TIME TO SHINE — In this April 8 photo, Oilers’ Connor McDavid skates with the puck against the Canucks during the first period of a game, in Vancouver, British Columbia. McDavid, the youngest captain ever in the NHL, lifted the Oilers into the playoffs for the first time since they lost in the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals. (AP Photo)
NHL playoffs features great first-round matchups
Brace yourselves, for playoff hockey is here!
The National Hockey League playoffs began this past week, and in the first round alone, we already see great matchups, including a showdown between two heavyweight Stanley Cup contenders.
Last year, there were no Canadian teams in the playoffs. This year there are five teams, including the Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs. The first round will be tough to predict, with any team being able to win on any given night, but it’ll be one for the ages.
Here’s how it looks in the Eastern Conference:
New York Rangers vs. Montreal Canadiens
Because I’m a realist, I don’t expect the New York Rangers to make a deep run in the playoffs. However, I like their chances a little more facing Montreal in the first round.
It’s no secret that the Rangers have been one of the best road teams this season, compiling a league-best 27-12-2 record. However, Henrik Lundqvist has been bitten by the Bell Centre curse, struggling at the Canadiens’ home rink for most of his career.
Don’t count the Rangers out. They did rally back in the 2013-14 playoffs to defeat the Canadiens in a seven-game series. One of my favorite playoff moments from that series was Marty St. Louis scoring one of the most iconic Rangers’ playoff goals on Mother’s Day, just days after his mother passed away.
Fans will get to see two elite goaltenders battle with Lundqvist and Carey Price, with Price being shelved the last time these teams met post-season because of a collision with Rangers’ Chris Kreider.
I’m predicting Kreider to have a big series against the Habs, simply because he’s Mr. Playoffs. He made his NHL debut in the 2012 playoffs against the Ottawa Senators in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals and scoring his first-ever goal in Game 6 of that series.
I’m taking the Rangers in seven games.
Boston Bruins vs. Ottawa Senators
If you want to see a team win it all, you’d hope it’s Ottawa based solely on the adversity they’ve overcome this season, primarily goaltender Craig Anderson and his wife’s battle with cancer and the adjustment losing players to injury throughout the season.
Sens head coach Guy Bucher has playoff experience with the Tampa Bay Lightning, that should translate into bringing the young roster to the next level.
However, looking at Ottawa’s roster from the get-go, the team doesn’t have goal-scorers like other teams. On paper, the Bruins looked stacked. However, on the ice, they’re mediocre. Brad Marchand has been on a tear this season, posting 85 points. He’s the first Bruin to hit the 80-point mark in a season since Marc Savard hit 88 points in 2008-09. Marchand, however, is a notorious pest and his lack of discipline might play as a difference-maker.
I’m taking Ottawa in six games.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Washington Capitals
It’s the first time ever the Washington Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs have met in the playoffs. With that said, I have no idea how this series will pan out.
If we look at season standings, you’d expect the Caps to sweep past the Leafs. But, if you’ve been watching playoff hockey, you know that there’s no such thing as an easy route to the Cup.
Washington, clinching its third President’s Trophy in eight seasons, is riding high this season, dumping it all in the tank to get Alexander Ovechkin a Cup.
With the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk on the blue line, the Caps have the ability to move the puck well and cycle deep in the offensive zone. However, the Caps get shell-shocked and haven’t advance past the second round in seven of the last eight seasons.
Toronto is playing in its first playoff series since the 2012-13 season, where they lost to the Bruins in an unforgettable seven-game series. Auston Matthews has propelled the team deep, hitting the 40-goal mark in his rookie campaign.
The Leafs can’t rely heavily on the phenom and need other youngsters to step up, such as William Nylander and Mitchell Marner.
I’m taking Washington in five games.
Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
This is my most anticipated series in the playoffs. These two teams were favored to be Cup contenders at one point in the season, with Pittsburgh defending their title and Columbus compiling that fun 16-game win streak.
