Capitals to 118 points.
Offense: Alex Ovechkin took a step back this year, failing to score 50 goals for the first time in four years and had stretches where he wasn't the dominant player of years gone by. But Nicklas Backstrom once again the way with 80-plus points, He is ably supported by Evgeny Kuznetsov, who dropped from 77 points a year ago, and Marcus Johansson, who took a step forward. T.J. Oshie missed more than 10 games with injuries, but still scored 33 goals. Justin Williams didn't score 50 points, as he did a year, but wasn't far off. The third and fourth lines aren't elite, but strong enough and bring some scoring to the table when needed, especially from Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, along with grit in Lars Eller and Jay Beagle and physical play from Tom Wilson.
Defense: Shattenkirk helps balance out the blue line. Matt Niskanen got off to a string start, but tailed off offensively beginning in mid-January, scoring one the remainder of the season. He is paired with Dmitry Orlov, who built off last year's growth to tally a new high in points, plus-minus, hits and blocks. John Carlson settled in to have a solid year, albeit not at the same level as 2014-15, when it was thought he has ascended to another level. He plays alongside Brooks Orpik, who is a banger with playoff experience but possibly the weakest link. Shattenkirk "plays" on the third line but is so much more than that and used accordingly alongside Karl Alzner, a steady, stay-at-home defenseman. Nate Schmidt gives the Caps depth on the blue line.
Goaltending: Braden Holtby had his third straight brilliant campaign. While he didn't tie Martin Brodeur's record of 48 wins, as he did a year ago, Holtby still posted 42 wins with a 2.08 goals-against average (GAA) and .925 save percentage (SV%), the latter two numbers better than his Vezina trophy campaign last season. Philipp Grubauer was brilliant as a back up, winning 13 games with a 2.02 GAA and .927 SV%, but he won't play unless something happens to Holtby.
Toronto punched its ticket to the postseason in Game 81, scoring three goals in the third period to defeat Pittsburgh, 5-3. But, the Maple Leafs blew a 2-0 lead in Game 82 and lost 3-2 to the Blue Jackets, resulting in a matchup against Washington rather than Ottawa. Wise drafting and quicker than anticipated development have the Maple Leafs in the playoffs a year earlier than expected. The Kids Are Alright and will be the reason, along with a management structure of Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock will make Toronto a very hard out.
Offense: Auston Matthews has been everything Toronto could have hoped for and more, as he became the fourth rookie in NHL history to score 40 goals before his 20th birthday Saturday, joining Dale Hawerchuk, Mario Lemieaux and Pierre Turgeon in the record books. He is bookended by fellow rookies Zach Hyman and William Nylander, the eighth overall pick in 2014 who notched 22 goals and 39 assists. Nazem Kadri (32 goals and 29 assists) centers Leo Komarov (227 hits) and another rookie, Connor Brown, who notched his 20th goal Saturday. The third line of James van Riemsdyk (29 goals, 33 assists), Tyler Bozak (18 goals, 37 assists) and Mitch Marner (fourth overall pick in 2015, 19 goals and 42 assists) could be the first line given the talent that trip presents. Brian Boyle brings playoff experience to the fourth line, joined by the physical Matt Martin and either Kasperi Kapanen or Nikita Soshnikov or possibly Eric Fehr, if his broken left hand heals in time.
Defense: The blue line is far from Toronto's strength but they do have some interesting pieces. Morgan Rielly hasn't taken the leap forward expected, but still plays 22 minutes nightly on the top pairing where he is joined likely by Nikita Zaitsev, who has had a solid season in his first year in the NHL. Jake Gardiner may have been the team's best d-man this year, tallying 43 points with a plus-24 rating, and he will skate with either Zaitsev or Connor Carrick. The third pairing should be Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak; a duo that doesn't strike fear in the heart of opponents.
Goaltending: Frederik Andersen was acquired from Anaheim in a pre-draft deal and immediately inked a five-year, $25 million deal. He more than fit the bill as a starting goalie, winning 33 games in 65 contests while also notching 14 overtime losses. He left Saturday's game after getting hit in the head by Tom Sestito's hip and went through the NHL's concussion protocol. He is expected to be ready for Game 1 against the Capitals, If he is sidelined, Toronto would really have no shot against the Capitals, as Curtis McElhinney, who relieved Andersen and got the win Saturday but lost Sunday.
Washington finished second in the league to Pittsburgh in scoring, first in goals-against, third on the power play at 23.3 percent and sixth in PK at 84.1 percent. Toronto was fifth in goals, 22nd in goals against, second in PP at 23.8 percent and 10th in PK at 82.5 percent. Washington comes into the series with all the pressure on them due to the team going all in with the Shattenkirk trade to try and win the Cup.
Capitals in 6. This will be a lot closer series than many may expect. Toronto has nothing to lose and the kids won't know any better to feel the pressure. If Andersen is out, it may be Caps in 5, but if he is healthy and plays, don't be surprised if Toronto has a 2-1 lead in the series.
Pittsburgh vs. Columbus
Pittsburgh showed no signs of slippage after winning the Stanley Cup last year, notching 50 wins and second place in the Metro along with the second best point total in the NHL. They enter the playoffs banged up and missing a key cog on the blueline with Kris Letang sidelined. The Penguins are 12-5-3 without him, but 2-4 without him in the past two postseasons. But have the elite talent and added depth on the back end at the trade deadline to compensate if any absences occurred. Pittsburgh and Columbus split their season series 2-2 with a pair of games going to overtime.
