Special Preview for Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange
The NHL’s 2016-17 regular season was a doozy, but the biggest surprise may be the changeover from last year. A total of seven teams who were on the outside of the Stanley Cup chase last spring jumped into the playoffs this time around, a group that features the Columbus Blue Jackets, Boston Bruins and five Canadian teams, including the Edmonton Oilers — who last reached the playoffs in 2006.
What happens from here? Can the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending champs, repeat? It would be a mean feat considering their injury woes. Can the San Jose Sharks, the runners-up last spring, take one last step? Again, it would be impressive seeing how they fell in the standings down the stretch and also have key players hurting.
Or is this the year the Washington Capitals finally hoist hockey’s Holy Grail? Or do the Chicago Blackhawks continue their dominance?
Or is the year a title is celebrated in Canada for the first time since 1993?
It’s anybody’s guess, but we are willing to take a shot at predicting who wins each first-round series:
Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Capitals offense vs. Maple Leafs defense: Toronto’s defenders, as well as goalie Frederik Andersen, ended up in the bottom third of the league, and lowest among playoff teams, in goals against, and will face a Washington squad with all kinds of weapons in the likes of Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams.
Maple Leafs offense vs. Capitals defense: Toronto finished fifth in the league in offense, paced by sensational rookie Auston Matthews, who netted 40 goals on the season. While Matthews and the other freshmen, such as Mitch Marner and William Nylander, received much of the attention, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk had strong seasons. That said, they are facing arguably the best defense corps in the league, with John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Dmity Orlov and reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Braden Holtby.
Possible surprise stories: Washington’s fourth line of Daniel Winnik, Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson combined for 32 goals in the regular season. For some reason, Toronto’s Leo Komarov seems the type to make some noise in the playoffs.
Prediction: Can’t see the Leafs winning more than one game. Capitals in five.
Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers
Canadiens offense vs. Rangers defense: Max Pacioretty led Montreal this season with 35 goals. Second on the team was Paul Byron with 22. The Habs aren’t the worst offensive team in the playoffs, but don’t have the kind of depth that scares teams. That said, the Rangers are a middling squad defensively, they also didn’t get a whole lot of offense from the defensemen, and goalie Henrik Lundqvist is coming off a pedestrian season.
Rangers offense vs. Canadiens defense: New York’s bread and butter has been its balanced attack, with eight different forwards scoring 15 or more goals, led by Chris Kreider’s 28 tallies, Michael Grabner’s 27 and Rick Nash’s 23. Shea Weber leads a Montreal blue line that needs an all-world performance from goalie Carey Price to have a hope — although that is a possibility.
Possible surprise stories: Artturi Lehkonen, Montreal’s 2013 second-round draft choice, netted 18 goals this season. Rangers rookie winger Jimmy Vesey struggled in the second half of the season, but still collected 16 goals and 27 points.
Prediction: Montreal won all three regular-season meetings, but that means nothing in the second season. Rangers in six.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Penguins offense vs. Blue Jackets defense: The defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins led the league in goals and boast five forwards who hit the 20-goal mark, paced by Sidney Crosby and his league-leading 44 tallies. That said, Columbus finished second to Washington in goals against thanks to an under-rated defense corp. that boast a couple of young stars in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski and a goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky, who had a big-time bounce-back season.
Blue Jackets offense vs. Penguins defense: Columbus doesn’t have a big-name attack, but did finish sixth in the league in goals scored, paced by Cam Atkinson (35 goals), Nick Foligno (26) and Brandon Saad (24). The Penguins, a middle-of-the-pack squad in goals against, have a strong one-two punch in goal with Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, but a less-than-inspiring defense corps., especially with Kris Letang on the shelf due to injury.
Possible surprise stories: There aren’t many unknowns with the Penguins after last season, but it will be interesting to see whether Conor Sheary can carry his regular season success — 23 goals, 53 points — into the playoffs. Sam Gagner’s career appeared to be heading nowhere fast, but the veteran was rejuvenated in Columbus to the tune of 18 goals and 50 points.
Prediction: These teams finished three points apart and split the season series. With Pittsburgh’s injuries, Columbus winning in seven games seems a good call.
Ottawa Senators vs. Boston Bruins
Senators offense vs. Bruins defense: Ottawa is the lowest scoring team to make the playoffs, and the only one with a negative goal differential. Kyle Turris (27 goals), Mike Hoffman (26) and Mark Stone (22) did their job, but Derick Brassard and Bobby Ryan had off years. The Bruins have a solid defense crew, still led by Zdeno Chara, but infused by youngster Brandon Carlo and a very good goalie in Tuukka Rask.
Bruins offense vs. Senators defense: Brad Marchand missed the final two games due to suspension, and that left his career season at 39 goals, which led a Bruins team that also received 34 from David Pastrnak. Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson put together an impressive season, especially when you consider his wife has been battling cancer, but will need Erik Karlsson to be at his best and the likes of Dion Phaneuf to step up their game a notch or two.
Possible surprise stories: Ottawa’s Clarke MacArthur played the final four games after suffering a horrific concussion in training camp. His return could mean a boost emotionally and on the scoresheet. If you like the Bruins, Frank Vatrano scored 10 goals in 44 games and could be a great sleeper pick.
