Is anybody else about ready for hockey to start?

August into September are always long months for the diehards out there, as the offseason signings and trades are all but finished, and meaningful news trickles in slower than molasses through the hourglass. With rosters getting pretty close to finalized (notwithstanding the annual spring training surprises), it’s almost time to start making our predictions about the 2017-18 NHL season.

It’s difficult to guess how much different the playoff picture will look in 2018 vs. 2017. For instance, the Eastern Conference saw five teams make the dance in 2017 that were on the outside looking in 2016. Over in the West the turnover was minimal, as just two teams that missed out on the 2016 playoffs made a return in 2017.

One thing is for sure, though: there will be some turnover. The races are too tight and the parity too great for the exact same 16 teams to make the playoffs year over year.

I’ve went ahead and mapped out the 2017-18 season ahead of time, all the way down to the Stanley Cup Champion. We made some super early predictions back in June, but that was before the offseason unfolded. With all the moves that were made, we figured opinions will have definitely changed now. Who do we think will hoist Lord Stanley’s Mug come next June? Wouldn’t you like to know! Here’s how I see the 2018 postseason shaking out, starting with the first round series’ and moving all the way through to the final:

15. Washington Capitals (M1) vs. Florida Panthers (WC2)

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, I see the beloved “Corsi Cats” returning to the postseason after a one year absence. I have them at 94 points, just edging out the Montreal Canadiens for the final playoff spot (sorry Habs fans). After winning the Atlantic Division in 2015-16, the Panthers struggled with injuries throughout 2016-17, and that’s the biggest reason they will be back. Jonathan Huberdeau missed most of the year, and impact players such as Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Roberto Luongo also missing sizeable chunks of time.

I have the Washington Capitals once again finishing tops in the East, and I see them rolling over the Panthers in the first round with relative ease. I actually have them regressing slightly (113 points, down from 118), but it will still be good enough to net the franchise its third consecutive Presidents’ Trophy. Can they get over the hump (eg. The 2nd round vs. the Penguins) in 2018? We’ll see.

Winner: Washington Capitals

14. Pittsburgh Penguins (M2) vs. New York Rangers (M3)

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

No huge surprise here, but I do have the Rangers finishing ahead of the Jackets this season (in fact, I have the Jackets falling just short), thus squeaking into the third spot in the Metro Division with 104 points. Unfortunately for the Rangers, it means they’ll be drawing an extremely difficult first round matchup against the Penguins.

Pittsburgh is gunning for the three-peat, which hasn’t happened in the NHL since the New York Islanders rattled off four Cup wins in a row from 1980 to 1983. Can they do it in 2018? Time will tell, but my bet is they at least advance to round 2 again. The Rangers added a few pieces in the offseason, highlighted by Kevin Shattenkirk, but it still won’t be enough to defeat the high-flying Penguins.

Winner: Pittsburgh Penguins

13. Tampa Bay Lightning (A1) vs. New York Islanders (WC1)

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

This matchup features two clubs that make their return to the postseason after a one year hiatus. The Lightning came mighty close to the postseason in 2016-17, and that was without captain Steven Stamkos in the lineup for the vast majority of the year. The Islanders made a late season charge that ended up falling just short, which is why I think they’ll squeak in as well.

Some of you are probably rolling your eyes that I have the Lightning—a team that missed the playoffs last season—winning the Atlantic division in 2017-18. Remember, these things do happen. With Stamkos returning, it means the Lightning will be able to ice two potent forward lines, and those lines would be bona-fide first lines anywhere else in the league. The Lightning will be a force in 2017-18.

Winner: Tampa Bay Lightning

12. Boston Bruins (A2) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (A3)

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The fourth and final Eastern Conference Quarter-Final series will feature the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, which means that I’ve left out the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, and Columbus Blue Jackets. Don’t @ me. This first round series will be one of the more entertaining, as old rivals go at it for the first time in the playoffs since 2013 when, erm, well… let’s just say the Leafs suffered a hard-to-swallow defeat.

I have some good news for all you Leafs fans, though! 2018 will be the first year your favorite club wins a playoff series since 2004 when they beat the Senators in the first round. The Leafs are an up-and-coming team, whereas I’d say the Bruins are on the decline, and although the B’s will finish the season with more points for home ice, the energy in the young Leafs’ lineup will prove too much for Boston come April.

