This week has been odd. I’ve found myself more excited about baseball than I have in many years – and I’m guessing it’s a number of things: The NJ Devils are facing their worst season points wise since 1989, the NHL decided that they won’t break for the Olympics, leaving spark plug players like Alex Ovechkin in a lurch and a fine, and honestly, baseball is more exciting coming into the season than hockey is going out.
So, on that note, let’s get it over with – who do we think will hoist Stanley’s Cup in June? Will Pittsburgh repeat, a fairly feasible outcome? Will Ovechkin not have any worries in February if he has a championship behind him? Will the Predators become the first team from the early 2000s expansion era to win – or could the Blue Jackets or Wild make it first? Let’s find out what Interjections thinks:
(1) Washington vs. Toronto (WC2)
(This is the first meeting between Washington and Toronto)
How exciting! I had no idea these teams had never met in the playoffs before, and given their history, that’s mildly surprising. Flip of the coin, I guess. Divisions also used to be spread out differently, and now that you can get the wild cards if you win the division, there’s more of a chance for overlap. Still, this should be fun – a team that has never won the Cup, with perhaps its best team yet, winning the President’s Trophy and facing off against the team that boasts the longest drought in hockey? If they were to take a page from the Chicago Cubs, Toronto would get the albatross of their back and beat this best team in hockey. How would they do it? Their youth factor will be their greatest advantage – like we’ll mention later with the Oilers, they may be inexperienced, but they make up for it with speed and chutzpah. As much as the Capitals want this, the Maple Leafs want this more for their entire country. Not only have the Leafs not been to the Finals in forever, no Canadian team has won since 1993. Of course, their goalies are not even close matching up against Braden Holtby, who just nabbed the William Jennings award for the goalie who gave up the least amount of goals this year. So, those kids (Mitch Marner, William Nylander and most importantly Auston Matthews – who will possibly win the Calder Trophy) will have to put in more goals than the likes of Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetzov and a little guy called Alex Ovechkin. Ovie will also definitely want this to be his year to win, since the Olympics is gonna be a shitshow in Seoul. Washington in 5.
(2) Pittsburgh vs. Columbus (3)
(Pittsburgh previously beat Columbus in 2014 in the first round)
This is my favorite match-up in the postseason. Pittsburgh is here to defend their title and potentially become the first repeat team since Detroit 97-98. Despite the fact I don’t like them for being a rival team and also defeating my Sharks last season, they’re still a ton of fun, mostly because of Phil Kessel. Columbus, of course, is the upstart team looking to prove themselves. One of two teams in the NHL to never win a playoff series (Atlanta/Winnipeg, soon-to-be a third team in Vegas), Columbus rode its hottest season on the backs of some of the best backstopping behind Sergei Bobrovsky. Will he be on the case for Pittsburgh? They certainly had his number this season, beating him three of their five meetings. Regular season aside, Sergei is fairly solid. I”m anticipating a fully seven game series, as the two have the longest depth. However, Columbus had a bit of a slide to end the season, losing six of their last seven. Pittsburgh in 7.
(1) Montreal vs. New York (WC1)
(Montreal and New York went 4-4 in the Original Six era.)
(Montreal is 3-4 vs. New York, including a 1979 Stanley Cup win)
Ah, two original Six teams. How good it feels when this comes to fruition, right? Only one of the original six fell out, the ever present Red Wings, so we’re left with this match-up to appease us unless Boston or Toronto make it past their relative opponents. Beyond this, no Canadian team has won since Montreal in 1993, let alone made it to the Finals since Vancouver in 2011. Wouldn’t it be great if that bubble were burst? Montreal has the best chance of the five who’ve made it here so far. With their uber goalie Carey Price quietly leading them into a division win, they also saw massive outputs from Andrei Markov, newly acquired Shea Weber and great stars like Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty. I think they have as well put together a staff as their 2014 run that ultimately saw them fall to the Rangers in the Conference Finals. Up for a little revenge? They’ll have to get through Henrik Lundqvist and a team that surprised some after injuries hindered them early, but rose from the ashes in an attempt to compete with the juggernauts of their division. Despite having a similar regular-season record, New York is likely the underdog here, but I’m sure they don’t mind that distinction. It’s like the Red Sox playing the Yankees, Manchester United v Liverpool, Lakers versus Celtics. Perhaps this is the most exciting match-up, at least for historical fans. I think Montreal has a less exhausted team, and with Lundqvist wavering a bit in his return from injury late in the season, that may mean the difference. Montreal in 6.
