From Vegas’ inexplicable run to the Maple Leafs and Jets doing Canada proud, there was a lot to like in this year’s NHL regular season. And based on the first-round matchups in the playoffs, it should only get better.
Here are 10 storylines to watch out for in the next couple of months.
ROLLING THE DICE IN VEGAS
The best story of the regular season was the Vegas Golden Knights, who ran the table as an expansion team and won the Pacific Division by eight points. To say it was unexpected would be an understatement. Most had pegged Vegas to contend for the No. 1 draft pick. Instead, Bodog betting site has them as 7-to-1 odds of winning a Stanley Cup.
So can they keep their luck rolling? Well, maybe.
Now that it’s the playoffs, Vegas won’t be able to rely on smoke and mirrors for wins. They aren’t catching anyone by surprise. And while they had one of the best home records, you’d have to think that opposing players will not be as easily distracted by the glitz and glamour of the strip in the playoffs.
That being said, the Golden Knights are for real.
Marc-Andre Fleury has the best numbers of any goalie in the NHL, while William Karlsson scored more goals than everyone not named Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine. With a well-rounded roster that is fast, tenacious on the forecheck and four lines deep, Vegas could be a safe bet.
PREDATORS AND THE TROPHY
A year after reaching the Stanley Cup final as an eighth seed — the first time in franchise history that they advanced beyond the second round — the Predators head into the playoffs with heightened expectations as the No. 1 team in the NHL.
Bodog has them as the 7-to-1 favourites to win the Cup. On paper, there’s little reason to argue against that.
Nashville might not have a player ranked among the top 60 scorers, but they have four players who hit the 20-goal mark and six with at least 50 points. Of course, the team’s strength starts from the back end. The Predators, who allowed the second-fewest goals this season, have four Norris Trophy-calibre defencemen as well as a goalie in Pekka Rinne who just might win the Vezina Trophy.
Add it all up and Nashville could become the first Presidents’ Trophy winners since the 2012-13 Blackhawks to win the Stanley Cup.
TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
Braden Holtby or Philipp Grubauer?
How about both?
From Washington and Philadelphia to New Jersey and Anaheim, there are a lot of teams that could rely on two goalies to carry the load in the playoffs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Having just one goalie makes a coach’s life a lot easier, but it’s becoming the exception — not the norm — as more and more teams head into the playoffs with potential goalie tandems. After all, the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups with Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury sharing the load.
It’s partially why the Ducks, who are heading into the playoffs with John Gibson nursing another injury, signed Ryan Miller in the summer. In New Jersey, backup Keith Kinkaid has replaced Cory Schneider as the starter, while Washington is debating whether Holtby or Grubauer should be in net for Game 1.
And then there’s the Flyers, who in typical fashion might rely on three different goalies — Petr Mrazek, Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth — to get the job done.
DON’T BET AGAINST SID
The Penguins head into the playoffs not playing their best brand of hockey, but if there’s anything we’ve learned in the last couple of years it’s this: Don’t bet against Sidney Crosby — or, for that matter, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and anyone else was on the team for back-to-back championships.
In other words, Pittsburgh will be primed and ready once the post-season begins.
The Penguins not only know what it takes to win, but they have the talent to get it done. This is the team in the league with three top-10 scorers. And what makes Pittsburgh’s offence particularly hard to handle is that Crosby, Malkin and Kessel play on separate forward lines.
As long as goalie Matt Murray can find his game after coming back from a concussion, there’s no reason why Pittsburgh can’t three-peat.
WE’VE GOT A SITUATION
It’s become a playoff tradition for fans in Nashville to toss catfish onto the ice before games. But a new tradition was born when a fan mailed a catfish to the NHL offices following a controversial disallowed goal against the Predators in a recent game.
“I am seriously livid,” Carrie Underwood, who is married to Predators forward Mike Fisher, tweeted afterwards. “Goaltender interference? Are you out of your mind? On what planet?”
It could be a sign of things to come.
