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Doug Kerr

The Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Excitement Rankings

Photo courtesy: Doug Kerr


The 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs are getting underway tonight, which means the most exciting month and a half of the hockey season is just around the corner. This year’s first round brings us some interesting matchups and some rather weird ones (partly due to the NHL’s quirky playoff format, which I wrote about in this space last week), and now is as good a time as any to dive in and talk about what we can expect from every opening round matchup. And since the playoffs are the most entertaining time of year to be a hockey fan, I’ll be ranking the eight first round matchups by prospective entertainment value.


8.  Boston Bruins vs. Ottawa Senators

Bruins:  44-31-7, 3rd in Atlantic Division

Senators:  44-28-10, 2nd in Atlantic Division


Unsurprisingly, the weakest matchup of the 2017 Playoffs takes place in the weakest division of the 2016-2017 season. Despite being the 2nd and 3rd seeds in the Atlantic, the Bruins and Senators basically seem like afterthoughts in a conference where four of the best five teams were clustered in the Metropolitan Division, and whichever one makes it out of this series is likely to have a tough time against New York or Montreal in the second round. However, that’s not to say these teams are bad. In fact, advanced stats suggest that Boston is actually a much better team than their record tells—the Bruins ranked second in the league in 5-on-5 Corsi score, just ahead of Cup contenders Montreal and Washington (although for what it’s worth, the one team with a better 5-on-5 Corsi than Boston was the Kings, who missed the playoffs entirely).  While franchise mainstays Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron are in the twilight of their careers (Chara, the captain, is 40-years-old and could be making his final playoff run), they still form the backbone of a tough defensive squad; thrown in one of the league’s best goaltenders in Tuuka Rask and this team can be painfully difficult to score against at times.

The Senators can make scoring pretty tough as well, as the Bruins have already learned firsthand. Ottawa swept all four regular season matchups between the two, thanks in part to the stingy defensive system installed by first-year coach Guy Boucher. The Senators allowed just 2.16 goals per 60 minutes, and they received another season of dominant play from blueline stud Erik Karlsson, who will likely be picking up a third Norris Trophy before the season is through. Unfortunately, this team is light on offensive firepower, posting a goal differential of -6 on the season; a forward group led by Kyle Turris, Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone doesn’t exactly put the scare in opponents. There is some good news for Ottawa’s offense though—Boston’s defensive core is on life support going into the playoffs, with key defenseman Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo both suffering injuries in the final weeks of the season.


PREDICTION:  Boston’s battered blue line breaks first and Ottawa takes the series in six extremely low-scoring games.


7.  Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Washington Capitals

Leafs:  40-27-15, 4th in Atlantic Division

Capitals:  55-19-8, 1st in Metropolitan Division


And now, it’s time for us to indulge in the annual playoff tradition of wondering if this is the year that the Capitals finally get it right. After running away with the President’s Trophy for the second straight year, it sure seems like Washington ought to be considered the team to beat in the Eastern Conference; however, the Caps just can’t escape the shadow of their own depressing history. For a team that seems to be a magnet for memorable playoff upsets, owning the best record in the conference doesn’t inspire much confidence—just a whole lot of angst about how they are going to blow it this time.


Make no mistake, though—the Caps are good enough to win it all. Braden Holtby turned in another strong season between the pipes, Kevin Shattenkirk was a savvy midseason addition to a blueline that already boasted John Carlson and Matt Niskanen, and the Caps have a forward group (featuring Nicklas Backstrom, Evgenvy Kuznetsov, and of course the great Alex Ovechkin) that can put up goals in bunches. While this season could very well end in another disappointing near-miss, it doesn’t seem likely to come in the first round—Toronto made the playoffs thanks to impressive performances from a fresh-faced pack of youngsters including William Nylander, Mitch Marner and rookie sensation Auston Matthews. The Leafs look to have the foundational pieces in place for an explosive, possibly championship winning team, but these kids are still learning the ropes in the NHL—asking them to hang with Ovechkin and Co. in their first ever exposure to playoff hockey is just too tall an order.


