It's been a season of change in the NHL. Three-on-three play revolutionized overtime. The coach's challenge improved the quality of decisions that were made on the ice ...mostly. And for the first (and probably last) time in history, an AHL player was named the MVP at the All-Star Game.
No surprise then that it could be a postseason of change as well: For the first time in five years, the best bets to win the Stanley Cup will play out of the Eastern Conference.
All eyes are on the Washington Capitals, who won 56 games this season, the most by any NHL team in the last decade. It was a memorable campaign, one in which the Caps led almost wire-to-wire. But if any organization understands the disconnect between regular-season success and the playoffs, it's this one. They've danced with greatness before, but always fell short of their full potential.
This, though, is a deeper, more complete Capitals team, highlighted by the fact that it was led in scoring by a player other than Alex Ovechkin for the first time since the Great 8 was drafted in 2004.
Ovi is still their most dangerous player, a 50-goal scorer for the third year in a row. But Washington's chances won't be derailed if he's stymied. The Caps are deeper down the middle with the emergence of All-Star center Evgeny Kuznetsov, and on the wings with the additions of speedy T.J. Oshie and Game 7 savant Justin Williams. And if their second-ranked defense (2.33 goals per game) stumbles, the Capitals can count on goaltender Braden Holtby, who emerged as an elite stopper while matching Martin Brodeur’s single-season wins record.
Although the Caps enter the playoffs as the odds-on favorites, they'll be challenged by a Penguins team that finished the season on a 14-2 tear. Pittsburgh is a club that passes the eye test with its dazzling speed and goal-scoring flare, led by the resurgent Sidney Crosby and Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang, the NHL's third-leading scorer over the second half. But they look pretty good to the fancy stats crowd as well, posting the league's top five-on-five shot-attempt differential (+265) since Dec. 14, the date Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench.
While bracketing ensures that one of those two teams will fall by the end of the second round, the Florida Panthers could find an easy path to the Eastern Conference Finals. Coming off a franchise-record 47-win season, the unlikely Atlantic Division champs will meet the lightly regarded Islanders in the opening round, with the winner advancing to take on the survivor of the Detroit-Tampa Bay series. With the ageless Jaromir Jagr (44) and Roberto Luongo (37) as headline grabbers, the Panthers are poised to become this spring's Cinderella story. This is the moment when hockey becomes relevant again in Miami.
There are no similarly easy roads out West, where seven of the eight teams have a legitimate shot to emerge from the pile. The one exception, the Minnesota Wild, will be lucky to make it to six games against the run 'n' gun Dallas Stars. The league's most potent offense boasts three 30-goal scorers (Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza) and 10 forwards with at least 10 goals. The Wild can't keep pace in that kind of track meet. The only question is how far Dallas' 19th-ranked goaltending—the worst of any playoff team—can take it.
The St. Louis Blues have made a habit of coming up small in the playoffs but this could be the year they shed the choker label. Their offense has more weapons than ever, led by Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Steen and flashy rookie Robby Fabbri, and they're backed by a Vezina Trophy candidate in Brian Elliott. With everyone healthy, they'll ice their full, 20-man roster for the first time this season in the opener against the Blackhawks.
Chicago will counter with the NHL's first American-born leading scorer in Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, the likely rookie of the year, but they seem less formidable than in years past. The loss of No. 4 blueliner Johnny Oduya to Dallas leaves them vulnerable on the back end and they rely too heavily on one line for their scoring. Still, you have to respect the defending champs, and until they shake hands the only certainty in this series is that it will be played at a punishing pace.
With both teams excelling at shot suppression, the Anaheim-Nashville clash could come down to special teams. The Ducks led the league with a power play that clicked at 23.1% and a penalty kill that shut down the opposition 87.2% of the time. The Preds, with their 11th-ranked power play and 16th-ranked penalty kill, look vulnerable unless they can take advantage of an Anaheim's lack of discipline. The Ducks were shorthanded 290 times, second only to the Arizona Coyotes with 304.
And while this will be the fourth playoff meeting in six seasons between the Sharks and Kings, there's no telling how this will play out. San Jose has owned Kings goalie Jonathan Quick this season, and will be highly motivated to avenge their 2014 series defeat, but Los Angeles is the league's top possession team and has a history of wearing out their opponents. This sets up a brutally heavy series that could come down to attrition.
Who'll survive? In this year of change, it's likely to be the team that no one expects.
