The NHL playoffs, for better or worse, is a marathon, not a sprint.
The two-month uphill slog gets rolling Wednesday night with five games on tap, including the return of three Canadian teams to the playoffs after none made it in 2016.
The Montreal Canadiens take on the New York Rangers in one Eastern Conference series, while the Ottawa Senators entertain Boston in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference showdown. Over in the Western Conference, the Edmonton Oilers are back in the post season for the first time since 2006 and will tangle with 2016 finalists San Jose.
On the same night, the Pittsburgh Penguins begin their title defence against Columbus, while the Minnesota Wild host the St. Louis Blues.
Thursday night the young gun Toronto Maple Leafs return to the post-season fray for the first time since 2013 and have the unenviable task of playing the powerhouse and President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals.
Meantime, the fifth of five Canadian teams to make it back to the Big Dance, the Calgary Flames, will visit Anaheim. And finally, the Western Conference’s top team, the Chicago Blackhawks, face off against Nashville in the first game of their series.
There can only be one winner, but there are many contenders for the crown. Here are 10 we think have a better-than-average chance of winning it all, ranked.
10. Minnesota Wild
Of all the teams in the Western Conference playoffs, the Minnesota Wild present a significant challenge to anyone in their path. Under new coach Bruce Boudreau, the Wild enjoyed a huge uptick in play and finished the 2016-17 season with their best record ever at 49-25-8 for 106 points. First up on their playoff dance card is St. Louis, who went to the conference finals last year but had some serious upheaval this season. First, they fired esteemed head coach Ken Hitchcock after the team didn’t fare well in its first 50 games going 24-21-5. Then they traded stud defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk at the deadline. The Wild, for their part, positioned themselves well with attention to defensive detail and then picking up Martin Hanzal (13 points in 20 games) and Ryan White at the deadline to augment an already potent line-up. Free agent pick-up Eric Staal led the team in goals with 28, among 12 different players with double digit markers. We think they’ll get past St. Louis and make life miserable for teams going forward.
9. New York Rangers
The Blueshirts aren’t higher on this list due to a few factors, but don’t count them out of the mix off the hop. First, their goaltending, specifically Henrik Lundqvist, has only been so-so this season. And King Hank enters the playoffs after a tepid season-ending streak that saw him go 3-6-2 in his last 11 games. He surrendered 37 goals on 361 shots for a sub-standard .897 save percentage (he was .910 overall in 57 games). Second, while they do boast 10 double digit scorers, led by Chris Kreider’s 28, they lack true superstar punch (i.e. a bonafide sniper who can elevate his game). Last, the special teams lacked oomph this season, especially the penalty killers, who ranked 19th allowing 45 goals on 223 chances (79.8 percent). Yet, the team is well coached and should Lundqvist play like his usual self and they spread out their scoring like they did in the regular season, the Rangers could knock off Montreal in the first round and build toward their first Stanley Cup finals since 2014.
8. Edmonton Oilers
It says here that as Connor McDavid goes, so go the Oilers. The Art Ross winning super sophomore comes into the playoffs on the heels of a 100-point campaign and really is the catalyst on an improving Oilers’ squad. He comes into his first post-season off a scorching hot month where he scored eight goals and added 18 assists in 16 games since March 10. Adding to his prowess, he’s made a star out of Patrick Maroon, who benefited from some laser-like McD passes to score a career high 27 goals. The Oilers powerplay, with McDavid on the first unit, has been outstanding too and will factor heavily in a first round set with 2016 Cup finalist San Jose. The Oil ranked fifth this season in PP efficiency, clicking on 56 of 245 opportunities (22.9 percent). Edmonton got a team leading 12 goals from playoff vet Milan Lucic, followed by 11 off the stick of Mark Letestu and 10 from ultra-talented Leon Draisaitl. The ‘X’ factor for the Oil, as we explained in a piece yesterday, will be the continued good play of goaltender Cam Talbot, who saw action in a league high 73 games. They’ll be fun to watch, for sure.
7. Montreal Canadiens
Unfortunately for the Habs, they draw “wild card” team New York in the first round. That is, the Rangers finished just one point behind the Atlantic Division winning Canadiens and have as good a chance of escaping the Round 1 of the Big Dance as their foes. Only, the Rangers don’t have Carey Price in goal and the Canadiens owned them in the regular season, winning all three games between the Original Six Clubs. Price was the goaltender of record for the Habs in all three meetings, the last on March 4 when he stopped 26 of 27 shots in a 4-1 win. Though he’s key to Montreal’s Stanley Cup aspirations, coach Claude Julien has re-made this team in a short time, with a 16-7-1 record after taking over from the fired Michel Therrien. His presence behind the bench, as well as the additions of excellent stay-at-home defender Jordie Benn and playoff warrior Dwight King at the deadline make this incarnation of the Habs a formidable one. They have a tall order, however, disposing of the Rangers out of the gate.
6. Columbus Blue Jackets
That huge 16-game winning streak in the middle of the season was no fluke, as the Columbus Blue Jackets are well coached and have played a hard game all season long. John Tortorella could be a hands down winner of the Jack Adams for taking this team from an also-ran (they missed the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons) to a genuine contender. The roadblock in the Jackets’ way, and it is Fenway Park Green Monster high, is Pittsburgh. If the Blue Jackets have any hopes of winning their first title, they will have to dismantle Sidney Crosby and the defending champs. No small feat. In its favor, Columbus got Vezina level goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky, who won 41 games and was the league leader in save percentage (.931) and goals against average (2.06). He beat Pittsburgh twice this season (overall 2-1-1), allowing just one goal in each victory. The Blue Jackets spread their scoring around nicely this year, with Cam Atkinson a surprising leader with 35 goals (62 points). He is one of 12 players in double digit goals, which bodes well for Torts’ troops heading into their date with the mighty Pens.