PREDICTION: The Capitals win in five, while fans across Washington cross their fingers and pray that they don’t have to see Pittsburgh again in the second round.


6.  Calgary Flames vs. Anaheim Ducks

Flames:  45-33-4, 4th in Pacific Divison

Ducks:  46-23-13, 1st in Pacific Division


Although this is a matchup between a division winner and a wildcard team, the Ducks actually finished with just one more win than Calgary in the regular season, and won their fifth straight Pacific Division title on the strength (if that’s the right word) of a pile of overtime losses. Nonetheless, this feels like a pivotal postseason for the Ducks, who have been in the thick of contention for years but always seem to come up short in the playoffs, and are still smarting from the first-round upset they suffered at the hands of Nashville last year. If Anaheim disappoints again, it could raise some questions about whether it’s time to move on from some of their core players, particularly goalie John Gibson. Gibson was benched in the playoffs last year after two games, and backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier was impressive filling in for Gibson when he got injured in late February (to the extent that some people wondered if Anaheim would turn to Bernier for the postseason). If Gibson wants to show the Ducks that he’s a franchise netminder, he needs to take charge in this series.


Calgary, meanwhile, is in the playoffs for the second time in three years thanks to a strong showing from young guns Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuck and Sean Monahan. Goalie Brian Elliott scuffled out of the gate in his first season with the Flames, but he looked more and more like his old self as the season went along and ended up posting a respectable .910 save percentage. The Flames aren’t likely to make a deep playoff run this year, but their speedy group of youngsters isn’t going to be an easy out.


Looming over this series will be the fallout from the last time these two teams met, on April 4, when Flames captain Mark Giordano sidelined top Anaheim defenseman Cam Fowler with a low hit that led to a brawl. Fowler is not expected to return for this series, a major blow for Anaheim’s playoff hopes, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Ducks seeking retribution against Giordano. A little bad blood could make this series a lot more interesting.


PREDICTION: The Flames will be a tougher test for Anaheim than most people probably expect, but Anaheim will atone for their first round disappointment last year by winning in six.  


5.  Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Predators:  41-29-12, 4th in Central Division

Blackhawks:  50-23-9, 1st in Central Division


Nashville always seems to be lurking just outside the top tier of Western Conference contenders, good enough for a playoff berth but not quite deserving to be mentioned in the same breath as teams like the Blackhawks and Sharks. That is the case once again this year, as a bad start to the season left Nashville with an uphill climb in the playoff race once they righted the ship. However, this Predators team is not without weapons—they boast a dangerous top line in Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, and their top blueline pairing of P.K. Subban and Roman Josi is as good as any in the league. But will it be enough to take down the vaunted Blackhawks?


Patrick Kane had another Hart-quality season this year, racking up 34 goals and 55 assists, and up-and-comer Artemi Panarin solidified his place as a top-six forward with a 74-point campaign. Elsewhere, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews continued the kind of stellar play that has made them mainstays of Chicago’s championship dynasty. However you slice it, this is going to be a tough matchup for the Predators (who faced the Blackhawks in the first round two years ago and were ousted in six games). Any chance the Preds have of pulling off an upset would probably involve a stellar performance by goaltender Pekka Rinne. The good news is that Rinne has had stretches of play in his career where he was basically untouchable; the bad news is that he has been frustratingly inconsistent over the past few seasons and no longer looks to be the top goalie he once was. The version of Rinne that shows up in this series will go a long way towards determining the outcome.


PREDICTION: Roman Josi and P.K. Subban have their hands full dealing with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and Rinne isn’t quite good enough to save Nashville; the Blackhawks win in seven games.