Offense: Sid the Kid carried forward his hot finish of a year ago, when he scored 29 points his last 20 games and 85 in 80 for the year, by notching 44 goals and 45 assists to finish behind Connor McDavid for the Art Ross Trophy. His linemates are a pair of kids. Conor Sheary missed all of February with an upper-body injury but has posted 53 points in 61 games while Jake Guentzel, standing in for the injured Chris Kunitz, who is likely out for at least the first round, has goals in five straight games and 33 points in 40 games. Second-line – or really 1B - center Evgeni Malkin missed the last 13 games of the year with a shoulder injury but still scored 72 points in 62 games and should be 100 percent for the playoffs. Phil Kessel has seemingly had a disappointing year with just two goals since Feb. 16, yet still posted 70 points on the season while playing with a variety of linemates. He currently is playing with Bryan Rust, who also just returned from injury while Carl Hagelin missed the last month of the season with a foot injury. Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen are perfect bottom-six centers while Patric Hornqvist is a PP specialist, notching 10 of his 21 goals on the man-advantage.
Defense: The absence of Letang, out 4-6 months after surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck, leaves a huge hole on the blue line. GM Jim Rutherford acquired Mark Streit and Ron Hainsey at the deadline to bolster the blue line depth, which will be needed now. Justin Schultz slowed after a brilliant start but still has 51 points and seems to be rounding into form lately. He'll QB the PP with Trevor Daley, who just returned to action Thursday after being sidelined from Feb. 21 with a knee injury and might be paired with Brian Dumoulin. Olli Maatta, out since mid-February with a hand injury, skated in a non-contact jersey Thursday and should be one of the team's six d-men against Columbus. Ian Cole has had a career-best season and likely will be on the second pairing. The blue line is an area of weakness for Pittsburgh.
Goaltending: Matt Murray took over for Marc-Andre Fleury in the playoffs and has never looked back. A hand injury suffered in the World Cup of Hockey sidelined Murray early, but he racked up 32 wins in 49 games and set to start in the playoffs. MAF is a solid backup, though his numbers have regressed mightily in a secondary role, as his GAA has spiked and SV% dropped as well. He likely will be elsewhere in 2017-18.
Coming into the season, most, including myself, figured the Blue Jackets would finish in the bottom half of the division. A brilliant start fueled a tremendous season, resulting in 100-plus points and time leading the division. Coach John Tortorella pushed all the right buttons, bolstered by a deep offense, Calder Trophy worthy season by Zach Werenski and return to Vezina Trophy form by Sergei Bobrovsky.
Offense: Cam Atkinson, who tallied career-high 35 goals and may be highly underpaid at just $3.5 million for another year, leads Columbus up front. His off-wing is captain Nick Foligno, rebounding after a down 2015-16 campaign with 26 goals and 50 points, with those two centered by Brandon Dubinsky, who will consistently hit and try and get under the skin of Crosby. Alexander Wennberg took a major step forward but you are still left believing there is more there than he has shown. He skates in between Brandon Saad, who has Cup experience with Chicago, scored 24 goals and career-best tying 53 points, and Sam Gagner, who started on the fourth line but has moved up and been a steal on a one-year deal for less than $1 million. Boone Jenner has dropped from 30 to 17 goals, but adds additional sandpaper to the third line alongside Scott Hartnell and X-Factor Oliver Bjorkstrand, who could move up a line. The fourth line of Matt Calvert-William Karlsson-Josh Anderson can chip in a bit offensively is really is a true checking line.
Defense: It does begin and end to a certain extent with Werenski but Columbus still has talent on the blue line without him. Werenski is PP monster, tallying 21 of his 47 points on the man-advantage, so his possible absence due to the shoulder injury suffered on Alex Ovechkin's hit on April 2 would have a major impact in that regard. Werenski is expected to suit up, but if he is out, Markus Nutivaara will probably play across from Seth Jones, who has benefitted from the attention afforded Werenski but also posted 41 points while playing 23-plus minutes nightly. Werenski's emergence allowed jack Johnson to slide down a pairing, where he is better suited and meshes well with David Savard, who is not a big scorer but a solid blueliner. With Ryan Murray sidelined with a hand injury, the third pairing is likely Scott Harrington and Kyle Quincey, who was a trade deadline acquisition from New Jersey.
Goaltending: The Bob has been a beast. With 41 wins, a 2.02 GAA and .933 SV%, Bobrovsky is clearly a Vezina candidate. Those numbers mirror what he posted when he won the award after the 2012-13 season and a huge reason for the Blue Jackets' rise. If he plays like he did in March, when he went 12 games without a regulation loss, Columbus stands a great chance of beating Pittsburgh. Joonas Korpisalo will only play if Bobrovsky suffers an injury,
Pittsburgh led the league in goals, was 19th in goals against, fourth in PP success and 19th in PK. Columbus was sixth in goals, second in goals against, 12th in PP success and ninth in PK. A stat that might be expected seeing who coaches the Blue Jackets is that Pittsburgh finished seventh in the league with over 2,000 hits while Columbus finished 23rd, nearly 400 hits behind the Penguins.
Penguins in 7. If Werenski is truly 100 percent for the first round and playing like he did before the injury, I could see flipping that prediction, as he is the true difference maker for Columbus, especially with Letang sidelined.
Montreal vs. New York
After a down season last year, Montreal rebounded, aided by the return of Carey Price from his injury to win the Atlantic Division. The trade of P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber paid immediate dividends for the Canadiens, though the future value may lean towards the Subban side. In addition, the one-year deal signed by Alexander Radulov gave the bleu-blanc-et-rouge another scorer and playmaker, resulting in the first place finish. The firing of coach Michel Therrien and hiring of Claude Julien on Feb. 14, stemming the tide of a major slump, also impacted that finish.
