The 2016 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs will start this upcoming Wednesday. The playoffs are mainly division based for the opening two rounds. However, the wild card entrants are a bit of an exception as they can cross over between divisions. Without further adieu, here are the first-round playoff match-ups that were only finalized as of Sunday night.
Florida Panthers (Atlantic – 1) vs. New York Islanders (Wild Card – 1)
Tampa Bay Lightning (Atlantic – 2) vs. Detroit Red Wings (Atlantic – 3)
Washington Capitals (Metro – 1) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (Wild Card – 2)
Pittsburgh Penguins (Metro – 2) vs. New York Rangers (Metro – 3)
The Chicago Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup champions. However, this year’s team has a huge mountain to climb just to make it to the Western Conference finals. The Blackhawks didn’t do themselves any favors down the stretch of the regular season as they went just 5-3-2 in their last ten while their competitors did a lot better. A strong case could be made for Patrick Kane to win the MVP and for Artemi Panarin to win the Calder, but what makes the Blackhawks a tough pick in the playoffs is their draw.
In the first round, Chicago will be in a road series against the Blues, a 107-point team in the regular season. Surviving that, you would have to think that it would be the Dallas Stars that Chicago would face in yet another road series. They could have home-ice advantage in the conference finals, but making it that far presents a real challenge to this Chicago team.
Nonetheless, there are still good reasons to be optimistic, and Chicago’s experience is one of them. Another reason is Ken Hitchcock, the head coach of the St. Louis Blues.
Here’s a great coach that has no problem whatsoever negotiating a team to a strong regular season record. He has 7 division titles to his credit and a .606 career winning percentage in the NHL. However, despite winning a Stanley Cup way back in Dallas, it has been a very long time since Hitchcock has done anything noteworthy in the post-season. He has one series win in what is now his 5th season in St. Louis, and you have to go all the way back to 2004 to find a team that he took to the conference finals.
A series win for St. Louis would be huge for Hitchcock right now, but Chicago’s playoff experience could loom large in this series with home-ice advantage only slightly redeeming the Blues’ chances. A Chicago win would help set up a major showdown between the Stars and ‘hawks, one that might only see Dallas as ever-so-slight favorites.
In the East, the Washington Capitals will follow an excellent regular season into the playoffs. They have Braden Holtby in net following a stellar campaign, but the Caps had him last year and still found a way to lose.
Lately, it has been Pittsburgh and not Washington that has been the best team in the Eastern Conference. Moreover, in head-to-head matchups, it seems like the Pens have Washington’s number. Don’t even tell me that Pittsburgh posting these results in the last few weeks doesn’t make the Caps a little tight around the collar:
April 7th: Pittsburgh wins in Washington 4-3
March 20th: Pittsburgh, at home, beats Washington 6-2
Should those two teams meet in the second round, I think tons of pressure falls on both Alex Ovechkin and head coach Barry Trotz. Any kind of Pittsburgh lead in the series and self-doubt will surely creep in on the Washington side.
For Ovechkin, this year’s playoffs could be career defining when it comes to discussions of his abilities to lead a team to playoff success. At the age of 30, he hasn’t done it yet, and there will be plenty of more talk about him being a playoff choker if Washington doesn’t make at least the Stanley Cup Finals. That’s especially the case since Ovi doesn’t have an Olympic medal yet, not even a bronze, despite Russia’s deep hockey program.
With Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, the pressure ahead of the 2016 playoffs isn’t the same because he has a Cup to his credit. Furthermore, his Vancouver Olympics goal in overtime of the Gold Medal game cements a legacy of performing in the clutch. That said, the 2009 Stanley Cup win was a little while ago now, and the expectation for a generational talent is multiple Cups. All things considered, between he and Ovechkin, I think it’s the former that will rise to the occasion under the upcoming pressure.
Looking ahead to the conference finals, I think we’ll see Dallas face the Anaheim Ducks, and the Pittsburgh Penguins face the Florida Panthers. I see the Panthers as the odd team out in that round, making this year’s post-season a three-horse race between the Stars, the Ducks, and the Penguins. What Tyler Seguin looks like coming back from injury for Dallas could be key to their late-round success.
However, trying to find some order in these Stanley Cup playoffs might prove futile. I think the 2016 post-season is 10-deep in credible contenders with the Wild, the Sharks, the Predators, the Flyers, the Red Wings, and the Islanders the teams that don’t stand much of a chance. But matters will be settled on the ice and the opening games are on Wednesday night with Detroit at Tampa Bay (7 pm ET), the Rangers at Pittsburgh (8 pm ET), and Chicago at St. Louis (9:30 pm ET).