And now as per our annual custom, SI.com’s parcel of plucky puckheads pull out their crystal ball and attempt to predict the entire tournament bracket. We also give you their picks for dark horse team to watch, the heavyweight that is most vulnerable to an upset, the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP, and a prognostication that is sure to raise eyebrows if not hackles. On that note, off we go:
Why the Ducks will the win the Cup: Any time you're asked to perform this kind of exercise, you either go with the numbers or your gut. The Ducks win me over on both levels. Their 2.29 team goals-against average was the lowest in the league, earning the Jennings Trophy for netminders Frederik Andersen and John Gibson. They dominate possession (52.4%, fifth in the league), and limit shots-against (27.5, tied for third fewest). They're the first team since the 1984-85 New York Islanders to lead the NHL in power play (23.1%) and penalty killing (87.2%), proving their ability to execute consistently and efficiently. They're as deep as any team down the middle and on the blue line. And they play a punishing style that drains the will from an opponent. But their ultimate edge might be mental toughness. Any team that can return from the abyss the way this one did after a brutal 1-7-2 start in October must have something special. I picked 'em ahead of the season. After what they've shown, I think I'll stick with 'em.
Why the Capitals will win the Cup: I picked the Caps to make a Cup run in my preseason prediction, and there’s no real reason to back off now. The NHL’s second-best offense (3.02 goals per game) runs deeper than Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom; Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams exploit matchup issues and make teams play honest defense. The defense corps, anchored by John Carlson, gives up just 28.4 shots per game, sixth among all teams this season, and Braden Holtby has been pretty adept at stopping them.
Why the Capitals will win the Cup: I’m sure I can convince myself that the Caps will suffer another postseason collapse, that they’ve been in this position before and flopped. But this team has a different feel to it. It’s not just Alex and the Ovis. It’s Alex, and Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams and Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby. Ovechkin is past due for a long Cup run, and Barry Trotz is the type of coach who will get the Caps there. It’s their year.
Why the Ducks will win the Cup: After Chicago won it last season, captain Jonathan Toews said the Ducks, whom the Blackhawks had defeated in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, were their toughest opponent in the playoffs. This year, the Ducks are better and grittier than the group from last spring, while early-season struggles made a number of prognosticators back off their title picks, Anaheim's remarkable turnaround to win the Pacific Division means anything short of raising Lord Stanley’s Cup will be a failure. They’re the first team since the 1984-85 Islanders to lead the league in both power play and penalty kill percentages. They’ve compiled the NHL’s best record since Christmas, and finished the season by giving up just seven goals in five games. A star-studded cast of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler can keep the momentum going for a deep playoff run. The only question is which goalie will coach Bruce Boudreau lean on with both Frederik Andersen and John Gibson being equally capable of putting the team on their backs.
Conn Smythe MVP
MUIR: Remember the beginning of the season when Ryan Getzlaf and his drop passes seemed to be on the wrong end of every highlight? This is where he makes everyone forget. The playoffs bring out the best in Getzlaf, who has scored at better than a point-per-game pace each of the past two springs (35 in 28 games, including a league-leading 18 assists in 2014-15). He's ready to carry this team to the Cup.
BLINN: Is there a better big-game goalie in the NHL right now than Braden Holtby? Mentally, he’s one of the strongest in the the league and it allows him to shine in the playoffs. Take a look at his numbers in 34 career postseason games: a 1.92 GAA and .936 save percentage, both better than his regular season averages. With an improved offense and healthy defense in front him, he’s in a perfect spot to carry the Caps all the way.
FUCHS: Evgeny Kuznetsov is the first player in the Ovechkin era to outscore No. 8. That means he’s topped 10 seasons worth of talent that has skated Washington’s star sniper. Kuzentsov is only 23. As a rookie last year, the Russian had seven points in 14 postseason games. That experience will surely serve him well.
Look for an offensive explosion. Ovechkin will score plenty of goals, yes, and Braden Holtby will play well. But all season long, the Caps have been paced by Kuznetsov's speed, vision and finishing ability. Ovechkin is the best goal-scorer on the planet. Kuznetsov might soon be one of the best all-around players on the planet.
FORRESTER: Over the course of this up-and-down season for Anaheim, Corey Perry has been the most consistent Duck, finishing with 34 goals on the season. While hitting the 30-goal mark for the sixth time is great, the feisty winger lives for the postseason, where he not only has the ability to carry the offensive load, but can do little things to get under opponents’ skin, whether it’s by spraying water in their gloves or getting into tug-of-war matches with their sticks. That kind of play is invaluable to a gritty team like Anaheim and could be a huge reason they come out on top in the end. He’s already won the Cup once, has two Olympic gold medals with Canada, and has won the Hart Trophy (2010-11), so it’s about time to chalk up a Conn Smythe to his trophy collection.
