What’s not to love about this year’s NHL postseason? OK, let me amend that slightly: There’s a lot to love about every NHL postseason. But here’s what this year’s has going for it.
Five of the original six teams are in the playoffs, with the Bruins, Canadians, and, most surprisingly, the Maple Leafs, returning after not making it last season. That should make for some compelling matchups (e.g. Canadians/Rangers), particularly in the Eastern conference.
Speaking of the Maple Leafs, we’ll get to watch two young phenom’s in 40-goal scorer Auston Matthews and center Mitch Marner. Both are only 19-years-old, by the way. Boy is the future bright in Toronto. But if we’re talking about young phenom’s, how about Connor McDavid? He’s poised to capture the Hart trophy after a 30-goal, 100-point season…he’s only twenty-years-old. And he has the Oilers back in the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Yet amid all the upstart teams like Edmonton, Toronto, and Columbus, a few playoff mainstays once again provide stability and added intrigue to this year’s postseason. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are back to defend their crown. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks look like the favorites out West. And can Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals finally get over the hump?
Seriously: This is probably the most compelling playoff field in at least a few years. Only negative, though, is that it’s going to be that much harder to make predictions. I’ll do my best, anyway.
Montreal Canadians vs New York Rangers
Points: MON (103) > NYR (102)
Goal Differential: MON (+26) < NYR (+36)
The Canadians swept the season series 3-0-0 and finished fourth in goals against per game. But this is still a tough series to call. The Rangers, of course, have Henrik Lundqvist in net, so you can never rule them out. And with the likes of Chris Kreider (28 goals) and Rick Nash (23 goals in only 67 games) leading the charge, they have one of the better offenses in the league, as they ranked 7th in goals scored in 5 v 5 situations during the regular season. Considering that Montreal allowed the second fewest 5 v 5 goals but only had the NHL’s 19th best penalty-killing unit, it will be crucial for New York to capitalize on their power play opportunities.
Montreal is rather tame offensively (they’re only ranked 12th among playoff teams in goals per game), so it will be up to Carey Price (ranked 5th in Goals Against Average) to stand on his head for most of this series. That’s a tall task, particularly since he’ll be facing off against Lundqvist on the other side. But since I view this series as a toss-up, I always give the slight edge to the team that measures up better defensively. That team is the Canadians.
Montreal in Seven
Ottawa Senators vs Boston Bruins
Points: OTT (98) > BOS (95)
Goal Differential: OTT (-2) < BOS (+22)
I already previewed this series at length yesterday. In short, the Bruins still measure up well against the Senators despite being swept in the season series. Ottawa is not particularly strong in any facet, and they’re especially average on the power play. That gives the Bruins a crucial advantage because they’re ranked 7th and 1st respectively in power play offense and penalty-kill percentage. Plus, I’ll take Tuuka Rask over Craig Anderson in net.
Boston in Six
Washington Capitals vs Toronto Maple Leafs
Points: WSH (118) > TOR (95)
Goal Differential: WSH (+81) > TOR (+9)
Think Washington is going to steamroll over Toronto? Not so fast. The Capitals are the team with all the pressure on them, while the Maple Leafs will be tough to beat at a raucous Air Canada Centre. Toronto also has one of the NHL’s best power plays, having finished second in power play goals per 60 minutes. Ovechkin and company better stay out of the penalty box and they better not slip up early in the series. They could find themselves in a pressing 3-1 hole sooner than you think.
Nonetheless, I think the Capitals will weather the storm because they’re clearly the superior team. Washington ranked third in goals per game and first in goals against. Braden Holtby is a Vezina candidate in net and the Capitals have the second best 5 v 5 offense in the NHL after Pittsburgh. Toronto, who has the worst defense of any team in this year’s postseason, will be hard pressed to advance past a team with virtually no weakness.
Washington in Six
Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus Blue Jackets
Points: PIT (111) > CLB (108)
Goal Differential: PIT (+48) < CLB (+54)
The defending champion Penguins have all the sizzle. Pittsburgh has the most prolific offense in the NHL, spearheaded, of course, by Sidney Crosby, who led the league in goals this season. Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets are limping into the postseason, losers of eight of their previous eleven. Plus, they’re inexperienced relative to the battle-tested Penguins.
With that said, the writing is on the wall for an upset. Most notably, Pittsburgh will be without star defenseman Kris Letang (neck surgery). Having a dominant lead defenseman is essentially a prerequisite for playoff success, so it will be an uphill battle for the Penguins without him regardless if they escape Columbus. Moreover, the Blue Jackets were one of the most dominant teams this season, despite their slide to end the regular season. Columbus finished sixth in goal scoring, second in goals against, and they have the Vezina trophy favorite, Sergei Bobrovsky, in net. Upsets have to happen somewhere. I’ll roll the dice with the well-rounded Blue Jackets to upend the Letang-less Penguins.
