NHL play-off preview: Washington Capitals, Chicago Blackhawks the teams to beat

The National Hockey League’s play-offs begin on Wednesday. Rob McKenzie picks winners for the eight first-round matchups and finishes with a prediction for the Stanley Cup champion.

Washington (1st in Metropolitan division and in league, 118 points) v Toronto (4th in Atlantic, 95 points)

Season series: November 26, 4-2 Toronto; January 3, 6-5 Washington (OT); April 4, 4-1 Washington.

Last play-off meeting: Surprisingly, this is their first.

The Leafs will have a lot of great memories from this season. Auston Matthews scoring four goals on opening night against Ottawa. An outdoor game on New Year’s Day. A raft of fine rookies offering hope — finally — for the future. Clinching a play-off spot on Saturday with a stirring comeback on home ice over Pittsburgh.

But winning a play-off round will not be among those remembrances. Washington were the league’s best team and will plow past them. Alexander Ovechkin has his eyes raised towards the Cup.

Prediction: Washington in five

Pittsburgh (2nd in Metro, 111 points) v Columbus (3rd in Metro, 108 points)

Season series: December 22, 7-1 Columbus; February 3, 4-3 Pittsburgh (OT); February 17, 2-1 Columbus (OT); April 4, 4-1 Pittsburgh

Last play-off meeting: Pittsburgh beat Columbus in six games in 2014’s first round.

The complexion of this series changed when Pittsburgh said Kris Letang will miss the play-offs because of an injury. Without their best defenceman they never would have won the Cup last season.

On the other hand the health of Columbus’s top blueliner, young Zach Werenski, is also a question mark: he hurt his shoulder and last played on April 2.

The Penguins finished with the second-most points in the league and the Jackets came fourth.

The two teams have this in common: they come at you in waves and are relentless. (Minnesota are like that too -- or at least they were until their late-season swoon.)

Both teams have a lot to like. Columbus were the breakout team of the regular season – hungry and at times rampant – and they improved by 32 points from 2015/16. Pittsburgh, last spring, emerged from a long slumber to win the Cup. They still carry that confidence with them.

But these Penguins are dinged up. Evgeni Malkin missed the last part of the season with injury. And speedy winger Carl Hagelin, who last played in March, might also be out for the series.

Prediction: Jackets in seven

Montreal (1st in Atlantic, 103 points) v New York Rangers (4th in Metro, 102 points)

Season series: Jan 14, 5-4 Montreal; Feb 21, 3-2 Montreal (shootout); March 4, 4-1 Montreal.

Last play-off meeting: The Rangers beat the Habs in six games in 2014 conference final.

The highlight of Montreal’s season came on February 21 in New York. In the last seconds of overtime, Carey Price dove wildly to steal a goal away from the Rangers’ JT Miller. Thanks to Price’s heroics the Habs went on to win the game in a shootout. They beat the Rangers every time the two teams met this season, scoring 11 regulation-time goals on Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

Lundqvist is the heart of the Rangers, but this season, at age 35, he was erratic in the first part of January (26 goals allowed in five games) and missed two weeks in March because of a hip injury. The King is slipping. Montreal lacks a big scorer other than Max Pacioretty but their secondary scorers have sufficed against Lundqvist.

Montreal also have the best defenceman in the series, Shea Weber. The swarming, speedy Rangers pose a challenge to most teams but Montreal owned them this season.

Of the five Canadian teams in the play-offs – up from a grand total of zero last season – the Habs have the best chance to go deep.

Prediction: Montreal in six

Ottawa (2nd in Atlantic, 98 points) v Boston (3rd in Atlantic, 95 points)

Season series: November 24, 3-1 Ottawa; March 6, 4-2 Ottawa; March 21, 3-2 Ottawa; April 6, 2-1 Ottawa (SO).

Last play-off meeting: A first-time matchup.

Ottawa is the sentimental favourite here. The Sens have rallied around their goalie Craig Anderson as he copes with his wife Nicholle’s throat-cancer diagnosis. The whole team appeared emotional when Anderson came back from a leave of absence to shut out the Islanders on February 11, and the crowd at the Canadian Tire Centre was chanting his name.

Meanwhile the Bruins are defined by the highly annoying super-pest Brad Marchand, fresh off a two-game suspension for spearing an opponent in the groin. Everybody hates Marchand.

Not many people expected the Senators to make the play-offs yet here they are, for the 16th time in the past 20 seasons (a mark exceeded only by Detroit’s 19 and San Jose’s 17). Their leader is Erik Karlsson, a silky defenceman with a knack for gliding around opponents. He always finds the seam. This year he has made a transition, focusing on defence more than offence, and will be a finalist for the Norris trophy.

Anderson went 4-0 against the Bruins this season, allowing only six goals in the four games.

Prediction: Ottawa in seven

Chicago (1st in Central and the West, 109 points) v Nashville (5th in Central, 94 points)

Season series: October 14, 3-2 Nashville; October 15, 5-3 Chicago; December 29, 3-2 Chicago; January 8, 5-2 Chicago; March 4, 5-3 Chicago.

Last play-off meeting: First round in 2015 with Blackhawks winning in six.

