Team to beat: Washington Capitals
It has become a tradition for the Capitals to underachieve in the playoffs, always entering among the favourites and then falling short. Still, Washington has proven to be in a class of its own this season. They racked up wins and outscored opponents at a ridiculous rate on their way to securing the East’s top seed. Veteran forward Alexander Ovechkin continues to lead the charge, but has received plenty of help from his supporting cast. All in all, the Caps have a long history of strong regular season performances, but in the midst of such a dominant season, the 2017 Capitals don’t resemble a typical choking Washington team.
Dark horse: New York Rangers
Victims of an unbalanced playoff system, the Rangers might enter the playoffs as a wild card team despite boasting one of the conference’s best point totals. They also flaunt one of the league’s best road records, which bodes well for a team that will likely be seeded lowest in every playoff round. A balanced scoring attack like New York’s will be hard to stop, especially with the entire roster near full strength. In the net, Henrik Lundqvist has declined, but another dominant playoff stretch wouldn’t surprise anyone. Teams would be foolish to dismiss the Rangers as just another wild card.
Biggest disappointment: Pittsburgh Penguins
Hopes and expectations are high as Pittsburgh shoots for its second-straight Stanley Cup. They have improved upon their regular-season record from last season while topping the league in goals scored. However, the Penguins will compete against the league’s best division in their first two playoff rounds, so they’ll have to get past four top teams in order to repeat. Additionally, the roster is nowhere near full strength with injuries plaguing both star and depth players. After last season’s performance, standards will likely be unrealistic for Sidney Crosby and the hobbled Pens as they fight through a stacked playoff lineup.
Team to beat: Chicago Blackhawks
The usual suspects stand atop their conference once again with familiar faces across the roster. Left wing Artemi Panarin has broken out as a lethal offensive weapon alongside stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Despite some regression from Corey Crawford in goal, Scott Darling gives the Hawks flexibility at goaltending if Crawford can’t turn it around. Years of deep playoff runs provide the team with stability during hard times that would cause lesser teams to fold. With talent, playoff experience, and solid health across the roster, the Blackhawks are clear favourites in the West.
Dark horse: Edmonton Oilers
Centre Connor McDavid has poured in an MVP-calibre season and catalyzed a grand turnaround in Edmonton. Forward Leon Draisaitl joined McDavid to form a devastating one-two punch on offence while contributing to a top-ten defence on the other end. Despite placing near the middle of the conference table in points, the Oilers enjoy one of the highest goal differentials. The Pacific Division exhibits parity to a striking degree, as four teams lie within just a few points of one another. Fans shouldn’t be too surprised if they see McDavid help his team claim the fiercely-contested crown.
Biggest disappointment: Minnesota Wild
Not long ago, the Wild were the class of the Western Conference, carrying a stellar 41-14-6 record through February. As March began, however, so did an incredible drop in the Wild’s performance. Minnesota fans have found their team stuck in a month-long rut, with just four wins to show for an entire month’s collection of games. The sinking Wild will have to turn their performance around quickly if they hope to make it past the first round.