About six months ago, on the eve of opening day, I posted something listing one reason to be excited about every NHL team. Well, now the fans of 16 teams are excited about making the playoffs, and fans of the Buffalo Sabres are excited that they won the McDavid tank-off.
In that post it I made a surprisingly high number of good predictions, like Ovechkin getting back on form, Radim Vrbata being a great fit with the Sedins, and (and this is a direct quote) "Evander Kane will be on his way out by the trade deadline". I also made a lot more hilariously awful predictions (calling Boston a "perennial powerhouse", hinting at a Kings dynasty, mocking Calgary, etc, etc). But that was the regular season and that's all over. Now it's the playoffs.
No, wait. That wasn't exciting enough. This is the greatest sporting event on the planet. It's the fucking STANLEY CUP PLAY-OFFS. ROLL THE TAPE.
Wow, that was a bit cheesier than I expected. Let's try that one more time.
Yep, that's the stuff. Anyways let's get right to it, here are the top story lines from each division to get you ready for the next few weeks of mayhem.
The President's Trophy winners for best regular season team, and last year's Stanley Cup runners-up, the Rangers are one of the overall favourites this year, as much as this crazy season has any (seriously, there are probably ten teams that would surprise no one if they won the cup). But NYR are pretty clearly the cream of the crop, in the East at least. They have one of the top goalies in the league in Henrik Lundqvist, one of the top coaches in the league in Alain Vigneualt, and one of the best bluelines in the league, led by 2016 Norris winner (calling it now) Ryan McDonagh. Oh also a bit of scoring in Rick Nash, and some experience in Marty St.Louis. They're matched up against the Pittsburgh, whose lack of depth and numerous injuries on defence have finally caught up with, despite having (with all due respect the Carey Price) the best player in the world on their team. Half of the hockey world is probably cheering for a fast exit for the Pens, even if just to see what happens next. Do they blow it up? Trade Malkin? Is Mario coming back again??
If you're looking for compelling interests, the two-three matchup has bit more going for it. The Capitals have never won a Cup, despite being around since the mid-70's. And this could be Ovechkin's year to finally really show what he can do in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Islanders are a fun young team going through a resurgence of their own. And this is the last season they will play in decrepit Nassau Colliseum, as of next year they will move in to far more glamourous Brooklyn, setting up shop in the Barclay's Centre. The old barn will be rocking though if the Isles have a run in them.
The Atlantic's got a bit of everything going for: One team dominated by an elite goaltender, one by a scoring superstar, one by a legendary coach, and one by unexplained and mystical powers. Seriously, you have to start by talking about the Sens, who over the last month and a half have gone on an unbelievable run, led by a 27 year old goalie who had never played in the NHL and was stunningly mediocre in the minors, who got called up due to injuries and proceeded to go on a historic run posting an insane 20-1-2 record with a 1.79/.941 stat line, and who gets hamburgers thrown on the ice in his honour. Not to mention apparent superstar Kyle Turris, potential rookie of the year Mark Stone, and most entertaining defender in the league Erik Karlsson. The standard line with teams like this is that the Cinderlla story has to end somewhere, but at this point midnight was hours and hours ago. They will travel a couple hours downriver to play the Habs, on whom the verdict is still out on the question of "Are they a good team, or just a decent team with an unbelievable goalie". Yes, that's right, the goalie that apparently drank the Monstars mystical power juice in mid-February is the second best netminder in the series. Carey Price is the probably league MVP, and with him in net the Habs are a Cup contender, even with Max Pacioretty looking to miss some time.
Meanwhile, the Lightning and the Wings will face off in the "Yzerman Bowl", named in honour of former Detroit captain and current Tampa GM Steve Yzerman. The Lightning have great scoring led by Stamkos and a solid goalie in Ben Bishop. Meanwhile Detroit has a cadre of aging veterans and exciting youngsters, a big question mark in the crease, and a coach who will become the highest paid in the league next season once he decides where he wants to work.
1 - St Louis Blues
2 - Nashville Predators
3 - Chicago Blackhawks
WC - Minnesota Wild
This is the best division in hockey. If any of these teams make it to the Cup Finals they're probably the favourite no matter who comes out of the East. Seriously, for all that I raved about Andrew Hammond, Minny's Devan Dubnyk has essentially done the same thing, but just for a month and a bit longer, since arriving by trade with Arizona in January. They've been one of the best teams in the NHL in the second half, and they're seeded fourth here. They will play St. Louis, a team with great forwards and defenders who just need some solid play in goal to reach the next level. Brian Elliot has been good at times, and young Jake Allen is supposed to be the future, but that's still the question for them. The Blues came on late to win the division and avoid a rematch with Chicago, with whom they butted heads last year in one of the most entertaining series' in recent memory.
For their part, the Blackhawks draw Nashville, and are the only "underdog" that the Vegas line has winning their series. And this surprises nobody. That's what the Preds get for letting an awful last couple weeks let the division title slip away, and your opponent is getting Pat Kane back from injury sooner than expected. Still though, no team with a Weber-Josi defense pairing is an easy matchup, and Pekka Rinne should steal a couple games at least.
1 - Anaheim Ducks
2 - Vancouver Canucks
3 - Calgary Flames
WC - Winnipeg Jets
From the strongest division, to arguably the weakest (but don't sleep on the Atlantic, home of Buffalo and Toronto). I know what you're probably asking "Isn't Winnipeg like 2000 km from the Pacific Ocean?" Yes, they are! But by virtue of having more points that LA, they grab the wildcard and cross over from the Central to the Pacific Division. Remember what I said earlier about the Central being so stacked? It would not be a real surprise to see Winnipeg come out of this division. There's on big caveat here, and that's the goaltending. Going into the season Ondrej Pavelec was considered one of the worst starting goalies in the league. Now, with some help from rookie Michael Hutchison during a mid-season slump, he has led the Jets to their first playoff appearance since their return, and hasn't given up a goal in three games. And playoff hockey coming back to Winnipeg is the big story here, that city should be a madhouse as long as they're in it, and it's hard not to cheer for them. They face Anaheim, with three high-end forwards in Getzlaf-Perry-Kesler), a young goalie tandem, and a coach who has never won a playoff series but is hard not to root for.
Meanwhile up north you have another all-Canadian matchup, between the aging Canucks and the young-gun Flames. Give or take Johnny Gaudreau lighting his stick on fire and Bill Simmons' ridiculous hatred of the Sedins, this one is probably not of much interest to anyone outside Vancouver and Calgary, but historically this matchup has provided some great series (here's a video of 1994 for Nucks fans and 2004 for Flames fans ).
So who's gonna win it all?
Nah, I'm not stupid enough to take a real stab on this one. I filled out my bracket, and I think I have Chicago winning, but that's just a random guess (and I would never admit that to any of my Hawks fans friends). My real prediction is this: the next few weeks will be the most exciting time of the year to be a hockey fan, and I can't wait.