By Scott Taylor/Photos by James Carey Lauder and Jeff Miller
New York Rangers professional scout Tom Thompson has been around the game of hockey for more than 40 years. By his own admission, he’s probably seen it all. However, if there is one thing that still stokes his fire every season, it’s the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is always the best,” said Thompson. “You have teams that finished high in the standings expecting to win against teams that were lucky to make the playoffs and now they have nothing to lose. The first round is always the toughest, the fastest, the closest and the most exciting. The first round is where the upsets happen. This is always hockey at its very best.”
And when we get started on Wednesday night, the 2017 Stanley Cup tournament should not disappoint. Especially here in Minnesota.
The Wild have one of the best teams in the post-season tournament – despite that March swoon – and if they get the goaltending they need from Devan Dubnyk, should find themselves through to the second round and a date with their long-time nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks.
This should be a terrific two weeks. The defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins are back. The three-time Stanley Cup-winning Jonathan Toews version of the Chicago Blackhawks are favored in the West. The Alexander Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals just might be ready to snare their first Cup. While the aging San Jose Sharks will take a solid veteran lineup into the biggest tournament of the year against the upstart – and exciting – Edmonton Oilers.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty fired up.
We’ll start from East and work our way West. The 2017 Stanley Cup Tournament begins on Wednesday, April 15 with 16 teams. In two months, only one will be standing:
Series A: Washington Capitals (55-19-8, 118 points) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (40-27-15, 95 points).
The Caps have a team that is built to win right now. Granted, the President’s Trophy champion doesn’t often win the Stanley Cup, but with the Capitals talent and Coach Barry Trotz, this could be the year. Nicklas Backstrom led the Caps in scoring with 23 goals and 86 points while Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie each had 33 goals. The key for Washington, however, is goaltender Braden Holtby. He had a 2.07 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. Goaltending is probably the most important element in the playoffs and the Caps might have the best goalie in the NHL. Toronto has the feel good story of the season, making the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and making the post-season for only the second time since 2004 under Coach Mike Babcock. Likely NHL Rookie of the Year, Auston Matthews, led the Leafs with 40 goals and 69 points while Matthews, James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, William Nylander and Mitch Marner all had at least 60 points, the only NHL team with five 60-point scorers. However, the key for the Leafs will be goalie Frederik Anderson. He had a 2.67 goals against average and a .918 save percentage and he will have to be at least that good against Washington.
Players to Watch: Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby, Washington. Auston Matthews and Frederik Anderson, Toronto.
Season Series: Washington won 2-1.
Our Choice: Washington in five games.
Series B: Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11, 111 points) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (50-24-8, 108 points)
The defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins didn’t have a great year but they sure had a good one. Led by captain Sidney Crosby who had 44 goals and 89 points, the Pens got 33 goals from Evgeni Malkin and 70 points from Phil Kessel. They also have a nice, young defense and a sound (if not spectacular) goaltender in Matt Murray. Columbus is led by Coach of the Year lock, John Tortorella, who made the Blue Jackets one of the toughest teams in the league to play against. They only had one player with 60-plus points, 35-goal scorer Cam Atkinson but the key to their success was goalie Sergei Bobrovsky who went 41-17-0 with a 2.06 goals against average and a .931 save percentage. Pittsburgh won the last meeting 4-1 on April 4 and that might be more indicative of this matchup than Columbus’ 7-1 win back on Dec. 22.
Players to Watch: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Matt Murray, Pittsburgh. Cam Atkinson, Brandon Saad and Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus.
Season Series: Series tied 2-2.
Our Choice: Pittsburgh in six games.
Series C: Montreal Canadiens (47-26-9, 103 points) vs. New York Rangers (48-28-6, 102 points)
The Rangers have one thing nobody else has: Henrik Lundqvist in goal. However, they also have scoring spread all over the lineup. Mats Zuccarello led the team with a mere 15 goals and 59 points, but they have three 20-goal scorers in Rick Nash (23), Chris Kreider (28) and J.T. Miller (22) and 10 players who scored at least 11. Ultimately, King Henrik is the key. Of course, Montreal has Carey Price who went 37-20-0 with a 2.23 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. Max Pacioretty led the Habs with 35 goals and 67 points and had 10 players who scored at least 10 goals. These teams appear, on paper, to be evenly matched (103-102 points), but Montreal won all three meetings and won the last outing on March 4, 4-1 in New York.
Players to Watch: Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello and Henrik Lundqvist, New York. Max Pacioretty, Shea Weber and Carey Price, Montreal.
Season Series: Montreal won 3-0.
Our Choice: Canadiens in six.
Series D: Ottawa Senators (44-28-10, 98 points) vs. Boston Bruins (44-31-7, 95 points)
The Senators obviously match up well against the Bruins. Ottawa won all four meetings with Boston this season – 3-1 on Nov. 24, 4-2 on March 6, 3-2 on March 21 and 2-1 in a shootout on Apr. 6. The last two games were played in Boston recently. The Senators don’t dominate the Bruins but they find ways to win. The Sens are led by defenseman Erik Karlsson (17 goals and 71 points) and forwards Mike Hoffman (26-35-61), Kyle Turris (27-28-55) and Mark Stone (22-32-54). Mike Condon will likely get most of the playoff work in goal. Boston is a typical Bruins workhorse team and with two of their scrappy leaders – Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron – they can be gritty, chippy and tough. This club had two 30-goal scorers in Marchand (39) and David Pastrnak (34) and two more with 20 in David Krejci (23) and Patrice Bergeron (21). It’s a good club, but not a great club although, with a strong post-season from goalie Tuukka Rask, they could scare some people.
