Different, but dramatic.
That’s how the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs shape up, with the absence of any Canadian-based participants providing the difference, and eight tight first round match set to provide the drama.
The NHL has become a league of streaks, and while Pittsburgh was the hottest team down the stretch, almost all the other 15 first round teams were, at one time or another, absolutely sizzling. That means that unless you strictly define an upset as a team with more points during the regular season being defeated by one with less, it’s hard to see any of the first round matchups as upsets in the making.
Perhaps Nashville over Anaheim would be an upset, but the Preds did have 96 points. Minny dumped St. Louis in the first round last year, so the Wild have proven they can be dangerous out of a wild card position.
The Islanders and Lightning look like wounded bears, while the Rangers and Pittsburgh are two teams needing to prove all the short-term investments they’ve made will pay off.
Washington and Dallas, meanwhile, are in that awkward position of having played very well during the regular season, but getting very little advantage to show for those performances now that the playoffs are here.
Playoff series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs are all about narratives and storylines, and while Canadian fans mourn the absence of their teams, these playoffs have all kinds of plots in each and every series.
Chicago could be a modern dynasty if it can repeat. Can the Caps finally get over the hump? Will Tyler Seguin play? Pavel Datsyuk is suddenly in his final days as the star of the Red Wings. Can Shayne Gostisbehere and Artemi Panarin find just as much success in the second season as they found as regular season rookies?
No Canada? No problem. Let the drama unfold.
Let me know when the Caps are in the third round. Anything else will be a failure for a team that was the best in the East by a significant margin but has a long history of failing in the playoffs with Alex Ovechkin as its leader. You can say Barry Trotz has changed everything, but under Trotz the Caps did blow a 3-1 series lead to the Rangers in the second round last year. They can change that historical narrative this spring. This team, on paper, is built to go deep.
The first round may be the trickiest against an intriguing Philly team that charged to the playoffs under rookie head coach Dave Hakstol, improving after dumping the contracts of vets Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn partway through the season and letting rookie defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere roam like an old-time rover and put himself into the Calder Trophy conversation. The Flyers have been winning at a .615 clip since Christmas. Brayden Schenn has really upped his game, and he’ll need to find a way to equalize the centre-ice battle in this series against Washington’s 1-2 punch of Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. We’ll see if Mr. Game 7, Justin Williams, can make the same impact for the Caps as he has done in the past with other clubs.
This is a battle of the wounded and weary. The Lightning are seriously banged up, while Detroit backed into its 25th consecutive post-season tournament and has leader Pavel Datsyuk talking about going home to Russia after the season. These two teams played last year and the Wings were up 3-2 before losing the series, with Tampa going all the way to the Stanley Cup final. The Bolts score a little more and defend a little better than the Wings, but their power play is inconsistent.
The Wings have super-rookie Dylan Larkin, but Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are fading and some of Detroit’s other young players have been mildly disappointing in terms of taking a big step forward this year. It’s anybody’s guess how Jeff Blashill will use his two goalies in this series. We’ll see how healthy Tampa centre Tyler Johnson and winger Nikita Kucherov are, but we know the Lightning won’t have Steven Stamkos or blueliner Anton Stralman. The inclusion of Jonathan Drouin alters Tampa’s dynamic. At this point in time, regardless of which club advances, neither look like a Cup contender. Both are desperate hockey clubs, which could make for an emotional first-round clash.
Like the Lightning, the Islanders have suffered crushing injuries in the final weeks of the season, including those to defenceman Travis Hamonic (probable for Game 1), winger Anders Lee, goalie Jaroslav Halak and centre Mikhail Grabovski. The ice at their Brooklyn rink is awful, which could turn this series into a trudge through the slush. Still, the Isles have some grit to their game, particularly on the fourth line, and can win ugly.
They won’t make things easy for a “Spacey in Space” fuelled Florida team who has enjoyed a breakthrough regular season, getting more out of aging stalwarts Jaromir Jagr, Brian Campbell and goalie Roberto Luongo than anyone could have imagined. The challenge will be that Aaron Ekblad, Alexander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad don’t have a single playoff game between them. Jagr and Luongo can help steady their nerves, but can’t go out there and do it for them. John Tavares only has 13 playoff games on his resume, but he has some. Both teams are in the bottom half of the league in terms of possession, which makes this one a little tricky to forecast. Islander injuries versus Florida inexperience could be the matchup to watch.
