Maybe it’s fitting that the weather in Canada and across the northern U.S. is more like winter than spring.
The playoff season in the NHL is upon us and generally we don’t care that the snow is still flying.
We don’t have a Swami here, or a crystal ball for that matter, but we do have moxie. So we are going to try and predict just how all 16 NHL playoff teams will fare in the coming days and weeks.
In 2017 there were a few surprises, like Ottawa’s run to the Eastern Conference finals. Ditto the Nashville Predators, who swept Chicago aside in the first round and made it all the way to the finals.
Pittsburgh’s repeat championship, while not all that shocking, was still a very admirable feat.
This year we could see even more surprises, or not. The teams that did make it, including Colorado on the last day of the season, all deserve to be where they are.
Here is SportsBreak’s ranking of each team’s chances at lifting Lord Stanley’s mug, from 16 to 1.
16. New Jersey Devils
It will be a tough row to hoe for the Devils, who draw the Eastern Conference leading Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. Too tough, we think, for them to advance beyond it. If anything, this first playoff appearance since 2012 — when New Jersey went all the way to the finals — will be good for a young team on the rise. A slew of players, including leading scorer and eight-year veteran Taylor Hall, will be getting their first taste of post-season action. Hall, who led the team with a career high 92 points, has played 529 regular season games with Edmonton and New Jersey. Others dipping their toe in the playoff waters for the first time will be 2017 no. 1 draft pick Nico Hischier (second in scoring with 52 points), rookie D Will Butcher (44 points) and veteran G Keith Kinkaid. If the Devils are to steal a game or two (or maybe even a series), they can rely on the playoff experience of guys like Drew Stafford (11 points in 30 games), D Sami Vatanen (22 points in 40 games) and Travis Zajac (a holdover who had 14 points in the 24 game run in 2012). Of note, the Devils swept their season series (3-0) with the Lightning.
15. Colorado Avalanche
The exhilaration of making the playoffs on the last night of the regular season could be very short lived for the Colorado Avalanche and their playoff starved fans. The team made the post-season just once in the last seven seasons, losing to Minnesota 4-3 in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. Nathan MacKinnon, who had a monster 2017-18 season, scoring 97 points, will remember the sting of losing that seven-game set, where he had 10 points. There are several others from that limited run left over, including Erik Johnson, Gabriel Landeskog, Tyson Barrie and Semyon Varlamov. Otherwise, this is a young team with some dynamic players who may give Nashville all it can handle in the first round. Speaking of which, the Avs lost all four games of their season series with the Predators, who will be rolling in hot as the Presidents Cup winners and looking to erase the memory of a Stanley Cup finals loss. That, NHL fans, is reason enough to believe the Avalanche’s 2018 post-season will be brief.
14. Philadelphia Flyers
Like Colorado tangling with 2017 finalist Nashville in the west, the Flyers have the daunting task of taking down two-time defending champion Pittsburgh in the first round. Philly finished just two points back of the Pens for second in the Metropolitan, but were swept 4-0 by their hated foes in the season series. In the Flyers favor, though, is the fact they have the highest scoring player heading into the post-season, Claude Giroux, who finished second with 102 points to Connor McDavid — who’s golfing now. With the two teams so close in points, a Flyers win could hardly be called an upset and they will give Sidney Crosby and the gang every bit of trouble in what could be a long, grinding series. The biggest question mark for the Flyers heading in is goaltending, followed by defence. Goaltender Brian Elliott has plenty of playoff experience, but just got back into action after missing nearly two months of regular season action. The defence, led by Shayne Gostisbehere, is fairly young and lacks significant playoff experience. Andrew MacDonald, 31, has the most playoff games of any of them at just 17.
13. Minnesota Wild
With Ryan Suter out for the post-season and fellow defender Jared Spurgeon a question mark to start the playoffs after rehabbing a hamstring injury, things don’t look good for the Wild. They are well coached and play sound hockey, but they are severe underdogs going into what will be a hard series against division foe and heavy favorite Winnipeg. If Spurgeon doesn’t get clearance to play, a bigger burden will fall on the shoulders of Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, with rookies Nick Seeler and Carson Soucy maybe being called upon to play bigger minutes, too. Up front, Minnesota does have the luxury of all kinds of firepower, what with rejuvenated and playoff battle hardened Eric Staal leading the team in scoring (42 goals, 34 assists). They will also be able to draw upon the experience of Matt Cullen, 40, who has won three Stanley Cups, one with Staal and the last two with the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, this team, without Suter in the line-up, will be hard-pressed to extend the Jets or even less get out of the first round.
12. Washington Capitals
Sorry Caps fans, this won’t be your team’s year — again. The Washington Capitals’ playoff fortunes are like the movie “Groundhog Day”, where it seems that the perennially good team always finds a way to falter in the second round. We think they are likely to get knocked out in the first round by Columbus, which currently doesn’t have a goaltending controversy like the one in D.C. The Capitals have stated they will start playoff-untested Philipp Grubauer in goal instead of Braden Holtby, who struggled a lot this season. There is still enough firepower up front in leading goal scorer Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetzov and the defence is solid and mobile (John Carlson had 68 points this season). However, there isn’t a ton of go-to depth after the top three, at least where post-season scoring is concerned. We say that the Capitals are likely to find a stone wall in Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and a Columbus team bent on proving that their 1-3 season series mark against Washington was a fluke.