Offense: The key member up front for Montreal remains Max Pacioretty, who scored 30-plus goals and 60-plus points for the fourth straight season. His center-mate has changed throughout the season, but Phillip Danault is now between Pacioretty and Radulov on the top line. Tomas Plekanec centers Paul Byron, who came out of nowhere to score 22 goals and is hot again, and Brendan Gallagher, still searching for his game after missing slightly more than a month and 18 contests with a fractured last hand. Like Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk missed 18 games with a knee injury and has been a major disappointment, failing to take the next step forward. Andrew Shaw, who has a wealth of experience, centers Galchenyuk and Artturi Lehkonen, possibly Montreal's X-factor. The Canadiens bulked up at the deadline, adding Steve Ott, Andreas Martinsen and Dwight King, created a big, bruising fourth trio. Torrey Mitchell, Brian Flynn or Michael McCarron also could see time.
Defense: Weber missed the last few games of the regular season with a lower body injury but is expected to suit up in the postseason. He likely will line up across from Andrei Markov, who doesn't seem to age and continues to post solid stats at 38. Jordie Benn, also acquired at the trade deadline, missed the last seven games of the season with a lower-body injury but will be in the lineup, likely alongside Nathan Beaulieu. Look for Nikita Nesterov and Jeff Petry, who had a hot start and limped to the finish, on the third pairing.
Goaltending: Price was limited to 12 games last season due to injury but showed his usual brilliance this year. He went 37-19-5 with a 2.20 GAA and .924 SV%, numbers made even better when you consider his struggles just before Julien was hired. If Price plays at an elite level, especially Lundqvist doesn't match up save for save, Montreal wins this series and possibly handily. Al Montoya is a solid backup, just not Price, and if Price was knocked out of this series, as he was the ECF in 2014, the Rangers might need a police escort to leave Canada. Montoya had an okay year backing up Price, but not to the same level as he played last year in Florida.
The Rangers tallied 100 points for the third straight season; the second time in their history they accomplished that mark. New York was the best road team in the league, notching 27 victories, offsetting a poor mark at MSG. The team had little to play for the past month or so, as it was fairly apparent that they were locked into a wild card spot due to how top-heavy the Metro is with Washington, Pittsburgh and Columbus. All eyes will be on Chris Kreider, especially as he nears Price in the crease after what happened in 2014.
Offense: The Rangers don't have a superstar up front; instead, they are very deep team with four players over 50 points, three more in the 40s and three more who just missed 40. Mats Zuccarello may be their best passer, tallying 44 assists, and he is joined on the wing by Kreider and his 28 goals with both centered by Derek Stepan. Two-thirds of the next line will be Mika Zibanejad and Rick Nash, who is rounding into form, and a rookie, either Jimmy Vesey, who scored in the finale, or Pavel Buchnevich, will likely join them. The third line is expected to be Michael Grabner, looking to regain his early-season form when he used his speed to score on breakaways at will, Kevin Hayes, who rebounded after a tough sophomore campaign to tally 49 points, and J.T. Miller, the unsung member of the trio. Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast make up two-thirds of the checking line. Tanner Glass will join them, if coach Alain Vigneault opts to match big checking winger for big checking winger. If not, Vesey, Buchnevich or Grabner if the lines are jumbled will slide in on the fourth line. The Rangers went 13-for-40 on the power play in the past 15 games. They were 1-for-40 in 15 games from Feb. 7-March 7.
Defense: Ryan McDonagh, who missed six of the last seven games of the regular season with an undisclosed injury but returned with a goal and assist in Game 82 will be in the lineup for Game 1. His pair mate likely will be Dan Girardi, who is slow afoot but willing to sacrifice his body to block shots. The remainder of the D, especially the pairings is up in the air, Marc Staal and Kevin Klein, each of whom have had difficult years, are likely to be one pair. The final pair may be Brady Skjei, who rapidly became New York's second best offensive d-man, finishing with 34 assists, the majority coming at even strength, and Brendan Smith, a trade deadline acquisition from Detroit. If Smith isn't in, look for Nick Holden, excellent early but slumping the past month or so, especially defensively, to play and Holden could end up in for Klein.
Goaltending: As Henrik Lundqvist goes, so goes the Rangers. If he is Price's equal, New York wins, possibly easily. If not, it will be quick series. Lundqvist has been up-and-down this year, seeing his GAA rise for the second straight season by almost a quarter of a goal a night and SV% fall again. He is rounding into form after missing some time with a hip injury and may be close to being all the back. Antti Raanta benefitted from working with goaltender coach Benoit Allaire and posted excellent numbers once again. There might not be a huge drop-off from one goalie to the next, but it's the King's net.
The PP is fairly even between the two teams, as they are separate by mere percentage points. But the Rangers have struggled on the penalty kill; finishing 23rd in the league while Montreal was 13th. In addition, Montreal went 3-0 in the season series, outscoring New York 12-7 while the Bell Centre has been Lundqvist's House of Horrors, where during the regular season, he's 4-9-2 with an ugly 3.87 GAA and .877 SV% in the regular season, but won the 2014 ECF.
Rangers in 7. Most prognosticators said the Rangers should avoid the Metro by earning the wild card and facing the Atlantic Division. They got their wish. Call a hunch or a hope, but Lundqvist matches Price save for save and Nash continues his hot play with the game-winner in Game 7.
Ottawa vs. Boston
Ottawa deserves a tremendous amount of kudos for succeeding despite several injuries, including Craig Anderson's absence due to the cancer diagnosis to his wife Nicholle. Offensively, Kyle Turris, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman keyed the attack while Erik Karlsson was a monster from the blue line, both offensively and defensively.
Offense: Hoffman led the forwards in scoring with 26 goals and 35 assists, slightly exceeding his point total of a year ago. After a down 2015-16 campaign, Turris rebounded to score 27 goals and added 28 assists while centering Hoffman and Mark Stone, who despite missing seven games in March, notched 22 goals with 30 assists. The second line is comprised of a pair of deadline acquisitions in Viktor Stalberg and Alex Burrows centered by Derick Brassard, who is a proven postseason scorer but had just 13 goals and 25 assists. Bobby Ryan's upper-body injury looks to have healed, as he played and scored in game 82 against the Islanders, and he likely will assume a second line role. The best of the bottom-six is Jean-Gabriel Pageau but Clarke MacArthur, who came back last week from his concussion, could be an X-factor in the playoffs.
