If there’s one team that can be described as the microcosm of the topsy-turvy nature of what the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be, head down to sunny Southern California. The Anaheim Ducks were Pacific Division champions this season, which was expected before the first puck drop of the season.
At Christmas, most people were expecting their head coach, Bruce Boudreau, to get the ultimate coal in his stocking: a pink slip.
At that time, the Ducks were 12-15-6, in last place in the division and could not score a goal to save their lives. Since then, Anaheim went 34-10-5, had an 11-game winning streak in between and now head into the playoffs with serious momentum after winning the division on the last day of the season, defeating the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals – albeit, a Capitals team resting all their important cogs – to clinch the division.
So what Ducks team will show in the first round of the playoffs? We honestly don’t know, even if we think we know, because the Stanley Cup playoffs are that unpredictable. For us, we do hope it’s the team that was the best team in the 2016 portion of the schedule, because we predict the Ducks – led by future Hall of Famers Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, along with the Jennings Trophy-winning goalie tandem of John Gibson and Fredrik Andersen – to hoist their second-ever Stanley Cup aloft.
But before we talk about the Stanley Cup Finals, we have the first round to look forward to, and A Lot of Sports Talk now presents the five pressing questions we have going into the eight series that start on Wednesday night…
1. Why WON’T the Washington Capitals flame out early, like they tend to always do?
The 56 wins the Capitals registered are the eight-most in NHL history, putting them up there with the Montréal Canadiens of the 1970s and the Detroit Red Wings of the 1990s as one of the greatest regular-season teams in NHL history. Of those 56 triumphs, goaltender Braden Holtby was in between the pipes and recorded 48 of those wins, tying Martin Brodeur’s 2007 record for most wins by a goaltender in a regular season. Washington had the President’s Trophy (awarded to the team with the most points) wrapped up with two weeks to spare.
Even with all of that glitter, the first thing that comes to my mind about the 2015-16 Washington Capitals is the 2009-10 edition of the Washington Capitals. That squad became the first non-Original Six team to record more than 120 points in a season, as they recorded a then-team record 54 wins. Seven different players scored at least 20 goals that season, led by Alexander Ovechkin’s 50-goal tally. The President’s Trophy was theirs for the first time. All of that ended for naught, as the Capitals, after leading their first-round series three games to one, lost the last three games and crashed out of the playoffs to the No. 8 seed, the Montréal Canadiens.
The last part of that sequence – crashing out early in the playoffs in an abjectly disastrous fashion – is what we’ve come to expect from the Capitals, as, sadly, the “choke artists” moniker the franchise has been tagged with has been well earned. Facing the Philadelphia Flyers, who came back from near oblivion earlier in the season to earn the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, gives a perfect backdrop for another Beltway breakdown.
We’re talking about the best team in hockey, though, and there has to be optimism, right? Of course! Outside of the skill, depth and goaltending that are huge assets, probably the most important aspect they possess now is a player who has that Stanley Cup feeling: Justin Williams, a.k.a. “Mr. Game 7.” His acquisition before the season gave the Capitals a proven winner – as well as a proven big-game performer – in the playoffs, from his time winning two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings, and his leadership could take Washington over the top this time around.
2. Who will be left feeling the Blues in the Chicago-St. Louis series?
Obviously, St. Louis has been feeling that way all season – and not just because that’s their team nickname. All season, Ken Hitchcock’s club has battled the injury bug, and the number of injuries to key players during the season bordered on absolute ridiculousness.
Each of the three levels on the ice all caught the bug really bad: forwards Paul Statsny, Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund, Robby Fabbri and Alex Steen all went down during the season; defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo also were lost for a significant chunk of time; even both standout goaltenders, Brian Elliott and Jake Allen, had great individual seasons interrupted by injuries. With all of that, the Blues finished second in the toughest division in the NHL, the Central, with 107 points – four points ahead of the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Although the Blackhawks have won the championship in three of the last six seasons, they haven’t repeated as Cup winners during that span, something that hasn’t happened in the league since the Detroit Red Wings of 1997 and 1998. Hart Trophy favorite Patrick Kane undoubtedly had his best-ever season, tallying 106 points (the only NHL player with over 100 points this season) while going on a point streak record of 26 games which was the longest such streak since the 1992-93 season. After going through a lull in the middle of the season, general manager Stan Bowman made sure his team knew that they weren’t going to rest on their laurels, reacquiring forward Andrew Ladd from the Winnipeg Jets to infuse the squad with a little more urgency to win their second consecutive Cup.
Both teams expect a long run in the playoffs, but only one can make it out of the first round.
3. Will the Pittsburgh Penguins cool off anytime soon?
Remember when the Pittsburgh Penguins were one of the laughingstocks of the Natonal Hockey League earlier in the season? So much so that they fired the head coach Mike Johnston just 28 games into the season?
Now, Penguins fans are laughing because of how much better their team has been against most of their opponents down the stretch.