The Hawks have given their fans much to cheer in recent years, with Cup titles in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

But this season started poorly. The penalty-kill was awful and the team needed time to incorporate new players, many of them young. Then around the halfway mark everything clicked and they won 24 of 32 games. What happened is that the captain, Jonathan Toews, had taken his two wingers, Richard Panik and Nick Schmaltz – neither of them big names – and knit them together with him into a very good line. This took pressure off the scoring line of Patrick Kane, Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin and freed up Marian Hossa to play on the third line.

And once again Chicago is rebuilt.

The Predators have had an up-and-down season as they integrated PK Subban into the lineup. It’s really hard to find an area where the Preds have an advantage on the Hawks.

Sorry Nashville, your opponent is formidable.

Prediction: Hawks in five

Minnesota (2nd in Central, 106 points) v St Louis (3rd in Central, 99 points)

Season series: October 13, 3-2 St Louis; November 26, 4-3 St Louis (SO); December 11, 3-1 Minnesota; January 26, 5-1 Minnesota; March 7, 2-1 St Louis.

Last play-off meeting: Their only meeting was in the first round in 2015, with the Wild winning in six.

The Blues are a team transformed.

Their situation seemed to augur defeat through much of this season. Jake Allen was putrid in December and pulled from goal in three straight games. Coach Ken Hitchcock was fired at the start of February and replaced by his assistant, Mike Yeo, days later. Young star Robby Fabbri was lost for the season because of a knee injury. And front-line defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk was traded to Washington at the deadline for prospects and draft picks.

And yet, when you watch them play, you see a happy team. Their travails have united them. The Blues are 15-3-2 since the trade deadline and have risen from play-off outsiders to, in my opinion, first-round favourites.

Minnesota have travelled in the other direction. They led the Western Conference for much of the season but utterly collapsed and went 4-11-2 before winning their last four games, all against teams that missed the play-offs. The Wild lack a star forward, a go-to guy with whom other teams must always reckon. They are like Montreal if Montreal lacked Max Pacioretty.

The Wild rely on scoring depth. But the play-offs pit best against best and often the depth players cannot keep up. It really helps to have a star on offence.

St Louis does have one, the dazzling Vladimir Tarasenko. And the Blues perhaps have an extra edge in that Yeo coached the Wild for four and a half seasons until they fired him 14 months ago. He should know them inside-out.

Prediction: St Louis in six

Anaheim (1st in Pacific, 105 points) v Calgary (4th in Pacific, 94 points)

Season series: November 6, 4-1 Anaheim; December 4, 8-3 Calgary; December 29, 2-1 Calgary; April 2, 4-3 Anaheim; April 4, 3-1 Anaheim.

Last play-off meeting: Anaheim beat Calgary 4-1 in the second round in 2015.

This could get ugly. When these teams met on April 4, as Cam Fowler shot on the Calgary net, the Flames’ Mark Giordano skated towards him from the side and leaned in for a knee-on-knee hit that has left Fowler on crutches.

Giordano was neither penalised nor suspended but the Ducks were, and remain, livid.

On Giordano’s next shift, Anaheim’s Josh Manson beat him up.

Fowler is out for the first one to five weeks of the post-season, but Anaheim’s deep defence has been built to withstand a shock such as this.

Anaheim were already better than Calgary, but this rallying point means they will be unrelenting.

Calgary started the season poorly but have rebounded since their coach called them “pathetic” after a 5-1 loss in Montreal in late January. Newcomer Brian Elliott has provided stability in net during this stretch.

Calgary have lost 25 straight games in Anaheim. The Ducks fans chant “You can’t win here!” when the Flames are in town.

Prediction: Anaheim in four

Edmonton (2nd in Pacific, 103 points) v San Jose (3rd in Pacific, 99 points)

Season series: December 23, 3-2 San Jose (OT); January 10, 5-3 San Jose; January 26, 4-1 Edmonton; March 30, 3-2 Edmonton; April 6, 4-2 Edmonton.

Last play-off meeting: Second round of 2006 play-offs, Oilers won 4-2.

This is the Connor McDavid series. In his second season the 20-year-old superstar captured the scoring title and ended Edmonton’s decade-long play-off drought. Now comes his first play-off series, against a team that won the conference last season and is packed with hardened veterans – Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Logan Couture.

Will this mark a changing of the guard? I think so, and not just because Thornton and Couture are banged up.

The teams' April 6 game was ominous. The Oilers trailed 2-1 after two periods but ran away with the match thanks to three Milan Lucic goals in the third. Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News wrote afterwards: "Those three goals and that one period may have obliterated the Sharks' sole remaining important edge over Edmonton entering the post-season ... What was that edge? Experience. Post-season fearlessness. Savvy maturity. Whatever you want to call it."

Prediction: Oilers in six

Stanley Cup prediction

My preseason pick was Chicago over Tampa Bay in the Cup final.

The Lightning didn’t make the play-offs -- they never recovered from Steven Stamkos’s knee injury in November.

Now the strongest candidate to win the East is Washington. If they had a preseason weakness it was a lack of depth on defence. But they addressed that by acquiring Shattenkirk at the trade deadline.

Ovechkin, thea Capitals' team leader and captain, is hungry for the Cup. Hockey fans would love to see the Russian superstar rewarded for the excellence and creativity he has brought to the game – and also because he seems like a nice guy, just ask Fatima Al Ali.

The problem is Chicago’s play-off experience. Pressure makes them stronger. And that should make the difference.

Cup final prediction: Chicago over Washington in six


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