Winner: Toronto Maple Leafs

11. Minnesota Wild (C1) vs. Winnipeg Jets (WC2)

Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Until March rolled around, it looked as though the Minnesota Wild were destined to win the Central Division in 2016-17. They stumbled down the stretch, going 8-11-2, thus relinquishing the Central Division crown to Chicago. The Wild will keep it together in 2017-18, and they will cruise to a Central Division championship, finishing first in the West and facing the Winnipeg Jets in round 1.

The Jets return to the postseason for only the second time since making the move from Atlanta to Winnipeg, and this time they are hoping they can record their first postseason win in franchise history (yes, sadly, that includes the time spent in Atlanta). The good news is I think they will do it; the bad news? They might just win one, as Minnesota will roll over the Jets.

Winner: Minnesota Wild

10. Nashville Predators (C2) vs. Dallas Stars (C3)

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

After a supremely disappointing 2016-17—the Stars were the defending Central Division Champs, yet failed to qualify for the postseason—they’ll be making their triumphant return to the dance in 2017-18. The Stars have added a few key pieces in the offseason, none more important that goaltender Ben Bishop, who will be backed up by former co-starter Kari Lehtonen.

Unfortunately, they draw the defending Western Conference champion Nashville Predators in the first round, and that’s not a great matchup for them. The Predators’ speed and defense will get the best of Dallas, and the Stars will be making a first round exit. The Predators have what it takes to make another run at it, and Dallas will be but a speed bump for the Preds in 2018.

Winner: Nashville Predators

9. Edmonton Oilers (P1) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (WC1)

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

This is going to be the premier series in the West for the first round, as the Blackhawks try to stave off the young and hungry Edmonton Oilers. American audiences already love the Blackhawks, as proven by the 1,000 nationally televised games in the past decade, including something like 230 outdoor classics. The series will expose American audiences to the most electrifying player in the league (Connor McDavid), and they’ll demand more.

This series will go the distance, but I see the upstart Oilers winning this one in seven. Home ice advantage will help them here, and Edmonton is the team that has more to prove, and they desperately want to take another step forward in 2017-18, meaning they need to advance at least past the second round. The ‘Hawks will test their will, but the Oil will prevail.

Winner: Edmonton Oilers

8. Anaheim Ducks (P2) vs. Calgary Flames (P3)

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Before getting into it, I’d like to point out the fact that this does mean I think San Jose, L.A., and St. Louis will all miss the postseason in 2017-18. Those are three strong teams, but the fact is that they’ve been strong for a while, and the Western Conference will see a changing of the guard in the coming years. Onto this matchup—well, sorry Calgary fans, but you drew about the worst first round opponent you could imagine.

The Ducks have simply owned the Flames for over a decade now, most recently exhibited by their 2017 first round sweep of the Flames. Calgary goaltender Brian Elliott can shoulder much of the blame for that, but the Ducks outmatched the Flames for much of the series anyway. I do think Calgary will win a game in this series, but that could be it.

Winner: Anaheim Ducks

7. Washington Capitals (M1) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (M2)

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Of course this will happen. For the third consecutive season, the Washington Capitals will draw the (arguably unfair) second round matchup vs. the Penguins. It does seem odd that the current playoff format has two of the league’s best teams tussling in the second round every year. If you find it frustrating, just imagine how Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals feel.

There is good news for the Caps here, though—at least in my completely hypothetical and likely in no way accurate estimation. I think they’ll finally slay the dragon in 2018 and defeat the Penguins in round 2. The Penguins will simply be a little too burnt out from their past two Cup runs to conjure up the energy to beat what will certainly be a desperate Washington club.

Winner: Washington Capitals

6. Tampa Bay Lightning (A1) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (A3)

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Maple Leafs fans will almost definitely have the Stanley Cup parade route mapped out at this point, and city council will probably have already plotted a spot for the Auston Matthews statue outside of Air Canada Centre. As excited as these fans will be, this second round matchup against the Lightning will bring them back to Earth, and the Leafs will suffer a defeat to Stamkos and co.

