We’re back on the cusp of the greatest postseason tournament in sports: the NHL playoffs. Everything takes on an air of desperation in the playoffs, making just about every game full of excitement and drama. And it’s a grueling death march to the Stanley Cup, with four best-of-seven rounds required to get to the top of the mountain. Rarely do things play out the way I think they will, but just for chuckles, here are my first-round picks.
Washington (1) vs. Toronto (WC2)
The Capitals are a team loaded with weapons that should have won a Cup by now but hasn’t, despite several years of regular season excellence. Led by the great Alex Ovechkin, the Caps boast a potent offense, a solid defense and one of the best goalies in the game in Braden Holtby. After years of early playoff exits, anything short of a Cup is failure for this crew. Meanwhile, you’ve got the upstart Leafs, who featured six rookies in prominent roles including the power trio of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Already not the strongest club defensively, the Leafs saw two of their regular d-men (Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak) suffer injuries in the last game of the season and number 1 goalie Frederik Andersen fall victim to a head shot by Pens goon Tom Sestito in the game before. They’re going to need all three to make any headway against Washington, but more than likely, it won’t be enough.
Capitals in 5.
Pittsburgh (2) vs. Columbus (3)
These teams don’t like each other. The defending Cup champ Penguins got some bad news last week when their top defenseman Kris Letang was ruled out for the playoffs after undergoing neck surgery. But they’ve still got Crosby, Kessel and a deep selection of offensive weapons, not the least of which is Evgeni Malkin, who is expected to return to the lineup after almost a month. Trade deadline pickups Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit will pick up some of the slack for Letang, but it will take some strong goaltending from Matt Murray to help the Pens go deep into the playoffs. The Blue Jackets had their best season ever, finishing with 108 points, but they stumbled through to the end at a 1-6 clip. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has been a beast, but the Jackets will need big contributions from the likes of Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Brandon Saad and Nick Foligno to stand a chance at knocking off the Penguins. Look for John Tortorella’s squad to play a gritty, hard-hitting series to throw the Pens off their game. Pittsburgh has too much weaponry to be stopped, though.
Penguins in 6.
Montreal (1) vs. New York Rangers (WC1)
This is going to be a fun series. A true battle of great goalies: Henrik Lundqvist vs. Carey Price. There’s no love lost between the clubs, especially since NY’s Chris Kreider took out Price in the Eastern Conference finals three years ago. Neither team has much of an offensive attack, so look for a lot of low-scoring games and stud d-men Ryan McDonagh and Shea Weber to play major roles in the outcome. Ultimately, Price will come out on top again.
Canadiens in 7.
Ottawa (2) vs. Boston (3)
After canning Claude Julien in February, the Bruins turned their season around under assistant Bruce Cassidy. The new coach freed up his offense and the club was re-energized, led by pest-turned-elite-scorer Brad Marchand. The B’s will be put to the test by the trap-happy Senators, who can effectively put both opponents and fans to sleep with their defense-first style. Breaking out of the Ottawa malaise will be crucial if Boston hopes to advance. It won’t be easy, but they’ll do it.
Bruins in 7.
Chicago (1) vs. Nashville (WC2)
The Blackhawks are stacked with talent as always and even though they stumbled down the stretch, they still have to be considered one of the favorites to win the Cup. Kane, Toews, Keith and co. will do battle with a dangerous Predators team that’s built to succeed in the postseason. PK Subban had an underwhelming regular season, but all that will be forgotten if he can lead the Preds past the Hawks. It will be tough, but the Hawks will move on.
Blackhawks in 6.
Minnesota (2) vs. St. Louis (3)
The focus in this series will be on the coaches as much as the players. First-year Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has famously had strong teams in Washington and Anaheim that flamed out early. Meanwhile, Mike Yeo of St. Louis, who took over midseason from Ken Hitchcock, will be facing his old team. The Wild have a strong all-around team that took a big leap forward this year; the Blues are solid as always, but they won’t have enough to advance.
Wild in 6.
Anaheim (1) vs. Calgary (WC1)
There’s some bad blood between these teams after Calgary captain Mark Giordano took out Ducks d-man Cam Fowler with a knee-on-knee hit last week. The Flames have some strong young talent led by Johnny Gaudreau, but even without Fowler, the Ducks are too much to handle.
Ducks in 5.
Edmonton (2) vs. San Jose (3)
This series will essentially be the Young Guns vs. the Old Farts. In his second year, Connor McDavid took his place as the most electrifying player in the NHL, leading the league in scoring and taking over games with his blazing speed and ability. Cam Talbot solidified the Oilers with a 42-win season in goal and veteran pickups like Milan Lucic provided the jam the team had lacked. Meanwhile, the Sharks are ailing, with Joe Thornton and Logan Couture both missing time at the end of the season with injuries. Brent Burns had a monster year and the team still has offensive support from Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau, but it’s time for Edmonton’s kids to shine.
Oilers in 6.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Washington over Montreal in 6.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Chicago over Anaheim in 6.
STANLEY CUP: Washington over Chicago in 7.
CONN SMYTHE WINNER: Ovechkin
And while we’re at it, here are Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey’s picks to click in the postseason:
Bruins over Senators in 7: Pastrnak and Marchand come up with key goals as B’s win three games in OT for series win.
Capitals over Maple Leafs in 5: It’s now or never for the best team Alexander Ovechkin has ever played with in the NHL.
Rangers over Canadiens in 5: Henrik Lundqvist outplays Carey Price; Rangers’ physicality is a difference maker, too.
Penguins over Blue Jackets in 5: Injuries aside, the Penguins are built for playoff hockey and will prove it in this round.
EAST FINAL: Capitals over Rangers in 6
Blackhawks over Predators in 6: I can see Nashville splitting the first four games before the Hawks take charge for good.
Wild over Blues in 4: Minnesota heads into the posteason with a head full of steam…and St. Louis doesn’t have the teeth to respond.
Sharks over Oilers in 7: Jumbo Joe, Patty Marleau & Co. have one last run in them, enough to hold off these young whippersnappers.
Ducks over Flames in 6: Anaheim will not only be battling Calgary, but the stigma that they too often fall flat in the playoffs.
WEST FINAL: Wild over Ducks in 6
STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS: Wild over Capitals in 6
Conn Smythe Trophy winner: Zach Parise, Wild