Defense: Karlsson sat out the last three games with a foot injury, but is ready for the postseason. He tallied 71 points in 77 games while blocking 201 shots, an astonishing number for an elite offensive blueliner. If healthy, Marc Methot, sidelined with a hand injury, will line up across from Karlsson. If not, look for Fredrik Claesson there. Dion Phaneuf is still a physical presence on the blue line but has lost a lot of whatever speed he had while Cody Ceci didn't take the expected step forward offensively but saw four more minutes of ice time nightly and more than willing to take the body and dish out hits. Mark Borowiecki is a hitting machine, with almost 350 hits, while Claesson or Chris Wideman is the sixth d-man.
Goaltending: Coach Guy Boucher implemented a 1-3-1 defensive system, which paid huge dividends for Ottawa's goals-against average and defensive structure. Anderson played just 39 games, missing tow months, due to his wife's cancer, but won 24 games with a 2.31 GAA and .926 SV%, the latter two numbers marked improvement over the prior season. His play gives Ottawa a chance in this round and to make a run. Mike Condon, after replacing the injured Andrew Hammond, played 12 games and will back up Anderson.
The Bruins got hot late to secure a playoff spot. Led offensively by Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, David Krejci had another solid season while Patrice Bergeron rallied after a very slow start. On the blue line, Torey Krug took his game to the next level while between the pipes; Tuukka Rask notched the most win of his career.
Offense: Marchand, the modern day version of Ken Linsemen, sat out the last two games of the season with a suspension, possibly costing Boston third place in the division. However, with 39 goals and 46 assists, it's not too difficult for those in the Hub to overlook that seemly side of his game. Krejci's numbers were down from last season, but he still posted 23 goals and 31 assists. Pastrnak was a fantasy godsend, skating opposite Marchand, as he posted 34 goals and 36 assists with 24 points on the man-advantage. Bergeron was invisible early on but posted 19 points in 19 games before getting shut out the last three games. David Backes was his usual hitting self but scored just 17 goals and Ryan Spooner took a step back with 11 goals. From the bottom-six, Frank Vatrano and Drew Stafford are names to keep an eye on, as is Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, who made his NHL debut this past Thursday after leaving Boston University to sign an ELC.
Defense: Krug is by far the team's best blueliner, seen in his career-high 42 assists and 51 points. However, Krug is out with a lower-body injury he suffered against Ottawa last Thursday and was seen using crutches on Saturday. Brandon Carlo was injured on an Ovechkin hit in this past Saturday's game, putting his playoff availability in question. Losing Carlo, who skated 21 minutes nightly, in addition to Krug, would be a big hit to the B's back line. To help compensate for their injuries, Boston signed Charlie McAvoy to a three-year ELC and will burn a year of it activating him for Game 1 against Ottawa. He profiles to be solid and possible upper-echelon offensive d-man, Zdeno Chara has the playoff pedigree and still logs heavy minutes. He turned back the clock at the end of the year, which Boston will need to see in the postseason, especially if Carlo is out. Adam McQuaid logged heavy minutes down the stretch and will see more time if Cralo is sidelined. Two of John-Michael Liles, Colin Miller and Kevin Miller will dress in the playoffs if one of the above d-men is sidelined.
Goaltending: Rask posted a 2.25 GAA, though with a .914 SV%, but he picked up his game the last month to help lead Boston back to the postseason. He has the ability to raise his game, as seen in his Vezina Trophy award received after the 2013-14 season. Anton Khudobin backs up Rask and will only be used in an emergency.
Boston finished the season with the best penalty killing mark in the league, posting an 85.7 percent success rate, thanks to Bergeron. Ottawa converts on only 17.0 percent of its chances, 23rd in the league. Similar numbers exist when Boston is on the man-advantage, 21.7 percent success ratio, seventh in the league, while Ottawa stops 79.7 percent of its shorthanded chances, just 22nd in the NHL. That special teams advantage could swing the tide.
Bruins in 7. Ottawa is playing with a purpose, following the return of Anderson to the team. The division rivals know each other very well, so there won't be any surprises. Look for several close games, decided by 2-1 or 3-2 scores with Pastrnak netting the game-winner in Game 7.
WESTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS
Chicago vs. Nashville
Chicago clinched the Central Division, aided by a Minnesota slump, and top seed in the West with several games left in the regular season, allowing the team to rest players down the stretch. They enter the postseason relatively healthy, other than Artem Anisimov, who was sidelined from March 14 with an upper-body injury. Though the hope is that AA will be ready to go in the postseason. As in the past, Chicago will ride three d-men heavily and hope the other three can provide some support.
Offense: Patrick Kane really found his footing in the beginning of February and raised his and the Blackhawks' game. He averaged well over a point-a-game during that stretch, finishing with the second highest point total of his career, but down from the 106 he scored a year ago. His linemate Artemi Panarin, nicknamed Bread, delivered again with a second straight 30-goal campaign. Each could play on the first line and may see time there but likely will skate with Anisimov, 45 points in 64 games, if he is healthy. Jonathan Toews got off to an uncharacteristically slow start but also really turned it on at the beginning of February to notch close to 60 points again. Richard Panik started hot, cooled dramatically but then got again to finish with 22 goals and should be on the opposite side from the age-less one Marian Hossa, who added 26 lamplighters this season. Chicago can go many different ways in the bottom-six. Nick Schmaltz could center the third line flanked by Ryan Hartman and Andrew Desjardins or possibly Tomas Jurco and Tanner Kero. Jordin Tootoo and Dennis Rasmussen are likely fourth liners, joined by John Hayden, Vincent Hinostroza or one of the aforementioned wingers who don't skate on the third line.
