Wild West and the Capital’s East

The annual pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Cup began this week, with a mixed bag of playoff mainstays and newcomers. The Eastern Conference saw more of a shakeup from the previous season than the Western Conference. Only the Washington Capitals, New York Rangers and the 2016 Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins returned to the playoffs this year.

The Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets and Ottawa Senators will seek to challenge the trio of returning teams. The Maple Leafs, most notably, have only made two playoff appearances in the past 12 seasons.

The Capitals are regarded by many as the consummate favorites to lift the Stanley Cup when it’s all said and done. The District of Columbia outfit came out on top of the contentious Metropolitan Division. They also won the President’s trophy as the NHL’s top regular season team with 118 points.

Their 3.21 goals per game ranks third in the NHL and their 2.10 goals allowed per game tops the league. Standout goalie Braden Holtby leads the league in wins with 42. Meanwhile, captain Alex Ovechkin has lit the lamp 33 times this year. It all adds up to a title-winning recipe for the Capitals.

The upstart Leafs, led by American scoring duo Auston Matthews and James van Riemsdyk, will oppose the Caps in the opening round. The two have combined for 69 goals and 62 assists to boost Toronto to their first playoff appearance since the 2005-06 season.

Close on the Capitals’ heels are the Blue Jackets and Rangers, two teams also anchored by elite goaltending. Columbus’s Sergei Bobrovsky is the leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy. Bobrovsky’s .931 save percentage and 2.06 GAA are first in the league. The Blue Jackets ripped off a 16-game winning streak in December to boost their status as serious title contenders.

The Broadway Blueshirts boast star Henrik Lundqvist, who, in spite of a hip injury, posted an impressive season. The two teams will run up against the Penguins and Canadiens, respectively, in the first round.

The last quarterfinal matchup in the East will pit the Bruins and Senators. The Bruins are headlined by Brad Marchand. The Canadian totaled 85 points this season and should help see Boston through to the second round. Ottawa is the only team in the playoffs with a negative goal differential, which will likely result in their bowing out of the first round.

The Western Conference returns five playoff teams from the previous season; the Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, Saint Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks.

The Sharks, finalists in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, will be opposed by the Edmonton Oilers.

Phenomenal center Connor McDavid has quickly emerged as the face of the Oilers, and will soon become the face of the entire league. McDavid’s league leading 70 assists and 100 points have vaulted him to the front of the race for the Hart trophy, awarded to the league’s most valuable player.

McDavid gives Edmonton a legitimate chance of upsetting San Jose in the first round. The Sharks will counter with Brett Burns and Joe Pavelski. The winner of the series will advance to face either the Flames or Anaheim Ducks.

The upper portion of the bracket will feature two Central Division clashes in the first and second rounds. The Wild will face the Blues, and the Blackhawks will take on the Nashville Predators in the quarterfinals.

In an open field out West, Chicago has emerged as the favorites to reach the finals thanks to their playoff pedigree. The Blackhawks roster consists of familiar faces Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith. All are veterans of previous Cup runs. Corey Crawford, who has had a penchant for peaking in the postseason, minds the net for Chicago. However, the Blackhawks are sliding, having lost six of their last eight games, including 7-0 and 4-0 defeats to the Florida Panthers and Ducks.

The Wild are also poised to make a deep run in the playoffs. Minnesota ascended to legitimacy following a 14-game winning streak, which was ironically halted by the Blue Jackets, who were on a run themselves.

The Wild led the Central Division for the vast majority of the season, but a March stumble allowed the Blackhawks to take the crown. Still, the Wild’s second-ranked offense and seventh-ranked defense position them as threats for the Stanley Cup.

Goalie Devan Dubnyk enjoyed his best season as a pro, posting 40 victories and a .923 save percentage. All-star Ryan Suter, alongside Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella, hold down the blue line. The balanced front line of Eric Staal, Zach Parise, Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund lead the Wild’s attack.

Minnesota’s +58 goal differential bodes well for their Stanley Cup aspirations. Whether or not their March malaise continues into the playoffs will determine how far they are able to advance. Fortunately, the Wild closed the season on a four game winning streak.

The road to the Western Conference championship runs through Chicago, and if Minnesota can exorcise their playoff demons and pass the Blackhawks, hoisting the Stanley Cup will be achievable.

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