John Tortorella runs a tight bench over in Columbus and has veteran Brandon Dubinsky to provide a wealth of playoff experience, both having deep runs with the Rangers. Sergei Bobrovsky has been an animal in goal and I expect him to carry the load, with offense from Cam Atkinson, who’s having a career-year.
Pittsburgh is heavily banged up and that might be an issue with the call-ups. Sidney Crosby has to stay healthy to be a factor, but I expect both squads to get bruised in this Metropolitan Division showdown. I’m also expecting a lot of overtime hockey and a lot of one-goal games.
I’m taking Pittsburgh in seven, overtime-peppered games.
Now let’s take a look in the Western Conference:
Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks
It wouldn’t be the playoffs if we didn’t discuss the dynasty that is the Chicago Blackhawks.
With three Cups in seven years, Chicago would be the favorite to win the Cup, let alone the series. The Blackhawks have picked up the tempo heading down the stretch, becoming one of the better second-half teams alongside Washington and Anaheim.
In the past, Chicago relied on youngsters Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane for offense, but now the next generation is rolling in with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Hartman.
I don’t expect the Preds to just lay down and take a loss. Fans in Nashville support their team and they make Bridgestone Arena a fun place to watch a game.
Preds proved they can make some noise in the playoffs: just look at last year’s forced seven-game Western Conference second round series with eventual Stanley Cup finalist, San Jose. That triple-overtime game winner by Mike Fisher still gives me goosebumps.
I’m taking Chicago in six games.
St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild
This series ought to be an interesting one, especially when you look behind the bench.
The Blues fired head coach Ken Hitchcock and replaced him with Mike Yeo, who used to be the head coach of Minnesota. The Blues have compiled a 45-29-7 record, after starting 24-21-5 under Hitchcock.
The Blues have a massive offensive threat in Vladimir Tarasenko, but they need others to step up and make a difference. All eyes are on Alexander Steen and Jaden Schwartz to light the lamp.
Devan Dubnyk will be the backbone for the Wild’s roster, and has been all season. He’s got a 2.25 goals-against-average and a 0.923-save percentage heading in. If the Wild want to make a run, they need veteran experience from Eric Staal and Minnesota native Zach Parise.
I’m taking Minnesota in six games.
Calgary Flames vs. Anaheim Ducks
This one is going to take an interesting turn with the recent series of events between these two teams.
On April 4, Flames defenseman Mark Giordano hit Ducks defenseman Cam Folwer sparking some bad blood.
Fowler ended up spraining his right knee and shelved him 2-6 weeks. Also on that day, Anaheim’s regular-season winning streak against Calgary at Honda Center was extended to 25 games.
I’d love to see what kind of noise Johnny Hockey and Matthew Tkachuk can make. I love Johnny Gaudreau, always have since his days at Boston College. A push of veteran experience in Kris Versteeg and Troy Brouwer, who both were Cup winners in Chicago in the 2009-10 season, could help.
But the Flames have to exorcise their demons at the Honda Center, otherwise, I foresee an early exit.
The Ducks have that lethal offense in Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and grit in Ryan Kesler, but some youngsters have worked their way up the ranks including Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfversberg.
I’m taking Anaheim in six games.
Edmonton Oilers vs. San Jose Sharks
I’m all aboard the Oilers bandwagon this season.
After years of having the first overall draft, the Oilers finally struck gold with the 2015 pick in Connor McDavid. McDavid hit 100 points in his first full season and this kid’s the real deal, even being compared to the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Crosby.
You can’t talk about McDavid without talking about Milan Lucic, who has been a surprise in Edmonton.
The longtime Boston Bruin grinder has had his fairshare of help getting McDavid to the level he’s at and I expect his playoff experience will provide a major push for the Oilers in their first playoff appearance in over a decade.
The Sharks made it to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, primarily on the coattails of goaltender Martin Jones, an offensive surge from defenseman Brett Burns and secondary scoring.
San Jose took a major blow to their offense with the injuries of Joe Thornton and Logan Couture.
With unpredictable time tables, it’s hard to say if the offense can pick up the slack with two crucial pieces gone.
I’m taking Edmonton in seven games.