Prediction: Ottawa swept the season series, but the way the Bruins played down the stretch gives them an edge. Boston in seven.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators
Blackhawks offense vs. Predators defense: Chicago’s attack is top-heavier than in past years, but the man leading the way remains the same, Patrick Kane. Kane and Artemi Panarin pace the top line, while Jonathan Toews is the main cog of the second line to face a very solid Nashville defense corps led by Roman Josi and P.K. Subban. Predators goalie Pekka Rinne had an up-and-down season.
Predators offense vs. Blackhawks defense: This may come as a surprise to some, but the Predators scored only two fewer goals than the Blackhawks this season. Nashville does have a more balanced attack, but are unquestionably led by 31-goal scorers Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg. Chicago’s defenders are a veteran group with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya and Brian Campbell all boasting loads of experience in front of goalie Corey Crawford.
Possible surprise stories: Chicago rookie Ryan Hartman pumped in 19 goals this season, four of them game-winning tallies. Nashville’s Colin Wilson scored five goals in six games when the Predators last face the Blackhawks in the playoffs in 2015.
Prediction: The Blackhawks won both previous series meetings in six games. Deja vu? Blackhawks in six.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Calgary Flames
Ducks offense vs. Flames defense: Pick your poison with the Ducks on the attack. Adding Patrick Eaves at the trade deadline has given them three very potent forward lines. Ryan Getzlaf leads the way, but Ryan Kesler netted four goals and nine points in five meetings with the Flames this season. Calgary shored up its defense late in the year by adding Matt Bartkowski and Michael Stone to a group with a strong top three in Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie, but the key is how well goalie Brian Elliott performs.
Flames offense vs. Ducks defense: Calgary actually scored two more goals than Anaheim in the regular season, with a top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Micheal Ferland and a second line of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and rookie Matthew Tkachuk. This season, though, the Ducks, who finished third in the league in goals against, kept them in check other than one game.
Possible surprise stories: Ferland’s crash and bash style was a big reason the Flames reached the second round of the playoffs two years ago. He can be an x-factor on that line. Anaheim’s Antoine Vermette managed just nine goals and 28 points in the regular season. Turning it around would bode well for a team that’s won five straight division titles.
Prediction: This is the third playoff meeting between these franchises. Anaheim won the first two and should make it 3-for-3. Ducks in six.
Minnesota Wild vs. St. Louis Blues
Wild offense vs. Blues defense: Only the Pittsburgh Penguins scored more goals than the Wild in the regular season. Minnesota saw a dozen players reach double-digits in goals, led by Eric Staal — who had a fantastic bounce-back season — and Mikael Granlund, coming off a career campaign. St. Louis’s defenders took a hit when blue-liner Kevin Shattenkirk was traded away, but thanks to improved goaltending from Jake Allen and a tighter defensive game, the Blues went 15-3-2 down the stretch.
Blues offense vs. Wild defense: Only two St. Louis skaters reached the 20-goal mark, 39-goal sniper Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrik Berglund. More players must step up against a Wild team boasting a strong defense corps. with the likes of Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Mathew Dumba in front of goalie Devan Dubnyk, who had a great first half of the season, saw some struggles but finished strong.
Possible surprise stories: Wild 2015 first-round draft choice Joel Eriksson Ek joined the team after his season concluded in Sweden and collected seven points in 15 NHL games. Speaking of players coming from Europe, Blues prodigal son Vladimir Sobotka returned to the team for the season finale — he bolted for the KHL after the 2013-14 season — and scored in his return.
Prediction: Something says this goes seven games. We’ll pick Minnesota to win the coin flip.
Edmonton Oilers vs. San Jose Sharks
Oilers offense vs. Sharks defense: Edmonton’s attack essentially only comes from two lines, but those two lines are impressive, especially the top unit featuring the league’s top point producer, Connor McDavid, and Leon Draisaitl. The second line heated up down the stretch, with Milan Lucic and Jordan Eberle both reaching the 20-goal mark. San Jose has a strong defensive team, led on the blue line by Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, but Edmonton’s speed could give them trouble.
Sharks offense vs. Oilers defense: Injuries to Logan Couture and Joe Thornton made even worse a late-season swoon that saw the Sharks plummet from top spot in the Pacific Division. Those two can’t be 100 percent to start the playoffs, but the Sharks do have a strong top-heavy attack that also features Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Joel Ward. However, too little of Edmonton’s improved defense has been discussed amidst the team’s turnaround. The Oilers truly shored up their blue line by acquiring Adam Larsson and Kris Russell last summer and goalie Cam Talbot had a banner season in net. The end result is a team that finished eighth in the league in goals against.
Possible surprise stories: Edmonton winger Patrick Maroon scored seven goals in 16 playoff games a couple of years ago. Don’t be shocked if he is just as effective this year on the top line. San Jose needs more from Tomas Hertl and Mikkel Boedker.
Prediction: Not only are the Oilers in the playoffs for the first time since 2006, but we are pegging them to reach the second round. Edmonton in six