11. San Jose Sharks
The bridesmaids of the Western Conference couldn’t have drawn much worse a first round opponent than cross-state rival Anaheim in the first round. This will be a heavy hitting, hard series where both teams will look to establish dominance through the cycle in the corners. Unfortunately for San Jose, Anaheim plays that game just a bit better than they do. The Sharks will extend the Ducks, we believe, but don’t have the horses to stay with Anaheim. They only have one dynamic puck-mover on the back-end in Brent Burns and outside of Logan Couture don’t have a lot of fearsome shooters. If they are to succeed, they will need Burns — who they lean on a lot — to be better away from the puck, since he was an uncharacteristic -16 this season. They will also require a Herculean effort from goalie Martin Jones, who was just OK this season. The Sharks went out in six games to Edmonton in the first round last year and this year’s opponent is much bigger and tougher.
10. Toronto Maple Leafs
Same story, different year. We like the Leafs and the direction they are going in, but drawing Boston in the first round was the worst possible scenario for Toronto. Yes, the baby Buds won the season series, however, the B’s play a grinding, smash-mouth game that Toronto can’t match game in and game out. There is much to like about the Leafs going into the playoffs, with three 30-goal scorers, including Auston Matthews with 34, only five of which were scored on the power play. If the Leafs can slip the bonds of Boston’s neutral zone clog and offensive zone cycling, they will be able to expose Boston’s defenders, who can’t match Toronto’s speed. It’s just that the Bruins have had so much success utilizing stifling puck-possession tactics to wear down speedier opponents like the Leafs. The big key to any potential long playoff run in the Center of the Hockey Universe will be the play of goalie Frederik Andersen. If he stays hot, look out.
9. Vegas Golden Knights
The unforeseen, if not miracle season that the Golden Knights just completed may come to screeching halt in L.A. No one could have predicted the expansion Knights would even make the playoffs, let alone lead their division and come into the 2018 post-season as the second seed in the Western Conference. To their detriment, though, they get the Kings, who know a thing or two about winning a Stanley Cup as a low seed. For the Golden Knights to shake the Kings off and go deep, they will have to do what they did all season long and that is take the game to their opponent. With five players scoring 20 or more goals, led by William Karlsson’s 43, and a young mobile defence corps, Vegas has the horses to put their opposition on its heels. The wild card is goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury won three Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, however, he was supplanted by Matt Murray in the last two. If the experienced Fleury can maintain composure, maybe, just maybe, the Knights slip past the Kings and make a big run. We’re just not sure.
8. Columbus Blue Jackets
No matter what the Blue Jackets do in the first round — and we think they’ll take care of Washington — they are still middle-of-the-pack fodder. The Caps series will likely be a six-seven gamer and that will factor into fatigue coming into play in consequent rounds. It will be uncharted territory, too, for a franchise that has been to the playoffs just three times in its history and never won a playoff round. Netminder Sergei Bobrovsky will need to stand on his head at times and with his pedigree — two Vezina Trophies — that is completely feasible (though he does own a dismal .887 playoff save percentge). The Jackets, who spread their scoring around nicely and can roll three pretty decent lines, added a couple of key pieces at the deadline to help in the post-season. One is Thomas Vanek, who had 15 points in 19 games with Columbus after being acquired from Vancouver and has 20 goals in 63 career playoff games. They also picked up reliable defenceman Ian Cole from Pittsburgh. He was with the Pens in the last two Cup runs and had 12 points in 49 games. They will need to be full value for Columbus to move on.
7. Anaheim Ducks
Our pick to beat San Jose in the first round won’t have as easy a time of it thereafter. Relying on aging veterans Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry to carry them forward will be asking too much. The Sharks will prove to be a big, puck-hogging club to get by, leaving the Ducks with little in the tank to combat fellow meaty teams in the west. In their favor, Anaheim does have a few old warriors left from their 2007 Stanley Cup (Perry, Getzlaf and D Francois Beauchemin) and a group of young and talented defencemen looking to prove they have the jam to be great in the post-season. They include Hampus Lindholm, Brandon Montour, Cam Fowler and Josh Manson. A couple of dark horse players who could have a big impact on Anaheim returning to the Western Conference finals. They are Jakob Silfverberg, who has 37 points in his last 40 playoff games with the Ducks and team leading scorer Rickard Rackell, who had 13 points in 15 playoff games a year ago. Goaltender John Gibson followed up a good 2017 post-season with another strong regular season and should be ready for the rigors of playoff hockey.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
Before anyone anoints the Lightning as odds-on favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference, take into account they missed the playoffs last year and in 2016 lost to two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference finals. Recent history aside, the Bolts are a scary good team that goes into the playoffs with home ice advantage through the first three rounds, if they make it that far. Nikita Kucherov established himself as the team’s premier scorer, notching 100 points and Steven Stamkos piled up 86, with 33 of them coming via the powerplay. Five Lightning players scored 20 or more goals and nine had double digit markers. Much of Tampa’s rise to the top of the Eastern Conference standings can be credited to goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made everyone forget about Ben Bishop by winning 44 games and posting eight shutouts. GM Steve Yzerman, not content to stand pat at the deadline, did the team a solid by acquiring veteran defenceman Ryan McDonagh from the Rangers.