5. San Jose Sharks
Sorry Sharks fans, this won’t be San Jose’s year either. Well, unless they can get through a potent Edmonton club first, only to have their west coast foes Anaheim up next. Their chances, and they are good, of running the table in the Western Conference are based on a few factors. First, the health of Joe Thornton and Logan Couture, both on the limp, is of concern. Couture, who sustained a nasty facial injury on March 25, is in for the Sharks’ opener against Edmonton. He finished third in team scoring with 52 points and was one of four Sharks to score 20 or more goals (25). Jumbo Joe is still iffy with a lower body injury for the first game and should he not return to full strength, they will miss his face-off acumen (50.8 percent efficiency this season) and playmaking ability (team high 43 assists). Another area of concern is the powerplay, which ranked 25th in the league and suffered a power outage when Norris candidate Brent Burns slumped late in the year. In his last 19 games, Burns scored just two goals and nine assists (six powerplay points). It’s not all doom and gloom though, because this is a deep team that learned how to win last year.
4. Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks enter the 2017 post-season as the hottest team in the league in the last 10 games, posting a stellar 8-0-2 record. That run pushed them to the top of the Pacific Division over the equally hot Edmonton Oilers (8-2-0) and set up a favorable first round tilt with the Calgary Flames. Anaheim toyed with their Pacific rivals in the regular season, going 4-1 against the Flames, representing their most wins against any other division foe. That domination included two key late-season back-to-back triumphs, 4-3 at home on April 2 and 3-1 in Calgary on April 4. The Ducks capped their sizzling streak by whipping Chicago 4-0 at home on April 6 and then nipping regional rival L.A. 4-3 in OT last Sunday to conclude their season. They do still rely on the dynamic duo of Ryan Getzlaf (team leading 73 points) and Corey Perry (53 points) to score, but have gotten a lot of help in the form of Ryan Kesler (58 points), Rickard Rakell (team high 33 goals) and Patrick Eaves (11 goals in 20 games after being acquired at the deadline). Even better, Anaheim platooned their goaltenders well and both responded. Starter John Gibson had his best season yet, with career marks in save percentage (.924), wins (25) and shutouts (6). Jonathan Bernier was outstanding in relief, winning 21 of 38 games.
3. Washington Capitals
The Toronto Maple Leafs, as young and as talented as they are, won’t pose much of a threat to President’s Trophy winning Washington advancing in the playoffs. What the Caps do need, though, is to stay out of the penalty box (the Leafs owned the second best powerplay) and limit the series to as few games as possible. With the depth that they have at forward, a stout and talented defence (hello Kevin Shattenkirk) and all-world goalie in Braden Holtby, the Caps, on paper at least, should sail into the Stanley Cup final. However, the teams don’t get any easier after Toronto and if we’re correct, the Caps will probably face defending champion Pittsburgh in the second round. Regardless, the team that comes out of the Caps-Leafs, Pens-Jackets side has the best chance of winning the East. Where the Capitals will have an edge on just about everyone they play (after the Leafs) is on special teams. They tied Pittsburgh in powerplay efficiency at 23.1 percent, with Alex Ovechkin accounting for 17 of the Caps 57 powerplay markers. We’ll see how hard they grip their sticks this post-season.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
As we said above, the road to the Stanley Cup, where Washington is concerned, goes through Pittsburgh. The Penguins will also have a harder first round than Washington (Toronto), with the much-improved Columbus Blue Jackets first on the slate. The loss of Kris Letang to season-ending neck surgery will hurt but the Pens have a lot of weapons on the back end, with deadline acquisition Mark Streit and unofficial Comeback Player of the Year award winner Justin Schultz picking up the slack. No deep run, though, happens without the playoff wizardry of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who combined for 37 points (12 goals) in their championship run of 2016. If opposing teams key on them too much, the depth Pittsburgh owns is scary. Phil Kessel finished third in team scoring this season with 70 points, while Conor Sheary and Patrick Hornqvist cracked the 20-goal barrier to give the Pens five at 20-plus. Matt Murray, who played the lion’s share in net, had a quietly good season, winning 32 of 49 games, with a .923 save percentage, 2.41 GAA and four shutouts. Could there be a repeat? Why not.
1. Chicago Blackhawks
The fact that the Blackhawks lost four in a row to end their season should not give their playoff opponents any reason to underestimate them. We think the Hawks’ pattern of winning Cups with blips in between (three in the last seven post-seasons) has the best chance to continue in 2017. Chicago, in our estimation, has the best chance to win it all and make it four championships eight years. They have enough Cup-winning experience and talent up front to compete with anyone, a deep, deep defence and good enough goaltending to get them through. From Patrick Kane to Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov and young Tanner Kero, they present all kinds of trouble in the offensive zone. On the back end, Duncan Keith leads a strong group of blueliners which includes Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and the returned Johnny Oduya. Nashville can’t like the draw they got first round and the Hawks will only roll from there.