Columbus in Seven
Chicago Blackhawks vs Nashville Predators
Points: CHI (109) > NSH (94)
Goal Differential: CHI (+31) > NSH (+16)
Not a ton separates these two sides. In 5 v 5 situations, both offenses are essentially even (2.43 vs 2.42 goals per 60 minutes). I also like Pekka Rinne almost as much as I like Corey Crawford. But the real difference in this series will come on the man advantage. Chicago is one of the most disciplined teams in the league, as they spent the second fewest minutes in the penalty box this season. Not only that, but when the Predators are on the power play, they will be unlikely to capitalize as much as they need to: Nashville has just the 21st rated power play in the league. On the other hand, the Blackhawks are surprisingly weak on the defensive end, ranking just 24th in penalty-kill percentage.
So who will win the special teams battle? Hard to say. I do expect that Chicago will be in for a tough series, considering that a) Nashville is solid and has plenty of postseason experience (albeit in the early rounds) and b) the Blackhawks have relied more on younger guys this season, so it’s harder to gage how they’ll perform in this setting. Nonetheless, I’ll still take Chicago to advance.
Chicago in Six
Minnesota Wild vs St. Louis Blues
Points: MIN (106) > STL (99)
Goal Differential: MIN (+58) > STL (+17)
The Blues have routinely been one of the better teams in the West in recent years, but they’ll be overmatched in this matchup against the Wild. Minnesota has a strong attack: They ranked 3rd in goals in 5 v 5 situations. Their defense is strong, too. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk finished 6th in save percentage.
It’s in net where the Wild will have a crucial advantage. Blues goalie Jake Allen has been solid, but St. Louis as a whole has slipped from the ranks of the defensive elite. This isn’t to say that Minnesota is stingy defensively, either. But combined with their above-average offense, they’re superior than the Blues in just about every area.
Minnesota in Five
Anaheim Ducks vs Calgary Flames
Points: ANA (105) > CAL (94)
Goal Differential: ANA (+23) > CAL (+5)
Everywhere you look, Anaheim is much better than Calgary.
- Goal scoring in 5 v 5: Anaheim 15th, Calgary 19th
- Goals against in 5 v 5: Anaheim 4th, Calgary 14th
- Save percentage: Anaheim 5th, Calgary 22nd
- Penalty-kill: Anaheim 4th, Calgary 12th
So, yeah, I’m taking the Ducks.
Anaheim in Five
Edmonton Oilers vs San Jose Sharks
Points: EDM (103) > SJ (99)
Goal Differential: EDM (+35) > SJ (+20)
It’s tough to bet against the reigning West champs considering the talent they have with the likes of all-world defenseman Brent Burns and centers Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. But speaking of Couture, he took a puck to the face in late March and has not returned. Fellow center Joe Thornton also is banged up and missed the end of the regular season (although he insists he’ll play in this series). To add insult to injury, the Sharks have not been playing their best hockey, as they lost nine of their final thirteen regular season games.
For an inexperienced club going up against one of the NHL’s more successful teams in recent years, there are still plenty of other reasons to pick the Oilers. Sure, yeah, they have Connor McDavid. But Edmonton is more than just him. With Cam Talbot in net, the NHL wins leader had Edmonton in the top 10 in save percentage. The Oilers also have a top-five power play attack. Given these strengths, I’ll take the Oilers to get the better of the injury-riddled Sharks in a long series.
Edmonton in Seven
And here’s how I see things playing out the rest of the way:
I have to be somewhat objective with regard to my Bruins: Montreal is far superior defensively.
Columbus will make things difficult, but I think the Capitals are a little stronger on both ends of the ice.
Chicago is no longer a juggernaut defensively. That leaves them prone to be upset by a team like Minnesota, who is strong offensively.
Anaheim seems to be this decade’s San Jose: Remember how the Sharks always would come up short when it really mattered? I think the Ducks will have trouble against an Oilers team that I project to be very tough to beat at home this postseason.
Montreal’s average goal-scoring won’t be enough to keep pace with Washington. Unless Carey Price stands on his head.
The Connor McDavid hype is real, and Edmonton actually has a talented enough roster to win the West.
Stanley Cup Finals
Conn Smythe Winner: Braden Holtby, G Washington
I want to say I’ve picked the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup each of the last three postseasons now. Sooner or later I’m going to be right. They’ve been too good to not at least make a run to the Finals. And partly since I think the Eastern Conference is stronger than the West this season, I’ll take Ovechkin and company to finally hoist their first Stanley Cup.