While the NHL has attempted to make calls around the crease more consistent by giving the situation room in Toronto the final say on reviewable plays, it’s still far from an exact science. You are still going to have plays like the one in Nashville, which could go either way. And because of the ambiguity, you’re going to have fans who are outraged.
If it keeps up, the NHL could receive more than just a smelly catfish at its offices.
DIVISION OF DEATH
A year ago, three of the top four teams in the NHL were playing out of the Metropolitan Division. And because of the wild card playoff format, the No. 2 ranked Penguins and No. 3 ranked Blue Jackets were forced to play each other in the first round, with the winner facing the top-seeded Capitals in the second round.
This year, it’s the Atlantic that has become the Division of Death.
Forget the Stanley Cup final. The best matchup in the playoffs could come in the first round, when the third-seeded Maple Leafs play the second-seeded Bruins. Whichever team wins gets to play the top-seeded Lightning in the second round.
After that, the rest of the playoffs could become a piece of cake. That is, if the winner has anything left in the tank.
THE CANADIAN DROUGHT
Five Canadian teams made last year’s playoffs, with Edmonton reaching Game 7 of the conference final and Ottawa coming within an overtime goal of playing for the Stanley Cup.
This year, the chances of winning are down to two. But what Canada lacks in quantity, it makes up for in having two legitimate contenders.
According to Bodog, Toronto and Winnipeg are 10-to-1 favourites to become the first team since the 1993 Canadiens to bring the Cup back to Canada. Looking at their rosters, it’s easy to see why.
The Leafs finished with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, while the Jets were the second-best team in the West (and the league). Both teams are led by young stars, have above-average goaltending and can kill you with offence (Toronto had three 30-goal scorers, while Winnipeg was led by 44-goal scorer Patrik Laine and 91-point producer Blake Wheeler).
Winnipeg probably has a slightly easier path to the final, but don’t be surprised if either team makes significant noise.
Brian Burke used to joke that general managers lose their collective minds and make their biggest mistakes of the year on the last day of the trade deadline. Of course, it’s a mistake only if you don’t win the Cup.
There were seven teams (Boston, Nashville, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Tampa Bay, Vegas and Winnipeg) willing to part ways with first-round picks at this year’s deadline. We won’t know if it was worth it until a few months from now, but pay close attention to the Lightning.
J.T. Miller has provided Tampa Bay with 10 goals and 18 points in 19 games, but so far Ryan McDonagh has not looked at home on the blue line. Maybe he is saving his best hockey for when it matters the most. He better, because after giving up a first-round pick and a conditional second-rounder, as well as three prospects to the New York Rangers, the Lightning are in it to win it.
Once again, Alex Ovechkin was the most prolific goal scorer in the NHL this season. And once again, the Capitals were the top team in their division. But unless they can transfer that success to the playoffs, it won’t really matter.
It’s been 20 years since Washington advanced past the second round.
That’s two decades’ worth of disappointment. And while Ovechkin doesn’t deserve all the blame, all eyes will be focused on the 32-year-old as he tries to win the one trophy that has so far eluded him.
It’s not just Ovechkin who has something to prove in these playoffs.
New Jersey’s Taylor Hall (529 games) and San Jose’s Evander Kane (574 games) are both playing in their first post-season, while Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky is trying to redeem himself after getting called out by his coach for last year’s poor playoff performance. And though he hasn’t said this is his last season, this could be 38-year-old Joe Thornton’s final attempt at capping his career off as a champion.
BEWARE OF THE BOTTOM FEEDERS
That old adage of “once you’re in, anything can happen,” certainly rings true in the NHL after Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup as an eighth seed in 2012 and Nashville reached the final as the lowest seed last year.
This spring, there’s potential for a couple of underdogs to do similar damage.
It’s not about how you start, but rather how you finish. New Jersey was one of the hottest teams in the second half. Anaheim was just as dominant down the stretch, with wins against Winnipeg, Minnesota and Los Angeles.
And don’t discount the Avalanche. The players might be young and playing above their heads, but as a team that a year ago was by far the worst in the NHL, Colorado also has nothing to lose. That’s a dangerous combination.
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