Dark horse team
MUIR: Given their recent history, and the path ahead of them in the Western Conference, the Sharks aren't going to be anyone's favorite. But there's a lot to like about this team, including strong possession numbers (51.7%, eighth), power play (22.5%, third) and overall offense (2.89 goals per game, fourth). It has an MVP candidate in Joe Thornton leading a solid group up front, and a Norris Trophy favorite in Brent Burns powering a defense that's shown dramatic improvement over the second half. If the Sharks can get solid goaltending from Martin Jones in his first playoff run, San Jose could surprise.
BLINN: Can I say anyone playing in the Atlantic bracket? It’s a total crap shoot. The Red Wings get the edge against the Lightning team to open things up, and then a winnable matchup with the Panthers or Islanders. It’s definitely not a given by any stretch of the imagination, but a run to the Eastern finals would create a wonderful passing of the torch from Pavel Datsyuk to Dylan Larkin.
FUCHS: Detroit sneaked into the playoffs, has a favorable first-round matchup against banged-up Tampa Bay, and then could face either inexperienced Florida or an Islanders team playing a back-up goalie. The Red Wings have some offensive punch with Dylan Larkin, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk in what could be his final playoff run. The key will be in net. Jimmy Howard has played remarkable hockey at times and awful hockey at others. But if he's at his best, there is a viable path to the Conference finals.
FORRESTER: Don’t let history or the stats fool you. Yes, Nashville has only won two playoff series in franchise history, one of them back in 2011 against Anaheim. Yes, the Predators are playing the Ducks, my pick to win the Cup, in the first round. And yes, they only finished fourth in their division. But that was the league’s equivalent of the group of death, and Nashville’s stellar-defense coupled with the goaltending of Pekka Rinne makes them as dangerous as any team in these playoffs. The Preds will give Anaheim everything the Ducks can handle, and if they can get a bounce or two to go their way early, they will be poised for a long playoff run.
Biggest upset fodder
MUIR: If my money was on the line, I'd be more likely to bet on Washington sweeping Philly ... but the window is definitely cracked for the Flyers. Braden Holtby was not the same player in the second half (his GAA ballooned from 1.90 over his first 33 appearances to 2.53 in his second) and the Caps looked less than imposing down the stretch. Meanwhile, goaltender Steve Mason's laser focus keyed a 15-6-2 finish and lifted the Flyers into an unlikely wild-card berth. They're playing with house money while all the pressure's on the Caps. It could happen ...
BLINN: It’s really, really hard to trust a top seed that's sporting a .904 save percentage, worst among all 16 playoff teams. The Stars’ offense is enough to win a game or two, but there’s not a lot of faith that goalies Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen can return the favor on a consistent basis. They shouldn’t have much of a problem against the struggling Wild, but the prospect of facing the Blues or Blackhawks in the second round should be plenty nerve-wracking.
FUCHS: I buy into the Florida hype. But it is possible that Detroit's gaggle of veterans can outmuscle the Panthers’ youngsters if the two teams survive the first round. Florida is the better club, but it'll be interesting to see how they handle wily, hardened veterans like Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall.
FORRESTER: From Jaromir Jagr to rats to Kevin Spacey, these Panthers are one of the most fun, and surprising, teams in the history of the league. But like any good Cinderella story, the clock will eventually strike midnight. And John Tavares and the gritty Islanders are exactly the kind of club that is capable of making that bell toll. Sorry Panthers fans, but as much as I’d like to see a deep run, I just don’t see it happening.
I may be crazy but …
MUIR: Matt Murray, not Marc-André Fleury, will carry the Penguins to the Final.
BLINN: We’re going to get all the Game 7 action we can handle in these playoffs. The wide-ranging parity across the league is going hit us all hard in the anxiety department during the next two months, and calling these series, especially the ones in the East, is as difficult as it’s ever been.
FUCHS: The best goalie in the playoffs, at least in the early going, will be Roberto Luongo. Braden Holtby will most likely win the Vezina Trophy. But Luongo has had his best season since his time in Vancouver. And at 37, his desire for the Cup is larger than ever. He could steal a series or two.
FORRESTER: Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is down to his final days in The Lou. Even though they have strung together several great regular seasons, a fourth straight first-round loss will lead to the front office cleaning house, starting with the man behind the bench.