The 2017 NHL Playoffs are here, and there is every reason to believe these will be among the most exciting in recent memory. The 2016 postseason was rather boring as no Canadian team qualified and very few series were actually all that thrilling. We need another exciting series in 2015, where both Conference Finals went to seven games.
Well, we have your usual juggernauts in the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, Washington Capitals, San Jose Sharks, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues. We have some major playoff entries in 2017 like the Columbus Blue Jackets, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators.
And oh, we have Canadian teams playing to win the nation its first Stanley Cup since 1993 -- when a legend named Patrick Roy backstopped the Montreal Canadiens to the championship.
So what's in store for 2017? It's anybody's guess right now, but here is how I see this year's postseason turning out.
*Stats via ESPN.com*
15 (1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Toronto Maple Leafs
The Capitals took home their second-straight Presidents' Trophy with 118 points, powered by the best defence in hockey that allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Braden Holtby was a huge reason why the Capitals were the best team in the regular season, finishing with 42 wins, a .925 save percentage and a 2.18 goals against average.
They'll host the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were the NHL's worst team a year ago. Rookie sensation Auston Matthews led the way with 40 goals and 69 points. James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, William Nylander and Connor Brown all had 20 goals, while Tyler Bozak (18), and Mitch Marner (19), also added a ton on the scoresheet.
But the Maple Leafs defence is fairly easy to expose, and workhorse Frederik Andersen won't be able to do this alone. The Capitals are more experienced and are well built to slow down Toronto's offensive attack.
Prediction: Capitals in 5
14 (2) Montreal Canadiens vs. (7) New York Rangers
This will feature a marquee matchup between two Original Six rivals who met in the 2014 Eastern Conference Final, with the Blueshirts defeating the Habs in six games. The main showdown here is two elite goalies: Carey Price vs. Henrik Lundqvist.
Montreal swept New York in the season series, but the Rangers own the league's best road record at 27-12-2. The Rangers scored 3.09 goals per game -- good for fourth in the NHL. 10 different players scored double-digit goals. However, Lundqvist's 2.74 goals against average and .910 save percentage were rather pedestrian for his standards.
On the other side, the Habs scored just 2.72 goals per game, but the addition of Shea Weber paid dividends as he solidified a defensive unit that only allowed 2.40 goals per game -- third best in the NHL.
The Habs have the better goalie, and they truly own the Rangers. They have good depth up front in Max Pacioretty, Alexander Radulov and Paul Byron to counter the Blueshirts' offence.
Prediction: Canadiens in 6
13 (2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3) Columbus Blue Jackets
Nobody is surprised at all to see the defending Stanley Cup champions in the postseason for the 11th-straight year. But everybody is surprised to see the Columbus Blue Jackets here after being among the worst teams in 2015 and 2016.
Sidney Crosby finished second in scoring, while Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel complemented No. 87 with great years. Pittsburgh's 3.39 goals per game were the most in the NHL. But with star defenceman Kris Letang out for the season with a neck injury, the Penguins' blue line is definitely weaker.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets are actually one of the most complete teams in the NHL this season. They finished sixth in goals per game and allowed the second fewest goals per contest. The Jackets were powered by Sergei Bobrovsky, who led the league save percentage (.932), and goals against average (2.06).
With Columbus capable of slowing down Pittsburgh's offence, but the Penguins defence not so built to stop the Jackets' offence, this looks to be the biggest upset of the postseason.
Prediction: Blue Jackets in 6
12 (2) Ottawa Senators vs. (3) Boston Bruins
For the first time ever, these two Atlantic Division foes will face off in the postseason. Both teams missed the playoffs last year and were expected to be wild card teams at best. Ottawa benefited with a new head coach in Guy Boucher, who helped fix up the Sens' goaltending and defensive woes. Meanwhile, the Bruins got hot and clinched a postseason berth after former bench boss Claude Julien was replaced with Bruce Cassidy. Ottawa swept Boston in the four-game regular season series.
Ottawa's identity was all on defence, as the tandem of Craig Anderson (25 wins), and Mike Condon (19 wins), carried them all season. They only had three 20-goal scorers, but Boucher's system focused more on defending the lead and not worrying solely about offence.
Despite a frustrating season from star Patrice Bergeron, Boston's offence didn't disappoint, as Brad Marchand (39 goals and 85 points), and David Pastrnak (34 goals and 70 points), carried the load. Tuukka Rask was fairly inconsistent with a .915 save percentage and 2.23 goals against average, though.
The Senators play much better defensively and are much faster than Boston -- and speed can be a difference in the playoffs. Couple that with a Norris-caliber season from Erik Karlsson and the better goaltending, and Ottawa should win their first playoff series in four years.
Prediction: Senators in 5
11 (1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (8) Nashville Predators
Chicago finished with the top seed in the Western Conference, while Nashville did take home the second wild card spot without needing to stress too much. It's the third time these two will meet in the playoffs, as the Blackhawks eliminated Chicago in 2010 and 2015.
