The first robin and Spring Training Baseball are all sure signs of the changing season. But nothing better captures spring like the start of the National Hockey League Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After a long, grueling six month regular season schedule, 14 teams say so long until the NHL Entry Draft in late June. The remaining 16 teams have a couple of days to lick their wounds, before putting their collective noses to the grindstone that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the toughest and most demanding post-season in professional sports.
While most of the first round matchups are still to be determined, and may not be so until the final night of the regular season, we have a good idea which battleship teams will be competing for the Cup this time around.
Let’s start with the defending Stanley Cup Champions. The Pittsburgh Penguins are, once again, one of the powers in the NHL. Led by captain Sidney Crosby, not to mention all-world talent Evgeni Malkin, the Pens are looking to become the first team to repeat as Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings did so in 1998.
Pittsburgh reside in the Metropolitan Division, arguably the toughest bracket in hockey. They may not finish first, thanks to great seasons by the Washington Capitals and the resurgent Columbus Blue Jackets. Can the Jackets’ regular season success carry over to the playoffs, and can the Caps finally go deep in the post-season?
Don’t count out the New York Rangers, who will probably finish fourth in the Metropolitan Division, but would challenge for first in the weaker Atlantic Division. For most of the year, the Montreal Canadiens have led that group, but the Ottawa Senators have been nipping at their heels seemingly since day one.
And maybe that’s the story of the 2017 playoffs. After a year where zero Canadian based franchises qualified for the post-season, this time around up to five Canuck teams can print playoff tickets.
Not the actual Canucks; Vancouver and Winnipeg will have to wait until next year. But in Montreal, and Ottawa, and Edmonton, and Calgary, and most likely Toronto, the season won’t end in mid-April this time around.
The biggest surprise has to be the Edmonton Oilers, who haven’t been near a playoff game since they lost in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Final way back in 2006. Led by young superstar Connor McDavid, the Oilers are in the race for top spot in the Pacific Division. Also in that dogfight are the perennial division champs (the Anaheim Ducks) and the Stanley Cup finalists from last June (the San Jose Sharks).
Are any of the five Canadian teams truly Stanley Cup contenders this time around? As usual, it depends on the goaltending. The hockey world knows how far Habs’ netminder Carey Price can carry a team. But is that enough to go all the way?
Same with Craig Anderson in Ottawa, Brian Elliott in Calgary, Cam Talbot in Edmonton, and Frederik Andersen in Toronto; when they play at the top of their game, anything is possible.
But the beauty of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the four rounds a team has to win in order to hoist the big silver mug. Luck is a part of any endeavour in sports, but luck will only get you so far in the NHL post-season.
The odds-on-favourite to win it all this time around? Depends on who you ask. The Chicago Blackhawks are once again in that mix, leading the Western Conference for most of the season. Are the Blues, Wild, or Predators ready to step up this spring? And can the Sharks win two more games than they did last June?
Time will tell, and SiriusXM NHL Network Radio (and the Sirius XM app) is all over all the action. We broadcast every game, and every overtime, and then discuss all the events on Channel 91.
The NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs begin Wednesday, April 12th.