Previewing the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Anaheim Ducks. Won the Pacific Division crown for the fifth straight year, but have come up short in the playoffs in recent years. They’re solid in goal and carry considerable blueline depth, though that’ll be tested with top defenseman Cam Fowler out two-six weeks with a knee injury. Adding Patrick Eaves before the trade deadline brought in a much-needed boost to their offense, but they need more production from winger Corey Perry.
Boston Bruins. Replacing long-time coach Claude Julien on Feb. 7 with Bruce Cassidy brought stability to the Bruins. Winger Brad Marchand finished among this season’s leading scorers and young winger David Pastrnak emerged as a scoring star. Forwards Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci overcame slow starts and returned to form. The Bruins lack the physical defensive depth that carried them to a championship in 2011. Losing Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo to late-season injuries further depletes their blueline for the opening round against Ottawa.
Calgary Flames. Overcame a shaky first half to reach a wild-card berth. Young forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan powers their scoring punch, while rookie Matthew Tkachuk adds some physical grit to their offensive attack. They’re healthier than most entering the playoffs. Concerns over their consistency linger, especially in goal and on defense. They need goalie Brian Elliott to repeat last season’s heroics with the St. Louis Blues.
Chicago Blackhawks. Three-time champions since 2010, the Blackhawks once again rank among the favorites to win the Cup. Their experienced core – forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, goaltender Corey Crawford – will once again shoulder the load. Winger Artemi Panarin provides invaluable offensive support and sidelined center Artem Anisimov should be back for the playoffs. They’ll also need youngsters such as Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz to step up.
Columbus Blue Jackets. They’re coming off the best regular season (49 wins, 106 points) in franchise history. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky’s dominating performance makes him a slam dunk for the Vezina Trophy. However, he has limited playoff experience. Same goes for many of his young teammates. That could hurt them against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in their opening-round series. They also stumbled down the stretch, dropping six of their final seven regular-season games.
Edmonton Oilers. Returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2006, the rebuilding Oilers hope to keep exceeding expectations. Led by Art Ross Trophy winner and Hart Trophy candidate Connor McDavid, they’re among this season’s highest-scoring team. Cam Talbot established himself as a starting goalie, setting a franchise record (41) in wins. The defense has improved but could still be their weakness against San Jose in the opening round.
Minnesota Wild. For most of this season, the Wild were the top club in the Western Conference. However, they stumbled badly over the final six weeks of the season, knocking them down to second overall. That’s given rise to concerns among Wild followers that this club is poised for another early postseason exit. They showed signs of reversing their fortunes, winning their final three games of the regular season. That could bode well for a better fate in this year’s playoffs. Starting goalie Devan Dubnyk is a solid regular-season performer but still needs to prove himself as a reliable playoff netminder.
Montreal Canadiens. In danger of falling out of first in the Atlantic Division, the Habs replaced coach Michel Therrien and brought back Claude Julien on Feb. 14. They went 15-7-1 in their final 23 games and clinched the division title. Captain Max Pacioretty was among this season’s lead NHL scorers and Shea Weber leads an improved defense corps. However, the Habs still lack scoring punch. They’ll go as far as superstar goaltender Carey Price can take them.
Nashville Predators. The Preds overcame a slow start to this season to lock up one of the wild-card spots in the Western Conference and an opening-round series with the heavily favored Chicago Blackhawks. Young forwards Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson provides offensive punch while P.K. Subban and Roman Josi anchor a deep defense corps. Their chances for a long playoff run depend upon veteran goalie Pekka Rinne. He won 31 games but his stats (2.42 goals-against, .918 save percentage) indicate his best seasons are behind him.
New York Rangers. Thanks to their core of talented forwards, the Rangers reached 100 points for the third straight season and the fourth time in six years. However, there are concerns over their blueline depth. Long-time starting goalie Henrik Lundqvist had another 30-win campaign but the 34-year-old struggled through long stretches this season. The Blueshirts also stumbled down the stretch, winning six of 14 games in March and only one of their four regular-season games in April.
Ottawa Senators. The low-scoring Sens reached the playoffs thanks to their goalie tandem (Craig Anderson and Mike Condon) and a solid defensive system. If they hope to get past the first round, they’ll need scoring forwards Kyle Turris, Bobby Ryan, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman to step it up. Injuries to their defense corps, notably Erik Karlsson, Marc Methot and Codi Ceci, could prove costly against the Bruins in the opening round.
Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite being walloped by injuries this season, the defending Stanley Cup champions finished second in the Metropolitan Division and the league overall standings. That’s a testament to their deep, talented roster, but repeating as champions could prove daunting. Due to a neck injury, blueline stalwart Kris Letang’s season is over. Veteran forwards Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin and Chris Kunitz are also sidelined, though they could return for the first-round tilt against Columbus.
St. Louis Blues. After struggling through the first half of the season, the Blues replaced Ken Hitchcock as head coach with assistant Mike Yeo. The move turned things around, as they regained their winning ways to clinch a playoff berth. The departures last summer of David Backes and Troy Brouwer left the Blues lacking the physical offensive leadership that powered them to the Western Conference Final last season. Scoring star Vladimir Tarasenko could be looked upon to fill the leadership void. This will also be a big test for goaltender Jake Allen to proven himself as a reliable playoff starter.
San Jose Sharks. The 2016 Cup finalists enter this year’s playoffs facing some challenges. Starting goalie Martin Jones’ performance slipped a bit from last spring’s stellar postseason performance. Age appeared to catch up with long-time center Joe Thornton, who also suffered a late-season knee injury. Logan Couture was sidelined by a facial injury. Both should return for their first-round match against the Oilers. The Sharks stumbled down the stretch, dropping for first to third in the Pacific Division. A return to the Cup Final seems a more difficult undertaking than it did a month ago.
Toronto Maple Leafs. From dead last in 2015-16 to a playoff berth one season later, the Leafs’ improvement in 2016-17 was impressive. Led by young stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Nazem Kadri, the Leafs had no problem scoring goals. Frederik Andersen provides them with steady, reliable goaltending. Defense, however, remains a work in progress. It was their Achilles’ heel this season and will be a factor as they face the powerhouse Washington Capitals in the opening round.
Washington Capitals. Winners of their second straight Presidents’ Trophy (their third since 2009-10), the Capitals remain dogged by their inability to translate their regular-season success into postseason glory. They brought in puck-moving defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk before the trade deadline to bolster their blueline depth. If the Caps are to shed the label of playoff chokers, this year could be their best opportunity. For top stars Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby, it could be their last best chance to silence their critics.