Well, the 2017-18 NHL season has it in tough. It's going to have to find a way to build off of what was one of the most exciting NHL seasons ever. The 2017 playoffs did not fall short of excitement. All those overtime games. All of those game sevens. All of those epic moments that'll live on in NHL history.
Now that the 2016-17 season is over, all eyes are focused on what the 2017-18 campaign will be like. I for one have already made my Stanley Cup prediction for 2018. Not only that, but I already chose the 16 teams I believe will make the playoffs next season. Now, things may change -- as the draft, free agency and big trades are still to come.
But why wait any longer to see how next season will pan out? I love playoff hockey. So let's take a look at how the 2018 NHL playoffs will go down.
15 A1: Montreal Canadiens vs. WC: Ottawa Senators
Not going to lie, I was going to put the Tampa Bay Lightning first until Jonathan Drouin got traded to the Habs. It should be no surprise if Montreal wins their third Atlantic Division title in four years. After all, this team knows how to cruise by in the regular season.
Carey Price is the world's best goalie -- and he'll continue to give the Habs a fighting chance every night. The back end is deep with Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Alexei Emelin. If Drouin can help solve the Habs scoring woes, they'll be a force to be reckoned with.
The Senators were one goal shy of reaching the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. However, their easy path to the third round was the main reason they got that far. 36-year-old Craig Anderson is unlikely to repeat his performance, and the Sens will have to learn how to score.
Montreal gets the edge here cause of their superior goaltending and better depth at forward.
Prediction: Canadiens in 6
14 C1: Chicago Blackhawks vs. WC: Dallas Stars
Say what you want about their ugly first-round sweep via the Nashville Predators in the first round, but the Blackhawks are far from finished. They're still an elite team with the best all-around group in the NHL. They'll capture the Central Division once again on the basis of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Artemi Panarin and Corey Crawford. But their first-round matchup won't be easy.
The Dallas Stars already have a dynamic scoring duo in Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Bringing back old friend Ken Hitchcock should help the Stars become a better-structured team on defence. As for those long-time goaltending woes? Signing Ben Bishop will solve that, thank you very much.
Dallas has the speed and firepower to keep up with Chicago in this one. But the Blackhawks are much better on the backend, and it's tough to see this powerhouse going three-straight years without a playoff series win.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 5
13 M1: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. WC: New York Islanders
The Penguins will try to become the first team to three-peat since the 1982 New York Islanders -- and they'll have their work cut out for them. Can the goaltending remain elite with Matt Murray no longer having Marc-Andre Fleury as his backup? Will Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang (all in their '30s), be capable of embarking on another Cup run?
We'll find out early when they take on the New York Islanders. John Tavares' crew was miserable in the first half in the season, but went 24-12-4 under new head coach Doug Weight -- so you have to belief a resurgence is in order.
New York may have more depth on defence, but will it be enough to stop Pittsburgh's high-flying attack? Will Thomas Greiss be able to out-duel playoff icon Matt Murray in a best-of-seven?
Prediction: Penguins in 4
12 P1: Edmonton Oilers vs. WC: San Jose Sharks
The Oilers were oh-so-close to taking down the Anaheim Ducks to reach the Western Conference Final. But on the bright side, the NHL is now Connor McDavid's world. The Oilers ended an 11-year playoff drought and took down the defending Western champion San Jose Sharks in the first round.
With McDavid, Leon Draisailt, Cam Talbot, Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon, Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom rounding out a nice corer, the Oilers should be the team to beat in the West. That'll be especially true if they trade Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for help on defence.
As for the Sharks, their Cup window is rapidly closing -- whether UFAs Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau return or not. Edmonton blew by San Jose with their superior speed, skill and all-around depth. There's every reason to believe they can swim past the Sharks once again.
Prediction: Oilers in 5
11 11: A2: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. A3: Toronto Maple Leafs
The Lightning would have probably won the Atlantic Division last year had Steven Stamkos been healthy, but what can you do? This team should be just fine as long as their superstar sniper can play 70-plus games. Victor Hedman enjoyed his best season, and youngster Andrei Vasilevskiy is ready to assume the number one role as Ben Bishop takes his talents to Dallas.
