2016 NHL Playoff Preview and Predictions
As a hockey fan, I am willing to admit that the NHL regular season can be boring. But as for the playoffs, which began Wednesday, April 13th, well, that’s a completely different conversation.
What makes the NHL playoffs so great? For starters, every game is hotly contested, even if a lowly eighth seed is playing the top team in the conference. This means that no team is safe, which gives the playoffs a similar feel to March Madness. Plus, overtime games are frequent and Game Sevens happen more often than in baseball and basketball. I could continue writing about how epic the NHL playoffs are, but how about you just watch these postseason hype videos instead?
Even if you haven’t followed the NHL regular season, this preview will inform you of the three most compelling first-round matchups, the three most intriguing players, and my three main predictions for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Most Compelling First-Round Matchups
3. Washington Capitals vs Philadelphia Flyers
Having breezed through the regular season, the Capitals are as big of a favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup as I can recall heading into the postseason. This makes sense because Washington’s 56 wins were the most by an NHL team since the Red Wings tallied 58 in 2006. However, I would like to warn Capitals fans that fifteen other teams in the past ten seasons have posted a higher goal differential than Washington’s +59 this year and only two of them went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Most experts believe Washington will have little trouble handling Philadelphia. But might the experts be sleeping on the pesky Flyers? Their goalie, Steve Mason, was terrific in May and they should be motivated to play inspired hockey after the death of their long-time owner. Plus, the pressure on Washington is enormous, which could make for a very interesting series if it goes to six or seven games.
By the way, I did mention in the title that there would be predictions: Capitals over Flyers in six games.
2. St. Louis Blues vs Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks are shooting for their fourth title since 2010, which is extraordinary considering the parity in the NHL. But in their way is a St. Louis squad that is looking to finally break through in the postseason.
This could very well be the year for the Blues. Brian Elliott posted the league’s top save percentage in net this year and they rank second in the league against the power play. On the other side, I think St. Louis can take advantage of a Chicago defense that slipped from 2nd in goals against a year ago to tenth this year.
Expect a competitive series and the champs to go down: Blues over Blackhawks in seven games.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Rangers
Of all the playoff matchups, the series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers is the one I am most looking forward to. For starters, this is the third straight year these rivals will meet in the playoffs. Moreover, the Penguins have been the league’s best team since the All-Star break. In fact, they are perceived to be so dangerous that both the Rangers and Islanders were reported to be actively trying to fall in the standings in order to avoid Sidney Crosby and company. However, the problem for Pittsburgh is that their other star, Evgeni Malkin, has been nursing a shoulder injury and their starting goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, remains out with a concussion. That may pose trouble for them considering they will be up against one of the league’s best goalies in Henrik Lundqvist.
The Rangers have gotten the better of Pittsburgh the past two years, but this is the strongest Penguin team since their title team in 2009: Penguins over Rangers in seven games.
Most Intriguing Players
3. Jaromir Jagr, Florida Panthers: Remarkably, the 44-year-old Jagr led the Panthers in points. And no, the Panthers don’t suck: they are a team with Stanley Cup aspirations that will continue to rely heavily on the man who continues to defy his age.
2. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins: He may not be the consensus best player in the game anymore, but he was quietly the league’s best player in the second half of the year. Considering the Penguins have underachieved since winning the Cup in ’09, I am sure he will be even more focused this postseason.
1. Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings: This postseason may be the last we see of Datsyuk, who may retire at the end of this year. Not only is he the Steve Nash of hockey, but also he is the most important piece to a Detroit playoff run.
3. At least three of the four conference finalists from last year will be eliminated in the first round.
You already know that I like both the Blackhawks and Rangers to be knocked out early. I also think the Tampa Bay Lightning, the defending Eastern Conference champs, will be upset. All things being equal, Tampa is as talented as any team in the league. The problem is that they will be without two of your top offensive players in Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson, which is why I like the Red Wings to advance.
2. My final four consists of Washington, Florida, St. Louis, and Anaheim.
It’s awfully difficult to predict the NHL playoffs, so cut me a little slack if these predictions turn out to be erroneous. However, I do like each of these four teams because they each posted strong goal differentials and ranked highly in goals against average. Surprisingly, the team I’m least confident in to reach the conference finals is Washington, simply because they have the most pressure on them and they will have a difficult semifinal matchup against the winner of Penguins/Rangers.
1. And for my Stanley Cup Final Prediction, I like Washington over St. Louis
Wasn’t I just saying how unsure I was about the Capitals? Yes, I was; but I’m still picking them to win for two reasons. First, I believe Washington, having ranked second in both goals scored and goals against, is the most complete team in the league. And second, I believe their inability to get to a Stanley Cup Finals in the Alex Ovechkin era makes them the hungriest team in the field. So despite a difficult road out of the East, I like the Capitals to cap off a historically dominant season with their first ever Stanley Cup.
Photo courtesy of lastwordonsports.com