By Rory MacCallum
Of all the postseasons in professional sports, the Stanley Cup Playoffs may perhaps hold the title of the most exciting and intense. It is one of the few playoffs where all 16 qualified teams have a legitimate chance to hoist the Cup at the end of it all. For example, the Los Angeles Kings won in 2012, and they entered that year as the lowest seeded team in the Western Conference. The Kings won last year as well, but they missed the postseason this year, which means we will see a new team hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup in June.
In the Western Conference, the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks are tied for the top spot. The Blues are stacked offensively, and they also have a solid defensive group with the likes of defensemen Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Kevin Shattenkirk. Their only problem will be with the goal, where they will have to decide between goaltenders Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. This is a goaltenders tournament, and any flawed team can ride a hot goalie to the championship.
That presents a problem as the Blues face off against the Minnesota Wild in round one. The Wild have been red hot since the All-Star Break, going 27-8-2 in that time span. A lot of that can be credited to the acquisition of goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who has been one of the best in the league since landing in Minnesota.
The Oregon Ducks are the other top seed in the West. They are led by their top two centers, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler. They also have goaltending question marks, as Frederik Andersen and John Gibson have split time all year. Andersen is the man for now, but it will be interesting to see how it shakes out over the postseason. They face the Winnipeg Jets in the first round, who have not seen playoff hockey in almost 20 years. The Jets are a young team that had to win a lot of games down the stretch to qualify for the postseason.
The Chicago Blackhawks face off against the Nashville Predators. Chicago has not had a great regular season, but this is a team that usually plays its best hockey in the playoffs. This could be the last hurrah for this team, as they will likely have to let go of some players after signing Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to lucrative contracts this past offseason. The Predators have had a surprisingly impressive season and are led by star defensemen Shea Weber and Arlington, Texas native Seth Jones.
The last Western Conference series is between the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames. Goaltender Ryan Miller and the Swedish twins, winger Daniel and center Henrik Sedin, lead Vancouver. Calgary is a young team that has had a special season, and its players look forward to the playoffs as a chance to show their grit.
Back east, defending Eastern Conference Champions the New York Rangers sport the best record in the league. They are led by one of the world’s best goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist, as well as defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. They meet the Penguins in the first round. Pittsburgh surprisingly did not qualify until the final day of the season, but the team still has two of the world’s best players in centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, both of whom could lead this team far.
The Montreal Canadiens have had an outstanding season behind arguably the league’s best goaltender, Carey Price. They meet the Ottawa Senators in round one, a team that played very well down the stretch to qualify. Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson is someone who can get hot and lead the Senators on a deep playoff run.
Another exciting matchup: the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings. Tampa Bay has one of the top forwards in the world in Steven Stamkos, as well as an elite goaltender, Ben Bishop. Long-time members such as left wing Henrik Zetterberg, forward Pavel Datsyuk and defenseman Niklas Kronwall, as well as one of the best coaches in the NHL, Mike Babcock, are leading the Red Wings.
Finally, the Washington Capitals meet the New York Islanders. The Capitals are led by the league’s leading scorer, winger Alex Ovechkin, who has had a nice rebound after a down year in 2013-14. The Islanders have a young nucleus led by center John Tavares, and look as if they are on the brink of being a truly elite team in the years to come.
The best postseason in professional sports is finally upon us, and it will be fun to watch as so many teams vie to hoist the Stanley Cup in June.