(2) Ottawa vs. Boston (3)
(This is the first meeting between Ottawa and Boston)
Ottawa has long been a forgotten team, since their one great year was 2007, when Dany Heatley, Chris Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson were leading the team to their only Stanley Cup Finals. Since then, a new generation led by Mark Stone, Kyle Turris and Michael Hoffman has re-energized the Senators. Their solid play proves that the past two seasons were no fluke, and Ottawa should be a perennial playoff visitor. Boston slipped into the playoffs at the last minute and even hopscotched over Toronto to get this more favorable matchup. The biggest question here is goaltending – who will Ottawa start, since veteran Craig Anderson and journeyman Mike Condon virtually split playing time, almost matching each other’s quality? I give the edge to Anderson, who was supposed to start more if not for his wife’s cancer treatment. He also has the advantage of winning more games than Condon. Be sure that there will be a short leash if Anderson whiffs at home, though. As for Boston, Tuuka Rask is the unquestioned leader of the team still, coming back from an off year and posting a 37-win season. Despite their struggles, Boston played admirably down the stretch, and it will be a fairly even match-up for this series. Tough call, but I think Boston prevails with their experience and bitterness about having such a terrible 2015-2016 season. Making up for that, I say Boston in 7.
If this stands, we’ll get matchups of Washington vs. Pittsburgh (you’re welcome, Gary) as well as Montreal vs. Boston. Surprisingly dull, actually, but we still have a well-seasoned rivalry and another Original Six battle, so that isn’t a terrible way to advance to the second round. And even though we never know what will become of teams on their journey due to many unknown factors, I would look at this objectively. Montreal has a better team in general, and while Boston might put up a fun fight, the Canadians will come out on top for their 25th time over their main rival. Washington has the wherewithal to finally get over this hump (apparently they have never made it out of the second round when managing over 100 points), but the Penguins are defending champions. Expect a massive ordeal, expanding over seven full games, though it really does feel like the Capitals’ year, doesn’t it? After that, a neat series between Montreal and Washington would also find the Capitals coming out on top. While they’ve only ever played once, in 2010, I believe Ovechkin is so hungry, nothing will sate him but a drink from Lord Stanley’s Cup. They just want it more, the Capitals.
(1) Chicago vs. Nashville (WC2)
(Chicago previously beat Nashville in 2010 and 2015)
Nashville would certainly love to wipe away the memories of being defeated by their division rival, let alone surge to the Finals for the first time in their history. The team is at a crossroads – after trading away team stalwart Shea Weber to Montreal, they received in return a potentially Hall of Fame bound defenseman in PK Subban. While he may not rival Weber for likelihood for legacy, he certainly held his own as the new kid in Music City. They are also coming a playoff series where they came closest to advancing to the Conference Finals, where they lost in seven games to eventual Cup loser San Jose. Chicago, on the other hand, is chugging along after winning the Western Conference and continuing their dynasty by bringing in nine rookies that will inherit the team from supporting players of the past. Will they continue playoff dominance? Nashville seems like an easier target than St. Louis did last year, and Toews/Kane/Keith etc will not want another year to slip under the radar, especially after their stellar regular season performances. Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov have emerged as solid contributors, while Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook proved they still have plenty left in the tank. Much like the Washington Capitals were no-brainers, unfortunately for the Predators, Chicago is a no-brainer in the West. Chicago in 4.