Defense: Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson each will log heavy minutes, as is usual for Chicago in the postseason. Seabrook's numbers – 39 points, 11 hits, 140 blocked shots, 21:53 ice time – were slightly off from the prior season but he still is a top defenseman while Keith notched 51 points and plus-22 in a staggering 25:40 nightly. Hjarlmarsson doesn't get as much publicity, but he is a solid as they come on the blue line. Trevor van Riemsdyk is the likely fourth d-man while old buddy, Johnny Oduya, a deadline acquisition, gives Chicago another steady blueliner who will play on the second or third pairing. Brian Campbell or Michal Kempny will be the sixth blueliner with Michal Rozsival or Gustav Forsling available for depth.
Goaltending: Corey Crawford has had a good, not great year, as his GAA rose and SV% dropped. He heads into the postseason off several uneven performances. Scott Darling saw increased action this season and made the most of it with 18 wins 32 games along with a better GAA and SV% than Crawford. Speculation is swirling that this could be Crawford's last run with the Blackhawks and Chicago may try and sign Darling long-term and install him as the No. 1. For now, Crawford will open the postseason between the pipes, but if he gets off to a slow start, Darling could start.
Nashville's loss in Game 82 dropped the Predators into the second Wild Card spot and matchup against the Blackhawks. The Predators used to be built from the back line out, and even though that still is the case, the offense somewhat caught up to the defense this season. Viktor Arvidsson had a breakthrough campaign to take some of the pressure off Ryan Johansen, who came over last season for Seth Jones, and Filip Forsberg. The Predators finished 15h on the PP and 17th on the PK.
Offense: Johansen gives the Predators a top-line center, as he has scored at least 60 points in four straight seasons. For the second straight season, his goal production was down but he made up for it in assists. James Neal saw his production fall substantially, though injuries cost him more than 10 games, while Forsberg had his second straight 30-plus-goal campaign. Arvidsson was a prolific scorer in the minors but had just 16 points in 56 games last season. This year, he had almost a 300 percent increase, scoring 61 points. Calle Jarnkrok added most of his production after the calendar hit 2017 and Craig Smith totaled 11 of his points the past three weeks. Kevin Fiala has a ton of talent but has yet to turn that into production. He will be centered by Mike Fisher, as long as his lower-body injury isn't serious, and could be joined by P.A. Parenteau. The bottom trio is nothing to write home about and will be comprised of a mix of players.
Defense: Roman Josi missed nine games with an upper-body injury but was able to score 50 points for the third straight season and log over 25 minutes of ice time for the fourth straight campaign. Ryan Ellis should line up across from Josi on the top pairing. He too had an excellent season, scoring 16 goals and 38 points with a plus-17 rating in almost 24 minutes of ice time. Subban settled in after a rough start and missing 16 games with an upper-body injury to rally late and finish with 40 points. Mattias Ekholm rounds out the "big four," who should eat up much of the ice time for Nashville. Some combination of Brad Hunt, Anthony Bitetto and Yannick Weber will make up the third pairing.
Goaltending: Pekka Rinne was brilliant last postseason but had an up-and-down season. He closed with a flourish to end up with 31 wins and decent ratios. A poor playoff performance could further pave the way for Juuse Saros to earn more starts next year in a 1A/1B scenario. Saros will be a restricted free agent next year while Rinne's seven-year deal expires after the 2018-19 campaign, but Saros has shown he is ready for more work.
Chicago was ninth in the league in goals, slightly ahead of Nashville in 11th and 11th in goals against, while the Predators were 15th. The Blackhawks were 19th in PP success but just 24th on the PK at 77.7 percent, down from 80.3 percent a year ago, while the Predators were 16th and 15th, finishing with an 80.9 percent success rate shorthanded.
Blackhawks in 6. Nashville's blue line and top talent up front will keep them in the series but Crawford has another big series and the forward depth make the difference for Chicago.
Minnesota vs. St. Louis
Minnesota limped down the stretch for a while but righted the ship just before the end of the regular season. It wasn't enough to regain the Central title from Chicago, but it enabled the team to go into the playoffs on a roll, as second place was mostly a fait accompli thanks to its hot start. One key question is can coach Bruce Boudreau win in the playoffs?
Offense: Minnesota benefitted from a rebound campaign by Eric Staal, who posted his best total since 2011-12. Staal dipped a bit after a strong start but heated up down the stretch and enters the playoff on a roll. Zach Parise had a disappointing, injury-marked campaign, but also enters the playoffs on a bit of a roll. His off-wing, Nino Niederreiter took a quantum leap forward with 57 points, increasing his career-high for the third straight season. Very quietly, Markus Granlund became a fantasy star and led the team in scoring with 69 points while Mikko Koivu just continues to chug along. The Wild improved their center depth, slightly overpaying to acquire Martin Hanzal for Arizona. Jason Zucker was red-hot the first two-thirds of the year, but has fallen off dramatically since then. The same can be said for Charlie Coyle, but he recently has started to find his game as he too raised his point production for the third straight season. Erik Haula might be the fourth line center, joined by Joel Eriksson Ek, Ryan Carter, Ryan White or Chris Stewart while Jason Pominville might dress on the third line but could end up a healthy scratch.
Defense: Ryan Suter saw his minutes drop for the third straight season and along with that came a decline in production from 51 to 39 points, though he posted a brilliant plus-35 rating. Mathew Dumba picked up some of that slack, slightly increasing his production, aided by a three-plus minute rise in playing time, as he grows into his future role of leader on the blueline. Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon is a solid second line duo while Jonas Brodin is better in real than fantasy life, though he had 25 points this year, and Christian Folin is the probably sixth d-man backed up by Nate Prosser.