But Tampa's slick speed and puck skills will be countered by Auston Matthews, William Nylander and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Mike Babcock's crew shocked the world by making the playoffs in 2017. This was supposed to be a five-year rebuilding plan -- but the Leafs look like Cup contenders heading into 2017-18.
This will be a ridiculously high-scoring series. But I'm more comfortable with Frederik Andersen in goal than Vasilevskiy. Toronto also has far too much more firepower for Tampa to keep up with. The Leafs will celebrate their first playoff series victory in 14 years.
Prediction: Maple Leafs in 6
10 C2: Nashville Predators vs. C3: Minnesota Wild
The Predators were a couple of lucky bounces away from possibly winning their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. P.K. Subban promised that Nashville would be back next year, and the Stanley Cup hangover is the only thing that's really against them right now.
With Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Pekka Rinne, James Neal, Ryan Johansen, Mike Fisher and Viktor Arvidsson forming one of hockey's most explosive units, Nashville will be a much better team throughout 82 games.
Minnesota is always a shoe-in for the playoffs -- even though they are not a successful postseason team by any means. Devan Dubnyk will continue to play at a high level, while Ryan Suter, Eric Staal and co. lead Minnesota into spring hockey.
But Nashville is simply a better all-around team. They've also played much better in the playoffs (four postseason series wins since 2016), compared to Minnesota.
Prediction: Predators in 5
9 M2: Washington Capitals vs. M3: Columbus Blue Jackets
The battle of two great regular season teams that never get it done in the playoffs because they have no answer for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
I don't want to downplay the potential of an extremely thrilling series here, but the Capitals and Blue Jackets are basically playing for the bragging rights of being able to lose to Pittsburgh in the second round. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but it's a reality.
Any who, take the Blue Jackets here. Washington showed their age and inability to keep up with fast teams like the Pens and Leafs in this year's playoffs. Well, Columbus is one of the youngest and fastest-skating teams in the NHL. John Tortorella's system will find a way to shut down Alexander Ovechkin and co.
Prediction: Blue Jackets in 6
8 P2: Calgary Flames vs. P3: Anaheim Ducks
The Flames have not been able to burn out their playoff Kryponite -- those pesky Ducks. Anaheim eliminated Calgary in the 2006, 2015 and 2017 postseason. In fact, the Flames haven't won a regular season road game in Anaheim since 2004. So there's that.
Calgary will get another chance to crush the annoying mosquitoes...or...Ducks...once and for all in the opening round of the 2017 postseason. Both teams rely heavily on the physicality and slick puck-movement from their defencemen (Dougie Hamilton, Mark Giordano, Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler), but also have the great forwards up front to score.
We saw teams like Edmonton and Nashville wear down the Ducks with their game-breaking jet speed and quickness on the ice. Calgary now has some postseason experience and should finally break through a Ducks' team whose core players are on the wrong side of 30.
Prediction: Flames in 7
7 Second Round East: Montreal Canadiens vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Common NHL fans in Canada have been praying to see the league's two most historic franchises to clash in the postseason. Believe it or not, the last time Montreal and Toronto faced off in a playoff series was back in 1979. But 2018 will be the year where we finally see the Habs and Maple Leafs meet on the grandest of stages.
This will be a thrilling series as Carey Price, Shea Weber and Montreal's stingy defence tries to contain Auston Matthews and the high-flying Maple Leaf scorers. The Habs have owned the Leafs throughout the last few regular seasons, so you know they have the right formula in place to slow them down.
Unless Toronto makes some moves to upgrade its sloppy and inconsistent blue line, I'm not seeing how they can beat Montreal with nothing more than scoring. Hard to see these young players breaking through the brick wall of Price.
Prediction: Canadiens in 6
6 Second Round West: Edmonton Oilers vs. Calgary Flames
Thankfully, the days of these two teams vying for top-five draft picks every year is over. So when we see them on Hockey Night in Canada, it's actually exciting to watch now.
Anywho, the Oilers and Flames both figure to be legitimate contenders for years to come. There is so much young and flashy firepower all over the ice -- Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Milan Lucic, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent Hopkins for Edmonton. Calgary counters it with Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuck, Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton.