Players to Watch: Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Erik Karlsson for Ottawa. Zdeno Chara, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron for Boston.
Season Series: Ottawa won 4-0.
Our Choice: Ottawa in six games.
Series E: Chicago Blackhawks (50-23-9, 109 points) vs. Nashville Predators (41-29-12, 94 points)
When the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, they started their run by eliminating the Nashville Predators in six games. They’d certainly love to do it again and likely will. The Hawks got better as the season went along and by the time the final game was played, this was the best team in the West. Led by veterans Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa and goalie Corey Crawford, this is a professional hockey team that loves the post-season. This was Toews 10th season in the NHL. The 28-year-old captain has won three Cups with Chicago since 2010 and he’s favored to come out of the West again this year. Nashville, a team that dealt Shea Weber to Montreal in order to acquire P.K. Subban, had a really solid year. The key to the Preds success is stopping the opposition from scoring and with goalie Pekka Rinne (2.42 GAA and .918 save percentage) between the pipes, there is always a good chance that will happen. Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg each had 31 goals and led the offence.
Players to Watch: P.K. Subban, Pekka Rinne and Viktor Arvidsson, Nashville; Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, Chicago.
Season Series: Blackhawks won 4-1.
Our Choice: Chicago in five games.
Series F: Minnesota Wild (49-25-8, 106 points) vs. St. Louis Blues (46-29-7, 99 points)
This is a series between a team that finished second in the Central and third in the Central and yet the team with seven fewer points won the season series 3-2. St. Louis is led by a strong offense that includes veterans Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrik Berglund, Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny and David Perron, a crew that scored between 40 and 75 points. Tarasenko had 39 goals while Berglund (23), Schwartz (19), Stastny (18) and Perron (18) all had at least 18. Alex Pietrangelo leads a strong defense. The Wild, meanwhile, is the highest-scoring Western Conference team in the playoffs, but Minnesota was the class of the league in February and a complete bust in March. They did right the ship in April, but this is a team that really struggled for four weeks right before they clinched a playoff berth. Minnesota is led by defenseman Ryan Sutter and four 20-goal scorers – Mikael Granlund (26), Eric Staal (28), Nino Neiderreiter (25) and Jason Zucker (22). However, the key is Devan Dubnyk in goal. If he’s good, the Wild can win the Stanley Cup. If he’s not, the Wild could lose in the first round.
Players to Watch: Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Pietrangelo and Alexander Steen, St. Louis; Devan Dubnyk, Mikael Granlund and Ryan Suter, Minnesota.
Season Series: St. Louis won 3-2.
Our Choice: Minnesota in six games.
Series G: Anaheim Ducks (46-23-13, 105 points) vs. Calgary Flames (45-33-4, 94 points)
These two teams finished 11 points apart in the standings and while Anaheim won four of the five games between the two clubs, a couple of the outcomes were close and Calgary’s only win, back on Dec. 4, was 8-3. Still, the The Ducks have been superior all year and won the last two meetings on April 2 and April 4, by 4-3 (in Calgary) and 3-1 (in Anaheim) scores. The Flames aggressive forecheck did not stop the Ducks from scoring this season (at least three goals in every game) and in all five meetings, the Flames goaltending was suspect. If Calgary expects to win this series, it will have to find a way to shut down Ryan Getzlaf, Richard Rakell, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry and that might be easier said than done. For Calgary, the star in Johnny Gaudreau, who had 18 goals and a team-high 61 points. Sean Monahan (2&) and Mikael Backlund (22) were the big goal scorers. Tough guy Micheal Ferland (15 goals and 25 points) had a solid year offensively and his grit will be a key in the post-season. Goalie Brian Elliott, 2.55 goals against average and .910 save percentage, will have to be good. Rakell led Anaheim is scoring with 33 goals while Getzlaf led in scoring with 73 points. Jakob Silfverberg (23), Kesler (22) and Perry (19) were also big offensive threats. With two No. 1 goalies – John Gibson and Jonathen Bernier – the Ducks have lots of talent between the pipes. This series is Anaheim’s to lose.
Players to Watch: Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, Richard Rakell and Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim. Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Micheal Ferland for Calgary.
Season Series: Ducks won 4-1.
Our Choice: Anaheim in five games.
Series H: Edmonton Oilers (47-26-9, 103 points) vs. San Jose Sharks (46-29-7, 103 points)
Connor McDavid. That’s all you need to know about Edmonton. Sure, they have other great players such as Leon Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle, Milan Lucic, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Pat Maroon, but McDavid is the story. The 20-year-old had 30 goals and 100 points and became the youngest player since Sidney Crosby in 2007, to win the NHL scoring crown. He is a superstar in every sense of the word and the main reason Edmonton is now a playoff team after having missed the post-season every year since 2006. San Jose, meanwhile, is getting long in the tooth, but is still one of the best teams in the NHL. Their leading scorer is defenseman Brent Burns, 32, with 29 goals and 76 points and is the likely winner of the Norris Trophy this season. Their other top scorers — Logan Couture, 28, Patrick Marleau, 37, Joe Pavelski, 32, Joe Thornton, 37, Joel Ward, 36, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, 30, and Mikkel Boedker, 28 — are not youthful. Netminders’ Aaron Dell and Martin Jones both had strong seasons and will need to be good against the Oilers and their young legs. The Oilers might not have the experience, but they have speed and talent and San Jose will need great goaltending to beat them. After all, the Oilers won the season series 3-1-1 and seem to play very well against the Sharks. In fact, they were 2-0-1 IN San Jose.
Players to Watch: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Jordan Eberle, Edmonton. Brent Burns, Logan Couture and Joe Thornton, San Jose.
Season Series: Oilers lead 3-1-1
Our Choice: Edmonton in six games.