Had the Islanders not won on the final day of the season, they would have faced red-hot Pittsburgh (14-2 in the last 16), and the Blueshirts would have faced Florida. As it is, the up-and-down Rangers get to tangle with the club they eliminated in five games last year. With no Evgeny Malkin for the Pens, the Rangers can game plan only against Sidney Crosby, a nice advantage for Alain Vigneault.
Kris Letang has generated a lot of positive energy for Pittsburgh in the second half, and he’ll have to try to do the same while being assaulted with waves of ill-intentioned Ranger forecheckers. New York should have a huge advantage in goal with in Henrik Lundqvist with both Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray banged up in the Penguin crease. But the Rangers are a dreadful possession team and have slipped significantly on the defensive side this season. Plus Ryan McDonagh is hurt. This could easily be the most compelling, most back-and-forth series of the first round in the east.
It’s easy to want to see the Stars get this done. They play a pleasing offensive game for the most part, something we just don’t get enough of these days. Even Wayne Gretzky says the game lacks imagination. “Offence wins championships,” however, isn’t how the cliche goes, and everyone’s just waiting to see the league’s No. 1 attack get knocked off early. Minnesota is the team to do it, with sturdy Devan Dubnyk in the net and enough playoff experience at all positions to make life awfully unpleasant for the Stars.
The coaching switch to John Torchetti saved the season in the Twin Cities, and Zach Parise seemed to find his game down the stretch in a injury-plagued season, but may be iffy for Game 1 with an undisclosed injury. The likely absence of Tyler Seguin (Achilles laceration) from the Dallas lineup – he’s expected to start practicing Monday – and the uncertainty over who will be in goal for Lindy Ruff, meanwhile, means the addition of ex-Chicago stalwarts Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya could be critical for the Stars in a long, tough series. There’s historical entanglements – the Stars left Minny for Dallas – but that won’t matter a hoot in terms of emotional sub-text here.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues
For the second time in three years, we’ll see the untapped playoff potential of St. Louis against the proven championship pedigree of Chicago. Bodies will bang in this one. The question that can only be answered in these playoffs is what, exactly, is the connection between last spring’s championship Hawks team and this one. The core players are the same, but so many other things have changed, particularly the depth players in the Chicago lineup. That doesn’t mean the new faces can’t do the same jobs. It just means they have to prove they can, and not leave scoring champion Patrick Kane to carry the load. Star defenceman Duncan Keith will miss Game 1 to suspension, so he’ll be nice and rested.
You’d love to say the Blues come into this series with their goaltending figured out, but once more, that’s not exactly the case, although with either Brian Elliott (no playoff starts since 2013) or recuperating Jake Allen in between the pipes, they were a mighty difficult team to score on. GM Doug Armstrong gave Ken Hitchcock and this group one more chance this season, and we’re going to find out if that was a mistake. St. Louis was 14-4 down the stretch and won three of five vs. the Hawks, but two were in OT and one in a shootout.
How long does a hockey scar take to heal? That was a nasty psychological wound the Kings inflicted on the Sharks back in the 2014 playoffs, spotting San Jose a 3-0 series lead before fighting back to win the series and then go on to capture the Cup. Many, if not all, of the participants are the same, and no series lead will be safe for the Sharks, not until they win a fourth game. San Jose is an intriguing group and are still led in many ways by old captains Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but are trying to hand over the reins to new captain Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns. It’s the younger Sharks that need to step up here, and play like they have no memory of that ’14 collapse.
The Kings look heavy and dangerous, although they weren’t great down the stretch and can struggle to score. They are still the league’s best possession team, and have nearly a perfect core group with Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick. Tyler Toffoli became a top scorer this season. There is uncertainty in the Sharks net, with James Reimer and Martin Jones both vying for starts. Neither has a resume of NHL post-season success.
Nashville believed it was getting the No. 1 centre it had never had when Ryan Johansen was acquired from Columbus. Well, we’re going to find out if that’s true in the first round, aren’t we? The regular season (8 goals in 42 games with the Predators) was inconclusive, and now Johansen will go head-to-head against Ryan Getzlaf or Ryan Kesler. The Ducks lost only 10 of their final 49 games in regulation, are the league’s best defensive squad and can boast of superb special teams. A dreadful start that nearly cost Bruce Boudreau his job now seems to be a rallying point for this team. If there’s a question, it’s in the crease, where Fredrik Andersson looks likely to start, but John Gibson has played well enough to get some time.
In Filip Forsberg, the Predators have as good goal-scoring threat as they’ve had, and the strength of the team remains the Shea Weber-led blue line corps. Pekka Rinne has been up-and-down all season. The challenge for the Preds, really, will be to prove early in this season whether they have any business being in the same rink as the Ducks.