The Blackhawks had the usually dominant seasons from Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Cory Crawford. They're well balanced with the league's ninth-best offence while allowing just 2.59 goals per game in the regular season.
Nashville struggled with consistency early on, as star defenceman P.K. Subban struggled to stay healthy and Pekka Rinne fell off his usual Vezina-caliber form. But 61-point seasons from Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson kept the Preds' offence relevant, and helped them qualify for the postseason.
Though Nashville has the personnel to give Chicago a battle, the Blackhawks take it up a notch in the postseason. They're better all across the board -- up front, on the blue line and in goal.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 5
10 (2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (7) Calgary Flames
The Ducks took home their fifth-straight Pacific Division title, while the Flames overcame a slow start to reach the postseason for the second time in three years. It's the third time these teams will meet in the postseason -- with Anaheim winning both matchups in 2006 and 2015.
Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry had off seasons with 58 and 53 points, respectively, but the Ducks were the stingiest team in the Western Conference -- allowing just 2.40 goals per game. Anaheim is carried by a stacked blue line that consists of Sami Vatanen, Shea Theodore, Kevin Bieksa and Hampus Lindholm -- but Cam Fowler is expected to miss the series (and possibly more), with a knee injury.
Calgary took a step back from the high-flying offence and became more sound defensively while playing to head coach Glen Gulutzan's puck possession-heavy system. Brian Elliot posted a 26-18-3 record, and 12 different Flames scored double-digit points.
But the Ducks have made easy work of young, inexperienced playoff teams over the years. It's hard to ignore them easily taking care of Calgary in five games two seasons ago. Expect similar results from an experienced team that's trying to overcome its constant playoff meltdowns.
Prediction: Ducks in 6
9 (2) Minnesota Wild vs. (3) St. Louis Blues
The Wild and Blues will meet in the playoffs for the second time in three years. Minnesota upset the Central Division-winning St. Louis Blues in the opening round of the postseason two years ago.
Minnesota was boasted by a Vezina-caliber season from Devan Dubnyk, a resurgent year from Eric Staal and another great campaign from Ryan Suter. The Wild were running away with the top seed in the West until an awful slide in March saw them drop down to the number two seed.
Meanwhile, the Blues' playoff hopes were on the line and they opted to trade stud defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington at the trade deadline. But after firing Ken Hitchock mid-season, they went 22-8-2 under replacement Mike Yeo. Jake Allen also overcame a rough first half and finished with 33 wins.
Both teams are evenly matched, but Allen's pour track record in the playoffs is tough to overlook. The Wild have plenty of depth up front to score lots of goals, and they'll send their rivals home early.
Prediction: Wild in 7
8 (2) Edmonton Oilers vs. (3) San Jose Sharks
Before Super Bowl 43 between the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers, announcer Al Michaels said something along the lines of "two teams with long histories and very different traditions". The Oilers have five Stanley Cups to their history but are in the postseason for the first time since 2006. San Jose has never won a Stanley Cup but qualified for the postseason for the 12th time in 13 seasons.
The Oilers were powered by Art Ross Trophy winner, Connor McDavid (30 goals and 100 points). Leon Draisaitl (77 points), Jordan Eberle (51 points), plus tough guys Milan Lucic (23 goals), and Patrick Maroon (27 goals), gave Edmonton a well-rounded offence. Cam Talbot had a breakout year with 42 wins, too. The Oilers are built for a long playoff run.
The Sharks are seeing their Stanley Cup window close, but they sure look capable of winning it this year. Brent Burns (a defenceman), led the team with 76 points. Four Sharks scored 25-plus goals and Martin Jones contributed 35 victories.
But we saw the Penguins dominate the Sharks in last year's playoffs because of two things: Lightning-fast speed and depth all over their lineup. The Oilers are definitely faster and roll four effective lines. San Jose will see a similar exit in 2017.
Prediction: Oilers in 6
7 Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Washington took three of the five meetings against the Columbus in the regular season. This would be one heckuva matchup between the two Vezina favourites in Braden Holtby and Sergei Bobrovsky. Both teams can turn to their netminders and defence to close out games, but both teams have plenty of scoring as well.
The Capitals have a dangerous tandem up front in Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin, who posted 86 and 69 points, respectively. T.J. Oshie had a career-high 33 goals, while Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson scored 24 apiece. The Capitals have plenty of depth to score, which could be too much for Columbus.
On the flip side, Columbus also has plenty of offence which could overwhelm the Capitals' defence. 12 different Jackets' scored double-digit goals, led by Cam Atkinson's 35. Brandon Saad won two Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks and adds vital experience to a young Blue Jackets team.
But it's hard to bet against the Capitals this year. They have more postseason experience and are primed to get past the second round for the first time since 1998 -- when Ovechkin was 12 years of age.
Prediction: Capitals in 7
6 Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators
These teams, according to my calculations, will meet in the playoffs for the third time in five years. The Senators upset the second-seeded Canadiens in the opening round of the 2013 playoffs, but Montreal returned the favour by ending Ottawa's Cinderella season in the first round of the 2015 postseason.
