With the weather getting warmer and summer approaching, the ice has gotten red hot with the onset of the National Hockey League playoffs. With plenty of competition in the field vying for the coveted Stanley Cup, it truly is anyone’s guess as to who will get to carve their names in perhaps the most storied trophy in sports.
Coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup victories, the Pittsburgh Penguins will be looking to become the first team since the New York Islanders in 1982 to win three in a row.
It’s going to be tough. The Penguins goaltending depth took a huge hit when veteran Marc-André Fleury, who had previously spent his entire career in the Steel City, was left vulnerable to this year’s NHL expansion draft and became a Las Vegas Golden Knight.
The Penguins are left to rely on Matt Murray, who won two Stanley Cups even before losing his rookie status. Murray will need to continue his solid play and remain healthy to give the Penguins an edge over some of the more offensively dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference.
One must also remember that Pittsburgh has played an extra 51 games from two years of playoff runs, more than half of an extra season, so the fatigue factor may play a critical role in their quest for their third straight cup.
Eyeing the Penguins from nearby on the bracket are the Washington Capitals, who will be hoping to squash the Penguins’ hopes for a three-peat and finally beat Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Finals — after losing in the previous two iterations of the playoffs in the divisional round. They have not made it to the finals since 1998, the third-longest active drought, and as a Penguins fan, I hope that drought continues.
Also coming out of the East are the Tampa Bay Lightning, who many analysts foresee knocking off Pittsburgh and advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Lightning finished first in the Eastern Conference with 113 points, and it’s easy to see why they were so dangerous all year. They averaged 3.5 goals per game, which led the NHL, and allowed only 2.9 goals per game, good for 13th in the League. Right wing Nikita Kucherov finished third in the League with 100 points, and center Steven Stamkos, despite missing four of the last seven games with a lower body injury, finished with 86 points and a career-best 57 assists. However, his play is critical to the team’s offensive success, and if his lower body injury lingers, Tampa Bay may find it tough to make a deep run in the playoffs. Still, the goaltending of Andrei Vasilevskiy could make up for it.
Expect the Boston Bruins to also make a deep push. They finished just behind the Lightning for the top spot in the East and have one of the best penalty kill/power play combinations along with Tuukka Rask in the net.
Like the NBA, the NHL’s Western Conference is loaded with incredibly talented teams, including the Presidents’ Cup-winning Nashville Predators, the Winnipeg Jets and, perhaps the biggest surprise of the NHL season, the debuting Vegas Golden Knights. The Knights absolutely shattered all expectations and statistically became the best expansion team in League history with 109 points and are also the first NHL franchise to clinch a playoff berth in their inaugural season since the Hartford Whalers and Edmonton Oilers did so in 1979-80. Despite being in a city known for its glamor and incredible shows, the Knights became one of the hottest attractions in Sin City.
Though the Knights clearly gelled in the regular season, it will be tough to make it out of the crowded Western Conference against other teams who have a lot more experience, including Nashville, who will be looking to claim their first Stanley Cup after losing last year to Pittsburgh.
Like the Lightning, the Nashville Predators are many analysts’ favorites to go the distance. Pekka Rinne has been a virtual brick wall in net with a goals-against-average of 2.31 and 42 wins in the regular season.
In front of Rinne is one of the deepest defensive corps in the NHL, and while none of their players have more than 64 points, 11 players on their roster contributed more than 30 points, which is more indicative of the amount of depth that they have, rather than the lack of playmakers.
After not making the playoffs last season, the Winnipeg Jets are the second leading team in scoring and the fifth leading defensive team going into the playoffs.
The Jets’ right winger Blake Wheeler tied for first in the League with 68 assists, and winger Patrik Laine finished second in goals with 44, making for a dangerous combination — not to mention Connor Hellebuyck’s 44 wins in goal. It will be tough for anybody to take a seven-game series against the Jets, and with the line depth that they have with centers Bryan Little, Mark Scheifele and Paul Stastny, there are few weaknesses available to exploit.
Expect plenty of high octane, exciting hockey coming this spring. If you don’t have a favorite team, watch some games for the fun of it, and enjoy the most exciting thing on ice since I fell down the Charles Market staircase in December.