5. Los Angeles Kings
We have two words for any pretender with designs on the Western Conference crown: Jeff Carter. The L.A. Kings, who have won two Stanley Cups in recent memory, got the sniper back in late February and he leads a veteran club into the playoffs. Carter missed four months of hockey after an injury in October, but came back with a vengeance, scoring 13 goals and adding nine assists over his last 21 games. He, along with two-time Cup winners Anze Kopitar (team leading 97 points), Drew Doughty (60 points), Dustin Brown (61 points) and Jonathan Quick will have a lot to do with what we think can be a long playoff season. Los Angeles also loaded up at the trade deadline, bringing in D Dion Phaneuf, RW Mike Cammalleri, LW Jussi Jokinen and C Tobias Rieder. For the naysayers who believe L.A. won’t outlast Vegas in the first round, have a look at how the Kings dominated the Golden Knights in back-to-back games in late February (tying the season series at 2-2).
4. Boston Bruins
Do the Bruins have the legs to make it into the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since losing to Chicago in 2013? We think so, considering Rick and Riley Nash could be back in the line-up in time for Game 1 against Toronto Thursday night. Resilience has been a key factor in Beantown this season, as the Bruins have had to plug holes caused by absences from Patrice Bergeron, Nash and Nash, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and David Backes, among a few others. With a mostly healthy roster — just D Brandon Carlo is out — Boston will be a handful for Toronto in the first round and any subsequent teams they face. Their first line of Bergeron, Pastrnak and Marchand is just plain deadly and will wear down their foes with puck possession and timely scoring. Combined they had 99 goals and 129 assists this season, with 31 of their 99 tallies coming on the power play. Goaltender Tuukka Rask was his usual steady self this season and brings stellar playoff numbers to the table (2.12 GAA, .928 save percentage, 5 shutouts in 53 games).
3. Winnipeg Jets
The “Whiteout” will be in full effect in Winnipeg starting Wednesday night. We can’t hardly wait. Since moving up from Atlanta in 2011, the new Jets have been in one playoff series and have not won a playoff game (add that to one playoff series in Atlanta and no victories there either). So, other than eight whole playoff games, this franchise is in the same boat as expansion Vegas, still searching for that elusive first post-season triumph. We say it won’t take the Jets long and that they’ll win many more before all is said and done this spring. From the net out, this is a talented, swift and sometimes nasty team team to play against. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck, a Vezina candidate, is fronted by one of the best defensive corps in the NHL, including Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba. In front of them Winnipeg boasts all kinds of scoring talent in Patrik Laine (44 goals), Blake Wheeler (91 points), Mark Scheifele (60 points in 60 games) and newly acquired veteran Paul Stastny(13 points in 19 games). Really, we just scratched the surface. This team is built for a championship.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
All roads to the Stanley Cup in the Eastern Conference run through western Pennsylvania. Specifically, Pittsburgh. At the midway point of the season on Jan. 2, the Penguins were diddling for the middle at 20-18-3. Then, the two-time defending champs turned it on, going 27-11-3 to finish second in the Metropolitan and have home ice for one round at least. The coming dog fight with heated rival Philadelphia will test the Penguins mettle, however we firmly believe they are up to the task. In Evgeni Malkin (98 points), Phil Kessel (92 points) and Sidney Crosby (89 points), Pittsburgh has three of the top 10 point-getters in the league. Those three also have 387 collective playoff points between them. Each of them plays on a different line, meaning this team is not just one dimensional. Patric Hornqvist had 14 goals in the last two Stanley Cup runs combined and Jake Guentzel had 13 goals during last year’s playoffs. Matt Murray, the cause of so much heartache for playoff opponents the last two years, is back for another go.
1. Nashville Predators
There is only one way for the Predators to erase the bad taste from losing in the Stanley Cup finals to Pittsburgh last year and that is by going out and beating them in a re-match this spring. Smashville can also lay to rest, temporarily at least, the argument that the Presidents Trophy is bad juju. As much as we like Winnipeg, Central Division foe Nashville is even better, with outstanding goaltending, defence and plenty of jam and hands up front. Speaking of goaltending, the Preds have the best goalie in the league heading into the playoff marathon. Pekka Rinne, who will likely win the Vezina, was full value during their long run in 2017, going 14-8, with a 1.96 goals against average, .930 save percentage and two shutouts. Fully 13 players on arguably the deepest line-up had double digit goals and eight players had over 40 points. The Preds also have the best defensive unit in the NHL, which includes P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Alexei Emelin. There aren’t many holes on a team we believe is ready to parade the Cup.