This will be a very entertaining series, although Tampa Bay’s window is now (despite them missing the postseason in 2016-17), and the Maple Leafs window is just opening. If this series happens again in a few years, my money is on the Leafs prevailing, but when it happens in 2018, the Lightning will out-duel Toronto for the right to face the Capitals in the Conference Finals.

Winner: Tampa Bay Lightning

5. Minnesota Wild (C1) vs. Nashville Predators (C2)

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Nashville Predators look to return to the Conference Finals for the second consecutive season, whereas the Minnesota Wild hope to make its first Conference Finals showing since 2003, the franchise’s only appearance to date. They were swept by the Ducks in ’03, and unfortunately they won’t be getting another shot at a Conference Final matchup, as they will lose this series.

Nashville is an extremely well-built squad that is ready to contend, as they showed last season. Heck, despite their six-game defeat in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Penguins, they actually outplayed Pittsburgh in most of the games, according to the stats sheets (aside from, you know, that one pesky stat—goals). Despite Minnesota holding home ice in the Central Division Final, the Preds will prevail and return to the Conference Finals in 2018.

Winner: Nashville Predators

4. Edmonton Oilers (P1) vs. Anaheim Ducks (P2)

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It will be another rematch from 2017 in the 2018 second round, this one between the Oilers and Ducks. The Ducks beat out Edmonton in a heated seven-game series, as Anaheim’s defense and experience prevailed over Edmonton’s speed and youth. I have some good news for Edmonton fans, though—this time your team will have home ice advantage, and that will help them advance to the Conference Finals for the first time since the Cinderella run of 2006.

There is a lot of buzz surrounding the Oilers this offseason, as their return to relevance in 2016-17 sort of reminded the rest of the league that they existed and can, indeed, win hockey games. Connor McDavid has only begun to pen his legacy, and the 2018 playoffs look to be just the next chapter for the young phenom.

Winner: Edmonton Oilers

3. Washington Capitals (M1) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (A1)

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As this series kicks off sometime next May, the Capitals will have just finished a battle of the ages with the Penguins, whereas the Lightning will be well rested after making short work of the Leafs in round 2. As a result, Tampa will be ready to strike and the Capitals will simply have nothing left to give. A fatigued Washington club will lose to Tampa, thus missing out on a chance to compete for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

As for the Lightning, this will be the third time competing in the Conference Finals over the past for years, and the second time advancing to the Stanley Cup Final since 2015. They of course lost that series to the Chicago Blackhawks, which will make them even hungrier for the chance to compete for the Cup in 2018.

Eastern Conference Champion: Tampa Bay Lightning

2. Edmonton Oilers (P1) vs. Nashville Predators (C2)

Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

The Western Conference Finals will feature two of the fastest squads in the West, and as a result we as fans will be treated to an entertaining series. There’s no doubt that the Predators have one of the best—if not THE best—defense corps in the league, but the Oilers do have the best forward in the league in McDavid. Will they offset each other?

If they do, then this series will come down to goaltending, and despite Pekka Rinne’s fabulous career to this point, I give the edge to the younger Cam Talbot. Talbot waited a long time to become a starter in this league, playing most of his NHL career to date behind Henrik Lundqvist in New York. Talbot will outplay Rinne, thus leading to Edmonton’s first Final appearance since 2006.

Western Conference Champion: Edmonton Oilers

1. Stanley Cup Final: Tampa Bay Lightning  vs. Edmonton Oilers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Fans have drawn parallels between Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby ever since McDavid flew onto the radar, and rightfully so. McDavid missed out on the playoffs in his rookie season (like Crosby), and he made the dance in his second year but suffered an early exit (like Crosby). In Crosby’s third year, he and the Pens made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final only to suffer defeat. Unfortunately for Oilers fans, the same will happen to McDavid.

The Oilers will get mighty close to the ultimate goal, but Tampa Bay is a team that’s ready, and if both of these clubs go into the finals healthy, the Lightning should prevail. The X-factor here is goaltending again, and both are somewhat unproven yet have shown flashes of brilliance. Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has been particularly prone to hot and cold stretches so far in his young career. Which Vasilevskiy will we see in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final?

Champion: Tampa Bay Lightning

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