(2) Minnesota vs. St. Louis (3)
(Minnesota previously beat St. Louis in 2014 in the first round)
St. Louis has to be bitter about last season’s ouster to San Jose in the Conference Finals. It was the closest they’ve come to the Finals since 2001. They also stumbled out of the gate, flopping out of playoff contention by the turn of the calendar year. However, since Mike Yeo took over in February, the Blues have gone 22-8-2 to prove they want this Cup as much as anybody else. The Wild have the same trouble as the Predators, only advancing to the Conference Finals once, against Anaheim in 2003. Will they ever get over the hump? Even the trouble of reaching the second round has eluded them recently, except when they defeated the Blues three years ago. Most of the team is similar, and while Devan Dubnyk has struggled lately (what a fast peak!) the team has every reason to believe they can make it past the Blues, who lost Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington at the trade deadline. I think this pair is the most evenly matched for this first round, and either team could have hosted the match-up. Hot streaks lead to wins, though, and while it’ll go long, I think the Blues won’t be singing sadly. Blues in 7.
(1) Anaheim vs. Calgary (WC1)
(Anaheim previously beat Calgary in 2006 and 2015)
Anaheim is equally riding a hot hand, winning the final games of the season. They also haven’t lost at home to Calgary in 25 games. Will that translate to their first two games? I think other than that Pittsburgh/Columbus throwdown, this is the highest octane meeting in April. Calgary has boosted its speed with its youth factor, including Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and rookie Matthew Tkachuk. Dougie Hamilton has rounded back into form, and Brian Elliott is a huge reason they made the playoffs in the first place. Anaheim turned out to win the Jonathan Bernier trade, letting him platoon again in California alongside John Gibson. Ryan Getzlaf made up for his terrible 2015-2016, and Patrick Eaves turned out to be a stellar pickup as well. This should be the fastest series, and perhaps the most exciting. History precedes itself, and I’m going to bet against it. Let’s go with the youth – Calgary in 6.
(2) Edmonton vs. San Jose (3)
(Edmonton previously beat San Jose in 2006 in the second round)
First, let’s all get excited that Edmonton finally burst their playoff drought bubble, it’s great to see them back in postseason play for the first time since their tragic Stanley Cup loss to Carolina in June 2006. The latter team is now the leader for the drought, and they’ll have two seasons before they tie the Oilers and Florida Panthers (2002-2012) for longest drought ever. Fun fact, for a moment. On to the series at hand: The Sharks are simply not as good as last year. They rocketed into the playoffs led by Norris contender Brent Burns last year, and while he’s still obviously golden – at one point even in the Art Ross race, there are some factors to worry about: Joe Thornton is ailing but ready to start, Logan Couture still has to heal his mouth after losing several teeth in a nasty puck hit late in the season, and forwards Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau had mild seasons. It may seem sexy to have Edmonton as the pick, given they jumped San Jose in the standings and really only battled it out with Anaheim in the end. Milan Lucic was near the top of scoring, helped greatly by 100-point scorer in the NHL this season, wunderkind Connor McDavid. Since many of the Oilers are not playoff-tested, it would equally seem as reasonable to go with the Sharks. Unfortunately for me and other fans, I’m going to have to stick with the new kids on the block, the ones who didn’t go 7-10 for their final few weeks of the season. Edmonton also just beat them twice in the past week, so they’ll have the experience there. Edmonton in 7.
If this how it all plays out, we’ll have an all-Canadian matchup with Edmonton vs. Calgary, and yet another division rivalry for Chicago vs. St. Louis. Chicago is the better team on paper, but we’ll see how St. Louis fares after their first round. I’m still going with Chicago for now. Then Edmonton will likely come up against their biggest challenge, as both teams are fit for speed and stamina, so that will also go a full seven. Calgary has a little more experience, and in my opinion the better goaltender. So get ready for a Chicago-Calgary Conference Finals. For that competition, Calgary will probably be a bit exhausted and Chicago, like I said, is maybe the best team right now on paper. So in the spirit of flipping the story, I’m going to put Calgary in the Finals.
This will lead to a Stanley Cup Finals between the Washington Capitals and the Calgary Flames. Will the underdog Alberta team be the first to bring Canada glory since 1993? Will the best player from Russia finally hoist a Cup? I’m going to go with the latter because I personally want to see it, but any of these sixteen teams would be a great choice for the 2017 Stanley Cup winner. So, ahead of time, by prediction is the Washington Capitals.
Hope that sounds good to everyone, because it does to me. Enjoy April and May, folks, and I’ll probably have a wrap-up in June that will cover the Finals and what to look for over the summer, especially as the league adds its thirty-first team, the Vegas Golden Knights!