These teams are basically evenly matched all over the ice. It comes down to goaltending. Right now, Cam Talbot looks like a Vezina Trophy candidate. Calgary doesn't have a number one netminder yet. Right now, it's tough to go against the Oilers.
Prediction: Oilers in 7
5 Second Round East: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
For the third time in five years, the Blue Jackets will get a crack at dethroning Sidney Crosby and the Pens' dominance in the Metropolitan Division. But the Jackets showed they do not have the skill or starpower to stack up against the Penguins.
World class goalie Sergei Bobrovsky had no answer for them in the opening round of this year's playoffs. As good as Cam Atkinson, Brandon Saad, Nick Foligno and Josh Anderson are, they aren't quite at the levels of Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel. No reason to believe the story will be different this year.
Pittsburgh has overwhelmed all of their opponents over the last two seasons. Though the odds are obviously against them from three-peating, the Blue Jackets are not the team that'll dethrone them in 2018.
Prediction: Penguins in 5
4 Second Round West: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators
Well, this will be quite the rematch to watch.
Very few people gave Nashville a fighting chance to beat the top-seeded Blackhawks in the first round. But oh, they did just that and swept Chicago out of the first round -- prompting many to wonder if the Blackhawks' championship window has closed once and for all.
Well, we'll get a good idea if these teams do meet again in the second round. But it's not impossible to see Nashville dispatch Chicago for a second consecutive year. They're a lot younger and were able to take advantage of an ageing Blackhawks defence in the opening round.
The Predators are a championship-caliber team. Head coach Peter Laviolette found the blue print to beating the Blackhawks by clogging up the neutral zone. No reason he can't do it again.
Prediction: Predators in 6
3 Eastern Conference Final: Montreal Canadiens vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
The best player on the planet vs. the best goalie on the planet. The unstoppable force vs. the immovable object. The Montreal Canadiens and Montreal Canadiens will face off in the Eastern Conference Final. And it will be a classic.
Last time these two met in the postseason back in 2010, little-known goalie Jaroslav Halak single-handedly carried the Habs to a shocking victory over the defending Stanley Cup champions. Montreal will need Price to play just as well as Halak did in 2010.
Montreal does have the defencemen to keep Pittsburgh's top players in check, but they will have to score goals as well. Jonathan Drouin, Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher are good starts. I'm sure Marc Bergevin will continue to add more scorers, too.
I'm going with the Habs here. Pittsburgh can't win every year, and Montreal should be loaded all over the board to counter the Penguins' high-scoring offence. Should Carey Price be his normal self, the Habs will reach their first Stanley Cup Final in 25 years.
Prediction: Canadiens in 7
2 Western Conference Final: Edmonton Oilers vs. Nashville Predators
The Predators will try to reach back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, but they'll have to find a way to slow down the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The Preds couldn't contain Pittsburgh's offence, so it's easy to see how they'll have their work cut out for them against Edmonton.
This series would feature two great goalies in Pekka Rinne and Cam Talbot. Both teams are also loaded in 20-goal scorers and reliable defencemen. This is where stars like McDavid and Johansen have to step up and make the difference.
It's really a coin flip in guessing who will win this series. But seeing how magical Edmonton's run was in 2017, I'm a believer that they will really build on top of it in 2018. This is McDavid's coming out party, and Edmonton gets back to the Final.
Prediction: Oilers in 7
1 Stanley Cup Final: Montreal Canadiens vs. Edmonton Oilers
Before the Stanley Cup is awarded, Canada will be able to breathe and relax. For the first time in 25 years, Lord Stanley's Mug will return home to the Great White North. It'll be the Montreal Canadiens vs. the Edmonton Oilers. Carey Price vs. Connor McDavid. This will be one of the most hyped-up Finals ever.
What else can be said about this possible matchup? You have the best goalie in the NHL trying to win the only thing missing on his resume. You'll have a 21-year-old McDavid trying to catch Sidney Crosby in Stanley Cup rings.
So who will win the Stanley Cup? Judging by both teams' performances in this year's postseason, Edmonton plays a much better team game. They aren't so reliant on their star goalie. Now go celebrate, Oil Country.
Prediction: Oilers in 6