Goaltending: Devan Dubnyk was unworldly the first four or so months of the season going 25-12-3 but then hit a major snag. He went just 3-8-2 with an .889 SV% in March ending his Vezina Trophy hopes. Dubnyk won three straight to start April, looking more like the goalie from October-February then the one in March. Darcy Kuemper will only play in an emergency.
The Blues went 7-1-2 down the stretch and secured the third spot in the Central Division. The coaching change from Ken Hitchcock to Mike Yeo paid huge dividends, resulting a second half rise in the standings. I keep predicting the team to go far, one of the years I will be correct.
Offense: Vladimir Tarasenko had another big season, tallying 37-plus goals (actually 39) and in low-70s point-wise for the third straight season. His usual center, Paul Stastny, has been sidelined March 21 with a broken foot. In his stead, the Blues promoted Ivan Barbashev late in the season to the top-line to skate alongside VT and Jaden Schwartz, a solid two-way winger who scored 55 points. If needed, Alexander Steen could move from second line wing to top line center, but Steen is perfect on the left wing, where he cracked the 50 points for the fourth straight season, though he needs to shoot more. Patrik Berglund set a career-high with 23 goals while David Perron stayed healthy and notched 46 points. The third and fourth lines are nothing special, though Jori Lehtera recently returned from a concussion and could see time next to Tarasenko and Zachary Sanford, who came over in Kevin Shattenkirk deal, could be a sleeper. St. Louis misses Robby Fabbri who tore his ACL in February.
Defense: The trade of Shattenkirk left a substantial hole on the blue line but the zone system Yeo implemented replacing Hitchcock's man-to-man approach has worked well with the current personnel. Alex Pietrangelo, who had 17 points the final 20 games of the season, is the main threat from the defense followed closely by sophomore Colton Parayko, whose role expanded following the Shattenkirk deal. Jay Bouwmeester, who is a defensive d-man, is the perfect counterpoint for Pietrangelo while Joel Edmundson is another physical d-man who plays opposite Parayko. Carl Gunnarsson and Jordan Schmaltz is the possible third pairing, though Robert Bortuzzo or Petteri Lindbohm also could factor in the mix.
Goaltending: Jake Allen benefitted the most from the coaching and defensive system change. Prior to the February 1 switch, Allen's numbers left a lot to be desired. Since the change, Allen went 15-6-2 with a 1.63 GAA and .946 SV% and is the clear No. 1 heading into the postseason. Carter Hutton saw more time before the change, but since the swap and Allen's rise, his playing time has declined dramatically.
Minnesota finished ninth in the league at 21.0 percent on the man advantage, up from 18.5 last year, and eighth on the PK at 82.9 percent, a major improvement from last season, where they were 27th with a 77.9-percent success kill ratio. In addition, they were third in goals per game at 3.21 and seventh in goals-against at 2.51. St. Louis finished 12th in goals, 13th in goal against, eighth in PP success and fourth in PK.
Wild in 7. This is a flip-the-coin series. Arguments can be made to go in either direction. Each team is hot, as the playoff starts with St. Louis slightly hotter. But Minnesota has better scoring depth, which makes the difference, as Dubnyk and Allen each put on a show
Anaheim vs. Calgary
The Ducks had to wait until game 82 to win their fifth Pacific Division title, closing with an 8-0-2 stretch to hold off the hard-charging Oilers. After winning the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed last season, Anaheim, despite the coaching change, finished third this season to offset an 18th-place finish in goals scored. In addition, Anaheim had the third best penalty kill in the league after finishing first a year but their power play success fell from first to 17th in the NHL.
Offense: In the past, it was the dynamic duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry carrying the Ducks. This season, Getzlaf hit the 70-point mark again, albeit with just 15 goals, while Perry scored just 19 goals. Others stepped up to fill that offensive breach. Rickard Rakell built off last year's success, going from 16 to 33 goals aided by Jakob Silfverberg, who notched 49 points in addition to his already stellar defensive play. Anaheim acquired Patrick Eaves at the deadline to provides secondary scoring, which is exactly what he has done, notching 10 goals in 20 games, and Ryan Kesler continued his career-resurgence, adding 58 points along with his usual physical style of play. Nick Ritchie is more than willing to throw his weight around and Antoine Vermette provides depth and playoff experience down the middle.
Defense: Anaheim blue line depth took a major hit when Mark Giordano "collided" knee-to-knee with Cam Fowler, sidelining the mobile d-man and pending UFA anywhere from 2-to-6 weeks. Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen have each had disappointing season, and besides Fowler, the team's most consistent defenseman was likely Josh Manson, who takes on increase importance with Fowler. Shea Theodore has bounced up and down between the NHL and AHL but could replace Fowler in the lineup, same with Brandon Montour, Korbinian Holzer and Jaycob Megna depending on Clayton Stoner's (abdomen) status. Kevin Bieksa is no longer an offensive threat but is more than willing to throw his body around and play a physical game.
Goaltending: Anaheim has two goalies, each of whom have filled the role of No. 1 this season. John Gibson took over for Frederik Andersen and posted excellent numbers before he was sidelined with a lower-body injury. Jonathan Bernier more than picked up the slack, going 11-1-2 with a 1.91 GAA and .937 SV% over the final 14 games of Gibson's absence to create some questions as to who should start in goal during the playoffs, Right now, it will be Gibson between the pipes in Game 1 of the postseason but Bernier looms if needed.
Calgary limped to a 4-6 mark to end the season but had been on fire prior to that rough patch to earn a playoff berth. Brian Elliott finally found his game between the pipes while Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau carried the offense up front bolstered by Dougie Hamilton from the blue line.
