How about an encore? The 2017 NHL playoffs were one of the most thrilling in recent memory. Five Canadian teams reached the playoffs, while a handful of Cinderella runs took place. The Ottawa Senators and Nashville Predators both pushed the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins to the limit, but Sidney Crosby's squad was able to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. While most of the league's fans weren't happy about this, they can take comfort in the fact that the Penguins have been hot and cold throughout the season, and that their division has become a wide open contest.
Fortunately, the 2018 NHL playoffs already look like they'll be just as (if not more), entertaining than last year. A number of young teams like the Winnipeg Jets, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders are finally breaking through. And for once, it doesn't look so obvious that the Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings will win yet another title. There is finally (a little) more parity in the NHL. This means a much tighter playoff race and promises to give some really memorable matchup when the spring tournament rolls around.
We're only one-third of the way through 2017-18, but it's never too early to preview the postseason. Here are 15 bold predictions for the 2018 NHL playoffs.
15 Washington Capitals Miss Playoffs
The Washington Capitals have only missed the playoffs once in the past 10 seasons (2014), and have established themselves as a regular season juggernaut. But their inability to get past the second round has been well-documented, and things don't look any easier in 2017-18.
With an aging roster that lost a handful of key contributes from last season -- especially on defence -- the Capitals are barely hanging onto the wild card spot right now. The Metropolitan Division has been surprisingly difficult, with the Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils and both New York teams playing above early season expectations. Besides Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals have been extremely inconsistent. With too much mileage on the roster, the Caps will miss the playoffs for the first time in four years.
14 Penguins March Onto The Golf Course
The Pittsburgh Penguins were the trendy pick by most NHL experts to win the Stanley Cup; many believing they could three-peat despite losing key players like Trevor Daley, Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Marc-Andre Fleury and Ron Hainsey from last season's playoff run.
Well, the Penguins have struggled mightily on the blue line and in goal. They haven't been able to replace the bottom-six role players, and they're barely holding onto the second wild card in the Eastern Conference. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang also prone to injury, the Pens aren't in great position to go on another long run. Talented teams like the Rangers, Flyers, Canadiens and Hurricanes are returning to form -- and will be in position to topple the Penguins for the final playoff spot. Alas, the Pens will miss the postseason for the first time in 11 years.
13 Vancouver Canucks Squeak In
2017-18 was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Vancouver Canucks, but the emergence of rookie sensation Brock Boeser has kept them in the playoff race all season. Loui Eriksson is finally justifying his $36 million contract, and the goaltending duo of Anders Nilsson and Jacob Markstrom has played much better than anyone expected.
Under new head coach Travis Green, the Canucks are much faster and more skilled -- rolling our four effective lines and playing with more of an edge defensively. Though Bo Horvat's out six weeks with a broken foot injury, the Canucks have the forward depth to offset his loss. With teams like the Calgary Flames, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks all struggling, the Canucks have a prime chance to get in. They'll surprise everybody by clinching the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
12 Chicago Blackhawks' Streak Ends
Following their shocking first round sweep via the Nashville Predators in last year's playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks showed signs of declining and seeing their championship window come to a close. We're now one-third of the way through the season, and the 'Hawks indeed look old, slow and anything but championship caliber.
The losses of Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marian Hossa and Artemi Panarin have been evident. Richard Panik and Ryan Hartman aren't anywhere close to last season's form, and captain Jonathan Toews is struggling with just 19 points in 28 games. Chicago has been gutted of key role players from the salary cap, but GM Stan Bowman has been able to replace them in the past. With virtually no cap space right now, Bowman doesn't have many options in the trade market. Look for the Blackhawks to slowly regress, as they miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
11 Edmonton Oilers Make The Playoffs
At the start of the season, this prediction would have been anything but bold. However, the Oilers have been the biggest disappointment in 2017-18 thus far. Connor McDavid is still dominating, but Leon Draisaitl, Milan Lucic and Ryan Strome have all been playing below their standards.
Goalie Cam Talbot had been struggling big time before he went down with an injury, and the defence has been absolutely horrid. With 24 points, the Oilers are currently the third-worst team in the NHL - but that's bound to change. The Oilers have too much talent to be this bad. Top defenceman Andrej Sekera should be back from ACL surgery by the new year, and guys like Draisaitl will eventually find their grooves. The Oilers will go on a major surge in the second half (reminiscent of the 2016 Pens), and nab the second wild card spot in the Western Conference.
10 Vegas Wins A Playoff Series
The most incredible story in the 2017-18 season thus far? It's easily the Vegas Golden Knights, who were widely projected to be the NHL's worst team in their inaugural year. After all, virtually all expansion sports franchises are terrible for a minimum of three-to-five years.
But with strong seasons from William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and James Neal, the Golden Knights are second in the Pacific Division. This is despite an injury to star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and head coach Gerard Gallant deserves plenty of credit for getting the most out of this team. It's time to believe in the Golden Knights, who aren't overachievers -- but one of the best teams in hockey. At this point, you have to think they're a realistic contender. Look for Vegas to defeat either the Ducks, Flames or Sharks in the opening round of the playoffs. They really are a threat in the Pacific Division.
9 Nashville Predators Don't Win A Series
The Nashville Predators were just two wins away from capturing their first Stanley Cup last season, and kept most of their roster in tact to load up on another run. The Predators are off to another great start, and they look ready to make some major noise in the postseason once again.
But unfortunately for the Preds, the Central Division is as difficult as ever. Right now, the Preds, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets all look like elite teams - and they'll have to beat each other to reach the Conference Final. With all due respect to the Preds, the Blues and Jets both look like superior teams right now. No matter who the Predators play, they'll be in tough - and will lose their opening round playoff series. Sorry Music City, but you'll have to wait a bit longer on that championship.
