The quest for the Stanley Cup is on.
After 82 regular season games, the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference finished with the best record in the league (56-18-8, 120 points), while the Dallas Stars (50-23-9, 109 points) claimed the top spot in the West. (Defending Cup champs the Chicago Blackhawks ended up third in the West’s Central Division with 103 points.)
The 2016 NHL playoffs began yesterday. Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and St. Louis all took the first games of their series. Tonight, four more first-round matchups get underway, while the last (Anaheim/Nashville) begins Friday. Here's a look at what to expect.
Philadelphia Flyers vs Washington Capitals
The Philadelphia Flyers barely made it into the playoffs with a win over the Penguins on Saturday. Their reward for getting in: a date with the President’s Trophy winners, the Washington Capitals.
The Caps are at the top of every major statistical category: 2nd in goals per game, 2nd in goals against and 2nd in save percentage.
Goalie Braden Holtby went 48-9-7 this season with a .922 save percentage. Alex Ovechkin netted 50 goals yet again. Evgeny Kuznetsov led the team with 77 points.
In Philly, rookie defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere really helped transform the Flyers’ defense and offense. Philadelphia started the season winning just six of their first 20 games, but they caught fire at mid-season to help them get to this point.
The Flyers’ offense could challenge the Caps, but Washington will pull through and win in five games.
New York Islanders vs Florida Panthers
Playoff hockey has returned to Sunrise after a four-year playoff drought. A resilient squad of youngsters and veterans led the Panthers to a 47-26-9 season, good for 103 points and a first-place finish in the Atlantic Division. The Panthers rise to the top has been behind ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr and veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo.
The Islanders come in with a depleted roster, and New York has struggled as of late. Leading the Isles is captain John Tavares, who had 70 points this season. The last time New York won a playoff series was 1993, so they’re also hungry for a win. This will be the first playoff series since they moved into Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
The speed of the Islanders will be tough for the Panthers to handle, but they have one of the league’s best defenses. With New York having a depleted roster, I think the Panthers win this series in six games.
Dallas Stars vs Minnesota Wild
The Stars are the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with 109 points, and they boast the best offense in the NHL.
It is uncertain if Tyler Seguin will be available for Game 1, but they can score a ton even without him. Jamie Benn led the team with 89 points this season, and Jason Spezza added 33 goals and 30 assists on the second line. The Achilles heel for Dallas is their defense corps.
The Wild, by contrast, are all about defending and goaltending. Devan Dubnyk was 32-26-6 this season with a .918 save percentage. Ryan Suter scored a career-high 51 points and was +10.
Still, the Stars offense will likely prove too much for Minnesota to handle. I predict the Wild will challenge the Stars, but Dallas will win in six games.
Anaheim Ducks vs Nashville Predators
The Ducks and Predators got off to slow starts in the season, but they both heated up late into the season to secure playoff positions.
Both teams rank in the middle of the league in terms of offense. Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf led his squad with 63 points. Defenseman Roman Josi had 14 goals and 47 assists for the Preds. The Ducks have a stifling defense, allowing the fewest goals (192) in the league. But Nashville has the consensus most talented defense group in the league lead by Josi and Shea Weber.
The goaltending battle is a wash. And because the Ducks have been susceptible to early round exits in recent years, I think the Preds will win this series in seven games and pull off the biggest upset of the first round.
Los Angeles Kings vs San Jose Sharks
The Sharks return to the postseason, looking for revenge after blowing a 3–0 their last playoff series against the Kings in 2014. This year the Sharks have former Kings goaltender Martin Jones, who went 37-23-4 this season. They’ve also moved Brent Burns back to defense, where he had an amazing season, scoring 75 points.
Both teams feature great offensive players. Anze Kopitar had 74 points for L.A., while Joe Thornton paced San Jose with 82 points.
What gives the Kings an edge is goaltending. Jonathan Quick has a proven playoff track record in the NHL; Martin Jones appeared in just one game during the Kings’ past Cup runs. I think the Kings will win this series in six games.
Photos: Patrick Smith/Getty Images (Capitals), Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images (Panthers), Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images (Stars), John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images (Predators), Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP (Kings)