4.  St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild

Blues:  46-29-7, 3rd in Central Division

Wild:  49-25-8, 2nd in Central Division


This Central division matchup is a showcase for two teams who had almost polar opposite seasons. The Blues scuffled for much of the year, barely hanging around the edge of the playoff race, and ended up firing head coach Ken Hitchcock at the beginning of February and replacing him with assistant (and former Wild head coach) Mike Yeo. Since then, St. Louis has caught fire, winning 21 of their final 31 games and leading the league in goals scored over that stretch, with goalie Jake Allen delivering some of the best work of his career. In the other corner, the Wild ended the season in a very different fashion—after Minnesota seemed to have the Central Division title under wraps by the end of February, the Wild dropped 12 of 16 games in March and plummeted out of first place, thanks in part to an extended cold streak by goalie Devan Dubnyk, who had been considered a favorite for the Vezina Trophy for most of the year.  Momentum would certainly seem to be on St. Louis’ side going into this matchup, for whatever that’s worth.


So what is the real version of each of these teams? The one that we saw for most of the season, or the one that we saw down the stretch? The Wild certainly looked like a legitimate contender for much of the year—Dubnyk was mostly fantastic between the pipes, and breakout winger Mikael Granlund was a revelation, leading the team with 69 points. The Blues, on the other hand, have looked dominant since Mike Yeo took over, but there are serious depth concerns—forwards Robby Fabbri and Paul Stastny are sidelined by injuries, and the blue line took a hit when the Blues traded away their best defenseman (the aforementioned Kevin Shattenkirk). St. Louis still doesn’t really know what they have with Jake Allen, and he has struggled in past postseason appearances. Then again, this team came just one win shy of going to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, and they have been filling up the net over the past two months. The way they have played under Yeo, they should be considered a legitimate championship threat.


PREDICTION: Dubnyk rediscovers his Vezina-caliber form and Minnesota’s blue line depth cools St. Louis’ red-hot offense; the Wild win in seven.


3.  San Jose Sharks vs. Edmonton Oilers

Sharks:  46-29-7, 3rd in Pacific Division

Oilers:  47-26-9, 2nd in Pacific Division


Here’s where things really start getting exciting. This Pacific Division matchup has a bit of a changing-of-the-guard feel to it—the Sharks have been an annual contender in the Western conference for the duration of the Joe Thornton-Patrick Marleau era, they came a couple wins shy of a Stanley Cup last year, and this could very well be the last shot at a championship for their star duo. The Oilers, on the other hand, are a team on the rise in the West and are about to make their first postseason appearance in eleven years. They are led by ascendant superstar Connor McDavid, who posted an even 100 points to run away with the scoring title at the tender age of twenty (and who is entering the playoffs on a 14-game point streak). McDavid looks primed to assume the mantle of Best Hockey Player on Earth from Sid Crosby sooner rather than later, and his first career playoff appearance offers up a tough test, as he will spend much of the series battling the savvy veteran Thornton.


As a battle-tested team with spades of playoff experience, San Jose would seem to hold a significant edge in this series. However, age and experience might wind up being more of a detriment than an advantage for the Sharks—they played more games than any other team in the NHL last season (well, except Pittsburgh, obviously), so wear and tear is bound to be an issue. Indeed, the Sharks already have to be worry about major injuries to their top two centers, Thornton and Logan Couture, while the Oilers are entering the series with a more or less clean bill of health. The Sharks have wisdom and experience on their side, but that won’t help them keep pace with the spry young Oilers. If San Jose wants to win, they will need a huge series from their top defensive pairing of Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic to shut down McDavid’s first line.


PREDICTION: Fatigue already looks to be an issue for the Sharks, who faded down the final stretch of the season. Look for Edmonton’s young guns to run the Sharks ragged on the way to a six-game series victory.


2.  New York Rangers vs. Montreal Canadiens

Rangers:  48-28-6, 4th in Metropolitan Division

Canadiens:  47-26-9, 1st in Atlantic DIvision


Three years ago, in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, Rangers forward Chris Kreider became the most hated man in Montreal when he came crashing into the Montreal crease and ended star goalie Carey Price’s season. The Rangers went on to win the series in six games against backup Dustin Tokarski…and now, with Price healthy and as dominant as ever, the Canadiens will be looking to get even with the team that ruined their best shot at a Stanley Cup since 1993.