8 Habs Go Home Early, Make Major Changes
The Montreal Canadiens got off to their worst start in over 70 years, going 1-6-1 before a slight turnaround. Though injuries to Carey Price, Jonathan Drouin and Shea Weber haven't helped, the Habs began turning things around in late November and they're in the running with the Boston Bruins for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.
But making the playoffs isn't good enough for the Habs, even if they have climbed out of that massive early season hole. Montreal will likely face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round of the playoffs, but Auston Matthews and co. will be too much to handle. With the loss, the Habs will start making major changes to retool. Expect GM Marc Bergevin to get fired, while Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk get dealt in the offseason. Again, this will not be a rebuild - but a major and necessary retooling stage.
7 New Jersey Devils Reach Final Four
The New Jersey Devils have been among the top surprises in 2018. Though many pegged them to be a possible playoff bubble team in 2018, nobody thought they'd be sitting first in the ultra-difficult Metropolitan Division in December.
The Devils haven't made the playoffs since 2012, but they're well-constructed to go on a deep run and bring back the good ol' Martin Brodeur heydays. Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt have all provided great scoring up front. Defencemen Will Butcher and John Moore also form a strong blue line. You always need a goalie to win, and the Devils have a top-tier goalie in Cory Schneider. With their speed and excellent trap defence, New Jersey will win a pair of playoff series and reach the Eastern Conference Final.
6 Kings Return To The Final Four
The Los Angeles Kings reached the Western Conference Final three years in a row from 2012-14. That included Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and 2014, but the Kings haven't been a contender in quite some time.
They missed the playoffs in 2015 and 2017, and were embarrassed by the San Jose Sharks in the opening round of the 2016 playoffs. However, new head coach John Stevens has brought a new form of energy to the Kings, who are scoring in bunches, still playing great defence and are leading the Pacific Division by considerable margins. Los Angeles has a top centre in Anze Kopitar and a world class defenceman in Drew Doughty. They're well-designed to annihilate opponents once again, so look for them to get right back into the Western Conference Final.
5 Winnipeg Jets Win The West
Fans have been waiting a while for the Jets to break out, and it's finally happening in 2017-18. Led by early Vezina Trophy candidate Connor Hellebuyck and a top scoring unit led by Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler, the Jets are among the elite teams in the Western Conference right now.
Both Wheeler and Scheifele are top-1o in scoring, while Laine is top-six in goals. On top of that, Hellebuyck only trails Andrei Vasilevskiy and Frederik Andersen in wins. Simply put: The Jets are dangerous all over the ice. They're arguably the most complete team in the NHL right now, so look for the Jets to go on a major run as they win the West and reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.
4 Overtime Of Game 7 Galore!
All NHL fans can agree that overtime makes playoff hockey way better, but also 10 times more stressful. The 2017 playoffs saw 18 overtime games in the first round alone, setting a new record. There were also 27 overtime games, which fell one short of the record in 1993 - which saw 28 games requiring extra time.
Last season, we saw the Ottawa Senators and Penguins go all the way to double overtime of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Final. Well, we're gonna take it up a notch and project three Game 7's requiring overtime. Since we're being bold here, James Neal will score in Game 7 of the opening round for Vegas. Artemi Panarin scores in Game 7 of the first round to eliminate the Islanders. And finally? An Anze Kopitar goal in the second round will send the Los Angeles Kings right back to the Western Conference Final.
3 Referee Mistakes Overshadow Playoffs
The NHL has tried its best to cut down on referee controversy by allowing head coaches to challenge for offside and goalie interference on goals. Unfortunately, the 2017 playoffs were largely overshadowed by a number of questionable referee decisions.
For example, this dive by Phil Kessel drew a penalty and helped Pittsburgh score in Game 7 against Ottawa. If the refs don't call that, Ottawa probably goes on to reach the Stanley Cup Final. Also, Sidney Crosby got away with a ton of roughing on P.K. Subban in the Finals. And finally, remember the Anaheim Ducks epic comeback win against the Edmonton Oilers in Game 5? It looked like Anaheim got away with goalie interference, despite an extensive referee review. So as usual, don't expect the 2018 playoffs to go smoothly. There'll be a number of questionable officiating calls that dictate some of the series. And they'll happen at the worst possible times, too.
2 Head Coach Firing Carousel
NHL head coaches aren't safe, where they can get fired simply for one or two poor showings in the playoffs. Well, a number of bench bosses are under immense pressure to guide their teams to the next ground, otherwise changes could be in order.
Last season, no head coaches lost their jobs after their teams were eliminated in the playoffs. However, the Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild made changes behind the bench after poor postseason outings. I'm expecting a number of head coaches to get fired when their teams get eliminated. This could include Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers, Pete DeBoer of the San Jose Sharks, Todd McLellan in Edmonton and possibly Glen Gulutzan in Calgary. Fair or unfair, a number of coaching changes are happening for playoff teams after 2018.
1 Toronto Maple Leafs Win The Stanley Cup
The Maple Leafs haven't won the Stanley Cup (nor reached the final), since 1967. But this looks like a great time for the drought to end. They're led by a generational star in Auston Matthews, plus other talents in Mitch Marner, William Nylander, James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown.
Toronto owns one of the top goalies in Frederik Andersen ,and they look poised to win their first playoff series since 2004. Few teams can match their speed, skill-set and depth. Obviously, the defensive side is a problem, but GM Lou Lamoriello has so many resources to make a trade or two. The Leafs almost shocked the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals last season, but they won't be sneaking up on anybody this time. That's fine, because the Leafs will go all the way and defeat Winnipeg in six games, winning their first Stanley Cup in over a half-century.