Ottawa took the first two meetings, but the Canadiens took the final matchups three over a one-week span. The goaltending was shaky on both sides when they faced off in the regular season, and scoring was aplenty.
Both teams have a Norris-caliber defenceman (Weber on Montreal and Karlsson on Ottawa), very good goaltending and reliable depth on the blue line with enough forwards who can score the clutch goals.
But I'm going with Montreal here. They've been a tough team to beat since Claude Julien took over as bench boss. The Habs have more weapons to score goals, and Price has a much better track record in the playoffs than Anderson.
Prediction: Canadiens in 6
5 Chicago Blackhawks vs. Minnesota Wild
These teams are all too familiar with each other in the postseason, having met in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Chicago won all three playoff matchups with ease, winning the Stanley Cups in 2013 and 2015. The Wild have just four playoff series wins in their history, unable to get over the hump because of their arch rivals.
Chicago took three of the four regular season meetings. They simply have much more starpower up front, and their depth on defence is slightly stronger than that of Minnesota. However, it's tough to discount Dubnyk's career-year in 2016-17. If someone is going to win this series for the Wild, it's their star goalie.
But the Wild would need a whole lot to go right. Despite Ryan Suter's talents, he hasn't had any answers for Toews, Kane, Hossa et al. Chicago just knows how to expose the flaws of Minnesota, and there's no reason to believe they won't do it again.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 4
4 Anaheim Ducks vs. Edmonton Oilers
After years of getting bullied by the Pacific Division kings, the Oilers turned the tables slightly and took three of five from the Ducks in the regular season. Edmonton is finally built to get through the juggernaut that is Anaheim, provided they don't succumb to postseason nerves -- a common narrative for new playoff teams.
But speaking of playoff nerves, the Ducks have been eliminated in Game 7 on home ice in the last four postseasons. They've been exposed by fast teams with size like the Los Angeles Kings and Nashville Predators.
Edmonton surely has more depth at forward, and big power forwards like Milan Lucic and Patrick Maroon could be too much for a fairly small Ducks team to handle. Connor McDavid is going to be tough to stop; if the Ducks focus solely on shutting him down, that'll leave room for Edmonton's other forwards to step up.
The Oilers depth and superior speed make them the better team in this matchup, even if the regular season standings don't show it.
Prediction: Oilers in 7
3 Washington Capitals vs. Montreal Canadiens
Well, here we are.
The Capitals are on a mission to win their first ever Stanley Cup, as the championship window is closing with Alexander Ovechkin turning 32 next season. The Canadiens are on a mission to win their first Stanley Cup since 1993 -- being the last team from the Great White North to do so!
Everyone remembers their matchup in the opening round of the 2010 playoffs -- with the eighth-seeded Habs defeating the Presidents' Trophy winners in seven games. The Capitals took two of three meetings in the regular season, with two of the meetings being decided by a single goal.
Two of the stingiest defensive units with arguably the league's two best goalies. This series could easily go down to the wire. I wouldn't be surprised if every game was 1-0 or 2-1, with five of them going into overtime. This is going to be a series for the ages. But you have to go with destiny when you feel it, and a certain Russian superstar is ready for destiny.
Prediction: Capitals in 7
2 Chicago Blackhawks vs. Edmonton Oilers
Chicago is THE team of the 2010s, with five trips to the Western Conference Final in the past eight years which includes three Stanley Cup championships. The Oilers are in the postseason for the first time since 2006, and appear ready to compete for multiple Stanley Cups today, tomorrow and the day after.
This would be one awesome series. The Blackhawks know their dynasty can't last forever, but the Oilers would like to form another one after winning five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990. Would Jonathan Toews be able to handle Connor McDavid? Would Cam Talbot have an answer for Chicago's explosive offence? Would Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook out-muscle Lucic and Maroon?
Though it's tempting to go with the Oilers, who've been one of the most feel-good stories in recent years, it's always tough to pick against a Chicago team. They live for these moments, and experience will be the deciding factor.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 5
1 Washington Capitals vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Earlier in September (time sure flies), I projected the Capitals to face the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final. I've found absolutely zero reason to change my Stanley Cup prediction.
This would be one of the most storied Stanley Cup Finals in recent memory. Can the Blackhawks cement their incredible dynasty with one more championship, or will Alexander Ovechkin finally have his Ray Bourque-like moment -- where he wins the championship after years of great seasons without a ring.
If this is indeed the matchup, you know it's a coin flip. Though it's easy to write off Washington's season-series sweep of Chicago, allow it to be a preview of what'll happen in the Stanley Cup.
In a hard-fought series, determination pays off as Ovechkin and the Capitals win their first-ever Stanley Cup. Ovechkin wins Conn Smythe after scoring five goals and 11 points against Chicago. Oh, and for good measure, this Final will set all sorts of ratings records.
Prediction: Capitals in 6