Offense: Monahan was scoreless four games of the season, which kept him from hitting the 60-point mark for the third straight season. He scored 27 goals and added 31 assists in driving the Calgary offense. His running mate, Gaudreau, fell off from the 78 points he scored the prior year to finish with 61, including just 18 goals. Michael Ferland provides physical ballast to that duo while chipping in 15 markers. Mikael Backlund might have been Calgary's most consistent forward, as he scored 22 goals with 31 assists and should center the second line. He will be joined by Matthew Tkachuk, the sixth overall pick in this past year's draft, who plays with an edge like his dad, Keith, and notched 47 points and Michael Frolik, who upped his point total from 32 last year to 44 this season. Sam Bennett took a step below. Kris Versteeg, hot down the stretch, brings playoff experience and likely will play on the third line opposite Alex Chiasson. Curtis Lazar has bounced in-and-out of the lineup since coming over from Ottawa but may center the fourth line joined by the disappointing Troy Brouwer and either Lance Bouma or Freddie Hamilton. If Lazar is out of the lineup, Matt Stajan centers the fourth line.
Defense: Calgary's D was viewed as the team's backbone, but they struggled during the season. Dougie Hamilton posted career-highs with 13 goals and 36 assists along with a plus-13 rating but Mark Giordano fell from 56 to 39 points but was a plus-22 after a minus-five a year ago. T.J. Brodie got off to a horrific start but rallied late to finish with 36 points but a minus-16 rating. Michael Stone was brought over to be the fourth d-man but he has done little in Calgary. Dennis Wideman's value has falled off but may be the fifth d-man with the physical Deryk Engelland as the sixth d-man. Matt Bartkowski and Rasmus Andersson are extras.
Goaltending: Brian Elliott was a nightmare early in the season, losing his job to Chad Johnson, whose fine early-season play was a big reason why Calgary made the playoffs. Elliott hit his stride in mid-February, going 15-2-1 with a 1.98 GAA and.934 SV% in a six-week span. He lost his last three games to close the season. If he stumbles in the playoffs, Coach Glen Gulutzan will have no qualms about turning to Johnson, assuming the lower-body injury he suffered on April 5 against Anaheim doesn't sideline him for the playoffs. If it does, David Rittich or Jon Gillies, who won a key game April 6 against LA, will be the backup.
Calgary finished 16th in the league in goals for and 14th in goals against. They were 10th in PP success at 80.2 percent and 12th on the PK at 81.6 percent. Look for Tkachuk to try and get under Getzlaf's skin, but Rakell and Kesler are there to respond if needed.
Ducks in 5. Anaheim is too good and too deep, as they look to make it back to the Cup Finals for the first time since 2007 when they won the title.
San Jose vs. Edmonton
San Jose was one of the better teams in the league until March and then hit the skids. The team's strong start enabled the squad to earn an automatic bid as one of the top-three teams in the Pacific Division. The Sharks' late-season collapsed wasn't helped by several injuries, two of which could impact the playoff lineup, though those far from explain what happened down the stretch.
Offense: Joe Thornton turned back the clock last year with 19 goals, his highest since 2010-11, and 63 assists and then was dominant in the playoffs. This season, while he didn't turn into a pumpkin, he has his lowest full-season total of his career since 1998-99. In addition, he is dealing with a knee injury suffered April 2, though he is skating and might be available. Joining him on the walking wounded crowd is Logan Couture, sidelined after since March 25 after he was struck in the mouth by a deflected puck and lost some chicklets. Add in poor seasons by Joel Ward, Mikkel Boedker, a free agent bust, and Joonas Donskoi and you can see why San Jose skidded down the stretch. Joe Pavelski scored 60-plus points for the sixth straight full-season and Patrick Marleau notched 27 goals, but each took a step back from 2015-16. Tomas Hertl missed part of the season with an injury and had a long stretch without scoring, but he may be the Sharks X-factor in the playoffs. If not Hertl, Kevin Labanc or Chris Tierney could fill that role.
Defense: Through about 65 games, Brent Burns was scoring at well more than a point per game. But from March 11 to April 2, he notched just a goal ad two assists, yet still finished the season with 75 points, His counterbalance is Paul Martin, whose strong stay-at-home D allows Burns to roam when he so desires. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, slight regression from 2015-16, and Justin Braun, a hit machine this season, make up a solid second pair. The third pair of Brenden Dillon and David Schlemko provides physical play from the blue line, with Dillon the hitter and Schlemko more of a blocked shot and offensive blue liner.
Goaltending: Until the team's slump, Martin Jones was on pace to likely exceed last year's numbers, when he posted 37 wins and six shutouts. His 2.27 GAA and .918 SV% were OK in 2015-16, but he took a step back, largely impacted by that slump, but he still won 35 games. Aaron Dell won the backup job in training camp and has been more than capable in that role. In fact, his numbers have far exceeded Jones', but it would take a monumental collapse, injury and/or major guts by coach Pete DeBoer to turn to Dell over Jones in the playoffs.
The hope was that Edmonton, who last made the playoffs and were in the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals, would be better and contend for a playoff spot. They went one step further, just missing out on winning the Pacific Division, as Connor McDavid was the superstar everyone expected him to be. Add in a defense that came together and solid play from Cam Talbot and you have a dark horse Cup contender.
Offense: McDavid, not surprisingly, led the league with 100 points. He is joined by Leon Draisaitl, who took a major step forward with 29 goals and 48 assists, and Patrick Maroon, serving the role as physical presence on the line and also added 27 goals. Milan Lucic started the season on the top line, but lacked the foot speed to stick there. He scored 23 goals, 12 of which came the last 23 games of the season, with 25 of his 45 points on the PP. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had an okay year with 43 points, nine of which came in the last nine games, while Jordan Eberle did score 51 points but his value fallen off from several seasons ago. However, Eberle got hot late with a hat trick in the finale and six points his last four games. Drake Caggiula skated with Mark Letestu and Zack Kassian on the third line Saturday, which could be the trip we see in the playoffs. Benoit Pouliot felll off dramatically this year from his first two in Edmonton and likely will be exposed in the expansion draft with two years remaining on the five-year, $20 million deal he signed in July 2014. He probably will skate with David Desharnais and one of Iiro Pakarinen, Anton Slepyshev or Matt Hendricks.