Pittsburgh comes in to the playoffs winning 14 of their last 16 games, all coming without the injured Evgeni Malkin, who will not be on the ice for the start the playoff series against the New York Rangers on Wednesday. In his absence, Sidney Crosby has flourished. The second line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel has proved to be a scourge of defensemen across the league. Surprisingly enough, the defense unit, which was more of a MASH unit by the end of last season, is one of the league’s best in blocking shots. Speaking of defensemen, their top blue-liner, Kris Letang, has once again overcome injuries and has had a Norris Trophy-type of season. His (Letang) play, along with his sustained good health, might mean more to a long Penguins’ playoff run than any other factor. Even with Henrik Lundqvist in goal, it’s hard to imagine the Pens scoring just one goal in four games in a playoff series against the Blueshirts, which is exactly what occurred in last season’s first-round series in which the Rangers dispatched Pittsburgh in five games.
4. Can the Sharks put their past playoff nightmares behind them against their personal Golden State bogeyman?
Beware, Sharks fans. There are Kings lurking in those playoff waters.
If you don’t remember the last time the two squads met in the playoffs, that’s probably because you’re a Sharks fan and you want to put those memories out of your mind for good. It was 2014, and San Jose was putting the hurt on the Kings to the tune of a 3-0 series lead. Then the comeback happened.
Los Angeles won the next four games, becoming just the fourth team to ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win in a series after their 5-1 beatdown of San Jose at the Shark Tank in Game 7. Not only was that the nadir of all of the Sharks’ recent playoff disappointments, the Kings went on to win their second Stanley Cup in three seasons two months later.
More than any other year in the past decade and a half, the Sharks are equipped to snap out of their playoff doldrums, mostly because this might be their deepest team going up and down the lines and defense pairings. Veterans like Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski know that the window of opportunity is closing ever so fast, so urgency won’t be a problem with this group. More motivation comes in the fact that starting goaltender Martin Jones used to be the understudy of Kings’ goaltender Jonathan Quick, winning a Stanley Cup in 2014 while backing up Quick. We’re sure that Jones will want to put on his best performance just as much to prove himself against Quick and his former employers than wanting his team to advance in the playoffs.
The team that wins this series might be the team that performs better on the road. The (real) good news for San Jose is that they led the NHL with 28 road victories, including going 2-0-0 in the two games against the Kings at the Staples Center. The (real) bad news is that the Sharks have the worst home record of all of the 16 teams in the playoffs, going 18-20-3 at the SAP Center. This might be the most fun series to tune into…assuming you can stay up late in the night and into early mornings to watch all of the fun unfold.
5. Which team is going to pull off a headline-grabbing upset?
There’s always one in the first round, right? So which one is most likely to happen?
If you had to choose one, you probably would look at the Minnesota-Dallas series, where the Central Division champion Stars go into a playoff series with something they haven’t had since the days of Mike Modano: expectations. How will the young stars of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg and Co. handle that? Also, the Wild have had a penchant recently of pulling off first-round upsets, defeating last season’s Central Division champions, the St. Louis Blues, in six games in the fist round and toppling the 2014 Pacific Division champions, the Colorado Avalanche, on a Game 7 overtime goal in the first round by Nino Niederreiter in Denver.
But it’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Are there really any upsets anymore, especially when you probably expect at least one surprise every season?
(WC2) Philadelphia vs. (M1) Washington: Capitals in five. For some reason, I’m that cocksure that the Capitals will put it all together, at least in the first round. Holtby is as elite as they come in goal.
(M3) New York Rangers vs. (M2) Pittsburgh: Rangers in six. Here’s an (mild) upset pick for you. Still have to take Henrik Lundqvist over everything the Penguins can throw at him. Oh, and there are serious questions in goal for Pittsburgh with injuries to their top two goalkeepers (Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Murray) that make keep them out of Game 1.
(WC1) New York Islanders vs. (A1) Florida: Islanders in six. With all of the injuries the Islanders have suffered (Jaroslav Halak, Anders Lee, Mikhail Grabovski, Travis Hamonic), how can the Isles survive? We say they will, and John Tavares inspires them to a series win over the upstart Panthers.
(A3) Detroit vs. (A2) Tampa Bay: Lightning in five. Like last season, we say the Lightning take out the Wings. Unlike last season, we think Tampa will not leave it so late, a la coming back from the dead at Joe Louis Arena in Game 6 to pull off a crazy victory and then closing it out in Game 7.
(WC2) Minnesota vs. (C1) Dallas: Stars in six. So we set up the scenarios as to why the Minnesota Wild is a good upset pick, then go against the grain when push comes to shove. Oh, the hypocrisy from us!
(C3) Chicago vs. (C2) St. Louis: Blues in seven. One of these years, the Blues will be able to not disappoint in the playoffs. We say this year is the year, and they’ll do so at the expense of the champs.
(WC1) Nashville vs. (P1) Anaheim: Ducks in five. If the Predators defense, the highest-scoring blue line unit the NHL, continues in that vain, this series will be a doozy! We don’t think that will continue, as the Ducks have the best scoring defense in the NHL for a reason and will stifle the Preds. Sorry, fans in Nashville…and in Western New York.
(P3) San Jose vs. (P2) Los Angeles: Kings in seven. Both teams, we believe, will have success on the road, but we also think having Game 7 at the Staples Center will prove to the biggest difference.
[Cover photo (Braden Holtby) courtesy of Patrick Smith/Getty Images]