Is this Washington’s year to finish the job and win its first Cup?
Can Chicago add a fourth recent Cup to its already-full trophy case?
Can Pittsburgh become the league’s first repeat champion in nearly two decades?
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It’s a long journey to the finals, and the road appears to be crowded with contenders. Here’s a look at the Stanley Cup playoffs:
For the second consecutive season, Washington captured the Presidents’ Trophy with the most points (best record). However, that trophy hasn’t led to postseason success. In 2010, when the Capitals won their first points crown, they were eliminated in the first round, and last season Washington bowed out in the second round.
However, the Caps, which allowed the NHL’s fewest goals, like their chances thanks to offensive stalwarts such as points leader Nicklas Backstrom, and 30-goal scorers T.J. Oshie and Alex Ovechkin. Washington also has a top-five power play and a top goaltender, Braden Holtby.
Pittsburgh, the NHL’s top-scoring team, is led by Sidney Crosby, winner of the 2016 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, who paced the NHL with 44 goals. The Penguins remain a threat to repeat but took a hit when Kris Letang was sidelined with neck surgery. Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin are other contributors for a potent offense and power play. Young goaltender Matt Murray, who was strong in the 2016 Cup run, looks to duplicate that performance.
Columbus is in the playoffs for only the third time since entering the NHL in 2000, and the Blue Jackets have never won a playoff series. However, they do have one of five head coaches in the playoffs to win a Stanley Cup in John Tortorella. The Jackets also have 30-goal scorer Cam Atkinson and Vezina Trophy contender Sergei Bobrovsky, who led goaltenders in save percentage and goals-against-average.
Montreal has its own game-changing net-minder in Carey Price, healthy this postseason after missing the ’16 playoffs with a knee injury. The Canadiens also have a balanced offense led by Max Pacioretty and Claude Julien, who led Boston to the 2011 Cup, behind their bench.
Ottawa is an interesting group led by one of the league’s top defensemen, Erik Karlsson, and top young goaltenders in Craig “The Hamburglar” Anderson. Toronto returns to the playoffs in year one under Mike Babcock, who coached Detroit to a Cup win in 2008. The Maple Leafs are headlined by likely Calder Trophy winner Auston Matthews, a 40-goal scorer as a rookie.
The New York Rangers could again be a dark horse thanks to goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Boston has one of the postseason’s top offensive tandems in Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, who combined for 155 points, and elite-level goaltender Tuukka Rask.
Once again, the West favorite is Chicago, winner of three Cups since 2010. Much of that championship core remains in Patrick Kane, top defenseman Duncan Keith, captain Jonathan Toews, goaltender Corey Crawford and head coach Joel Quenneville.
Minnesota is another contender in the West. Under new coach Bruce Boudreau, the Wild have a top-10 power play and a standout goaltender in Devan Dubnyk, a top pick for the Vezina. The Wild’s balanced attack is led by Mikael Granlund and Eric Staal, who won a Cup in 2006 with Carolina.
St. Louis played in the West Finals in 2016 and the Blues, now coached by Mike Yeo after a midseason coaching change, are still paced offensively by Vladimir Tarasenko. Top-level goaltender Jake Allen remains a gamechanger, but special teams might be the Blues’ biggest strength as their penalty kill and power play both rank among the NHL’s best.
In year one under Randy Carlyle, who coached Anaheim to the 2003 Stanley Cup, Ryan Getzlaf has led the way offensively for the Ducks while ex-Star Patrick Eaves, acquired at the NHL trade deadline, and Rickard Rakell have each scored 30-plus goals. The Ducks also excel at killing penalties.
Edmonton returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. The Oilers have Art Ross Trophy winner Connor McDavid, the NHL’s points leader, headlining a talented group. Leon Draisaitl and Patrick Marron provide additional firepower, while goaltender Cam Talbot is rock-solid between the pipes.
San Jose is the defending West champion, and after hitting a rough patch late in the regular season, the Sharks, led offensively by defenseman Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski, who combined for 144 points, look to defend their conference crown. Goaltender Martin Jones was among the best in the league this season and Peter DeBoer has twice coached in the Stanley Cup Finals.
After missing the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons, Calgary returns to the postseason. Now guided by former Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan, the Flames have a balanced scoring attack led by youngsters Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, plus an outstanding goaltending tandem of Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson.
Nashville has two young 30-goal scorers in Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg plus Pekka Rinne, still regarded as one of the NHL’s top goaltenders. Predators coach Peter Laviolette also has experience in the Cup Finals, after leading Philadelphia there in 2010.
Stanley Cup predictions
Here’s a look at Steve Hunt’s playoff projections:
Eastern Conference Finals: Washington vs. Montreal
Eastern Conference champion: Washington, seven games
Western Conference Finals: Chicago vs. Edmonton
Western Conference champion: Chicago, six games
Stanley Cup champion: Washington, seven games
Conn Smythe Trophy winner: Braden Holtby, Washington