Defense: Edmonton improved its D in the Taylor Hall for Adam, Larsson that drew several gallons of ink in analysis. While Larsson had 250-plus hits and 150-plus blocked shots in a solid year, it was Oscar Klefbom, who really took his game to another level with 38 points, including 16 on the man-advantage. Andrej Sekera, with 25 points and a plus-13 rating, and Kris Russell, 210-blocked shots, have been a decent second pairing, despite all the criticism Russell receives. Darnell Nurse missed 37 games with an ankle injury and the seventh overall pick in 2013 has become more of a defensive rather than offensive d-man. He will be paired with Matt Benning.
Goaltending: Talbot had a good 2015-16 season, winning 21 games with a .917 SV%. The three-year, $12.5 million extension he signed in January 2016 looks like a steal, as Talbot won 42 games with a 2.39 GAA and .919 sv5. All those who thought Talbot was a product of the Rangers' D and goaltending coach Benoit Allaire now have egg on their face. Laurent Brossoit has played just seven games but shown enough that the future looks bright for him as Talbot's back up.
Given their ages, this could be the last kick at the can for Thornton and Marleau, as well as possibly the Sharks. Their run last season may have been their dénouement. San Jose was 18th in goals for but sixth in goals against. Its power play was just 25th in the league while its penalty kill was only 17th. Edmonton was eighth in goals for and against; fifth in PP success and 18th on the penalty kill.
Oilers in 6. San Jose had its run last year, now it's the Oilers' time.
Washington vs. Pittsburgh
Both teams met last year for the ninth time in the postseason, but the first since 2009. Crosby and Malkin against Ovechkin and Backstrom. But that is not the full story by far, as both teams have a lot of weapons, which is why they finished 1-2 in league scoring. As divisional rivals, there will be few surprises in the series, as each team knows what the other likes to do as well as any weaknesses that might exist. Like many playoff series, matchups will make the difference, as Washington will want to get its top-four out against the Penguins' top-two lines, while Pittsburgh will need to determine who should match against the Caps' top line with Letang sidelined. The lack of that elite-man makes the difference, since even if Ovi is shut down, Kuznetsov and Johansson should have a big series and help the Capitals to the conference finals for the first time since 1997-98. Capitals in 6.
New York vs. Boston
The Bruins avoided a first round match up with the Capitals thanks to Toronto's loss in Game 82. These two Original Six teams have met several times before, the last occurring in 2012-13, when Boston won the first playoff series in 40 years in five games. Several players remain from that series, but there lots of new faces. Jimmy Vesey and Kevin Hayes get to play in front of the "home town fans," as each are from the Boston area. Marchand has killed the Rangers over the years and Krug was a rookie and key player in the 2013 playoffs, scoring several goals on point shots. Also, McAvoy grew up a Rangers' fan, adding additional intrigue to the series. Like the last series, Rask vs. Lundqvist will decide the series. In this case, Lundqvist gets revenge for 2013, outdueling the Finnish goalie. Rangers in 7.
Chicago vs. Minnesota
Chicago faces a team that as much forward depth as they do along with a goalie who can steal a series. After falling in the first round last year, Minnesota advances to the conference semi-finals where they face the Blackhawks for the second time in three years. In 2015, the Blackhawks swept the Wild. This year won't be as easy, as Minnesota is a better-balanced and more experienced team. But Chicago is on a mission and Kane, Toews, Keith and Seabrook prove to be too much for the Wild. Nino has a big series, as does Parise, but it's not enough. Blackhawks in 6.
Anaheim vs. Edmonton
The "grizzled" vets up front for Anaheim against the kids for Edmonton will be a subplot. Getzlaf and Perry against McDavid and Draisaitl. Gibson should be in net for the Ducks with Talbot between the pipes for the Oilers. With all the focus on the big boys, don't be shocked if the next tier players like Rakell and Maroon make the difference. This should be a fun series to watch. Klefbom and Larsson help minimize the Getzlaf line just enough, which turns the tide of the series and gives the Oilers the victory. Oilers in 7.
Washington vs. New York
The Beltway vs. Broadway. These two teams have a long history in the playoffs, much fo what has ended in heartbreak for the Capitals. While Lundqvist does his best to hold off Washington, the Capitals top-nine is just too strong. The Rangers are able to score but fail to defend well enough to hold off Washington. Kevin Shattenkirk, the New Rochelle native, torments his favorite team growing up, dominating on both ends of the ice. Washington advance to its first Stanley Cup Finals since 1997-98. Capitals in 6.
Chicago vs. Edmonton
In a brilliantly played conference finals, Chicago has just enough to get past the upstart Oilers. These two teams last met in the playoffs in the 91-92 conference finals with Chicago sweeping Edmonton. This time, it isn't that easy. McDavid matches Kane and Toews point for point, but the duo of Keith and Seabrook aided by Hossa make the difference. Edmonton forces a Game 7 with a double-overtime goal from Rakell but fall at the United Center to dash its Cup hopes. Blackhawks in 7.
STANLEY CUP FINALS
Chicago vs. Washington
The Stanley Cup heads to the U.S. Nation's Capital for the first time ever. Alex Ovechkin gets his title but Backstrom just edges Holtby and Shattenkirk to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. The amount of skill on display throughout the series is staggering with five of the six games decided by one goal. Capitals in 6.