This is actually a much better matchup than the seeding would indicate—the Rangers were one of the best teams in the East this year, but they only managed to lock down a wild card spot in the loaded Metro division. For the Canadiens, that means that their reward for winning their division ended up being a much tougher matchup than they would have drawn if they finished second. For us, it means a matchup that should be full of excitement, as the two best goalies of a generation (Price and Henrik Lundqvist) go toe to toe. This is a series where scoring will likely be at a premium—in addition to the pair of superstars minding the nets, this series features two top defensive coaches in Alain Vigneault and Claude Julien, and a pair of stud blueliners in Ryan McDonagh and Shea Weber. That last pair could be particularly significant, as both McDonagh and Weber missed time with lower-body injuries during the final stretch of the season; those two are the ice-time leaders for their respective outfits, and if one or both of them is significantly hindered by the effects of injuries, it could greatly affect how the defensive chess match between Vigneault and Julien plays out. It should also be noted that, while the midseason hire of Claude Julien made the Canadiens a much better team defensively, they still ranked in the middle of the pack in scoring—the Rangers, by contrast, were in the top five. However, New York had just the 21st-ranked powerplay in the league this year; the powerplay will be key for the Habs if they hope to outscore the Blueshirts.


PREDICTION: This matchup really seems like it could go either way, and in the end it will probably come down to which goalie has the better series. Lundqvist has a history of struggling at the Bell Centre (he has just an .877 save percentage there in 15 regular season games)—if those struggles continue, it could very well be the deciding factor. Canadiens in seven.


1.  Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Blue Jackets:  50-24-8, 3rd in Metropolitan Division

Penguins:  50-21-11, 2nd in Metropolitan Division


Are you excited yet?? If not, you definitely should be, because rarely do you get a first round matchup with this much potential. The Blue Jackets and Penguins were two of the best teams in the league all season, and the only reason they are colliding this early in the playoffs is that the Metro Division was improbably stacked with most of the league’s best teams this year. That means one of these groups will be going home a lot earlier than they deserve; it also means we are in for a great first round series.


The Pens need no introduction; after all, this is pretty much the same outfit that swept to a Stanley Cup Championship last summer, led by hockey’s preeminent superstar in Sid Crosby and a talented young netminder in Matt Murray. On the other side are the Blue Jackets, a perennial afterthought who rode an exciting group of ascendant young players to a surprising 108-point season. This matchup represents one of the league’s great one-sided rivalries—while Columbus might not register as more than a blip on Pittsburgh’s radar, the Penguins represent probably the Jackets’ most feared and hated rival, and the team that ended Columbus’ only playoff appearance of this decade. Throughout the season, we’ve all been a little skeptical of Columbus’ sudden ascension into the ranks of the elite; if they can slay the proverbial dragon in Pittsburgh, no one is going to be questioning their status any longer.


So can Columbus pull this one out? This is an extremely young team—major contributors like Zach Werenski, Brandon Dubinsky, Brandon Saad and Seth Jones are all still in their early twenties—playing against one of the most battle-hardened playoff units in the league, and we’ve all heard the conventional wisdom that experience wins out in the playoffs. However, as we mentioned with the Sharks earlier, that experience could be a double-edged sword for Pittsburgh—teams coming off a run to the Finals often see that fatigue catch up with them the following season, and that could be an issue for the Penguins in this series. Their defensive core in particular is already pretty banged up—Kris Letang, their best defenseman, is out for the remainder of the season, and Olli Maata has missed time with a hand injury. The Blue Jackets also have the advantage in net, where Sergei Bobrovsky led the league with a .933 save percentage (and is most likely going to win his second Vezina). Bobrovsky will need to be sharp against a loaded Pens offense that features weapons like Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin.


PREDICTION: The Pens’ banged up defense struggles to hold the Blue Jackets in check and Sergei Bobrovsky helps deliver Columbus their first playoff series victory in seven games; afterwards, a bunch of people will blame Phil Kessel for no apparent reason.

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